A Lot of Linen Going On

A new view of Dunfermline Abbey

My home town of Dunfermline may only recently have acquired a Heritage Quarter but it has never lacked heritage: King Robert the Bruce of Bannockburn fame has his name emblazoned around the abbey tower;  more recently Andrew Carnegie lavished quite a few of his millions on the place of his birth, equipping us with the very first Carnegie library and the first public swimming pool in Scotland.

DSC00920In my childhood these were our local heroes but the town’s  twentieth century economy was more mundane – coal fields and textile mills. The pits were at a distance and by the sixties linen weaving had given way to silk and man-made fibres, but the clank of the power looms was never  far away , something I had come to remember while writing In the Blink of An Eye:  one of the main characters had her roots here with her father and grandfather working in the linen industry. It was only after being invited to talk at the Undiscovered Dunfermline Conference soon after signing  with Linen Press that I noticed the pleasing symmetry!

20171016_120531_resizedI was delighted to be invited to the event and promised Dunfermline Community Heritage Projects  I could talk ad infinitum about the historical figures who inhabit my book, but I admit that as the day grew nearer I had quite a few qualms.  I have read my work at quite  few events, but organising my research for a formal presentation  was a different matter. Then there was the small matter of my new PC dying on me at the crucial moment (is there any other kind?) My novel was safely backed up  but not so my 40 Powerpoint slides! Luckily the thing spluttered back into life just in time for me to haul all the important files to safety.  Eventually it was done – the presentation that is – and I could  look forward to my trip north with the bonus of seeing the newly opened  Queensferry Crossing on the way.

Amongst friends!

Dunfermline has changed a lot since the seventies but I must say most of the surprises were pleasant ones, especially the fabulous award-winning Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries (incorporating library, archives, museum, and art gallery)  where Undiscovered Dunfermline took place, and if I was slightly daunted by the Hollywood proportions of the projection screen, it was lovely to have jacquard patterned panels around the walls of the room to emphasize all that linen heritage.

As for the talk itself, after some fascinating insights into little known Dunfermliners from the other speakers, I was suddenly aware that my audience were likely to know more about my subject than I could tell them. Luckily those who did were happy to share their knowledge, and I got the impression that most people learned something new, with some very heartening feedback afterwards.

Not quite the silver screen but pretty big!

In retrospect I’m grateful to DCHP and Jack Pryde of Discover Dunfermline,  not just for the publicity opportunity but also the chance to renew some old acquaintances and see how my home town is faring in its post-linen era. It was also a great chance to brush up my presentation skills.  I’m hoping to do more of this kind of thing after Blink has been released into the world – though maybe not (note to self) using all of my forty slides at one go!

Sunday followed – ideal for taking in some old haunts, more delights of DCLG and of course a walk in the Glen (look hard and you might just see the new bridge beyond the trees).




St Andrews, its place in time

Iconic view from Kinkell Braes

St Andrews is a small place that for any of its ex students holds a hoard of memories, all of them inextricably linked to the time as well as the place. I remember going back a few years after my graduation and feeling mostly a sense of loss. People I knew had left, their places taken by new cohorts, all intent on making the town their own, just as we did back in the day. Visiting since then (Sea Life Centre with kids,  golfing holiday, last year’s Photofest ) I’ve felt a bit on the defensive, reminding myself it isn’t the same,  and every time I am caught out by some of the changes. I don’t suppose there were equivalents of FatFace, Prezzo or Molton Brown in the 70s, but if there had been, they wouldn’t have been in St Andrews! But despite these superficial developments, I have come to the conclusion that in most respects it hasn’t really changed and never will.

Solitude in Freshers’ Week

Arriving late in the evening a few weeks ago, I took a stroll, only from Murray Place to the Scores for a quick sniff of the West Sands, then along as far as Butt’s Wynd, up past the Quad and back to my B&B. The streets were deserted. Pace the makes of cars on the pavements, I could have been in almost any decade in the last 50 years.  It was Freshers Week apparently but there was no raucousness on the streets.  Any partying going on was behind closed doors. Yes, it was always like this.

Expect to pay top dollar for the view I had from here

That walk seemed to set the tone for the rest of my stay.  My old halls have been converted to luxury flats, but the exterior is the same. If I’d gone inside the views would have been too.  I’d forgotten how each of the main streets has its particular atmosphere, so Market Street the main shopping street, has changed most, North Street the least. South Street, always bridging commerce, church and academia is still a mixture that hasn’t been tampered with too much.

On my second day I walked from the war memorial to Kinkell Braes and back again and saw more similarities than differences to how I remembered everything. In the Quad, looking towards LCH where I stood for a graduation photo, I wondered how many people had been photographed there and how little the background would have changed.

DSC00752But there’s always something new to discover too, like the  University Museum (once curated by John Adamson) with its uninterrupted view of the West Sands and fascinating Disruption memorabilia, or Holy Trinity Church where I chatted to local photographers. I must have passed this countless times without ever going in and seeing the fabulous stained glass.


Library treasures (with thanks to St Andrews Photography Festival)

The feeling of a place persisting in time was enhanced by looking at the early photographic treasures held by the University Library.  I was walking in the footsteps of Victorian photographers as well as students and townspeople of every era.  I was particularly taken by a calotype image of St Andrews harbour .  I could swear I had a reproduction of this print, or a similar one, on my bedroom wall as a student, bought in a local art shop. It had been printed in blue and I just liked it, oblivious to its history or the story of its maker.

So to round off this short nostalgia trip here are two photos to make you think about time and photography. pier_74

This is from 1974, taken, I think, with a conventional 35mm camera or maybe a Kodak Instamatic.

The next from 2017, a Victorian wet colodion tintype by Richard Cynan Jones in which I’m holding the new digital camera used for the other photos on this page.


Finally, let’s not forget Rob Douglas whose  21st century calotypes constantly play with time. He had his  own exhibition this year. 


Next I’m off to my home town of Dunfermline where there are many more changes to contemplate including the amazing new library where I’ll be giving a talk about some of the real historical characters who feature in In the Blink of an Eye . I’m very privileged to have been asked along by the Dunfermline Community Heritage Projects to the Undiscovered Dunfermline conference on October 14th which promises to be a fascinating experience.

Dunfermline Library and Galleries

But just to round off my St Andrews trip here are a few more photos from the festival.

What price the 70s?

This week I entered a self-publisher’s competition which involved reading other people’s novels. As a marketing ploy I thought this wouldn’t work at all. I skim read like mad, searching for the answers to the relevant questions and paying little heed to the writing. The chance of my forking out for any of these books was infinitesimal. But then I got to Mama told me Not to Come by Sue Le Blond. This is a novel about a bunch of students settling into a new house in 1970. I read a few pages; the writing was fresh, the period references spot on without being OTT. I was drawn to it, more so than to the BBCs worthy but ponderous White Heat which I abandoned after episode two.

Tapestry album coverAh, the 70s, surely the ugly duckling of the decades:  too recent to be retro, too long ago for regular reminiscing. But yes, this decade is my decade. In 1970 I started at uni. In 1975 I had my first job, in 1976 we bought our first house,  got married and from then until the early eighties we lived, I suppose, the life of young professionals (even if no one had told us that’s what it was).

It’s not a decade that one is usually proud to be part of, but judging by this week’s offering from the beeb, it’s coming back into fashion. I can now own up to the electric blue catsuit, the Laura Ashley wallpaper, the pink wedding dress.  (Sorry, no photos, but try here and select no.2 for the general look.) For those of a nostalgic (or voyeuristic) disposition, there is more seventies fun to be found on my St. Andrews blog.

Mama Told me Not to Come coverBut what of the book, the one about student life with the nicely nostalgic opening and interesting-sounding plot? Well the thing is, it costs 7.99. Which I’m sure is a fair price. It’s what books cost, more or less. As a writer I’m fine with it. But as a reader I am an absolute skinflint. For £8 I can  buy at least four self-pub e-books. Of these, I guess on past performance that one will be dire, two will be okayish, and one will be excellent, as good as most commercially published books and better than some.  I could have bought just the one, but that’s not the way it works. It’s about curiosity, about taking a punt. I might pay over £5 for an e-version of a best-seller that comes with lots of recommendations, or I might splash out on the paperback. But buying a self-published book, represents, I think, a bigger risk than a commercially published novel. I’d still quite like to give this one a go, but how much faith do I have in it when I don’t know the author and there is no industry stamp of approval?

This is the problem with self-publishing. Your book may be well worth the money. But how many people outside your known circle of acquaintances will take the risk? Of course there is another way. A print edition is good to have. Some people don’t have e-readers, others prefer not to use them. But put out an e-edition too, and make the price lower than your tree-book. I think your potential readership will increase dramatically. Anyone who falls in love with it might even double-up with the print version.

Photocredit: Carole King Tapestry album from Wikipedia commons

Nostalgia Trip

Boating on the ThamesI’m not sure exactly what pleases me about this photo taken last Monday on the Thames at East Molesey but something does. Maybe it conveys the rather grey day but also the exceptional quiet to be found messing about on the river, even right next to a busy road, not to mention the entrance to Hampton Court.

Our trip was a posponed birthday treat for Mr. B who was able to rediscover at least some of his skills as an erstwhile BCU instructor. (So it was a long time ago? Clearly paddling is like riding a bike). The day was also greatly enjoyed by EllieB, a complete kayaking virgin and by me, who first set eyes on Mr B at the St. Andrews University Canoe club  (blimey – don’t think we did all that back then!) 

Last week’s  trip was organised by Thames River Adventures, recently given top rating by The Independent  for a summer day out. If there was a lack of thrill factor (no whitewater – fine by me!) and maybe less to see on the riverbank than I expected, it really was a relaxing and fun day, with just a smattering of nostalgia.

High Seas

Pirates of BarbaryAlmost forgot to report on last week’s literary jaunt.  On a night of such wind and rain as would have kept any self-respecting pirate below decks, I took myself off to Thornbury library where Adrian Tinniswood (writer, historian and fellow Tweeter) was on tour with his Pirates of Barbary.  This means I am now cognisant of the difference between a corsair a privateer and a pirate (though please don’t test me on it).


buccaneers titleBuccaneers, on the other hand,  did not get a mention, and I now discover they are a different beast entirely, hailing from the Caribbean rather than the Med. In my mind, of course, they belong on a grainy film set somewhere near the Thames, headed up by a young Robert Shaw as Dan Tempest.

Now that’s what I call a pirate.

The Lost ChildMeanwhile I am reading The Lost Child, Julie Myerson’s controversial memoir-cum-history. It’s an absorbing  read in which I think the juxtaposition of family histories works very well. 

Should she have done it? In terms of writing I suspect she had no choice. Should she have published?  I don’t know. Maybe not when her family is still so close to the events.

For a well thought out review and discussion try Dove Grey Reader’s review.

Criminal Justice 2

For sheer theatre there’s nothing like a courtroom drama. I was first hooked  way back in the sixties when  Perry Mason got his man every Sunday night  without fail, always with the help of crucial new evidence provided at the last minute by side-kick Paul Drake.  I don’t think I understood half of it, but was entranced by the formulaic language  and that sense of the odds always being stacked up against the defendant by evil DA Hamilton Burger.

Modern equivalents might be more convincing and better crafted, but if the 21st century courtroom has had some of the stuffiness knocked out of it, there’s a lot to be said for the full-on frocked and bewigged version now showing as Garrow’s Law. I succumbed straight away to all that objecting and overruling, not to mention a good smattering of period atmosphere. Apparently Garrow was a hugely  important legal campaigner, but as our learned friend comes across as a swotty version of Jonathan Creek, for me this is comfort viewing at its best. 

Roll on Sunday!