Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Funny Thing About Blogging ...

Collage of Pride & Prejudice Book Covers filched from Scottish Book Trust's website

This blogging malarkey's tricky.  Often I think my timing's off. Take Pride & Prejudice for example, two Hundred Years young yesterday. But I didn't blog yesterday; I did my last minute tax return instead. And so I feel I've mis-timed my celebration of this timeless masterpiece. True, I gave it a mention a couple of weeks ago. But that was too early. And today, too late. But I will mention it anyway.

What is it about a book that ends so unrepentently happily-ever-after that appeals to hardened cynics in the 21st Century? On Channel Four News last night, writer Jenny Colgan was asked if she thought Jane Austen was the prototype 'Chick Lit' author. Jenny, whose books I've never read, but whose covers are all the colour of boiled sweets and cupcake* icing, said that she thought Austen was no purveyor of chick lit. Too intelligent, too arch, too ironic, understated, subtle to be stuck into such an insulting, dismissive category.

(*When did fairy cakes morph into cupcakes? Bring back fairy cakes, I say!)

Yet, she has always had her critics. Mark Twain famously said, Everytime I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

And it wasn't only men who criticised her; Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre couldn't see what the fuss was about either:

I had not seen Pride and Prejudice ... and then I got the book. And what did I find? ... a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck.

It's not hard to see why these two writers would dislike Jane Austen; both are striving for very different literary effects. Mark Twain's books have exaggerated, larger than life comic elements. Charlotte Bronte - and her sister Emily, come to that - go for passionate, stormy, troubling relationships that cannot be resolved, if they are resolved at all, without first visiting catastrophe upon their characters.

Jane Austen, on the other hand, deftly exposes the ludicrous social norms and economic realities by which we are all - whether we care to admit it or not - to some extent constrained. Maintaining one's wit and integrity under the weight of society's expectations and harsh judgements emerges from Jane Austen's work as a laudable task for 

That and getting a single man of large fortune to realise he must be in want of a wife.

Pride & Prejudice gets my vote. I read it when I need to soothe myself through life's rough patches. And I'm not the only one; I have several friends who do the same. But it's not just that it's a 'happy-ever-after'. We know the ending before we start. There is something perfectly formed about its narrative. We're with Lizzie Bennet, cheering her on all the way. And even the supremely annoying characters delight. Or rather, Jane Austen's rendering of them delights us.

I wonder if in another 200 years there will be another hapless blogger with bad timing, just missing the anniversary?  Or by then, will they be able to tunnel back 410 years in time, pick up vibrations of the people who lived then and translate them into a hologram of Jane Austen sitting at the little table in Steventon finishing the first draft of P&P? Or, ten years later in Chawton, writing to her sister Cassandra when it was finally published, will we be able to look over her shoulder as she pens the words:  I want to tell you I have got my own darling child from London. On Wednesday I received one copy ...?


An unapologetic and delighted Hilary Mantel has won the Costa Prize for her novel, Bring up the Bodies, to add to her Booker win in October last year. Click the link to see her on the BBC News accepting the prize for her 'own darling child'. 

Thursday, 24 January 2013

On the Road with Steven (& the Home Library Service)

Steven Gough loaded up the Library van today with boxes of books and we set off along snowy roads to deliver them to various readers round Kirkwall. This is the Home Library Service (HLS), run by Orkney Library & Archives and delivered by Steven - mostly - every week.

Family Boxes

First stop, the pier, to see if there were any Family boxes back from the North Isles to be refilled. As a child I remember the excitement in my granny's house in Stronsay when the box of books arrived. I was ten, but she let me read some of her 'romances', books with pictures of English country gardens, hollyhocks and thatched roofs on the covers, delivered to my granny's cottage beside the sea in Stronsay. They were thrilling and mysterious to me. That service continues to this day.

Steven disappeared inside the Harbour Authority warehouse, but there were no boxes today. The snow over most of Orkney may have put some folk off making the trip to the pier in the outer isles.

Home Library Service

The next stop took us up the snow-covered hill past Orkney College. Steven went in to a reader's house with their latest haul of books. 

Many of the people who benefit from the service are elderly and can't get about much any more. 

But there are many circumstances that prevent people coming in to the library and the service is also available to younger people with chronic illnesses and to carers who can't leave the people in their care.

What to Choose!

Steven told me that when he started running the service, he was daunted by the task of choosing books that would meet the approval of the readers he encounters. But he soon learned what they like and what they don't. In the fortnight between deliveries, he keeps his eye out for the books that his customers might enjoy - titles new to the catalogue, returned books - and he builds up the boxes gradually. While he's shelving books, or issuing them at the desk, he's always thinking of the folk in the HLS.

Museum Boxes

Today, Steven also had to deliver Museum boxes to Papdale Primary School, boxes full of objects and information about the way people in Orkney used to live. A good way for teachers to bring history alive for primary school children.

Mavis Goldsmith

I had a treat in store then, for Steven had asked one of his stalwart borrowers if I could come and talk to her. He introduced me to Mavis who is in her nineties and found herself struggling to get in to the library about five years ago. In a conversation at the issue desk, Steven told her about the HLS. She was delighted and has been taking advantage of it ever since. 

'It's an excellent service,' she told me. 'It's one of the things I rely on. I'll read almost anything - travel, crime - though not the nasty stuff; I read in bed and I would have bad dreams if it was too horrific. Biography and autobiography too; I like reading about other people's experiences. But I do insist on large print. I don't choose the books myself, Steven does; he knows what I like. I'm very well looked after. I just need him to find me a man as well; you can't cuddle up to a book!' 

Steven told her he had a poster up in the library advertising for a man for her and Mavis laughed!

Mavis doesn't like getting her photograph taken, but that's her book box above. Quite a variety!

Gilbertson Day Centre

One of the parts of the service is that Steven delivers boxes of books to the community rooms in Day Centres for the elderly and sheltered housing. Today we visited Lambaness and here's Steven replacing the books in Gilbertson Day Centre. People can just take a book from the shelf without having to have it date stamped. 

'Sometimes books disappear for a while,' Steven says, 'but they always come back in the end.'

You wait all your life for one Mavis, then two ...

Another treat was in store for me when Steven introduced me to Mavis Lee in her home out beside a snowy Scapa. She was waiting with her rescue cat Daisy for delivery of her books. 

'I used to go to the library regularly till my mobility deteriorated. So I was really glad to discover I could have books delivered to me. I wrote out a list of my favourite authors and that gave Steven a nucleus to start with. I read books now I wouldn't have read before. I like a story - writers like Marcia Willet, Cynthia Harrod Eagles, Rosamund Pilcher - not violence for the sake of violence. When you live alone you can find yourself dwelling on it. I need good books to turn to - don't want to have the TV on all the time. It adds another dimension to what I have around me.  

'We're very lucky in Orkney. When Steven comes with the van, it's another contact - somebody bringing news from outside. I've read all my own books so often. With Steven choosing books for me that I might not have thought of, this service has expanded my reading, widened it. I like something fresh. Steven brought me a book based around spices recently. I'd never have picked it for myself, but it was thoroughly interesting. I would be lost without this service.'

We left Mavis then, got into the van and drove through the snowy landscape back to the library in the heart of Kirkwall. I was left mightily impressed with Steven's work and this little known service that goes on quietly delivering books, cheer, a lifeline to people for whom the journey into the library has become too much.

If you know someone whose life could be enhanced by regular delivery of a box of books. Please get in touch. Oh, and I forgot to say, it is a FREE service.  

For more information about the Home Library Service, 
phone Orkney Library & Archives on: 01856 873166.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

In Praise of Orkney Archives

Polly Johnston
I've been a big fan of the Archives in Orkney Library since I first encountered them in early 2008 when I was doing some research for a novel. Many an hour I spent there in a booth, totally absorbed listening to fascinating sound archives of old Orcadians talking about life in Orkney in the past. As with all the other parts of Orkney Library & Archives, the staff are superb, helpful and knowledgeable and infinitely obliging.

I went in today to see what they are up to at the moment and spoke to Lucy Gibbon, Assistant Archivist. She showed me the exhibition they are putting together to tie in with the Who Do You Think You Are? Live Exhibition in London from 22-24 February this year. The Orkney exhibition will show the sources that are available for looking into your family background. Lucy was telling me there are many besides the obvious ones of the Census and Births, Marriages & Deaths.

There are records for Churches, Sheriff Court Civil cases, Parochial Board & Parish Council Applications for Poor Relief. 

I was reading a page from the records of applications for Poor Relief. On October 14th 1873 the Parochial Board admitted Jean Rendall of Pierowall, Westray into the Poor House in Kirkwall, in those days, a long boat trip away. Here's what they recorded about Jean:

Age: 30
Occupation: None
Average Weekly Earnings: Very little (presently)

Other Information to enable Parochial Board to decide Case:

Lives with her parents who are both advanced in age and unable to give her much support. She seems to be somewhat imbecile but can take care of herself, is quite harmless, and in company with some other person will do some work, but requires to be constantly told how to do it.

How Disposed of by Parochial Board: Admitted

I wonder if Jean ever saw her parents again? Or visited Westray, the island where she was born and lived for 30 years. 

Whar does thu think thu ar?

As part of the exhibition, Lucy has rendered the question Who Do You Think You Are? into a variety of Orkney dialects:

Orkney Family History Society

The Orkney Family History Society, which is run by volunteers, is based in Orkney Library & Archive, a couple of doors along from the Archives on the upper floor. Conveniently close if you want to check out your Orkney roots there too!

Polly Johnston

The girl at the top of the blog is Polly Johnston, my grandmother, aged nine, outside Burnside in Tankerness, Orkney, the house of the family with whom she was 'boarded out' as a very young child. Here is the full photo. The year is 1918 and in the back row on the left is one young man who clearly survived the First World War. 

When this photo turned up in Orkney, it prompted me to investigate further the origins of my granny. We knew she had come from Glasgow to Orkney at a very young age, but no-one knew why.  I wrote to another archive, the one housed in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. They invited me and my aunt and sister in to see what they found. Like Jean Rendall of Pierowall above, Polly Johnston appears in an Application for Poor Relief. Pinned to the application, was a cutting from the Glasgow Evening News, March 1912 (right).


FOUND on a stair at 102 Canning Street, Bridgeton Cross, at 4.30 p.m. on FRIDAY, 15th inst., FEMALE CHILD. Age about 3 years, healthy, brown hair, and blue eyes. Gives name Polly Johnston, father George Wilson, miner; mother Lizzie, sister Rosie.

Dressed in a Red Coat with pearl buttons, grey woollen dress, 2 white cotton and 1 flannel petticoat, white flannelette chemise, knitted combinations, grey stays, black stockings and button boots, white woollen rinking cap, and grey knitted shawl. Excepting dress, clothing much worn.

A REWARD will be paid by the Subscriber to any person giving information leading to identification.  JAS. R. MOTION, Inspector and Clerk.
Parish Council Chambers, 
266 George Street, 
Glasgow, 28th March, 1912."

But no-one ever came forward to claim her. Her family seems to have vanished. After a few months she was sent up to Orkney to be boarded out:

The story goes that she didn't thrive at Bigging with Mr & Mrs Bewes. So a young woman in service with them took her home to her own mother's house. That young woman was Mrs Aggie Voy, in the middle of the back row in the photo above. Her widowed mother had got married again to John Chalmers of Burnside, Tankerness.

Back to Orkney Archives

Today in the Orkney Archive, I told Lucy Gibbon and David Mackie, Senior Archivist, about my granny. They found this for me: the school roll from St Andrew's School in Tankerness from 1914. Polly Johnston was registered there on 18 May. Her birth date is given as 09.3.? - an unknown day in March 1909. That question mark, looking as it does a bit like a '2', I think provided a date for her birthday, 2nd March. But she never had a birth certificate and so we don't know when she was actually born. 

An Unfinished Story

Lucy thinks there may be other records in Orkney Archives that will shed some light on my granny's arrival in Orkney. I believe there may be a brief piece in The Orcadian saying that she was sent to Orkney along with two other very young girls. One, Peggy McQuillan, always claimed her parents had perished on the Titanic which sank in 1912. I wonder if we'll ever learn what happened to George Wilson, Lizzie and Rosie, my granny's family?

I look forward to continuing the search in the Archives for information that will help to solve the mystery of my grandmother's origins.

The Archives put out a regular blog. Check it out.  

Friday, 18 January 2013

Chatterbooks at the Circus

The bunting was out, the clown masks were hanging from the ceiling. Minus top hat, Louise was the ring master, and the Marwick Room was transformed into the Big Top. This was Chatterbooks and children's librarian, Louise Graham read stories of adventure and bizarre characters to the children there.

The main book featured was Fizzlebert Stump: The Boy Who Ran Away From The Circus (And Joined The Library) by A. F. Harrold. "It's a book that turns the idea of running away to join the circus on its head," Louise told me, "and it's very funny." Read A.F. Harrold's blog by clicking the link.

Apart from Fizzlebert himself, the book also features Mr & Mrs Stinkthrottle - names to conjure with!

Here is A.F. Harrold below with his cat, Douglas!

"Chatterbooks is supported by The Reading Agency," Louise said, "and you can find lots more out about that by clicking the link.  

"I hope to encourage the kids to see reading as fun and to enjoy coming to the library. We certainly had a lot of fun yesterday."

That was clear when I popped my head round the door once the group was in full swing. There was attentive listening, concentrated drawing and a lot of hilarity. After hearing this inspiring story, the children exercised their imaginations to produce bizarre characters of their own. Check out the gallery below.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Chasing the Merry Dancers

From BBC Radio Orkney's Facebook Page
This is the first for the last few mornings that I haven't woken to a flurry of facebook photos accompanying posts boasting of the AMAZING activity of the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, over Orkney the previous night. It seems they've been viewed in every part of the islands in recent days. Except in the sky above where I'm staying! I'm beginning to feel singled out, the only one around not to have been treated to the spectacular light show. My colleagues come in with dancing green lights in their eyes, laughing at my failure to be blessed like them. "Yes, the whole sky was green," they say, "celestial curtains waving in a heavenly breeze." 

From BBC Radio Orkney's Facebook Page
On Not Being Able to See for Looking

It's beginning to feel like the time I watched for weeks before seeing the kingfisher down at the River Kelvin near where I lived in Glasgow. Everyone I knew had seen it. I went every day to try and catch a glimpse. Once with my daughter I stood on the footbridge gazing at the brown water. A little old woman came past and engaged me in conversation about cormorants and eider ducks, common on the river. While my attention was thus taken up, my daughter said, "A kingfisher just flew by there." The little old woman went merrily on her way. I was convinced she had scales underneath her tweed coat!

Eventually I decided to stop looking. When I walked beside the river, I told myself, I would enjoy whatever I saw. I would feel blessed by the ducks and the cormorants, doubly blessed by the heron. And then one brilliant day in Autumn, with the reflections of the leaves turning the water gold, this 'little bit chipped off in brilliance' shot under the arc of the bridge, 'a flashing kingfisher that flew with soundless beauty'. 

So the Merry Dancers can dance unseen; they can mock me all they like. I will enjoy the stars instead. And the moon. And this morning, the sun rising sweet as an apricot over the Holm of Houton.

Yap & Yarn

Both the Yap & Yarn groups have got off to a clicking clacking start, with everything being cast on from socks to jumpers, cushion covers to arran throws, scarves to woolly hats. My efforts are growing sl-o-o-o-w-ly. Here's the new neck-warmer-in-progress. There are knitters of all levels of ability and those a bit further along help the ones for whom casting on is still a mystery. Karen and Heather kept me straight - or rather, wavy. And lacy. 

Scottish Poetry Library

Lilias Fraser of Scottish Poetry Library kindly sent us some postcards of Tom Leonard's poem In Hospital, which is a tribute to women knitting: 

the future, knitting the future
the present peaceful, quiet

Check out all the wonderful poems on their website. Click the link above to read Tom Leonard's poem in full.

Pride and Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is one of the all time favourite books among readers across the world. It is celebrating its bicentenary this year, so expect a flurry of tributes. One of my friends has just reread it for the umpteenth time because of the comfort to be derived from it in times of stress.

The year started with the BBC World Book Club discussing it with an audience from around the world. Click the link to listen again to the discussion. Among those taking part was PD James, whose book, Death Comes to Pemberley is the next title to be tackled by the Lunchtime Reading Group in  Kirkwall Library. Click on the link to the website for details of all the reading groups. 

Pride and Prejudice is on my list of favourite books too. How about you?

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Reflections on Libraries

It's a dreich day. The brightest object in the sky round about is the Flotta Flare, a stack designed to pipe away harmful gases which are burned off high above the ground on the nearby Scapa Flow island of Flotta, the site of Orkney's oil terminal. You can just see it, palely flaring, in the picture left - the scene from my table - if you look closely through the window above the pink candle. And you can see it slightly more clearly on my laptop screen!

I'm nursing a nasty virus so am keeping it away from the library in Kirkwall where I was due to be heading out in the van with Steven Gough who runs the Home Library Service. A full blog post (click link left for that post) on that invaluable aspect of Orkney Library life will follow when the lurgy leaves me and I can accompany Steven on his run. Meantime, I'm staying put with my paracetamol and a brew of root ginger and lemon.

Orkney Libraries and Staff 

This enforced absence from the library gives me time to think about it. Since I started the residency in October, Kirkwall & Stromness libraries, the Archive, the Photo Archive, the Mobile Library and the rest have never ceased to impress me with the service they offer to Orkney. This appreciation is shared by the people who use the service. In a recent small scale survey I conducted during Book Week Scotland. I asked what people's experiences of libraries in Orkney have been. Here are some of the comments people wrote - anonymously - on the forms (separate comments divided off by asterisks):

My experience of libraries in Orkney is ...
Great * good * very good. With children + by self * brilliant. Lovely staff, very helpful * excellent. They provide a wide range of books and staff are helpful and willing to order anything not available at once. * Excellent. Very friendly informative helpful staff with a good range of books to borrow. The website has a lot of very useful information too *very positive * Completely positive. They are both (S[tromness] & K[irkwall]) my home from home. * extremely positive. Very friendly staff, great resources. Good collection + mix of novels + non-fiction. Bookbug sessions are wonderful * Excellent. The staff are so friendly & helpful. They suggest books that they think might be interesting. * Excellent. Staff are courteous and extremely helpful. * excellent * Having recently moved to Orkney and not knowing my way round the library I have nothing but praise for the staff and selection of books. * totally positive – helpful, welcoming, lively * Very helpful + innovative * All are excellent. * warm and welcoming and helpful. * Brilliant!! * Very good. Staff are extremely helpful. * grand places! * Very good, welcoming, helpful staff and family friendly. * very good! – good range of fictional and academic books - a real asset to my academic studies - staff are very genial! * very good choice and friendly staff * excellent * First class service. Excellent staff. * Excellent – great range of titles and media, very well-informed and helpful staff, enjoy book group * the best of all the ones I have been to in Scotland. V positive with helpful, friendly staff * Excellent – Orkney library and the very nice staff make it a really important place for me. * great!  - the old Laing St. Library, now so forlorn had such a lovely booky atmosphere – plus adventures getting trapped/squashed in the racks - ; and the new library is splendid in all sorts of other ways – PLUS GREAT STAFF!!

Orkney Library Staff - the Poster!

Here is how it looks as a POSTER! Go on, click the link! See the kind of art work created by these comments recognising the quality of Orkney Library Staff!

The Plight of Other Libraries

Ann Cleeves, Orkney Library's friend and recent star of the Orcrime Book Festival has the importance of libraries on her mind too. She is involved in the campaign against the closure of some of the libraries in Newcastle. Read her impassioned defence of Cruddas Park Library here. In poignant interviews with some of the library users, she shows how their lives will be hugely impoverished if the campaign to keep the library open should fail. 

We wish you all success, Ann, in your efforts to keep libraries open. 

It is a good reminder of how lucky we are in Orkney. Let's stay lucky! 

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Back to Orkney

I'm on the road north to Orkney tomorrow after a festive break in Glasgow, and looking forward very much to being back. 

There will be new poetry and short story reading groups to feature in the blog, as well as all the many regular events run in Orkney's wonderful libraries.

Monday 7 January sees us casting on for the Yap & Yarn groups. I'm looking forward to seeing if Heather, Karen and Kaja can help me improve my limited expertise with needles and wool. Can't wait to get stuck in! 

A Very Happy New Year to all blog readers!