Ecstasy (and a tiny bit of agony)

Celebration time. The Backstreets of Purgatory, my debut novel, has reached its crowdfunding target. The special edition will be published by Unbound later this year. The commercial edition should be available in a bookshop near you sometime early next year. Since I heard the news just more than a week ago, I’ve been wandering around in a bit of a daze with a huge grin on my face, not able to concentrate on anything productive. I’m thrilled, excited, totally chuffed.

And more than a teeny bit scared.

A few years ago, I had a short story published in the (now sadly defunct) Ranfurly Review. Titled very imaginatively as The Kiss, it stars Ade who is in hindsight certainly a forerunner to Finn (the main character in Backstreets), and Crystal, a transvestite who despite not bothering to shave when she goes out on the razz Continue reading “Ecstasy (and a tiny bit of agony)”

Little Blog of Horrors’ Ayden Millar answers my Proust questionnaire

My favourite journey? The drive up north to The Drovers Inn or Rest And Be Thankful. Scotland is just bloody breathtaking.

The latest contributor to my Proust questionnaire series is Ayden Millar, a Scottish lifestyle blogger based in Glasgow. I came across her Little Blog Of Horrors when I was browsing Glasgow blogs and was immediately impressed by the the fabulous mix of content, how well written it was, and how striking the photographs were. (Actually, to be honest, what first impressed me was how flipping cool she was.)

Ayden’s blog started life as a university project when she was studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) where she was encouraged to keep an online journal of her work, experiences and reflections. Once she discovered the fashion, beauty and lifestyle community which existed online, it started to develop into something much more personal and less uni related. Seven years later, she works freelance in the art department for the TV industry and updates her blog regularly.

On the Little Blog of Horrors you can find everything from fashion to makeup, hair and skin care, tattoos (Ayden has some cracking tattoos), and her favourite places to eat, drink and play in Glasgow and beyond. Here she obligingly and honestly answers my rather intrusive questions, introduces me to a poet and an artist that I didn’t know (but probably ought to have), and reveals her slightly unsettling obsession with zombie apocalypse scenarios and her shameless delight in bbq sauce stuffed-crust pizza (who even knew that was a thing?).

1. What was the first music that you ever paid for?

The Spice Girls’ Album, ‘Spice’ in 1994.

2. What was the most recent music that you paid for?

A cheeky wee pre-order of my boyfriend’s band’s latest self-titled album, Alburn.

3. What was the most recent book you read?

A Mindfulness Guide For The Frazzled by Ruby Wax.

4. What is your favourite novel?

The Beach by Alex Garland.

5. Who is your favourite poet? Continue reading “Little Blog of Horrors’ Ayden Millar answers my Proust questionnaire”

Let’s be Frank. Writing critiques: the diplomatic, the honest and the just plain rude

And I remember…the crushing humiliation the first time the faults in a piece of work that I considered to be a masterpiece were gently and tactfully revealed to me in all their over-written and pretentious glory.

Recently I had the enormous privilege of critiquing an early draft of a short story written by a friend. This is the sort of thing I love doing but also one of the things that I find tricky to carry off. At least, the part where I summarise my thoughts.

As a veteran (or perhaps a more suitable term would be ‘recovering addict’) of creative writing courses (Open College of Arts, Open University, Lancaster University) and having been for several years now part of a cohort of writing friends who share work regularly, the task is something with which I’m pretty familiar. I love the process of picking apart the structure, the details, the dialogue in a piece of work. Of scrutinising everything that is written to see if it is essential or if Continue reading “Let’s be Frank. Writing critiques: the diplomatic, the honest and the just plain rude”

Fillide Melandroni: Caravaggio’s crooked-fingered courtesan

A world of poverty, violence and prostitution, where a pimp claimed his profits in cash and in favours, where knife fights and scarring were common, where the girls were both the victims and perpetrators.

Phillida mia, più che i ligustri bianca,

Più vermiglia che ‘l prato a mezzo Aprile

She may have shared a name with a pale-skinned, rosy-cheeked, golden-haired shepherdessly love-interest in Jacopo Sarazzano’s seminal pastoral poem Arcadia —a prose poem considered to be the first literary work of the Renaissance which was wildly popular at the time of its publication and whose influence can be heard in the work of, among others, William Shakespeare, John Milton and Philip Sydney (who wrote a version of his own)—but Caravaggio’s model Fillide Melandroni, at home among the drinking dens and brothels in the medieval heart of sixteenth century Rome, was an altogether more streetwise creature.

Although she was born in Siena, Fillide had been in Rome since she was a youngster. When she was barely in her teens, she was put to work as a prostitute by her mother. The traces of her that can be found in the archives and the court records show that she was frequently in trouble with the authorities, and not simply for prostitution.

By all accounts, Fillide was a girl with attitude. Take the incident in December 1600 when she suspected that the relationship between her pimp, Ranuccio Tommasoni, and another of his ‘girls’, Prudenza Zacchia, was more than simply transactional. Continue reading “Fillide Melandroni: Caravaggio’s crooked-fingered courtesan”

Crowdfunding your novel: 3 campaign tips and 5 ways (not) to cope with the stress

I have a good line in quackery and jargon that may assuage many of the problems you are presently encountering

Dear Doctor Taylor,

For the last six months, I have been crowdfunding my novel The Backstreets of Purgatory with Unbound. Although I am making good progress, certain things are beginning to concern me. Recently I have noticed that when I start a conversation, my partner’s eyes glaze and he stares wistfully over my shoulder as if he is reminiscing about a time when our conversations sparked with such intellectual firecrackers as whether it is acceptable to add milk while the tea bag is still in the mug, or whether Cheddar or Gruyère makes better cheese on toast.

Tea bag in a mug of milky tea
Milk before the teabag is out? Unacceptable, surely.

Worryingly, whenever we are out and about and I open my bag to rummage through it, he flinches and distances himself from me as if I’m about to batter him with a baseball bat, which is frankly ridiculous because Continue reading “Crowdfunding your novel: 3 campaign tips and 5 ways (not) to cope with the stress”

Novelist Catherine Hokin answers my Proust Questionnaire

I can’t choose between gravy-based and custard-based options

Blood and Roses by Catherine Hokin

The second victim in my series of Proust questionnaires is the Glasgow-based author and novelist Catherine Hokin. Not only is she a fabulous writer but she is extremely generous and supportive of the rest of us who are trying to do the same thing. In her debut novel Blood and Roses, she draws on her fascination with medieval history, political propaganda and hidden female voices to bring a new perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482, wife of Henry VI) and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses.

The theme of Catherine’s blog posts and articles is often dangerous women and I suspect that, under her apparently gentle exterior, she may be a pretty dangerous woman herself. Her answer to my first question is evidence enough.

Here she struggles with that age-old dilemma—whether to go for a gravy-based or custard-based meal—and reveals a slightly bizarre situation involving hats with animal ears (a situation that cannot possibly be hypothetical as it has clearly left her traumatised).

1. What was the first music you ever paid for?

Telegram Sam by T-Rex—it was a red vinyl 45. I was impressed [Ed: Me too. Impressed, that is].

2. What was the most recent music that you paid for?

Does shifting to Premium Spotify on the basis of severe guilt count? If so it would be Positive Songs by Negative People by Frank Turner.

3. What was the most recent book you read?

 The Devil’s Feast by Miranda Carter—delicious.

4. What is your favourite novel?

Wise Children by Angela Carter.

5. Who is your favourite poet?

I’m meant to have one of those by now but it hasn’t quite happened. I’m a bit more of a prose person.

6. What is your favourite work of art?

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

7. What is your favourite museum?

The Kelvingrove in Glasgow.

8. What would you spend your last tenner on?

I’m assuming this is an apocalyptic scenario so a Continue reading “Novelist Catherine Hokin answers my Proust Questionnaire”

Frisson

those small moments of everyday ecstasy

Frisson. A ladybird walks over the back of your hand. A chickadee feeds straight from your palm. A deer brushes by close enough for you to feel its breath on your skin. You’re filled with a rush of joy (if you are a ladybird, finch, deer loving kind of person, that is) and something akin to love, and the whole thing tickles slightly, and you want to laugh from the unexpected wonder of it but you know that if you do, the moment be spoiled, so you hold your breath and watch in fearful anticipation and hope that it lasts. Someone is running a feather over your heart and you don’t know whether to smile because it feels good or squirm because it is distinctly unsettling.

A chickadee feeds from my palm
Don’t breathe, don’t laugh

Frisson. That’s how I think of it anyway. That feeling you get from a piece of music that thrills you, from a poem that resonates perfectly, from a work of art that leaves you speechless.

Recently, I read a couple of articles on exactly this subject and it got me thinking about the physical and emotional responses that we have to art in its various forms. Andrew Scull’s article in the Times Literary Supplement gently mocked the idea of the enlightened connoisseur being overwhelmed by the sublime, their extreme sensitivity a measure of their delicacy of taste, of their elevated cultural discernment. A sensitivity not dissimilar to religious exaltation and taken to an extreme in Stendhal’s Syndrome.

Panoramic view of Florence
Florence: Frescoes and Fainting for the Oversensitive? Photo by Ghost of Kuji

But my measure of frisson is on a less dramatic scale. I’m not talking about fainting attacks in front of Florentine frescos or falling to your knees before a breathtaking view of an unfamiliar dramatic landscape as experienced by 18th century enlightened tourists on their grand tours (landscapes, incidentally, unappreciated by the vulgar and loutish peasants who are too busy actually having to work the land to contemplate the scenery). I’m talking about those small moments of everyday ecstasy. The intro to Space Oddity. The tension of unsaid words Continue reading “Frisson”

The University Café: Glasgow, Italy and Ice Cream

Pasquale in his suit and Guiseppa in her white apron, the windows full of adverts for Cadbury’s chocolate and Capstan cigarettes and, above the door, a sign masquerading as a lamp. Or a lamp masquerading as a sign. Ices.

The Soul of a City

There are certain landmarks in any city that always make the postcards or the souvenir bookmarks and mugs and tea towels, landmarks that even a stranger would recognise silhouetted against the skyline. In Glasgow, they might be the Finnieston Crane, The Mackintosh Building at the Art School, the Squinty Bridge (or the Clyde Arc to use its official name) or even the statue of the Duke of Wellington on Queen Street with his obligatory traffic cone.

But then there are those places that are less recognisable to folk who don’t know the city but which are easily identifiable to those who live there. Places which don’t shout their touristy credentials quite so loudly but which engender words like institution and hidden gem. Places barely changed for years which—because of the lives that have passed through them and the events they have marked—have come to embody the soul of the city and with which we can all illustrate our personal histories. In Glasgow, that might mean The Pavilion Theatre, for example, or the Glasgow Film Theatre, or the blue Dr Who-style Police Box at the entrance to the Botanic Gardens, or any of the numerous legendary (and I don’t use the word lightly) pubs and bars that adorn the city.

The University Café is one such place. Situated on Byres Road just around the corner from the University of Glasgow (the clue is in the name), it has been selling teas and coffees and its own ice cream to West Enders and students since 1918. It was a favourite of mine when I was a student and more recently a regular treat-stop when my nieces came to visit. My mother-in-law was brought up round the corner in Partick and remembers going there as a child. Even Jamie Oliver is a fan. There are two pages devoted to the University Café in Jamie’s Great Britain and apparently his 20 minute visit there extended to nearly an hour by the time he’d eaten breakfast and been shown how the famous ice cream is made.

Pasquale and Guiseppa

Recently, I had the enormous pleasure of chatting to Carlo Verrecchia, the current owner. In his early 60s now, he’s been working in the café since he left school, aged 16. He explained that his Italian grandparents Pasquale and Guiseppa Continue reading “The University Café: Glasgow, Italy and Ice Cream”