Hazel McHaffie

Wigtown

Virtual Wigtown Book Festival

What a  week! What a treat! I’ve returned to Wigtown, over in the south west of Scotland, in Dumfries and Galloway, this time for their annual Book Festival – for the very first time a virtual event.

Before each session the camera has taken me through the town with its plethora of independent bookshops, and I’ve been reminded of the unique atmosphere and warm welcome Scotland’s National Book Town extends.

I was spoilt for choice. A few sessions were actually filmed in Wigtown in the familiar arrangement of author and interviewer actually speaking to one another, appropriately socially distanced; most were from homes or offices around the UK and abroad. And what a rich variety of topics were covered, light-hearted and deadly serious, entertaining as well as challenging. A taster will suffice for my purposes.

Wigtown’s own curmudgeonly bookshop owner, Shaun Bythell, now author of two bestsellers, ‘nibbling away at the hands of those who feed him’ in his confessions of a bookseller, appeared on his home turf. Except that he’s now undergone something of a transformation since I last saw him: neatly trimmed hair, smartly dressed, positively benign about his fellow man! Hello? Fatherhood seems to have smoothed some of his jagged edges!

Award-winning freelance Scottish journalist Peter Ross was new to me. He gave a fascinating insight into his work and writing about graveyards, weaving stories about the living as well as the dead, in a gentle almost reverential tone. And yes, the story of Wigtown’s martyrs featured. He came across as rather shy, but his writing style is assured and beautiful – a joy to hear some of his choice phrases and astute observations.

Writer, photographer, crofter, sheep-breeder, Tamsin Calidas, gave a mesmerising account of her life on a remote Hebridean island, battling the savage weather, local animosity, betrayal, and fearful loneliness. Her session ended with a film from within the waves around her island home, made by her, and overlaid with her voice paying tribute to the healing power of cold water swimming. Altogether moving and uplifting. And her own inner peace, achieved through a catalogue of vicissitudes, pervaded her responses.

More well-known personalities included Alastair Campbell, appearing, not to talk about the years as political aide and strategist to Tony Blair, but to share his levelling experience of depression and alcoholism, and to appeal for more understanding of mental illness. It seemed somehow appropriate that his image was poorly-focused and quite dark, capturing a much softer and more likeable person than in the political glory days.

It was against a backdrop of books and folders that Baroness Helena Kennedy shared something of her multitudinous and high profile activities as a barrister specialising in human rights and civil liberties, as she was questioned by a reporter from Beirut. She’s been involved in a number of infamous international cases, and shared fascinating details of specific incidents, as well as her opinions on world leaders and regimes. Rivetting stuff.

One of my favourite event speakers, forensic anthropologist, Professor Dame Sue Black, gave her inimitable insights into her work and knowledge of bones, combining facts and stories to bring a potentially dry subject to life. What constitutes a ‘good hanging’? How you can determine so much about a person from fragments of their skeleton. How the bones of a newborn baby can survive from Roman times. How much she enjoys working with crime writers. And even though she frequents haunts like murder scenes or disaster sites, her joy of life, her sense of the ridiculous, bear out her philosophy: ‘You have to work by the light rather than let yourself be consumed by the darkness.’

These and others kept me enthralled – and all from the comfort of my own home. Hats off to organisations everywhere who have risen to the challenges of life under a pandemic with such energy and professionalism. The opportunity to escape to a book festival has to be a brilliant tonic for isolated writers everywhere.

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The front line: then and now

Health Minister and Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, was the first member of parliament to be diagnosed with Covid-19. This was back in early March … at a time when there were only 382 reported cases in UK, only 6 people had died. Halcyon days, huh? Less than two months later, we’ve already exceeded 26,000 deaths!

The news about Ms Dorries triggered a memory: I’d read somewhere that she was a trained nurse, and intrigued, I’d bought two of her ‘nursey’ novels in a coffee shop on my way to Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town a couple of years ago, stuck them on my shelves, and promptly forgotten about them – The Angels of Lovely Lane and Christmas Angels. Time, methinks, to dig them out and read them … a kind of tribute to the nurses today working so hard to care for people with the virus in a very different world.

I must confess neither the genre, nor the style of writing, are ones I’d normally go for, but there were aspects of these books that gave me pause for thought and sober reflection. These nurses were practising not long before I trained; their experiences resonated with me. Rather like BBC1’s drama, Call the Midwife.

Reading about and recalling those days made me so grateful for all that modern medicine and social care can offer today. How far we have come from those days when
– the NHS was in its infancy
– antibiotics were wonder-drugs
– women had limited career options
– smoking was the norm
– lecture notes were written on typewriters using carbon paper
– rubber tubing was boiled before being inserted into various orifices
– patients were lifted manually
– doctors were revered and all powerful
– women died or were imprisoned following illegal abortions
– ten days bedrest was de rigeur after a simple D&C; three weeks after childbirth
– nurses wore starched collars and frilly caps, always kept their hair off their face tucked inside their caps, lived in hostels with rigid rules, and were all known by their surnames
– silver buckles on petersham belts denoted qualifications
– the Irish were openly discriminated against …

Compare all that with communication, technology, medical expertise, opportunities, science, in 2020. What would have happened if the dreaded coronavirus has struck then?

In her fiction centring on Liverpool in the 1950s, Nadine Dorries has captured a world I knew, and for a few days took me away from the uncertainties and restrictions and anxieties of our present situation, to a bygone era. Memories both happy and sad. But overwhelmingly reasons to be devoutly grateful for what’s available to us today, and the amazing work our front-line staff are doing – and are able to do – to beat Covid-19.

 

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The Story of Lucy Gault

After all the thrills and scares of the psychological thrillers I’ve shared throughout this year, it seems like a good idea this week to give you a real change; something gentler. and more contemplative. Something calm to counter the mad hurly-burly of the festive season. A book moreover that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Story of Lucy Gault was first published in 2002 – the year its author received a knighthood in recognition of his services to literature, no less!  OK, sounds a pretty exalted pedigree to me. I’m listening.

As you know, I do periodically try to read acknowledged literary works, and this one looked promising when I found it squirrelled away in a little independent bookshop in Wigtown – Scotland’s National Book Town.
Slim volume – tick.
Described as ‘gravely beautiful, subtle and haunting‘ – tick.
By William Trevor a multi-award winning novelist – tick.
Set in a specific historical period: provincial Ireland at the times of civil unrest and anti-English violence – tick.

I’ll do my best to give you a flavour without including spoilers, if I can.

It’s 1921, the slow gentle pace of fires lit in the waiting rooms of railway stations, servants knowing their order in the echelons of society, solid rubber car tyres, communication snail-paced, barefoot children and be-shawled women begging in the streets, the smell of poverty oozing from infested buildings, the backdrop to the central drama a country in a state of turmoil and unrest, a people torn apart by violence and rivalry.

‘It is our tragedy in Ireland that for one reason or another we are repeatedly obliged to flee from what we hold dear. Our defeated patriots have gone, our great earls, our Famine emigrants, and now the poor search for work. Exile is part of us.’

Setting fire to properties, poisoning pets, destruction and invasion – all are commonplace, and Lahardane, the Gault’s family home, is not immune. Heloise, its mistress, fears her English ancestry makes them a particular target, but her ex-army husband, Captain Everard, doubts it; the status of the house, the possession of lands, his own military connections, would be more than enough to attract trouble already. One by one, neighbouring families have moved away, and when local youths try to incinerate their house, Everard shoots his gun from an upstairs window to scare them off. He doesn’t intend to wound but nicks the shoulder of one of the youths. The Gaults are now at even greater danger; they have no choice, they must leave Ireland.

Their only child, Lucy Gault, is eight years old. She’s a somewhat solitary child, staying close to the glens and woods above Lahardane, only occasionally rebelling enough to sneak out for a forbidden swim alone in the sea. Eavesdropping on adult conversations, she picks up something of the adults’ tension. She, however, is determined she will not go into exile from her beloved home; rather she will take steps to force her parents into staying.

When the time comes to leave, she is nowhere to be found … then her sodden summer vest is found in the shingle, one sandal in a shrimp pool … her mother is haunted by the local fishermen’s conviction that nobody has ever escaped the sharks in that part of the ocean … In the end the bereft parents give up hope, and set out for Europe, nomads, leaving no forwarding addresses, no record of their destinations – a tiny sad part of the Irish diaspora.

Only those remaining in Lahardane, arrested in time and memory, wait and keep hope against the day the Captain and his wife might return. And in the waiting, keeping faith. Rooms dusted, ornaments left in their accustomed places, summer vases full, beehives nurtured, footsteps on the stairs and cobbled yard – all these are offered as tokens of that hope.

But what of the rebellious Lucy, the lad whose shoulder took that bullet, the faithful retainers, the solicitor doing his best to keep Lahardane functioning? Their stories unravel alongside the abiding sorrow of Captain Gault and his wife. Guilt, remorse, torment, superstition, faith ebb and flow, denying them peace. The advent of war in Europe changes hopes and aspirations, alters perspectives; influenza sweeps through whole populations. And gradually out of a life shaped by calamity comes a mystery: tranquillity, a faithful offering, a gift of mercy, that astonishes all who see it.

The gentle pace, the antiquated style, of this quiet unfolding story perfectly reflects the emergence of that humbling peace and redemption. I closed the book with a sense of reverence. Would that the world held more such quiet heroism and boundless mercy.

‘Written with grace and finesse and charged throughout with a pervasive disquiet’
‘Unusual, beguiling, beautiful’
‘Stark yet tender’
‘Silence, secrets, muteness, tell the loudest stories here’
‘A homage to the gift of redemptive love’ …
All true.

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The Doctor’s Wife

As promised last week, a dip inside the second treasure discovered in Scotland’s National Book Town last month.

Isabel Gilbert is the naive and unworldly heroine of The Doctor’s Wife – a ‘frivolous sentimental creature, eminently adapted to make any man miserable.‘ She’s trapped in a marriage to a decent but plodding and hard-working country surgeon, with a generous heart but little ambition beyond being useful: George Gilbert, who sets ‘himself conscientiously to work to smooth her into the most ordinary semblance of everyday womanhood, by means of that moral flat-iron called common-sense.’

Content to trudge along in the furrows ploughed by his father and grandfather, unsentimental George is frankly incapable of understanding his wife’s addiction to fantasy; and she is indeed obsessive when it comes to fiction. She wills herself into the ‘phantasmal worlds‘ created by poets and romantic writers; she even longs to develop interesting diseases … starve on the wild cold moorland … be beaten and cast out … know tragedy … to have some kind of grievance … anything to add spice to her life!
‘She wanted her life to be like her books; she wanted to be a heroine,- unhappy perhaps, and dying early. She had an especial desire to die early, by consumption, with a hectic flush and an unnatural lustre in her eyes.’
But in reality
‘Poor Izzie’s life was altogether vulgar and commonplace, and she could not extract one ray of romance out of it, twist it as she would.’

Consumed as she is by a desire for beauty and powerful emotion, luxury, aesthetically pleasing objects, it’s small wonder that she’s attracted to fellow-book-lover and poet, Roland Landsell, the epitome of mystery and smouldering passion, clad in splendidly careless perfection; ‘a grand and beautiful creature, who possessed in his own person all the attributes of her favourite heroes.’ He is the incarnation of all her fantasies, the quintessential romantic hero of all her over-heated dreams, possessed of a fortune, lands and property, aristocratic pedigree, and literary aspirations, all wrapped up in a gloriously enigmatic visage. ‘It was such a love as this which Isabel imagined she had won for herself … the dearest desire of womankind,- a beautiful, useless, romantic devotion,- a wasted life of fond regretful worship.’

So far so very Jane Austen … But in reality, Roland is ‘a kind of failure and a disappointment … a beautiful, useless, purposeless creature; a mark for manoeuvering mothers; a hero for sentimental young ladies,- altogether a mockery, a delusion, and a snare … He had so much money and so much leisure, and so little knew what to do with himself.’

The real enigma is that this rich selfish man of the world should fall earnestly in love with a superficial, unlearned, vapid girl who is so far beyond his honour and class and social milieu, but he loves her ‘fatally, unaccountably, mysteriously, but eternally’, and try as he might, he’s utterly unable to rid himself of the enduring emotion – it’s ‘true metal’, ‘virgin gold’. Having fought against it in vain, he throws caution to the winds and offers her his whole heart and life.

But in fact, Isabel’s own infatuation goes no further than a kind of idealised spiritual unfaithfulness … she is ‘strictly punctilious with herself even in the matter of her thoughts … She only thought of what might have happened if Mr Lansdell had met her long ago before her marriage.‘ There is no sense of danger or disloyalty to her husband in her mind as she meets him clandestinely; she continues to give her duty and obedience to George Gilbert, whilst bestowing the poetry of her soul on Roland Lansdell – after all, why not? – that half of her nature is despised and rejected by her husband. So she is utterly bewildered by Roland’s sense of degradation and shame and humiliation and suffering. Perfect happiness has come to her; she is loved by the bright object of her own idolatry.

Idealised her love may be, but, sadly, her rose-tinted view of the master of Mordred and what he might offer, serves only to highlight ‘the utter hideousness and horror of her life.’  Her only escape is to imagine scenarios where ‘if only …’ had brought her within his orbit under other circumstances and they could have spent their days in idyllic splendour and artistic bliss, or she could even yet succumb to an early romantic death.

As long as Roland remains a remote might-have-been to her, she lives her dream, but when he demonstrates the seriousness of his real-life intentions by expecting her to abscond with him, Isobel is appalled. In desiring something outside the poetical parameters of her ideal, something carnal and earth-bound, he plummets from demigod to cruel villain, debasing something pure and sacred to vulgarity and depravity. She wouldn’t have hesitated to commit suicide and occupy a marble mausoleum with him for all eternity, but to betray her marriage vows, to spend her life in shame and disgrace? –  that would outrage the high ideals of her adoration. His feet are now occupying ordinary mundane ‘common ground’; he himself has become an ‘everyday creature‘. Her dreams are shattered.

But on the wings of that fragmented vision she loses her naive outlook, her childhood, the ‘sweet age of enchantment‘, for ever. Disappointment, followed quickly by tragedy and death, bring reality crashing into her life, mowing down her romantic silliness, and gradually a sadder, wiser, more mature and altruistic woman emerges from the ruins. I won’t spoil the book for you by spelling out what happens.

The Doctor’s Wife was first published in 1864, the eighth of more than 80 novels by author, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who’d already made her name with her (at that time) notoriously scandalous book, Lady Audley’s Secret. This one is not in the genre of sensation fiction for which she’s principally famous, but does include a character, Sigismund Smith, who writes such commercial productions and who debates the good and bad aspects of reading ‘penny-dreadful’ literature. (Speaking of his decision to change his first name from Sam to Sigismund, Mr Smith declares: ‘If a man’s evil destiny makes him a Smith, the least he can do is to take it out in his Christian name.’ – love it!)

The Doctor’s Wife was Mary Braddon’s deliberate attempt to please her more discerning critics with a literary work, borrowing the plot from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and littering the text with literary allusions to real fictional works, although I fear the majority would be lost on most readers (psst … some versions – including mine – add explanatory notes which go some way towards explaining the references for the uninitiated). And inasmuch as it’s all description and analysis and very little plot, it fulfils the requirement for ‘literary’. Those descriptions, however, are wonderfully evocative, wry humour marching alongside perceptive observation and psychological perspicacity, and even occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, but the author takes whole chapters to recount the pecadilloes of her main characters, to animadvert on the folly of their behaviour, the sorrow they fall prey to – and I couldn’t help but picture any reputable agent/editor today scoring nine tenths of it out with a vicious red pen. Indeed, I estimate the whole book is almost 190,000 words; more than twice as long as the recommended length for a novel today, even though there were no computers, no cut-and-paste, 200 years ago! Likewise the adverbs, intrusive verbs, the surfeit of punctuation marks … all no-nos nowadays.

It feels strange to our modern understanding too, to have the all-seeing eye of the omniscient narrator taking us into the thinking and motivation and aspirations of all the characters. And every now and then the said narrator even pops her own head out from behind the screen to animadvert of some reminiscence or preference of her own. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the power of prose that carries you along at a pleasing gentle pace reminiscent of a leisurely stroll in the country lanes of Yorkshire.

Not the best kind of writing to tuck into when I’m seriously editing my own writing I suspect: I’d be adopting the ponderous precision of a bygone age without noticing it. But in between drafts, just what the doctor ordered! The length and style of this review is my personal homage to a lady whose writing should be more widely acclaimed than it is.

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Inside Scotland’s National Book Town

Fourteen independent bookshops in one tiny town? Surely … surely they can’t all survive buried in a remote location deep in a large rural county, way off the beaten track … can they?

You haven’t been to Scotland’s National Book Town, Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, then!

From their names to their ambience, their range of genres to their quirky extras, they’re all distinctive, all appealing.

Pop in to the rustic cafe: ReadingLasses, and you get a sense of how special and distinctive this place is. Tables are scattered throughout the rooms; you bag a seat, and while you wait for your soup to arrive, you browse the books, take in the extensive ceiling-height display of old family photos and artefacts belonging to owner, Dr Jackie, (she was a scientist amongst other things in a former life), slip in to the Women’s Room devoted to lesbian literature and women writers … By the time I’d finished lunch I had five books ready to purchase. It’s irresistible.

Excellent signposting, alphabetic sorting, isn’t confined to the Old Bank Bookshop where co-proprietor, Joyce Cochrane, is a qualified librarian; it seems to be a specialty of the town – so much easier to browse effectively compared with the more haphazard displays I’m used to in the city.

Most of the bookshops are divided into several rooms, inviting you to roam in peace, lingering to flick through possible purchases on the ubiquitous sofas and chairs. Bliss. One shop (The Bookshop) even has a large bed filling a little mezzanine area!!

Not surprising maybe as the owner, Shaun Bythell, is a rather eccentric chap with a whacky sense of humour which you see at every turn.

He is himself a published author as well as owning this the largest secondhand bookshop anywhere in the country, a Grade II-listed Georgian building, holding upwards of 10,000 books and a mile of shelving!

Talk about ramshackle! … and no, I hadn’t caught him on moving-in day!! The place is littered with hazards and piles and boxes and assorted paraphernalia, (I think Shaun would probably give Health and Safety a pretty good run for their money!) but it’s well worth the danger, if you escape without being vilified in his pithy diaries of a bookseller!

But Wigtown is way, way more than a list of assets. As you’ll have gathered, the owners of the said bookshops have fabulous pedigrees – including in their number not just the aforementioned scientist and librarian, but a sheriff/criminal QC, a social worker, teachers – lovely lovely people only too ready to share their stories as well as their welcoming premises. Maybe it’s true that it’s a universal dream …?

It’s on that theory at least that they’ve based another project at The Open Book – billed as a ‘unique holiday experience’. Members of the general public can come to run the bookshop for a couple of weeks, and they do indeed come, from around the world – it’s fully booked until 2021!

I have no idea how everyone copes with the competition behind the scenes, but there was a warm spirit of camaraderie in what they divulged to me, backed up by the enthusiastic team in the Wigtown Book Festival Office. And there’s nothing ‘part-time retirement project’ about their ventures: these people know what’s on their shelves, they converse knowledgeably about authors, they’ve carefully retained a personal touch alongside the rustic country charm and history of their premises.

Sadly the Byre Books shop wasn’t open on weekdays in November, but it’s like a secret surprise hidden down a back alley at the end of a tunnel of trees; such a perfect location for books on folklore and mythology. I crept down there twice just to savour the thrilling approach.

Friday morning was my leaving date, but I simply had to visit the newest bookshop: Well-Read Books, just opened (Friday to Monday only at the moment) by former criminal QC/sheriff, Ruth Anderson, so I popped down to the Wetlands to see the geese until she opened at 10. And boy, was it worth the delay. From the beautiful logo drawn by a local artist to the muted decor, it’s tastefully decorated (still smelling of paint it’s that new) and so beautifully organised, books in such good condition, it’s like a showcase.

But this charming lady knows her subjects – many! It’s her ambition to source specific titles for customers and she totally made my day week year by producing not one but two Mary Elizabeth Braddons for me without advance warning.

Rare treasures, so, of course, I had to snap up both.

Time and space don’t allow me to detail more and retain your goodwill, but every bookshop was an experience, and I supported their ventures by purchasing no fewer than 35 books – only two of which were on my list! Thank you, Wigtown, for a fabulous experience.

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A bookworm’s paradise

Head in the general direction of Dumfries, then point your nose towards the Atlantic Ocean, and with luck you’ll stumble upon a tiny little place called Wigtown, population less than 900.

Small in mathematical dimensions it may be, but Wigtown punches way above its weight in other senses. In 1998, it went from a decaying backwater to become ‘Scotland’s National Book Town’ (after winning a competition against more flourishing towns such as Dunblane and Moffat), a development which acted as a catalyst for major community regeneration.

The rejuvenated and very splendid County Buildings are a monument to the drive to put this sleepy little place on the map. Supportive funding from many sources, and the sterling work of some hugely dedicated enthusiasts, have helped it go from strength to strength.

And boy, does it merit the title of National Book Town twenty years on! Why?
Big breath in …
Because …
it has a thriving annual Book Festival each September – selling in the region of 29,000 tickets this year for 290 events;
plus it masterminds several smaller, more specialist book and festive events in January, March and May and July (that I heard about – there could well be more);
plus it organises outreach literary activities for schools and prisons and care homes and budding writers;
plus it offers opportunities for members of the general public from around the world to realise their dream of running a book shop for a couple of weeks in The Open Book;
plus it currently boasts 14 independent bookshops, and a further 6 book-related businesses;
plus the largest secondhand bookshop anywhere in the country  – a Grade II-listed Georgian building, holding upwards of 10,000 books and a mile of shelving!
And breathe out …

Quaint, pretty, picturesque, atmospheric ‘ the blurb has it, cultural gems nestling cheek by jowl with delightful little tea rooms (also full of books!), a heady mixture of old Scots common sense and farming traditions leavening the literary landscape.

Its own martyrs,

its own stone circle,
its own famous names and connections.

It’s even got a toe in nature conservation, bordered as it is by a nature reserve (which stretches all the way to Newton Stewart in the North and Creetown in the West), home to exotic species of migrant geese down in the saltmarshes; offering easily accessed bird/squirrel hides;

ospreys in the skies; wonderful forest trails a few minutes drive away.

What’s not to like?

I’ve just spent a couple of days there lapping up all the literary references and browsing and exploring. What a treat. Even in November. This tiny town nestling at the remote edge of a vast pastoral county is thriving to such an extent that most of the shops and cafes stay open all year round.

During the September Festival this year – its 20th anniversary – the town was spectacularly decorated with special outdoor wallpaper designed by artist Astrid Jaekel under the theme: If these walls could talk. Each set of drawings illustrated a unique part of that particular building’s history. Some of it is still in situ, so I could see why unsuspecting drivers almost collided with each other when they encountered it initially; ‘striking’ doesn’t do it justice.

You might have noticed that, at the beginning of this month, The Royal Society for Public Health produced a report: Health on the High Street: Running on Empty. It found that ‘unhealthy’ high streets could be taking up to two and a half years off people’s lives. Unhealthy = full of bookmakers and off-licences (points also deducted for payday lenders, fast food outlets, tanning salons, empty shops); healthy = libraries and pharmacies (bonus points also for dentists, opticians, coffee shops, museums and galleries). Yep, I think we can see an inherent weighting here! Anyway … overall our beautiful city, Edinburgh, came top of the health stakes. But, you know what? I reckon Wigtown would be up there in the big league if it were scored. It’s a tonic of a town.

I loved it. And I plan to take you inside some of these fascinating bookshops next week to share my experience of browsing and buying there.

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