Inspired? 2006-14

Last Thursday the presentations and public readings for the 2014 Inspired? Get Writing! competition, organised by National Galleries Scotland, the English Speaking Union and Scottish Poetry Library, took place at the National Gallery. Primary school winners in the morning, secondary afternoon, adults evening. The winning entries, up to ten in each category, are read by Suzanne Ensom, Lorna Irvine and John Duncan, with the artworks that inspired them shown on the big screen in the NG lecture theatre. This was the final time the competition would be run in its present format, and I went along for the whole day for the first time. It’s like a long theatre event: dramatic tension rises then relaxes, while  momentum builds over the course of the day. The audience bonds during intervals, and feels it has achieved something worthwhile by the end.

In his introduction, Scottish National Gallery Director Michael  Clarke said that reading the creative writing enabled those whose business is visual art to gain new insights about and perspectives on works with which they were familiar. I found it a joyous way too of re-considering the whole business of ekphrasis, or writing about art. And of discovering works in the NGS collection with which I’m unfamiliar. For there were no skating ministers this year (though previous ones have indeed afforded new insights into activities on Duddingston Loch in 1795). In addition to a pair of Titian Venuses and a shoal of Bellanys there  were also two works by Scottish photographer David Williams in the line-up: dancer Michael Clark and fiddler Aly Bain. The blurry-blue print of Bain appears on the cover of his 1992 CD Lonely Bird. I have a copy of this, and had no idea the original photograph was in the NGS. It was mesmerising to listen to the synaesthetic poem about it by a Primary schoolgirl. I was sitting next to a member of the NGS writing group, Words on Canvas. She said to me afterwards that she could swear she had seen Bain’s knee moving.

Another Primary winner wrote a poem called ‘Untitled’ about a Jackson Pollock painting called Untitled, the doubled untitling allowing an unfettered imagination to be caught without compromise in  accomplished form.

In the afternoon, the adolescents were predictably preoccupied with darker matters – to the extent that reader Lorna Irvine asked us to note how there appeared to be a collective trepidation about entering full adulthood. Or at least there was on the part of the narrators; as one of my WoC companions pointed out, the teenagers themselves seemed cheery and charming – on the surface at least. What interested me even more was that this age group was now regularly availing itself of the full 1,000 words permitted, something which, given some of the subject matter – racism, violence, loneliness – made things rather harder for the the listener. But I wanted to celebrate the fact that there were exploring their subjects at length and in depth. With further maturity will come the ability to modulate, to cut down, to realise when less is more. Some of them may learn to write humour well.  Two wrote about video works,  presented as stills on the lecture theatre screen, Bill Viola’s Catherine’s Room, and Dalziel + Scullion’s  Water Falls Down.  I’d like to see more creative textual explorations of film; both are narrative devices. Not much poetry in this category (let’s hear a 1,000 word lyric poem!); possibly this age group responds more to the genre in its spoken word or rap incarnations – though there’s absolutely no reason why visual art in museums shouldn’t inspire these too.  By now I needed cake, and adjourned to discuss proceedings so far with the enthralled WoC contingent over afternoon tea.

Final session. Sir James Guthrie’s kailyard scene A Hind’s Daughter was re-imagined as a Dutch landscape. We laughed at comic writing worthy of a radio or TV script. I was temporarily diverted by the idea of the gallery shop selling Gut Your Own Herring kits to accompany a John Bellany exhibition. We were directed by an omniscient narrator to the eye, then hand, of Mary, Queen of Scots, in one of several pieces which directly addressed our ways of seeing.

Members of Words on Canvas and South Side Writers have done well in this competition over the years. I entered back in 2006 and was highly commended in the then ‘published adults’ category, the first of many to write about a John Bellany painting. In the groups I provide prompts or feedback and have no say in the way the writer perceives the artwork or the accomplishment with which they respond to it textually, so I’m not trying to claim any credit here. And I have nothing to do with the running of the competition, in which entrants are anyway anonymously judged. But of course I’m pleased when writers from groups I’m involved with win prizes or get work published. Many congratulations this time to Jean Taylor and Marjorie Lofti Gill.

My recollections are very selective. I don’t think that even means I’ve always remembered the  best pieces of writing, though that will sometimes be the case. After forty-five poems and stories inspired by nearly as many images had been superbly performed by the three readers – and, in the case of the adults, some of the authors – between 10.30 am and 7.15pm, my ability to correlate author with picture was severely compromised. I  am very pleased that NGS is moving towards the digitisation of the winning entries from all nine years of the competition: this will be a valuable, and inspiring, lasting resource.

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slow trains and sound bites

I went to Glasgow last Friday with the intention of working on some unfinished drafts at the Transport Museum. When I first visited last summer, the idea of having a transport theme at South Side Writers came to me whilst sunbathing on the deck between the museum and the Tall Ship. Since then we’ve used text, images and personal reminiscence featuring longships, mobility scooters, transporters, donkeys and just about every every other imaginable mode of transport to prompt explorations of character, plot, pacing, structure and sound, as well as looking closely at concepts like ‘flight’. I’d identified Zaha Hadid’s museum building as an interesting place to sit and write for an hour or two. Now it was summertime again, officially at least, and the group was on its Easter break, so I set off for the west on the slow train. This involves:  a pleasant half-hour walk to Slateford Station via the blooming gardens of Craiglockhart; avoiding congestion in  Edinburgh city centre and at Waverley Station, and a cheaper fare to Glasgow which does not carry off-peak restrictions either. The train is indeed slow,  a proper ‘stopping train’, but I like its meanderings around lesser-visited parts of the central belt, home to people I may never meet, trees and livestock.

Progress  from Central Station to  Partick was slowed further at the architecture and design centre, The Lighthouse, when I chanced across a half-hour creative writing workshop, ‘Lunchtime Bites’.   Facilitator Emily Dodd had selected a photograph from the Britain From Above exhibition, the Broxburn Oil Works. She gave us  a short introduction and set us to write for 15 minutes.  As a creative writing tutor, one  of the most satisfying aspects of an extremely satisfying job is when you hear a group’s varying responses to the same starting point, and the surprise of those who didn’t think they could do it.   Another is when you attend a workshop on your day off and get to practice  the magical process for yourself.

Some writers can produce a lot of good material in a quarter of an hour under these conditions. In recent years my personal word-processor speed has slowed – one of my best friends describes me as glacial – so I opted for a haiku . Out of the notes I’d made I linked two images –  the background slag-heap detritus of the chemical process, and the foreground canal –  in three lines. As Emily pointed out, fifteen minutes is a good time to break off anyway; when you return to your writing you’ll have an altered perspective on it.

I used my surplus material in a draft that re-worked some of Emily’s introductory material about the social and ecological environment and history. Add a bit of my own time-and-space preoccupation  and maybe or maybe not a human character, and it could become something more substantial. We were photographed and recorded  after the session. I’m here,  sounding like a northern Janet Street-Porter with a plane above my head.

Emily spoke with great enthusiasm about working with community groups who had grown up close to some of the photographed locations. Those of us present at this session hadn’t, though  I was inevitably struck by parallels with the former industrial landscapes of northern England.

After the designated half-hour I looked round the rest of the Britain from Above exhibition. It’s more accurately described as ‘oblique aerial photography’, or Britain from a bit above. This isn’t like the view from an aeroplane, unless you’re just coming in to land (at that point I have my eyes closed and I’m gripping my seat arm-rests as we dangle above some too-near coastal water). The oblique perspective affords potential for some  innovative point-of-view work – though without making much of a conscious decision I settled for being the viewer outside the frame, making references to the fact that I was viewing a photograph, not the place itself. I resolved to pedal  along the Union Canal towpath to Broxburn to have a look at the site in colour and from bicycle level this spring.

And so to my final destination of the day. I’d sort of forgotten that It wasn’t just me who was on holiday – the schools were too. It was grand to see the museum full of eager children, but useless for settling down to write. I wandered around Hyndland and Dowanhill instead, and got the slow train back in good time for the Friday night treat or torture – I’m not sure which, but I think that’s the point – that is Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Trip to Itlay.