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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: scotland, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 46
1. Norman McLaren Centennial Celebrations Take Over Downtown Montreal and Scotland

Animation is overtaking the streets of downtown Montreal’s entertainment district, the Quartier des Spectacles, and various cities in Scotland in honor of Norman McLaren's centennial.

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2. John Ferguson on Saltire: “He’s Big, He’s Blue, and He’s Ginger” [Interview]

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!

Saltire Front Cover

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.

Saltire Map

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.

Saltire Page 16

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.

Saltire Page 19

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.

You can find us on Twitter, on  Facebook, and at our website www.diamondsteelcomics.com

-

Many thanks to John for his time! And thanks also to Clare, for arranging the interview! Saltire Invasion is available in UK stores right now.

1 Comments on John Ferguson on Saltire: “He’s Big, He’s Blue, and He’s Ginger” [Interview], last added: 4/4/2014
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3. Celebrating Scotland: St Andrew’s Day

30 November is St Andrew’s Day, but who was St Andrew? The apostle and patron saint of Scotland, Andrew was a fisherman from Capernaum in Galilee. He is rather a mysterious figure, and you can read more about him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. St Andrew’s Day is well-established and widely celebrated by Scots around the world. To mark the occasion, we have selected quotations from some of Scotland’s most treasured wordsmiths, using the bestselling Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and the Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

 

There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.
J. M. Barrie 1860-1937 Scottish writer

 

Robert Burns 1759-96 Scottish poet

 

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

 

Hugh MacDiarmid 1892-1978 Scottish poet and nationalist

 

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

 

Robert Crawford 1959– Scottish poet

 

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

 

The Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations fifth edition was published in October this year and is edited by Susan Ratcliffe. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations seventh edition was published in 2009 to celebrate its 70th year. The ODQ is edited by Elizabeth Knowles.

The Oxford DNB online has made the above-linked lives free to access for a limited time. The ODNB is freely available via public libraries across the UK. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to log-on to the complete dictionary, for free, from home (or any other computer) twenty-four hours a day. In addition to 58,000 life stories, the ODNB offers a free, twice monthly biography podcast with over 130 life stories now available. You can also sign up for Life of the Day, a topical biography delivered to your inbox, or follow @ODNB on Twitter for people in the news.

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4. The Piper

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.

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5. Secession: let the battle commence

By James Ker-Lindsay


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.

James Ker-Lindsay is Eurobank EFG Senior Research Fellow on the Politics of South East Europe at the European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of The Foreign Policy of Counter Secession: Preventing the Recognition of Contested States (2012) and The Cyprus Problem: What Everyone Needs to Know (2011), and a number of other books on conflict, peace and security in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean.

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6. An Interview with award winning author Lari Don

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.

breakingthespellfrontcoverPlaying 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.

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!

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

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

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.

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

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.

An illustration by Cate James from ‘Breaking the Spell’. Used with permission.

Playing by the book: Although pace and plot are what drives your stories, setting is clearly incredibly important too (even if _scene setting_ isn’t something you enjoy: you’ve previously said, “I haven’t got a lot of patience with scene-setting“).

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.

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!

Find out more about Lari on her website: http://www.laridon.co.uk
Read Lari’s child-friendly writing blog at http://www.laridon.co.uk/blog/
Follow Lari on Twitter @LariDonWriter
Find Lari on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/laridonwriter

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7. Sketch for today - The Wee Girly and the Orange.

Inspired today by Design-seeds.com



While I was waiting to see what would come to me, I was listening to Highland music .. and I thought of a little Scottish lassie. And I couldn't resist those oranges. What's going to happen next?

Here's the design sheet:

Let me know what you think of these little sketches ... it's a kind of a new style for me and I LOVE interpreting the pictures.

Toodles!

Hazel

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8. My Favourite Place | Scottish Book Trust

Write About Your Favourite Place In Scotland

Open to all ages...


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."

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9. In defense of Chick Lit/ Highland Fling

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...


Highland Fling Katie Fforde

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

2 Comments on In defense of Chick Lit/ Highland Fling, last added: 6/4/2012
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10. Olympic bookshop hop - Days 21 & 22 - Moorfields to Glasgow to Inverness


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.'

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11. Olympic Bookshop Hop - Day 27 - Edinburgh to Alnwick

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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12. Lesley Barnes

lesley barnes illustration

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.

lesley barnes illustration

lesley barnes illustration

lesley barnes illustration

lesley barnes illustration

lesley barnes illustration

Grain Edit recommends: Wondering Around Wandering: Work-So-Far by Mike Perry. Check it out here.




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13. Unnamed artist illustrating book-related concepts in 3D paper sculptures

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.

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14. Excerpt: The Recruit by Monica McCarty

Thanks to the publisher, here is an excerpt from Monica McCarty’s October release The Recruit.  You can preorder a copy here: The Recruit: A Highland Guard Novel

The Recruit (A Highland Guard Novel) by Monica McCarty – Excerpt

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15. islay video

Here's a card I made for my lovely studio mate, Lauren O'Farrell, who's having one of her tonsils removed today. Get well soon, Lauren!



My dad and his sister in Glasgow have been a-buzz about this video of the island where they grew up, Islay, in the Hebrides. It was filmed when he was a teenager, and he and my auntie recognise a bunch of the people in it.



It's so funny to think of my dad growing up there and talking like that. His dad was one of the three doctors on the island, and he used to go on rounds with him, so he would have seen a lot of these places. Now he's more American than the Americans. On our family visits to Islay, we've still run into people who remember his dad, and some who still speak Gaelic, which about half the kids in his school spoke as their first language. The school headmaster used to teach after-school Gaelic classes for those kids, but he could have been arrested if the government had found out. My dad has a lot of respect for him. The last time we visited, we arrived on Sept 11, 2001, which turned into a very surreal day and made for some long dinner conversations.


Two of the most colourful personalities include Burt Marshall, a hefty guy from Blackpool who owned the Machrie Hotel and golf course (which my great grandfather used to own). Mr Marshall wore a kilt every day, and almost always wore the sporan way off to the side or around the back, to keep it out of the way. His favourite phrase to use with his guests was 'If you don't like it, you can lump it', which pretty much summed up Scottish customer service of the era.

Another one was Bessie Williamson, who started out as the housekeeper for the guy who owned Laphroaig Distillery. But she got to be so good at running it that he left it to her when he died. Enter the Canadian chappie who you see at the end of the film, who says, 'I met a young lady down there...'. Dad chuckles, 'Yeah, she was 55.' Then I'm allowed to blog the rest of it. Ha ha, island gossip. He sent me this link with more history about the distillery. I love Islay whisky, but I can never forget that my grandmother used to go down the road to Bowmore Distillery with a bucket to collect raw whisky for washing her windows. (Cuts the grease like nothing else, she said.)

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16. wigtown book festival

What a fabulous weekend! On previous trips to Wigtown, Stuart and I have rated Dumfriesshire the most beautiful place in the world: the light, the hills, the stone walls, the trees... sometimes the landscape's so beautiful it almost hurts. So it was a no-brainer to accept our invitation from the Wigtown Book Festival.



And boy, did those festival people get behind us! On Friday, they bused in 600 KIDS (!!) to hear me talk about comics and Vern and Lettuce, along with Scottish poet Liz Niven and writer Ceci Jenkinson from North Wales (above). Just as in Edinburgh, one of the best parts of the festival was meeting other authors. Let me introduce you to one of the newest faces on the comics scene, 15-year-old Scottish comics creator Angus Dunn:



Here's a taster of some of the work he's been coming up with, really funny stuff, including an ongoing gag where his friends walk up to him while he's buried up to the neck in concrete. We had a chat in the Authors' Lounge about blogs and websites and things, and I'm hoping Angus will post some of his work online soon. Keep an eye out for this guy! (That's writer Ian Rankin sitting just behind him at the table.)


Comic by Angus Dunn


Wigton's not the easiest place to get to by public transport, so we hired a car and Stuart drove us from Carlisle. (Funny, I drove every day in the USA, but I never drive in Britain.) We took the beautiful coastal route, past Sweetheart Abbey...


...and Caerlaverock Castle.


I was thrilled that my gig on Saturday morning (which was packed-out - thanks, guys!) came just before another big event by Polly Dunbar. Polly's already a bit of a legend in picture books with Penguin, a deceptively simple but powerful book about a little boy who desperately wants his toy penguin to be a real friend, and after being eaten and puked by a lion, discovers that the penguin's silence doesn't mean all their time together has been for nought. (The clincher is a comics speech bubble, which particulary endears it to me; here's a short review I wrote about it for Write Away.) Polly has the gift of being able to draw beautifully under pressure; the kids at her event were tiny, not old enough to have learned things like raising their hands or not climbing on the flip chart stand, and their parents were smiling indulgently at them from worryingly far away. But Polly handled it with grace. I'd love to learn how to draw so well in front of people; I tend to give the flip chart only half my attention because I'm thinking so much about the audience, and it never looks quite as good as something I'd draw in a sketchpad. (Practice, I guess.) The chicken in lipstick she's drawing comes from Pretty Pru.

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17. wigtown sketch + interview with matt badham

I'm still plugging away at trying to learn a bit more about drawing landscapes. At the Wigtown book fest, I was telling Polly Dunbar about it and she burst out laughing,
'So you're doing it to impress Philip Reeve!'
'Noo!" I protested vehemently. 'I really need to learn how to do this!' Then I thought about it a bit more, and decided that if I really wanted to impress Philip Reeve (who's been posting his own sketch-a-day), I'd be posting anything but landscape sketches since it's the area where I'm least skilled.
And then I thought about it a bit harder and wondered if perhaps I was trying to impress him with my stubborn, pig-headed persistence. Yes, I decided, Polly must be right. I probably am trying to impress Philip Reeve (oh, the shame), but I can live with that if it forces me to keep drawing. I won't even tell you how fast I am whipping through his Mortal Engines books; he's impressed me, at any rate.

Here's a stretch of riverside at Newmilns Farm, near Wigtown, where Angus and Mary live. I'm still trying to work out how to draw finely-textured light (or backlit) things against a dark background without having to draw every blade of grass. Tricky. I bought a used book at Wigtown's Old Bank Bookshop called The Northern Landscape: Flemish, Dutch and British Drawings from the Courtauld Collections that I'm going to take along sketching with me, for reference.



The countryside around there's so beautiful, Stuart and I just kept saying, 'Wow. Wow. Just... wow.'



A big thanks to Richard Bruton and his daughter Molly, who have given Vern and Lettuce the ultimate thumbs-up. Richard writes:

...when I asked her what she thought of the book after she’d read it (and reread it several times) she simply added:
'It’s my favourite comic.'
I really can’t think of any way she could have said it better and can’t really fault her judgement either.


And the other big thanks to comics journalist Matt Badham for the interview he did with me, cross-posted at the Forbidden Planet International blog and Down The Tubes.


(Click on the pic to go to the different articles.)

(Blank Slate publisher Kenny Penman takes issue with the interview in the FPI blog comments, hehe. Still trying to think how I might reply.)

If you're in London, don't miss tonight's Laydeez Do Comics event just off Brick Lane, featuring my fab studio mate Ellen Lindner, DFC colleague and friend Patrice Aggs, artist Steve White and Charlie Bowden from Pickled Ink Illustration Agency. I'll be there, details here!

Edit: O

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18. The North Cormorant

It was the fall when I first flew out to the North Cormorant. It was one of those flights which you caught in Aberdeen, took a fixed wing to the Shetlands, did the rest of it by helicopter. The platform was halfway between Norway and the Shetland Islands in the North Sea. I had no idea that I would spend six of my next twelve months there.
There weren’t many who survived falling into the North Sea. There was one on the opposite shift from us. He was a roustabout named Neil from Barra, an ex fisherman. The circling survival ship got him, two miles from the rig, in a gale, at night. You might say he was very lucky. He was supposed to be dead after ten minutes from hypothermia, but when they picked him up after twenty minutes, all he said was, “Gee, thought I was a goner”.
The companies screwed Neil around for years after that. I used to see him in the Aberdeen pubs. He hit his leg on the way down that night, wasn’t fit to work. He had been walking along, hit a spot where someone had left the grilling off the deck. The companies didn’t want to pay for his time off.
There were stories that some companies had tried to charge guys for their issued rig wear when they were in a chopper crash at Sumburgh, in the Shetlands.
Graham was a roustabout on my shift. The roustabouts could work their way up to the drill floor to work as a roughneck or they could work their way up to boss of the roustabouts on the deck. Some got their crane operator papers. They were guaranteed jobs as bosses of the roustabout crews.
Graham wanted to work as a roughneck on the drill floor. He came up from the deck, relieved all the roughnecks to get the experience. He took the taunts, jokes and insults on the drill floor until his bafflement subsided. He learned the names of the tools and the procedures we used. He was a young guy who lived in Oban. We became friends, planned the next trip for a visit to the west coast. We piled into a borrowed Volkswagen bug, drove to Oban. Oban was a tourist centre in the nineteenth century for the English and rich Scottish. It still welcomed tourists and was the home of a fishing fleet which specialized in shrimp.
Graham’s friends were shrimp fishermen who arrived onshore soon after we landed there. We drank with them for days. They were doing a more dangerous job than we were. They went out in the treacherous waters, for ten days at a time, in small boats, with no safety. They made good money, but they were thankful to return in one piece.
Chingy, Graham’s best friend, was up on charges of assault. One night, in Ullapool, the Russian fleet sat offshore. Chingy heard that one of the local girls had been attacked by a Russian trawler man. After enough drinks in the bar, Chingy found a Russian, kicked his eye out. It was more of a local tradition than an international incident. Chingy would be prosecuted some time in the future. He said he could handle jail time.
The fishermen gave me a running commentary on the females as we sat in one of the bars on the local circuit. They pointed out the ones they had “rode”.
Graham’s phone calls were taken at the Oban Hotel. His own flat was bought and paid for by money he made poaching from a fish farm. He said his ancestors had been hunted by the English and often dodged “mantraps”. I had no idea what he was talking about until I read the books Brodie lent me.
Brodie was big Bob. He was, like Graham, a Highlander. He had a mechanical engineering degree, but came to learn the hard way. He was earmarked by the drilling company to follow the usual sequence of roughneck, derrick hand, assistant driller and driller. From there he could become a toolpusher and a company man. At that level, the money and perks were very good. It was a long, hard road, bu

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19. Furry City: Moon Rabbit

Moon RabbitMom says:
Moon Rabbit is one of those "I love the country, you love the city, let's visit but not change places" books. You know the type. City mouse, country mouse, and all that.

What makes this book special, besides the fact that Little Kid LOVES it, are the illustrations. Natalie Russell has used a lovely, muted, palette of colors and a printmaking technique to create a magical atmosphere. Little Rabbit's city reflects Russell's Scottish roots, while the natural world, though simple, includes whimsical touches, such as the patchwork moon and curlicued shadows. The overall feeling of the book is one of gentleness.  I was also charmed by the fact that Little Rabbit has  "favorite cafe," because don't we all?

There is a sequel: Brown Rabbit in the City. I'm sure you can guess the plot, although we haven't got a chance to read it yet.

Little Kid says: Moon Rabbit, again!

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20. An old Scottish Ballad

by Clare B. Dunkle...

I think I was about ten years old when I found out where my last name came from. Back then, I wasn’t Clare B. Dunkle, the author, I was Clare Buckalew, the fifth-grader with a pretty weird last name. It turns out that it’s even weirder if you spell it the way they do in Scotland: Buccleuch. But there’s a duke with my name in Scotland, and an original coat of arms,

and a family motto, and even a rousing old ballad from the 1500’s about an ancestor of mine called the Bold Buccleuch, who raided an English castle in the middle of the night and almost started a war.

Ever since I found out all that, I’ve had adeep and abiding love of Scotland.

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21. Book Review: The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, by Elizabeth Laird (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.  


Release date:  April 18, 2011


Witchcraft, whether with a historic or contemporary setting, is a popular subject for young adult novels these days.  British author Elizabeth Laird mines 17th century Scottish history for her engrossing historical fiction novel for teens, The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, published in England last year as The Witching Hour.

Sixteen-year-old Maggie lives with her grandmother in a small Scottish village on the Isle of Bute, both her mother and father having died when she was a small child.  Her grandmother, a scowling, bitter old woman who acts as the village's midwife, believes that she must make the townspeople fear her to survive.  In any era in which everyone believed in the devil without question, it didn't take much to be suspected of being a witch.  When a baby in the village dies mysteriously, the townspeople turn on both her grandmother and herself, charging them with witchcraft, and Maggie must take her chances and flee from the only home and family she has ever known.

She makes her way to a kind uncle and his family, where a different kind of trouble lurks--trouble of a political and religious nature.  Her uncle is a Covenanter--fiercely independent Presbyterians who refused to acknowledge the English king as head of the Presbyterian church in Scotland.  It's a dangerous position, and the king's soldiers are arresting Covenanters and throwing them in prison.  Nonetheless, Maggie thinks she's safe; until Annie, a girl from her village shows up and worms her way into her relatives' affections, with only Maggie realizing that Annie's up to no good.
But even Maggie can't imagine how Annie will betray them all...

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which has a more serious thread to it than many of the YA historicals--despite the witchcraft element, there is little of the paranormal or romance in this book.  The religious controversies of the era may not appeal to young readers looking for a light read, but this may appeal to fans of Christian fiction, since the struggle for religious freedom and the lengths people will go to worship as they please are a major theme of this book.  Does a person's true duty lie in serving God or protecting his family?  The author does an excellent job evoking the Scotland of the 17th century, although perhaps using a more contemporary vocabulary  (always a balancing act in historical fiction) with a lot of "lassies" thrown in for local color.  Maggie is a courageous heroine who young girls will be able to root for while following her many adventures and decisions until she chooses her path.

This book was loosely based on the stories of some of the author's own ancestors, a few of whom appear as characters in this novel.  The book shortlisted for the Scottish Book Trust's Royal Mail Award for Scottish Children's Books, in the older readers category.

Other blog reviews:
Musing of a Book Addict
Bitsy Bling
Lisa is Busy Nerding
4 Comments on Book Review: The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, by Elizabeth Laird (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), last added: 4/13/2011
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22. Happy 300th Birthday, David Hume!

By Simon Blackburn

 
David Hume was born three hundred years ago, on 26th April 1711.  He lived most of his life in Edinburgh, with only a few improbable interludes: one as tutor to a lunatic, one assisting in a comic-operatic military adventure, and one somewhat more successfully as Embassy Secretary, being a lion in the literary salons of Paris. Apart from these his life was devoted to philosophy, history, literature, and conversation. He is the greatest, and the best-loved, of British philosophers, as well as the emblem and presiding genius of the great flowering of arts and letters that took place in the Edinburgh of the eighteenth century—the Scottish Enlightenment. As with all philosophers, his reputation has gone through peaks and troughs, but today it probably stands higher than it ever has.

This may be surprising. Movements in twentieth-century philosophy were not, on the whole, kind to Hume. Analytical philosophy, initiated by Moore and Russell, took logic to be its scalpel and the careful dissection of language to be its principal task, yet Hume was neither a logician nor primarily interested in language. His empiricism, indeed, had echoes in the later work of the logical positivists. But he was widely regarded as having driven empiricism into a sceptical grave. Russell, for example, could assert in his History of Western Philosophy, that Hume ‘developed to its logical conclusion the empirical philosophy of Locke and Berkeley, and by making it self-consistent, made it incredible’, and this was a widely-held view. On the Continent it has usually been assumed that Hume was simply a curtain-raiser to Kant, who allegedly instructed us how to avoid his sorry descent into scepticism, on the grounds that any world in which we could find ourselves must have a nice regular structure, discernible by the light of reason alone.

There is unquestionably a skeptical side to Hume’s philosophy. But there is another side as well, that is responsible for its current standing. Hume is indeed sceptical about the power of reason to determine what we believe. But he is not sceptical, for example, about whether the sun will rise tomorrow. He just has the calm understanding that our confidence in uniformities in nature, such as this one, is not the result of logic or of any exercise of pure rationality. It is just the way our minds happen to work—as indeed, do those of other animals.

Similarly when it comes to understanding the springs of action, Hume again dethrones reason, arguing that nothing that reason could discover would motivate us without engaging an inclination or ‘passion’. He entirely overturns the Platonic model of the soul in which reason is the charioteer, controlling and steering the unruly horses of desire. ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’. We can correct mistakes about the world in which we act, and choose more efficient means to gain our ends. We may even be able to persuade ourselves and each other to alter our courses, for better or worse. But we can only do this by mobilizing other considerations we care about. These concerns, or in other words the directions of our desires, are themselves a bare gift of nature, again. Hume excelled in adding detail to this: his account of the evolution of what he called the ‘artificial’ virtues—respect for such things as reciprocity, institutions of justice, social conventions, law or government—is the grandfather of all later decision-theoretic and game-theoretic approaches to the evolution of cooperation. But it took over two centuries before this would be recognized. Only recently has Hume’s naturalism become the gold standard for everyone at the cutting edge of contemporary investigation, whether in philosophy, psychology, evolutionary psychology, anthrop

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23. The Scottish Election 2011

By Michael Keating

 
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

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24. wigtown book festival 2011

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

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25. The First Hundred Thousand

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.


Tagged: 1910s, france, ian hay, scotland, world war I

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