The Scottish Opera Highlights tour has quickly become an annual musical must-see. Taking opera around the country, this season they go from Motherwell to Musselburgh with multiple stops in-between. This was the opening night at Motherwell Theatre and it had a lot to live up to as previous tours have been notable and memorable events. It clear from the get-go that there was no need for concern as this set of highlights may just be the most magical yet.
From the beginning, with the singers emerging from among us, there was a real connection between the stage and audience which remained throughout. The premise of the show was one familiar to any Agatha Christie fan, with invited guests turning up at an event with no host to be found. The cast construct the set as they go, lending the performance a real sense of “let’s do the show right here”, but there’s nothing amatuer about what follows.
As any one who has been to an Opera Highlights show before will know, the premise is a simple one with four of the company’s finest singers, accompanied by piano, performing scenes from a variety of operas, this time united loosely under common themes of love and nature. At the beginning there is a sense of strong sense of fun and farce about proceedings, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ meets Moliere – a comedy of errors with lovers mistaken for others, and practical jokes gone wrong.
But as events unfold the comedy is interspersed with more serious meditations on love, and even obsession. The wonderfully varied programme features the work of Mozart, Handel, Britten, Vaughan Williams and Gilbert & Sullivan, as well as less well-known names such as Mildred Jessup, Leo Delibes, Carlisle Floyd and Aaron Copland, and there is also new work from Scottish Opera’s Composer in Residence Samuel Bordoli.
Soprano Charlie Drummond, Mezzo-soprano Martha Jones, Tenor Alex Bevan & Baritone Mark Nathan work beautifully together, prompting laughs and tears in all the right places. Proving themselves to be as talented actors as they are singers, they played each scene to perfection. It is rare to see performers so clearly enjoying what they do as was evident on this night, and the audience responded in kind. It would be wrong to single any individual out as this was a truly ensemble performance, although it should be said that Alex Bevan gives good horse!
If you haven’t yet been to one of these nights then I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you already love opera than it’s a chance to sit through an evening of some of your favourites as well as discovering something new. If you think opera isn’t your cup of tea then this is the perfect place to discover that it is. You have nothing to lose and a whole new world to discover. Check out all the details at the Scottish Opera website to find out when they are coming to a venue near you. If you’re a music lover then I can’t think of a better way to spend two hours.
Last Tuesday night saw the Tandem Writing Collective back at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow with another night of comedy, tragedy, music and song. We’ve said it before, but if you want an evening of theatre which is immediate, vibrant and vital then these are nights not to miss.
The Tandem Writing Collective consist of three playwrights – Jennifer Adam, Amy Hawes and Mhairi Quinn – who regularly put on events in Glasgow and Edinburgh which allow them to showcase their latest work in front of a live audience. With a cast and crew who have only a day to rehearse, they are fizzing with creative ideas and the sort of first-night nerves that heighten the atmosphere in the room. They get to the heart of what is magical about live theatre – a sense of the unknown and that anything could happen.
The evening started with ‘Air’ (Mhairi Quinn), a two-hander with John Love and Sarah McCardie as Greg and Lianne, two people coming to terms with a terrible event and having to deal with guilt, grief, and the need to apportion blame. It’s a powerful piece which uses the theatre space fully, involving the audience from the start.
Next is ‘Mosaics’ (Jennifer Adam) which examines the dangers of unquestioningly accepting the ‘progress’ of science, without full consideration of the ethical and moral implications attendant. What starts as the promise of a relatively small medical procedure, undertaken with the best of intentions, becomes literally life-changing for all those involved. The phrase “Your life in their hands”, takes on an unsettling and disturbing meaning.
The first half ends with ‘Home Shopping’ (Mhairi Quinn) which entertainingly spoofs home shopping channels and the promises made for the products they sell. The theatre audience becomes the TV audience, whooping, hollering and cheering in the appropriate places. The product for sale is ‘Bitches Get Stuff Done’, which promises to release your inner bitch and make your life better, while making other’s worse – but you won’t care. It’s a clever piece of writing, making you think as you laugh, something which is not easy to achieve.
The second half continues with ‘Stella The Stargazer’ (Jennifer Adam), where Barry Robertson’s logical and practical boy meets the unfettered imagination and creativity of Stella, a girl who looks at the stars and dreams of another life, with the underlying sense that her present one is at the root of this need to escape.
The night ends in style with ‘Introverts: The Musical’ (book by Amy Hawes, music by Aaron McGregor), which sees the whole cast on stage. Imagine Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ (or ‘The Numskulls’ from The Beezer for older readers) with those internal voices in charge and you have some idea as to the format. Making a musical about being introverted may seem a brave, some may say contrary, choice but it certainly struck a chord with this reviewer, and it would be great to see it expanded to a full-length piece. More Dennis Potter than Rodgers and Hammerstein, it could just be the musical we need right now.
If you haven’t been to the theatre in a while then a night at the Tron with Tandem is the perfect way to reacquaint yourself with what makes it so special. The next opportunity to do so is on the 5th November, and you can find out more here – Tandem @ The Tron.
Cast: John Love, Sarah McCardie, Linda McLaughlin, Kim Allan, Barry Robertson, Director: Sarah Rose Graber
For the latest SWH! podcast Ali headed to Edinburgh to speak to the American writer Elle Nash who was in the country for the city’s International Book Festival.
The conversation focused on her powerful novel Animals Eat Each Other, which is published by 404 Ink. The two discuss the novel’s themes and content, Elle’s intentions, how her style developed, the importance of names and language, the psychology of desire, the quest for identity, and much more.
You’ll also hear 404 Ink’s Laura Jones explaining why they felt they had no choice but to publish Elle once they had read her book. We consider it an instructive and insightful discussion which will interest writers, readers, and book lovers of all kinds. Have a listen and see if you agree.
Here’s an extract from the SWH! review of Animals Eat Each Other, “Elle Nash has written the literary equivalent of a great Punk single – fast, furious, and unforgettable, one which sticks in your head and creeps beneath your skin. Animals Eat Each Other – you couldn’t ignore it if you tried.” And you can read the full review here…
If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so).
You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud…
A quote which came to shape the nation’s politics was Margaret Thatcher’s claim in 1987 that, “..there’s no such thing as society”. Even as a teenager who was just beginning to get interested in politics this rang as a deeply suspicious and bogus claim, one made to justify the policies not only of Conservative governments, but also, sadly, future Labour ones as well, placing the wants and desires of individuals and big business ahead of any idea of communal benefits and shared social responsibility. That may be politicly simplistic and naive (and if it’s deep political insight you’re looking for, I suggest you look elsewhere), but that doesn’t make it untrue.
Jemma Neville‘s Constitution Street (404 Ink) rightly turns that claim on its head. Its subtitle is “finding hope in an age of anxiety”, and at a time when global, and national, politics seem to be spiralling out of control, or at least out of our control, then it may seem impossible to affect any change or make a difference. If democracy has not failed us, then it’s fair peching heavy. Neville proffers that a difference can still be made, and the place to start is outside your front door. She looks at the local to make commentary on the global, taking individual stories to make universal points. By marrying the personal with the political, and fleshing out statistics with individual stories, she presents us with a book that engenders empathy and anger in equal measure.
It’s a tour around the urban landscape of her neighbourhood, and it is one that will be familiar to many. The ‘Constitution Street’ of the title is a thoroughfare in Leith, Edinburgh, and it is where the author calls home. Neville feels that if she is to better understand the wider world she needs to better understand her world – one which has undergone significant social and cultural shifts and changes over the years. By the simple, and increasingly overlooked, act of talking to those who live and work on the street, and hearing their own points of view and ideas, she asks us to consider the fluid nature of all communities, and therefore what a social contract for our times should consist of as it becomes clear through these conversations and stories that the current balance between the state and the individual is clearly out of whack.
Using the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an ideological map, she looks at how those rights have increasingly been eroded and neglected over time. These include the ‘Right to Housing’, the ‘Right to Education’, the ‘Right to Food’, ‘Health’, ‘Work’, and even ‘Life’! They seem so bleeding obvious that you would hope that they don’t even need mentioning, never mind written into a Bill of Rights, but our political systems are failing people in every example. You won’t have to walk very far from your own residence to realise that is the case, no matter where you live. But that is exactly what Jemma Neville is suggesting you should do – engage with your community, get to know those who, like you, make it what it is and discuss how you can make it better.
Constitution Street is a book for our times, a socio-political work with humanity at its heart, and a timely reminder that there is more that unites than divides us. It’s a call to care, for ourselves and others, and where better to start than at your own front door. It’s a fascinating and intrinsically human approach to examining the practical applications and implications of social contracts in modern society. It learns from the past, examines the present, and looks to the future, offering the hope that by better understanding each other we will come to better know ourselves. How many books have you read lately that offer that?
Today (25/08/2019) marks the 10th anniversary of Scots Whay Hae!, making it the perfect time to thank all those who have supported and helped along the way.
So – with a sharp intake of breath – thanks to every writer, poet, and publisher, who has shared their words, wit and wisdom with us. The same goes to all the bands, musicians, record labels and promoters who have sent us music and songs to listen to and review. Similarly, those artists, filmmakers, theatre companies, comedians, and festivals, who have invited us to view their previews and shows. We know your art and work is something which is vital and central to who you are and we appreciate you choosing to share it with us. It’s a privilege to be able to write, review, discuss, and celebrate it, and it’s a responsibility that SWH! takes seriously.
Huge thanks to all our podcast guests, some of whom you can see in the pictures at the top of the page (as well as some ever-evolving facial hair). The first was recorded in July 2011 and we are at 122 and counting. Number 123 is with American writer Elle Nash and will be with you soon.
If you have missed any you can find them here – SWH! Podcasts. When taken together we like to think they are an informative and entertaining record of a contemporary Scottish culture which is thrilling, thriving, and diverse.
Special thanks must go to our sound guru Ian Gregson (right), without whom there would only be silence, and Sarah Jane Gregson for her undying support and advice. Also to our regular end of year reviewers Chris Ward, Vikki Reilly, and Wesley Shearer, and our resident ‘Dr Books’ Ronnie Young, all of whose expertise has been essential.
We are grateful to, and thankful for, our various partners over the years, including Dear Scotland, ASLS, Scottish Opera, LP Radio, and Braemar Gallery. If I have forgotten to mention others then please remind me and I will add them to this list, with sincere apologies for a memory failing.
Also kudos to the bloggers, podcasters, critics, journalists, broadcasters, and other cultural contributors, who have inspired and supported SWH! over the years. It means more than you could possible know and I hope that you feel the support and appreciation is mutual.
But most of all thanks to you, Dear Reader and Listener, as it would be fairly pointless doing this without you (although we probably still would). We value and treasure each and every one of you.
Before moving on, it’s worthwhile reflecting on the very first post which set out the aims and ideas behind Scots Whay Hae!’s inception. It’s encouraging to find that it is as relevant now as it was a decade ago, and hasn’t really changed at any time. Here it is in full so you can decide for yourself. In the meantime, ‘Cheers!’ & here’s to 10 more…
This is a little mission statement as to the reason for creating this website. Contemporary writing and commentary that deals with Scottish art and culture often obsess over questions of inclusion and exclusion, questions that usually arise from the thorny issue of nation. This blog aims to, if not ignore such questions, demote them to the sidelines as all aspects of art and culture are discussed and dissected.
I cannot deny that I am Scots, writing in Scotland, and will concentrate (although not exclusively) on Scottish writers, poets, music, films, TV, art, comedy etc, but ‘where and when’ is of far less importance to me than ‘what and why’. Discussions can be had elsewhere as to what is or is not Scots and often they become a barrier to the enjoyment of that which is under discussion.
And that is what this blog is really for, to celebrate, debate and enjoy art in its widest sense. To deal with the art itself, and allow discussion and comment that looks at the old and new anew. To not take too seriously something which I take very seriously indeed. We have an ongoing relationship with our respective cultures throughout our lives and it is important to remember the relationship as it was when first consummated. The joy, wonder and the reason we fell in love in with bands, films, poems and books. Like all relationships it changes, becomes more ‘serious’ as time goes by, and although I cannot pretend that a wary, weary and cynical side will be suppressed fully, (nor would I wish it so – where is the fun in that?) I want to focus on my belief that art in all its forms can give us a reason for living better lives.
The first post proper are thoughts on John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti. What struck me is the way that Byrne created a thoroughly Scottish drama, one that wears its roots and knowledge easily, giving reference to outside cultural influence without apology, and does so with a light touch and a self-mocking sense of humour.
It is in this spirit that I write this blog. Of course this may change at any time, but until it does please excuse the indulgence and read on…
For the fourth of our series of podcasts with members of Scottish Opera we spoke to Jane Davidson, their Director of Education & Outreach. She explains what the job entails, the company’s education strategy, their partnerships at home and abroad, the challenges faced in the role, how they reach out to all areas of Scotland, and work with all age groups.
It’s a fascinating insight into the work Scottish Opera does off stage and often away from the public eye. As the conversation unfolds you are left in no doubt of the love that Jane has for her job, and how passionately she believes that art and performance have a vital role to play in a nation’s education. And so say all of us!
These podcasts attempt to give greater understanding into the workings of Scottish Opera and the different roles of those involved, lending a rare and engaging appreciation of Scotland’s largest national arts company.
If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so).
You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud…
From the 10th – 26th August, Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square Gardens (and George Street) once again becomes the place for book lovers to meet, greet, and be merry as the Edinburgh International Book Festival takes up its annual residence. It’s always an oasis of calm and conversation in a city gone daft, and it is one of SWH!’s favourite places to be.
There’s a lot of great events to choose from, so to help you find something just for you here are Scots Whay Hae!’s Top Ten Picks of what to see at this year’s book festival (with a bonus extra because, like a Nigel Tufnell amp, this Top Ten goes up to 11).
Early 1980s Scotland in Airdrie, a former mining village. This is the setting for David Keenan’s achingly evocative fictional history of local post-punk band Memorial Device. It’s a hallucinatory love letter to the shipwrecked youth of this Central Belt hinterland whose lives contained little other than music – and Benny’s chip shop.
In partnership with the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and writer-director Graham Eatough we present a theatrical response to Keenan’s cult hit, featuring music selected by Stephen McRobbie from Glasgow band The Pastels. After the 45-minute performance, the creative team is joined on stage by Keenan to discuss This is Memorial Device.
You can hear David Keenan discussing This Is Memorial Device with SWH! below:
Chris McQueer’s short, side-splitting stories keep coming in HWFG, the follow-up to debut Hings. Nurtured in Scotland’s spoken word scene and described as ‘Charlie Brooker on Buckfast’, his stories illuminate lives on the margins. Novelist Russ Litten foregrounds working class lives in We Know What We Are. His first story collection centres on Hull in its City of Culture year, and has drawn comparisons to James Kelman.
You can hear Chris McQueer in conversation with SWH! below:
Ex-police constable Karen Campbell is back with The Sound of the Hours, a book about love and loss set in an occupied Italian town during the Second World War. French author Marcus Malte brings us The Boy, his award-winning historical novel which follows the tale of a feral child’s episodic journey through variations of early 20th century society. Two emotional tales of family, passion and war. Chaired by Jenny Brown.
In 2017, we sent ten writers across the Americas for Outriders, a project of complex journeys, exploring controversial themes during which the writers exchanged ideas. Ahead of Outriders Africa later this year, Jenni Fagan and Harry Josephine Giles return to discuss how their journeys influenced them. Their work since includes Fagan’s poem ‘Truth’, written while travelling the USA, and Giles’s ‘Traveller’s Lexicon’, responding to their journey from Montreal to Churchill.
The tenth crime novel from Edinburgh’s Doug Johnstone, Breakers follows a teenager trying to escape his dysfunctional family whilst implicated in the assault of a crime-lord’s wife. In Crushed, Kate Hamer’s follow-up to the bestselling The Girl in the Red Coat, can Phoebe control events to such a degree that when she thinks about murder, carnage occurs nearby? Meet two accomplished writers of lively lawless tales in conversation with writer and broadcaster James Crawford.
Broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove rounds off his superb 60s soul trilogy with Harlem ’69. The area at the heart of the Black Panther movement became a byword for crime, but was also a furnace for black creativity that defined popular music for decades, producing icons like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Jimi Hendrix. Hear about these conflicting legacies in an unmissable event for music lovers.
Glasgow alt-folk musician Beerjacket (aka Peter Kelly) has played with some of the biggest names in music, from Frightened Rabbit to The National, thanks to his rich songwriting style. With new album-book combination Silver Cords, he has paired each song with a story spun from the lyrics. They act as a bulwark against the impermanence of digital music and Beerjacket shares them with you in this event.
You can hear Beerjacket in conversation with SWH! below:
In a time of heightened Islamophobia, racism and the misrepresentation of Muslim people, writer and activist Mariam Khan lets Muslim women speak for themselves. It’s Not About The Burqa is the stunning result: a landmark anthology of essays by and about seventeen Muslim women. Join Khan and contributors Nadine Aisha Jassat and Amna Saleem for an illuminating and powerful event.
You can hear Nadine Aisha Jassat in conversation with SWH! below:
January 1919, a world in turmoil: Ireland declared its independence, while Trotsky led the Red Army in Poland. Maybe that’s why workers’ demonstrations in Glasgow led the British establishment to roll army tanks into George Square. Henry Bell’s John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside and Kenny MacAskill’s Glasgow 1919 offer coruscating new perspectives on the major players and events in a key period in Scotland’s political history. Chaired by Ruth Wishart.
You can hear Henry Bell in conversation with SWH! below:
Two novelists discuss timely, provocative books about youth, gender politics and violence with author Helen McClory. Sarah Henstra’s searing examination of rape culture on college campuses, The Red Word, won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction when it was first published in 2018. Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other takes an unflinching look at obsessive love and has been described as a ‘heart bomb.’
Acclaimed Scottish writer and critic Andrew Crumey talks to Stuart Kelly about The Great Chain of Unbeing – his collection of short stories that journey across space and time, taking readers from the Renaissance to the atomic age and off into far-flung futures in space. With echoes, repetitions and connections across the book and even into Crumey’s other novels, a larger story begins to unfold.
Summer 2019 continues to provide a memorable soundtrack with something for everyone’s taste, and this month’s review makes that point categorical and concisely – well, fairly concisely.
It’s a pleasing balance of old friends and new, with an album for the ages, the latest in a run of great singles, potential pop greatness, roots revival from the very best, indie with a twist, and some of the most atmospheric ambience of recent times. When brought together you have a selection of songs for most occasions.
Let’s begin. Tenement and Temple have featured on these pages before, but it would be remiss not to mention that their self-titled album is now with us as it is a thing of rare beauty – a perfect balance of strength and fragility. For those unaware Tenement and Temple are Monica Queen and Johnny Smillie, who you may know from Thrum, Monica’s solo work, and numerous collaborations with others, including currently as members of The Gracious Losers.
But it is when together that their music is taken to another level, with Smillie’s understated yet insistent guitar underpinning Queen’s unmistakable vocals. What makes this such a special recording is that it’s an album which is clearly made for and about each other. When you look back at their musical careers you can see that’s what they have always done. Thrum buzzed with the fire of youth, a band discovering their sound and themselves, full of energy and enthusiasm. Now they are making music which makes perfect sense for them in the here and now.
Tenement & Temple the album is reflective, thoughtful, soulful and sublime and could only have been made by Tenement & Temple the duo. It is the perfect example of people working together to make something greater and more meaningful than they could ever do alone, and there is a lesson there for all of us. In a world going crazy Tenement & Temple offer peace, love and understanding, and we could all do with some more of that in our lives. From the album, this is ‘Loving Arms’.
‘a long wait for bad news’ is the latest single released by wojtek the bear and proves that, without fuss or furore, they have become one of those rare bands who have found their own sound and style, and combine them to give us great songs both musically and lyrically, each feeding into the other. I don’t say that lightly, so let’s look at the evidence. ‘dead from the waist up’, ‘oil & water’, ‘trivial pursuit’, ‘tonic youth’, and now ‘a long wait for bad news’ – that’s a hell of a run of form – one that anyone would, and should, be proud of. wojtek the bear are in it for the long haul. This is ‘a long wait for bad news’.
Sometimes a song finds it’s way to SWH! and blows us out of the water. That’s what happened with Galileo’s Fan and the title track of their forthcoming album I Won’t Be Found. It’s new music with an old soul – a song which lulls you into a false sense of perception, at once epic yet understated, with the vocals and music working together to offer a dreamy sound not unlike SWH! favourites L-Space and OK Button. It promises great things from Galileo’s Fan and I’m already eager to hear what they offer next. Play it once, play it again, and I’ll guarantee you’ll agree.
Another band new to SWH! is One Nine, who have just released their single ‘Difficult Days’. Up front and in yer face, yet laid back enough to stay the right side of anthemic, it’s a track bound to appeal to music lovers – immediate, memorable, and as hooky as that ‘Roll-ex’ you bought on holiday, all in under three-minutes. That’s how you do it – arrive, make your mark, and leave before people know what hit them. You get the feeling One Nine are only getting started. The future is bright.
Not just one of the songs of the last month, but with one of the most memorable videos of the year, Awkward Family Portraits‘ latest single ‘Ring Ring Angus!’ shows once more that they are one of the preeminent bands around, keeping the rock ‘n’ roll and roots tradition alive and thriving. Their album is out later in the year, and it is among the most eagerly awaited of 2019. Few bands live and breathe their music as Awkward Family Portraits do, and that is palpable whether recorded, or on stage. If you get the chance to see them play live then for goodness sake grab it as there are few finer, but in the meantime this is ‘Ring Ring Angus!’.
It’s been a summer of perfect pop, and Quiche‘s new single ‘Grey Matter’ adds to that list. It’s a mod-inflected psychedelic song reminiscent of The Kinks or The Zombies, but also the music of Matthew Sweet, Evan Dando, and Buffalo Tom. What comes over immediately is that this is a band who love playing music whether you like it or not, which, as is often the case, only makes you like them more. What’s that all about? While you ponder I suggest you listen to ‘Grey Matter’ and make time for Quiche. You may not know it yet, but it will all make sense in the end.
SWH! regulars L-Space’s last album Music For Megastructures was described as “a score for a city which does net exist yet”. It’s a fantastic record which I urge you to seek out, but it seems that band member Gordon Johnstone has even more urban landscapes and spaces to soundtrack. Under the name Emi James he has released Social Capital, an EP which works perfectly as an accompaniment to Music For Megastructures, and more. Possibly inspired by Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports, it makes you think about how music is used, could be used, and why.
I’m going to suggest what you are about to hear is the perfect end to any review. As Emi James, L-Space, Youth Team, Richard Luke, and others are proving, there is some incredible instrumental and ambient music being made in, and about, Scotland at the moment, and stanleystanley (Jordan Russell-Hall) further makes that case with his album beside myself.
It’s a wonderful marriage of electronic sounds and more conventional instruments which, echoing a point made in the review at the top of the page, sounds both intensely personal, timeless, yet perfect right now. It’s not a record to stick on in the background while you go about your day. It works best as an interactive album, one in which to lose yourself, but you have to want it. Put that down and pay attention at the back – this is stanleystanley and ‘palace of steam’.
That’s yer whack for this month – meet you here in September for more of the best in new Scottish music.
But while you wait, remember that SWH! now has a regular radio show on LP Radio on Monday nights, 7-9pm.
You can catch up with the previous shows, along with all the other fantastic LP Radio shows, by following the relevant links in the sidebar.
What is crime fiction? Discuss… It’s a question that has been nagging at me for a few years now. I used to think I knew what it looked like and what it read like, but then I realised that many of my favourite books could be described as crime fiction, from James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, through Iain Banks’ Complicity, to Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room & many more. The scales fully fell thanks to two very different novels published in 2015 by Saraband Books which I read, reviewed, and then interviewed the authors. They are Graham Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project and Graeme Lironi’s Oh, Marina Girl, and from then on any prejudice I held (and I admit I did) disappeared.
But the question remained, “What is crime fiction?”. I have reviewed most of Doug Johnstone’s books on these and other pages over the years, including his most recent Breakers, and while crimes occur I have never really considered them “crime”. They are mainly concerned with the dynamics of groups – friends, family, co-workers, bands, university pals – and, to a greater or lesser degree, address social/political and cultural themes. His books are more about why people commit crime than solving the crime itself.
Similar questions can be posed concerning Johnstone’s fellow Orenda Books‘ author Helen Fitzgerald. Her novels, (which include The Donor, The Cry, and The Exit) often deal with deception (self and otherwise) and perception – how we perceive the world, how others perceive us, and, perhaps most damaging of all, how we perceive how others perceive us. Her characters make decisions, for various, and often understandable reasons, which then have devastating consequences. Her novels have been described as “domestic noir”, which is certainly apt, but they are also examinations of human behaviour and what happens when individuals are pushed to their limits and beyond.
Her latest is Worst Case Scenario. Mary Shields is trying to protect her relationship, her son, her reputation, and her sense of right and wrong, but feels she is losing her grip on all of these. A probation worker based in Glasgow, she is obsessed with the case of Liam Macdowall, a man who murdered his wife but who, while in prison, has become a poster boy for a variety of ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ who believe his conviction to be unfair, and who have taken his book CUCK as a primary text. Mary is determined that justice will be done, and is prepared to blur the lines between proper procedure and illegality to achieve her aim. Desperate times are perhaps the worst times for desperate measures, and Worst Case Scenario shows why this is in glorious and often gruesome detail.
One of the reasons that Fitzgerald’s books make such a connection with readers is her characters are utterly believable. They are us, but the situations in which they find themselves are extreme, posing the question, “What would you do?”. It’s a difficult feat to make such characters as sympathetic, or at least as empathetic, as they are, but they are ordinary people pushed to the edge, by work, family, their minds, their bodies – in short, by life. In many of Fitzgerald’s books the protagonist’s situation spirals out of control quickly. That could be any of us if circumstances dictate – we are all only a couple of bad decisions from crashing.
Helen Fitzgerald doesn’t worry about the possibility of causing offence – possibly relishing the opportunity. But it’s not shock for the sake of it – she wants to address aspects of the everyday which people often sideline, and there is an honesty in her writing which is rare. Mary Shields is an unforgettable character who life, and Fitzgerald, throws a hell of a lot at. She is swiftly approaching retirement, is menopausal, is a (barely) functioning alcoholic, obsesses, and sometimes fantasises, about her cases, and her son then starts a relationship with the worst person Mary could imagine.
Despite all of this it is the case of Liam Macdowall which comes to overshadow all other aspects of her life as she begins to use other clients and their cases to get the results she believes to be right, and as a result it all goes spectacularly wrong. It’s farcical (in the true sense of the word) but the humour is so black that it often catches you unaware.
Although the thrills, and literal spills, are plentiful it’s important to stress just how funny Worst Case Scenario is, but, as with the shock value, it is done with purpose. Fitzgerald comments on workplace politics, social and cultural hypocrisy, and the complexities of the modern world and finds them absurd. Her insights are keen and cutting. For instance, she examines the Pavlovian nature of popular protest, the role of the media, and how nothing appears real unless it is caught on camera or seen on screen.
Mary’s behind the scenes insights into red-tape and failings of the acronym obsessed world of the probation system, her not-so-passive relationship with her family and workmates, her use and abuse of supposedly sacred relationships – these are all deadly serious. Fitzgerald’s fiction is an expression of frustration, deciding that you might as well laugh or you’d definitely cry.
It has often been claimed that there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy and few writers blur that line as Helen Fitzgerald does, and never more so than with Worst Case Scenario. Thrilling and hilarious, the reason her fiction works so well is because it is where extremes meet. What is crime fiction? Who cares – as long as the books are as good as Worst Case Scenario then you can categorise them any way you like.
For many of us August means Edinburgh and its attendant festivals. As ever, the Fringe in particular has so much on offer that it can be tough to see past the big names, sort through the plethora of posters, and separate the wheat from the cultural chaff.
To help you do so here are Scots Whay Hae!’s Top Ten picks of the Fringe. There’s comedy, poetry, theatre, music and more – hopefully, something for everyone.
At a time of schisms within feminism, where sirens are the soundtrack to our newsfeeds, This Script combines poetic memoir with a fierce call for empathy. With Jenny Lindsay’s trademark wit and lyrical dexterity, this is a show delving into often turbulent contemporary waters with an ultimate striving for understanding, empathy and action. From #MeToo to ageing in a gendered world: can she rewrite this script? Can you? ‘This Script is sharply written, charmingly performed, and needs saying’ (Luke Wright). ‘One of this year’s most necessary spoken word performances’ (TheWeeReview.com).This Script – (Jenny Lindsay), Aug 4 – 11 – Scottish Storytelling Centre
2018 was going to be Emily’s year. Finally starting to do stand-up and on track to being more funny ha-ha than funny peculiar; maybe even become a fully functioning adult human woman. But when her mum’s cancer diagnosis becomes terminal, she finds herself on an awfully big adventure. Featuring grief, boys who never grow up and jokes, promise. As seen on BBC Scotland’s Short Stuff, one-third of sketch outfit Ambush, and co-host of Glasgow’s grassroots, idiosyncratic comedy night The Salon, this is Emily Benita’s debut solo Fringe hour.
Citizen Scotland cordially invites you to take part in a focus group that will define the very future of the nation – for better or worse. An immersive theatrical experience that confronts the unique absurdity of Scottish identity. Award-winning writer and spoken word artist Kevin P Gilday (Sonnet Youth, National Theatre of Scotland, BBC) turns a hilariously caustic eye on notions of nationhood and patriotism. From history to inventions, language to neighbourly relations, the independence referendum to the toxic mire of present political debate – we gleefully dissect the still-beating dark heart of the countrySuffering From Scottishness – (Kevin P. Gilday).
1969 at the Barrowlands Ballroom in Glasgow, three women are murdered by an Old Testament-quoting serial killer, nicknamed Bible John. He has never been caught. 2019, four women bound by their obsession with true crime want to change that. Immersing themselves in the world of Bible John and his victims, they try to solve the case, once and for all. A riotous, furious, joyful exploration of violence, gender and one of Scotland’s darkest mysteries from Poor Michelle (Samuel French New Play Award 2017). Recipient of Pleasance’s Charlie Hartill Theatre Reserve 2019. Previous praise: **** (Scotsman). **** (Stage).
How do you climb a tree without worrying about the fall? Why do you dream up the monsters in the shadows? Kirsty Law’s Young Night Thought binds Scots folklore, song, film, artwork and dance in an exploration of the inner child. Driven by an extraordinary live band this show leads you across the threshold of the supernatural and back again. ’Weaves a dexterous path between the animated vocal mannerisms of Ani Di Franco and the wide open instrumentation of early Massive Attack’ (Acoustic Magazine). ‘Spellbinding’ (Max Reinhardt, BBC Radio 3, Late Junction). www.madeinscotlandshowcase.com
An intimate and provocative live performance that ‘evolves into a hypnotic whirlwind of warring emotions’ (Herald), Cryptic’s critically acclaimed, poignant staging of award-winning singer Kathryn Joseph’s second album returns by popular demand. Renowned for her spellbinding vocal style and strong lyrical aesthetic which showcases both vulnerability and strength, Joseph moves and engages in equal measure. Complemented by Cryptic’s ‘intense, intimate, immaculately stylised presentation’ (Scotsman), From When I Wake will ‘ravish the senses’ and reach right to the soul with a performance where ‘hearts are broken and stolen in equal measure’ (List). www.madeinscotlandshowcase.com. Seated.
Eilidh stares out to sea and dreams of a new life beyond her lonely island. Myth and reality collide when the tide washes a mysterious stranger onto her beach, changing her life forever. Epic storytelling, intimately staged with a contemporary Scottish folk-inspired score. The cast live-record and layer their voices to create an ethereal adventure for the ears and imagination. ‘Superb’ (Herald). ‘Lush, harmonic voices’ (List). ‘A real treat of a production’ (AllEdinburghTheatre.com). Originally developed in association with Comar. Part of the Made in Scotland 2019 showcase. www.madeinscotlandshowcase.com
The wee speccy future of Glaswegian stand-up returns to Edinburgh with a brand-new hour. As seen on BBC Scotland’s Up For It, and as heard on BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 4 Extra. Live support for Kevin Bridges, Jason Manford and Russell Kane. Recently listed 59th on a list of the 60 funniest people in Scottish history. ‘Endlessly enjoyable’ **** (Skinny). ‘Genius writing’ **** (List). Intelligent, articulate, and incredibly funny’ ***** (TheWeeReview.com). ‘Downright impressive… no spare moment lacks a laugh’ ***** (ShortCom.co.uk).
Award-winning writer and spoken word artist Cat (BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC The Social, Radio Scotland, STV) debuts the stage adaptation of her hit poetry book. Nostalgic, hilarious and heartbreaking, her performance deconstructs and satirises the milestones, conventions and pressures that girls and young women face. ‘Hepburn’s new collection is the lovechild of slam poetry and the snatched rant over coffee or in the loo… Bittersweet, irreverent and to-the-point, these poems speak of life’s knots and identity pitfalls all too clearly’ **** (Skinny). ‘Cat Hepburn helped make poetry cool again’ (Scottish Sun).
A live jam of music, video and poetry, this multimedia theatre show tells the true story of a military drone’s life and fears. The Drone is a weapons system, an office worker, a background hum. The bleak humour and tender fury of Drone sees the unmanned aerial vehicle as the technology of a neurotic century, asking how anxious people can live as part of systems of such astonishing destruction. Drone is mixed new every night: a cabaret band of a video jockey, an electronic musician and a spoken word performer. ‘A state of the nation address’ (Scotsman). www.madeinscotlandshowcase.com