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The UK Government will no doubt be shocked if the referendum on 18 September results in a Yes vote. However, it has agreed to respect the outcome of the referendum and so we must assume that David Cameron will accept the Scottish Government’s invitation to open negotiations towards independence.
The first step will be the formation of two negotiating teams — Team Scotland and Team UK, as it were. These will be led by the governments of both Scotland and the UK, although the Scottish Government has indicated that it wants other political parties in Scotland to join with it in negotiating Scotland’s position. We would expect high level points to be set out by the governments, the detail to be negotiated by civil servants.
What then would an independent Scotland look like?
The Scottish Government plan is for an interim constitution to be in place after March 2016 with a permanent constitution to be drafted by a constitutional convention composed of representatives of civil society after Scottish elections in May 2016.
The Scottish Government intends that the Queen will remain head of state. But this and other issues would presumably be up to the constitutional convention to determine in 2016.
Similarly the Scottish Parliament will continue to be a one chamber legislature, elected by proportional representation, a model rejected by UK voters for Westminster of course in a referendum in 2011.
The Scottish Government seeks to keep the pound sterling as the currency of an independent Scotland. The UK Government’s position is that Scotland can use the pound but that there will be no formal currency union. After a Yes vote this position could change but the unionist parties are united in denying any such possibility.
The UK has heavily integrated tax, pension, and welfare systems. It will certainly be possible to disentangle these but it may take longer than 19 months. In the course of such negotiations both sides may find that it makes sense to retain elements of close cooperation in the social security area, at least in the short to medium term.
The Scottish Government has put forward a vision of Scotland as a social democracy. It will be interesting if it follows through on plans to enshrine social rights in the constitution, such as entitlements to public services, healthcare, free higher education, and a minimum standard of living. The big question is: can Scotland afford this? It would seem that a new tax model would be needed to fund a significantly higher commitment to public spending.
A third area of great interest is Scotland’s position in the world. One issue is defense. The SNP promises a Scotland free of nuclear weapons, including the removal of Trident submarines from the Clyde. This could create difficulties, both for Scotland in seeking to join NATO, but also for the remainder UK, which would need to find another base for Trident. The Scottish Government rejects firmly that it will be open to a deal on Trident’s location in turn for a currency union with London, but this may not be out of the question.
Another issue is that the Scottish Government takes a much more positive approach to the European Convention on Human Rights, than does the current UK government. In fact, the proposal is that the European Convention will become supreme law in Scotland, which even the Scottish Parliament could not legislate against. This contrasts with the current approach of the Conservative Party, and to some extent the Labour Party, in London which are both proposing to rebalance powers towards the UK Parliament and away from the European Court in Strasbourg.
Turning to the European Union, it seems clear to me that Scotland will be admitted to the EU but that the EU could drive a hard bargain on the terms of membership. Compromises are possible. Scotland does not, at present, qualify for, and in any case there is no appetite to join, the Eurozone, so a general commitment to work towards adopting the Euro may satisfy the EU. The Scottish Government also does not intend to apply for membership of the Schengen Area but will seek to remain a part the Common Travel Area, which would mean no borders and a free right to travel across the British and Irish isles.
The EU issue is also complicated because the UK’s own position in Europe is uncertain. Will the UK stay in the EU? The prospect of an in/out referendum after the next UK general election is very real. Another issue is whether an independent Scotland would gradually develop a much more pro-European mentality than we see in London. Would Scotland become positive rather than reluctant Europeans, and would Scotland seek to adopt the Euro in the medium to longer term? We don’t know for now. But if the UK votes to leave the EU, then this may well be the only option open to an independent Scotland in Europe.
To conclude, a written constitution, a stronger commitment to European human rights standards, a more pro-European Union attitude, and an attempt to build a more social welfarist state could bring about an independent Scotland that looks very different from the current UK. However, the bonds of union run deep, and if Scotland does achieve a currency union with the UK it will be tied closely to London’s tax structure. In such a scenario the economies, and therefore the constitutions, of the two countries, will surely continue to bear very many similarities. Much also depends upon relationships with the European Union. If the UK stays in the EU then Scotland and the UK could co-exist with a sterling currency union and a free travel area. If the UK votes to leave then Scotland will need to choose whether to do likewise or whether to align much more closely with Europe.
On 18 September 2014 Scots will vote on the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’
Campaigners for independence and campaigners for the union agree that this is an historic referendum. The question suggests a simple choice between different states. This grossly over-simplifies a complex set of issues and fails to take account of a range of other debates that are taking place in Scotland’s ‘constitutional moment’.
Four cross-cutting issues lie behind this referendum. National identity is but one. If it was simply a matter of identity then supporters of independence would be well ahead. But identities do not translate into constitutional preferences (or party political preferences) in straightforward ways. In the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections more people who said they were ‘British and not Scottish’ voted for the Scottish National Party than voted Tory. Scottish identity has survived without a Scottish state and no doubt Britishness will survive without a British state. Nonetheless, the existence of a sense of a Scottish political entity is important in this referendum.
Party politics, and especially the party systems, also play a part in the referendum. Conservative Party weakness – and latterly the weakness of UKIP in Scotland – north of the border has played into the sense that Scotland is politically divergent. This trend was highlighted by William Miller in a book, entitled The End of British Politics?, written more than thirty years ago. It has not been the geographic distance of London from the rest of the UK so much as the perceived ideological distance that has fuelled demands for Scottish autonomy. Polls continue to suggest that more people would be inclined to vote for independence if they thought Mr Cameron and his party were likely to win next year’s general election and elections into the future than if Labour was to win. It is little wonder that Mr Cameron refuses to debate with Mr Salmond.
The dynamics of party politics differ north and south of the border. Each side in the referendum campaign works on the assumption that membership of the EU is in Scotland’s interest, suggesting that Scotland will find itself outside the EU if the other wins while a very different dynamic operates south of the border. Debates in immigration and welfare differ on each side of the border. While there is polling evidence that public attitudes on a range of matters differ only marginally north and south of the border, the much harder evidence from election results, evident in the recent uneven rise of UKIP, suggests something very different.
It is not only that different parties might govern in London and Edinburgh but that the policies pursued differ, the directions of travel are different. In this respect, policy initiatives pursued in the early years of devolution, when Labour and the Liberal Democrats controlled the Scottish Parliament, have fed the sense of divergence. The SNP Government has only added – and then only marginally – to this divergence. The big items that signalled that Holyrood and Westminster were heading in different policy directions were tuition fees and care for the elderly. These were policies supported by all parties in Holyrood, including the then governing Labour Party and Liberal Democrats. There is fear in parts of Scotland that UK Governments will dismantle the welfare state while Scots want to protect it.
The constitutional status of Scotland is now the focus of debate. This is not new nor will the referendum resolve this matter for all time, regardless of the result of the referendum. Each generation has to consider the relationship Scotland has with London, the rest of the UK, and beyond. This is currently a debate about relationships, articulated in terms of whether Scotland should be an independent country. Relationships change as circumstances change. The backdrop to these changing relationships has been the party system, public policy preferences and identities. The role and remit of the state and the nature of Scotland’s economy and society have changed and these changes have an impact on the constitutional debate.
Adding to the complexity has been a development few had anticipated. Both sides to the debate report large turnouts at public meetings, engagement we have not witnessed in a long time with a far wider range of issues arising during Scotland’s constitutional moment than might have been suggested by that simple question to be asked on September 18th. Prospectuses on the kind of Scotland people want are being produced. This revival of political engagement may leave a legacy that reverses a trend that has seen decline in turnout, membership of political parties and civic engagement. That would make this referendum historic.
Erskine, Kathryn. 2014. The Badger Knight. New York: Scholastic. (Advance Reader Copy)
After the great plague, Adrian's father is overly protective. Having lost his wife and daughter, he is determined to protect his12-year-old son, Adrian. Small and weak, Adrian has what we now call asthma and albinism. In the rural England of the 1300s, however, his condition is more often considered an unlucky and unholy affliction - rendering him only slightly more popular than Thomas the leper. Though he is quick of mind, skillful with a bow, and able to scribe, he is nonetheless treated as useless and dim-witted.
When the Middle March is threatened by war with the Scots, Adrian sees a chance to prove his mettle,
"Soon I hear the blacksmith's voice in my head: Nock! Mark! Draw!Loose! I spread some dirt under my eyes to counteract the bright sun, close my left eye, ready my bow, and take aim at a single leaf fifty feet away. On my second shot I split the leaf in two. As I practice more, I can hit a leaf on my first try, even when it sways in the breeze. I lose all sense of time and feel like I'm in another world. Until I hear someone approach through the woods, and I grab my arrows, stowing them quickly with my bow inside the tree trunk. For years I haven't been discovered and I don't intend for anyone to find me out now. When the time is right, I will shock them all. So I stand and look up at the branches to divert attention away from the trunk and to show that I'm simply addlepated Adrian looking at birds."
The Badger Knight is a historical fiction adventure that touches upon many common themes (bullying, friendship, gender bias, coming of age, survival, the nature of good and evil) as Adrian goes off to war and becomes a man - not by might, but by right.
"... I'm reminded of Nigel and his search for the truth. I think of what I always believed to be truths — Scots are pagans, thieves are bad, knights are noble, girls are weak, war is glorious — and how these "truths" aren't real at all. They're things I was taught or everyone believes, just as all people who look like me are supposedly angels or, more often, devils. I didn't believe Nigel when he said that scribing was power, that seeking the truth and sharing it is mightier than being a soldier. Now I see what he means."
The Knight Badger is rich in historical details - from the minor particulars of everyday life and the societal hierarchy of medieval England to the gruesome manner of medieval warfare. Erskine offers an unvarnished look into the lives of serfs, tradesmen, religious leaders, free lances, city street urchins, and robber barons. The author's thoughts on the nature of war are on display throughout, but readers are encouraged to come to their own conclusions and examine their own biases.
A solid adventure story that should appeal to boys and girls. There is room for a sequel.
On shelves 8/26/14. Target audience: ages 8-12, Gr 3-7 352 pages
Is the UK really in danger of dis-uniting? The answer is ‘no’. But the more interesting answer is that the independence referendum is, to some extent, a red herring. The nationalists may well lose the referendum but they have already won the bigger political battle over power and money. All the main political parties in the UK have agreed give Scotland more powers and more financial competencies – or what is called ‘devo-max’ irrespective of what happens on 18 September.
Viewed from the other side of the world the Scottish independence referendum forms part of a colonial narrative that underpins a great deal of Australian life. Some commentators take great pleasure in forecasting ‘the death’ of the United Kingdom and the demise of the English. Michael Sexton’s headline in The Australian, ‘Scotland chips away at the English empire’, is high on hyperbole and, dare I say, even colonial gloating. It sadly lacks any real understanding of British constitutional history and how it has consistently managed territorial tensions. The UK has long been a ‘union state’ rather than a unitary state. Each nation joined the union for different reasons and maintained distinctive institutions or cultural legacies.
The relationships among and between the countries in the UK have changed many times. Like tectonic plates, the countries rub and grate against each other but through processes of conciliation and compromise (and the dominance of England) volcanic eruptions have been rare. In the late 1990s devolutionary pressures were channeled through the delegation of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly, National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament. Different competencies reflected the extent of popular pressure within each country and since the millennium, with the exception of Northern Ireland, it is possible to trace the gradual devolution of more powers. Wales wants a Parliament, Scotland wants a stronger Parliament – but few people want independence from a Union that has arguably served them well.
But has the Union really served the Scots so well? It is true that the UK as a whole and not justScotland has benefitted from the North Sea Oil revenues. ‘It’s Scotland’s oil!’ might have been the Scottish Nationalist Party’s slogan in the 1970s but it captures a sentiment that underpins today’s debates. It also overlooks the manner in which Scotland also receives a generous slice of the financial pie when public funds are allocated. Fees and charges for many public services that exist in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are absent north of the border. The nationalists argue that public services could be increased if Scotland had more control over North Sea Oil but they play down the fact that many analysts believe that the pool of black gold is nearly empty and that an independent country would have to take its share of the UK’s national debt. Depending upon how the debt-cake is cut this would be a figure around £150 billion.
The UK Government claims Scots would be £1,400 better off if they stayed in the union, the Scottish government claims that they would be £1,000 better off with independence but the simple fact is that independence is a risky game to play for a small state – the political equivalent of Russian roulette in an increasingly competitive and globalised world. There are lots of questions but few answers. On independence would Scotland remain in the European Union? How would an independent Scotland defend itself? What currency would they use? What kind of international role and influence would an independent Scotland have? Would a ‘Yes Vote’ be good for business? What happens in relation to immigration and border controls? What would independence mean for energy markets? The simple fact is that there are no clear answers to these basic questions. The nationalists understandably define many of these questions as little more than ‘scare tactics’ but independence must come with a price.
Nationalists (such a tired and simplistic term in a world of multiple and overlapping loyalties) may argue that independence is about culture and identity, heart and soul – not bureaucracies and budgets and I would not disagree. The problem is that when stood in the voting booth the Scottish public is likely to vote according to their head (and their wallet) and not their heart. The twist in the tail is that support for Scottish independence has at times been higher amongst the English (and that is 54 million people compared to just five million in Scotland) than the Scottish. Therefore if the referendum on Scottish independence was open to the whole of the UK, as many have argued it should be, Scotland may well have been cast adrift by its English neighbours.
And yet the strangest element of this whole Scottish independence debate is that the model of independence on offer has always been strangely lacking in terms of … how can I put it … independence. What’s on offer is a strange quasi-independence where the Scottish Government wants to share the pound sterling and the Bank of England, it wants to share the British army and other military forces and what this amounts to is a rather odd half-way house that is more like greater devolution within the Union rather than true independence as a self-standing nation state. The risks are therefore high but the benefits uncertain and this explains why the Scottish public remains to be convinced that the gamble is worth it. The latest polling figures find 57% against and 43% in support of a ‘yes’ vote but a shift to the ‘no’ camp can be expected as the referendum draws closer and the public becomes more risk averse.
But does this really matter? A ‘yes vote’ was always incredibly unlikely. Mass public support has never existed and the referendum is really part of a deeper power game to lever more powers from London to Scotland and to this extent the game is already over. Devo-max has already been granted. The 2012 Scotland Act has already been passed and boosts the power of the Scottish Parliament by giving it a new ability to tax and borrow along with a number of new policy powers. (The most important new measure – giving the parliament partial control over setting income tax rates in Scotland will come into force in 2015.) Since this legislation was passed the three main political parties in Westminster have all agreed to devolve even more powers, specifically in relation to tax and welfare.
Mark Twain famously remarked that ‘reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’ and I cannot help but feel the same is true in relation to those who like to trumpet the death of the United Kingdom. The Scottish independence referendum is highly unlikely to amount to a Dis-United Kingdom or the ‘unraveling’ of the union. It may amount to a ‘looser’ union but the relationship between Edinburgh and Westminster has always been one of partnership rather than domination. My sense is that what we are witnessing is not ‘the end’ as some commentators would like to see it but the beginning of a new stage in a historical journey that has already lasted over three hundred years.
In a week’s time, the residents of Scotland (not the Scottish people: Scots resident south of the border are ineligible to vote) will decide whether or not to destroy the UK as currently constituted. The polls are on a knife edge; and Alex Salmond, the leader of the separatists, has a track record as a strong finisher. If he gets his way, the UK will lose 8% of its citizens and a third of its land mass; and Scotland, cut off, at least initially, from every international body (the UN Security Council, NATO, the EU) and every UK institution (the Bank of England, the pound sterling, the BBC, the security services), will face a bleak and uncertain future.
In the first century BC, the Roman republic was collapsing as a result of its systemic inability to curb the ambitions of powerful politicians. Everyone could see that the end was nigh; no one could predict what would follow. The conditions were ideal for the development of political oratory, and Cicero emerged as Rome’s greatest orator, determined to save his country even at the cost of his own life. During his consulship, he suppressed the conspiracy of Catiline, denouncing that man and his deluded supporters in his four Catilinarian Speeches. He pulled no punches: he did not hold back, like the supporters of the Union today, for fear of appearing too “negative”. So he informed the senate:
“A plot has been formed to ensure that, following a universal massacre, there should not be a single person left even to mourn the name of the Roman people or to lament the destruction of so great an empire.”
For Catiline’s supporters, he had nothing but contempt, telling the people:
“Reclining at their banquets, embracing their whores, heavy with wine, stuffed with food, wreathed with flowers, drenched with perfume, and worn out by promiscuous sex, they belch out their plans for the massacre of decent citizens and the burning of Rome.”
Cicero went straight for the jugular. Two decades later he denounced a more powerful adversary, Mark Antony, who was attempting with much greater forces to seize control of the state. Cicero attacked him in a series of speeches, the Philippics; but Antony did a deal with Octavian, got what he wanted, and had Cicero killed. Cicero’s words at the end of the Second Philippic were prophetic:
“I defended this country when I was a young man: I shall not desert it now that I am old. I faced down the swords of Catiline: I shall not flinch before yours. Yes, and I would willingly offer my body, if the freedom of this country could at once be secured by my death. Two things alone I long for: first, that when I die I may leave the Roman people free; and second, that each person’s fate may reflect the way he has behaved towards his country.”
Where is Cicero today when we need him? The debate on the future of Scotland, and hence of the UK, has been conducted in newspapers, in TV interviews and debates, and in social media. Anonymous internet trolls hurl abuse at celebrities who dare to express their affection for Britain. The Westminster Parliament stays silent. One MP, however, is free of the party whips, and has been touring Scotland delivering passionate, hard-hitting and unapologetically negative speeches in defence of the Union. This is George Galloway, and the speech he gave in Edinburgh on 24 June can be read and listened to here.
Like Cicero, Galloway pulls no punches. He compares the current crisis with 1940, the last time the UK faced an existential threat:
“And not one person asked in that summer and autumn of 1940 and into 1941 if the pilots who were spinning above us defending us from invasion from the barbaric horde were from Suffolk or Sutherland. We were people together on a small piece of rock with 300 years of common history.”
Referring to his political differences with the other supporters of the Union, he says, “We have come together but temporarily at a moment of national peril”, declaring:
“There will be havoc if you vote Yes in September. Havoc in Edinburgh and throughout the land and you will break the hearts of many others too.”
This preference for extreme, unambiguous statements, delivered with the greatest possible emotional force, and this recognition of the significance of the historical moment, is pure Cicero. But what is most Ciceronian in Galloway’s speech is the moral dimension. Galloway is not concerned with whether the new Scottish state would have to concentrate its spending on benefits or foreign embassies. Instead, he harks back repeatedly to the Second World War, that conflict of good against evil, contrasting it with Bannockburn, “a battle 700 years ago between two French-speaking kings with Scottish people on both sides”. And, as Cicero would, he judges an issue by the moral character of the people concerned: on the one side, Brian Souter, “the gay-baiting billionaire” and major donor of the SNP, and on the other, the children’s author J. K. Rowling, “one of our highest achieving women in the history of our entire country”, whose moderate and reasoned support for the Union has earned her hate mail from fanatical separatists. Morality runs like a thread all the way through Galloway’s speech.
How come so few women are in favour of independence? Why are Scotland’s women the most resistant of all the demographics in this contest? The reason is that women simply don’t like gambling. And everything in their project is about gambling — for your future, your pension, your children and their children’s future.
“Let it be inscribed on the forehead of every citizen what he thinks about his country”, Cicero told the senate. Next week, the future of the UK will be decided by a secret ballot. If Britain survives in a political and not merely in a geographical sense, part of the credit will be due to the Ciceronian eloquence of Mr Galloway.
Here's the video of our Summer Reading Challenge visit to Leith Library! Philip Reeve came along and made a very elegant flip-chart stand. I love it when the boy says, At first I thought, wow, she’s posh! She had like, that bird in her hair, and fancy blue ribbon… and a dress with lipstick on it… and it was like, really posh.
Philip noted that support for Scottish independence has soared since our visit; I hope we weren't a contributing factor...
In other news, after my meeting at Scholastic yesterday, I stopped into Foyles on Charing Cross Road and found this book looking up at me from the display table. One of my all-time favourite illustrators that I'm always going on about, David Roberts, and... hats! Oh my word, you guys!!! Why didn't no one tell me about this book??
David worked as a milliner, and you can tell, in the sculptural way he draws his figures and their patterns. I put together my hats with a bit of lick and spit - I don't really know what I'm doing - but I often daydream of taking a year out of publishing to work as an apprentice for Philip Treacy, with access to all that great kit. I don't generally get excited about the whole fashion industry (and its emphasis on being super-thin), but I make a huge exception for hats, which can be worn by anyone. Andrea's website also has some examples of hats that you can make yourself:
Hat lovers and fashionistas around the world, you're going to adore this book. You can follow Andrea on Twitter as (@andreabeaty but sadly, David Roberts is not on Twitter. (He's too busy pumping out a prodigious amount of incredible work. How does he DO it??!)
From the lone shielding of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas –
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides! John Galt 1779-1839 Scottish writer
O Caledonia! Stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child! Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832 Scottish novelist
O flower of Scotland, when will we see your like again,
that fought and died for your wee bit hill and glen
and stood against him, proud Edward’s army,
and sent him homeward tae think again. Roy Williamson 1936-90 Scottish folksinger and musician
I love a lassie, a bonnie, bonnie lassie,
She’s as pure as the lily in the dell.
She’s as sweet as the heather, the bonnie bloomin’ heather –
Mary, ma Scotch Bluebell. Harry Lauder 1870-1950 Scottish music-hall entertainer
My poems should be Clyde-built, crude and sure,
With images of those dole-deployed
To honour the indomitable Reds,
Clydesiders of slant steel and angled cranes;
A poetry of nuts and bolts, born, bred,
Embattled by the Clyde, tight and impure. Douglas Dunn 1942– Scottish poet
Who owns this landscape?
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back? Norman McCaig 1910–96 Scottish poet
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My first offshore rig job was on the Piper Alpha. I didn’t know it at the time but the Piper was one of the biggest, oldest, most profitable production platforms in the British sector of the North Sea. I emerged onto the helideck from my first chopper ride with the wide-eyed feeling you tried to hide on your first trip offshore. I had time to dump my duffel bag in the cabin they assigned me, get some pairs of coveralls, a bag of gloves. It wasn’t a normal crew change. I was replacing a guy who got hurt and medivacced off the night before. I started a twelve-hour shift with a crew of three other roustabouts and the crane driver, Kenny. I was bunking in with Kenny for an unknown reason. Normally, the four roustabouts, alternating twelve hour shifts, shared cabins with their opposite numbers. Mine was a bottom bunk in a room of crane drivers. Kenny was the boss of the crane drivers. I was replacing a guy on his crew, so we slept and worked at the same time. My first job, on my first shift as a roustabout, was dumping fifty-five gallon drums of radioactive shale into the sea. I watched the roughnecks shovel the shale into a drum on the drill floor. In addition to their usual coveralls, they wore outer suits which looked like rubber. It was supposed to be protection against the radioactivity in the rock that was coming out of the hole. Because of the work on the drill floor, the protective suits were shredded and torn, hanging off the roughnecks in strips. There was an engineer running up and down the catwalk with a crackling Geiger counter. Roughnecks, in the smoke room, joked about watching their appendages fall off. The smoke room provided breaks in the twelve hour shifts, scenes of laughter, boredom and rage. When you were new, they tested you. They tried to scare you, probe you, disturb you, wind you up. Then they sat back, chuckled at your reaction. The Scots were masters at this. It seemed to be a racially imbedded talent. All done in good humour, anything for a laugh. During one of those breaks, soaked in mud and oil from relieving the roughnecks, I listened to one the veterans talk. He looked around the steel room, at the walls. “You could put your fist through the legs of this old piece of shit. If there’s ever gonna be a disaster in the North Sea, it’ll be on this old piece of shit” I didn’t think much about it at the time. I laughed like everyone else. There were moments in the next years when I did think about it, though. His words came back to me on other rigs, as I was getting cozy in a bunk. Exhaustion, food, a hot shower, warm inside; outside, a gale blowing between the Shetlands and Norway. Nights like that, I remembered, had a shiver, as sleep descended. Was it just another trick to scare a green hand? The old guy who said it, didn’t laugh. By the time the crane brought the first drum down from the drill floor, I had been told what to do by the man I relieved. When the crane driver lowered the drum, I gave him a signal to stop at the right spot so I could tip it over the rail, while he held the weight. As I tipped the first few drums of shale over the side, I was thinking about the wisdom of dumping radioactive rocks into the North Sea. Who would believe me onshore, who would care? There was no point in complaining. This was the job I’d tried so hard to get. What choice did I have? Pack my bags and wait for the next flight on the helideck? So when the drums of radioactive shale descended from the sky, seawater pouring out of holes in the sides, I dumped the grey, flat pieces, hoping they wouldn’t poison anything. The Piper Alpha, like most platforms, had big cranes on opposite sides of the deck. The deck held all the pipe and equipment needed on the drill floor. Almost everything brought on board was moved by container. Supply ships filled the deck with steel containers which had to be stacked on top of each other, for lack of space. The roustabouts, one with a radio on the same the frequency as the crane driver, landed the containers and pipe. The crane driver moved back and forth between the cranes, depending upon the load, where he had to pick it up, where he had to land it. A night shift, on deck, in a North Sea gale, wasn’t a good time to discover that Kenny was near sighted. The remarks weren’t made by the other roustabouts, as I suspected, to try to scare me. In the black and white shadows of the big, swaying lights, in the horizontal rain, it was an unwelcome revelation. Kenny’s cranes lifted tons of steel from the decks of bobbing sea going tugs, up over the sides of the platform, across containers of different heights. They said that it was his perspective which was bad. On those stormy nights, when it was hard to see and he was tired, the best tactics were to find the spot the container was supposed to go, do your best to signal him, get out of the way. You always looked around for an escape route, in case he didn’t see you. Your greasy rain suit and slipping boots didn’t help when you were being chased across the container tops by steel boxes, in high winds. What could you do about a crane driver with bad eye sight? Everyone knew about it, but no one seemed to care. Kenny was Kenny. He was a fixture, no one had been killed or crushed yet. During my time offshore with Kenny and the boys I did little except eat, sleep and shower when we weren’t working. On occasion, I lay half asleep in my bunk, while Kenny did business with visitors from all parts of the rig. I had long ago given up trying to sort out the dialects of the British Isles. Many of the thousands of offshore workers were from Northern England and Scotland. The money to be made on the rigs, for fishermen who were risking much more, for no guaranteed income, drew the coastal Scots like flies. Since they were sailors to begin with, they knew about ropes, knots, shackles, hard graft in the rottenest weather. It was understood that they would prefer to fish rather than this, but their fishery was in trouble, they had families. The oil business, like the British army, was happy to recruit there, because they knew the value of the workers. The industrial cities of Britain all sent men to work offshore. There were men from the islands and from small farm villages. There were ex military men as well as merchant mariners driven off their decks by containers. When you mixed in some Aussies and Kiwis, you came close to Babylon when they all spoke fast, at once. Many of Kenny’s conversations took place while I was in the cabin but were unintelligible to me, though I heard them. The language was impossible to understand. Kenny, was a partner with another crane driver in a pornographic video scam. He got videos for the rig. Probably he was selling them to individuals, as well. I laid in my bunk, reading, when a conversation about videos took place. It was business talk with a group of guys, about a week after I arrived. By then, Kenny judged me to be safe to have around. He knew that I was only there till the end of the hitch, I’d probably never be back. On this old rig, the crews were pretty well set. The company had a seniority list they’d use if the injured man didn’t return. As they left the cabin, one guy told me to keep my mouth shut by zipping his lip. I nodded. He left with a smile. What was I going to say about it? I had enough problems surviving the twelve hour shifts. We were a hundred ninety kilometres northeast of Aberdeen in the North Sea. Like dumping the shale into the ocean, it seemed a necessary compromise. I did the job, kept my mouth shut, in return for good money and experience offshore. The first step in working offshore was to get experience. It was the first thing they asked when you applied for a job. When you had worked offshore once, you were ahead of the game. There were piles of applications for the jobs on each company’s desk. It was the classic catch - 22. The Piper had two theatres. There was a regular theatre, with comfortable movie type seating, where they showed contemporary movies. They even had a guy outside the theatre with a request sheet on a clipboard. If you wanted to request a movie, they’d try to get it. The other theatre, with the same interior, was strictly for porn. Kenny had a connection, through the supply ships, to Denmark, where they manufacture a lot of porn. He got every kind of porn. I tried the porn theatre one night. I didn’t like it. There were forty or fifty guys sitting together with their hands in the pockets of their accommodation coveralls, watching endless sex videos. Living for two weeks with three hundred men was bad enough. That just made it worse. I went to bed. Kenny and his boys were busy. To supplement the porn enterprise, they were stealing from the containers. Word was, there were cartons of cigarettes and booze stashed all over the rig. As the roustabouts and crane driver landed containers on the deck, they tried to place the ones for the galley as close to the accommodation as possible. There was even a small deck outside the back door of the galley where some containers could be landed. That was supposed to be the end of the roustabouts’ and crane drivers’ dealings with those containers. Certain sealed containers were locked by Customs and Excise. They were opened only by the galley boss, emptied into the galley by the stewards. There was no drinking allowed offshore but at Christmas each man was allowed one beer and a cigar. It varied from company to company, rig to rig. Who knew what the bosses got shipped in? Teetotallers became very popular around Christmas time, offshore. The Christmas I was there, Kenny’s gang, the other crane driver and some roustabouts, managed to land the special containers at night, break into them, steal the booze and cigarettes. They had a system of ripping off the containers, stashing the goods, blaming it on the cooks and stewards. I didn’t know anything about it at the time. It could have happened on a shift when I was working. There were jobs all over the rig to which Kenny could have assigned me to get me out of the way. There were no fire drills when I was there. No one knew if the evacuation procedures would work. The platform kept pumping oil, one hundred twenty thousand barrels a day, everybody made good money, the company was happy. The British government collected five hundred million pounds a year, in revenues, from the Piper Alpha. When my hitch ended on the Piper, I took the taxi from the heliport to the warm Aberdeen pubs to have a drink with the boys, say our goodbyes. I met one of them, a few years later, in Aberdeen. He had left the Piper, was working on another rig, like myself. He told me that the police had finally raided the platform, searched lockers and the rest of the rig from top to bottom, found all kinds of contraband including a working homebrew still. Some guys lost their jobs, some were charged. I assumed Kenny would have been fired. But, sometimes, guys like him never get caught. Even if he did get run off of the Piper, it might have saved his life. A few years later, I was in Ottawa, trying to deal with my mother’s Alzheimer’s. It was a major change after what I’d been doing for the past twenty years. I picked up the paper outside of the apartment we shared. The headline read, ‘153 missing in rig disaster’. Two hundred, twenty-seven men, including construction workers, were working the night shift or in their bunks. The ones inside the accommodation, near the centre of the platform, were killed immediately by the explosion and shaft of fire, which sucked up all the oxygen. The ones working their shift up on deck, were lucky. One survivor said, “It was a case of over the side or die there”. They jumped seventy metres into the heaving, black North Sea. Some were rescued. The emergency procedures didn’t work, nor did the lifeboats. As for the spark which ignited the leaking gas, a welder’s torch was suggested, but it could just as easily have been a guy having a smoke where he wasn’t supposed to. Some of the men I worked with were on the Piper, that night. There were stewards, cooks, office workers, even a few roustabouts, who were lifers on the platforms. They said goodbye to families and friends, went off to work for two weeks at a time, for their whole working lives. Two weeks off every month beat a nine to five. The money was good, there were no expenses at work except tobacco and toothpaste. Your bed was made, your laundry done, there was good food, all you could eat every day, prepared by professional chefs. Many guys got addicted to it. They couldn’t work any other way. The longer you did it, the harder it was to leave. Those crews packed their bags for that two week trip in the summer of 1988, said their goodbyes, never came back. The final count was 164 dead.
There has rarely been a more interesting time to study secession. It is not just that the number of separatist movements appears to be growing, particularly in Europe, it is the fact that the international debate on the rights of people to determine their future, and pursue independence, seems to be on the verge of a many change. The calm debate over Scotland’s future, which builds on Canada’s approach towards Quebec, is a testament to the fact that a peaceful and democratic debate over separatism is possible. It may yet be the case that other European governments choose to adopt a similar approach; the most obvious cases being Spain and Belgium towards Catalonia and Flanders.
However, for the meanwhile, the British and Canadian examples remain very much the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, states still do everything possible to prevent parts of their territory from breaking away, often using force if necessary.
It is hardly surprising that most states have a deep aversion to secession. In part, this is driven by a sense of geographical and symbolic identity. A state has an image of itself, and the geographic boundaries of the state are seared onto the consciousness of the citizenry. For example, from an early age school pupils draw maps of their country. But the quest to preserve the borders of a country is rooted in a range of other factors. In some cases, the territory seeking to break away may hold mineral wealth, or historical and cultural riches. Sometimes secession is opposed because of fears that if one area is allowed to go its own way, other will follow.
For the most part, states are aided in their campaign to tackle separatism by international law and norms of international politics. While much has been made of the right to self-determination, the reality is that its application is extremely limited. Outside the context of decolonisation, this idea has almost always taken a backseat to the principle of the territorial integrity of states. This gives a country fighting a secessionist movement a massive advantage. Other countries rarely want to be seen to break ranks and recognise a state that has unilaterally seceded.
When a decision is taken to recognise unilateral declarations of independence, it is usually done by a state with close ethnic, political or strategic ties to the breakaway territory.Turkey’s recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are obvious examples. Even when other factors shape the decision, as happened in the case of Kosovo, which has been recognised by the United States and most of the European Union, considerable effort has been made by recognising states to present this as a unique case that should be seen as sitting outside of the accepted boundaries of established practice.
However, states facing a secessionist challenge cannot afford to be complacent. While there is a deep aversion to secession, there is always the danger that the passage of time will lead to the gradual acceptance of the situation on the ground. It is therefore important to wage a concerted campaign to reinforce a claim to sovereignty over the territory and prevent countries from recognising – or merely even unofficially engaging with – the breakaway territory.
At the same time, international organisations are also crucial battlegrounds. Membership of the United Nations, for example, has come to be seen as the ultimate proof that a state has been accepted by the wider international community. To a lesser extent, participation in other international and regional bodies, and even in sporting and cultural activities, can send the same message concerning international acceptance.
The British government’s decision to accept a referendum over Scotland’s future is still a rather unusual approach to the question of secession. Governments rarely accept the democratic right of a group of people living within its borders to pursue the creation of a new state. In most cases, the central authority seeks to keep the state together; and in doing so choosing to fight what can often be a prolonged campaign to prevent recognition or legitimisation by the wider international community.
Lari Don is one of my best discoveries of 2013. A storyteller and award winning author, with a range of books to her name which includes picture books, early readers and novels (her 20th book in just six years of writing will be published later this year), I discovered her when researching children’s authors who feature Orkney in their work.
M and I are currently working our way through Lari’s First Aid for Fairies Series, full of magic and music and set in contemporary Scotland, whilst as a whole family we’ve really enjoyed her newest book, a collection of retellings of Scottish myths, entitled Breaking the Spell.
We’ve being doing lots of “playing by the book” inspired by Lari’s work, but it mostly involves pretending to be dragons and centaurs and running around the garden singing, so I haven’t got photos to share with you. But what I do have, is an interview with Lari; I hope it will inspire you to seek out her books and discover her for yourself.
Playing by the book: Would you tell me a little bit about Breaking the Spell – how you chose the stories for inclusion, for example?
Lari Don: I was very lucky – Frances Lincoln [the publisher] gave me a free hand, and I chose my favourites! But I know and love dozens of Scottish stories, so even with the aim of sharing my favourite legends and folktales, I had to make a few strategic decisions.
I was keen to mix lesser known stories with stories which are better known. I love the story of Tam Linn, the boy stolen by the fairies who grows into a fairy knight then is rescued by a brave girl called Janet, and I’ve used it as inspiration for several of my novels, so I really wanted to include that. I’m delighted that Tam Linn is the title story of the book (because Janet breaks the spell…) It’s probably one of the best known Scottish fairy tales.
Selkies. An illustration by Cate James, for Breaking the Spell. Used with permission.
Other stories often associated with Scottish folklore are the shapechanger stories of selkies and kelpies, but I’ve never really connected with the best known selkie story about the selkie wife – a seal who becomes a woman when she comes on shore, but can’t change back because a fisherman steals her sealskin, then forces her to marry him. So instead of telling that story, I’ve told a story that happens AFTER that story, about a child of a selkie and a fisherman. It’s a bit dark and gory, but then lots of old stories are! And the kelpie story I tell in Breaking the Spell is absolutely original, because it’s based on a family story from my mum’s childhood on Skye.
Then, with those well-known Scottish magical creatures – fairies, selkies, kelpies – represented, I could start looking at less well-known Scottish stories, like the Celtic hero Cuchullin learning from a female warrior on Skye, the Witch of Lochlann trying to burn down Scotland’s forests, and a crofter who steals a monster’s baby… creating what I hope is a mix of familiar and surprising.
Lari Don loves the story of Tam Linn so much, she name her cat Tam Linn!
Playing by the book: What stories “got away” and couldn’t be included?
Lari Don: Well, I love Viking stories, and with groups of older children I often retell a bit of the Viking Orkneyinga saga from the point of view of the invaded (and victorious) Scots. But we decided not to put that story in this collection because it is (loosely) based on historical record, rather than pure legend. I may tell it somewhere else some time!
Playing by the book: Ooh, so are there are plans for another collection?
Lari Don: Another collection? Well, I’d love to, but I’ll have to wait to be asked…
Cate James and Lari Don signing books at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival
Playing by the book: I’d like to explore a little the differences between oral storytelling and writing books; I would imagine for a storyteller it can feel strange choosing a single version of a story to set down in black and white. What does it feel like to you?
Lari Don: I do find writing retellings and collections of myths and legends very different from writing my own original fiction. I never retell a traditional story in print that I haven’t told to an audience, and when I’m working up a story to tell it out loud, I might make very sketchy notes, but I don’t ever write it down in full. I just work out how the story makes sense to me, let it come to life in my head, then tell it as I see it to the audience.
So… when I come to write that story for a collection, it’s a bit like taking dictation from myself. I just type the story as I tell it to myself. It then needs a few tweaks to make it work on paper, but it is essentially the story I tell out loud. And though I do change stories over time as I tell them (quite a lot sometimes, depending on the audience, and also on new things I might learn about the stories), what I’m keen to discover over the next few months is whether I still feel I can change and play with a story once it’s been put down in print. I do hope it won’t change my relationship with these stories. I don’t think it will though – I retold Tam Linn at a preview of Breaking the Spell at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and I loved it as much as ever, and felt myself inside the story as much as ever.
This feeling of knowing the story before I write it is very different from my fiction writing, where I work out the story as I go along and don’t know what’s going to happen at the end until I’ve written my way there. So though my adventure novels are often inspired by the legends I love, I write them in a totally different way.
Playing by the book: I loved reading how when you are doing storytelling sessions in school you invite children to tell you other variants of the story you are telling, and also the scene in First aid for fairies where Yann and Helen tell the same story but from different points of view. Have you ever considered writing a pair of books which tell the same story but from different perspectives?
Lari Don: I have not yet told competing versions of a story, but I wouldn’t have a problem doing that, as I genuinely believe there is no one right version of a story!
But yes, that scene in First Aid for Fairies where they argue about the two versions of Tam Linn (from the human and the fairy points of view) is very much a dramatic distillation of my attitude to stories. I’ve done the same sort of thing when I tell a Viking invasion story from the Scottish point of view rather than the way the Norse saga writers told it. There are so many ways a story can be told, and the storyteller, the audience and the atmosphere on any particular day are all vital parts of that alchemy. And I don’t think there is a wrong way to tell a story. We all do it differently, and that’s fine!
Playing by the book: What are your favourite aspects of storytelling versus writing? What are the most challenging aspects of each?
Lari Don: My favourite thing about storytelling in the traditional sense, ie the standing up (or sitting on the floor) and telling an old story to an audience, is the most fundamental thing about storytelling. Sharing a story, keeping it alive, and passing it on to people who may tell it, share it and pass it on in their turn. Also I love the sense of being part of a tradition, the connection to tellers who have told these stories before. And I don’t think that connection is broken by a desire to retell a story in your own and different way.
And the other best thing about live storytelling is instant feedback from an audience. There is nothing like the moment of silence you get at the most dramatic bit of a story, when everyone is holding their breath, waiting to see what happens next!
Lari Don at a recent storytelling event
My favourite bits about writing would take a novel to describe. But briefly – making it up, getting to know the characters, and living inside the story.
The challenges of storytelling are also the fun bits: the research to find the right stories, getting the story right in your head and in your voice (I tell a new story to cuddly toys, usually a squirrel and a dragon, until the story is strong enough to tell a live audience) and then finding the right stories to tell a specific audience – which often means changing plans at the last minute when you see who you have sitting in front of you.
The challenges of writing are different. Finding the peace and quiet to think, finding the time to do an idea justice, choosing which of many ideas to bring to life first. But when you finish a book and believe you have done the best you can with it, it’s a great feeling!
An illustration by Cate James, from ‘Breaking the Spell’. Used with permission.
Playing by the book: I imagine that having the skills and passion of an oral storyteller must be so helpful when it comes to doing author events…
Lari Don: I think being comfortable performing and talking about stories is really helpful when it comes to promoting books, and I do enjoy it. You can’t really know what children find exciting or dramatic or emotional or funny until you actually tell them stories, read them passages, and chat to them about their own stories and writing. So while I try very hard not to use children’s ideas in my own writing (I’d rather they turned those ideas into stories themselves) I do find working in schools and libraries and at book festivals very inspiring. I might love a story, but it doesn’t come alive when I tell it, then it clearly doesn’t work (in that form) with kids. But if I tell a story and the hall is silent, and when I finish the hands fly up with questions and ideas, then I know it works. Those are the stories that made it into Breaking the Spell!
And that works for fiction writing too. I often read out drafts to kids (usually whatever I was writing on the train to the event) and get feedback. Kids are wonderfully honest!
Lari Don at the recent Tidelines Book Festival
Playing by the book: What’s the best (/strangest) question you’ve ever been asked at an author event?
Lari Don: There are quite a lot, but probably the most surprising and hardest to answer was when I was asked which of my own children I would feed to a monster (if forced, like the characters in the dragon story I’d just told, to choose one.) I didn’t feel able to give a definitive answer to that question, instead I threw it open to general philosophical debate.
Playing by the book: Ha! That was cleverly done
How do you create a working balance between actual writing and promotion (ie author events)?
Lari Don: I love this question. If you ever find the author who has got that balance right, I’d love to hear how they do it! I reckon I juggle four things: Writing, which I love. Events with kids, which I also love, and which may take time and energy but also repay me in inspiration, and in time to write and think and read while travelling. Online promotion, which I often enjoy (hello booklovers out there!) but which does seem to take up an expanding amount of time. And I’m also a mum, so I occasionally try to spend time with my own kids. It often feels like I have four full-time jobs, and that I’m not giving quite enough time to any of them. But I know that most writers (and most working mums!) feel the same… However I am passionate about stories, about writing them and sharing them, which makes being a kids’ writer, with all its pressures and contradictions, the best job in the world for me.
Playing by the book: I’ve read you love editing and I’m intrigued by this – I think quite a lot of writers, especially early in their career, find editing terribly difficult – as if it is throwing away lots of hard work. What do you love about editing? And how does this effect your relationship with your editors at your publishers?
Lari Don: Ah. I do love editing. And I think it’s because of how I write. Especially when I’m writing adventure books, the fiction that I base on Scottish magic and landscape, I really do just make it up as I go along. I work out the plot and the characters’ reactions and the dialogue and the resolution as I go. I just point the characters in the direction of a problem, put lots of obstacles in their way, and follow along with them to see what happens. It is a wonderfully exciting way to write, but fairly chaotic.
So when I reach the end of the story I have usually written a long journey with many winding detours, and I have to go back and slash it to bits. I have to turn a meandering stroll into a sharp pacy adventure. And that can mean losing thousands or even tens of thousands of words. (I gather that writers who plan don’t have to do this! But do they have has much fun on the way?) I think of editing as finding the story in among all the words. It is really satisfying, especially when everything joins up and makes sense, and particularly when I know I have written something original that I could simply not have planned, because it grew organically out of the characters’ journey.
I also enjoy the final edit, when I am making sure that I am telling the story (shorter and tighter as it now is) in the best possible words. I get very nitpicky at that point and will read the same sentence a dozen times or more until I’m happy.
None of this feels like throwing away hard work. It feels like refining and perfecting, and making all the hard work shine.
And I have no idea how this affects my relationship with editors, because it’s the only way I know how to do it. I do love working with editors though, because a good editor tends to ask awkward questions about the plot, and I find answering those questions always makes the book stronger.
An illustration by Cate James from ‘Breaking the Spell’. Used with permission.
Genuine locations all over Scotland feature in your books, a device I think can really pull readers and listeners in, making the story even more real in their heads and hearts. I’m rather envious of you being able to use research as an “excuse” to explore Scotland. What do you love about your country and where is your favourite place in Scotland?
Lari Don: These are such challenging questions – you’ve clearly done your research! It is a contradiction, isn’t it? Setting is so important to my writing, because all my novels and most of the stories in Breaking the Spell are set in very specific geographical areas; yet I don’t like wasting my time or the readers’ time with lots of flowery description.
It was easy in Breaking the Spell, because I could trust Cate James’ illustrations to create the forests and mountains… But in the novels, it is more of a contradiction. What I usually say to kids who feel they ought to spend the first three paragraphs of any story describing the scenery and weather before getting to any exciting action (especially when someone has asked them to ‘set the scene’) is that I tend to describe scenery only while my characters are being chased through it! (That’s not completely true, but it’s a good goal to aim for!)
What do I love about Scotland? What does anyone love about their home? I love so many things about Scotland… The fact that the landscape looks great even in the rain has to be one of the main things. And Scotland has produced lots of very magical stories, which may grow out of our historical mix of cultures and influences, and I feel very lucky to be surrounded by so much inspiration.
Lari Don at Smoo Cave, Sutherland, Scotland.
Deciding on my favourite place in Scotland is not hard at all. When I researched Storm Singing, an adventure novel based in cliffs and caves in the north of Scotland, I spent a freezing cold February weekend in the county of Sutherland, in the very far north west of Scotland. I wrote notes on snow-covered beaches, wearing two pairs of gloves. (So my notes were almost unreadable when I got home.) And I fell in love with the area, with the silence and the emptiness and the amazing rocks. I’ve been back to Sutherland on holiday every year since. Many of my books and stories are set in bits of Scotland I already loved (three of the Breaking the Spell stories are set on or near Skye for example, and First Aid for Fairies takes a trip up to Orkney) but Sutherland is somewhere I discovered because I was setting a book there, and I will always be grateful to the local seal legends for that!
Playing by the book: So, given the love of landscape, what about the language? Do you ever write in Scots?
Lari Don: Not often. Like many people, as a child, I spoke one language in the playground and learnt to write another in the classroom, and so while I can speak Scots, I naturally write in English. Many of the words I use in telling stories out loud are Scots, but when I come to write them down, I can’t help translating into English. I’m not really sure how I feel about that habit. It does lose a bit of the flavour of the language, but it also makes the stories more accessible outside Scotland! I fought off that tendency to write ‘proper’ in one of the stories in Breaking the Spell though – there’s a rhyme in Whuppity Stoorie which is written exactly as I speak it. I wonder how many readers will understand every word of it? But so long as readers get the jist of it, that will be fine for keeping the story rolling along!
Playing by the book: And now one last, very different question. You were involved in student politics, and then used to work for the SNP – what are your thoughts on the independence refendum? Lari Don: I am a little bit involved in the referendum campaign – mainly as someone campaigning on doorsteps in my local area, when I can. But I also recently took part in a debate at the Edinburgh Book Festival about young voters and the referendum campaign (the Scottish government has voted to allow 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote on Scotland’s future.) And I am campaigning for Yes, for an independent Scotland.
However my desire for independence has nothing to do with my love of Scotland’s landscape and magical legends, and far more to do with my hopes for Scotland’s future. I am a strong believer in self-determination, and that definitely does affect what I write. I believe that children in books should solve their own problems without adults appearing at the last minute to sort things out, and that girls in fairy tales should defeat their own dragons without waiting for a prince to turn up and save them. On the same basis, I think that a small country with its own resources should be able to solve its own problems and build its own future, and not have to rely on a 300 year old political union which can never democratically represent us. (But I also believe very strongly in choice, and will be delighted if lots of young people debate the issues, get involved and turn out to vote – however they vote!)
Playing by the book: Thank you, Lari, it’s been a pleasure interviewing you.
Lari Don: What wonderful questions! Thank you very much!
Scotland has been missing some good superheroes recently, and especially giant hulking shirtless ginger ones. Luckily that’s all changed thanks to Saltire, a new character created by writer John Ferguson, who’ll be the star of a series of graphic novels over the next few years. A proud Scot, Saltire is a centuries-spanning hero who starts in Roman times and fights for Scottish pride from then onwards.
Drawn by Gary Welsh and Tone Julskjaer, the first graphic novel ‘Invasion’ is out now in the UK, and will be arriving in the US later this year. A best-selling title in Scotland, Saltire marks a creator-owned attempt to revitalise superheroes, and a follow up called Saltire: Annihilation is promised for the near future. I spoke to John recently about the series – and more specifically, about the character himself. Who is Saltire? Is the World ready for a Ginger superhero? Read on to find out!
Steve: What is the basic concept of Saltire? What is the book about?
John: Saltire is the immortal protector of Scotland and Invasion is the first in a graphic novel series set in a pseudo history of the country that takes the reader through some of the great legends and myths, and the most climatic moments of it’s past. He’s big, he’s blue and he’s ginger, with quite an iconic superhero visual.
The first book is set in ancient history and tells of the famous Roman Ninth Legion, who have had many books and films in the last few years, championing their heroism. This however, comes from the Scottish perspective of an invading Imperial force to a peaceful land. The book also includes the origin story of Saltire, “Inception”, which explains the background to his creation and his reason for being.
Steve: To that regard, the book starts in post-Roman times. How did you decide the timeframe for the series? Without spoiling anything, the character *is* immortal.
John: To be honest, the history of Scotland dictated the time frame. So many amazing events have happened in its past that we wanted Saltire to cover them all, so we had to make him immortal.
Steve: There’s been a slight misreporting of the character – you call him “the first Scottish hero” and so people have raced to the internet to write about pre-existing characters like Wolfsbane and Ghost Girl (no? just me on that one?) Yet what you’re actually saying is that the book goes back in time chronologically before any other Scottish hero existed – Saltire is the first superhero in Scottish recorded history. Is that about right? I just wanted to clear that up!
John: Actually there has never been a lead comic book superhero from Scotland or a series set in Scotland, only comic strips, or characters who are supplanted into America like Wolfsbane or Fantastic Four’s Caledonia. So Saltire is first in a few ways. We know comic book fans like a good debate and I’m sure it will carry on for a while yet.
The World of Saltire
Steve: The book is full of Scottish mythology, both real and (I think!) invented. Scottish mythology is not a subject which has been explored in comics, particularly. Was that part of the appeal of writing the story: that you could delve into this dense mythology?
John: Actually none of the mythology is invented. It is all based in some sort of belief or legend from the Picts, Scots or Gaels, with just a little tweaking to fit it all together as a cohesive world. Telling the story of Scotland’s legends and folklore in a modern, dynamic way is a huge undertaking, but it’s hugely enjoyable and the first book has been selling out all over the country.
Steve: Were there any particular myths or folk stories that you knew you particularly wanted to touch upon? It would have been tempting, I imagine, to immediately throw in Nessie and The Stone of Destiny and all the most famous references, but you hold back here.
John: Absolutely. The tale of Scotland’s otherworld (the spirit world) and the folk tales of the Blue Stones are central to the Saltire series. The records of Scotland’s history were destroyed twice, so our own past quite often reads like mythology because it is fairly unknown. This is not the story of tartan, bagpipes and haggis.
Steve: So what defines Saltire as a character? What’s his personality, what’s his ambition – what is he looking to achieve?
John: In a word, Scottishness. He’s aggressive, protective, believes in liberty and freedom but he has his flaws and one major weakness, one that Scotland is famous for. His ambition and purpose is to see the people of Scotland live in freedom and peace. Saltire will hibernate for centuries in times of peace, meditating under the mountains, to be called upon through the ancient Stone of Destiny, when a threat to the nation is at hand.
Steve: Am I right in thinking the design for the character was run as a competition, and that artists Gary Welsh and Tone Julskjaer won said competition? What was it about their art which appealed to your sense of the character?
John: The prestigious Duncan of Jordanstone Art College in Dundee produces many of Scotland’s finest artists and also champion’s comic books and animation, so running a competition through them seemed logical. Gary and Tone have a great mix of dynamics and artistry and they have really captured the feel of Scotland and its scenery. It is a very beautiful style and looks different to the traditional Marvel and DC superhero style.
Steve: Did you deliberately want to find emerging talent from Dundee University – which hosted the competition – to help design the concept of Saltire? To make him contemporary as well as rooted in Scottish history?
John: We want Saltire to become quite iconic and recognisable, particularly in Scotland but also into the rest of the English speaking world. We don’t want Saltire to be seen as an old fashioned sword and sandals comic. Our artists will always look to bring a contemporary feel to all the books.
Steve: How did you pick the name for the character – ‘Saltire’?
John: “Saltire” is the name of the national flag but its etymology is ambiguous so we like to think the flag was named after the character in our pseudo history.
Steve: What are your plans with the character following Saltire: Invasion? Will you be continuing on for more stories with him?
John: Yes, the next book Saltire Annihilation is our later this year and is a bit of an epic, set in the dark ages of Scotland and Saltire has to deal with the threat of the Anglo Saxons and the legendary Ban Sith. We have four or five books in development. The script of the third book is almost complete.
Steve: How can people find copies of the book? Are there plans to make it available for a US audience?
John: The book is widely available in book shops and comic book shops in the UK, and is one of the bestselling graphic novels in Scotland. We are looking forward to getting Saltire Invasion released in the US later this year along with a digital version for those unable to pick up a hard copy. Invasion and Annihilation may end up with consecutive releases for the international market. Currently the book is available online worldwide on Amazon and directly from Diamondsteel Comics.
Steve: Do you have anything else coming up? Where can we find you – and Saltire – online?
John: We’ll be releasing the first book in Scots and Gaelic language editions later in the year, which allows people in Scotland to read the book in all of the countries languages. A lot of people with Scottish ancestry, particularly in North America, are keen to read new material in these languages, so it’s creating a bit of a buzz.
“When twelve-year-old Colt Humboldt’s dad drags the two of them from perfectly good Dallas to ancient Edinburgh for a “fresh start,” Colt knows e’s in for a long, boring summer. Fat chance. That very first night, the peculiar Alesone and her little brother Peer crawl out of Colt’s closet, begging for his help to save their family from a horrible fate. Unfortunately, the instructions for doing so are contained in a fickle book that lies to make it up as it goes. Worse, those instructions give this ragged trio one week to journey across Scotland in a impossible adventure to capture three treasures—treasures fiercely protected by a hidden, treacherous world determined to see Colt fail . . . preferably by death. But if Colt and his new friends can survive a horror novel come-to-life, a madman and his minions, a disagreeable folklore legend, and the shocking discovery of just why Alesone and Peter are so odd . . . Well, the next wo treasures won’t come so easily.
“The flight attendant standing along the curb resembled a ripe blueberry volcano about to blow its top, thought 12-year-old Colt Humboldt from the backseat of the taxi. Her head-to-toe blue uniform appeared dangerously close to its design limits, with a blue cap squeezed over short blonde curls and three very prominent chins squeezing out of her collar.”
Not long after Colt’s mother died in a tragic automobile accident—which Colt survived—his dad accepts a position at the Edinburgh Zoo. Colt is not happy about moving from Dallas to Scotland. He chooses The Keepers room for his bedroom, not knowing the room’s history. This begins the history kids will learn about while reading the book. There are many pieces of knowledge inside the story, the biggest being the black plague that wiped out many in Europe.
What Colt thinks are ghosts awakens him the first night. These “ghosts” are actually two kids from the 1645. Alesone and her five-year-old brother Peter are running from the soldiers who want them back into the close in which the government has trapped all the inhabitants, thinking it will stop the black plague. The two kids are after a cure for their parents. To get the cure and passage back to their own time period, they must complete three missions, which get progressively harder and more dangerous. Colt agrees to help them. He is smitten on Alesone and bored without his friends.
Peter, Alesone & Colt
Throughout the story, Colt must explain items that are commonplace in the twenty-first century but unheard of in the 1600’s. Many appear to be magic to the two kids. Peter has a habit of smashing things he does not understand, like alarm clocks and television sets. Five-year-old Peter experiences his first sugar high after a breakfast of Frosted Flakes™. He loves the cereal so much he sneaks a box home with him. Sugar highs are not common in the 1600’s as they are now. Peter also likes Colt’s Dallas Cowboys helmet, which took an arrow, saving the boy’s life on one journey.
Peter is an interesting character. He never utters a word, is very resilient, and handy in some of the sticky situations the three kids get into. Pretty good for s five-year-old out of his element. Peter also supplies much of the humor. I did think it odd that Alesone, a bright girl, is oblivious to the changes from her world to Colt’s. It takes her quite a while to accept that she is not in her 1645 world, as she continues to search for a pastor from 1645 and runs from/is afraid of the present day police who have no interest in Alesone or Peter.
Kids who like adventures with fantasy and humor mixed in will love Colt Humboldt. I read the 445 pages in two sittings, staying up late at night. If I were a kid, I would have taken a flashlight to bed just to keep reading the book. I love the characters. They are easy to care about and actually fun to root on as they continue searching for the three items needed to send Alesone and Peter back home. Nothing is what it seems on these journeys. Some of the secondary characters suddenly pop up, instantly twisting the story. Colt Humboldt is not difficult to understand or keep track of these twists and turns, but one does need to pay attention.
Much of the humor comes from Alesone and Peter being out of place in Colt’s world. He has no idea why they are so surprised by much of what they encounter, not knowing for a long time where the two kids have come from. All he knows is their parents will die if they do not collect the three treasures the Brown Man requires. The Brown Man of the Muirs (folklore) is but one of the folklore and creatures of Scotland legends included in the story. The true villain will be quite a surprise. Though the big villain in Alesone’s world, Mr. Vermyne, is rather easy given his name. He is a rat all right. Vermyne is one of those twists that will surprise you, yet make sense.
Mr. Anderson’s writing is excellent. Colt Humboldt and the Close of Death is the first of a series of adventures involving Colt. I am anxious to read the next volume. I love the way Anderson told Colt’s first story, though he could have made this into three books. A nearly 500-page book, with multitudes of folklore creatures, can look rather daunting to some middle graders. The pacing is great and the adventures are believable, though the last mission is a tough fight. Kids are in for a wonderful ride. A publisher would be very smart to get Anderson under contract. Colt Humboldt, with some high-powered marketing, and focused publicity should take flight right onto the bestseller list where it belongs. It is that good. Colt Humboldt is also T. A. Anderson’s debut.
Who even is Emily and where did she go? Those are the first two questions that spring into the mind when reading ‘And Then Emily Was Gone’ by John Lees, Iain Laurie, Megan Wilson and Colin Bell. A mystery series which quickly leaps into the horrific and fantastical without a word of warning, this month sees the book head out into the previews catalogue. The first series published by ComixTribe, the series was originally published last year in black and white – however, for this second time round, it’ll be in full colour. Each member of the creative team is known for their own work, making this a bit of a Scottish supergroup thing – like The Reindeer Section! Lees is probably best known for writing superhero series ‘The Standard’, and Laurie for a whole load of books including Metrodome and Horror Mountain. Wilson can also be seen colouring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,whilst Bell is the writer of Dungeon Fun and owner of Dogooder Comics. They’re busy people.
But they all very kindly took the time to talk to The Beat about ‘And Then Emily Was Gone’ – delving into all aspects of the creation of the book, and the journey it’s been on. With the first issue about to launch at Glasgow Comic-Con this weekend, it felt like the perfect time to take a closer look at the series. Read on!
How did you meet each other, specifically for this project? And what was it that made this the project you decided to collaborate on?
JOHN: Well, I’ve been a fan of Iain’s for years, so I’d been wanting to work with him for some time: it a quite large-scale anthology with a pretty big publisher interested, and had enjoyed that taste of the partnership. So, when that project stalled, Iain and I decided we were going to develop a comic of our own to work on together. And so what made this the project we decided to collaborate on is that, from the ground up, it was something we cooked up together as essentially our dream project, a mash-up of a whole bunch of ideas and influences that we shared a passion for.
IAIN: I saw a copy of The Standard and was really impressed. I was trying to move away from the more experimental stuff I’d done with Craig Collins or on my own with Powwkipsie and Horror Mountain, and I thought John would be the best guy to do that with. Luckily he wanted to do something with me. In terms of collaborating on this, it’s very much everything that both of us are into thrown into a meat grinder really.
Where did your respective interest in horror stories come from?
JOHN: I’ve loved horror for as long as I can remember. Monster Squad was an early favourite film in my house, and one of the earliest toys I can remember having was of Frankenstein’s Monster. Me and my cousin were equally mad for scary movies at a very young age when we really should have been watching cartoons, and while other kids were playing Cops & Robbers or Soldiers or whatever, my cousin and I would play “Horrors,” where he’d pretend to be Freddy Krueger and I’d pretend to be Chucky from Child’s Play, and we’d take turns murdering invisible victims. I had a very happy childhood, it was only fucked-up in retrospect!
IAIN: I’m not a huge horror guy in the traditional sense but a lot of what I do is influenced by being a teenage Stephen King fan. I really like the idea of the horror beneath the surface stuff he was so good at. And that also plays into my love of David Lynch too. But most modern horror leaves me pretty cold.
Is it difficult to translate a horror experience to comics? Is there still a capacity to shock and startle within a comic page?
IAIN: If I’ve got a technique its always to try and make something that looks like a normal comic but isn’t, so your mind traditionally expects a certain progression of the story and framing choices – close-up, wide shot – that reflect the story and the intentions of the writer and artist. By refusing to follow this it unsettles the reader. So if you have a really intense scene where you would expect a close up if you instead use a long shot it throws you and you’re not sure why. Hopefully that makes sense a bit.
JOHN: It’s certainly a challenge. Much of the power of horror books comes from the words inspiring you to imagine in your head something far more terrifying than any visual that can be reproduced, but comics are a visual medium and so you have to create something that’s as terrifying as what the reader pictures in their mind’s eye in order to be successful. Meanwhile, in horror films, so much of the scares come from the use of sound – be it atmospheric sound design or a Luton bus jump-scare – and with comics that’s a whole box of tools that just isn’t at your disposal. But I think it is still possible for a horror comic to frighten. Just look at manga cartoonist Junji Ito, in my opinion the master of comics horror. With a combination of expert pacing and skin-crawling imagery he’s been able to make some really scary comics.
In the American comics industry there’s been a flourishing of genuinely frightening horror in recent years, with Echoes by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Severed by Scott Snyder, Scott Tuft and Attila Futaki immediately springing to mind. I think something that is an effective strategy in horror across all mediums is to make your audience uncomfortable, to make them feel like they’re in a world that isn’t quite right and where something horrible could be waiting around the corner.
And that’s what we’ve tried to do with And Then Emily Was Gone: create a comic that reads like a bad dream, drifting gradually deeper into nightmare.
What has the collaborative process been like, as a whole, for the story? Were there any points where you surprised each other with where you took the narrative?
JOHN: Working with Iain Laurie has been an absolute joy. Because we co-created this comic and developed it together, when I was scripting each issue I constantly had an eye to thinking up stuff I, as a fan of Iain’s, would be excited to see him draw. Some of that was hoping to stretch him and have him tackle stuff that was a little different than his previous output, but a big part of it was relishing in writing “Iain Laurie’s Greatest Hits,” repurposing some of the most notable recurring motifs in Iain’s unique body of work.
But even so, Iain has managed to constantly thrill and surprise me in the pages he’s sent back, taking my weird ideas and pushing them so much further into the realm of bonkers invention. There’s one page in issue #1 where the script says, “Close-up of Hellinger, looking worried,” and what I got back was this jaw-dropping collage of Greg Hellinger and the monsters that hound him. There’s been loads of experiences like that, Iain finding grimy little details between the scripted panels and blowing them up to add a whole new dimension to the storytelling, or portraying a bit-part character so powerfully that I want to go back and write a bigger role for them!
IAIN: Yeah it’s been great, and I’m not the easiest person to work with as I’m sure anyone I’ve worked with in the past will tell you. I very much like to do things my own way which can annoy writers and I totally get it but with John it’s been a really great time. I think were both aiming for the same things so while we might argue about directions, we both want to get to the same destination.
MEGAN: I’m jumping in here too. There is this one particular panel in issue #3 that comes to mind where John wrote something seemingly normal in the panel description and what Iain translated it to was hilariously bizarre. It stayed true to what John’s script was trying to convey, but I have no idea where Iain came up with his interpretation of it. You guys completely feed off of each other and it turns into this wonderfully charming collaborative thing and I wish everyone could see the scripts to really see this dynamic.
COLIN: Having known Iain and John and their respective work prior to Emily it’s been really fun to watch the two of them bounce off each other and see the effect this has on what they produce. Iain’s artwork, at least for the first couple of issues, is the most restrained I’ve ever seen from him, played totally straight - and I mean no disrespect to the vast body of his wild work that we all fell in love with prior. It’s like there’s an insanity, caged, just bristling to get out, and it’s unnerving – which is the desired effect, I’m sure. Meanwhile, John’s scripts feel like Iain’s work has goaded him to being the most evil, terrifying, horrific version of himself. It’s fascinating. We should get to what that narrative actually is. The story starts off with a series of disconnected strands, but the core of it is a mystery disappearance. How did you approach structuring the series? Did you start off with this central mystery, and build around it?
JOHN: While that central mystery of “Where is Emily Munro?” is the through-line that spans across the series, I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to say that the whole story is built around it. While we’ve billed And Then Emily Was Gone as a horror mystery, I’d certainly say the pendulum progressively swings more and more towards horror as the narrative unfolds. While I love a good whodunnit, I feel like the problem with many serialised mysteries is that they are most interesting at the beginning and the end, while what happens in between can be a lot of going through the motions with false leads and red herrings. I wanted to avoid that here, so I’d say it was more the desolate atmosphere of Nordic dramas like The Killing that we incorporated rather than the plot mechanics.
What interested me was the notion of stepping away from that procedural element, and crafting a mystery that would only become more horrifying and unknowable the deeper you dig into it. I’d say the focus is more on the characters and their deeply damaged headspaces. If anything, it was them – Hellinger, Fiona, Vin – that were our starting point, fully formed as individuals, and the plotting from there was more about what dark places we wanted to take those characters.
What prompted the idea of incorporating Scottish folklore into the story? Was part of your intent to make this a uniquely Scottish storyline?
JOHN: It certainly was for me. I wrote a graphic novel called Black Leaf, in the process of being drawn by Garry McLaughlin, which was another Scottish horror, set in the Scottish Highlands. And Then Emily Was Gone takes place on a remote island community in Orkney. I just feel like Scotland is such a fascinating, diverse country with locations rich in storytelling potential that has been largely untapped. And given that Iain and I (and Colin) are Scottish, why not make the most of that and inject a unique flavour into our comic that might set it apart from its American counterparts?
Iain, I read your interview with Multiversity where you said that your artwork was inspired by, amongst other things, Reeves and Mortimer. And it’s noticeable – they have that same mix of dark comedy, surrealism and a little horror which marks your style. How have you found the balance of horror and comedy within the story? Is it a difficult line to balance?
IAIN: Yeah, I’m pretty open about the fact that the biggest influences on my work are Reeves And Mortimer, David Lynch, Dennis Potter. Creepy blue-collar surrealism. In terms of Emily, I don’t really see any comedy in there. Other people have told me they find it funny but I’m never going for that. To me it’s a bit like Chris Morris’ JAM in the sense that some people found it hilarious (me) while others thought they were watching something really disturbing. One of the more interesting things about the way you structure page layouts is how much negative space you leave. There are several points where you ‘skip’ a panel, essentially [you can see this in the below images]. Was this a conscious design choice on your part?
IAIN: Yeah absolutely. This plays into my earlier answer of throwing the reader off by not giving them the panel or the facial expression they expect. Again, I take a lot of this from film directors. My drawing styles got a million influences from Ken Reid to Frank Quitely to Peter Howson but my framing is very much influenced by movies rather than comics.
There are a series of strange characters in the book, marked by Iain’s sense of facial design. Where do you begin with a character? Do you bounce ideas back and forth – the scripted personality affecting the design, the design then deepening or changing the scripting, and so on?
JOHN: I would say the process of character design was very much a symbiotic one. With the main characters, Iain and I started off by talking about them, their role in the story and their personalities. Based on that Iain did some sketches, which were so evocative that they’d further inform those characters and give them a voice in my head. And that translated into how I’d write them in the script. Then when it came time to draw them on the page, Iain would often further refine his design of those characters based on how I’d written them.
With supporting characters who we perhaps discussed less beforehand, and whose roles in the scripts were more limited and functional, so much of their personality comes from how Iain draws them. There’s no such thing as a background character in Iain’s artwork: every character, even ones who only appear in one panel, has a story written into their faces. A lot of the time, it’s hard to tell where I end and Iain begins when it comes to these characters… we’re like a comic Human Centipede!
There was a certain starkness in the black and white version of the series. What prompted you to bring in Megan Wilson as colourist?
JOHN: It was actually Nick Pitarra’s idea! Iain and I had originally envisioned the comic as being black-and-white, and had produced the first issue with that in mind. Iain had been showing pages to Nick, who’s been incredibly supportive of the book and a major cheerleader for us. While we thought this would be a little personal comic destined for the British small press scene, Nick was perhaps the first person to suggest that And Then Emily Was Gone could work in the American market, and that colouring it would make it more appealing to that demographic.
And so he suggested letting Megan Wilson, who he’d worked with before, try her hand at coloring. And the rest is history. Looking at the book now, with Megan’s spectacular covers and how they compliment Iain’s art, I can’t imagine the series without her now.
IAIN: Yeah, Megan’s amazing. I love how her stuff complements my drawing.
MEGAN: This is probably a weird part of the interview for me to add to, but whatever. You guys always have such wonderfully nice things to say in interviews about me and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to chime in, so I just wanted to add that YOU guys are amazingly talented and infectiously enthusiastic and I’d be happy to work with you forever and always. What do you think the transition to colour lends the book?
JOHN: Megan has become an integral part of the creative team. She’s the ideal tag team partner for Iain, as her colouring seems to fit Iain’s art like a glove onto a gnarled, clawed hand. When I’ve seen Iain’s stuff coloured in the past, it sometimes seems like the effect has been to mute the weirdness of the linework and make things a bit smoother and more palatable. Not so for Megan, who has brought this askew, almost rotten aesthetic to the colours with sickly, grainy shades that actually accentuates the inherent “Laurieness” of the image. Looking at the book now, with Megan’s spectacular colours and how perfectly they compliment Iain’s art, I can’t imagine the series without her.
IAIN: Yeah exactly. It just plays into how I want the book to be read, beautifully. She’s a wee genius.
Megan, is it daunting to work colours on a comic which has previously been released in black and white, or do you enjoy that challenge?
MEGAN: I live in the US and have still never seen a hardcopy of the B&W version so I actually hadn’t thought about this before – of course I’ve seen the original B&W as digital, but I suppose that doesn’t have the same impact since scans are always my starting point.
It can be daunting to realize there is an existing fan base and that you could do something that they completely hate, but I elbowed my way into the project because I loved it and wanted to be a part of it, so I guess the worrying part became somewhat irrelevant (notice I didn’t say non-existent!). But yeah, I guess I’m up to the challenge!
How did you develop the colour palette for the series? What were your aims as a storyteller?
MEGAN: I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I didn’t really develop a specific palette for this, I just kind of make it up as I go. I’ll go back and grab colours off of pages from earlier pages as needed for consistency, but other than that, it’s pretty much a free for all. From a storytelling perspective, to me this felt like an escalating fever-dream, and so the colours start to get a little more weird the further into the book you get.
And Colin, how do you approach lettering horror? Do you find that you have to work in specific ways in order to maintain or enhance that atmosphere?
COLIN: It was a conscious decision to utilise lower-case lettering because there’s a kind of innocence to it that I thought would play well against the art and lull people into a false sense of security. I can echo Megan in the sense that as the issues progress, I’m able to crank up the weird factor to accentuate what’s happening on the page. Also worth mentioning is the logo for the book. When we started we talked about these filmic covers like movie posters, and it inspired me to go down the rabbit-hole of 80s horror movie poster typography.
When there were no typefaces that really sold what we were going for (or were basic pastiches of existing horror film typography), we got Iain to scrawl the title in his own inimitable terror-screed, which I tidied up a bit, coloured and now happily slap across every cover sent my way. I feel like knowing that it’s Iain’s handwriting on them lends a kind of unity to his covers as a whole. But really it’s just my job to try and help guide the reader’s eyes where appropriate and for the most part stay the hell out of the way of Iain and Megan’s work, which I’m very happy to do.
Alternate cover for issue #1 by Riley Rossmo and Megan Wilson
There’s an interesting group of Scottish comic-makers right now, with yourselves, the Master Tape team, Team Girl Comics, Dungeon Fun, and many others. What has been your experience of this Scottish community?
JOHN: Scotland is certainly a major comics hub, and my native Glasgow is a great comics city: not just in terms of the dedicated readers – enough to support 9 comic shops, 2 comic cons and multiple marts, clubs and public events – but also in the volume and quality of creative talent. I’m a founding member and the current chairman of the Glasgow League of Writers, a kind of writing circle for comics where creators meet to discuss and critique each other’s scripts, so I get to see first-hand some of the amazing talent in the Scottish community.
Iain McGarry is a writer who’s been quietly producing some excellent short stories for various anthologies over the past year or two, and once he collects them all into a volume of his own and gets his name out there some more, he’s going to become a big deal fast, mark my words. John McCusker is like 21 years old, was totally new to writing comics when he first joined, and already he’s better than me. His debut book, The Alchemist, is in production with artist Jason Mathis, and is going to be incredible. You mentioned Master Tape, and Harry French is another guy primed to blow-up: his other series, Freak Out Squares, is even better. And Freak Out Squares artist Garry McLaughlin is also kicking ass on his own series, Gonzo Cosmic.
NeverEnding, by Stephen Sutherland and Gary Kelly, is a hidden gem of a comic which should be getting distributed by a big publisher yesterday. Gordon McLean won a SICBA award for No More Heroes, which was ace, but the stuff he’s been quietly working on since is so much better. Dungeon Fun by the sublime Neil Slorance and our own Colin Bell - the first issue was one of the best single issues produced by anyone of any level last year.
Team Girl Comics, Black Hearted Press, Unthank Comics, there’s so much going on I can’t hope to cover it all.
IAIN: Yeah, there’s so much interesting and diverse stuff coming out of Glasgow, and I think John’s covered most of it. I live in Edinburgh and older than most people in that group but they’ve always been really welcoming and friendly to me.
MEGAN: I’m completely jealous of the vibe you guys have got going on over there. Can someone please adopt me so I can be Scottish too?
JOHN: Working on this comic has made you an honorary Scot, Megan!
COLIN: Congratulations Megan! The Broons are your Gods now. My experience of the community has been nothing short of lovely. Everyone’s dead nice. And talented! I could sit here for ages and reel off so many Scots comickers deserving of attention we’ve not mentioned yet - Craig Collins, Edward Ross, Stephen Goodall’s IMR, Chris Baldie and Holley Mckend’s Never Ever After… there’s LOTS.
Do you feel there is a movement in Scotland, and the UK as a whole, where different groups of creators are all starting to rise up together? Even Colin Bell?
IAIN: Colin Bell is the sun we all revolve around.
COLIN: Shucks. But also, correct.
JOHN: EVEN Colin Bell!? He’s going to hit the big-time quicker than any of us. He’s already a comics mogul who seems to have lettered just about every comic in Scotland and now half the comics in the UK as a whole. As for whether or not there’s a movement with groups of creators all rising together, I’d say, “yes and no.”
Yes, there are many indie creators – both in Scotland and the UK as a whole – on the cusp of breaking out, producing quality work, and I take pleasure in seeing their successes, but ultimately everyone is doing their own work, and I think most would rather get recognition based on the merits of that work rather than through riding the wave of a movement. Though I’d say the one exception is that I’m happy to ride on Iain Laurie’s coattails to comics glory!
How did ‘And Then Emily Was Gone’ find a way across to ComixTribe, who’ll be publishing this five-issue run?
JOHN: I worked with ComixTribe on my debut comic, The Standard, and that experience has been a pleasure and a privilege. You won’t find a more passionate, professional group of people than Tyler James, Steven Forbes, Joe Mulvey, Samantha LeBas and co at ComixTribe, and they’re super-nice people too. Anyone who works with them once would want to work with them again in a heartbeat, so when the opportunity presented itself I jumped at the chance to pitch And Then Emily Was Gone to them.
They’re the kind of publisher who will get behind their titles and their creators 100%, and given that a comic as weird and out-there as And Then Emily Was Gone might not be the easiest sell, I wanted that kind of support network behind us. ComixTribe took a chance on us, and thankfully that seems to have paid off, as initial Diamond order numbers suggest that And Then Emily Was Gone #1 will be the biggest first issue Diamond launch they’ve ever published!
How do you feel about the story, as a whole now, looking back across it as it heads to the new colour printing
IAIN: Well I’m still drawing #5, so I’ve not had time to reflect yet!
JOHN: Looking back at the story as a whole now, which at the time of this interview has been 100% written and 80% drawn, I’d say this could be the proudest I’ve been of any comic I’ve ever created. I don’t know, choosing between this and The Standard is like choosing between my children! But with The Standard, right from the beginning I approached it with this goal of escalation, of having every issue be better than the last building up to a blow-out final issue that was the best of the bunch. And I think I’ve been consistent with that in my approach to And Then Emily Was Gone.
Looking back, as a reader, I feel like each issue is not only better than what came before, but darker too, scarier, and by the time you get to the last couple of issues hopefully it’ll be a bit of an onslaught. As I touched on above, the story starts relatively grounded, but steadily gets scarier and more bonkers with each passing chapter!
MEGAN: I’m in last place here (colouring #4) and I have no idea what happens in #5 yet since I have been purposefully not reading ahead so I can experience the story and art together. That being said, I’m really excited to see how this all wraps up!
COLIN: Well, I’m after Megan, but having been in the Glasgow League of Writers I’ve been privy to the scripts for the whole series. I’m still recovering.
What are you working on next? Where can people find you online?
JOHN: I’ve got more work with ComixTribe on the horizon. I’m currently co-writing Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare with Tyler James. It’s a spin-off from Tyler’s comic series The Red Ten, taking the villain from that book – masked psychopath The Oxymoron – and removing all superhero trappings and dropping him into more of a crime procedural milieu where regular cops have to deal with this larger-than-life, monstrous master criminal. Alex Cormack is on art duties, and the pages I’ve seen thus far are delightful. Looking further ahead, Iain and I have also been talking about further collaborations, since we had such a blast working together on this.
Remember, And Then Emily Was Gone #2 is currently available to order in this month’s Previews, order-code JUN141021, and you should still be able to order issue #1 – due for release July 30th – with the order-code MAY141251!
IAIN: Next thing for me is a story with Sam Read (Exit Generation) for Grayhaven, then a Standard story with John and a few other things in the wings with Owen Johnson (Raygun Roads) and Tim Daniel (Curse) hopefully. And then onto the sequel to Emily: AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE AGAIN, where they all go on holiday to Spain!
Many thanks to the whole of the creative team for being so generous with their time in the interview. I hope you enjoyed it! As mentioned above, issue #1 of And Then Emily Was Gone will be released on July 30th.
The Scottish Election of 2011 represents a watershed in Scottish politics. For the first time the Scottish National Party has come convincingly in first place, securing the absolute majority that was supposed to be impossible under proportional representation. Labour, having dominated Scottish politics for over fifty years, suffered a crushing defeat, losing seats even in its industrial heartland of Clydeside. Both of the parties of the ruling coalition of Westminster are reduced to minor players at Holyrood, without even the leverage that small parties enjoyed in the last parliament.
The immediate reason for the SNP triumph is clear; the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote to less than half the previous level. What is less clear is why these voters should shift to the SNP and not to Labour. The answer lies in the changed nature of Scottish politics and the failure of Labour to adapt. They seemed to think that this was a ‘second order election’, in which voters use the opportunity to reward or punish the central government, irrespective of the local issues at play. Doubtless this was influenced by their good performance in Scotland in the UK election last year. So Ed Miliband and Ed Balls arrived in Scotland to tell electors that this was a chance to send a message to David Cameron and the coalition in London. This was not, however, a UK election and Scottish voters have learned the difference, being prepared to vote one way for Westminster and another way for Holyrood. Three of the four main parties in Scotland represent varieties of social democracy, so they have plenty of choice and nobody can take their votes for granted. Add to this the greater pulling power of Alex Salmond and the rather unplayed SNP message that they have done quite well in office (‘nae bad’ in Salmond’s words) and the campaign became quite one-sided. In the course of a six-week campaign, a Labour lead of 13 per cent, carried over from the UK election, was transformed into an advantage of nearly 20 per cent for the SNP.
If the result of the election is clear, its consequences are much less so. The SNP commands the political landscape, with support across all parts of the country and all sections of society, but has still to decide exactly what sort of party it is. Its policy prospectus combines support for more universal services with tax cuts for business in an impossible combination. Its social democratic and neo-liberal wings have lived so far in harmony, but there are now hard budgetary choices to be made.
Similarly, on the constitution, there is a historic division between fundamentalists, who want independence tomorrow, and gradualists, many of whom would settle for stronger devolution or some kind of confederal arrangement. Since the victory of 2007 there has been a truce between them, made easier by the fact that the party lacked the parliamentary majority to bring an independence referendum about. The present strategy is to pursue both strands. The SNP have already stated their demands for more tax powers, beyond those in the Scotland Bill currently before Parliament, control of the Crown Estate, and higher borrowing limits. At the same time, a referendum is promised in the latter part of the Parliament’s five-year term.
The UK government has already indicated that it will not make an issue of the legality of a referendum but will fight hard on the matter of independence. The SNP, for its part, has to define just what independence means. In the past I have argued that this is by no means an easy question in modern Europe, where many nationalist parties have adopted a ‘post-soverei
Okay, the endless supply of lobster is not the only reason I love Wigtown Book Festival. But it is one of the reasons.
Last Friday, Stuart and took the train to Carlisle, then hired a car and drove over to beautiful Wigtown in southwest Scotland. Even thought it's a fairly small town, it has something like 20 indie bookshops and is a wonderful, cosy sort of place even when the wind is whipping down the high street.
We always stay with the excellent Mary and Angus MacIlwraith, and Stuart and Angus have been friends for 25 years. Here's a picture I drew (fairly quickly) of their farmhouse.
I think they were quite surprised when I came to breakfast in full pirate costume, and here we are, posing with Suzy the border terrier in their back garden. Thanks so much to writer Geraldine McCaughrean for lending me her Captain Hook hat! Geraldine wrote the authorised sequel to Peter Pan, called Peter Pan in Scarlet and has been working with the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust, not far from Wigtown, to create a JM Barrie centre in a lovely old house where Peter Pan took it shape. The Moat Brae Trust and Geraldine are hosting a tea party at the Wigtown festival on Thursday at 4pm and I'm very sorry to miss it!
I was very excited to meet writer and illustrator Debi Gliori for the first time and, besides doing our own events, we both gave talks together twice in front of 300 schoolkids. 600 kids is a lot of people when the town's population is only about 1200! And we were both very chuffed to see writer and illustrator Shoo Rayner, who does more school events than almost anyone I know, and has posted hundreds of how-to-draw videos on You Tube (or Shoo Tube, as he calls his channel). We spent a couple hours chatting up in the Writer's Retreat, a beautiful room above Wigtown's most central bookshop, and we got a bit silly. Here's the evidence... (not a video for children, really; sorry about that...)
Here's the actor Celia Imrie with Shoo in an oh-please-take-this-or-my-wife-will-never-believe-it shot.
Lately it's seemed that the first person I've walked into at every festival has been the tweedy besuited Stuart Kelly. I think he moderated something like 14 events at the Edinburgh Book Festival. So I couldn't help laughing when there he was, first person I saw, in the Writers' Retreat. Poor Stuart, I think he thinks I'm a bit nuts, swanning noisily into the room in my various pirate costumes. He inhabits the, ahem, very serious world of books for adults.
But enough of that. Ahoy! Jolly pirates!
Last time I was in Wigtown I met fabulous storyteller Renita Boyle, who can do absolutely anything with a guitar and silly voices, that woman is totally fearless. Here she is, leading the crew in a galloping rendition of I Know an Old Lady W
The First Hundred Thousand, by Ian Hay, is another of those slightly fictionalized, early-days-of-the-war books. And obviously it’s a bit depressing some of the time, but mostly it’s pretty funny.
This is an account of the training — and, later, the deployment — of a regiment of Scottish soldiers, and basically it does everything right. The humor works without Hay having to sacrifice detail, and I ended up with a much clearer idea than I’d had before about how the British Army was trained, and especially about how things worked once the troops got to the trenches.
My favorite bit, though, is “Olympus,” the chapter on the military bureaucracy, which I’m struggling to figure out how to describe without just pasting in a bunch of text. For one thing, it includes the concept of “losing a life” in a game long before video games were thought of. Mostly, though, it’s just funny — a complicated kind of funny that can’t be condensed into one-liners.
Basically, The First Hundred Thousand is humorous without being flippant, sad but not intrusively so, and very frequently clever. Several thumbs up.
Where is your favourite place in Scotland? What makes it special to you?
Scottish Book Trust and BBC Scotland want you to write about your favourite place in Scotland, whether it's a remote beauty spot or an urban hideaway, a famous landmark or a favourite cafe. Did you holiday there? Is it the place you got married? We want to get Scotland writing, inspired by our country's best-loved places.
Write a story, poem, song lyric, diary entry, letter or sketch about your favourite place, submit it on our website and your story could be appear in a book or be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland!
My Favourite Place in Scotland will run from 19th March to 21st August 2012, and in that time Scottish Book Trust wants to involve everyone in Scotland in building a written picture of Scotland's best-loved places.
Submissions should be made to the Scottish Book Trust website and can be written in a huge variety of different forms, such as a story, poem, song lyrics, a short play or sketch, a letter or even diary entry.
Marc Lambert, CEO of Scottish Book Trust, said: "Exploring some of Scotland's wilder places has meant a huge amount to me over the years. Scotland holds some of the most magnificent landscapes in the world. My own submission is about my favourite fishing spot, a magnificent sea loch on Lewis. But equally, one might pick an urban hideaway, a famous landmark, or a favourite café or park as the place to write about, because Scotland is a country of great variety, interest and charm.
"My Favourite Place is about channeling the inspiration Scotland gives to its people into a written tribute to its treasures, both known and unknown. We are proud to give a platform to this celebration of Scotland through writing."
Several female authors that I greatly respect (Maureen Johnson and Jennifer Weiner to name a few names) are very much against the "chick lit" label. When men write about love and romance and marriage and the drudgery of an entry-level position, it's LITERATURE. But when women do it, it gets a pink cover and is easily dismissed as "chick lit."
And they have a point. Especially because it seems that a lot of women's fiction (by which I mean written by women and having a woman as a main character) gets labeled "chick lit" and dismissed.
But "chick lit" used to mean something, and something that I think is useful. The same way that we use steampunk, high fantasy, cozy mystery, or bodice-ripper historical romance, chick lit used to mean something very specific. It was a term coined to mean a rather formulaic romance that featured the following
1. A modern setting, usually in a large city (usually New York or London) 2. A female protagonist who is late 20s/early 30s and single. She has a job, usually entry-level or administrative support, often in media/publishing 3. A current boyfriend or crush who is all wrong for her 4. Another guy that she doesn't like, but will end up being her one true love 5. Sexy times, but mostly off-page 6. A little bit of adult language 7. A lot of heart and humor 8. Overall a light, "fluffy" mood and tone.
Many people look at Bridget Jones's Diary as starting this genre. (Although this one is a bit smarter than many of the others I've read (and enjoyed) as Fielding seems to have some of Austen's gift of observation of society's foibles.)
Which is my way of saying, when I say "chick lit" (and we probably need a better term than that) I'm talking about something very specific. It's a genre that I do enjoy. Which brings us to today's review...
Jenny Porter is self-employed as a virtual assistant, determined to never have a boss again, after the dot-com she worked for went bust, with managers making out like bandits but the workers didn't get severance, or even their last pay check for hours they had already worked. One of her clients wants her to check out a failing woolens mill in the Scottish highlands.
Jenny can immediately see the mill is in dire straits, but after meeting the workers and the family that owns it, she's determined to find a way to save it, not wanting the workers there to go what she went through. Of course, this is all complicated by Ross Grant, a tourist who keeps showing up at the worst times and makes her go weak at the knees-- when she's not throwing cups of coffee at his knees. And then her boyfriend Henry shows up, determined to undo everything she's been trying to do.
I didn't like this one nearly as much as I wanted to. I liked Ross, the "tourist" who is OF COURSE Jenny's mystery client. But the problem was with Jenny and Henry. I could never figure out why Jenny was with Henry. Their relationship is
We're catching up in Scotland where the torch travelled miles and miles over land and lochs and sea. We began by chatting with Caron McPherson, manager of Waterstones in Ayr. She confessed to being ‘freakishly excited’ about the torch, which passed the shop at 10.10am.
‘I had no idea what to expect, but there was a brilliant atmosphere. As I travelled into work from Paisley, there was a good crowd all the way along the route and in the town itself. The torch had stopped briefly on its way to visit the Robert Burns Museum, where lots of people had dressed up as Robert Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter [the eponymous hero of his famous poem].’
The famous portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth
Seventeen-year old Kirsty Kane, from Saltcoats, carried the Flame to the museum, handing it on to Olympian Suzanne Otterson, 38, from Ayr, who represented Great Britain in the figure skating at the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992.
‘It was fabulous,’ said Caron. ‘Before the arrival of the torch, the sponsors had handed out drums and balloons to the children. There was a great family-orientated spirit. Then the young torch bearer ran past – and I mean he really ran. He shot past really quickly.’
Caron had decked out her window with ‘Great British Books’ in readiness for the Jubilee and Olympics celebrations. There were Olympics titles throughout the store and there had been a countdown to the torch on the store’s Facebook page.
Abbey Books in Paisley (close to Lochwinnoch, where the torch passed), commented that, ‘We were holding our annual re-enactment of the 1690 witch trials, a historical event particular to Paisley, and there were lots of jokes being bandied about that if the torch bearer lost his way, he could light the pyre to burn the witches.’
Edmund McGonigle, manager of Voltaire and Rousseau, a second-hand bookshop in Glasgow, couldn't get away from the shop to see the torch but he heard the crowds.‘My brother, who owns the shop couldn’t drive home that afternoon because of the crowds but another friend who pops in to feed the shop cat [Trevor] said that he managed to film the flame.'
Day 27 and we caught up with Anne Harkness of the Forest Bookshop in Selkirk. Anne saw the torch from the bookshop door, which has a great vantage point for the market place.
Schoolchildren in nearby Innerleithen wait for the torch
The torch coincided with Selkirk Common Riding, an annual event in the Borders in which locals ride around the town’s borders to celebrate past heroes who risked their lives to protect their towns. ‘It’s the biggest horse riding event in Europe – bigger even than the Paleo in Sienna,’ said Anne. ‘It was great to celebrate a local event alongside a national, and indeed an international, one,’ she added.
Here it comes...
Anne pointed out that the Selkirk Common Riding also remembers how, after the Battle of Flodden (in which ‘unfortunately the Scots army was defeated’), tradition has it that only one man from the town returned, bearing a captured English flag. ‘Flags are therefore an important part of the Common Riding festivities,’ said Anne and this fitted in well with the torch’s arrival. ‘The fact that the town was already excited and waving flags added to the atmosphere.’
Anne was a little disappointed that she didn’t see former Scottish athlete and Olympic 100m medal winner Allan Wells running with the torch. ‘We were expecting the torch changeover to take place in the marketplace, but it didn’t and Allan must have taken over running with the torch elsewhere along the route.’
All the same, Anne, was ‘very pleased’ to have been there and seen it.
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I’ve been following the work of Glasgow based illustrator and animator Lesley Barnes for quite sometime now. Her illustrations continue to surprise and delight me in their bright colors, geometric shapes, and often magical and mythical subject matter. Her use of patterns and repetition is extraordinary, and is a true visual treat.
Somebody has been leaving rather elaborate and well thought out paper sculptures at Scottish libraries. Whatever their intended purpose might be, they rather expand the vocabulary of illustration, to my mind. And they are apparently intent on anonymity. In this one, cavalry pours down out of a movie screen into the audience.