Sunday, 27 January 2013

Robert Burns fever - am I a heretic?

It's that time of year again. Across the world, Burns fans have been gathering to celebrate the life and works of Rabbie, Scotland's favourite poet. For the past 20 years I've been going to a supper hosted by my husband's debating society – originally a men-only group modelled a little on the Bachelor's Club in Tarbolton, which Burns himself attended. There have been some great evenings, some inspired ones, and some that are best forgotten. There's the usual ritual of piping in a haggis, the Address to said beastie, the Immortal Memory to the Bard, followed by toast to the lassies and reply etc etc. And in the case of this group, there's a pretty good ceilidh thereafter, as there are some fine musicians in the Society (Aly Bain is a member, though he's quite often busy on Burns Night!).

And so I ventured out once again on Friday night, for more of the same.

Should I confess? I find the ritual format depressing. Why on earth do we celebrate the work of such a wonderful rapscallion in such a mind-numbingly unoriginal way? Okay, there's plenty to talk about, because like that English giant of literature, Shakespeare, you can pick any aspect of the man and his works to make more or less whatever point you want to about life, love, politics or the human condition. And it's certainly true that Burns's work has that rare quality of universality (dare I say, even more so than Shakespeare's, because he seems to resonate across all nations and classes?). We know a fair bit about his life, which was deliciously scandal-ridden. It was also quite hard – he died of a disease of poverty (rheumatic fever) and enmeshed in debt.

But Burns Suppers seem to have become a self-perpetuating industry, and no-one seems to challenge this. (With the magnificent exception of Kenneth Roy – see  ) What would Burns himself think of these events? I suspect he'd be having houghmagandie under the table with some wench – and who could blame him? In my opinion, there's a very good reason why there are no Shakespeare Suppers every year on 23 April, or Jane Austen Suppers on 16 December.

On the other hand, the continued existence of this annual shindig does help to keep Rabbie and his works alive, no doubt about that. So – good thing or bad thing? And if we ditch the suppers, how should we celebrate the birth of our Scottish national poet?

Sunday, 20 January 2013

NEVER JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER ... the saying has it. Just before Christmas an artist friend, Roger, and his wife came to supper. Conversation was lively over the boeuf bourginon, as always. Then Roger said, 'You do all realise that society as we know it today couldn't function without artists.' We were all rather stunned - such a grandiose statement - but then he is an artist and a very good one. Back in the day he designed record sleeves for major groups - think, The Rolling Stones, Status Quo etc. He has work in the V&A. We asked him to qualify his statement. He did - with a looooong list of things that had started life on the drawing board/computer. Packaging for just about everything. Clothes. Cars. White goods. Garden tools. Mobile phones.....on and on and on the list went. 'Book covers,' I he had left out. And it got me thinking. Are book covers a largely overlooked - although very important - part of the publishing process? I was curious how covers are designed so I asked Berni Stevens (she designs all the covers for my publisher, Choc Lit) how she goes about it. 'I always try to read the book if I have the time, or skim read it if the deadline is looming,' Berni says. 'I find it gives me a better insight into the book and often helps me think of an angle for the cover.' Berni works by using a method called photo illustration. She uses library images and then puts lots together in Photoshop to change colours, add different backgrounds, and sometimes even adds people. Sometimes, she will take her own photos if she can't find exactly the perfect photo that she needs. 'It is quite time-consuming,which a lot of people don't realise," Berni tells me. 'The thinking - generally - is that everything to do with computers is fast. Not necessarily so!' I asked Berni if she has a favourite book cover. 'Fashion changes with book covers the way it does with everything else. But a highlight of my career was working on the cover of an unauthorised biography of David Bowie. I'd recently been to one of his concerts and was a huge fan. That cover was a real labour of love and I was allowed to try out lots of different finishes. The CEO of the publishers said she didn't even know how to begin telling me how wonderful she thought it was, and I was over the moon.' I had an over-the-moon moment of my own regarding an illustration that went with a story I had published in Woman's Weekly. I e.mailed my editor there and asked her to pass on a message to the artist to say how thrilled I was with it. So, imagine my suprise when I got an e.mail from the artist himself saying I was welcome to have the original watercolour for a donation to a charity of my choice. That illustration now hangs on the wall in front of my desk. So, book covers.....all published authors will have experience of these. When Choc Lit agreed to publish my first novel, TO TURN FULL CIRCLE, I was sent six images from which to make my choice.....although I was told that wouldn't necessarily be the one that would make the final cut, as it were. Three of those images were portrait shots and I fell in love with one of them instantly. But it was not to be. I was, however, allowed to have a say in the final decision of the colour for my book cover. Thinking about all the above got me thinking about myown favourite book cover. For me it's a How-to book - MAKING SHAPELY FICTION by Jerome Stern. It's in an Art Deco sort of style, which I love. And it does what it says on the tin. So, that's my favourite cover - what's yours?

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Very Inspiring Blogger Award


Many thank to Gwen Kirkwood ( for nominating me for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.

It seems that all I need to do, before passing it on, is provide 7 random facts about myself.  An excellent excuse for a little bit of self-indulgence.  So here we go...

  1. My first pet was a West Highland White terrier called Pola, supposedly after a polar bear (spelling chosen by my sister).
  2. I always have at least 2 (usually 3 or 4) books that I am reading at the same time.  Current ones are A Storm Of Swords by George R. R. Martin (Book 3 of the Song of Ice and Fire series), Visitors to the Chalet School by Helen McLelland (an addition to the extremely long Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer), Vets In Love by Cathy Woodman and The Aeneid by Virgil (in both English and Latin – the English is going better). 
  3. My middle name is Marie.  For years I preferred this to Gillian and really wished my parents had chosen it as my first name.  Now I quite like Gillian.
  4. I know a smattering of 8 languages (English, French, German, Scots, Russian, Italian, Latin and Shona) but am only fluent in one – English – and sometimes I’m not even sure about that. 
  5. My great grandfather and great grandmother lived together for 27 years and had 9 children before they eventually married in 1922.
  6. My office now has under-floor heating.  This is a brilliant innovation.
  7. I am passionate about Scottish football.  Local team, Queen of the South, are currently 17 points clear at the top of the Scottish Second Division.  Go the Doonhamers!
I would like to nominate:

Pia Christina Courtenay
Michael Malone