The Ticking Crocodile

One evening in 2017, I was sitting around a table with two friends, Dawn Geddes andbronte sisters Elizabeth Frattaroli. Our drinks remained untouched, tension was etched on our faces. We were trying to come up with a name for our new venture, and it was proving trickier than we’d ever imagined. We were on the verge of extending a hand to fellow writers, to offer them a retreat away from everyday life, from the domestic routine which kills creativity. Our vision was that they would be able to write, unhindered, in a glorious setting. We had the idea, the venue, the enthusiasm- but no name.

The name had to be catchy and writing-related. Perhaps even reflecting the rich literary 20170512_164307heritage of Angus, where the retreats would be held, and celebrating the idea that, for one weekend at least, the clock would be stopped. We even had a tagline, ‘Press pause in the heart of Angus.’!

Our thoughts turned to local authors- Violet Jacob, of course, from the House of Dun -but what about, arguably, the most famous writer in the world, who just happened to have been born in a tiny cottage at the foot of the Angus Glens? J. M. Barrie. Maybe Peter Pan might have a solution to our problem…

Unless you’re some kind of Hemingway figure, locked in your study eight hours a day while your wife micro-manages your life, you, the average writer, are going to be time-poor. Everything will crowd in to take precedence over your work-in-progress: kids, shopping, cleaning, demanding relatives. What is the writer’s greatest enemy? The snap of the clock at their heels. So perhaps this quote might fit?

“I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it? Time is chasing after all of us.”                                                                                         ~  J .M. Barrie, Peter Pan                                                         

Sure, it’s about mortality rather than creative time, but surely the reason why we write is to get those words out while we still can? Perfect.

Chasing Time Writing Retreats finally had a name!crocLogo-WHITE-BG twitter

In the last ten days, I’ve been learning a lot more about Barrie the celebrated author, with visits to Moat Brae, Dumfries, and his birthplace in Kirriemuir, preserved and maintained by the National Trust for Scotland. I’ve even had the chance to compare crocodiles!

 

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                                  Books can be dangerous!

 

 

Elizabeth and Justin Davies, joint co-ordinators of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) in south east Scotland, kindly invited me along on their group  visit to the enchanting Moat Brae, the house which is thought to have inspired Peter Pan and was a favourite haunt of J.M.Barrie during his schooldays.

Now a centre for children’s literature and storytelling, the once-derelict property has been extensively and sensitively restored by the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust. Moat Brae was designed by Walter IMG_1182Newall for a local solicitor, Robert Threshie in 1823. The house and garden were in private ownership from 1823 to 1914. The house then became a nursing home which closed in 1997. Thereafter it fell into disrepair and was subsequently purchased by a local housing association. In August 2009, Moat Brae House was due to be demolished to make way for new social housing.At the eleventh hour, it has been saved for the nation and is well worth a visit.

 

 

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My other jaunt this week was to one of my favourite National Trust for Scotland properties (next to Barry Mill, of course!). Barrie’s Birthplace is a delightful weaver’s cottage tucked away in the centre of Kirriemuir, Angus.

IMG_1277(Edited)E940BFFA-5BFB-4AC8-8547-E7991C81D509Charmingly preserved, you can see lots of memorabilia connected with the author, and some delightful quotes and photographs. Barrie returned to the cottage before his death in 1937, to have one last look at his old bedroom. The then owner was surprised but delighted to welcome him in to his old home and a poignant photograph commemorates the visit.

The old washhouse and outbuildings where the young Jamie staged plays for his friends still survive, and the garden is undergoing a makeover.

The ‘ticking crocodile’ is not to be missed!

 

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Newcastle Noir

20180505_093016A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of travelling south to my old stomping ground of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. As a teenager, I lived in nearby Morpeth, and my Dad worked for many years in the Post Office Garage in Pottery Lane. Oh, how I remember him cursing the rush hour traffic on his daily commute! The reason for my visit? The very special NEWCASTLE NOIR festival! I’d never been to it before, but a chance meeting with the lovely Dr Noir herself (Jacky Collins) secured me a place on the New Blood panel. The venue is literally two minutes from the train station (unless you ask directions from a non-booky person who sends you the wrong way…).

The very distinguished-sounding Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle- affectionately known as the Lit & Phil – is out-of-this world; the largest independent library outside London. It houses over 160,000 books, and yes, I’d love to move in for a couple of weeks!

But back to business- the first thing you notice about Newcastle Noir (apart from the grand surroundings) is the warmth and enthusiasm of Dr Noir and her helpers.

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Dr Noir & the Noirstars

A big welcome awaited us, and a lovely Green Room packed with goodies. It was a real treat to be introduced to my fellow panellists; Vicky NewhamG.B.Williams  and Robert Scragg ,and to hear all about their journey to publication. We were guided along the way by the amazing Vic Watson. Hats off to both Vic, Dr Noir ,and others, who go to such lengths to bring writers together and to encourage new talent.

This is one festival which you will not want to miss next year. I say this about every festival I attend- my diary is getting seriously packed – but we have such vibrant creative communities across the land, and such passionate individuals dedicated to bringing them together, and making those vital connections between writers and readers. Lots of love and support to you all!

Meeting friends old and new- Claire MacLeary and the New Blood panel, with Vic Watson and Dr Noir.

 

Footnote.

20180408_130344My trip to Newcastle was nostalgic in many ways; a full circle. My dear Dad, who passed away in March, would have celebrated his 94th birthday on May 5th, the day I attended Newcastle Noir with my brother, Jack. The warmth of the welcome at the Lit &Phil was such that we both agreed it was the best possible way of spending the day. Dad would have approved!

Bone Deep – an evening of music and spoken word

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I can’t believe it’s been two months since Crime at the Castle (and two months since I last updated my blog…hangs head in shame) so let’s hit the ground running with a look at what’s been happening in my booky world!

My second novel Bone Deep will be published at the start of July, so in the run-up to the big day, please join me on Twitter (@22_ireland), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Sandralowireland/) and Goodreads. I’ve not been very active on Goodreads, so please follow me- I need all the friends I can get!

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We decided to get the celebratory ball rolling in April with a concert in the atmospheric surroundings of Hospitalfield, Arbroath. My friends at Hypercoaster Music had the tricky task of bringing together nine virtual strangers, with only an ancient murder ballad in common…and they nailed it! The audience were enthusiastic in their praise, and appreciated how well the performers ‘gelled’, which demonstrates the power of music and art to unite us. It was stirring stuff, as each artist interpreted the ballad of The Cruel Sister* in their own unique way.

 

 

The highlight for me was reading from Bone Deep accompanied by the harp! I’d never attempted anything like this before, but I knew I was in safe hands with super-talented writer, poet and musician Rebecca Sharp. When you read the book, you’ll understand that a very special harp is pivotal to the story, so it was quite emotional for me, not only to hear the instrument playing in the background, but to experience each unique and haunting interpretation of the theme of the evening.

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Author, actor and director Heather Osborne helped me to set the scene with our take on the history of The Cruel Sister ballad. Rebecca, and Emil Thompson treated us to a deliciously dark interpretation of the theme, which involved a Crow Box, a Singing Bowl and a little bit of magic! Spoken word artist Stephen Watt delivered a thought-provoking and poignant set,  exploring the darkness of our own psyche, while folk duo Shamblestone wowed us all with a raw and powerful rendition of the Twa Sisters (video on their Facebook page!). Lisa Rigby and Stuart Clark finished the night off with a fantastic set, including a most haunting and memorable version of The Wind and Rain.

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Huge thanks to Tash and Andy at Hypercoaster, to all who took part, and helped out on the night and beforehand. I really hope we can do it again some time!

Next week, I’ll tell you a little more about the story behind the story, and we’ll look at the history of the ballad itself.

 

 

*The Ballad of the Cruel Sister was the inspiration behind Bone Deep. I wanted to show how the past can impact on the present. Strangely, there’s a link between Hospitalfield and this book! In 1813, Sir Walter Scott visited the house, and was inspired to use it as the setting for his novel The Antiquary. Some 11 years previously, Scott had published a collection of Border Ballads, entitled The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders. As a teenager, I chanced upon this tome while rummaging through an old bookshop in the Borders. The Cruel Sister ballad, with its powerful themes of sibling rivalry, betrayal and murder really captured my imagination. Little did I know that some forty years later I would be standing where Scott once stood, talking about my own novel!

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Writing in Books

A blog post is well overdue! Searching for a thread to connect the many interesting events of last week (I’m a writer. I’m always chasing threads!), I came up with the notion that writing in books is a curious way of connecting us with each other and with the past.

Now there are some places which frown heavily upon the defacing of books in this way, and rightly so! I will start, then, with my research trip to the National Library of Scotlandnls

My research actually began long before my visit, having filled in the ‘Ask the Librarian’ form on the NLS website. I wasn’t expecting my ‘Have you got anything about mills?’ ramble to yield much fruit, but an amazing librarian (ALL librarians are amazing) called Mike swiftly came to my aid, producing a most comprehensive list of folklore resources for me to get my teeth into. (You’re not allowed to do that either. No pens; no teeth).

So I duly arrived at the grand old institution on George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, excited by the knowledge that some fascinating sources lay in wait for me behind those heavy wooden doors. And I was excited! There’s something about digging through old volumes that makes time stand still. The Reading Room experience adds to the occasion. All your outside stuff goes in a locker and you transport your pencils (NO PENS!), notebooks and loose change for the photocopier, in a clear plastic bag. A couple of years ago, I was privileged to spend some time in the Special Collections Room with a 14th c. illuminated manuscript book. The librarian at that time explained to me that book theft is a huge problem in many libraries. Thieves often excise the precious pages and slip them between the covers of a normal book, which is why everything now has to be in see-through plastic, and your papers are searched when you leave. It’s a sad world.

So, although I appreciated the historic marginalia I discovered in some of the books I was using, I certainly didn’t add any of my own! You can read about my research at https://barrymillblog,com. New post coming soon…

Noir @ the Bar was a wonderfully gregarious social event, bringing together crime writers and readers from all ends of the earth (well, almost). They are now being held in quite a few places, and the Edinburgh event, organised by Jackie Collins and Mark Leggat, is held noir-the-bar-1at the Wash Bar. Again, there was much scribbling of contact details in notebooks after the event (writers rarely remember to carry business cards or even pens!) but we all agreed that, as well as the dark and dastardly readings from some top-notch Tartan Noir, it was a wonderful opportunity to make new friends and influence people! The next one is on May 31st.

This weekend saw the return of the Further From Festival in Linlithgow. I was delighted to be asked to take part, along with my ‘Wyrd’ pal, Shelley Day (It’s our books that are weird, not us. We’re normal….mwa hah haha…). It was lovely to meet Sally and her team from Far From the Madding Crowd Bookshop, and I was so sorry I didn’t manage to get a browse through the shelves!

I did, however, discover a little gem in a Linlithgow charity shop. The Queen’s Quair, a novel about Mary, Queen of Scots by Maurice Hewlett, was published in 1905 by Macmillan. I was totally bowled over by this inscription; a faint thread stretching from the past and drawing me in!

Other People’s Books

Happy New Year, dear Readers! Thanks so much for all your support in 2016. Everyone really got behind (or beneath?) Beneath the Skin from the very start, and, of course, I had a great team on board with Jenny Brown Associates, and Polygon. 2016 was a year for making connections. So many people have helped me in ways too numerous to mention, but I must just say how surprised and delighted I have been with the enthusiasm and professionalism of the blogging community. A big shout out too for Bookish PR Scotland, also making a debut in 2016 and definitely by my side in 2017!

“When will we be able to read your next book?” has been a frequent (and rather heartening!) question since BTS was published, and thanks to the generous support of  Creative Scotland, I have been able to devote my time to the daunting mission of producing a second  manuscript, The Bone Harp. My creative journey can be followed at https://barrymillblog.com,  although like all the best journeys there are frequent random diversions!

Speaking of distractions, don’t begin your January de-cluttering with the bookshelf. It’s fatal! I’ve done zero cleaning today, but I have  re-discovered some old books which mean a lot to me. That’s the thing with treasured books- sometimes the most important story is not the one between the covers. I’d like to share a few of my ‘finds’ with you:

 

 

Postman Pat. My boys are now young men, so this family favourite  is showing its age. Note the yellowing Sellotape, the broken spine and the dog-eared pages. Much love for this book! Grandad worked on Royal Mail vans in the Yorkshire Dales, so that makes it extra special.

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Mister Men. Another favourite. Look at those titles- definitely a map of my kids’ childhood. One for every mood! And the price sticker- all jumble sale finds, no doubt!

The family Bible. I seem to have inherited quite a few, but this one is interesting. Although it bears the initials A.L., it belonged to a great, great aunt, Mary Ann Watson. This lady’s death certificate reveals that she was a spinster and a jute spinner, and she took her own life at the age of 52 by walking into the sea. A tragic story, made more poignant by the hand-written notes she left in this bible.

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Scottish Tartans. On a cheerier note, these are dated 1942 and were gifts for my grandmother and her sister. The illustrations are classic Outlander, but this lone female golfer made the cut!

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Oor Wullie and Dandy annuals from the 1970s.  Who doesn’t love a comic? Christmas classics from my childhood, passed down to the next generation. Shows how enduring and well-loved these characters are- thanks D.C.Thomson!

 

Hope I’ve inspired you to begin the year by reconnecting with the hidden stories of your own treasured books! I’d love to hear them.