Two’s Company: A Review Of Alan Warner & Brian Hamill’s Good Listeners…

I’ve said it before, but there is no doubt that short stories get a bad rap, and I’m not entirely sure why. Some of the finest books of the last 10 years have included memorable collections from Anneliese Mackintosh, Kirsty Logan, Chris McQueer, Vicki Jarrett, Helen McClory, and there are many more, but there is still a prevailing feeling that a writer can’t really be considered such until they have a novel published. This is nonsense, and ignores the fact that some of the most celebrated writers’ greatest work is to be found in the shorter form.

It could be argued, and I’m happy to do so, that James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and Agnes Owens are rarely better than in their short stories (more of which below), and there are many other examples I could name. As most writers will tell you the short story is not a lesser form of writing, just a different one – one which allows established writers to experiment, and which can also work as an introduction to a new voice.

With that in mind, it was with great interest that I read Good Listeners, the short story collection from Alan Warner and Brian Hamill, published by latter’s new publishing entity The Common Breath. Warner has written eight novels to date, including personal favourites Morvern Callar, The Sopranos, and The Deadman’s Pedal and it’s always a treat to read new work.

I know Brian Hamill as much as an editor and publisher than as a writer, particularly through his work with the excellent magazine thi wurd, and their fiction anthology Tales From a Cancelled Country, but he has had several of his stories appear in some of Scotland’s finer literary publications including Edinburgh Review and New Writing Scotland. I was fascinated as to how such a collaboration would work, and what it would tell us about each writer.

Multi-authored collections are not unknown. One of Scotland’s essential works of literature is Lean Tales, with stories from the aforementioned Agnes Owens, Alasdair Gray, and James Kelman. Warner himself was first brought to many readers’ attention with his contribution to Children of the Albion Rovers, where he shared pages with, among others, Irvine Welsh, Laura Hird, Gordon Legge, and Kevin Williamson. Such collections, when they work, tell us something about the writing of the time in terms of both style and substance.

Good Listeners is small but perfectly formed, with six stories, three from each. If you have never read Warner before this is a great place to start as you get the sense of his world-view that is always slightly askew. A local luminary’s legend grows without his knowledge – the community keeping a secret to save his blushes, there’s an ingenious yet simple money-making scam which has a terrible twist in the tale, and an unforgettable funeral fulfills an unusual last will and testament. All perfectly normal in the world of Alan Warner

Hamill also shows himself as a storyteller willing to examine the everyday in a fresh and atypical way. Like Warner you get the feeling that he is writing about people and places he knows, but not in a way that anyone involved would (necessarily) recognise themselves. A creative writing student gets conflicting advice leading to a crisis of confidence verging on the existential, an unlikely friendship examines the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of relationships, and the story which gives the book its title sets out the dangers in “Sitting there and doing nothing” for too long as a bus journey becomes a dark night of the soul. Taken as a whole the stories work together seamlessly – two writers who are clearly close in terms of style and vision.

Good Listeners is an interesting and welcome publication, and one which leaves you wanting more – not only from these two writers, but for the prospect of a further collection of short stories which reflects the current state of Scottish writing. While we are lucky to have fantastic literary magazines such as Gutter, New Writing Scotland, thi wurd, The 404 Ink Magazine, and the eagerly awaited Extra Teeth (among others), surely the time has come for another standalone collection to rival Lean Tales, Children of the Albion Rovers, and 2011’s The Year Of Open Doors. The Common Breath is the perfect place for such an idea to flourish and I urge you to visit their website to see how you could get involved. I have a feeling that Good Listeners could be the start of something very special indeed.

Good Listeners is out now published by The Common Breath.

The Scottish Opera Interviews #4: Director of Education & Outreach, Jane Davidson

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

..or on YouTube:

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

You can find all The Scottish Opera Podcasts in one handy place.

Melody Makers: The SWH! Podcast Talks To Half Formed Things…

Cover for ‘To Live In The Flicker’, credit – Louise McLachlan

For the latest podcast Ali went to Edinburgh to talk to Edwin McLachlan and Morgan Hosking, two members of Half Formed Things (unapologetically one of SWH!’s favourite bands). They talk about their astonishing album To Live In The Flicker, the origins of the band, what it’s like to work with close friends and family, the importance or otherwise of place, their shared philosophy, themes, influences, and a whole lot more.

Half Formed Things – (l-r, Morgan, Matthew, Nici, Edwin), credit – Louise McLachlan

You’ll also get two tracks from the album which will give you a clear idea as to just how good it is. And if the other two members of the band, Nici Hosking and Matthew Bakewell, disagree with any of what was said we are more than willing to record a follow up to give their side of the story! If you are interested in making music, or in how music is made, then this is a must listen, and one of the most in-depth and interesting podcasts to date.

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:

Here’s an extract from SWH!’s review of To Live In The Flicker,
“From the opening ‘Flicker’ to the closing ‘The Calm’ you are taken to another place by a soundtrack which makes your head swim – with instruments being used for different purposes – drums and cymbals take the lead, piano riffs keep the rhythm, and harmonies (oh, the harmonies!) becoming an instrument all of their own.”
And you can read the full review here.

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

Not Waving But Drowning: A Review Of Christina Neuwirth’s Amphibian…


The workplace has long been a rich source of material for writers. A publishing house in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington, the bus depot in James Kelman’s The Busconductor Hines, a Post Office in Charles Bukowski’s novel of the same name, or even George Orwell’s Animal Farm – they are all used to reflect the society and politics of the time.  However, the everyday drudgery of modern office life is rarely portrayed in literature, perhaps for the very reason that it is seen as a place where the dramatic is often hard to find.

Christina Neuwirth understands this and subverts it brilliantly with her novella Amphibian. It is the perfect parable for our times, with themes of corporate control, individual apathy and uncertainty, and a general dissatisfaction with modern living, told with wry humour and a gentle surrealism that doesn’t intrude but only enhances the story.  Not so much magical realism, more a commentary on capitalism in a modernist style. If Kafka had worked for an Edinburgh finance company this is the book he would have written. Continue reading

Lessons From History: The SWH! Podcast Talks To Donald S. Murray…


For the latest podcast Ali met up with poet and writer Donald S. Murray in Waterstone’s on Sauchiehall Street before the Glasgow launch of As The Women Lay Dreaming (Saraband Books), his novel which examines the Iolaire disaster of 1919 and the impact it has had on a community through the generations.

The two discuss the book (right) in detail and why this story of one of the worst peacetime maritime Dk4Wu2BXsAA3yAwdisasters remains largely unknown outside of the Highlands & Islands. They also examine the way Murray uses it as the starting point to say much about Scotland as a whole, covering themes which include language, religion, class, art, guilt, and family.

Donald also talks of the importance of the memory of the senses when it comes to recalling the past on the page, the crucial role of an editor, and others, in helping to see your own work more clearly, his struggles with structure, and the current healthy state of writing in and from the Highlands & Islands. Continue reading

Heart of Darkness: A Review Of Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker…


The city of Glasgow has a complex relationship with real crime, one which probably explains the popularity of crime fiction not only in the city, but about the city. There are few places who aggrandise and almost celebrate its violent reputation, and those who are responsible for it, in the manner Glasgow appears to. Sicily and Chicago are two others which spring to mind.

As those who live in or visit the city will know, Glasgow is (with well-known and notable exceptions) a generally friendly and supportive community, large enough for many diverse people and opinions, but small enough for most of the populace to find some sort of connection with less than six degrees of separation. However, a braggadocious attitude to the brutal is never too far away, perhaps best summed up by folk hero and baggage handler, John ‘Smeato’ Smeaton, who, after kicking a burning man in the ‘nads,  warned any other potential terrorists that, “This is Glasgow; we’ll set aboot ye”.

Many Glaswegian gangsters have become celebrities, if not exactly celebrated, and there is a penchant for giving those involved in crime nicknames – The Godfather, Blind Jonah, Fat Boy, Babyface, The Licensee. One of the city’s most notorious serial killers was known as Bible John, due to his use of quotations from the Scriptures, and he became a bogeyman like figure to Glaswegians in the late-’60s and the ’70s – his police composite drawing peering eerily down from walls and out of phone boxes. To this day the legend endures, not least because he was never caught, and the case remains unsolved. It’s a classic example of the blurring of lines between fiction and fact when it comes to Glasgow and crime. Continue reading

American Horror Story: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Andy Davidson…


For the latest podcast Ali met up with the American novelist Andy Davidson before his event at The Edinburgh International Book Festival. In an ironically dreich Charlotte Square the two discuss Andy’s terrific debut novel In The Valley Of The Sun which is among the best of the year so far.

DhhU22jWAAAKJSQPublished on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books,  In The Valley Of The Sun is set in the small towns of the Texas desert. We’re calling it a vampire thriller unlike any other, but, as you’ll hear, that’s not necessarily how Andy sees it.

If you want a point of reference think Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark, or even Jim Jarmusch’s 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, among many other cinematic and literary influences. Dripping with blood, sweat and tears, it is as shocking as it is compelling, and in Travis Stickwell Davidson has created an anti-hero for the ages. If you are a fan of horror and/or crime fiction then you don’t want to miss out on this one. Continue reading

The Vital Spark: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Celebrates The Life & Work Of Muriel Spark…


In the latest podcast we look at the life and work of Muriel Spark with our guest Dr Colin McIlroy who is the Muriel Spark Project Curator at the National Library of Scotland, and who was instrumental in their recent The International Style of Muriel Spark Exhibition.

This year is the centenary of the birth of Spark, and the exhibition was just part of DSC_0789the #MurielSpark100 celebrations which are ongoing throughout 2018. Colin tells us all about the exhibition, before he and Ali talk about the novels, Spark’s unconventional life, her other writing, and so much more.

If you are a newcomer to Muriel Spark, or think that she begins and ends with The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, this is the perfect podcast to persuade you to investigate further. Even if you are already a fan you’re bound to find something new to interest you.

If you want to keep up to date with all the events which are part of the Muriel Spark centenary celebrations then go to the Muriel Spark 100 website which has all the details you need, as well as how you can get involved. You can also keep in touch with them on Twitter and Facebook. Continue reading

Get Connected: SWH!’s Pick Of Celtic Connections 2018…


“January, sick and tired you’ve been hanging on me”, sang Edinburgh’s Pilot in 1975 and even if you’re not quite sure what it means, you get the gist. For me, a year doesn’t get going properly til Celtic Connections begins. A festival which never fails to deliver, and which continues to grow in terms of number of gigs, breadth of music, and international stature – deep, and wide and tall.

This year is the 25th anniversary, which is worth celebrating in itself, but which would mean little if the quality wasn’t maintained. Have no fear as Celtic Connections shows no signs of slowing down.

As always, we’d like to point you in the direction of lesser known gems which can be found at the festival alongside the headliners and more well-kent attendees, which this year include Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, Kate Rusby, Shawn Colvin, Kathryn Williams, Beth Orton, Joe Henry and The Mavericks!

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New Musical Success: A Review Of The Best In New Music…


To recklessly misquote S. P. Morrissey, “Some months are better than others”, but this month is surely one of the best music reviews we have ever offered for your pleasure. It’s a mix of new music to make the heart sing and the future seem a warmer and more welcoming place, as well as a few of Scots Whay Hae!’s favourite musicians from the last 10 years – a potent combination. Looking forward, looking back.

Edinburgh bands feature strongly this month, and we’re going to start with one of the finest. Storm The Palace’s debut album Snow, Stars and Public Transport is out now on Abandoned Love Records. Last night saw the announcement of this year’s Scottish Album Of The Year, where Sacred Paws triumphed over a hotly contested short list. But the world can’t stand still and I’m going to suggest that Snow, Stars and Public Transport should be among the contenders for that title this time next year. Reminiscent of Lorraine & The Borderlands and Modern Studies, Storm The Palace have made a record which is sheer class from Track 1 to 10. Inventive with a strong sense of the tradition in which their music sits, this is baroque and roll at its very finest. As an example of what they do, listen to ‘La Lido’:

Continue reading