Literature Ambassador: Wigtown Book Festival

Look what just landed in my inbox! This is the nineteenth year of the Wigtown Book Festival, and it gets better every year. If you love reading, and all things book, this is the festival for you. It’s not so huge it feels impossible to do it justice, it may even be called ’boutique’ by the people who like such labelling, and it’s surrounded by astonishingly beautiful landscape. I can’t think of a better combination.  Now I am off to commune with the program, tick off the musts, and work out the hows!

The Art of Collaboration

A few weeks ago I published a post about a collaborative art workshop I’d been to, at the end of which I asked for anyone interested in beginning a collaborative project with me to get in touch. I had two responses. The first from someone I’ve yet to meet who lives some distance from me; we worked out how to start via Messenger, and yesterday I sent the first ‘call’ to her in the mail: four photographs and a letter. It took me some time to decide what to send, it was much harder than I expected, a bit like trying to steel myself to walk through town wearing nothing but a pair of baffies. Suddenly nothing I had ever made was good enough. But I finally made it to the ‘fuck it’ moment, stuffed an envelope, and sent it off. Now all I have to do is sit back and wait for her response.

Red post box in the village of Stanton in the Peak, Derbyshire Credit: ©VisitBritain / Daniel Bosworth

The second was from long term blogging pal Scarlet who said in a comment on the post:

I’m in, if you want me…. I did Critical Fine Art Practice at college…. one of my favourite ever pieces I made was in response to a piece of text written by a fellow student. How it worked was that she wrote a text about a favourite object – describing it; saying how it made her feel; relating memories associated with it, but never saying what the object was. It was great fun and I made an installation from it.
So, without further ado, here is my object:

It’s the white of good vanilla ice-cream, about 20cm long, and 6 at its widest, but tapers to less than half in places. It has an egg shaped hole about two thirds of the way down its flank which I’m rather fond of running my finger round at odd moments. I also like to peer through it and frame small parts of my workspace. Isolate a postcard sitting on a shelf, or a pot of pencils, or a hastily scribbled note  (‘where butterflies perch on teeth’*).  What it looks like depends on the angle from which you view it: from one it reminds me of the Elephant Man lying down to die; from another it’s a hammer-head shark. It appears to twist, but doesn’t. Alexander McQueen might have used it as a pendant. It looks smooth and cool as milk, but when you look closely you find it to be as textured as a fine silk rug, and at its broken edges, for it is not whole but a fragment, you find it’s full of tiny holes, like fossilised mousse, or a crisp net underskirt. On one side it has a deep impression that neatly fits my thumb, which likes very much to sit in it while I’m thinking. Though for some reason this inverse notch reminds me of a dentist’s chair. There’s something of a lady’s fan about it; it’s light, and fragile, and real. It reminds me of the south-east English coast close to where I grew up; of beaches, and fossils, and sea-foam. Of holidays and day-trips, running to the water’s edge in a hand-me-down swimming costume. Flask-tea, and sandwiches of fish paste specked with sand. I don’t know where it came from, it seems I’ve had it here beside me at my desk for years, but it’s likely The Mr. brought it home. He knows how much I like such things. Which makes me like them even more, its presence makes me feel understood, it’s a shared experience. 

There we are, then, anyone else who feels inspired to try and make something from that feel free.


*This is scrawled on my desk diary, and comes from Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture.

One Billion Worlds

I’ve been asked by the local nature reserve to run a poetry event in early September as a kind of precursor to National Poetry Day on the 28. So I’m deep in research trying to learn a little about all the species we’re likely to encounter. The idea is to walk round the reserve as a group pointing things out, talking about them, telling stories, and generally experiencing the space and its inhabitants. After which we’ll go and sit in the gazebo to distill our thoughts. Darren, the reserve’s project officer, has a leafless tree in a pot and leaf sized labels to artfully hang on its bare branches. Thus each participant will be given the opportunity, and help, to write and polish a poem (or several) which they can then transcribe onto a ‘leaf’ to become part of the ‘Poet-tree.’

Buzzard (buteo buteo). Photo: Barry Boswell

Darren has also supplied me with a list of everything we’re likely to see at that time of year. So I’ve been researching the multiplicity of localised common names, myths, and folklore attached to them. Just in case it falls to me to keep the dialogue going as we walk, to aid inspiration, or simply to have as back-up for those who get stuck. I like to have much more information that can possibly used for these workshops, because you just never know what will come up.

Selfheal has been used to dress skin wounds, and a syrup made from it was said to cure sore throats. Image:

And anyway, I love this kind of research, you can get lost in it, and learn things you didn’t know you needed, but which help in all sorts of random ways. You are reminded, also, of things you once knew. You begin to experience the world in a much fuller way. I really ought to do it more often, I’m revelling in the books piling up on my work-table, and the fascinating connections making themselves in my head.

Common valerian, which has been used in herbal medicine for centuries, to treat all number of ailments, including ‘confusion.’

Amongst the plants we’re likely to see are: valerian; spear thistle (edible stems, who knew?); common toadflax; angelica; selfheal; hawthorn (my favourite tree); rowan (pregnant with myth); willow; alder, and bulrushes (another favourite, a big feature of my childhood).

The birds should include buzzards; dab chicks (little grebes); oyster catchers (oiks); cormorants (I love these, there’s something charmingly primitive about them). And though it will likely be too early for migrants such as pintail, pochard, and wigeon, who come to spend the winter, we may hear snipe in the bulrushes.

With luck it will be dry and sunny which will bring out the last butterflies and dragonflies. Otherwise we’ll just have to close our eyes and imagine them.

As the poems are to go on leaf sized labels I’ve been revisiting the haiku and tanka, small poems that, when done well, capture the emotion of an experience. Here’s a rather lovely one from Monk Ryokan:

Within this serene snowfall
one billion worlds
In each,
flurries come floating down.

I like the Zen concept of one billion worlds, it’s a way of describing the universe, and a nice way of showing the the importance of small things.

Spear Thistle (Cirsium vulgare)
Head of a thistle, one billion worlds to spear unsuspecting fingers.

So that’s pretty much where I’m at with this project – researching, noting things down, generally pootling in the local natural world, and exploring the options. For a week or more I typed out nature poems from every poet I could think of, thinking I’d give everyone copies, and maybe read a few of them out loud, just to give participants an idea of the possibilities. But now I think that could be a bit too daunting, so I’ve ditched that idea. I’ll probably just give them a few haiku and tanka as examples, and let them get on with it. In a week or so I’ll begin to piece it all together into some sort of worksheet. Which is also something I really love doing, brining all the work I’ve done into something concrete, shaping it. So all in all it’s a nice little job to be given.


Call & Response: the Joy of Collaboration

I’ve long been interested in artistic collaborations, and indulge in daily call and response play by typing out 2 poems each of 5 poets, and then writing a poem of my own. This is an extension of an exercise I’ve been doing on and off for a few years, whereby, in a notebook, I write out a randomly chosen poem (from a book), and then write one of my own in response on the facing page. I also often, though not regularly, write in response to a work of visual art, or to The Mr. playing his guitar in the next room. For a while I tried both writing and drawing in response to his band’s gigs and pub music sessions, but that didn’t work at all. And, of course, recently I travelled round Assynt making photographs (still being developed) in response to Norman MacCaig’s poetry. All this is great, and helps me create new work, but it’s a one way conversation. What I’d really like is a dialogue with another artist, but until now that opportunity hasn’t arisen.*


Last Friday (July 14) Upland, the ‘visual art and craft development organisation based in Dumfries & Galloway,’ responsible for Spring Fling (an open studios event that brings around £1.5m into the region each year) held a collaborative art workshop. In the Shadow of the Hand artists, Sarah Forrest and Virginia Hutchison came to talk about their collaborations and invited us (we were 7) to help make a piece in an ongoing series.

We didn’t need to be asked a second time.

The series involves each responding to an object made and given by the other, it really is a conversation; this is object 6, and was made by all of us in response to the story so far.


We painted the words: ‘Object 6, the conductor’ with liquid graphite (powdered and suspended in gum arabic). Graphite is magical stuff, it’s a lubricant, it conducts electricity and sound, and has a host of other charms. For this we needed its sound conductivity. After the painting I was asked to lead a vocal warming exercise (thanks to Tony Bonnington for teaching me how to do this in a storytelling workshop 10 years ago) which sounded so interesting we did it again to record it. We then recorded ourselves responding to the letters by sounding them out and calling out words that began with them:

O O O Odin; Oberon; obliterate; odious; ostentation; occupy; octopus…

B B B Boo; bolero; boisterous; belligerent; biodiversity; bingo; blot…

And so on.

And then the fun: I’m not quite sure how this worked exactly, but we were given wires (earth and ?) and had to press one of each onto a single letter, the sound of our voices then came through a huge speaker. However it worked, it was electric: we seemed to become one, with each other and the work. It was over all too soon but I feel I’ve returned a better and more knowledgeable person (and artist, I hope), and would very much like to try a more sustained collaboration.

So this is a call for an artist to communicate with through making and swapping. If you think you might like to have a go leave a comment or, if you prefer more privacy, use my contact form, and we’ll take it from there. I don’t think discipline, or age/level of experience matters a jot, all I’m looking for is willingness to engage in something the outcome of which cannot be predetermined, or conventionally owned. So, anyone who wants to experiment, explore, and play with a view to making art, do get in touch.


*I have collaborated to stage events, and to run workshops that help others make work, but not to make art with no thought for the outcome.

Mixed Media

The holiday is over, we’ve returned from possibly the most poetic place in the world to, possibly, the least. OK, not the least, but this town with its sheep chewed hills and Tory ethos is a Disney movie in comparison, a faded shortbread tin full of broken toys, a plastic sequinned party dress made in a sweatshop in Beijing.

And that’s about as much as I can say about the trip just now, it will likely take me ten years to write it up with the authenticity it deserves. If you can’t wait that long read The Poems of Norman MacCaig, which will give you an emotional sense of the place. Couple it with a little bit of James Hutton, and you’ll be almost there.

Meanwhile, I stumbled on this last night, and as, a) the contents of my head need a couple of hours in a hot oven before I can write sense and, b) I’m ineffably fond of Charlie Kaufman, I thought I’d share.  Here’s a quote which feels especially important:

“When you’re doing a movie, writing a screenplay, you have to know why it’s a movie, and if it doesn’t have to be a movie you shouldn’t do it. It’s very important that what you do is specific to the medium in which you’re doing it, and that you utilise what’s specific about that medium. And if you can’t think about why it needs to be done this way, then it doesn’t need to be done this way.”

As someone who struggles with the ‘what* am I?’ thing I find this incredibly levelling. Anyway, get yourself a drink and a tray of favourite snacks, and sit back for 40 minutes, you deserve it:

*fiction writer; poet; photo-artist/woman with a camera…?


Reason Sits Helpless at its Desk

What with world (‘crazier and more of it than we think’*) goings on at the moment I’m incredibly relieved to be off Ullapool for a week (from Friday) with The Mr. I hope to  explore Assynt, the favourite place of one of my favourite poets, Norman MacCaig, and as luck would have it a new colleague lent me At the Loch of the Green Corrie a few weeks ago so I know better than ever what to look out for. I’m particularly excited to visit the most remote bookshop on mainland Britain, and the geological phenomena of the Moine Thrust and Knockan Crag.

Knockan Crag
Knockan Crag

But just being with the sea and mountains, midges or none, rain or sun, will be balm. I will take a notebook and camera, as always, so I’ll hopefully be able to write something of the trip when I return. I am hopeless at review type writing, though, so don’t hold your breath for anything factual. Meanwhile here is one of MacCaig’s late poems, which rather nails my current feelings of perturbed ambivalence:

The Red and the Black

We sat up late, talking –
thinking of the screams of the tortured
and the lost silence of starving children,
seeing the faces of bigots and murderers.

Then sleep.

And there was the morning, smiling
in the dance of everything. The collared doves
guzzled the rowan berries and the sea
washed in, so gently, so tenderly.
Our neighbours greeted us
with humour and friendliness.

World why do you do this to us,
giving us poison with one hand
and the bread of life with another?

And reason sits helpless at its desk,
adding accounts that never balance,
finding no excuse for anything.

Cover image from Adventures Around Scotland

*From Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’

Literature Ambassador: Wigtown Happenings

From my inbox:

While the team at Wigtown Festival Company are busy working away on this year’s Book Festival, here are some other events happening in and around Wigtown in the coming weeks.


Four Ball Golf at Turnberry

We are offering you the chance to win a round of golf at the world famous Ailsa Course worth £1300. Entries cost £20. Proceeds go towards the Wigtown Book Festival. Visit our website for more information. Closing date 16 June.

Mystery Weekend

23-25 June | Craft Hotel | Tickets £7

Dive into crime writing with a series of events celebrating mystery and suspense. Featuring writers such as Matt Hilton, Mike Craven and Mari Hannah. Tickets available here.

National Theatre of Scotland

The NTS Artistic Development team is coming to Wigtown! They will deliver a range of workshops and writing surgeries to help develop your writing into a winning script. Join us at Number 11 North Main Street on the 28 June.


Ian Crichton Smith Reading

16 June | 11 am | Beltie Books | Free

Come along and share your favourite passages from this prolific Scottish writer, learn more of the author’s life or simply sit back and listen to his timeless work.



Land and Sea Exhibition

Running from 16 June until September, the Land and Sea exhibition at Cragiard Gallery promises breathtaking art by Allan. J Robertson, Hazel Campbell and Heather Davies to name a few.

WFC logo

Wigtown Book Festival Programme 22 September – 1 October

We’re currently busy putting together the programme for this year’s Wigtown Book Festival. We aim to distribute it in the first week of August, so save the dates and keep you eyes peeled!

Literature Ambassador: Mysteriously Yours

Crime writing seems to be big business these days, not just when it comes to selling books, but when it comes to writing them too. There are conventions, events, and crime writing workshops popping up all over, and two out of three debut book launches I hear about are in that genre. There’s even a group for writers with criminal intent in the tiny town I live in. I can’t work out why it’s so popular, but I’m happy to support any type of writing as long as it’s well wrought. So…

Photo credit:

If you are interested in honing your skills as a writer of thrillers the Mystery Weekend in Wigtown, south west Scotland is for you.  It runs from 23rd to 25th June and features five leading thriller/crime/mystery writers: Matt Hilton, Mari Hannah, Mike Craven, Peter Bartram and Jackie Baldwin. There are talks aimed at writers:  How to write a mystery with Jackie, Writers Inspiration with Mari and Road to Publication with Mike. Tickets for most talks are £7 but there is also a Saturday ticket and one for the whole weekend (though these don’t include the meet the author breakfast, dinner or cocktail party that are part of the programme).

Tickets are available from

*featured image: Bruce Rolff, Shutterstock.

On Writing

It’s easy to forget the power of fully considered writing by someone who is serious about communicating, and then you bump into John Berger on You Tube. This ends rather abruptly, but before it does it will make you weep for the sheer joy of what putting one word in front of another can accomplish. How does he do it?


Literature Ambassador: Mentoring Opportunity for Writers

Wigtown Festival Company

Mentoring Programme 2017

Mentoring opportunities for writers in Dumfries & Galloway
Are you a writer living in Dumfries & Galloway looking to develop your work with the help of professional advice and support? Applications are invited for a the next round of the mentoring scheme, run by Wigtown Festival Company, to take place in autumn of 2017.
Applicants will be expected to be able to demonstrate commitment to writing and examples of work, published or unpublished, on which they can work with their mentor. (For example, three to four chapters of a novel, or several short stories/poems; or a strong synopsis, character outlines and first chapter). Mentoring will be provided by professional writers, selected according to the needs of the person mentored.

Applications from people of all ages will be considered and it is intended to select at least
one young person (14-26) as part of the scheme. Reasonable travel expenses will be paid.
To apply, please send the following details to

•1000-word sample of your writing (or equivalent for poets).

•500-word statement, specifying why you would benefit from free mentoring and detailing experience to date.

•Full contact details and any other supporting, relevant information

Closing date 5pm 30 June 2017.

Supported by Creative Scotland

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