Marram – Leonie Charlton

A review of Marram, Memories of sea and spider-silk, non-fiction by Leonie Charlton published by Sandstone Press

Marram, memories of sea and spider-silk would have made a great Xmas gift! Published by Sandstone Press, it is a lilting account of the author, Leonie Charlton and her friend’s ride on Highland ponies across the Outer Hebrides from Barra to Callanish on Lewis. Charlton, author of short stories and poetry, dedicated her first full-length book to her mum, a jeweller, with whom she had a tricky relationship (‘I’d wondered if life would be better without her. Then she died and I was broken’). Charlton takes a bag of her beads on the journey, and leaves them in nooks as she meanders the ‘necklace’, ‘strung on streams of salt and fresh water’.

Marram grass growing beside the sea, not in the Outer Hebrides in this instance, but the east neuk of Fife

The carefully chosen language, the delicacy of description, is one great strength of this travelogue – it invites the reader to smell and touch the landscape. It causes us to slow to a walking pace and admire the ’empty, sun-bleached snail shells’ at our feet, and to look up and listen to the Arctic terns which ‘serrated the air with their cries’. Marram is full of colour: ‘the aubergine hue of the South Uist hills’; a drake Mallard, a ‘startle of tourmaline’; the ‘gold-gilt ‘of the title’s grass; and tones of dappled grey and cream dun taken from the coats of their four-legged friends. Indeed, for those who love things equestrian, there are many parts which will delight. Alongside the lush detail lies narrative and some reported conversation, intimate shared memories, meetings with islanders who offer grazing, and much fascinating local history – who knew that horses came to Scotland with the Spanish Armada, staying and enriching the local breeds?

‘a pilgrimage of love and personal sea-change’ p. xv

With a few more travel books by women thankfully being published nowadays, some featuring extreme treks and adventures, Charlton moves around with a refreshing and altogether Shepherdian * disregard for clocking up the miles or achieving great summits. The group endure their fair share of turbulent weather, not only dreich terrain and sodden camping, but silent striding which allows for recollections of sick beds to surface and feelings to be bravely faced. Although they dine on oysters and prosecco, they also display capability and strength when called for.

Which it is! We are pre-warned, but it is nevertheless shocking when, towards the end, there is a hair-raising account of some serious difficulty all four characters encounter and the established pace and style of the writing changes to reflect this incident. However, despite the occasional humorous episode (one horse takes a very long pee in a church carpark!) and a few joyous beach gallops, the overriding gait of the ruminative narrative is steady throughout. This is indeed a quiet, attentive book which brings the remote country alive, and reminds you to go off and explore.

*Nan Shepherd Scottish writer best known for ‘The Living Mountain’, a collection of essays about walking and living in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland.

Marram will be published on 19 March 2020

Have you read this? Please leave a comment and tell me what you thought.

Richard Holloway – book festival

Richard Holloway was at the Book Festival on 16th August 2018. He is chairing the following events there: Stuart Kelly on 18th , Hilary Spurling and Jenny Uglow on 23rd at 15.45 and Claire Tomalin on 27th at 11.45.

Richard Holloway
Richard Holloway

Compared to James Runcie, 85 year old Richard Holloway is a small man, smooth headed and bespectacled. Runcie describes him in the introduction as ‘gorgeously unorthodox; a bold troublesome priest; repeating others’ words about him as ‘Britain’s barmiest Bishop’ and ‘an old bugger’ which brings a wry smile to Holloway’s face as he begins to speak about Waiting for the Last Bus, Reflections on Life and Death published by Canongate in Edinburgh. “It kept writing itself”, Holloway explains, ”right up until the last minute”. Beyond in fact, because he then smuggled an extra page at the end, beginning, “My dog Daisy died … We walked thousands of miles together on the Pentland Hills until she was too old. The first trek I took without her…I wept …”. Some in the audience wept too, and there is an aaah before the applause following this reading.

This is a moving and a humourous Edinburgh International Book Festival event. Runcie asked Holloway if his book is a 21st century Ars moriendi (Medieval end of life practical instruction, The Art of Dying, 1414) and he replied “I think that’s an excellent way of putting it”. He makes the point several times, that what with the increasing medicalisation of dying and the tendency for people to speak in certainties (which, he says, can never be), we are no longer allowed to do it ourselves. He tells us that he wishes to remain in his own bed, to die “at home so I can be cuddled. I might even come out with some famous last words.” “You could be there for hours!”, Runcie retorts, getting another laugh.

Replete with stories and quotes galore, Holloway’s conversation is slick and deeply informed. He’s aware, compassionate and demonstrates informed understanding. The sayings trip off his tongue – this is a subject he is an expert at, and he brings us up to date with his current thinking in response to the likes of Richard Dawkins “(he’s so certain and I am so unsure, that he has the same effect on me as an evangelical fundamentalist”); the Dalai Lama (who summed up the difference between them by saying “I am a cat man, you are a dog man”. “I like the old guy” Holloway told us!); assisted dying (an “intensely complicated “ subject); and how to explain the horror of death to a young person (“Don’t lie directly to a child. A consoling fiction may be.”).

After 50/60 years as a priest, “death’s an old friend”, Holloway explains in his clipped Scottish accent. He sways gently from side to side as he reads at the lectern, entertaining us: “I’m hoping Hollywood will turn me into a Zombie. I’m told I’ll require no make-up”.  And then he offers up his advice: “Cherish those you love, and indulge in melancholy. Let’s do it well.”

Here is my own review of  ‘Waiting for the Last Bus’

book festival

We Shall Fight Until We Win – book review

Book Review: We Shall Fight Until We Win, A Century of Pioneering Women. The Graphic Anthology.

We Shall Fight Until We Win is an anthology of pioneering women from the past 100 years. It has been published by 404 Ink (last year they produced Nasty Women whose contributors include our very own Becca Inglis), and Glaswegian BHP Comics, whose alphabet book, The Mighty Women of Science came out in 2016.

From Emeline Pankhurst and Nicola Sturgeon, through Noor Inayat Khan  and Shami Chakrabarti, to M. Thatcher and Mhairi Black MP, this wonderfully active and varied book gathers together 100 years of female power. And that’s just the subjects!

Most strips encompassed in the book have a writer and an illustrator, also female: Denise Mina (words) on Betty Boothroyd  (for eight years the Speaker at the UK House of Commons); Shazleen Khan (graphics) on Joan Bakewell  (author, playwright, Humanist of the Year, and appointed ‘a voice of older people’); Letty Wilson  (graphics) on The Vindication of Diane Abbott .

On top of that, Laura Jones (Emerging Publisher of the Year 2017) and Heather McDaid (The Saltire Society Emerging Publisher of the Year) are the Scottish publishing freelancers who started 404 Ink, both under 40 and pioneering ahead in their field, both able to commission seriously skilled young women.

 

We Shall Fight 2
Nicola Sturgeon ilustrated by J Milton.

Strength and determination abound in this publication, and it starts, as you would expect, with Emmeline Pankhurst, Nicola Love’s  text running, “We were willing to break laws…so that we might force men to give us the right to make them”. In one of those happy coincidences, Charlot Kristensen’s  graphic on page 5 depicts the suffragette rally taking place in the same street in London where 250,000 recently marched to register their feelings about (among other things) the misogyny of Donald Trump.

Each chapter is idiosyncratic with a distinct style and quality: realistic (Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh); caricature (Poison Penmanship, Jessica Mitford); like a traditional comic strip (Jackie Forster); innocent looking drawings (The Radical in the Footnotes, Beatrice Webb); colourful (The 60%) and monochrome (Jeyaben Desai) reflecting both artist and story. “A graphic novel can say more than just words, without cramming it all into text.” states illustrator Maria Stoian.

The contributors involved in this publication specifically depicted women “with multiple sides to them” (Jenny Bloomfield). “It became a project to make it diverse. It’s historical so that was hard” (Heather Palmer, BHP). Above all, We Shall Fight is informative and documents women who have made an astonishing difference: in torture rehabilitation (Helen Bamber), as a WW11 spy (Inayat Kahn), and there is also a group of school kids, The Glasgow Girls, who stood against the policy of detaining children for immigration purposes.

Jenny Bloomfield is right,”it is amazing what you can get across in a small physical space.”

A Graphic Novel of Women, Equality Is Not Won, is an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sat 11 Aug 13:45 – 14:45

Do you often read graphic fiction or non-fiction? I’d love to know, so leave me a comment and we can have a chat.

Book Review – A Human Heart by Matt Hopwood

A Human Story is a collection of first-hand recollections gathered by “storyteller and facilitator of sharing space” Matt Hopwood, with a brief foreword by Clare Balding. They are unified by the theme of love “made and given” – love for another, the land, a parent, child or the self. Simple and intimate, these monologues and conversations are touching and, at times, wonderful.

Setting out with only a few possessions and his beard, Matt walked 500 miles from Lindisfarne across the border into and around Scotland to Callanish, the home of the famous standing stones on the Isle of Lewis. “Scotland…where the hard lines dissolve a little and the beauty and spirit of the earth finds an essential space.” He trained in Applied Anthropology at Goldsmith’s, University of London, and is more of listener and transcriber than a writer, inviting his contributors to speak from the heart and not overwhelming their words with his.

This spacious book with its high quality paper and gently informal photos, is divided into 34 chapters, each with an account of love, varied in tone and often entertaining, and a brief piece by Hopwood himself. He describes listening as “an act of profound compassion.” As a reference to his profession there is a chapter on the art of listening.

Travel writing is on-trend, particularly accounts of treks taken on foot in the ancient tradition of the pilgrim or Camino traveller, and this book falls into that category. We walk alongside the author as he delights in the landscape, relying on local kindnesses for his accommodation, and seeking stories.

The book’s publishers, Birlinn, state that Hopwood “admits to having struggled to feel or express any emotions at all until he reached his 30s”, and many of the storytellers address this subject or recount events which demonstrate love without having to spell it out. There is the hospice worker who spent a final 15 hour day with someone, went home to bake a cake, and returned to leave it on the relative’s doorstep; the reluctant father’s intense feelings for his child who writes “It’s the first forever”; and in the last chapter, “When you connect to that other person’s essence,…you’re not alone anymore..”. This thoughtfully presented lexicon of love contains honest accounts from men and women of all ages and offers an antidote to a life where it can be surprisingly hard to say ‘I love you’.

Published by Birlinn.

To share your love story with Matt Hopwood, here is his email