Archive | Books RSS for this section

“From Oceans to Embassies” a Personal Memoir by Gillian Angrave – a colourful, cultural globetrotting journey (braving wars and typhoons along the way)

While on a Mediterranean cruise in 2017, I was delighted to read Gillian Angrave’s travelogues, “Venice – The Diary of an Awestruck Traveller.”  In this series of personal guides, Gillian shares her love affair with Venice, the art, culture and heritage, with humour, enthusiasm, knowledge, passion and quirky anecdotes.

At the age of 10, Gillian began travel writing in youthful earnest when she won the Cadbury’s national competition for her essay, “Life on a Tropical Island” – a rich imagination more than personal experience!.  She followed her childhood dream to travel the world for work and has now browsed through her diaries and photo albums to compile a captivating memoir of her globetrotting life in “From Oceans to Embassies.

Part 1 is a fast paced introductory scamper through Gillian’s family life, school days, learning languages, playing sports and then an interest in driving and fast cars.  With three A levels, including French and Spanish, as well as secretarial qualifications, in 1967 Gillian joined P & O – the Peninsula & Orient Steam Navigation Company –  in the role of Junior Woman Assistant Purser.

In a brief history of the shipping line it’s interesting that until the 1970s, P&O passengers emigrated to Australia or visited family and friends overseas as the only mode of transport. After the launch of affordable jet travel, the ships changed their regular routes from crossings to cruise itineraries for leisure.

S S Canberra

How she came to board the SS Canberra with little notice to pack and prepare in January 1968, is a marvellous anecdote, setting sail on a four month world voyage.  We learn about her life on board from blue and white uniforms (fashionably designed by Hardy Amies) to the daily routine of the Pursers Department in charge of reception desk, food & drink supplies, immigration and finance by day, to cocktail parties and dinners at night.

Gillian was first given the job of “Berthing Queen,”  allocating cabins and dealing with complaints from passengers including 1st Class guests requesting a more luxurious Suite.  Not always easy.!

What is most revealing is the fact that there were few professional entertainers employed and so the pursers doubled up as song and dance men and women.  Creating costumes and choreography, they performed such themed shows as Music Hall,  Hawaiian nights and a night at the Moulin Rouge.

A high kicking Can Can show from Gillian and team of Pursers

Life on the ocean wave is not complete without experiencing gale force weather – “We hit the eye of the storm,” she recalls, when they encounter a Typhoon in Japan.

Gillian, WAP, (Woman Assistant Purser) with P&O ships, in tropical whites. (1970)

Read all about her favourite ports from South Africa to Australia, and hopping around idyllic tropical islands from the South Pacific to the Caribbean.   Staff were allowed to enjoy some shore excursions to see historic sites, shop for souvenirs and go on Safari.  On a trip with four colleagues to the Natal Game Reserve, unfortunately their Dormobile van broke down.  They had to get back to Durban before the SS Canberra departed as ships do not wait for passengers or crew. …

Breakdown in Natal Game Reserve – with just a few hours to get back to Durban!

Gillian cruised the world on two P&O ships, SS Canberra and the SS Oriana over a seven year career, during which time her salary rose from £35.15s to £58.15s a month.  At least alcohol on board was relatively cheap – 12 shillings for a bottle of gin.  I expect a G&T was essential after a long day’s work.

S S Orianna, Pago Pago, American Samoa

An important aspect highlighted is that this was tne era before the Equality Act and WAPs were treated unfairly compared to the senior male pursers in charge. Women were offered no pension rights and had to leave at the age of 40.   With no chance of a long term career or promotion, Gillian decided to disembark and seek another route to continue her itinerant life.

Next port of call was joining Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service on 5th July 1976 at the Foreign Office, London – the start of a high flying career, based at various British Embassies in Asia, South & Central America and Hungary.  Gillian had to sign the Official Secrets Act which is a lifetime agreement so there are no Government revelations here!.

Enter the world of Ambassadors, Consuls and Embassies and its vital role covering assistance to British citizens and ex pats overseas, international promotion of trade, defence and culture.  Her first posting was Manila, capital of the Philippines where administration work was balanced by formal lunches and receptions.  At a Christmas Dinner with the Ambassador, she had to try the Filipino delicacy, bats’ wings!.  There was also the chance to play golf on neatly mowed greens in glorious sunshine.  Around the world, she continued to visit many golf courses – occasionally lurking with scary wildlife – finally awarded great succcess at the Blue Danube Club, near Budapest.

More adventures when working at the Embassy in Lima, Peru, giving the opportunity to visit the Amazon basin and the majestic heights of Machu Picchu.

Gillian at the Urubamba River Gorge, Macchu Picchu – with furry friends!

Moving on after a few years to Guatemala during a time of political conflict and their claim over Belize, this was a dangerous mission with a seriously terrifying outcome.

There are fascinating insights into Embassy work, such as the Diplomatic Bag to transport official documents – it has its own passport, cannot be opened or x-rayed and personally carried by the Queen’s Messenger or Embassy staff.

Gillian was stationed for three years in Chile during the regime of President Pinochet, the country governed by martial law; then in April 1982 came the devastating news of the Falkland Conflict between Argentina and the UK.  However, despite serious political concerns, social life seemed to be an entertaining whirl of  official social events and Scottish country dancing – who knew that that there is a strong Scottish heritage in Chile?

The Santiago Caledonian Society, Chile

More travel trips such as to the icy terrain of the San Rafael Glacier in the remote South Patagonian fjords.

Angrave of the Antarctic … (or sort of)

Another posting was to Mexico City, where, when not at her desk, there was time to keep fit on the tennis court and golf course.   The British Embassy, Mexico City is illustrated above on the front cover.  And here there was a thrilling encounter with none other than James Bond, aka Timothy Dalton who was in town for the filming of “Licence to Kill.”  Assisting the actors and crew, (trading tea and baked beans with 007), Gillian must have felt akin to being Miss Moneypenny or M in H.M. Secret – rather than the Diplomatic – Service!.

“James Bond” (Timothy Dalton) with Gillian Angrave in Mexico

Working for the Diplomatic Service for nearly thirty years, certainly brought extraordinary opportunities to meet Royalty, Government Presidents, Ambassadors and film stars, and making very dear friends within the team of colleagues.  But equally, there were worrying situations coping with mosquitos, malaria, snakes, alligators, typhoons, earthquakes, civil war and serious illness, far away from family and home.

“From Oceans to Embassies” is compiled with meticulous detail, vivid descriptions and vivacious enthusiasm; this is a page-turning narrative taking the reader along on a thrilling, rollercoaster ride to learn all about her exhilarating journeys by land and sea.

An enriching life indeed, which was predicted when Gillian was just three years old. Chapter 1 of this Memoir begins with a charming anecdote related years later by her mother. A Romany Gypsy had knocked on the door selling clothes pegs. Thankful for the threepenny bit, she offered to read her fortune: “You will have two daughters, one will be musical and one will go over the seas.”

Her younger sister grew up to enjoy a musical career as a flautist and and Gillian circumnavigated the globe for nearly 40 years, her destiny was written serendipitously in the stars.

I count myself so lucky and privileged to have sailed the Seven Seas and been sent on postings with the Diplomatic Service to such exciting and interesting countries. Travel has been my constant companion and I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world. I intend to keep travelling for as long as I can”  Gillian Angrave

Gillian on board the Fred Olsen cruise ship Braemar in St. Maarten.

“From Oceans to Embassies” A Personal Memoir by Gillian Angrave

Purchase price: Hardback, £14.99 and Paperback, £11.99 (plus £3 p&p)

available from Amazon and Waterstones

Also direct from –


Also, highly recommended:

“Venice : The Diary of an Awestruck Traveller” by Gillian Angrave (3 volumes) 

Purchase price – Paperback, £9.99 (plus £2.87 p&p) from Amazon and Waterstones.

Gillian Angrave, today as a Registrar of Marriages

After retirement from the Diplomatic Service in 2005, Gillian became, and still is, a Registrar of Marriages in West Sussex. She continues to love travelling, photography and writing books and memoirs.  She also has many interests – bell-ringing, modern languages, gardening and golf.

Saltire Literary Awards – the shortlists announced for Scotland’s National Book Awards 2019.

Scotland has indeed long been an extraordinary cultural and literary country from the era of Enlightenment to Edinburgh being named the first ever Unesco City of Literature in 2004.  In 1919, the James Tait Black Book Prizes were founded at the University of Edinburgh, the oldest literary awards in the world; in 1936 the Saltire Society was founded to support and celebrate the Scottish imagination across all the arts and sciences.

In 1937, the Society launched the inaugural Saltire Literary Awards and today they recognise work across six literary categories (Fiction, Non-Fiction, Research, History, Poetry and First Book) and two for Publishers.  All entrants must either have been born in Scotland, live in Scotland or their books must be about Scotland.

The winner in each category receives £2,000, with all contenders eligible to be selected for the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year, receiving a further £5,000.

For 2019, there are two new prizes: Book Cover to recognise creativity and the relationship between the designer, publisher and author.  Also a special Award for Lifetime Achievement to recognise a body of work in its entirety rather than one book, with the writer receiving a cash prize of £2,000.

The Calum MacDonald Memorial Award for the publisher of Pamphlet poetry is presented in partnership with the Scottish Poetry Library.

Sarah Mason, Programme Director at the Saltire Society, said “‘The Saltire Literary Awards celebrate the diversity, quality and richness of books from Scotland over the past year … recognising excellence. and we congratulate the writers and publishers who hav been shortlisted this year.”

This is just a quick overview to highlight a few of these authors and books across several categories.

Nominated for the Saltire Fiction award is Lucy Ellmann for “Ducks, Newburyport”  At over 1,000 words it received glowing reviews for innovative prose and powerful message. The narrative paints a portrait of an Ohio housewife who tries to bridge the gaps between reality and the torrent of meaningless information in the USA.

“A bravura feat: a stream of consciousness, fierce and succinct wit” – The Scottish Review of Books

“ Ellmann has created a wisecracking Mrs Dalloway for the internet age.” – Financial Times

‘This isn’t just one of the outstanding books of 2019, it’s one of the outstanding books of the century, so far.’ The Irish Times 

Also in the Fiction category is “You Will be Safe Here” by Damian Barr, a journalist, playwright and writer of a memoir, Maggie & Me.

He has now published his debut novel, set in South Africa, moving between 1901, covering the effect on a family during the Boer War, to 2010,  observing a radical change in life for sixteen year old Willem.

“Completely gripping and profoundly moving – you care for every character. Each of the very different stories woven together in such unexpected ways.  (Maggie O’Farrell)

“A poignant debut, written with empathy … compassion, wisdom and remarkable sense of poetry, The Guardian)

A diverse range of subjects are captured in the line up for the Non-Fiction Award.  

Melanie Reid has written a personal, painful memoir, “The World I Fell Out Of.”  On Good Friday, 2010 Melanie fell from her horse, breaking her neck and fracturing her lower back. Paralysed from her chest down, she spent almost a year in hospital, determined to gain some movement and learn to rebuild her shattered life.

Melanie Reid, author of her memoir, ‘The World I fell Out Of’

“This is an astonishing and riveting book … It is certainly frightening – a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit’ Alan Massie, The Scotsman

For those who watch real crime TV documentaries may know the name, face and voice of Dr. David Wilson. His book,, “My Life with Murderers: Behind Bars with the World’s most Violent Men”  tells the story of his journey from prison governor (aged 29), to expert criminologist and Professor.

A fascinating and compelling study of human nature, Dr. Wilson gets inside the mind of a murderer to uncover what drives men to kill.

Dr. David Wilson, author of “My Life with Murderers”

“With characteristic brilliance and admirable sensitivity, Wilson illuminates the complex causes of their horrific crimes. A page turner.” (Professor Simon Winlow, British Society of Criminology).

In the running for the First Book of the Year, is Alan Brown for “Overlander: Bikepacking coast to coast across the Scottish Highlands”   Seeking a temporary escape from city life, he plotted a personal challenge: an epic cycle ride across Scotland, wild camping under the stars, on a journey of discovery all the way.

“His sensitive, personal observations on the landscapes, wildlife and people he encounters is an eloquent reminder of the wonderful country we live in. Time to get on my bike.” Andy Wightman MSP

In contrast, another debut book is about the domestic pastime of sewing. “Threads of Life” by Clare Hunter – a history of the world through the eye of the needle, from the Bayeux Tapestry and battlefields to prisons and drawing rooms.

“This patchwork quilt of history, culture and politics ..richly textured” ( Sunday Times)

The Award for Scottish Poetry Book has six books nominated including Edinburgh based writer, Janette Ayachi for “Hand Over Mouth Musi.,”  With Algerian and Scottish roots, she describes family relationships and her role as a mother to two daughters. This is her first collection which gives voice to memories and imagined places.

“Her poems range from Venice to Barcelona, Adriatic Sea to airports, ‘where the choked heart unclogs itself.’   .. the uninhibited wanderlust of someone who is utterly in love with travel” StAnza reviewer

Janette Ayachi, poet and world traveller with a wanderlust spirt of adventure

Christopher Whyte  is a novelist writing in English and poetry in Scottish  Gaelic and translates poetry into English from a range of European languages.. “Ceum air Cheum” (Step by Step), is his sixth poetry collection covering the topic of language and the circle of life. English translation by Niall O’ Gallagher.

The Calum Macdonald Memorial award for a Poetry Pamphlet, a slim, appetising taster.  Jay G. Ying is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer and translator based in Edinburgh and his first book, ‘Wedding Beasts’ is a 20 page, hand sewn, limited edition publication by Bitter Melon.

His peach slice, dusted in sugar, left out on the breakfast tray like an ideogram of a moon …”

 Also on the list is Polygon’s New Poets pamphlet by Iona Lee – Edinburgh poet, visual artist and performer. These poems were conceived behind the retail counter of a bookshop, during loud, late night conversations, and in sticky floored pubs. Her experience of life, both painful and hilarious.

Iona Lee, poet, artist, performer

This is just a quick browse through a selection of the shortlisted books and authors. All the nominated books are listed below.

The winners of all the eleven categories and the overall Saltire Scottish Book of the Year will be announced at a ceremony at the National Museum of Scotland on St. Andrew’s Night, Saturday 30 November.   Full details can be found at

The winter is the ideal time to pick up a seriously good, inspiring, page turning book – a novel, biography, memoir, poetry, nature, travel, history … Happy Reading!

2019 Saltire Literary Awards

The Saltire Society Scottish Fiction Book of the Year Award

Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport

Ruairidh MacIlleathain (Roddy MacLean), Còig Duilleagan na Seamraig (Five Leaves of the Shamrock)

Leila Aboulela, Bird Summons

Ewan Morrison, Nina X

Polly Clark, Tiger

Damian Barr, You Will Be Safe Here

The Saltire Society Scottish Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award

Dòmhnall Eachann Meek (Donald E. Meek), Seòl Mo Bheatha (My Life Journey)

Mary Miller, Jane Haining: A Life of Love and Courage

Dr David Wilson, My Life with Murderers

Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

Melanie Reid, The World I Fell Out Of

Kerry Hudson, Lowborn: Growing up, getting away and returning to Britain’s poorest towns

The Saltire Society Scottish Poetry Book of the Year Award

Christopher Whyte, Ceum air Cheum

Janette Ayachi, Hand Over Mouth Music

Iain Morrison, I’m a Pretty Circler

Ross Wilson, Line Drawings

Roseanne Watt, Moder Dy

Harry Josephine Giles, The Games

The Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award

Angela Meyer, A Superior Spectre

Fraser MacDonald, Escape from Earth:  A Secret History of the Space Rocket

Alan Brown, Overlander

Stephen Rutt, The Seafarers:  A Journey Among Birds

Clare Hunter, Threads of Life

The Saltire Scottish Research Book of the Year Award

Kirstie Blair, Working Verse in Victorian Scotland: Poetry, Press, Community

Thomas Devine, The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900

Laura Watts, Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga


The Saltire Scottish History Book of the Year Award

Norman H Reid, Alexander III: 1249-1286, First Among Equals

Alasdair Pettinger, Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846: Living an Antislavery Life

James Buchan, John Law  A Scottish Adventurer of the eighteenth Century

Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John MacLeod, The Darkest Dawn

R A McDonald, The Sea Kings: The Late Norse Kingdoms of Man and the Isles

Calum Macdonald Memorial Award  

Red Squirrel, Juke Box Jeopardy (Brian Johnstone)

Tapsalteerie, Glisk (Sarah Stewart) and An Offering (Stewart Sanderson)

Essence Press, zenscotlit (Alan Spence)

Bitter Melon Press, Wedding Beasts (Jay G Ying)

Polygon, Polygon New Poets: Iona Lee (Iona Lee)

The Saltire Society Publisher of the Year Award

404 Ink, BHP Comics, Canongate Books, Charco Press, Sandstone Press

The Saltire Society Emerging Publisher of the Year Award

Pauline Cuchet, Canongate Books, Anne Glennie, Cranachan, Kay Farrell, Sandstone Press,

Jamie Norman, Canongate Books, Richard Wainman, Floris Books, Alan Windram, Little Door Books




“The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing” by Mary Paulson-Ellis: a theatrical book launch by Golden Hare Books at the Royal Scots Club

Mary Paulson-Ellis – Edinburgh has been her home for 32 years

Mary Paulson-Ellis received an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow and also won the inaugural Curtis Brown prize for fiction in 2009.  Her debut novel, “ The Other Mrs Walker”, was Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year, 2017.  Her second novel, “The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing” was launched last week at the Royal Scots Club, Edinburgh, a most apt location for a narrative inspired by memories of the Great War. This private club in the New Town was founded in 1919 in honour of 11,162 men in the Royal Scots Regiment who died in the First World War.

The Library, Royal Scots Club

Organised by Mary and Golden Hare Books, there was a theatrical ambience to the wine reception with staff dressed in army uniforms, a medley of vintage wartime songs, the chance to gamble with matchsticks and buttons, and cheese and crackers served from a vintage tin box.  If this didn’t take us on a moving and nostalgic trip to the trenches, nothing would.

Afterwards, guests were invited to the theatre downstairs for the meet the author event.  Julie Danksin of Golden Hare Books, welcomed us all and introduced Mary Paulson-Ellis.  It was also a timely celebration for Golden Hare which was named Independent Bookshop of the Year at the British Book Awards 2019.

Golden Hare win the Award for the Best Independent Bookshop in the UK, 2019

They were up against eight regional winners but it was Julie of Golden Hare Books who was presented with the award by Ian Rankin at the ceremony in May.

Mary Paulson-Ellis is certainly interested in complex dual narratives, linking past and present.  “The Other Mrs Walker” has been described as neo-Victorian mystery, set in the Edinburgh winter of 2010, when the death of an elderly woman starts the research into her life story.

Mary explains that the saga of Solomon Farthing inhabits the same territory as Mrs Walker – the theme of identity and no known next of kin.  It begins in the present day, when an old soldier passes away in an Edinburgh nursing home which sparks the search for his descendants and delve into the past to follow a link back to the battlefields, France 1918.

The story was inspired by “Heir Hunters”  the BBC TV series which follows the investigations of legal cases when someone dies intestate. Apparently 60% of people do not make a Will, such that the inheritance of their Estate can be claimed by the closest living relatives.

Solomon Farthing is an Edinburgh heir hunter who has been given the responsibility of finding the rightful owners of a pawn ticket and an amount of cash, just a few belongings of the deceased soldier.  But his journey of discovery also reflects on his own troubled life and lost links with his family.

The novel also explores the morality of inheritance – how do we know where the money comes from as it passes hand to hand. We may be left a gift, valuable property, an investment but was it the result of theft or gambling. ?

Julie then asks Mary about the other character in her books, Edinburgh.  As she has lived here for 32 years, (born in Glasgow), it is her homage to the city, although, of course, a great deal of fiction is set here.   She also explains that it is not a novel about World War I as other writers have covered the subject most comprehensively, including Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” Trilogy.

The narrative of Solomon Farthing focuses on the life and death of men and soldiers – indeed it was not men, comments Mary, but boys who were called up aged 19, who then had four weeks training before heading off to fight for their country.

There is a most poignant quotation printed at the beginning of this novel:

“ The First World War, if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row.”   Harry Patch .

Before he died in 2009, aged 111, Harry was the last surviving combat soldier of the First World War and known as “The Last Fighting Tommy”.

On the front cover of “The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing” is a quote from Val McDermid:

“A richly rewarding literary novel that’s also a gripping page-turner.” 

“The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing” by Mary Paulson-Ellis – part modern mystery and part heroic war story – is clearly the perfect time-travelling, Winter’s tale.

Perhaps visit the Golden Hare Books to pick up your copy.

Golden Hare Books, St. Stephen Street, Edinburgh

“The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing” by Mary Paulson-Ellis is published by Mantle Books, an imprint of Pan MacMillan


Marie Louise Wrightson – a colourful exhibition of “curiouser and curiouser” paintings on show at Robertson Fine Art, Edinburgh

Art lovers can enjoy an ever revolving mixed exhibition of contemporary landscapes, portraits, photographic prints, sculpture and cutting edge urban street work – at Robertson Fine Art.  Under Managing Director, Gordon Robertson, the company has three galleries in Glenrothes, Dollar and now here in Edinburgh.

Robertson Fine Art, Edinburgh

Robertson Fine Art, Edinburgh

At their city centre gallery, well located on Hanover Street, their featured Artist of the Month is Marie Louise Wrightson whose eclectic work is distinctive by its quirky imagery and artistic technique.  Her work has been shown in Edinburgh over recent years at the Royal Scottish Academy, Leith Gallery, Alpha and galleries in Dundee, Fife and Glasgow.

After Wrightson studied fine art at Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art in Dundee, she later settled in Auchtermuchty, Fife where she paints in her Summer House Studio.

Fairy tales, cartoons, films, classic stories and the memories of seaside holidays from childhood are often the inspiration for her work – sweet shops, Fairground merry-go round rides, birds and animals to create imaginative still lifes and realistic figurative studies.

Marie Louise Wrightson

Marie Louise Wrightson

This collection of oil paintings and prints depicts, through colourful, humorous images, a modern vision of the crazy characters and fantasy tales from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Alice in Wonderland - original book illustration

Alice in Wonderland – original book illustration

First published in 1865, its fantasy plot, humorous rhymes, riddles, puzzles and brilliant use of nonsense was revolutionary for a Victorian children’s novel, being neither moralistic or educational.

Illustration has always been an essential ingredient in books for children, who from a young age, understand how both the pictures and the words both tell the story as they learn to read.

“And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

As you wander around Robertson’s Art Gallery, enter a fantasy world of the White rabbit, the Cheshire cat, cute mice, a walrus, the Mad Hatter, buckets and spades, butterflies, delicious jam tarts, cream cakes, tea cups,  playing cards, trees and flowers. And there’s Alice, our sweet, young heroine appearing at the heart of this enchanting wonderland.

Marie Louise Wrightson

Marie Louise Wrightson

The artistic style is certainly unique – a blend of caricature, Disney-esque cartoons, Japanese Anime combined with the classic technique of fine art and portraiture.  Some paintings are innocent and fun, while others cleverly re-imagine Alice in Wonderland as a flirty beach babe with a subtle touch of the saucy seaside postcard style of Donald McGill.


“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t …”  .

At the preview event last Saturday, the visitors were enthralled with red stickers spreading like measles around the original art work and prints.   These will only be on show from 4th June for about ten days so take a visit to Robertson’s Fine Art soon to see Marie’s magical decorative illustrations which will sure to inspire and amuse both adults and children.

Curiouser and Curiouser indeed!.

Robertson Fine Art,  100 Hanover Street,  Edinburgh,  EH2 1DR

0131 285 0695  –

Marie Louise Wrightson

Marie Louise Wrightson

“How to Write about Theatre” by Mark Fisher – a manual for critics, students and bloggers

mark fisher bookMark Fisher studied Theatre at the University of Kent and has been reviewing theatre since the late 1980s when he began working for the arts and events what’s on magazine, The List, in Edinburgh.  He then founded the magazine, Theatre Scotland, and now works as a freelance writer, most notably The Herald and The Guardian.  Based on personal experience covering the Edinburgh Festivals over many years, he published a “Survival Guide to The Edinburgh Fringe”, the largest arts festival on the planet.

“How to Write about Theatre” is therefore written with a broad professional background in theatre – from playwrights, performance, production and the media.  This is a comprehensive, astutely researched, academic guide to theatre criticism with historical and cultural insight.

Chapter I starts with a succinct clarification of The Job:    “Writing about theatre is an act of translation, turning the language of performance into the language of words” ………which leads the reader on a journey to develop the literary skills, linguistic style and informed opinion for an accomplished, polished, professional theatre review.

The business of “reviewing” contemporary life at leisure in general has changed radically in recent years when anyone with an positive or negative opinion on a restaurant, hotel, book, music, film or a play can publish views on Facebook, Trip Advisor and Blog sites.

The publication of professional Theatre reviews began seriously in the 1770’s, avidly read in daily newspapers, weekly and periodical magazines.  Allessadro Manzoni was an Italian dramatist who in 1819 analysed the purpose and essential nature of theatre criticism, which he said should be based on three questions: What were the theatre-makers trying to achieve, how well did they succeed, and was it worth it.?

William Archer - foremost champion and translator of Henrik Ibsen

William Archer – foremost champion and translator of Henrik Ibsen

The great critics of the 18th and 19th century were often playwrights, poets and novelists themselves – including William Archer (early translator of Ibsen and pioneer for a National Theatre) and his close friend,  George Bernard Shaw.  As theatre professionals, their intelligent, outspoken, often satirical,  opinion mattered.  But how does a budding journalist gain the ability to judge the merits of a play?

Fisher offers pertinent advice on how to evaluate the quality of a production in order to give your personal opinion. The starting point must be that you undertand the dramatic genre, setting, directorial aim and theatrical style in order to assess the play with informed insight.

Throughout the book, there are some wonderful quotations from archive and contemporary reviews to illustrate how to write with conviction.   Shaw’s advice was “Get your facts right”.   A review is based on your experience of the play with a clear argument to back up your subjective viewpoint.

Kenneth Tynan

Kenneth Tynan

As Kenneth Tynan wrote, ” I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger… the best young play of the decade.”   His newspaper readers and theatre-goers may have disagreed, but there’s no denying his passion and sincerity in his review.   It also demonstrates the extraordinary value of a glowing review, to promote a new writer and play.


This book is like a series of literary tutorials with exercises to practice your literary style, language and voice.   In twenty chapters, every topic is covered in depth – crafting the first sentence,  libel v. fair comment, how to define good acting, and the valuation of the 1- 5 star review, turning words into a number.  The critic is also a performer, an entertainer with his or her own script.

Jude Law as Henry V

Jude Law as Henry V

“How to Write About Theatre”, is an inspirational, constructive manual for all theatre professionals.   It is a also a fascinating overview for theatre lovers to understand the cultural relevance, truth, knowledge, sincerity, wit and humour behind the fine art of dramatic criticism.

“How to Write About Theatre” by Mark Fisher.  Bloomsbury  ISBN 978-1-4725-2054-8





The Driver’s Seat: Muriel Spark’s darkly surreal novella: the world premiere by National Theatre of Scotland

At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2009, Laurie Sansom directed a 5 star production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie –  Muriel Spark’s pin-sharp, poetic character portrait of her former school mistress – stylishly staged at the Assembly Hall.

Muriel-Spark-National-Theatre-ScotlandDescribed as a “metaphysical shocker,” Spark’s surreal thriller of a novella, The Driver’s Seat, has now been adapted by Sansom into an exhilarating, intimate play for the National Theatre of Scotland.

By 1937 some of my friends were getting engaged, even married. I longed to leave Edinburgh and see the world. It was on 13 August, 1937 when, alone for the first time in my life, I sailed on the Windsor Castle, to Cape Town, the first lap on my journey”  Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae.

Spark’s anti-heroine- protagonist in The Driver’s Seat is Lise, a 34 year old woman, is also desperate to experience a foreign adventure.

driversseatThe first scene opens with her sitting bold upright at her paper and file-strewn desk as a gaggle of grey suited colleagues gather for an office meeting.

Clearly she does not belong in this grey-toned environment with its daily dull routine. Slamming her hand on the stapler like a cry for help, her boss suggests she takes time out and prepare for her holiday.

The stage set is economically designed to denote an open plan office space with desks, tables, chairs, shifted in an instant to represent a kitchen, boutique, airport lounge, aircraft, hotel lobby, taxis, department store, police station.

Elizabeth Taylor starred as Lise in the film version

Elizabeth Taylor starred as Lise in the film version

We observe Lise as she purchases a summer dress arguing with the shop assistant about stain-resistant fabric – ‘Do you think I spill things on my clothes?” she barks at her.   Back home in her flat, she meticulously packs her handbag with passport and airline ticket, a faint smile playing around her lips, knowing she is about to escape.

And so her journey begins with a flight from this northern city to an unspecified destination in southern Europe. At the airport, she is fashionably dressed in her new geometric, rainbow-coloured dress and striped jacket, attracting immediate glances from passengers.

Morven Christie as Lise

Morven Christie as Lise

But then, we hear the shocking news:  “She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.”

The action then follows the next 24 hours, like a reconstruction on Crimewatch or Countdown to Murder TV documentary. A large Perspex screen stands centre stage with the word VICTIM beside images, photographs, street maps and names of witnesses.

Multi-layered, visual staging with film backdrop

Multi-layered, visual staging with film backdrop

Flashback: now at her hotel in Italy ( Rome perhaps), she encounters Mrs Fiedke, an elderly widow whom she takes under her wing to go shopping. Lise explains that she is meeting her boyfriend later, at least will find a man who will be her type.

‘Will you feel a presence? Is that how you’ll know?’
‘Not really a presence,’ Lise says. ‘The lack of an absence, that’s what it is.”

We can sense that Lise is an unreliable narrator; her name is an anagram of Lies, a web of which she spins with carefree abandon in her distorted fantasy world.

Mrs Fiedke, Lise and Carlo, their driver

Mrs Fiedke, Lise and Carlo, their driver

Morven Christie is simply superb, her ice-cold detachment and manipulative behaviour reveal a manic, yet curiously enigmatic personality.

Her sense of glamour, vivacity and femme fatale charm attracts three men during the course of this, her final, day. Lise has a premeditated quest to experience alienation from reality as she takes over the driver’s seat on a journey of self-destruction.

The time-travelling scenario is vividly dramatised by the excellent international ensemble cast, many playing diverse roles. With live close-up cameras,  film backdrops and an electrifying, atmospheric sound track, Laurie Sansom has adapted and choreographed this bleak, satirical tragi-comedy with subtle pathos and theatrical, dreamlike vision.

Performance dates:

Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, 13 – 27 June 2015 –

Tramway, Glasgow,  2 – 4 July, 2015 –

“Write by the Sea” – a weekend Book Festival at Cockenzie House, East Lothian

Write by the Sea Book Fesival

Write by the Sea
A new Book Festival in East Lothian

“Books illuminate the world, open up horizons and whisk you away on astonishing journeys. We bring all of this together … in an enchanted green garden. Welcome to our garden of delights.”
Catherine Lockerbie, EIBF director – 2003

Like a colourful, fragrant garden itself, the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Charlotte Square has flourished beautifully since it was founded in 1983.   According to the literary festivals website, there are around 350 book festivals in the UK from Aberdeen to York. The largest are Oxford, Hay, Cheltenham and Edinburgh.

Cockenzie House and Gardens

Cockenzie House and Gardens

Perhaps inspired by Fringe by the Sea which brings music, culture and entertainment to North Berwick in August, a new Book Festival is being launched in East Lothian, the wittily named Write by the Shore, taking place in Cockenzie.

The 17th century Cockenzie House is a newly renovated arts, leisure and community venue, with a Tea room, artists’ studios, holiday accommodation, and the House is available for weddings, corporate and private events.

Over the weekend, 1 – 2 November, 2014, the first Write by the Shore Book Festival features a delightfully diverse programme of authors discussing crime fiction, children’s stories, history, poetry, drama and sport.  Books and storytelling for all ages and literary taste.

A few of the highlights to entice you along to Cockenzie House…..

Rosemary Goring studied social and economic history at St Andrews and has since worked in publishing and as Literary Editor for The Herald and Sunday Herald.  Her recent novel After Flodden is described as “a compelling story that weaves deftly between historical fact and fiction” …. “A swashbuckling tale in the best tradition of adventure fiction.”

Rosemary Goring

Rosemary Goring

There’s nothing better than curling up with a good thriller on a cold winter’s night!.  From Poirot to Rebus, we all seem to love a juicy murder story …

Ed James writes the Scott Cullen series of popular Edinburgh detective novels.  Ghost in the Machine has been downloaded over 300,000 times, hitting the Amazon UK top five. His latest novel, Snared about the crime investigations of DS Vicky Dodds, will be published in 2015.


Mountaineer, traveller, poet and novelist, Andrew Greig

Andrew Greig

Novelist, Poet, Himalayan mountaineer and avid traveller, David Grieg wrote one of the most heart-breaking, poignant and passionate novels I have ever had the privilege of reading. In Another Light (2004), set in Penang and Orkney, won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year.

Found at Sea - a poetic odyssey by Andrew Greig

Whether fiction, poetry or narrative,  Greig shares his own personal life experiences, emotions and interests.  His latest book Found at Sea (Birlinn),  is a lyrical travelogue based on an adventurous sailing trip from Stromness in Orkney to the deserted island of Cava. The text was dramatised for both radio and the stage blending poetry, stories and music.

Debi Gliori has been a children’s writer and illustrator since 1990. Her books include The Trouble With Dragons, Stormy Weather and What’s the Time, Mr Wolf? .   Tobermory 1, 2, 3, will be published by Birlinn in October, a sequel to The Tobermory Cat, a legendary ginger cat that isn’t afraid to be himself.


Very timely, just a month after the European victory at the Ryder Cup, Ed Hodge will be talking about his book  ‘Jewel in the Glen: Gleneagles, Golf and the Ryder Cup.” (Birlinn).   He is a former Gleneagles caddy and now works for the Scottish Golf Union so he should know a fair bit about the sport.!


As well as these and other meet the author events, there’s music, book readings and a Festival party.

See the full programme on the Cockenzie House and Gardens website.

A two day weekend Festival ticket, £35;  one day ticket, £20;  session ticket is £10.

Tickets can be purchased from Cockenzie House – t. 01875 819456.  Cockenzie House, 22 Edinburgh Road, Cockenzie, EH32 0HY.







Soor Plooms and Sair Knees – Bob Dewar

“Soor Plooms and Sair Knees” – written and illustrated by Bob Dewar  (Birlinn)

Soor Plooms and Sair Knees – an exhibition of Bob Dewar’s original illustrations at Doubtfire Gallery, Edinburgh, 5 – 26 April, 2014

soor plooms cover 

 “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley (1953).

Subtitled “Growing up in Scotland after the War”,  Bob Dewar’s witty and affectionate  account of his childhood, “Soor Plooms and Sair Knees”, is a perceptive and personal vision of family life, schooldays, the working class community, work and culture through the 1950s.

As he comments in the Introduction, “ Looking back on my childhood, it seems less like another world and more like another planet. Yet at the same time it feels like it all happened days rather than decades ago.”

The term “The Generation gap”  was coined in the late 1960s, to explain a lack of communication between one generation and another brought about by differences of tastes and values.

Teenagers today brought up in the era of the World Wide Web,  mobile phones, texting, internet, 24 hour TV, X box games, would certainly view the experience of a post-war childhood as “another planet”.

For those of a certain age, heading towards milestone 50, 60, 70th  birthdays,  will perhaps remember with quiet nostalgia through rose tinted glasses, the classroom capers and endless hot summer school holidays, an innocent time of outdoor fun and freedom.

soor plooms fun

Bob Dewar captures the period of Austerity after the War with great humour through colourful caricatures and sketches, complemented by an explanatory narrative to describe the sense of time and place.

Here are the stories and experiences of playing Cowboys and Indians, picking apples from other people’s gardens,  Eagle comics, household chores and Housewives Choice on the wireless, coal fires,  the joy of penny chews and soor plooms at the sweet shop,  the local grocer’s shop selling broken biscuits and Camp coffee.

soor plooms grocer

As Bob Dewar recalls, “ Almost everything you might need food-wise along with paraffin, mouse traps could be found… Butter was left out overnight but nobody seemed to die of butter poisoning. This was in the distant past before hygiene was discovered. “

(Long before the current nanny state health and safety laws, sell by dates and food wastage!…)

There’s an hilarious illustration of a school gym, with the large class of boys and girls climbing, jumping, somersaulting and horse vaulting with red faced exertion.

And summer holidays by the seaside are beautifully captured with charming vintage manner and style – the steam train, station porters, caravan park, hand knitted swimming trunks –

soor plooms swim

As Bob Dewar recalls, “The water retention of a woollen costume was phenomenal, it felt like around a hogshead (12 barrels) of clammy North Sea. … the ability to walk comfortably when wet was severely impaired.”

It’s certainly the time for nostalgic memories.  This month (April, 2014), in a new TV series,  “Ian Hislop’s Olden Days”, the 50-something editor of Private Eye explores the British love of tradition, and how people use the past to help shape the present:  the fact that parents start telling their children about their childhood as if it were some sort of olden, golden period.

In similar vein, Bob Dewar has written a wry, dry, sardonic and amusing homage to reflect on the experience of his early life and times.  This is not simply a personal memoir, but a valuable social history of post war Scotland –  a time travelling journey back sixty odd years to a place and period very much akin to a foreign country.

Soor Plooms and Sair Knees -by Bob Dewar  published by Birlinn, Edinburgh.   

A wonderful selection of the original drawings from the book is currently on show and for sale at the Doubtfire Gallery, 3 South East Circus Place, Edinburgh.  t. 0131 225 6540



“A Change in Fashion” by Susan Gale: a stunning debut novel set in Yorkshire and Paris

A Change in Fashion - the front cover captures it all

A Change in Fashion –
the front cover captures it all

“A Change of Fashion” is Susan Gale’s first novel and it’s a stunning debut.  This is a heartfelt dramatic story spanning a decade, shifting from winter in England to the sun-drenched Cote d’Azur with well defined characters and evocative settings.

Susan Gale was born in Yorkshire and spent her teenage years in a small market-town at the foot of the Moors. She studied French at University and during the 1960s, experienced a year living and working in France, teaching English.

Those youthful memories of a new, carefree life in Paris must have lingered in the mind.  “A Change of Fashion” is not exactly autobiographical, but her travel adventures matched with an interest in design from Biba to Chanel, her passion for fashion is now all perfect material for this fictional tale.

Susan Gale in LBD - a lover of fashion

Susan Gale in LBD
– a lover of fashion

As she explains, “I store up pictures in my head which I draw on whenever I need to describe a place or create an atmosphere.”

They say do not judge a book by its cover. But the simple yet effective black and white image of the iconic Eiffel Tower with the silhouette of a young girl in mini skirt, heels and bobbed hair, represents the novel’s place and period perfectly.

Within a few pages, I was drawn into Holly Barton’s life and times. It’s Paris, 1967.  The atmosphere is captured in precise detail, clothes, food, people,  the apartment, as are the feelings of this rather naïve young girl – sheer excitement as well as nervous trepidation at the challenges ahead of her,  both professional and personal.

The mousse of asparagus soufflé was delicious, the sole in tarragon and lemon sauce exquisite and the Chateaubriand rich and succulent. White wines from the Loire gave way to deep red Bordeaux…. Throughout the meal she was constantly aware of the eyes opposite her, disconcerting, dancing with amusement at her obvious unease. ..”

The narrative is brilliantly cinematic, in fact expressed through all the senses, as the reader is taken on an emotional, time travel trip. Neatly placed flashbacks take us to rural Yorkshire in the early sixties to Holly’s family home.

December is one of the darkest periods of her life. During the short hours of daylight the skies periodically blacken to release yet another blinding snowstorm upon the moors. Vast sweeps of white level the landscape …deep drifts block the lane from Black Ridge Farm into the town”.

Then as soon as we are comfortably settled around the Yorkshire moors, we fast forward six years to a front row seat at a Saint-Laurent fashion show:   

Holly could see Diana Vreeland chief editor of Vogue, scribbling furiously in her notebook.  Jewel-coloured evening gowns in richly embroidered silks and satins, velvets and brocades followed, each one would make the fortunate wearer feel like royalty.”

Susan Gale must have done extraordinary amount of research to be able to convey the competitive work of the designers, models, fashion shows.  I love the authentic “real life” ambience, mentioning Chanel, Dior, Gucci, St. Laurent, et al. The graceful gowns, the cut of a coat, shimmering silk, all come clearly into vision through the words only without a single photograph required.

As well as the backdrop of Parisian’s elite society, another essential part of the plot covers feminism, women’s emancipation for equality and the fight for change in moral attitudes.

For those who love “The Devil Wears Prada”, are fascinated by fashion, past and present, and enjoy a page-turning dramatic love story, this novel is a must read.

Reminiscent of the classic tale of “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier, this has a similar plot where a young, innocent girl has her life turned upside down following a brief encounter, within a rich plot of dark memories and a secret family mystery.

Gale wisely steers clear of “Fifty Shades of Grey” erotic encounters – instead, sexual feelings and quiet moments of intimacy are illustrated with gentle simplicity – to entice your own imagination.    

The time seemed too precious to lie by the pool or on the beach at Cannes. Often they set off to explore the surrounding countryside, driving up tortuous Alpine roads past orchards of peach trees, vineyards and olive groves. .. they ate outdoors in little restaurants where the midday sun shining through the vine leaves overhead dappled their clasped hands on the table-cloth. …..”

Following Holly’s painful, passionate journey from wild windswept Bronte country to the glamorous hot spots of Paris and Monte Carlo, the contrasting locations and enchanting romantic tale would surely make a magical film. 

And if you want another opinion, I agree so much with this reader’s verdict.

“ I read this book in only three days – finding it difficult to put it down once I had started.  It is written so well you just fall into the world (of fashion), the backgrounds of Yorkshire and Paris, and the lifestyle of the decade.  And of course the love story.  I can definitely recommend it.”

Publisher – Susan Gale Publishing in conjunction with WRITERSWORLD 

ISBN 978-0-9576584-0-0.

Available from all good bookshops and on Amazon. 

Susan Gale

Susan Gale

Hanna Cherrie’s Tearoom

The name Hanna Cherrie is such a happy, summery name for a Tea shop.   This friendly, welcoming and very cultural little cafe in Stockbridge, Edinburgh has been devised and designed by Sheila Skelly.

The story behind the name is simply delightful.

Hanna Cherrie was the grandmother of a friend of hers, and when Hanna died three years ago, aged 98, Sheila was given a collection of granny’s tea cups which she had bought over the years from browsing second hand shops in Stockbridge.

These beautiful old vintage tea-sets began the inspiration for a traditional Tea Room.  With half a dozen tables and comfortable, upholstered arm chairs, the decor is all about Cath Kidston-style, (but authentic) table cloths on which sit vases of  fresh flowers;  the walls are lined with book shelves as well as local art work for sale.

There’s a real literary mood in the air.  Visitors are invited to take part in a paperback book swap, and a Book Club session takes place over coffee and cake on Tuesday mornings, 10 – 12 noon.   Other novel ideas include English and Language classes with a private room available downstairs for a variety of meetings and events to bring people together.

The menu is extremely enticing, whether you call in for morning coffee, lunch or classic Afternoon tea.  A giant cake stand holds various plates of home made cakes, (gluten and dairy free available) as well as fresh scones and jam.  A great choice of herbal and speciality teas, such as a fragrant and refreshing Lemon balm, peppermint and fennel,  Japanese Cherry tea, and Lady Jane Grey (earl grey with citrus).   Tea of course is served in a pretty flowery cup and saucer from a mismatched teapot.  Not a teabag  in sight thank goodness.

I called in for lunch and sampled a very tasty Chickpea and Artichoke Salad: Sheila prepared the chunky, slightly spicy, hummus to order, (talk about fresh!), which was served with watercress, fat olives, cherry & sun dried tomatoes, a generous portion of  artichoke and a thick slice of home made rye bread.  This was a feast rather than a light lunch.  Delicious!.

My salad was served on a lovely bright yellow plate, patterned with birds and blossom, sourced from the smart and sassy home design boutique, Anthropologie.

Other foody options being enjoyed at the next table were Roast Beef and blue cheese sandwich with red onion chutney, and a Turkey, avocado and Jarlsberg toasted panini – an ingenious combination.  The menu also offers soup of the day, and platters of cheese and cured meats.

The ambience is all about relaxation –  music on the sound track ranges from ethnic pan pipes to classic romantic American ballads.

Sheila is not only the innovative chef in the kitchen, she is also a professional Holistic Homeopath and Shamanic practitioner, working at Gorgeous Therapies next door.

The ethos of Hanna Cherrie’s reflects this joint venture of health and wellbeing, the therapies complemented by wholesome, natural organic food, home made cakes and herbal teas.   What could be more relaxing than visiting Gorgeous Therapies for a haircut, a facial or relaxing massage, and then visit the tea room to chill out over a cup of tea and slice of cake or lunch while you read a good book from the tea room library.

On a shelf is a fine antique wooden clock which chimes the hour.  It’s a charming sound which reminds one of traditional British Afternoon Tea.

“Stands the Church clock at ten to three,  And is there honey still for tea”.  Rupert Brooke:  The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.

35 Hamilton Place, Edinburgh EH4 2DN tel. 0131 343 1152

Scones and jam at Hanna Cherrie's

Scones and jam at Hanna Cherrie’s

Hanna Cherrie's cultural tea shop with books.

Hanna Cherrie’s cultural tea shop with books.