Exile in Dundee revealed

GOOD NEWS FROM RIGA

Summer 2018: A new novel

GOOD NEWSFROM RIGA

Good News From Riga is my sixth novel, and comes close to home in its setting, which is the old jute mills of Dundee, reimagined not as student accomodation and small business premises, but as the home of fractious groups of exiles fighting for control of their own communities.

I’ve met a number of such groups over the years: Chileans fleeing General Pinochet, Iranians, Sudanese and others. I once offered to marry an Iranian to help her get a passport, but she was rather wealthy and I was an impoverished student nurse at the time. She took one look at my miserable lodgings and decided she could do better. Such groups have many curious and poignant tensions, as they dream of the return to their homeland, try to persuade foreign governments to consider them as legitimate ‘governments in exile’, and try to cadjole their own young people to keep the faith. I once went to a concert of Chilean music in London at which it was painfully obvious that the older generation were anxious to keep up their children’s interest in the music of ‘home’ – except that, to the children, home was now the UK.

It’s an old theme in literature. One of my favourite poets, the Alexandrian Greek C.P.Cavafy, writing in the 1920s, evoked the self-delusion of Byzantine exiles dreaming that they can return to overthrow a usurping emperor:

…So one way or another, our plans are definitely working out,
and we’ll easily overthrow Basil.
And when we do, at last our turn will come.

Why set this in Dundee? Mainly because the old jute mills are so atmospheric. Many have now been ‘renovated’ and put to new uses, but a few remain gloriously derelict, the roof collapsing, the floors subsiding. One in particular – the Queen Victoria Works, dating from 1824 – is now thoroughly dangerous. A few years back I wriggled inside through an access which is now firmly bolted and welded up. Such a shame.

(The photo above is used on the Amazon print-on-demand edition of the book.)

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Ay Nicaragua, Nicaraguita

All revolutions are betrayed, so it is said. Nicaragua was one of the great hopes, where in 1979 the people arose and overthrew the dictator General Somoza and, in his place, gave the people literacy and free health care, a great flowering of the arts, and a level of public debate and participatory democracy of the sort the Left can usually only dream of. A few years after the popular Triumph, as the US-backed ‘Contra’ attempted to reverse the revolution, I visited the impoverished little country on behalf of a London charity – the Nicaragua Health Fund – looking for projects to support. In those days, enthusiastic young westerners travelled to help bring in the Nica coffee harvest, while the UK’s N.U.M provided expertise in mining techniques, and European labour organisers helped put worker cooperatives on their feet. Apart from health projects, the trip was the origin of several of my short stories including Matagalpa, describing a makeshift circus, and Ugly Italians about a Spanish ‘facilitator of cooperatives’.

But now, all the news from Nicaragua seems to be bad. Daniel Ortega, hero of the revolution who led the first government of popular liberation, appears more and more as a dictator in his own right, harshly suppressing dissent but simply spurring more violence in the streets. Just yesterday, more fighting broke out in Masaya, the town where the revolution started.

diriamba-carnival-300x225

Stockbridge Nicaraguan Carnival, 1997

Reading about this rather sadly, I’ve been rummaging through old files to find records of ¡Diriamba!, a play I was involved in at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1997. It was a remarkable production. Robert Rae, director of the Edinburgh Theatre Workshop and dedicated to breaking theatre out of any middle class straitjacket, had made links with Teatro Nixtayolero from Nicaragua, and over three weeks a musical show was devised around an ancient Hispanic community ritual and a drama about modern aid workers blundering into Central America. I was hired as interpreter working between the Nica actors and the small group of Scottish counterparts, and as scriptwriter bringing some order to the outcome of each day’s workshopping. There were times when things grew tense and difficult (as only theatrical productions can), while my own careful Castillian Spanish was pushed to keep up with the Nica actors street argot. We managed, just – thanks to the commitment of the actors and the extraordinary dogged energy of Robert Rae. The show won a Fringe First, and went on to be a part of a Nica Carnival in Stockbridge (north Edinburgh). Photo above.

 

Photos for Porcupines

In May 2018, Stupor Mundi will be publishing a new paperback edition of my novel The White Porcupine. The book is a complex story in large part set in Java in the aftermath of WW2 as Indonesia struggled for independence from the Netherlands. We debated whether to use the beautiful cover designed by Will Hill for the original hardback edition, which is based on Javanese batik cloth, but decided against it, so as to give the new edition has its own identity. I was looking for period photographs, and found two by an unknown photographer(s) in a 1940s Dutch propaganda publication called Mission Interrupted which had been issued as part of a campaign to persuade the world that the Dutch should still be there running South East Asia.

Here are the two photos, one of a misty early morning in a Javanese courtyard, the other a group of soldiers guarding the palace of the Sultan of Jogjakarta (Central Java).

java morning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

sultans soldiers_edit 1_edited

So – which photo to use?  In the end we decided on the misty courtyard. Although the soldiers are evocative of a time and place, the courtyard has a more mysterious quality suggestive of stories to be told. You can see the full cover on the ‘Fiction’ page of this site.

Saama: innocents in Asia

April 2018:  A new non-fiction book published this month is Saama, describing an overland trip to India in 1974.  (Please see the Non-Fiction page for more details.)

Based on a diary I kept at the time, this is a portrait of an arrogant young man having the stuffing knocked out of him.  The photographs and drawings include one of the author sprawled on a bed in a Kathmandu flop-house with a silly spaced out smile that now reminds me of Alfred E.Neumann in ‘Mad’ magazine. For all that, it’s a poignant book. This is a girl I encountered in a backstreet in Herat, Afghanistan.

Afghan girl herat

New books and re-issues from Stupor Mundi

(November 2017)

The small Scottish literary press Stupor Mundi now publishes a number of my books, including some reprints of earlier work that had become unavailable, or collections gathered together for the first time.

Literary publishers don’t last forever. Two Ravens Press, based up in Ullapool and then on Lewis, published my third novel Glenfarron  but then sold the name and business without telling me or their other authors. The imprint seems to have evaporated altogether, so I’m delighted to have the novel re-issued through Stupor Mundi.

SM had already issued a collection of my short stories – The Morena & Other Stories, and there is now Terraferma & Other Stories. These both contain tales that have won a prize or two and have been broadcast by the BBC, but they would die a forgotten death unless gathered together.

There’s also a collection of non-fiction essays – Beyond The Roadblocks – which includes amongst many other things the historical fiction essay introduced on the ‘Essays & Background’ page here.

All this is only possible in the new world of e-books and ‘print on demand’ paperbacks.

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 The White Porcupine

A novel for 2015

This project is something I’ve been working on in different formats for about 25 years.

The White Porcupine has some base in historical reality. It concerns the Dutch East Indies and the struggle for independence in the late 1940s. Part of the story is the Battle of Surabaya, a bizarre fight in late 1945 which cost many thousands of lives. It was between British forces and Indonesian nationalists and they were really fighting over nothing at all, just a misunderstanding. This was the last time Imperial (Indian) troops fought for the British.

Another historical aspect is the career of a Dutch soldier who decided that what his countrymen were doing in Indonesia was wrong, and who switched sides. He lived in Java for the rest of his life (dying just a few years ago), regarded by many in the Netherlands as a despicable traitor.

I hope you’ll find the story funny and exciting, but also thought-provoking on the subject of identity and loyalty, and what it means to be a traitor.

The book uses a quote from a 12th century monk, Hugo of St Victor:

“The person who finds his homeland sweet is but a tender beginner; he to whom every land is sweet is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign place.”

See the ‘Books’ page for full details. Here’s the cover:

porc cov smash 2

The book is available in two editions: as an e-book from the usual sites, and also as an attractive limited hardback edition, signed and numbered. Yours for £12 plus a bit of p&p. Get in touch!

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TELEREAD INTERVIEW ON THE SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE DEBATE

The Society of Authors in Scotland (SoAiS) is our branch of the venerable Society of Authors in London. I was until recently the current Scottish treasurer. We sponsored a debate on the outlook for writers in a post-referendum Scotland.

We were also approached by Paul St John Mackintosh of Teleread, an established blog on publishing matters, wanting our views on the issue. I contributed my personal notions which you can find on: http://www.teleread.com

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 St Andrews Creative Writing Summer School

I’ve now been Director of the Creative Writing Summer School at St Andrews University for nine years

Every summer we take twenty carefully selected students for around cthree weeks. They’re all talented, but they are also new to certain forms. We work in a variety of media: this year they worked in small teams to write short “radio plays” (actually performed live through a PA with sound effects), as well as individual fiction, poetry, comedy writing, and performance skills.

As a new departure, we had them design poem-prints which we then took to the print workshops of Dundee Contemporary Arts where they learned the delights of screen printing – something none of the students had done before. In linking the written word to the visual, they’re looking back to William Blake, the illuminated manuscript, and to the very origins of the written word in pictograms and hieroglyphs.

We expect a lot of our students and work them hard, but it’s a fascinating month. If you’re interested in applying for next summer, keep an eye on the University of St Andrews website. Applications are now open. The course has been so successful that we shall be expanding it a little next year – but only a little. The personal contact is central, and we work in ‘tutor groups’ of just four or five.

***dunbog kids 1895 half

Published Spring 2014

Hall in the Heart

A Fife parish hall and its Community

1914-2014

A new departure for me: social history. My local parish hall committee found a small grant to commission me to write a history of the hall for its centenary. Researching this could have been parochial and piddling, but turned out to be a revelation for me, overturning all sorts of assumptions about rural society in 20th century Scotland. That (above) is some of the village schoolchildren, in 1895. The story includes anarchist bomb plots, fornicators denounced, and a subtle tussle for authority between the Establishment and the common folk.

See the Books: non-fiction page for details

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mammoth 1

ACES ARTS & CONFLICT

Throughout much of 2013 and early 2014 I’ve been involved in an arts residency for ACES – the Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability. The project looks at environmental conflicts and explores how creative artists might… well, not solve any problem, but illuminate it a little. There were more than a dozen of us: a musician, sculptor, photographer, theatre director, artist, film maker and me, together with a clutch of scientists engaged in the hard realities of such conflicts. We had an expert on hen harriers, another expert on the problems of elephants trampling crops, another on urban water spaces… We did a great deal of talking, quite a lot of walking (& drinking and eating), and I hope some listening too. What comes out of such a process? In the short term, there was an exhibition in Aberdeen. On show there were delicate drawings of tiny beasts that suffer the collateral damage of environmental change; and film, steel harriers, a fantasy of mammoths in Braemar, a meditation on Victorian shooting parties, and more. There’s plenty of information about the project on the ACES Aberdeen website. For myself, the long term outcome will, I hope, be a new novel, focussed on the bitter tensions triggered in a community by an energy generation scheme. It will be a slow process to digest the complexities we uncovered – but it is not our job to produce answers. ‘Negative capability’ is what Keats called it: the need – and the capacity – of artists to work in an ‘unresolved’ world.

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Published Spring 2013

The Physician of Sanlúcar

from

Aurora Metro Books (London)

JONATHAN FALLA’S PATAGONIA-SET NOVEL IS JOYOUSLY ACCOMPLISHED.”

(The Scotsman – see ‘Reviews’)

My first new novel for five years, Sanlúcar

is typical Falla territory, an everyday tale of heroin, gold, and early aviation in Patagonia circa 1910. It’s based on an idea I had 25 years ago and jotted down in a little Venetian notebook covered in marbled paper. It’s taken me until now to get round to publishing it, but thanks to a Creative Scotland award I was able to take time out to write uninterrupted. Please – give it a look.

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FESTIVAL OF HISTORICAL FICTION

Edinburgh April 2013

Another festival to add to the crowded roster in Edinburgh – a weekend on historical fiction, held at the splendid new arts venue at Summerhall, the old ‘Dick Vet’ veterinary school near the centre of town. The rooms still feature the gas taps, handy for quelling tedious speakers. I gave a talk on ‘The Moral Agenda’ in historical fiction, considering the different uses and attitudes towards historical writing to be found in authors from Tolstoy and Pasternak to Rushdie and Peter Carey. I’ll post the essay in the ‘Essays & Background’ pages here.

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E-BOOKS : I now have had several e-books… 

Blue Poppies, Poor Mercy and Glenfarron are all now available from their original publishers as e-editions from Amazon and elsewhere. Topokana Martyrs Day  was the play that began my professional writing career back in 1983. At the prompting of a colleague now teaching at Brandeis University, who needed an edition for teaching, the play is now available as a Stupor Mundi e-book from Amazon. The Morena is a collection of twenty years of short story writing. Many of these have been published in magazines or read on the radio, but have not been collected elsewhere. These also can now be had as a Stupor Mundi paperback or e-book from Amazon.