Sunday, November 30, 2014

Books and high places

Today (30th November) is not only the last day of Book Week Scotland 2014, it is also St. Andrew's Day, a day on which Historic Scotland properties across the country are thrown open to the public free of charge.*

Last year my family and I visited Stirling Castle thanks to this offer; this time we decided to visit Doune Castle. We chose Doune because it is not very far away from us. I also thought that it might be fun to finish my reading pledge for Book Week Scotland (which was to read a piece of Scots literature to my family every day) by reading an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe in a genuinely mediaeval setting. I was delighted therefore to discover from a display in the castle that it was used as one of the locations for a TV adaptation of Ivanhoe! Actually, Doune Castle has been used as a film location a number of times, the most famous being for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I have to admit that I did succumb to temptation and lean off the battlements to shout, "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!" at some baffled-looking tourists ("What did she say?" asked one of them, shaking his head). I won't have been the first person to do that; it's practically de rigeur for visitors to the castle...

The excerpt I chose to read was part of the scene in which Rebecca (my absolutely favourite character in Ivanhoe) is imprisoned in a turret room, and the evil Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert comes up to have his wicked way with her; she successfully holds him off by climbing onto the balcony and threatening to throw herself to her death if he comes one step closer. Impervious to pity, he is however impressed with her courage and self possession.

We sat by the window in the upstairs room pictured in the photo above. I read from the book whilst my daughter looked at the drop and considered how very unpleasant it would be to throw yourself out! I absolutely loathe heights so I must say it certainly brought the scene to life in a very visceral way...

I'm thrilled that we had such a dramatic end to our week of readings for Book Week Scotland. Over the course of the week we have read from the works of Burns, Scott, Stevenson and Conan Doyle as well as a contemporary poet, Kona MacPhee. I'm very aware that we have only scratched the surface - I for one will certainly be reading more Scott in the near future. Recommendations from Scott fans welcomed!

As this is the seventh and last day of Book Week Scotland, I'd like to thank everyone who has followed this blog, and also everyone who has retweeted or otherwise shared my posts about Book Week on social media.

Above: Doune Castle 

* The free tickets have to be ordered in advance, so be sure to look out for this offer next time!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The speckled band

Today was day 6 of Book Week Scotland and it probably presented the biggest challenge yet in meeting my reading pledge, because we were out nearly all day visiting friends in Glasgow. I had had some idea of reading to my family in the car on the way to their house, but as there was a bike in the boot with the front wheel sticking out between the two rear seats (!) I was unable to sit in the back with the children as planned. Also, I had to map read. I don't think reading a map of Scotland is quite in the spirit of my reading pledge...

After we arrived at our friends', we went for a walk and the boys went mountain biking, then we had tea and cake, and then we had dinner and wine. By this time it was very dark outside. It was patently going to be impossible to read anything on the journey home, and too late to do it when we got there. So in the end, I left the adults chatting over coffee, lured my daughter into the hosts' kitchen and read to her in there. The boys missed out but I gave them a recap of the highlights on the trip home. I hope honour was satisfied.

Tonight's reading was The speckled band, a Sherlock Holmes story by Edinburgh-born Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of whose other, non-Sherlockian tales I read earlier in the week. I chose this story because I have a particular fondness for it. When I was a child, my father had a couple of vinyl records with dramatisations of Sherlock Holmes stories on them, and The speckled band was one of them. This was in the days before audio books and indeed even before CDs. I think there were at least four recorded stories, but the only one I can remember was The speckled band. I think that was the only one I was actually interested in listening to, because I found it incredibly scary - evidently I had a taste for the macabre even at an early age. I remember I used to listen out for the moment when Julia Stoner chokes out the words, "It was the band! The speckled band!" with a kind of horrified fascination. It was a moment of supreme and grotesque drama.

I very much enjoyed revisiting this story with my daughter. If you would like to read it, it is available online at but personally I think it is worth investing in a copy of your own. This is the one I read from (also pictured above): The Adventures & Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes Wordsworth Classics but there are many other editions.

I'll be back again tomorrow (Sunday 30th November) with my final reading for day 7 of Book Week Scotland!

Friday, November 28, 2014

"There was a man of the Island of Hawaii..."

It's day 5 of Book Week Scotland, and I am continuing with my pledge to read a piece of Scottish literature to my family every day! As it's Friday evening and for once none of us had to rush off anywhere, I had time to read something a little longer than the things I have been reading for the past few days, namely, Robert Louis Stevenson's story The Bottle Imp. 

This story is a particular favourite of mine. I've blogged about it before, in a post called Tempered in the flames of hell, which is a quote from the story. It concerns a "man of the Island of Hawaii" who buys a bottle containing an imp who will do the bidding of whoever owns it. There are two catches: firstly, that if someone dies whilst in possession of the bottle they will go straight to hell, and secondly, that it can only ever be sold at a loss. So the price is forever going down, and as it becomes lower it becomes more difficult to sell the bottle on, because when there is no lower price the last owner will be irrevocably damned.

Bottle Imps, as I've explained in my previous blog about them, were not invented by Stevenson, but he gives his own style and character to the story with its beautiful and exotic location, and the gorgeous language and descriptions. It also has a very satisfying ending, and if there is one thing I hate it is a cop-out ending; this isn't.

I can't say much more without risking an enormous spoiler, but if you wish to read the story for yourself, the entire thing is available online here: The Bottle Imp. I thoroughly recommend it!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Today is day 4 of Book Week Scotland, and I have been continuing with my reading pledge to read aloud a piece of Scottish literature to my family every evening.

No such selection would be complete without a contribution from Robert Louis Stevenson, so this evening I read chapter one of Treasure Island. There are many exciting passages in this book but I decided to read from the very beginning because I'd hate to create any inadvertent spoilers - I'm hoping that listening to some of these excerpts and stories will encourage us all to read further.

The first chapter of the book mainly deals with the arrival at the "Admiral Benbow" inn of a highly disreputable old sailor, who drinks prodigious amounts of rum and terrorises the other customers with his uncertain temper and domineering ways. At the end of the chapter, he meets his match in the quietly-spoken Dr. Livesey, who is not only a doctor but the local magistrate. Enraged by the doctor's refusal to fall silent at his command, the old sailor threatens to stab him with his clasp-knife, but the doctor, unruffled, promises that unless he puts the knife away he will hang at the next assizes.

The doctor also tells the old sailor that, "if you keep on drinking rum, the world will soon be quit of a very dirty scoundrel!'
My daughter was thrilled by this. "Such sass," she remarked, happily.

If you wish to read the chapter we read tonight, Treasure Island is available here online: Project Gutenberg Treasure Island - however, I'd say it's well worth investing in your own copy.

Above: Long John Silver, the anti-hero of Treasure Island, is a favourite character of mine, 
as I recently explained to the Sunday Mail!


I'm rather late with this post about our reading for day 3 of Book Week Scotland, because we were out all evening yesterday. To recap for anyone who hasn't seen my previous two posts, one of my pledges for Book Week is to read a piece of Scots writing to my family every day, whether a story, poem or extract from a novel.

As with Tuesday's reading, I chose something brief for Wednesday evening because I knew we would be busy. In the event, all the rushing about meant that dinner was a hastily-snatched burger in McDonald's in Perth, so I did my reading there! I should apologise to the work and its creator for the unglamorous setting...

I felt that having read a poem by Scotland's most famous poet, Rabbie Burns, on Tuesday, it would be nice to follow it with a poem - or poems - by a modern poet living and working in Scotland. As it happens, I have two collections of poems by poet Kona MacPhee, who was born in London and grew up in Australia, but who now lives and writes in Crieff, Perthshire. I love Kona's work and have heard her read some of it at a joint event we did at Strathearn Community Library a while ago, along with fellow poet Patricia Ace (we called the event "Two poets and a novelist").

I selected two poems from Kona's collection Tails (pictured). One of them was Elegy for a climber, which was written in memory of Brendan Murphy, who died in an avalanche in India aged only 33. I don't think I am going to attempt to "review" this poem; it would need another poem to do it. Suffice to say that it is both moving and beautiful.
The other poem was Yode, which is one of my favourites. It is preceded by a quote from that great philosopher, Yoda out of Star Wars: Do, or do not. There is no try. The poem expounds upon this theme, which is one with which I heartily sympathise.

If you want to read these two poems, you'll have to lay hands on a copy of Tails, which is available on Amazon. Kona's website does offer another of her poems, The gift, which you can read online here:

Incidentally, the library I mentioned above, at which we held our joint event, is also my local library and the one to whom I addressed my "love letter to a library" for Book Week Scotland. You can read the letter here: Dear Strathearn Community Library

I'll be posting again soon with our reading selection for today, day 4 of Book Week Scotland!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

To a mouse!

It's day two of Book Week Scotland, and I'm continuing with my pledge to read one piece of Scottish writing to my family every day.

Yesterday we had The Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This evening it had to be something briefer because we had to go out and didn't get home until a little while ago (it is now 9.30pm). I thought it would be great to include a poem by Scotland's most famous and classic poet, Rabbie Burns, and the one I selected was To a mouse. 

The pledge I made was that I would read to my family, however, I thought that the poem would sound a lot better if my husband read it, because he has a proper Scots accent and I don't! I did wonder whether this meant that I was cheating, and debated on reading it out as well, but my husband sensibly pointed out that I was delegating the job to him, and still (cough) "taking overall responsibility for making sure it was read". I must say he made a very good job of it too, far better than I would have!

The poem is ostensibly about a mouse whose nest is destroyed by the plough in autumn, but Burns concludes with some far deeper observations about "the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men." The ending is rather melancholy, but there are phrases to make one smile too; we loved the charming descriptions of the mouse and its nest, for example:

That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!

If you would like to read the poem, you can find it online here: To a mouse 

If you haven't made a reading pledge, there's still time! Book Week Scotland runs until Sunday 30th. Make your pledge here.

If you'd like to read the pledges other people have made, check out the Pledge Wall. 

I'll be blogging again over the next few days and I hope to include some modern Scottish writing too.

PS The mouse in the picture is from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

"And where, pray, is Myrtle's head?"

At last, it's Book Week Scotland 2014! Book Week Scotland, as the Scottish Book Trust's website says, is a week-long celebration of books and reading that takes place every November.
During Book Week, people of all ages and walks of life will come together in libraries, schools, community venues and workplaces to share and enjoy books and reading. They will be joined in this celebration by Scotland’s authors, poets, playwrights, storytellers and illustrators to bring a packed programme of events and projects to life.

As well as events, you can write a love letter to your favourite library, or vote for your favourite character from a book by a Scottish author. You can also make a reading pledge or read other people's pledges if you need a few ideas!

I'm pleased to say that I spent this morning at Morrison's Academy, where I talked to the upper school about Book Week Scotland, and read them my love letter to Strathearn Community Library. I also told them about my one of my pledges, which was to read Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. I blogged about reading Ivanhoe a few days ago.

I made another pledge for Book Week Scotland, and that is to read one short story, poem or novel excerpt by a Scottish author to my family every day in Book Week Scotland. You can make as many pledges as you like, and I felt that it was a nice idea to have one that challenged me to read something new, and one that would help introduce my family to some great Scottish literature. As today is the first day of Book Week, I'll be reading the first piece this evening. I'm going to try to blog about each of the things I read, and where the work is old enough to be out of copyright I'll post a link so you can read it too if you like!

This evening I am going to kick off with The Horror of the Heights, a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You can read the story here: The quote I've used for the title of this post is from this story by the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger.

I am a great fan of the "Conan Doyle Stories", particularly the creepy ones. I think my personal favourite is Lot 249 (I love ancient Egyptian shenanigans), so I might read that one later in the week, but my daughter's favourite is The Horror of the Heights; in fact, she did make an attempt to persuade me to read that every night during Book Week!! It's an unusual tale about early aviators exploring the skies, who run into some native fauna they weren't expecting, with gruesome results. In the story, "Myrtle" was a flier who was attempting a height record, and fell from an altitude of over thirty thousand feet. "Horrible to narrate," writes Conan Doyle, "his head was entirely obliterated, though his body and limbs preserved their configuration." Ah, that Edwardian ability to describe the unutterably gruesome in elegant language! Perhaps I'd better not read that one directly before bedtime...

The sky: dangerous. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

10 ways in which Ivanhoe is like The Hunger Games trilogy

Just recently I've been reading the great classic novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, and one of the things that struck me is that although it is titled Ivanhoe, the hero, who bears that name, is out of action for large chunks of the book. He appears early on, gets injured, and then spends a long time lying about in a tent, being carried through the forest in a litter, and then languishing in a castle being tended by a beautiful girl. Although he does finally recover so that he can gallop to the rescue at the end of the book, he misses one of the best fights because he is still lying in bed. This scenario seemed strangely familiar somehow. Aha, I thought, this is just like Peeta in The Hunger Games. But when I thought about it, there were a whole bunch of other similarities. 
Therefore, I bring you: 10 ways in which Ivanhoe is like The Hunger Games trilogy. You're welcome. 
  1. There are the haves (the Norman nobility, the residents of the Capitol) and the have-nots (the dispossessed Saxons, the residents of the Districts). The have-nots tend to supplement their diet by poaching deer.
  2. There is an evil ruler who is skin-crawlingly horrible: Prince John in Ivanhoe, and President Snow in The Hunger Games
  3. There is a whole lot of fighting with different weapons, quite a lot of it in the woods. Bows and arrows feature heavily.
  4. There’s a special signal of a short series of notes. Rue has her four-note mockingjay call, and in Ivanhoe the outlaws have a three note bugle signal to summon help. Three notes, four notes, practically the same really.
  5. The arena gets wrecked in both. In Catching Fire, Katniss shoots a hole in the force field and destroys it. Meanwhile, in 12th century England, Torquilstone castle, scene of a climactic battle, is stormed and burnt down to the ground. 
  6. There’s a hot love triangle with one blonde and one brunette. In Ivanhoe, the hero has to decide between blonde Saxon princess Rowena and dark haired Jewish beauty Rebecca. In The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss has to decide between blond Peeta and dark haired Gale. At the end, the reader is still sucking their teeth over the choice.
  7. The hero spends most of the book injured and out of action, being tended by the heroine. In The Hunger Games, Peeta lies around in a cave having his brow mopped by Katniss; meanwhile Ivanhoe lies around in a tent, a litter and later a castle, having his brow mopped by Rebecca.
  8. There is an older, unfit bloke who drinks too much. Haymitch, meet Friar Tuck.
  9. There is one character who dresses in bizarre colourful clothes and says things which would probably provoke the other characters if they didn’t have a certain amount of affection for them. I’m thinking Wamba the jester here, and Effie Trinket.
  10. There are three volumes in each. Aha, you may be thinking, The Hunger Games is a trilogy, but Ivanhoe is just one book, available as a handy Penguin paperback. This is true, but actually the first edition came in three volumes. I win.   

My reading pledge for Book Week Scotland 2014

Book Week Scotland begins on 24th November, and as I mentioned in a previous post, I'm delighted to be one of the Author Ambassadors for 2014.

As part of my ambassadorial role, I had to make a reading pledge, which you can do too, here: Make a reading pledge.

My pledge was to read a short story, poem or novel extract by a Scottish author to my family every day during Book Week Scotland (whether they like it or not). My daughter, who is a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories, has been trying to persuade me to read The Horror of the Heights every single day...

Anyway, as well as reading to my family, I thought it would be great to make a second reading pledge, and make it a bit more personal: something that would challenge me and expand my knowledge of Scottish fiction.

Several weeks ago, I passed through Waverley station in Edinburgh and saw a display of free paperbacks about the classic Scottish author Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832, as I can now quote with confidence, having read this small volume). The books were issued as part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Scott's novel Waverley. 

I decided that in honour of this anniversary, I would pledge to read one of Scott's novels for Book Week Scotland. I suppose perhaps I should have gone for Waverley itself, but it is set during the Jacobite uprising of 1745, a period of Scottish history I am pretty hazy about, because I did my long-ago History O'level down in England. I was afraid that without a grip on the history behind the book, I might not fully appreciate it. So instead I thought I would tackle Ivanhoe, which is set in 12th century England.

I have to put my hand up here and admit that I tried to read Ivanhoe once before, so long ago that when I found my battered Penguin Classics copy of the book, I discovered my maiden name was written inside it! I seem to recall that I got as far as the joust at Ashby-la-Zouche before running aground. I felt, though, that now was the time for another go, and I monitored my reading progress publicly on Goodreads to prevent myself from wimping out again.

So, how did I get on? Well, perhaps time has worked some miracle on me, because I didn't have any trouble finishing the book this time! I would freely admit that this isn't a book for everyone, though I wouldn't be as harsh as the person on Twitter who told me "life's too short" to read it! It does require an investment of time and concentration. It was published in 1819, after all, and it's a historical novel, so as well as 19th century literary flourishes there is some obscure vocabulary to contend with ("alembic", anyone?!). It is also a fabulously exciting, swashbuckling and romantic story, with some moments of high drama and deep pathos, and peppered with flashes of Scott's dry wit. It's hard not to love a book that encompasses an evil, passionate Knight Templar, a handsome young hero travelling incognito, not one but two beautiful heroines, and cameo appearances from Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. Antique humour does not always stand the test of years, but I thought the scenes with Friar Tuck were really hilarious. I also loved the archaic language, which was very elegantly done (I shall probably be addressing members of my family as "thou" for weeks after reading this book). Ivanhoe has definitely whetted my appetite for more of Scott's works.

I started reading the book on 3rd November, because I thought (rightly, as it turns out) that it would be no good trying to read the entire thing in the space of Book Week Scotland. I've finished it a few days short of the beginning of Book Week, and I'll be choosing an excerpt from it as one of the pieces I read to my family next week.

Do make a reading pledge of your own! I'm thrilled that Book Week Scotland has encouraged me to discover something I might otherwise not have read.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Metropolis - what I thought, where and when to see!

As I think I've said before, I'm not really a reviewer but I like to let people know about things I've enjoyed, so here is one of them: Fritz Lang's stunning Metropolis with live musical score by Dmytro Morykit, which I saw (and heard) yesterday evening at Strathearn Artspace in Crieff.

I've been having a personal "mini season" of very old films just recently - my daughter and I went to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the Glasgow Film Theatre and followed it up with Fritz Lang's M at Dundee Contemporary Arts. So when I found out that Metropolis was actually being screened in my home town, I was naturally very keen to go!

This was the second time that Dmytro Morykit has performed his live piano score to Metropolis here in Crieff, but unfortunately I was unable to attend the first time because I was away in Belgium. Dmytro has since taken his performance to various other venues including Wilton's Music Hall in London, but I had been hoping that he would return to Crieff. When I heard that a repeat performance was in fact planned, I was absolutely thrilled, and having attended I can say that I was definitely not disappointed. It was a superb evening. Such was my enthusiasm for the whole idea that I bought tickets for my husband and teenage son as well as for myself and my film fan daughter, and it is a testament to the power of the performance that they were both enthralled. I accept that classic silent films are not everyone's cup of tea, but this one is a masterpiece, and the live music absolutely completed the experience. At the end of the evening, having played for over two hours and entirely from memory, Dmytro Morykit got a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience.

I think the thing that particularly impressed me about Dmytro's Metropolis score is that it is very sensitive to the style and age of the film, whilst being contemporary enough to engage a modern audience. It is dramatic, and conveys the mood of the different scenes very well, and yet it would also stand alone as a gorgeous piece of music. I thoroughly recommend this performance - do go, if you have a chance to experience it.

Dmytro Morykit is planning a tour in Northern Ireland in early 2015, and as he has already taken Metropolis to various locations around the UK, I am hopeful that further performances will be planned in due course. You can find details on his website, here:

Fangirly: me with Dmytro Morykit at Strathearn Artspace!