Tuesday, 2 August 2022

Scottish Book Tour Part 3

Last day of summer break before I go back to work, a week before my class comes back. It's been a strange summer, back to travelling, a bit of relaxing, a bit of personal stress. The kids are old enough to entertain among themselves, but not good at going out to find their friends due to Covid, so I think they'll be excited to go back to school.

Getting to go back to Scotland twice was amazing. Once on my own to Lewis and Harris with lots of writing and relaxing, once with some of the kids to Glasgow to see friends and family. Both were pretty perfect. After my big book haul in Ullapool, we also hit the bookshops in Glasgow. My younger son has gotten into manga, so Forbidden Planet became his Mecca and after he struggled for so long to get into reading with dyslexia, I was happy to oblige him. Luckily the airline didn't weigh our carryons as I think between the two of us they were a bit heavy with books.

With the travelling, I just managed to finish Ponies at the Edge of the World by Catherine Munro this week. I have to admit I'm not a real non-fiction reader, I struggle with being told what connections to make when reading, but I was a pony-crazy girl, so this seemed a natural draw to me, Scotland and ponies. 


The book's not really about Shetland ponies, though they are the hook that drew the author to Shetland as well as me to the book. Munro uses ponies and the relationship between man and animal in an environment to look at her own developing relationship with the Shetland Islands and how she found her own place within it. Filled with beautiful descriptions of the ponies and other native animals and landscapes, Munro draws us to the beauty of the islands. 

It's her descriptions of the local people I found more interesting. She doesn't shy from the Shetlandic language and shares some local traditions and customs, but she was also able to capture how the small population spread out over the islands manages to create a strong sense of community, between each other and the land. Her non-fiction asides on adaptation and connection to place which were part of the research that took her to Shetland were applied to the ponies and the people and herself, but didn't feel too heavy-handed. 

Ponies at the Edge of the World shares a unique view of the Shetland Islands and its people and animals, connected to each other and their landscape and how choosing to be a part of this place requires a sense of personal adaptation and acceptance. Worth a read. 

August is the Sealey Challenge month, to read a book of poetry a day for the entire month. It's already the second and with school starting for me tomorrow, I know it isn't going to happen. I did pick up some poetry books in Scotland, so my goal is to read them over this month. I post on Twitter first and then collect them here as I did last year. 

Saturday, 16 July 2022

Scottish Book Tour Part 2

Merryn Glover's Of Stone and Sky 

As I read this novel, I found myself asking how can one book encapsulate so much of the Scottish rural experience? It appears to be a multi-generational family drama, but from the beginning widens to include a village, a strath, a community and a whole way of life. 

The novel focuses on the Munros, a shepherding family, Gideon and Agnes, their sons Colvin and Sorley, adopted daughter Mo and Colvin's wife and children. The details of their farming life are lovely depicted, the harsh mingled with the beauty. But it is also a lament for the loss of this way of life in modern society. The sheep that once supported entire communities in Northern Scotland are now often relegated as tick mops for game animals. 

Situated in the Cairngorms, the novel also highlights Scotland's natural treasure with rich language. It also doesn't shy from the bleaker truths: the deforestation of Scotland, disputes between the needs of large estates in the Highlands and locals and the attempt to find a balance between how to use the land, for wildlife, forestry, agriculture and tourism.

Glover also brings in themes such as rewilding, community land buyouts, struggles between the classes, the question of foreigners buying up Scottish land and the loss of the native culture and language, including Gaelic as well as the Travellers. The novel is nicely balanced so that no voice is too strong, there are lairds that try to help the community; there are non-Scots that find a way to fit in and add their colour to the local scene, but the opposite is never white-washed away. 

In trying to write this review, I kept stumbling over the word community and that is what this book is about. The Munro family is central, but their story feels a bit too neat at times. While I grew to love the almost silent character of Colvin, the true main character is the community, the shepherds, the gamekeepers, and the families struggling to keep their homes and jobs. The novel is about the change in Scottish rural communities from before the world wars and the narrator Mo is the voice of that community who tells everyone's story, but in the end, can offer no answers. 

Merryn Glover's prose depicts the place, the people and the culture of various times so vividly, weaving a story that brings many disparate but vital threads of Scotland together, illustrating especially the Cairngorms. I learned a great deal reading this book about Scotland's history and its present troubles, wrapped up in a compelling story.  An amazing read. 

I'm off to Scotland again soon, so might have a few more books to add to the ones I'm still working my way through. 

Saturday, 9 July 2022

Scottish Book Tour Part 1

One of the issues living in a non-English speaking country as an avid reader is getting the books I want to read. I can order books, especially from the big evil online bookseller which I desperately try to avoid, but sometimes getting specific books from smaller presses is difficult. And I miss the kid in a candy store moment of having a whole shop of English books to choose from. 

So when I started organising my trip to Scotland last month, one of the first things I did was check out the possibilities of finding English language bookshops near my route. As I was going to the far north, there were only two small shops, no big chains, so I thought I'd better order in what I wanted in advance. 

The Ullapool Bookshop was nice enough to find almost all the books on my list, though some weren't available in time for my trip. I was going to pick them up on the way home but forgot to pack the book I was reading before I left, so I stopped in before I caught the ferry to Lewis. So I got the pleasure of dipping into the hoard during my trip. 

One of my goals was to write short reviews here of the books as I read them. My selection mostly includes Scottish writers with some poets. 


The first book I dived into on the trip was William McIlvanney's The Papers of Tony Vetch - all his books mentioned are available here. Author Ian Rankin's collaboration to finish McIlvanney's last Laidlaw novel was released last year and it took me a while to get a copy. I read The Dark Remains and was intrigued to find out how much was Rankin and how much was McIlvanney, how much of Rebus was inspired by Laidlaw. 

I bought Laidlaw earlier in the year and was blown away, especially by the character's take on Glasgow, a city where I lived for over a decade. I have to admit I'm hooked. The detective stories are just vehicles for the character's musings on the world, for the rich prose, but they carry them well while keeping the reader engaged with the plot. All three of McIlvanney's books are amazing for playing with language and imagery, but the last one, Strange Loyalties, the only story told in first person from the point of view of the disheartened detective is raw and powerful. I actually dragged it out, so I could enjoy it for longer. I cannot praise these books enough and Canongate have rereleased his other books, so I have a few tucked in my Christmas wish list. 

I studied Scottish Literature back in the day and one of my interests was literature in the Scots language. I can read Scots, but I cannot speak it and sound natural. My own accent always overpowers. Emma Grae is a promoter of the language on Twitter and this was how I came across her novel in Scots novel Be guid tae yer Mammy


Reading the novel is like having my friends and family and especially my mother-in-law Jeanie talking in my head. Grae captures the language and the place, a west-Scotland small town, so well. The plot of the novel was unexpected, a family drama that was neither twee, saccharine nostalgia nor dour Scottish misery. It felt balanced with characters that I cared about and a realistic ending. 

The Scots flowed well and I was quickly caught up in it and the story. It wasn't just used for dialogue which is often how Scots authors balance using the language with allowing non-Scots to read it, but gave the book part of its personality. I don't think non-Scots speakers would take long to find their way into the novel, as it wasn't forcing old words into new mouths, but reflecting how it's used every day. As an advocate of Scottish literature and Scots, I'm overjoyed to see the language making its way into more and more books. Emma Grae is already set to bring out her second book in Scots in the near future, so something to look forward to. 

I've started my next book, so will hopefully be able to review it soon. Photos from my stay in Ravenspoint Hostel in Kershader, Isle of Lewis. 

Saturday, 2 July 2022

A State of Doing

I came back to Helsinki in the middle of a heat wave. There's too much going on, my heart is pulled in so many different directions: Finland joining NATO, the reversal of Roe v Wade, Scotland calling for another independence referendum. Not including the multitude of events happening outside my three 'homes'. An avalanche of emotions and worries and wondering what stance I should take, what I can do.

The summer is flying by, there is so much I want to do, so much I should be doing for myself and my family. I'm trying to balance the art of getting things done while leaving time to do nothing, to do the jobs that have to be done alongside the little activities I do just for myself. 

To do. That verb seems to rule my life. Lists to tick off, the pressure of time slipping through the hourglass. Much of the pressure is self-inflicted, but I am the person in the family who does things, and makes sure they get done. It never lets up and I never get a break from the demands of things to be done. Even on holiday on my own, I was on the computer in the morning and evening, sorting things for my children or myself. I couldn't really relax on the trip either as I felt I had to do things, and see places as there was limited time and soon I'd be gone without those possibilities. 

I needed that holiday on my own as the things I wanted to do, needed to tick off my list wouldn't appeal to the kids. I needed to go to Callanish, I've been waiting 30 years, but I also wanted to wade through the boggy sheep fields to the Callanish II and III sites and the Tursachan site further away. I wanted to sit in the wind and write in the shelter of the stone, to take innumerable photos of stones. I went at my own speed, took detours to empty spaces, had hours in the evening curled up in bed with a notebook or computer, so I could come back and do things for other people: the laundry, sort school places, take the kids from one activity to another.

Writing is another thing to do, but it rarely has the pressure of being done for other people. Few would notice if I stopped writing, and no one would notice if I stopped submitting. There are no requirements that I publish, that I produce yet another poem. It is basically free of external demands and is easily pushed down the to-do list. Yet given time and space, it's the thing I want to do the most. In the summer, I make sure I leave time in the morning to write. My child-free weekends are dedicated to it, though I do need to finish taking down the old guttering, weed and water my allotment and a myriad of other things before the kids come back tomorrow. 

I accept that I need to do things. I cannot sit still for long and am always doing something else while watching TV or sitting in a waiting room. I'm better at getting on with things myself rather than waiting for someone else to prioritise jobs the same way as I do. I've learned to ensure my needs fit in somewhere along the line, pushing them higher and higher as the kids become more capable. 

Amidst all that's going on in the world, I just put my head down and plough on with life. I will do it all, somehow: what I need to, what I want to, what I have to. In my own time and way, it will all get done.

Write blog: 

Thursday, 23 June 2022

I am an iambapoet

Strange to say that, but I am. And totally chuffed, but . . . 

there is an art to self-promotion and part of it is timing. I'm still learning the ropes, it's knowing what to say, where to say it and when and how often to say it. I don't want to flog my stuff to death, but I do want it out there. Hopefully, people are interested and will check out what I've linked or added. 

I headed off on a holiday to Scotland just as iamb poetry launched Wave Ten with three of my poems last week and I've been so caught up with my trip, a health scare and worries about one of my kids that I haven't been promoting myself or iamb. But here it is and it's not going anywhere, so check it out.

Fifteen poets with three poems each, in text and recordings. I'm included with such bright lights as Penelope Shuttle, Annick Yerem, Elizabeth Castillo and eleven other amazing writers. 

Please take the time to listen to my work as well as the other poets'. The editor Mark Antony Owen has worked tirelessly, fighting with the tech and the texts to put together another great production and I'm pleased to be a small part of it. So please, take some time to check out my work and the other Wave Ten authors as well as perusing some of the earlier Waves. 

Other publication updates: another one of my Wolfpack Contributor poems has just come out for Fevers of the Mind and Scrawl Place, a great location-based poetry zine, has published two of my poems about places in Helsinki, Suomenlinna and Cafe Regatta. Black Nore Review is also publishing my poem 'Obscured' on their website. 

Once I'm back from my holiday I can get back to blogging properly for a month or two before school starts up again. Lots of wee things in the pipeline that I hope come to fruition. 

Enjoy the sun, if it's round your way. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

May Days: On Strike, Out of Breath

The schools in Helsinki are on strike, so the kids and I are at home. It feels strange to be in a union and on strike after 30 plus years of working freelance or low wage jobs. Schools in Finland only had the first 6-week lockdown due to Covid, but have stayed open since, so it feels weird to shut them for this. But necessary. 

I'm not sure how long the strike will last, a week at most at least to begin with. I can't do school work and can't do much of my research project beside go through literature, but I have so much I want to do, I need to read for my course tomorrow, plant potatoes and onions, tidy the garden after cutting down a tree, clean the house (ok, I don't want to do that, but it needs doing) and write, of course. 

Vappu (May Day or Beltane) was cold as usual. We tried a picnic with our Scottish Society friends, but it was short-lived. 

The birch trees are massing to kill me with their pollen. My eyes itch so much, so the outside work I need to do will have its negative outcomes, but I need to get on. But the days are long, it's 9.30pm and the sun is just thinking about setting, so I feel invigorated, even if I don't really have the energy. A few new poems are trickling out as well, partially due to this, but also due to the kick of Global Poetry Writing Month in April.

I'll try to use this time the best I can between also having the kids home and loads of uni work to do. 

Publication update: I've had a poem 'Lokakuu, Mud-Month' published in Poetry Scotland. I've also been chosen to be part of the Fevers of the Mind's Wolfpack, a special month feature spot on the site. I'm very grateful for having this opportunity. Last Leaves has published my poem 'Finding Family' for the latest issue. Thanks to all the magazines and websites for including my work, it's lovely to feel a part of the writing community. 

A post-script: It has felt non-stop with worries these days. Climate change, Covid, Brexit, Ukraine and Finland wondering whether to join NATO and now the possible repeal of Roe vs Wade. I tend to keep away from the political here as it's so overwhelming and I need a respite, but it feels like we're sliding towards something dark and omnipresent that's slowly consuming us.

I started a list poem about the time the Amazon and Australian fires were happening, a list of 'I can't breathe' lines, each a body blow of breath-stopping events from across the world, from George Floyd to the streets of Bucha. It keeps growing, saddeningly. I see no signs of being able to stop writing it, but I need to speak up in my small way.


Saturday, 9 April 2022

Global Poetry Writing Month - Spring Will Come

The snow and ice are hanging on in Finland. Another teacher and I celebrated seeing mud at the edges of the park yesterday at recess when the rest of the world seems to be enjoying bluebells and planting out in their gardens. My back garden is still under half a meter of compacted snow, but the sun is slowly working on the front flower beds. Spring will properly come, later than I hoped, just like almost every year here. 

Amidst the uni deadlines, full-time work and kids, worries of war and whatever else feels like crawling on my plate at the moment, I'm writing. It's Global Poetry Writing Month and every day I'm scribbling a few lines that might or might not become a poem when it's grown up. I haven't been able to do much as I've been so overwhelmed and so, so tired so this is a relief. 

But there's good news. I've secured a short summer job that will take me abroad, so that's something to look forward to. I've finally had a few acceptances after a long dry couple of months. The Scottish publisher Crowvus has included my poem 'Ariadne's Thread' in the first issue of their journal Hooded.  And Dear Damsels has published my poem 'What We Inherit' in their recent batch. So things are looking up after a long winter. 

I'm writing whatever small thoughts come into my head: old memories, new hopes, nonsense lines, noticing the landscape change, my mood brighten, the days until summer release getting closer. I am writing and that makes it all good.