Lessons From History: A Review Of Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained…

Sometimes you start a book which defies your expectations to such an extent that the only thing to do is recalibrate and start again. That’s what happened with Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained (Contraband, Saraband Books). I knew the story was centred around a real-life crime, one which had a direct relationship to Czerkawska and her family, and think I was expecting a whodunnit with the author acting as detective through the ages. I should have known better – Catherine Czerkawska would never be so obvious.

There seems to be a real appetite for true crime which is always with us, and which is often accompanied by a sense of voyeurism – a desire to get a vicarious thrill from discovering the worst that men can do. This is an accusation which cannot be pointed at A Proper Person To Be Detained despite the premise. What unfolds is more of a social and cultural commentary on the Britain of the day, but one which forces you to make parallels with the present.

Regular readers of Czerkawska’s will know that she takes her research seriously. A prolific poet and playwrite as well as a celebrated novelist, her previous books include The Curiosity Cabinet, The Physic Garden, The Posy Ring, and 2016’s The Jewel (the story of Jean Armour whose life has always been overshadowed by that of her husband, Robert Burns). A champion of the under-represented, overlooked, and persecuted Czerkawska is rightly known as one of the most interesting and individual historical novelists we have, able to find a relatable way to tell a story which may have been overlooked otherwise.

With A Proper Person To Be Detained the author’s familial relationship to events lend it an extra dimension which is almost palpable. This time it’s personal and it shows. Murdered in a drunken quarrel, her great-great-uncle John Manley was the son of Irish immigrants, and the way he, and his kith and kin, were treated shows that many lessons are taking a long time to learn. The tragic incident is used as a ground zero from which a family tree evolves and then runs throughout the book, allowing the writer to examine the multiple strands which lead to her own.

But this is not simply a literary Who Do You Think You Are?. Czerkawska uses the plight and experience of her family, and the documents and details resulting from her research, to examine so much more, particularly the plight of immigrants. She discovers plenty of evidence to suggest that myths and stereotypes were widespread and had influence. Well into the 20th century signs could be found on hostelry doors which read “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” (the title of John Lydon’s 1994 autobiography) and Czerkawska looks in great detail as to why such victimization prevailed, and what it meant for those who suffered it.

Perhaps the most shocking commentary on how the Irish were viewed at the time comes from the pen of Frederich Engels, who famously co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, but who appears to have believed that although all working men are equal, some are more equal than others. His thoughts and attacks on the ‘Irishman’ have to be read to be believed, and have parallels with the treatment of, and the reporting on, immigrants and their families today, often persisting through generations. Such prejudice can be as stubborn as it is damaging.

In some ways A Proper Person To Be Detained makes an interesting companion to Jemma Neville’s Constitution Street and the call made in that book for a written bill of rights which should include, among others, the ‘Right to Housing’, the ‘Right to Education’, the ‘Right to Food’, ‘Health’, ‘Work’, and even ‘Life’. An aspect of Czerkawska’s book which is shocking yet unavoidable is the thought that we may be moving backwards rather than forwards when it comes to respecting those rights, particularly when she looks at the social structure of the various places that her family found themselves, including Glasgow’s Calton/Trongate. The detail of the poverty and hardship that had to be endured resonates all too clearly with some areas in cities today.

A Proper Person To Be Detained examines poverty, immigration, mental health, racism, and misogyny, all of which were inherent in everyday life in the late 19th/early 20th century, and unarguably still are today. As you read on you can sense your own anger growing with that of the writer as ever more hardships, tragedies, and injustices are visited upon her ancestors and those like them. Starting with the personal Catherine Czerkawska has written a powerful historical novel, arguably her most memorable to date. By looking at the past with an eye to the present she makes you realise that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained is published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books.

You can still hear the podcast we recorded with Catherine Czerkawska back in 2017.

The Talk On The Street: The SWH! Podcast Talks To Jemma Neville…

For the latest SWH! podcast Ali headed to Edinburgh to chat to writer Jemma Neville all about Constitution Street: finding hope in an age of anxiety (published by 404 Ink), her fascinating and inspirational book which SWH! described as, “a socio-political work with humanity at its heart, and a timely reminder that there is more that unites than divides us.”

Talking in the welcoming surroundings of The Hideout Cafe (below) on the very street itself the two discuss the ethos behind the book, the way it is structured, and how both are reflected and inspired by the place and the people who live and work on Edinburgh’s Constitution Street.

Jemma talks about what prompted her to write this book, the importance of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the responses of her interviewees, how an area can change but still retain an identity, the importance of communal spaces for meeting and more, how the issues and themes of Constitution Street relate to communities of any size and place, and a whole lot more. You’ll never look at your own locale in the same way again.

This podcast is the perfect partner to the book, expanding on some of its themes, but by no means all and the best thing you can do is to discover that for yourself. To convince you further you can read the full SWH! review of Constitution Street 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, with Spotify, 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

..or on YouTube:

The next podcast will be with you very soon, but in the meantime you can also check out our series of Scottish Opera Podcasts.

The Scottish Opera Interviews #7: Resident Stage Manager, John Duncan…

John Duncan backstage at The Magic Flute in Glasgow’s Theatre Royal

For the latest in our series of podcasts in conjunction with Scottish Opera we spoke to John Duncan, the company’s Resident Stage Manager. Over the course of the conversation he provides a fascinating insight into a role which is vital to all theatre, but which rarely gets discussed.

Recorded backstage at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal (so beware the passing fire engine) John talks about how he initially fell in love with the theatre, his early years in the role, how the team dynamic works, the different productions he has worked on, the challenges he has faced over the years, a horse named George, and much more. If you have ever wondered what goes on behind the curtain then John has many of the answers.

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, with Spotify, 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

..or on YouTube:

The next Scottish Opera Interview will with you in November.
In the meantime you can find all The Scottish Opera Podcasts in one handy place.

Cosmic Entities: A Review Of Amadeus & The Bard…

In the fourth of our Scottish Opera podcasts we spoke to the Director of Education & Outreach, Jane Davidson who explained the ways SO reach out to all areas of Scotland, and work with all age groups. The latest example of this in practice was Amadeus & the Bard: 18th Century Cosmic Brothers which has just finished a tour some of the High Schools, Academies and museums of Scotland before ending its run in Glasgow.

The final shows were held in Scottish Opera’s Edington Street building, which has a wonderful performance space. The Bard in question is Robert Burns, and he was well represented in body as well as spirit at the performance SWH! attended with at least one fellow national Makar, as well as an actor best known for his portrayal of Burns, in the crowd. They were part of an audience whose aged ranged across the generations, and who were immediately involved with the show, greeted at the door by the players themselves with wonderful musical accompaniment. This, as Burns would have wanted it, was a performance where all were made welcome.

As the title suggests, this was a tale of two geniuses, Burns and Mozart, affectionately referred to as Rabbie and Wolfie. To distinguish them on stage a simple but effective wardrobe technique was applied, with a green coat for Mozart, and a blue one for Burns. The two were compared and contrasted, but it was the similarities of their lives which were the main focus, with Rabbie’s words and Wolfie’s music interweaved throughout.

Born three years apart, both died in their mid-thirties, they achieved fame, if not fortune, for their music (Mozart) and their words (Burns), and are more celebrated today than they had been in their all-too-brief lives. Staged in the convivial setting of Burns’ favourite boozer Poosie Nansie’s, the regulars tell tales of the two men’s lives, loves, and losses – referencing their most famous work as they do so. As matters progress the two stories are brought closer together, until a mash-up of Don Giovanni and ‘Tam O’Shanter’ proves a supernatural and devilish highlight, before a rousing ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’ brings matters to a suitable and moving conclusion with the audience joining in.

With their eagerly-awaited production of Puccini’s Tosca beginning this Wednesday, Amadeus & the Bard: 18th Century Cosmic Brothers was a reminder that while Scottish Opera is rightly known for its spectacular, large-scale productions the work they do on a smaller scale, all around the country, should be acknowledged and supported, and on this showing, and the reaction to the current ‘Opera Highlights Tour‘ (SWH! review here), they are rightly receiving both.

West End Girl: Pat’s Guide To Glasgow West End Is 20…

This week sees Glasgow’s OB (Original Blogger) Pat Byrne’s Guide To Glasgow West End celebrate its 20th anniversary. When it comes to supporting the arts & culture in Glasgow few have shown the passion, commitment, and enthusiasm that Pat has and to keep that burning for two decades means that this is a significant, and inspirational, milestone – one which should not go without comment.

The stats (right) speak for themselves, but it is the joy, warmth, and breadth of knowledge that Pat brings to her role as THE premier champion and chronicler of all things West End that makes her stand apart. Her editorial stance is to share, celebrate, and enjoy the things she is passionate about – one which chimes closely with SWH!

Although being a regular reader for years, I only really got to know Pat and her husband Jim when they asked me to get involved with the Ten Writers Telling Lies project, which married short stories and poetry to Jim’s songs. Since then they have become firm friends, and I always know I’m at a good event when I see Pat’s smiling face in the room. I for one will be raising a glass in her honour and I’ll hope you’ll join me. Here’s to many more.

For a great overview of the previous 20 years I recommend reading this interview Pat gave to Ian Marland for Glasgow WE recently – Guiding Star

And here is the podcast with Pat, Jim, and Samina Chaudry which Ali recorded in 2017 where they talk all about Ten Writers Telling Lies.

The Scottish Opera Interviews #6: Staff Director, Roxana Haines

Roxana Haines. © Julie Broadfoot – http://www.juliebee.co.uk

For the sixth in our series of podcasts in conjunction with Scottish Opera Ali spoke to Staff Director, Roxana Haines. It’s a fascinating and informative discussion with someone whose job brings her into contact and collaboration with most areas of the company.

Roxana explains her professional journey, her training in theatre and how that translates to the specific demands of opera, her role in terms of productions and the challenges that different ones bring – with particular reference to the current ‘Opera Highlights Tour‘ and the opera for young children ‘Fox-tot!‘ – and a lot more.

Through it all her enthusiasm and love for what she does shines through, and we hope you enjoy listening to the conversation as much as we did recording it.

Roxana with the cast of Fox-tot!

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, with Spotify, 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

..or on YouTube:

The next Scottish Opera Interview will with you in November.
In the meantime you can find all The Scottish Opera Podcasts in one handy place.

The Alternative View: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Richy Muirhead…

For the latest podcast Ali caught up with Richy Muirhead, the founder and creative director of the Scottish Alternative Music Awards (SAMAs) which is celebrating its 10th year. It’s a timely conversation as this year’s nominees have just been announced, and Richy reveals who they are and what awards they are up for.

What follows is a fascinating chat which covers the origins and history of the SAMAs, an explanation of the criteria, the categories, this year’s nominees, notable previous winners, building partnerships, the importance of the live show (this year on October 25th, St Luke’s, Glasgow), and lots more.

There are also 5 tracks from some of last year’s winners, including Declan West and the Decadent West (Rock/Alternative), Lylo (Live Act), The Dunts (Newcomer), Solareye (Hip Hop), and Megan Airlie (Acoustic). Ali also offers the point of view from a SAMAs nominator, so hopefully you’ll end up with a better understanding not only of how the awards work, but also the aims and ideology behind them.

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, with Spotify, 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

..or on YouTube:

The next podcast will be with you very soon, but in the meantime you can also check out our series of Scottish Opera Podcasts.

The Scottish Opera Interviews #5: Head of Props, Marian Colquhoun

For the fifth in our series of podcasts with members of Scottish Opera we spoke to Marian Colquhoun, the Head of Props. If you have ever been to a Scottish Opera performance, no matter the scale of the production, you’ll know what an integral, important, and creative part the props department have to play.

Marian discusses her approach to the role, the collaboration with other departments, the joy in creating memorable moments, the demands of different productions, the practicalities and problem solving involved, and the culture of prop making in Scotland and beyond. It’s a fascinating insight into an area of the arts that is rarely discussed but which is crucial to opera, theatre, film, and beyond.

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 Scots Whay Hae! 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

..or on YouTube:

The next Scottish Opera Interview will be out in late October.

In the meantime you can find all The Scottish Opera Podcasts in one handy place.

Under The Skin: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Elle Nash…

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

..or on YouTube:

The next podcast will be with you very soon, but in the meantime you can also check out our series of Scottish Opera Podcasts.

 

SWH! Is 10…

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.

Ian Gregson

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…

Why Hae?

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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…

Alistair Braidwood 25/08/2009.