What we learned about Scottish history this week

Central Library this week hosted two very different, but equally fascinating events looking at different aspects of Scottish history.

On Wednesday author Walter Stephen launched his latest book, ‘A dirty swindle: true stories of Scots in the Great War

Walter Stephen signing copies of 'A Dirty Swindle'

Walter Stephen signing copies of ‘A Dirty Swindle’

The skill of Walter’s book is the way he takes stories which many of us are familiar with on a surface level and delves deeper into them to give us a very real sense of what the war was like for those who experienced it.

Walter’s talk was illustrated by a slide show and two images in particular stood out.

One was a haunting picture entitled ‘Shell Shock’ which was drawn by an officer while he was being treated at Craiglockhart Hospital.

The other was a photograph of a ‘Forward Observation Officer’ jumping to safety as his balloon came under fire. Being a Forward Observation Officer was an incredibly dangerous role: being up in a balloon made you such an easy target.

Many of us will be familiar with the story of Hearts F.C and McCrae’s Battalion but as Walter pointed out two of the Hearts team actually failed the army medical and were prevented from signing up. (This despite them playing football for the top team in the country at the time)

Walter also spoke about the Quintinshill train crash and the ‘perfect storm’ that made it the worst rail disaster this country has known. Tragically some men survived only to die in horrific circumstances at Gallipoli little over a month later.

Walter ended the evening talking about the unease he felt about how the 100th anniversary of the first world war has been used for political purposes, and politics and history was very much the theme for our event last night, as Stuart McHardy and Donald Smith took us on a journey along Scotland’s Democracy Trail.

A wide-ranging discussion took in everything from the Volkswagen emissions scandal to upcoming EU referendum to the teaching of Scottish history in schools.

Donald and Stuart also introduced us to some of the lesser known but significant figures from Scottish history.

The life and legacy of Thomas Muir has been marked by a series this year (the 250th anniversary of his birth), but Stuart argued he’s not as widely celebrated as he deserves to be. “Where’s the movie?” he asked. And you would have to agree that Muir’s life was one long extraordinary globe-spanning adventure.

We were also introduced to lesser known characters such as James Thomson Callender and Francis Hutcheson and the effect their life and work had on the long struggle for democracy as we know and understand it.

The evening ended with questions from the audience about the Highland Clearances, the Scottish Youth Parliament, James Robertson’s And the land lay still and the possibility of a pardon for Thomas Muir.

We’d like to thank Walter, Donald and Stuart for two terrific evenings which would have encouraged many audiences members to read not just their books, but others as well, to find out more about our nation’s past.

Neil Oliver at Central Library

Archaeologist, historian, writer and broadcaster Neil Oliver (Coast, A History of Scotland, The History Detectives) is coming to Edinburgh Central Library.

Neil will talk about and read from his debut novel Master of Shadows – a gripping historical thriller which takes the reader from the highlands of Scotland to the crumbling majesty of Constantinople.

Edinburgh Central Library, Thursday 10th September, 7pm

Book your free ticket now! 

Greenpeace co-founder Pete Wilkinson at Edinburgh Central Library

‘From Deptford to Antarctica’ tells the story of Pete Wilkinson’s life of environmental campaigning. And what a journey it’s been, as Pete demonstrated at last week’s Edinburgh Reads talk.

Pete Wilkinson

Pete spoke engagingly about the campaigns, personalities and internal politics of the green movement in the seventies and eighties, before bringing things right up to date with news of the causes he’s presently involved with.

We began with the early days of Friends of The Earth; the ‘Freaks of Freak House’ and the causes they fought for, including the campaign against commercial whaling. Pete told us about the time an inflatable whale, which was meant to float up the Thames, sank – but rather than being a  PR disaster the press lapped it up, as it was perceived as being emblematic of the plight these creatures faced.

After a ‘Dickensian’ stint at the Post Office Pete was recruited by David Fraser McTaggart to help organise campaigns against nuclear testing, seal culling and the Windscale nuclear reactor.

Later on there was the successful and controversial campaign against the fur trade (the one with the slogan about it taking 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat but only one to wear it). Pete told us of the rift that this caused between the UK and North American sides of the organisation, and the subsequent turning point that was the sinking of the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior by French foreign intelligence.

Picture: Andrew JL Ansell Photographic

Picture: Andrew JL Ansell Photographic

Pete’s talk was illustrated by a slideshow and two of the most striking images were from his time in Antarctica. A stunning and tranquil ice-scape was in stark contrast to a terrifying shot taken on board a ship in stormy conditions.

Pete rounded off the evening by talking about two of his current passions: investigating how to clean up the massive flouting gyres of rubbish which litter the oceans, and his work with the Nuclear Information Service.

All too soon our time was up. As Pete said himself, “I could go on indefinitely… just read the book”. You can borrow it from us or download it as an eBook via OverDrive.

Picture: Andrew JL Ansell Photographic

Picture: Andrew JL Ansell Photographic

Thanks to Pete, Fledgling Press and our Edinburgh Reads audience for making this event such a success.

Edinburgh Reads: Sue Lawrence and Maggie Ritchie

Our latest Edinburgh Reads events featured two journalists turned historical novelists: Maggie Ritchie and Sue Lawrence.

Maggie Ritchie is the author of Paris Kiss, a retelling of the scandalous love affair between the great sculptor Auguste Rodin and his 19-year-old protégée Camille Claudel, seen through the eyes Camille’s young English friend Jessie Lipscomb.

Maggie explained how the seed of the idea for the book was sown while on honeymoon in Paris. But it was only ten years later, whilst undertaking a creative writing course at Glasgow University, that the love story that had been, as she put it, ‘percolating’ finally began to take shape.

As Maggie explored the real life story behind her novel, she came to realise that Rodin had stronger links with Scotland, and especially Glasgow, than she had first realised – links that were mainly down to Alexander Reid (subject of a previous Edinburgh Reads event).

Over the course several atmospheric readings, Maggie brought her characters to life, prompting questions about the research that she did on her characters.

Obviously there is plenty of biographical information on Rodin himself and to a lesser extent Camille but, as Maggie explained, the comparative lack of material on the character she chose to make her narrator, Jessie Lipscomb, was liberating in that it meant she had more freedom to shape the character. So it’s through the eyes of a newcomer that we see nineteenth century Paris.

Also, this gave Maggie an exciting a new angle to a story that had been told before, most recently in the film Camille Claudel 1915.

Further readings from Paris Kiss gave us a real feeling for the camaraderie between Camille and Jessie in what was a very macho environment. We also got a flavour of belle époque nightlife during a reading which featured a brilliant payoff line.

Maggie’s readings were really superb, and funnily enough in response to a question from a member of the audience she said that she felt she had more in common with an actor than a journalist, in the way as a novelist she had to get inside the mind of a character.

Maggie finished off by talking about two novels she’s currently working on: one is about a love affair with cataclysmic consequences a set in post-colonial southern Africa, the other is a return to the art world of the nineteenth century but instead of Paris this time we’re in Scotland and China.

Needless to say we would be delighted for Maggie to come back and tell us all about them!

Last Thursday’s guest author was former Masterchef Sue Lawrence, whose debut novel ‘Fields of Blue Flax‘ is currently riding high in the Scottish fiction charts.

DSC_6460As well as reading excerpts from the book Sue answered questions from BBC Scotland’s Serena Field about how she came to be a writer and the particular challenges of writing her genealogical mystery with a dual narrative structure.

Part of the novel is set in nineteenth century Dundee so Sue also had to think hard about the use of dialect in the novel and talked about the historical research she had to undertake, and some of the quirks that research throws up – for example hymns that we tend to think of as ‘traditional’ had in fact only just been written.

As usual our Edinburgh Reads audience had come prepared with questions, and Sue answered queries about her favourite authors, how she felt upon finishing the book, whether there will be a follow-up, and which came first: the character or the plot.

Thanks to both authors, our chairs (Maggie’s was her husband Mike) and of course our audiences.  Details and booking for upcoming events here.

Ian Rankin and Jeffery Deaver at Edinburgh Central Library

Our latest Edinburgh Reads event was a real treat for crime fiction fans as the Central Reference Library played host to a discussion between bestselling US crime writer Jeffery Deaver and Edinburgh’s own Ian Rankin.

Ian spoke of a camaraderie among crime authors and this was evident as he and Jeffery shared anecdotes about the part libraries had played in their development as readers and writers.

It was illuminating to hear the authors talk about their inspirations and techniques. We learned that even though these writers had much in common they also differed in many respects, for example in their approach to giving their characters a hinterland beyond the case that is the subject of their book.

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A wide-ranging conversation took in many other topics including music, James Bond, award ceremonies and jury selection techniques for the O.J. Simpson trial.

Deaver also talked about the incident during a Greenwich Village Halloween Parade that was the spark of inspiration for his latest thriller Solitude Creek.

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The hour closed with questions from the audience about whether the authors read other novels while they were writing (Ian Rankin: yes, but not so much crime fiction) and their thoughts on eBooks (Jeffery Deaver: so long as people are reading that’s the main thing, but he does have a personal preference for the physical book).

We’re massively grateful to both authors for making this unique event so informative and enjoyable.

Check our event listings for details of forthcoming author visits.

Photographs: Andrew JL Ansell Photographic

Gourmet Reads – Alex Gray

We are looking forward to hosting Alex Gray in the fourth of our Gourmet Reads event series.

Alex Gray will be no stranger to the crime writing aficionados among you. Her books, featuring Detective Chief Inspector Lorimer and psychological profiler Solomon (Solly) Brightman, have won her an army of loyal fans and seen her win the Scottish Association of Writers Constable and Pitlochry trophies.
gourmet reads

The books have often been praised for their authenticity and the secret of this appears to lie in the research with Gray having a good network of contacts in the legal profession to ensure the stories ring true.

With her latest novel in the Lorimer series, Keep The Midnight Out, freshly on the shelves,  this Gourmet Reads event offers the ideal opportunity to spend the evening with the author and ask some questions over dinner in a relaxed atmosphere.

Alex Gray

Gourmet Read’s is an author event with a difference offering you a unique dining experience where you can share an amazing meal at the Apex Hotel with some of Scotland’s finest writers.

With only 10 spaces at the dinner table it is certainly an intimate occasion giving you time to engage in conversation that you wouldn’t normally get at a regular author event.  So, if dinner with the creator of the Detective Chief Inspector Lorimer series appeals to you then book a ticket soon as these are likely to go fast.

The event takes place on Thursday 30th April at the Apex Waterloo Hotel, 23-27 Waterloo Place, Edinburgh EH1 3BH. Cost is £50 per person: 3 course dinner and glass of wine.

Book your place now and advise of dietary requirements by contacting Grainne Crawford on 0131 529 7791 or email grainne.crawford@edinburgh.gov.uk

Edinburgh Reads: Sally Magnusson

This is my story, but it could be anybody’s

Sally Magnusson ‘s ‘Where memories go’ , her account of her mother Mamie’s long struggle with dementia, was one of the most-borrowed books from Edinburgh Libraries last year.

So it was no surprise that the Reference Library was packed for last night’s talk by the author.

DSC_5587 - CopySally talked about how as a journalist she was used to flitting in and out of other people’s lives, rarely digging deeper before moving on.

But then, in the late nineties, her mother ‘started to ‘go off the boil’. As Sally put it, she ‘mislaid her curiosity’.

And so began the biggest story of Sally’s life. A story she had to share. Because by sharing something, we encourage people to talk about it. And talking about something drives away stigma.

Sally spoke lovingly of her mother Mamie’s life story and character, before going on to describe the effect that dementia had on her.

Sally was keen to stress some of the positives of her experience. Mamie was still able to enjoy times of great in-the-moment happiness, and this was something that Sally came to treasure, learning that living for the moment and experiencing ‘the best day of your life’ over and over can be something to celebrate.

Sally also spoke about the lessons she learned. She spoke about the value of community, and how keenly she felt a lack of guidance and reassurance. This goes back to what she had said earlier about the need to talk and share our experiences, and this has been the legacy of the book.

There are other reasons for optimism as well. Sally argued that we are slowly getting better at understanding dementia.

She spoke about the positive effect music can have, and her work with Playlist for Life, which seeks to create a personal playlist for anyone with dementia to help unlock who they are. This is similar in idea to the work libraries do in care homes with Read Aloud.

We are extremely grateful to Sally for taking the time to come and talk so eloquently – gratitude which will be shared by every member of last night’s audience.DSC_5575 - Copy