Friday, 24 January 2014


A slightly different version of the below was published in Border Voices on Border Ruins an anthology from Borders Writers Forum.

When does a place you live in, but weren’t born, become home?
Is it measured in years?  Or does the place of your birth and more than likely the formative years of your childhood always hold sway wherever you lay your hat.
In other words can you ever really put down roots anywhere else?
Answers on a postcard please!
All this is a bit of a clue to the fact that where I live now, Selkirk in the Scottish Borders,  isn’t the place of my birth.
I was born and brought up in Chapelhall, near Airdrie, in the Central Belt but have lived in the Borders for nearly half of my life now.     
So taking that into account what would I write if I sent a postcard to myself?
Something along the lines of?   
Digging deep and putting down roots.  
Digging deep.  That is the key for me. 
Digging deep to make the connection with myself.    
Roots though have to be nourished and encouraged and for me letting the history of the town itself enter my soul and feel it connect with the living present started the process.

Selkirk town is like a calm river on a windless summer’s day at times. Other times it is a buzz of lorries and cars winding their way through the too narrow streets and twisting their way around tight corners.  This snake like progress is because the A7 cuts through the centre of Selkirk leading the one way to Carlisle, the other way, Edinburgh. Other times it is a buzz of tourists searching, maybe, for momentary peace from the rush of city life through the historic roots of present day Selkirk and the Borders.    

One place they should head for just like I did is the ‘Kirk in the Forest’ and the old graveyard. 
Here the remains of the old church dominate the graveyard and gives testament to the history of Selkirk through the ages. Graves and memorials here remembering folk from the thirteenth to the twentieth century. Graves and memorials all various shapes and sizes, some grand and imposing, most not.
It is a graveyard with houses along one edge, a car park along another and a road outside its main gate.  Still it seems detached from all of these things.
An oasis of stillness.  Noises that are yards away barely intrude.
Or maybe that’s my imagination too busy making connections between the people laying here and the living souls going about their daily life just a short walk away.   
The graveyard occupies different levels not only regarding the ground level but in the people buried. 
Death it is said is the great leveller.
Morbid though it may seem I think it’s in the graveyards that you get a real sense of what a place was, and in doing so, a sense of how a town came to be the place you live in now.   
The Borders is rightly famous for its four abbeys at Melrose, Dryburgh,  Kelso and Jedburgh but the ruins of this old church for me hold as much interest as any of them.
On the famous folk side of things it was here they say that William Wallace was made Guardian of Scotland in 1298.  It’s also here that some of the maternal ancestors of Franklin D Roosevelt, President of United States of America during the Second
World War, are buried.  
On his mother’s side he was related to the Murray’s of Philiphaugh.
The Murray’s have a whole alcove to themselves in the church.  A mini Westminster Abbey with vines curling up the crumbling walls for added effect.  Here the Lord’s and Ladies and General’s, the good and the bad are buried. 
One of the (maybe)  ‘bad’  of the clan was the ‘Outlaw Murray’ , John Murray (could he be a relation??!! You hope!) killed in 1510. 
Other famous folk include Andrew Park the brother to the Explorer Mungo Park.
This is only one level though.
For when you step though the archway gate leading into the graveyard you step out of the twentieth first century and travel back through time and get a sense that it’s not just the great and the good that make up history and are responsible for the progress and changes that take place through the centuries. 
And changes there have been.  The Borders, including Selkirk, are a bit like the surrounding hills.  You think they’re not moving or changing.  But like the earth, or life under those still waters, things are changing and developing all the time. 
Like yourself settling into the rhythm of the place you don’t notice because you’re moving as well, changing, developing.
In this graveyard you get a sense of all the people who have gone before. Not only the rich and famous but the many who walked the same streets as them.  
As you.
All living and dying and passing on their hopes and dreams down the centuries.
That’s where I make the connection with the present.  The past is not a foreign land.  Social conditions, even language, might have been different but those hopes and dreams and the feeling of struggling to get by are fundamentally the same.
For to get a true sense of this place you must not only take on board all that life that has gone before but remember that life that is taking place only a few hundred yards away with the cars and lorries twisting and turning along the main A7.  
Connect up the past with the people now putting their own roots, coming and going along Market Street, disappearing down alleyways, and shortcuts, that have been there and known for centuries.  Streets, alleyways and shortcuts that have been trod by feet some of whose memory lies in the Kirk In the Forrest cemetery.
Maybe some of those feet were walking hand in hand with loved ones. Maybe some were running for their lives or from the law, not wanting to come before Sir Walter or his equivalent today.
Whatever soon all those now hurrying, or stopping to chat on the twenty first century Market Street, will join the Ghost walk and be replaced by future generations following in their footsteps.  
For although ghosts and cemeteries are associated with night and dread I think the ghosts come out during the day, as they did in life, not at night.  They walk the same streets they always walked.  They walk beside us shaking their heads at our so familiar tales of worry and woe. They are like spirits caught in the background of photographs.
I stand before a grave now and wonder about the person lying there. Most of the markings have been scraped away by time. Like a lot of these old gravestones.    
Still you can make the connection with the people who lived the history. All you have to do is take a rest for a moment from the daily rush and acknowledge that they existed.  That they’re not really truly dead and gone as long as the gates of this graveyard are kept open for folk to discover and step back in time for a short period.   
For me getting a true sense of a place is by bringing the past and the present closer together through all the levels of folk that have built it to what it is today.
It also helps to stop thinking or worrying too much about the future.
At least for a short while. For it never really comes.  It’s always the present. 
The past contained in the present.


A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit New York.  I had a story The Boy in an anthology -- Word Jig:New Fiction From Scotland published by New York publisher Hanging Loose Press.   
I visited the Big Apple to take part in readings centred on the publication.
In the run up to the visit memories came back to me of a previous trip to America when I was seven.  I had an Uncle, Aunt, and cousins living in New Jersey and we visited New York a number of times during that visit. 
My memories were vague, more impressions left on a very young mind.    
That first visit was the beginning of a lifelong interest in American literature, film and TV.  
I shared this with my father who was a big Western fan.  Both of us must have watched every episode of the High Chaparral TV programme.  I can’t remember either of us watching The Lone Ranger but the images and phrases are in my head.  
I’ve lost count of the number of films and TV programmes I’ve watched based in New York and other areas of America.  Over time it was that city that grew in my imagination supplanting everywhere else even overtaking the Western. 
Still when The Magnificent Seven (and it is when!) is repeated I’ll sit down and watch it for the umpteenth time!
As I write this another memory is coming back to me of my dad and uncles and cousins going to see it on the silver screen!  Maybe we did maybe that was an imagined memory!   

I wrote a My Scots American Uncle trying to capture something from that early visit to America. 
In writing it I discovered that in many ways that first encounter had fused with my own personal myth of America garnered through reading stories and watching TV and film. 
This is evident in the imagery and vocabulary used.   

Celluloid voice
filled the screen
of a seven year old

‘Go west young man.
Blaze the trail.’

And did I follow?
‘Hi Ho Silver away.’

When I went back to New York for the reading I found that because of the images already running in my head I felt immediately at home as soon as I landed.  I very quickly adjusted to the amazing pace of the city because it didn’t feel like I was adjusting at all.
I had been there many times in my imagination. 
I wrote a number of poems, or drafts of poems, while I was there.  Also a short story Postcard From New York which was a co winner of the Fish Publishing one page short story competition.  So those visits whether in actuality or in my imagination have been very fruitful.
I wrote the poem Arrival when I returned home.   

I’ve arrived
Touched down but still flying
In the city that never sleeps, that is never still.

I’ve arrived
Landed but still coming down
Over junior league size baseball pitches
Multi coloured doll houses all in a row
Each with their own America back yard.

I’ve arrived
New York cabbie style.
That is crazy, stop for no man
Or car, style.
‘Where you heading?’ The chewing
Mouth asks in the mirror.
‘ Mid Manhattan, East 51st Street. ’
I say as nonchalant
As I can muster as we swerve into the freeway
To a chorus of horns.

I’ve arrived.
Shaken and stirred.
Blood coursing through my veins.
Skin tingling.
I’ve arrived.

Through the use of mythic language city that never sleeps combined with my experience of the moment Touched down but still flying the poem fuses my own mythic memory and actual feeling in the moment.
Both poems are different but continue my creative narrative with America and in particular New York.  I have written more poems and stories since. 
Somehow I don’t think they’ll be the last.

Thursday, 2 January 2014


It's been a brilliant three months since starting as Scottish Book Trust Reader In Residence to Scottish Borders Libraries.   I've visited communities East, West, South and North in the Scottish Borders in the Mobile Library,  revisited childhood books with familes aged eight to eighty,  and one day only (a dream came true!) I was Doctor Who, all part of Book Week Scotland.

The Borders has a rich history of literature and storytelling from the Border Ballads, Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg continued into the present day by a very active contemporary writing scene.  This history combined with contemporary stories mixed with storytelling from every corner of the world are all part of the enthusiasm for stories, knowledge and books that I've found on my travels.   Right at the heart of this is the library service, encouraging, supporting and providing the resources that feed the mind and imagination.  It also provides a community base for the excitement of sharing that discovery and knowledge with others.  Communication is the key to unlocking that community spirit that brings people together under the common banner of stories.

The saddest part of the job so far has been when I've realised an event or a readers group meeting is drawing to a close.  Still I'm consoled by the fact that the thoughts raised during the meeting or event carry on and develop on the journey home and long afterwards.

The residency is supported by the Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland.  During 2014 I'll be visiting more libraries, holding further events and helping new readers group start and grow.  There will be interactive storytelling, treasure trains, events aimed at showcasing what your local library can do for you!  

Can't wait!

Below is some of the images of myself in the mobile library and as Doctor Who (one day maybe!!). Also of childhood reading memories brought right into the present during a Treasure Train event.   Just some of the events that happened across the Scottish Borders for Book Week Scotland.  


Starting 2014 with a memory of a long time ago (it seems!) when I used to work with my dad during the school holidays.  Like all memory it’s part story!

I worked for my dad during the summer school holidays and the day would always start with a yawn and an early morning stroll past the salivating wolves next door to my dad’s factory.   
Of course they weren’t really wolves, only two of the biggest Alsatians I’d seen in my sixteen year old life.  All hunched and stalking muscle. Teeth in a permanent snarl, and eyes that never left you as you past them by.  I can’t remember ever seeing a human being unless of course the wolves weren’t wolves but werewolves.
The two monsters stalked the Scrap merchants and weren’t chained. They roamed the broken up cars and machinery that lay scattered amongst the yard.  The dirty black and rust brown of their coats a perfect camouflage amongst the mashed and broken backed machinery.
Sometimes when I walked along I would be drawn into thinking that they had been taken away in the night, that my dad’s complaining about them roaming free had finally borne fruit.
Then the rush of black and brown muscled fur would kick the heart into fifth gear.
So every morning I strolled past them, mouth dry, eyes straight ahead, trying to stop myself breaking into a run.  Every morning it was past them to the loading bay where that morning’s papers where getting loaded onto vans to be distributed to the various Menzies shops in Airdrie and Coatbridge and beyond.  Every morning it was into the office alongside the loading bay, and Mrs Simpson, with a good morning, and what year would I be going back to after the summer holidays; this while she handed me my dad’s papers—the Glasgow Herald and Daily Record—and took the money if it was that time in the month for bringing the account up to date.
She was like something out of the sixties, or maybe it was the fifties. Hair lacquered into a bowl shape; make up that creased and cracked as she struggled to work the skin underneath; her eyes huge under black pencilled eyebrows.  She could have been anything from thirty to sixty. 
The walk back to the factory was just as nerve wracking and it never got any better.
Still I always volunteered to get the papers and was disappointed if I was late and someone had gone before me.
A test of nerve?
I delivered the papers to my dad who was sitting behind his beech desk; grey telephone sitting to his right, those days’ orders in neat piles on the desk. 
He would read the Herald and I would take the Record out to Jim and Eddie in the Ducat.  The kettle would be whistling, cups already milked and sugared; bacon would be sizzling on the ancient stove. Rolls would lay open all buttered and ready.  Bottles of sauce, both red and brown, and grimy with use, would sit waiting on the small table by the window.  The sixteen inch TV would be on, the sound low. 
In a space that could barely squeeze in two, never mind three, I watched the TV, Jim read the Record, and Eddie sat his sixteen stone frame in the leather seat marked and cut with age.
After the tea and rolls I would know if I was spending a day in the factory, or going out in one of the Lorries.  If it was the Lorries I would hope it was up to Perth, or down Ayrshire way.  That would take the whole day.
No farm roads though.  Hospitals; factories; high street shops.
And let the sun shine.