Gerda Stevenson – Quines

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival 12 Aug 2018. There is more in the Revolting Women series. Here is a link.

Published by Luath (2018)

What an enthusiastic woman is Gerda Stevenson! Sitting alongside Herald journalist Jackie McGlone, she describes the inspiration for, selection process of, and reads from her new book Quines in the Writer’s Retreat at the Book Festival. Quines: meaning a lass; a woman; sounding like ‘queen’, thereby lending an “aristocracy of the spirit”.

McGlone’s eloquent introduction describes Stevenson as “A woman of a thousand skills”, she is an actress from the popular Shetland TV series, poet, writer, lecturer, singer and songwriter. Stevenson, in turn, describes the noble, reconstructed and ancient head of a young woman on the cover of her book: “…she could have been my daughter… Does history really separate us, or does it reveal how much we have in common?”

Gerda Stevenson

In her book (“it feels like their book” says Stevenson in that familiar way many women have of humbly attributing praise to others), she presents poems of deceased Scottish women such as Isabel Emslie Hutton, psychiatrist and doctor; Tessa Ransford, founder of the Scottish Poetry Library; Mina Ray, one of Scotland’s first interpreter trainers; and Betsy Miller, ship’s captain. Standing to deliver poems in Scots and English with an open countenance, she also includes work which honours the Gaelic, using its syntax and lilt.

In her research, Stevenson has found  women from all walks of life and from all round the country, including an entire football team. She gives these people a voice, she manages to get inside them. In Demerara, a slave girl from the plantations who has been brought to “the Black Isle of white people”, notes that “her spine stiffened in her corset when I declined the sugar.”, such an embodied, subtle and telling line. After her twins were stillborn, Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots) says, “tho milk’s ae buckin frae ma breists unner ma lace an steys”, reminding me, not just of  something I can understand as a mother, that her milk is still coming despite the deaths of her babies, but that I can actually feel, eliciting my deepest sympathy.

In a relaxed and sisterly way she laughs and shares with McGlone: “I’m a Hibs supporter”, and “I’m very interested in Robert Owen’s Utopian thinking”. She is also serious about slavery (tackling it, for example, in Terpsichore about Maud Sulter, “I’m your morning’s sport, a clandestine delight, …. but I’m only marking time; one day ….you’ll be dancing to another’s tune.”  Most of the information Stevenson gives us is in the introduction of the book, but she brings it alive with her erudite charm.

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For other women’s literature events, see also the Revolting Women theme at the Edinburgh International Book festival

This year’s (2018) Thomas Muir Memorial Lecture will be given by Gerda Stevenson. Details here.

Janice Galloway on Muriel Spark

Photo: Muriel Spark, writer. 1918 – 2006.

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival 11th August 2018. There are many other events in the Muriel Spark theme at the Book Festival this year. Here is the link.

Muriel Spark is one of the Book Festival’s 2018 themes. This most entertaining event is chaired by Jenny Niven, Head of Literature at Creative Scotland, and it is Janice Galloway who gives forth on the author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. A tour de force, Galloway is a consummate performer, delighting us with cockney accents, flamboyant quotes and well-timed biographical info. ‘You made the right choice!’ Niven tells us in her introduction. Galloway’s first novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing, was published in 1989 and followed by more stories, libretti, non-fiction, poetry – you name it.

Not just amusing, but also a veritable wealth of knowledge on the subject, Galloway arrives with a great grin and only a little nervous knee wobbling. This is the centenary year of Mrs Spark, as Ms Galloway refers to her, and it has ignited divers projects around the world notably here in Spark’s home city. Galloway is lecturing, workshopping and producing her own work in response: “delving deep” as Niven put it.

Looking into the audience with penetrating gaze, Galloway elucidated Spark’s life: born in 1918, she only started writing when 40, after a lively time as wife to Syney Oswald Spark (“the only thing she liked about him was his name”). In ‘Rhodesia’ he threatened to shoot her (many of her short stories are about such goings on amongst the ex-pat community) and she hid herself and her son for 4 years before she could return to “old blighty” in 1944. This prompted her to develop an ‘it was for the best’ attitude, stressed Galloway, in her fast but exceptionally clear delivery.

Janice Galloway

Spark, she continues, changed what was expected from women’s writing, coming at it from a female point of view, in a common sense “no horsing about” kind of a way and signalling that, contrary to the fiction which previously had been published, women could write about anything.

Galloway’s gift is a reading from The Ballad of Peckham Rye bringing the characters to life with slow circular sweeps of her arm and perfect London accents. “The guests in the pews rustled as if they were all women”, she reads. It is an absolutely beautiful rendering.

She discusses Jean Brodie of course, gives advice on writing, and more. With a single finger held up to emphasise her words, she tells us that there was “no bigwiggery” about Muriel Spark.

Janice Galloway’s latest book is Jellyfish published by Granta (2019)

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