Category Archives: Edinburgh



Because it is hard to speak today, because I need something solid to lean on, let someone else speak well:

I watched an armory combing its bronze bricks
and in the sky there were glistening rails of milk.
Where had the swan gone, the one with the lame back?

Now mounting the steps
I enter my new home full
of grey radiators and glass
ashtrays full of wool.

Against the winter I must get a samovar
embroidered with basil leaves and Ukranian mottos
to the distant sound of wings, painfully anti-wind,

a little bit of the blue
summer air will come back
as the steam chuckles in
the monster’s steamy attack

and I’ll be happy here and happy there, full
of tea and tears. I don’t suppose I’ll ever get
to Italy, but I have the terrible tundra at least.


- from ‘Poem‘ by Frank O’Hara

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Filed under 2012, consolations of reading, Edinburgh, Scotland, The Now

Of stone


























Filed under 2012, celebration, Edinburgh, Photograph, Scotland

The River and The Sea





Thank you to all for your congratulations and good wishes. Here’s a taster of where we spent our anniversary, at Cramond; the river Almond in the dark, and the tidal island with its row of concrete pyramids like something left over from a lost civilisation. More tomorrow when the photographs are in order.




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Filed under 2012, Edinburgh

Love letter 5

A love letter to Edinburgh once again (see love letters 1,2,3 and 4). Now a year since D and I have been living here, and we have felt that time, it has not rushed itself. Every moment felt and lived and hoped through.



In Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, peaceful and full of herbs and stones of course.



A detail of an angel from a gravestone on the kirk wall.



And the sky darkening, pinkish against the solidity of Pleasance houses.


And lastly, I recorded a sad little poem about building something, about memory and waiting. Not so much about Edinburgh, but tangentially related to coming back and to leaving Scotland itself. you can listen to it here.


Filed under 2012, Edinburgh

A Reading List

Recently, I compiled a list of reading for a very high level ESL student of mine. I thought I’d share it here – in part in case I lose it, in part because that student has now left, and I’d like to mark that in some way. It’ll be some time before I get to have literary discussions as part of my job.


I wanted to provide a list that would challenge. That would demonstrate various Englishes, from 19th century works to the modern day, from Scottish English, to African American dialect, to Nadsat. That I had read before and so could mark their varying levels of difficulty – in terms of vocabulary and structure and so on. That would be of interest to that particular student, I hope. The selections are unashamedly idiosyncratic. They are books that question and probe and twist, or simply tell a story. Some are serious, some fluffier, some influential, some brand new.


It is my wish that at least some of them will open up the world for this student a fraction, a crack. That the words will not only be new and add knowledge, but will charm and fire. What would you, personally, have suggested to someone new to literature in English?


Here’s what I passed on:


The Annotated Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (notes by Alfred Appel)

Textually rich, lyrical and fanciful in imagery. Challenging subject matter (in the disturbing sense – and in the sense that the narrator is openly unreliable)

Difficulty rating: Tricky – though the rhythm of the sentences should help you through them, and the notes will explain any obscure references.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Also lyrical – and short! The American Dream in the jazz age (1920s-30s) is one big party. Or is it? The end paragraph is one of the most famous in American literature.

Difficulty rating: Moderate, but short, did I mention it’s short? Taught in American High Schools.

Possession, A.S. Byatt

A very literary mystery – Roland is a loser academic living in a flat that smells of cat pee, but studying in the library one day, he discovers a previously unknown poem by a famous 19th century figure. He pairs up with Maud Bailey to solve the mystery and evade a covetous American memorabilia collector. Meanwhile, in the 19th century the poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte embark on passionate love affair which will have lasting effects on the present day. Far and away not as trashy as it sounds.

Difficulty rating:  This is an intellectually playful book, utilising poetry, letters and diary entries alongside 3rd person narration. A nice mash of contemporary (80s) language and 19th century conversational and written styles.  Longish. So moderate-to-difficult

One D.O.A., One on the Way, Mary Robison

Eve is married to Adam, a Southern gent with an identical twin. Eve may or may not be sleeping with the identical twin, who can really tell. Amongst the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina, the story plays out. Witty and dark and bourbon-soaked.

Difficulty Rating: The minimalist prose style makes this one of the easier books on the list.

Beloved, Toni Morrison

A slave woman in the Southern United states is on the run with her children when she is cornered. Loath to see her children taken from her, she commits an act so brutal it will split the world from its reality. Brutal and lyrical, based partially on a true story. The author won the Nobel Prize for Literature for this.

Difficulty rating: Pretty high, using African-American dialect in dialogue, but the sentences are shorter for the most part, which should make it a little easier going.

The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

A charming love story between a  girl/young woman and a handsome librarian afflicted with a disease that forces him to jump naked through his own timeline.

Difficulty level: Easy (but contemporary)

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

A ferocious American preacher takes his family on a mission to the Congo. Told by the five women who surround him and must endure his fervour and madness and failures. A long but beautiful book.

Difficulty level: Depends which voice you are reading.

Glaciers, Alexis M Smith

Short, neat and moving – a story of memory, new love, and the landscapes of Pacific North Western United States.

Difficulty level – easier, very contemporary. Contains some of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read.

Green Girl, Kate Zambreno

A neurotic American girl with a fragile sense of self drifts and fails her way through her life in London. Every chapter begins with an interesting quote which will then be explored in some way. If you’d like to read ‘literature of the girl’ then read this. Some brutal scenes. Very contemporary.

Difficulty level: the quotes bump it up a little, but it’s crisp and clear.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg

The book that Fight Club might have been inspired by. A young religious man meets a person he believes to be Peter the Great and embarks on a series of crimes at his new friend’s suggestion. But why has nobody seen this friend of his?

Difficulty: old fashioned (18th-19th century writing style) but it’s a short book

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

Demented novel/movie transcript/not all that scary horror story/breakdown.

Difficulty level: how good are you at reading upside down?

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

A difficult childhood surrounded by religious hypocrites  and coldness does nothing to damage Jane’s strength of character. Which is good at because Jane’s first job as a governess at a draughty mansion, the glowering Mr Rochester will be testing that to the extreme.  A love story about God and the moors and being a poor woman in a rich man’s house.

Difficulty level: 19th century – so long convoluted sentences. But there is a movie to help clarify things.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

The ‘prequel’ to Jane Eyre. But in fact a darker beast altogether. The action takes place on Jamaica just after the emancipation of the slaves – the land where Rochester was sent to make his fortune. It’s all chaos and faded fortune and steamy heat and colonialism and desire. Antoinette Causeway is brought up in a similarly lonely way to Jane, but her outlook on life is decidedly more fatalistic.

Difficulty level: straightforward, punchy sentences make this quite an easy one. Also short. But read after you’ve at least seen the movie of Jane Eyre.

1984, George Orwell

Because you must, if you like novels of ideas.

Difficulty level: easier than…


A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

A sample: “There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening. […] The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence.”

Difficulty level: (see above) But you’ll be ahead with the Russian bits. There is also a film version.

Zazen, Vanessa Veselka

America is about to be torn apart, but what to do until then? Make tofu scramble and do yoga and protest something.

A sample:  “War A is going well and no longer a threat, small and mature. Like a Bonsai. War B is in full flower. Its thin green shoots reaching across the ocean floor like fibre optic cable. The TVs are on all the time all the time now. The lights dim and everyone moves in amber. They flicker like votives. That’s what we will all be one day, insects in sap, strange jewels.”

Difficulty level : It’s contemporary and full of unusual sentences like the ones above. But gorgeous, and not as difficult as A Clockwork Orange!

Orlando, Virginia Woolf

An aristocratic man lives for 400 years, changing gender and having various adventures. The style of the language changes as the years pass – from an Elizabethan English style to the Modernism of the 20th century. Actually a cheerful story.

Difficulty level: hard.


Filed under art, book review, consolations of reading, Edinburgh

Autumn Endless Reads


I look outside and cannot understand why the leaves have not already turned.  I’ve set my mind on Autumn and now I’m impatient for the season to make a clear announcement of its arrival. It’s already cold and damp now, the hours are drawing in (sunset before 9pm, now, a sure sign of the year heading towards late middle age), the festival is winding down, and Winter coats are coming out. Come on, decay, we’re ready for you.


In the mood for this chill turn, I begin planning autumnal reads. Not that I stopped reading over the Summer, but I think it’s good every season to pause for a moment to see what’s on the cards. Up for September:




NW, of course. Maidenhead I received today from Canadian publisher Coach House. Lots of people on twitter recommended this book to me after I decried my embarrassing lack of Can Lit reading. Coach House very generously sent it my way. The package brought with it an interview with the author, Tamara Faith Berger, and an insight into the themes of the novel – sexual and political awakening, feminism, slavery, art and pornography. That’s a promotional condom that was included with the book. I’ve just finished The Listeners by Leni Zumas which was, while well written, full of imagery of injury and blood (of which I am very phobic) so Maidenhead, while likely to be graphic and very challenging, is less likely to make me nearly faint every few pages.


The other book is one I’ve had for a while and have yet to get to – Now Trends, a collection of stories by Karl Taro Greenfield. The cover design and portability is meant to imitate a travel guide, and the stories themselves range across the world. Armchair travel for a dreichit time of the year.


I hope to review the latter three books on PANK in due course, and NW some time later here.


What do you have lined up to see you through the warm weather’s disappearance? That’s if it’s ever Autumnal in your part of the world.


Filed under 2012, art, book cover, book review, consolations of reading, Edinburgh

The Scottish Play on an island in a firth at dusk



On Inchcolm!


We boarded the minibus in Edinburgh and were driven to the town of South Queensferry, which sits under the iconic Forth Railway Bridge (those of you who have seen Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps might recall it). We disembarked the bus and were ushered, to the sound of bagpipes, to the ferry that would take us out to the island.



Inch means island, and the Colm was a saint of some stripe – the island a holy one. A monastery founded in the 11oos became an Abbey in the 1200s, and it was to be amongst the ruins of buildings from the 15th century incarnation of the Abbey, and hidden from the world war two battlements, that we were to see the play.


First of all the ferry trip through a beautiful summer’s evening, with the sound of Medieval plainsong to soothe our way.  The song itself was called ‘Inchcolm’, we were told. The ferry passed smoothly along the river Forth, the esturine tang of the sea coming in through the open doors.



Then we realised there were witches on board. Three of them, prowling and reading our fortunes, but not telling us them, only laughing. But the island was in sight, not too much longer. We were handed blankets to keep of the chill night would bring, and to make us all one of a piece, an audience wrapped in wool.



Once on the island, we were told, there would be no photography, no phones, no running water for our use. We would be at the mercy of ushers and performers. And so it was. A battle was taking place as we approached. Norwegians versus the Scottish forces.



Those who know Macbeth, might know Inchcolm is mentioned in the opening of the play:


Ross: That now Sweno, the Norway’s King craves composition;

Nor would we deign him burial of his men

Til he disbursed at Saint Colme’s Inch

Ten thousand dollars for our general use.


The Norwegians, when they ruled parts of Scotland, would bury their noblemen on this island, and those who fell in battle should be buried there especially. Canny Scots asking for a nice price for this privilege, having soundly beaten them thanks to help from Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, soon to be Thane of Cawdor, and King hereafter…


Once on the island, as I said, no photos, only absorption in a wonderfully acted play, put on by actors from University of St Andrews. Prior to the production and after, D, A and I enjoyed the familiarity of the St Andrews atmosphere the students carried. Something impossible to describe, this ‘St Andrewsness’, but it’s instantly recognisable to all three of us.


During the performance, we were swept from scene to scene around the ruins, up stairs and downstairs, out on the lawns and into grassy courtyards, in long, high-ceilinged rooms where Banquo walked with blood in his mouth all dripping nearly on our toes as he walked by, away from the stricken Macbeth.


We were witness to the breakdown of Lady Macbeth – out, damn spot, eerie in the echoing space, eerie as she looked my way and I froze, and I swear the hairs on my neck went up – we saw the glint of cruelty in Macbeth’s eye, his vulnerability, his love for his wife disintegrating, his inner crumbling vanity. We were even Burnam wood, at one point, some of us wielding branches as we walked towards the finale.


It was truly the perfect setting and a wonderful experience I hope to repeat one day, though if I never do, at least I’ve seen it once. This was the first time I’d seen Macbeth performed, and it has set a high standard to be followed.



One last, lovely thing. On the ferry back, we traveled with the actors, all know to us now. Lots of friendly chattering and warming cups of tea, and the boat slipping over the dark water and by the lights of both distant banks, and just as we were disembarking, Macbeth (not Macbeth any more, of course, but it’s fun to say this)  threw a nice remark my way – a compliment on my coat. Well, who couldn’t be charmed?  Here’s more information, if you are at all in a position to go and see it.



Filed under Edinburgh

Figures in the landscape


Back to the gloaming, which has been so elusive this summer, and up Salisbury Crags.





Up to join the other dusk-time photographers there, trying to capture the city as the city – a whole spread out, something which can be made to fit on a postcard or print.







I suppose this last picture counts towards the challenge of the title. Just that the figures are all unseen, crawling their way through the streets, lurking down closes or muttering something in every pub, some dull and wonderful dialogue with their day.



Filed under Edinburgh

Transition extended

It is raining or the rain has just ceased, and there is a white slick of sun on the cobbles of Causewayside, a road leading to the South side of Edinburgh. Fine Georgian houses lead off in the other direction by the smidge of green of St Patrick’s Square. I wish I could show you it, or show you the reindeer and the mountains and the cliffside castle in the lashing rain I saw on my birthday – but my camera batter is at home, and I am again in a Starbucks. Blog narrative always becomes a little more piecemeal for me, without the image. I wonder why that is? I’m fine enough typing away at the current book, finding the colours there are bright as vegetable dyes and those determined summer days that are rare here.


The weather mooches between grey scuds and blistering blue. People in thin tee-shirts and warm jackets are walking and crossing past one another with their heads down through this latest drizzle. The open door is letting in the sneaky dibs of rain when the wind gusts.


I’m in here to write a book review, and to try to connect a little more. It’s been hard to keep up – when the internet is back at home I’ll have entry after entry of blogs to read – I miss them, but have thrown myself into reading. The latest is Fast Machine by Elizabeth Ellen. I’ve brought it along in case the need arises. It’s that kind of book, the kind you feel better after reading. Nourishing fictions, utterly lacking patness or patronisation or self-satisfaction. Words that are connected and connect with little latched fingers.


So when the internet is back, I’ll have reviews to share. Concrete photos and stories of the chaos moving 10 minutes up the road has caused. Until then, endurance. Writing in private. And of course, books, books, books.



Filed under book review, Edinburgh



Today I am trying to shake off the peculiar airlessness suffered during days without writing. During the move there was no enough space to do any, between the boxes and the piles of clothes and the seemingly endless phone calls to utility companies and working out  how the stove works, the heating (it doesn’t)(neither will the internet for a while).


I’m going to throw myself back into writing as soon as I can, but right now, I’m in a Starbucks on the Royal Mile, cold with cold, awful tea to hand, pondering a disappointment – I had applied for the chance to read at the Edinburgh Literary Festival, and was not accepted. It’s quite a blow, in a year (more than a year) of knocks and tumbles and crests and crashes, both in my personal and writing life. In the midst of this, I feel the need to look for firm ground. More specifically, to sources that feel comforting, or challenging (to be challenged by some interesting work, while it may throw us up in the air, while we may feel unsteady and temporarily set off balance and even fearful of where we will land, is not the same as being hit by normal, mundane waves, is it?)


I’m thinking of other writers to whom I look for sustaining ideas. For a sense of kinship. For the thrill of reading works that are beyond difficult, inimitable. And most of these writers are North American, oddly enough. There seems a wider market for experimentation, honesty, rawness, discomforting prose over there rather than here.


I touched on this a little in my review of Jackie Kay over at PANK, with the idea of ‘the deep narrow sea-loch of Scottish literary scene’. There are amazing writers here, but not so much of the avant garde. Not that I count myself as trying to be avant garde – I doubt I could be a true boundary breaker, working in colour, rather than ideas. But there are people who work language with a tremendous, vivacious skill, and I would like to read them, in order to be electrified. Hopeful that some of the sparks will fire me in ways I could not manage on my own.


Of course, I need to read more writers from the UK to see if it’s true all over, to see if the most challenging texts are or are not to be found on these shores. Recommendations would be great – particularly for female writers. I’m looking for a Scottish or British (or Australian, or Kiwi) Vanessa Veselka, Kate Zambreno, (I’d say Bhanu Kapil, but she is (or was) English, and is now in America).


If you can think of anyone working the glittering, sharp angles, tell me. I would like to be swept away by a brilliance close to home, not by my own lack of grip.


Meanwhile, writing, gulps of air. And waiting for something, as ever, some shore beyond anxiety and the limits of my work.


Filed under 2012, art, Bhanu Kapil, book review, consolations of writing, Edinburgh