Saturday, 30 March 2013



May the weekend be filled with sunshine 
and daffodils and tulips 
wherever you are.

Friday, 29 March 2013


Beat the Blues Writing Group ended on Saturday. For six weeks, Rosie Alexander and I spent Saturday afternoon at the Blide Trust with a group of aspiring and inspiring writers who accompanied us on the trip we took to look at ways we might use writing and reading to challenge our dark nights of the soul.

But can you write your way out of depression? Well, it's not a magic wand. But certainly we saw some light at the end of various tunnels as we went through the course.

There is research to back up the idea that we can affect our mood for the better by writing. Dr James Pennebaker, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas, has over twenty years researched the impact of writing on our general wellbeing. His findings are pretty convincing. You can get more information by clicking on his name above.

James Pennebaker
But interestingly, although our course was aimed at people wanting to use writing to make them feel better about themselves and about life, what we eventually found was that we had a group in which all except one expressed the hope that they could improve their writing skills.

Still, we stuck to our original plan to encourage the group members to write freely and not immediately censor or edit what came out of their thought processes onto the page. We wanted them to kick out what Liz Lochhead once called 'the headmaster in the head', who gives you a bollocking for using inappropriate language or 'incorrect' English. 

Liz Lochhead
Indeed, we had in our midst someone who was belted at school for speaking in Scots in the playground. The experience was uncannily similar to the one described by William McIlvanney in his novel Docherty, when Conn provokes the ire of his teacher for saying, 'Ah fell an bumped ma heid in the sheuch,' and gets six of the belt for 'insolence'.

William McIlvanney

With a combination of writing exercises and linked poems or extracts we made our way through the six weeks with everybody getting down to writing in the class. Even the most reluctant among us joined in the exercises with everybody else and were surprised at what they wrote.

A big part of the involvement was having other folk respond to what you had written - a totally new experience for some.

Most people wanted the group to continue and Rosie and I are discussing a possible follow-on course.

Meantime, some members of the group will read from their work during the Orkney Book Festival next month.

If you'd like to come along and hear them, they will be reading:

Saturday 13 April
10.30 am
Orkney Library & Archive
Junction Road

Tuesday, 26 March 2013


I've just been to the Radio Orkney studio to take part in Tullimentan's Book Group. Tullimentan is Radio Orkney's monthly arts programme and will be broadcast tomorrow night locally. If you are on Facebook you can click the link above to see more of what they do.

The group is presented by Fionn McArthur and run by local writer Morag MacInnes and today we discussed Twenty Years A-Growing by Maurice O'Sullivan.

It's the autobiography of the author's years growing up on the Great Blasket, the largest of the Blasket Islands of the south west coast of Ireland.

It is a charming account - in the way only an account by a native Gael can be - with prose that reads like poetry flowing and undulating like the islands themselves. 

'Be up at the chirp of the sparrow, so,' they say to one another if they need to be up early for some ploy. Like catching rabbits or puffins, or stealing off to the Ventry Races in defiance of their parents' wishes.

Every adventure has an epic quality and it's easy to imagine it being told and retold round the fire till it rings like the myths and stories of old Ireland. 

And it captures a way of life that was disappearing even by the time the author was in his teens, for his sisters and friends were all heading off for America, leaving behind their ageing parents:

'The chief livelihood - that's the fishing - is gone under foot, and when the fishing is gone under foot the Blasket is gone under foot, for all the boys and girls who have any vigour in them will go over the sea ... Suppose now that we stayed at home to care for [our parents], maybe we would be threescore years of age before we would lay the last clod on them in Ventry churchyard, and then we would be too old to go anywhere and who would lay the clod on ourselves?'

This is Maurice's account of a conversation with one of the girls still on the island. A couple of years later he is gone himself to Dublin.

So it's an elegy for a lost way of life, beautifully written and as immediate as if it had just happened. These are stories that have gained, not lost in the retelling - stories of encounters with whales that might overset the curragh and drown all the men in it; of curragh races; of hunting for rabbits and thrushes and seabirds to eat; of the beauty of the light on the island and the flowers and bird life.

And even the routine brutality of schoolmistresses and masters described near the beginning takes on a humourous, lightsome quality through the lilting language, though it can't have been experienced like that.

It puts me in mind of Seamus Heaney's poem, Senior Infants from District and Circle:

'...Well, for Jesus' sake', cried Duffy, coming at me
with his stick in the air and two wide open arms,
'For Jesus' sake! D'you mind the sally rod?'

This was the willow wand the infants' teacher used to 'cut the legs off' them, remembered seventy years later as soon as Duffy clapped eyes on his old classmate, Seamus. But it has the same lightness and humour that O'Sullivan uses in his book. Maybe it is a strong strand in Irish literary tradition, because Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt has a similar way of expressing unimaginable horrors with a touch that makes it bearable. It could be we have to turn to John McGahern to get the other side of it.

But made light of or no, the stories in Twenty Years A-Growing are as vivid now as when they were lived and that's no mean feat.

On the very last page the author describes returning after two years in Dublin:

'There was a great change in two years - green grass growing on the paths for lack of walking; five or six houses shut up and the people gone out to the mainland; fields which had once had fine stone walls around them left to ruin; the big red patches on the Sandhills made by the feet of the boys and girls dancing - there was not a trace of them now.'

It's an experience islanders will recognise. Certainly there were many echoes for those of us who grew up in Orkney.

Morag led a good discussion today with Caroline Wickam-Jones, Jack MacInnes and me. If you miss it on Radio Orkney tomorrow night, you will be able to hear it on Sound Cloud from Thursday. Meantime, here's a link to the February edition of Tullimentan.


Monday, 25 March 2013


The programmes are out and about now locally for the second Orkney Book Festival running from the 11-14 April.

For those not lucky enough to be here in the 'small green isles', you can find the whole programme by clicking this link to the GMB Fellowship Website

After a week of gales and sudden furious snow flurries, the sun is shining and the sky is the colour of the sky in the poster above. Mind you, you'll still need storm pegs to hang out your washing if you don't want your clothes festooning the fields round about. Or worse, ending up in Norway! Have a look at mine today by clicking the link above.

I'll be blogging about the different events in the weeks coming up to the festival, but here is a taste of two poets to feature in the festival:

from Storms

I wished for a storm to test my strength against.
I cried for the gale-force wind,
For electric explosions,
For sheets of rain.
I looked to the motionless wisps of cloud,
To the serene blue of the sky
And wished them transformed.
I wished to be battered and to emerge triumphant ...

From Margaret Tait: Poems, Stories and Writings, edited by Sarah Neely

You can hear this poem in full read beautifully by Gerda Stevenson in the film Margaret Tait: Film Poet
to be shown on 
Friday 12 April at 7.00 pm 
in the Pier Arts Centre.

But if you want to see it, you must BOOK EARLY by phoning the Pier Arts Centre on 01856 850209.

The film was commissioned by Glasgow Women's Library and will be shown after the George Mackay Brown Memorial Lecture to be delivered this year by Sarah Neely.

There is also a rare chance to see Blue Black Permanent, Margaret Tait's only feature film. This will be shown by Mark Jenkins in a special screening by the independent film group, Westside Cinema, in Stromness Town Hall on Thursday 11 April at 7.30 pm.

Gerda Stevenson in Blue Black Permanent
 The film stars multi talented Gerda Stevenson, who will be there in conversation with Sarah Neely and later in the festival will read from her own poetry.

Sarah Forrest with Alex Pirie, husband of Margaret Tait

The first recipient of the Margaret Tait Residency, Sarah Forrest, will also show her film, That Now on the same evening.

Cragsman's Widow

He was aye vaigan b' the shore,
An climman amang the craigs,
Swappan the mallimaks,
Or taakan whitemaa aiggs.

It's six year bye come Lammas,
Sin he gaed afore the face,
An nane but an auld dune wife
Was left to work the place.

Yet the sun shines doun on a'thing,
The links are bonnie and green,
An the sea keeps ebban an' flowan
As though it had never been.

Robert Rendall from Collected Poems, edited by John Flett Brown and Brian Murray

You can hear more of Robert Rendall's poems read by Orkney readers:

4.00pm on Saturday 13 April 
in Orkney Library & Archive 
with the book's editors, 
Brian Murray and John Flett Brown 

They will be there to talk about the poet and the process of bringing out this fine collection of his poems.
A Still from Blue Black Permanent

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Poem's the Thing

The second visits to The Poem's the Thing in Kirkwall and Stromness last week saw us looking at three poems about pigs Why? I hear you ask!

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. WN Herbert's latest book of poetry had just come in to the library. It's called Omnesia and as I was flicking through it a poem Facts About Pigs caught my eye. Aha, I thought, I know other poems about pigs. There's Ted Hughes's View of a Pig and Les Murray's Pigs. That'll do. 

WN Herbert
A very diverting discussion ensued. Which poet got under the crackling to view the pig from the pig's point of view? Which was distancing himself from the pig - and from something else - death, perhaps? What about the relationship between humans and pigs? Hard to say anything but, Awhh, to the picture above. My colleague Louise found it and posted it on the Orkney Library & Archive facebook page. But the poems we read were somewhat darker, though not without humour. 

Ted Hughes
But to go back to the original question, why pigs. Without really thinking it through, was I trying to demonstrate that poetry can be about ANYTHING? Possibly.
Les Murray

So what could we follow the pig poems with? Seagull, anyone? We read Edwin Morgan's Gull, a chilling, spine tingling poem about a gull landing on the poet's window sill.

... He eyed my furniture, my plants, an apple.
   Perhaps he was a mutation, a supergull.
   Perhaps he was, instead, a visitation
   which only used that tight firm forward body
   to bring the waste and dread of open waters,
   foundered voyages, matchless predators,
   into a dry room. I knew nothing ...

Edwin Morgan
A scary gull for sure and much admired in the group. A cousin perhaps of this bold thief?

We also read Kathleen Jamie's poem, The Longhouse. You can read it here. 

... This is what happens.
This is why we loosed our grip and fled

like the wind-driven smoke
from the single lum
in the crooked roof that covers
both women and beasts, a roof
low and broken like a cry

It was a sombre set of poems, I guess! But the discussion was far from sombre. 

Kathleen Jamie

In Stromness we ended our discussion 
of the pig poems with one member's reading
of DH Lawrence's poem Snake
A suitably intense end to an interesting and
engaging discussion. 

Check out the Scottish Poetry Library's excellent
website for information about Scottish poets and

Monday, 18 March 2013

Three Readers in Residence

Emily Dodd, Alison Miller, Magi Gibson
On Thursday last week I travelled to Glasgow to meet Magi Gibson and join her for a session at Glasgow Women's Library's new home in Bridgeton.

Adele Patrick of Glasgow Women's Library introduced us. It was a momentous moment - one of the first events GWL hosted in their new premises.

Bare at the moment, after the relocation of Bridgeton Library across the road to the new Olympia building.

Sue John, Adele Patrick and others from GWL

And it was all the more special because Emily Dodd, Reader in Residence at Leith Library happened to be in Glasgow and came to join us. Check out Emily's regular blog from Leith Library.

Magi asked me first of all to tell the audience the story of my foundling Granny, abandoned yards away from the GWL's new home. (See my blog of 22 January 2013 for the story) And it's strange the way things work out because long before anyone knew that GWL would end up in Bridgeton, I had sponsored a shelf in memory of my granny, Polly Johnston, who will now be 'coming home' to Bridgeton. The Women on the Shelf scheme allows you to commemorate a woman of your choice, while helping GWL raise vital funds.

We moved on then to talk about 'books that changed our lives'. I had been floundering in a sea of titles I could have chosen, so was grateful to Magi for narrowing it down to one each of non-fiction, fiction and poetry for us both.

And Wendy Kirk, GWL's Librarian, had brought along a selection of titles that linked to the books we'd chosen. 

Magi's choices - non-fiction: Women who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a clear influence on Magi's writing: Her last book of poetry is called, Wild Women of a Certain Age.

For fiction, Magi chose Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic first wave feminist novella, The Yellow Wallpaper.


And her poetry choice was 
Anna SwirFat Like the Sun

My choices were:

It was funny looking back on these books. I read the two prose books only once and find myself scared to re-read them in case I break the spell they cast on me the first time round. I know I'm unlikely to agree with everything in The Female Eunuch. I didn't even in my teens. But it was the first feminist book I ever read and therefore had the most impact.

My memories of Woman on the Edge of Time are of a finely realised utopian future, matched with an equally well drawn and horrific dystopian future.

It was also - I think - the first feminist novel to have as its main character a woman who was poor, mentally ill, uneducated and Mexican, rather than white, middle class, educated.

But interestingly, Magi's choice of The Yellow Wallpaper chimed in with mine in terms of the mental illness in the female protagonists that was central to both books.

And Sylvia Plath of course also struggled to hold onto her mental health and finally lost the fight fifty years ago when she committed suicide.

Magi and I will be coming up with three different books when we do the same session in Orkney Book Festival on the 13 April. She's blogged about this event too!

Aileen Robertson, Me, Ali Macdonald   
Two friends, Aileen Robertson and Ali Macdonald came to the event. We were all in the same book group many years ago and Woman on the Edge of Time was one of the books we read!

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Reeling & Writhing with Orkney Reader

Alice with the Mock Turtle & the Gryphon
It's turned out a busy week for yours truly. Reeling and Writhing seems to describe it fairly accurately. As the Mock Turtle said to Alice, when she asked what he learned at school: 

'Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with ... and then the different branches of Arithmetic--Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.'

I know how he feels! 

A busy week, but all good things, I hasten to add.

Alice in Wonderland came to mind because I've been asked to take part in an event on Thursday with Glasgow Women's Library in their soon-to-be premises in Bridgeton, Glasgow, to talk along with Magi Gibson, their Reader in Residence, and Wendy Kirk, their Librarian, about books that changed our lives

Alice in Wonderland is one I have loved since before I could read - not perhaps for the best of reasons: I thought the book was called Alison Wonderland and was about a fellow Alison! It was influential for me though, when I eventually did read it, because it showed me how much I could identify with a character in a book; how much I could go through Alice's experiences with her, worry when she worried, feel sad when she was sad, happy and defiant when she found the courage to stand up to the strange, unsettling creatures she found around her and survive her unnerving adventures intact.

Magi and I will be speaking about one work of fiction, one of poetry and one non-fiction that have resonated strongly with us at different points in our lives.

Yesterday, Monday the 11th March, I appeared on BBC Radio Scotland's Book Cafe to talk about my involvement with Glasgow Women's Library's 21 Revolutions with authors Louise Welsh and Denise Mina. Still haven't heard it myself, but I believe it is on again on Sunday 17 March at 3.02 pm.

Louise Welsh

Denise Mina

Tomorrow we have the second meetings of the two new poetry reading groups:

The Poem's the Thing 

The afternoon one meets in Kirkwall Library from 1.00-2.00 pm and the evening one in Stromness Library from 6.00-7.00 pm.

Last month, it being the eve of Valentine's Day, we read Carol Ann Duffy's poem, Valentine; and because it was near the anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath, we read Mad Girl's Love Song, which is also the title of the latest biography of Plath. And we read The Overhaul, the title poem of Kathleen Jamie's new collection, winner of the Costa poetry prize and shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize. You can download a PDF of it and two other poems from the collection by clicking the link in the line above.

Kathleen Jamie

Tomorrow we'll read - ah, well, come along and see!  As a clue, let me quote Winston Churchill:

'I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.'

(Just noticed that 'equals' is an anagram of 'squeal'!)

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Sophie Cooke at the Pier Arts Centre

Sophie Cooke in Tam's Bookshop
Sophie Cooke, author of The Glass House and Under the Mountain, came to read at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness the other night at the invitation of Orkney Arts Society. 

A small but perfectly formed audience showed great appreciation of her assured readings, backed as they were by a slide show of her own stunning photographs of mountains, sea and flowers.

Under the Mountain is a novel of love and guilt and the terrible, dangerous undercurrents of family relationships.

The Scottish Review of Books said of it: Sublime writing... Cooke is excellent on unspoken family tensions and her characters' psychological motivations always ring true with a density that recalls Virginia Woolf. Of the younger generation of Scottish writers being published now, Cooke is one of the best. 

I agree. Her writing has a maturity and depth that many a more mature writer would envy.

Sheena Winter of Stromness Books & Prints, otherwise known as Tam's Bookshop, very kindly invited Sophie and me to the shop the day after her reading, so that I could record a brief interview with her. She even left us alone in the shop to do the recording, because we were embarrassed! That's customer service you don't see many places.  You can hear the conversation here on SoundCloud.

After our interview, Sophie had time to kill before her flight, so we drove out to the Bay of Skaill on a bright, blowy afternoon and clambered over giant pebbles and a great bank of tangles, shoved up the beach by the recent big seas.

Sophie tells me she goes to China next week to give the keynote speech at an International Writers' Conference in Beijing.

Good Luck, Sophie! Come back and see us in Orkney sometime soon.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Gunnie Moberg

From Stone
Many years ago, when the Kirkwall Library was still in Laing Street, I sat in the Orkney Room carefully turning the deckle-edged pages of a book.  

It was called Stone and was a collaboration between photographer Gunnie Moberg and writer George Mackay Brown and it contains photographs and poems about stone. 

I must have sat there over an hour looking at that one slender book. The poems were beautiful - a retelling of many of GMB's themes and tropes - and I have read them many times over the years. 

The photographs were astounding! I had never seen any like it. From inauspicious cracks and crevices in rock, from marks made by water, from pebbles trapped in narrow fissures, Gunnie Moberg had created stunning images, flowing, curvaceous, sensuous, some almost erotic. 

The book was a limited edition and is one that I have coveted for many years. But I am lucky! There is a copy still in the Orkney Room at Orkney Library & Archives and I have my hands on it again today.

Page 20 of the book, Stone

For today came the official announcement that all of Gunnie Moberg's work as a photographer - and much more - will be held in the Archives here and will be properly catalogued and stored and shown eventually to the wider public.

The work to gain funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund was started over two years ago by Gary Amos, Library & Archive Manager, and David Mackie, Senior Archivist, and at last money was granted to engage someone for two years to perform the painstaking work of going through all the boxes to see what's there.

Year one will see the cataloguing done. There will be no access to the collection during that time. But there will be an online presence - a website or a blog - set up once the project worker is in post. And the second year will see the new worker look at ways to exhibit the work.  

The Knap o Howar, Papa Westray, photographed from the air by Gunnie Moberg

What a treat that person will have once they have been recruited! There are 1255 items, a tantalising number of boxes with unknown contents: rolls of film, thousands of negatives, diaries and notebooks, birthday cards and letters all waiting for careful hands and eyes to create a definitive and detailed catalogue. Item 663 is a box labelled Manuscripts & Books of Old Orkney, a glimpse of how many treasures must be contained in 1255 items! 

I spoke to David Mackie this morning and his brief description of a tiny selection of the contents made me long to have a look myself.

The Archive contains everything to do with Gunnie's life as a photographer and as a public person.

There are cards from Peter Maxwell Davis and George Mackay Brown: one from PMD contains musical notes - a tune for Gunnie for her birthday! And from her long-time friend George Mackay Brown there is a handwritten acrostic poem using her name, something he did for many of his friends.

One letter from George in hospital apologises to her for being in a dark mood when she visited.

But Gunnie Moberg did much more than take photographs: she created a beautiful garden out of uncultivated ground around the house in Stromness where she lived with her husband Tam MacPhail, who runs Stromness Books & Prints along with Sheena Winter. 

Gunnie Moberg in her Garden - Copyright Alistair Peebles
And she took part with other activists in the protest in the 1970s against a planned seal cull, summoning Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior, and camping out on the uninhabited island of North Rona, a hundred miles or so west of Orkney, to stop the men commissioned to club the baby seals to death. The campaign was recorded in the book, Let the Seals Live by Sue Flint, 1979.    

One of her notebooks has diary entries detailing her interest in wildlife. In my notebook I discovered I'd recorded: 

Gunnie fed ravens below the Black Craig ...

It is like the first line of a poem!

I didn't ever meet Gunnie Moberg except through her photographs, but I have a - possibly romantic - sense that her life and her work were in harmony, almost as if her life itself was her greatest work of art. Her beauty and her personality certainly drew many to her. As GMB said in Shetland Diary (published in Northern Lights 1999):

'That's the way it is with Gunnie; people tend towards the brightness of her nature.'

A view shared by all it seems, as can be seen from this lovely film about Gunnie. (You can see it by clicking the link above.) The film was made by Mark Jenkins, a film maker based in Orkney, and was commissioned by the Pier Arts Centre.

Gunnie took warmly engaging photos of GMB and of many of the writers and artists who visited Orkney.

Seamus Heaney photographed by Gunnie Moberg

How lucky are we to have this body of Gunnie Moberg's work permanently here in Orkney Library & Archive.
Photo of Gunnie by Janke De Vries

Gunnie Moberg's and GMB's signatures at the end of Stone