WRITE THAT MEMOIR!

My dad always said he thought he had a book in him. He was a voluminous reader, but he died with that story unwritten.

Why, oh why did he never write it? Or even some notes about his early years? Who taught him to snare rabbits? Who made him expert with a shotgun and fishing rod? How did his own father die?

My mother did better. She finished a pamphlet of tales about her grandmother’s family, and after that, I was able to put some of her memories together in book form for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren when they’re ready.

Because they will treasure them one day. The older you get, the more these things matter. When Hamish Whyte did his memoir of Edwin Morgan, it was important. And not just for the greater good of literature.

As a result of all this, I enthused when a former work colleague, Morag Ridings, told me she wanted to write her life story. She had already done an illustrated booklet about her first husband’s life and death for his three grown-up children (and their children). The technology is there. It can be done.

But a full memoir is a big thing. She said she needed an editor. So I read the narrative chapter by chapter as she put it together, and all this started during lockdown, a good time for such things. She worked incredibly hard, but I am a tough critic. Anyway, the book grew, and as it grew, Morag’s natural aptitude blossomed. She wrote and revised, revised and wrote.

I’m not easily impressed but—blimey—the style she was developing was astonishing. She was accessible, compelling, interesting—a joy to read.

After two years and several drafts, there was a book. Two hundred and thirty-six pages of A Girl from Glasgow. I designed and typeset the volume, and did the jacket. She paid for the printing. I put it on Amazon. Friends and family bought it. She cheerfully lost money on nearly every copy sold. It’s costly to create something like this, and frankly, you have to self-publish it, because unless you’re a celebrity or have done something of historical significance, no commercial publisher would take it on.

Her Amazon reviews were wonderful. This is my favourite:

Wow—I am lost for words. From the moment I picked up this wondrous book I could not put it down. Personal favourite chapter of mine was “Living with a Teenage Boy”. This was disconcerting, awe-inspiring and amazeballs.

We printed 150 copies, and then another fifty, and then another fifty. We have a few left.

If you know anyone who grew up in or around the West End of Glasgow in the forties or fifties, or anyone who worked in further education (the Scottish colleges, or ‘techs’) in the eighties and nineties, I particularly recommend Morag’s book for them. (If they email nell [@] happenstancepress.com, I’ll invoice at cost without an Amazon fee.) The book is fascinating. On a human basis too, it’s deeply affecting—both sad and funny.

Humorous, pragmatic, resourceful, Morag wrote the book my father never got around to. It’s an inspirational example for anyone thinking they might do the same.

But thinking is no use. Here’s what you need to do.

Get a piece of paper or a computer, or whatever you use to write with. Write a heading: CHAPTER ONE.

Then keep going.

SOME THINGS ARE HARD TO TALK ABOUT

I first met writer and poet Clare Best in 2009. That’s when I published her poetry pamphlet Treasure Ground, which grew out of a residency at Woodlands Organic Farm on the Lincolnshire Fens. In the poems, a Romanesco cauliflower has the allure of a Grecian urn; and a corn dryer opens a world of silence. Clare wrote about Lincoln Red cattle too, and how to read them; and about sheep, and how they read us. First, her poems were distributed in the produce boxes distributed to 2,000 Woodlands customers. Later, Treasure Ground was sold at farmers’ markets. We had to reprint!

Although their author was much invested in them, the Treasure Ground poems weren’t personal. So when Clare went on in Excisions, her first full collection, to write about about her double mastectomy, in naked detail and with unparalleled openness, I was astonished. Astonished and humbled. But she can do that. She has that skill. Each time you think you know her, she peels off another layer. She’s unafraid to talk about those things we keep most private. Or perhaps she is afraid but — after many years of preparation — uses her fear to fuel the creative act.

That’s certainly what she does in The Missing List, a prose memoir about an abuser, her own father. And then just last year in her most recent poetry book, Beyond the Gate, the central focus is another deep grief. This time the ache at the heart of things is the act of choosing to end a pregnancy. What a difficult thing to speak about! Could anything be harder?

Many women (and men too) go through their lives with shadow children, lost family members who died before being born. Privately, the unborn are remembered. Publicly, they don’t exist. How do the mothers who couldn’t mother them manage their loss? What can be done with this reserve of secret pain?

Clare Best addresses such questions in Beyond the Gate, and her consideration is personal. By no means every poem deals with the issue head-on, but quite a few touch on it. Others ‘have their roots in the soil of that experience’, as Clare puts it. And because the experience is so difficult to talk about, we decided we would tackle it. We would read some of the relevant poems together, we would talk naturally about the thoughts that arose, and we would record the discussion and make it public. We would open the gate.

The resulting audio session was planned but not rehearsed (we didn’t know in advance exactly what we were going to say). It lasts about forty minutes. Several poems are visible on screen as we speak or read, though not the longest — the one that deals most directly with the pregnancy and its ending. We don’t discuss ethics. We consider only the poems, and the way they approach what it is to live with the irrevocable and unchangeable consequences of a grievous decision.

The link below will take you to the YouTube recording if you would like to listen.

HAPPY WET YEAR!

Happy New Year to wildness and wet! Because there’s plenty of that stuff round here. It brings to mind ‘Inversnaid’ and I know I won’t be the only one muttering “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet!”, although maybe I don’t absolutely mean it. Not after the last few weeks.

I’ve never been to Inversnaid village, which is on the shores of Loch Lomond, seventy odd miles to our west. But right now it’s soggy underfoot in Fife too. My new-ish trainers, I noticed this afternoon, are letting water in. Perhaps they didn’t expect quite so much of it.

It hasn’t been raining continuously, I guess, but all the same, it’s profoundly, deeply wet, with the winter woods bare and shining. Drifts of dank leaves are sludging all the pathways. Ditches are waterlogged. Drains are clogged. Burns are swollen with brown, muscly water. Brand new ponds have invaded fields and woods as if they intend to stay. Mud and muddles, dubs and puddles. Boots on, and headgear, gloves and scarves.

It’s not cold though. More faintly misty, grey round the edges. Mysterious. You see the tails of squirrels frisking just above your eye-line. Anything could happen in weather like this. The ground under our feet could sink and we could go with it. We’re walking in clouds.

Only one poem will do, and Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote it in the 1880s. It’s the antidote to gloom, even if the “beadbonny ash” (the rowan with its glorious red berries) had all its jewels eaten by the birds before Christmas. No matter! It’s beaded with raindrops now.

[Illustrations courtesy of poet Eddie Gibbons, who called in a little AI and worked magic]

Inversnaid

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.