If you attended a Scottish high school any time after 1940, you very probably took part in mandatory Scottish country dancing, or social dancing, lessons as part of the P.E. curriculum. You’ll probably remember the experience, even if you couldn’t talk me through a Dashing White Sergeant off the top of your head. While your teachers may have crowed that they were teaching you important social skills that you’d use as adults*, the forcing together of gym-clad adolescent bodies, the mandatory opposite sex hand-holding and the terminally, terminally uncool pointed-toe skipping all leave the sort of impression that few former teenagers forget.
Meet Jean Milligan, LLD. She’s the reason you feel this way. As Head of Physical Training at Jordanhill College for thirty-nine years, an estimated 40,000 future P.E. teachers passed through Jean’s hands. She was also the driving force behind the creation of the Royal Scottish Country Dancing Society, and many, many other organisations with similar aims. Jean could be said to have singlehandedly rescued Scottish country dancing, revived its fortunes, pushed it into schools and popularised it all over the globe. I’ve just finished reading a biography which left me equally in awe of and exhausted by her.
Getting back to you, though. Have you ever found that, actually, those lessons did their job? Have you been at a wedding or ceilidh with absolutely no intention of dancing, been dragged up for a Gay Gordons and found that you just knew what to do? That those dances seem to have been lying there, somewhere in your physical memory, perhaps one of the only things that everyone who went to school in this country can claim to have in common.
I’m beginning to write a play, working title Take Your Partners. Some of the things it may be about: Scottish country dancing, physical memory, adolescent awkwardness, Scottishness, ‘Scottishness’, Jean Milligan and her unstoppable energy, socialising, social class, the Twentieth Century, teenage lust, group politik, history, culture.
If you’ve got any memories you’d like to share with me, that may eventually become part of the play, I’d absolutely love to hear them. I’ll give full credit to any stories that form part of the piece, unless it’s all still too traumatic and awkward and you’d like to remain anonymous. I’m going to be pulling together stories over the next couple of weeks. Please do get in touch: kirstin [a t] wordsperminute [d o t] org [d o t] uk.
THANK YOU. x
*Okay Ms Viviani, you were right. I bloody love a ceilidh at a wedding, I do.
I’m going to be featured on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour on Monday 6th August. They’re running a week-long series where they focus on a different young/Scottish/woman/writer every day, and I’m Ms Monday. They commissioned a new short story from me, and there should be a bit of an interview too: mostly talking about that bit of the Clyde in the city centre, which is one of my favourite places in Glasgow. Handy, that, as the story is a co-promotion with the Scottish Book Trust’s new campaign My Favourite Place.
2. Collaborative story doom
Speaking of the Scottish Book Trust, I’m one of three writers taking part in something which is not at all like torture: devising an ongoing story in weekly installments, inspired by prompts from Twitter followers and completed live onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. See? Nothing like torture at all. So far, we’ve got futuristic bureacracy, a president with four arms and a tail, and a revolutionary hero who loves rocks. A lot. You can follow the story here.
3. WPM: the return
And speaking of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I’ll be hosting a one-off Words Per Minute on Monday 13th August, at 9pm, as part of the EIBF’s Unbound strand. It’s called The Big Time Sensuality Show, with Sarah Hall, Alan Bissett, Jenni Fagan, Rachel Sermanni, Wounded Knee, Hannah McGill and Kirsty Logan getting hot under the collar. A lineup like that, for free? In Edinburgh? In August? Who loves ya, baby?
4. Elsewhere, or, I get published by McSweeney’s
Look at this beautiful book. In 2010, I was one of 50 writers commissioned by the Edinburgh International Book Festival to write a new story for a collection. It’s finally been published in physical form, by a publishing house I have a HUGE crush on, McSweeney’s, working with Cargo Publishing. I love that there are companies still making gorgeous, covetable things out of physical books.
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: My (g)Host City story is now available to download from Amazon and Bandcamp, and the whole album is available on iTunes. The writers get most of the money from downloads. Just throwing that out there, casual, like.
Very quick update, squeezed in between crazy-busy schedule, to let anyone who happens to be reading this about a very worthwhile project you can enjoy from your computer RIGHT NOW (although it’s even better enjoyed in your earphones, on the streets of Edinburgh).
Billed as ‘Edinburgh’s Virtual Festival’, (g)Host City sits on top of Edinburgh, with stories, performance pieces, sound collages and other audio fun designed to be listened to in specific locations around the city. Download them to your phones or MP3 players and press play at the start points. My piece, called The Dancing, takes you for a walk through Fountainbridge. I’m a bit into psychogeography* on the sly, and Fountainbridge, once industrial and working class, now increasingly on the up, is one of the most interesting areas in the city just now. Architecture on the move, lots of ghosts being stamped out.
In the 1950s, ‘Big Tam’ Connery, as he was known pre-Hollywood, was a local and a bouncer at the Palais de Danse, a shining white hall of dreams amid the ‘Fountainbridge stench” (the combined, ah, perfumes of the brewery and the North British Rubberworks next door, which employed most of the people in the area. The whole street stank of it).
Nowadays, they’ve knocked down the factories for glassy office buildings and style bars. They’re reclaiming the old industrial canal with quaint boats and waterfront apartments, and the council have started called the area variously ‘Edinburgh’s Canal Quarter’ and ‘Little Venice’ (it’s like when they renamed Waverly Market as Princes Mall: the old names are so, so much better). As a kid I used to ride my bike along the canal path, holding my breath as the hops-reek of the brewery approached: going back there now I feel a bit cheated by its absence, but then I don’t recognise the area easily any more. Maybe I’ve just been away too long.
The Palais de Danse, boarded up and overpowered by steely towers, is a sad little thing now. Weeds sprouting out of the cracks, wires hanging in the shape of ripped-off neon signs and an already-faded council notice, dated 2008 and requesting permission to turn it into a casino. It doesn’t fit its upwardly mobile surroundings and will be knocked down soon. Grisly foreshadowing of its possible fate is just across the road: the old Edinburgh Meat Market, which has been scooped out with only its entry facade preserved as an archway to nowhere, the stone bleached blonde to fit in with the new-look city.
Anyway, I took a couple of characters for a walk around the area, and The Dancing is the result. It’s a bit dark, a bit sad, a bit sexy, and as I recorded the whole thing myself, it also features ten seconds of my stunningly tuneless singing voice. You can download it through the (g)Host City website for £2. Here’s a map for the route (it doesn’t take long) – start at Costa Coffee on the corner of Fountainbridge and Lothian Road. If you’re not in Edinburgh, you can follow it part of the way on Google Street View – although the car was last there a couple of years ago and the area already looks very different…
There are a number of other excellent writers, performers and dudes taking part in (g)Host City too. Have a look at the programme: I particularly recommend Kieran Hurley, Hannah McGill, Alan Bissett, Ewan Morrison and Momus…
Hope you enjoy it, anyway.
*I am terrified of this word. It always, always looks wrong.
This post was brought to you by a double-shot coffee and the matchsticks propping up each of my eyelids, because jetlag is playing some pretty wicked tricks on me. My office-mates are away this week, so I’m working from cafes as it’s less easy to fall asleep on the tables when other people are watching.
I’ve been in Australia for the past three weeks (not doing that hot-country-bragging thing: we had two days of sun, which was totally fine by my pasty freckled skin), mainly caught up in the skirl of the Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne, where my fella was Roving International Ambassador at Large or some such thing.
Oh, I like Melbourne. They do things differently there, what with it being a foreign country and everything. The EWF is the most exciting lit fest I’ve been to – for a start, its audience is writers rather than readers, so there’s less of yer straightforward novelist-promotes-book-for-pricey-hour events. The focus was on discussion: the business of writing, the future of it, what it means to be a writer (oh, writers. I know no other occupation so keen on defining and re-defining itself). EWF is inclusive in its understanding of that term, stretching to include journos, bloggers, editors, copywriters. Anyone who makes their living (or wants/tries to) by words. There were practical workshops and panel talks on everything from narrative voice to the future of journalism, sitting sweetly side by side with some of the best-curated and frankly bloody hilarious cabaret-style performance nights I’ve had the pleasure of. And I run a cabaret-style performance night, so I know what I’m talking about. Both ends of the day were propped up by coffees /espresso martinis* at Rue Bebelons (really respect a writers’ festival which not only commandeers a bar for the duration, but a Parisian-style bar with an in-house Lego poet).
The best bit was meeting people. Mary and Binnie took us into their house. Jess took us dancing on sticky floors. Meredith and Paul took us for brunch at St Kilda. Karen and Ben and Sophie and Myke and Sara and Anna and Emmy-Rose and Angela and Meg and Lisa and Scott and Philip and Benjamin and t’other Benjamin and many many others drank and talked and talked in bars and on panels and at late-night pavement pie shops, and slowly we began to work out what made this city and country so different from ours. “Glasgow’s like Melbourne”, we said quite a bit at the beginning of the trip, to explain. Then we stopped.
They were all people of comparable age and what I’m going to vaguely term ‘work-arena’ (like, they work in the arts and meeja? and so do I, yeah? Ah, shut up) to us, but there was a sureness about the way they went about things that I haven’t felt as strongly here. Standard of print journalism not to your taste? Set up your own online news source. Everyone blogs. Everyone connects and holds forth. The websites and festivals and ideas they started were mostly successes, and even if they weren’t, they’d tried. Things seemed more possible than they do here: everyone we met was a doer, the possibilities for reaching huge digital audiences enthused about. There was no waiting for an establishment company, whether newspaper or publisher, to approve your opinions and that way prove your worth. And that’s where we felt the difference.
“Yeah,” said Lisa, on our last day. “When I was over in Scotland, the first thing I asked was for recommendations of Scottish bloggers, and I got all these blank looks”.
Is it just the difference between being a (relatively) old or young country? We talked and thought a lot about the various definitions of nationalism while we were out there: the Scottish elections were fresh in our minds, and the various forms of Aussie media we were exposed to were presented a country still at odds with itself and very much a site of debate, particularly where land rights, class and immigration are concerned. Now we come back as the Daily Record is downsizing, as the commentators begin to question whether Scotland’s old-guard media is sustainable, but there aren’t that many fresh new alternatives presenting themselves. Blog? Start an online magazine? Ach, Ah couldnae. What’s the point?
I don’t think it’s terminal, though. I don’t think Scotland is incurably tongue-tied; especially not now we’ve got to start really examining who and what we are. There’s hunners of energy and enthusiasm for the new and the possible in recent start-ups like Bella Caledonia and Cargo Publishing. There should be more like them. I’m sure any Australians reading this would scoff and say, no, that’s not really what it’s like, not at all, and I admit my full-on crush on Melbourne is colouring the way I see things. But if it’s also inspiring me to do more than write just to pay the bills, that’s got to be a good thing, no?
So, here we go. I’m pinning a virtual motivational poster to the wall of my corner of the internet and blogging, and maybe in time I’ll even work up the confidence to ditch the self-consciously clunky sentences. We should all blog. And talk. And publish. And start things. And make them loud.
*Why have I never had an espresso martini before? I like espresso. I like martinis. It’s, like, the most sophisticated I’ve ever felt, clutching my Marie Antoinette’s breast glass-full of treacly coffeebooze and probably being Fascinating as I held forth on some sort of literary thing or other. That said, they cost $17, so it wasn’t really a lasting sensation. Anyway, I need a Glasgow-based dealer. Recs, please.
Two little things to do with Cargo Publishing. First off, they’ve just pioneered the e-book/ print on demand service, launching two excellent books by Innes-approved writers. You can download Simon Sylvester‘s 140 Characters, a
collection of Twitter-sized flash fiction, here, and a playscript/audio version of Alan Bissett‘s The Moira Monologues here (I thiiiink you can toggle between the written word/dulcet tones at will).
Secondly, DEATHMATCH. May not contain actual death. I really hope it doesn’t. Cargo Publishing authors are taking on Chemikal Underground as part of the Let’s Get Lyrical project.
Sunday 27 February, The Caves, Edinburgh 8pm.
RED CORNER! Novelists Rodge Glass, Doug Johnstone, the aforementioned Bissett, poet Ryan Van Winkle, and ‘new talent’ Kirstin Innes*.
BLUE CORNER! Lord Cutglass, Emma Pollock, and as-yet-unconfirmed muso masseev.