Dec 192018
 

Duncan Harley reviews ‘And I Am You’ – the new novel by Judy Mackie.

Layla is a splendidly timeless song penned by Eric Clapton and co-songwriter Jim Gordon of Derek and the Dominos fame.

Inspired by an Arabian love story – Layla and Majnun – Clapton’s song made 27 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time and won a Grammy in 1993.

Clapton was of course in love with Patti Boyd – the wife of his friend George Harrison.

Clapton and Boyd would eventually marry for a few years and Layla – the song not the lady – would become ranked amongst the greatest rock songs of all time.

They all remained friends. In fact, Harrison attended the Clapton and Boyd wedding and gave his blessing to the unlikely pair.

Lyrics include the immortal lines:

‘Let’s make the best of the situation
Before I finally go insane.’

And now, some decades after the release of Clapton’s Layla, North-east author Judy Mackie, inspired perhaps by the lyrics, has penned a novel deeply rooted in those far-off but timeless events.

In this exquisitely penned Gothic tale a lonely lady, recently abandoned by a long-time lover, examines her life and finds herself in another person’s body.

Judy is of course well known for her stewardship and editing of Leopard Magazine and her love for all things North-east comes through strongly in this, her dark debut novel. And I Am You is set variously along the North Sea coastline with locations as diverse as Cruden Bay, the massive blowhole of the Bullers of Buchan and the tarry-sheds of Fittie.

Betrayed and abandoned by her husband and with a career in the doldrums thirty-eight-year-old academic Layla Sutherland longs to escape her shattered existence while half a world away, Australian journalist Stevie Nightingale is desperate to shed her identity.

A ground-breaking procedure developed by an Edinburgh neurosurgeon, Professor Blunstone, offers both Layla and Stevie salvation in the form of not just an identity swap, but a full-blown body swap.

The eccentric professor has discovered a previously unknown portion of the brain which, when transplanted, offers the subject the possibility of switching bodies whilst retaining consciousness within the new host.

His discovery of the ‘Me Gland’ throws up both moral and ethical dilemmas but, in the true traditions of eccentric scientist tales, nothing can halt the pursuit of knowledge and once the taboo of using humans for experimental purposes is broken, there is ultimately no easy way back from the unspeakable brink.

“He’s not mad and he’s not evil,” says Judy,

“he thinks he’s furthering human knowledge.”

And I Am You, aside from being set in Bram Stoker territory, has all the elements of a contemporary Gothic thriller. A vast baronial mansion occupied by an obsessed researcher hides a secret hospital wing within sound of the Buchan coastline while two damsels in distress agree to help him crack the age-old secret of the seat of consciousness.

What could possibly go wrong and what might be the ultimate cost of tampering with our sense of self?

As medical ethics go out the window, Layla finds herself inhabiting Stevie’s body while retaining her own identity. Likewise, Stevie inhabits Layla’s body. At first all seems smooth and, alongside a practical exploration of the reality of the situation, elements of conflict creep in.

Layla for example meets up with errant spouse Calum, but in the body of the blonde-haired Stevie. Things, to say the least, become complicated.

Will Buller the dog sort out who is who? What will the subjects experience when, or perhaps if, the body-swap is reversed? Who, or what, is the mysterious stalker?

Blunstone makes clear early on that:

“Quite clearly, body swapping is not for everyone. But for those of a certain mindset the opportunity to occupy someone else’s body is surely the most profound experience a human being could have.”

As I raced towards the final pages of Judy’s novel, I began to wonder if the eccentric professor’s premise that body swapping is not for everyone might be slightly off the mark. After all, who amongst us hasn’t imagined what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes?

And I Am You – by Judy Mackie (289pp) is available for download from Amazon Kindle at £4.99

Feb 202015
 

Reviewed by Duncan Harley.

Daniel_Betts__Atticus_Finch__2

Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ at HM Theatre Aberdeen until Saturday 21st February.

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” says Miss Maudie in the 1960 Harper Lee classic.

In this, Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of the 55-year-old story, the central tenets of the novel, innocence and generosity, are well portrayed indeed.

From curtain rise to final bow, this production will delight theatre-goers and, crucially, fans of Harper Lee of all ages. It might even bring on a tear or three.

From the moment in Act One when the cast walk on stage, via the auditorium, the lights remain virtually undimmed; signalling to the audience that a degree of unbridled participation may be required.

Crucially, that participation does not require prior reading of the novel. All that is required is some attention and some imagination as the story unfolds.

Readings from the original novel are intertwined with the plot and the theatre-going audience is drawn seamlessly into small town Alabama in the steamy heat of the Depression-hit summer of 1933.

It takes but a few minutes to realise that this is a production like few others.

The set is almost bare aside from a few weathered chairs, some chalk-drawn town boundaries and an old rusted corrugated iron fence.

While novelist Harper Lee’s narrator Scout, played by leading lady Rosie Boore, swings on an old car tyre hung from the solitary tree in the Eastern corner of the yard, cast members recite extracts from time battered copies of the original novel.

This is the US Deep South at its most formidable. A place in time where racially-charged prejudice sits unmoving alongside a slow but inevitable force for reform. A story of injustice is about to be played out and only a very few could fail to be moved.

The tale is well known.

Local black man, Tom Robinson, played by Zackary Momoh of Holby City fame, is falsely accused of the rape of a white woman, and Scout’s dad, Atticus Finch, played by Daniel Betts, defends him despite the foregone conclusion of guilt due to simply being a “nigger”.

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Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch. Credit: Johan Persson

Robinson is of course doomed, despite clear evidence that the accusers, Mayella Ewell and her father Bob, are lying.

Bob Ewell tries to exact revenge, imagining that he has been made a fool of, and is himself killed.

Scout embraces her father’s philosophy of sympathy and understanding despite her experiences of hatred and prejudice.

There is more. The story of Boo Radley, played by Christopher Akrill, for one; the riot scene where heroine Scout pours her childish innocence on the flame of the murderous intent of the townsfolk; plus of course the unrelenting sense of the injustice of it all.

The undoubted stars of the show are of course the child actors.

Scout’s childhood contemporaries Dill, played by Milo Panni, and Jem, played by William Price describe the unfolding drama.

Faultless, they excel. Alongside Atticus Finch, portrayed by Daniel Betts complete with round glasses and linen suit, they more than satisfy the (soon to be) legacy of Nelle Harper Lee.

For those of a critical nature, the English regional accents delivered via the actor readers of the narrative passages may be an issue, especially for those of us in Scotland. After all, this is a novel with a Yankee inner voice. Aside from that it is a faultless production.

Perhaps in a decade or so Harper Lee’s forthcoming sequel ‘Go Set a Watchman’ will be dramatised for theatre audiences. Meantime this Regent’s Park Open Air production is a must see.

In fact it would be a sin to miss it.

Directed by Timothy Sheader, ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ plays at HM Theatre Aberdeen until Saturday 21st February.

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts  Tel: 01224- 641122

Images © Johan Persson

Words © Duncan Harley

Nov 182014
 

Youth and Age in The Old Curiosity Shop: Nell as an abused child was the theme for November’s local Dickens Fellowship meeting. Our great friend and University of Aberdeen alumnus Professor Grahame Smith introduced the subject, admitting that his is very much a 21st century interpretation of the novel which divides Dickens’s readers most. By David Innes.

TOCS coverGrahame argued that critics, including Huxley and Wilde, who derided The Old Curiosity Shop missed the novel’s intensity in their dismissal of Nell as an over-sentimentalised caricature.

Rather, our guest argued, she is an innocent abroad in an immoral world, although signs are there that she is just a normal child with typical childlike attitudes and reactions.

Whilst not streetwise, she is no innocent, even shown laughing at life’s absurdities in the early part of the novel.

Nell’s downfall, we were persuaded, is almost-wholly due to extraordinary external pressures on a character too young and undeveloped to bear burdens that would have been extremely stressful on a well-adjusted adult.

Quilp’s incessant stalking lechery, her grandfather’s gambling addiction, neglect and his dereliction of all paternal responsibility, and the horrors of industrial Britain laid bare as she and her grandfather journey away from their immediate metropolitan troubles, all conspire to break the child’s spirit.

Grahame drew parallels with Little Dorrit in both young characters’ methods in dealing with their elders’ fantasy worlds. In Nell’s being failed by the adult world, there are parallels with Bleak House. Nell’s ‘loathing of food’ and her being ‘too tired to eat’, it was suggested, hint at anorexia, a recognised clinical condition unknown in 1841.

The lively discussion which followed Grahame’s thought-provoking talk engendered further thoughts on the abusive nature of Quilp’s relationship with his wife and mother-in-law, and the role reversal in modern society where children protect and manage families in which parents are drug addicts or alcoholics, to keep family together and to provide a veneer of normality amid chaos.

The odd narrative structure, the clumsy (some might say) device Dickens used to flesh out what was originally a short story, was also explained and dissected during a fascinating evening in expert and inspiring company.

Nov 072014
 

TOCS coverBy David Innes. 

The Dickens Fellowship in Aberdeen will hold its next monthly meeting on Tuesday 11 November.

Following two inspiring talks on Dickens and the Sentimental Tradition and on Dickens’s role in Urania Cottage, Fellowship members are keen and primed to begin the in-depth look at this season’s novel, The Old Curiosity Shop.

We are delighted to welcome back an old friend and supporter of the Aberdeen branch, Grahame Smith, whose session on Bleak House last season was a highlight of the
year

Focussing on this season’s featured book, Grahame’s subject will be Youth and Age in The Old Curiosity Shop: Nell as an Abused Child.

As ever, Grampian Housing Association are generously hosting the event at the Association’s offices on the corner of Huntly Street and Summer Street, where off-street parking is available.

We’ll be meeting from 1900-2100.

Admission is £3 for the evening, or on payment of an annual membership fee of £20, admission to all meetings is free.

More information here: https://sites.google.com/site/aberdeendickensfellowship/

Oct 172014
 

Jenny Hartley bookBy David Innes.

Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship was honoured to have Professor Jenny Harley as guest speaker at its October 2014 meeting. Jenny is President of the International Dickens Fellowship and Scholar in Residence at the Charles Dickens Museum.

She is well-known to Dickensians for her publications The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens (OUP) and Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women (Methuen). The latter topic was the Fellowship’s focus for the evening.

Angela Burdett-Coutts, a woman of considerable means, being the heiress to Coutts Bank fortune, was a significant philanthropist, funding Ragged Schools and concerned about the plight of homeless and other unfortunate women in London Piccadilly.

She turned to Dickens to assist in creating a refuge for such women, some who would have been sacked servants without references, others prostitutes and not a few ex-prisoners.

The relish with which Dickens took aboard the project in 1846 is remarkable. He planned the refuge to replicate a familial environment, drew up a behavioural code, based on Maconnochie’s reward scheme, micro-managing the establishment of the house, Urania Cottage, in London’s Shepherd’s Bush.

It aimed to educate its unfortunate residents with a view to helping them to become ‘good domestic servants’, the type that would be attractive to employers. Yet the agreement was that those who had passed through Urania Cottage’s rehabilitation would need to be cut off from former immoral associates for fear of backsliding into former ways.

Transportation to the colonies to begin new lives was seen as the solution to this potential issue. Unfortunately for history, Dickens’s Case Book in which he recorded personal interviews with Urania Cottage hopefuls has been lost. He was notorious for fits of consigning personal records to bonfires.

The focus then shifted to the portal of ‘fallen women’ in Dickens’s writing. Oliver Twist (1837) had already shown Nancy in semi-sympathetic light, but in the novels which followed the establishment of Urania Cottage, Little Emily and Martha (David Copperfield 1849), Charley and Esther (Bleak House 1852), Sissy Jupe (Hard Times 1854) and Little Dorrit and Maggie (Little Dorrit 1855) are each examples of women suffering misfortune, saved by education, altruism or personal effort.

In the case of the Peggoty family in David Copperfield, there is even a successful and prosperous migration to Australia.

Urania_Cottage

It is reasonable to suppose, our guest commented, that character and outcome in these works were in some way influenced by Dickens’s Urania Cottage experiences.

In researching Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women, Jenny Hartley was painstaking. She described how her efforts eventually took her to Adelaide and Melbourne – “that was the fun bit” – to try to conclude whether or not the experiences of Urania Cottage had enhanced former residents’ lives.

Dickens himself made some comment. In Household Words, he wrote of seven successful marriages of Urania House women, but tracing those who had passed through its doors was difficult for Professor Harley, in no small way due to the reluctance of Antipodeans, in decades past, to acknowledge transportees in their family history.

The jewel in the crown, however, is Rhena Pollard, one of the more feisty and assertive of Urania Cottage residents, and on whom, Jenny mused, Tattycoram (Little Dorrit 1855) may have been based.

It was to audience delight that we were informed that Rhena was traced to Canada, married successfully in Ontario, bearing eight children to Oris Coles. Pictures of the prosperous-looking Mr and Mrs Coles and of a plaque commemorating Rhena’s story were a happy conclusion to a fascinating and highly-informative talk from a dedicated and genial Dickensian.

The local Fellowship’s next meeting is on Tuesday 11 November.

Our good friend Grahame Smith of the University of Stirling will kick off our series of meetings studying this session’s featured volume The Old Curiosity Shop, with a seminar, ‘Youth and Age in The Old Curiosity Shop: Nell as an Abused Child’.

We will meet at Grampian Housing Association, at the crossroads of Huntly Street and Summer Street, Aberdeen, from 1900-2100. Annual membership costs £20 and includes admission to all meetings. Entry to individual meetings costs £3. We are a welcoming and convivial collective.

Jul 112014
 

91pBPhcD-eL._SL1500_By David Innes.

When Aberdonian Kerry Hudson’s debut novel Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma was reviewed in Voice about two years ago, I opined that it would be good to get an update on how Janie Ryan, that book’s central character, was getting on.

Resisting that reviewer plea, the author has turned her energies and talents to exploring a relationship born in unconventional circumstances, fulfilling the diverse but increasingly-convergent needs of a trafficked Siberian girl and a London security guard, both of whom have backstories of hurt and confusion.

The structure of Thirst sees the present-time gradual development of the pair’s relationship, a slow-burning one-step-forward-two-steps-back series of small joys and setbacks, juxtaposed with the history of horror, sleaze, cruelty and broken ambition experienced by both en route to personal fulfilment and Hackney.

You’ll care as much about these misfits as readers did about Janie Ryan, celebrating their simple joys and cursing the undeserved blows and external obstacles put in the way of their happiness. And it’s not only the main characters who are well-drawn and credible.

The immoral traffickers, Dave’s ill-starred mother, the party girl Shelley, the cabal of gossiping harpie-lites at the shop where the pair meet in unusual circumstances are all recognisable, if slightly caricatured, and add depth and colour as Dave and Alena circle each other warily and the denouement is played out.

Kerry Hudson has considerable dramatic abilities too, able to imagine the loneliness, terror and confusion of immigrants trafficked to London on false promises, the grime and filth the homeless have to endure, the oozing onion odour of the kebab shop downstairs, the sensory experiences of deliberately-inflicted bodily pain and the secure warmth and comfort of a cuddle with a loved one, no matter how fleeting or temporary.

Leaving the pair in Alena’s run-down Siberian hometown, Thirst ends on a hopeful note, and as with the author’s debut novel, it would be nice to know how they’re faring, if at all. On the other hand, perhaps the skill of the writer is to leave readers with enough information to imagine the outcome and future for themselves, and Kerry Hudson is proving to be a developing master of this art.

http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/thirst/9780701188689
https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4444090.Kerry_Hudson

Kerry Hudson – Thirst
Chatto & Windus
328 pp
ISBN 978-0-701-18868-9
£12.99

 

Apr 112014
 

Charles-Dickens-438x438With thanks to David Innes.

Aberdeen has been selected to host the 2016 conference of the international Dickens Fellowship.

Held last year in France and scheduled for Chicago in July of this year, this annual five day celebration of the life and work of Charles Dickens will be held in Aberdeen in July 2016.

Dr Paul Schlicke, a leading Dickens scholar and retired senior lecturer in English at Aberdeen University, formally presented the bid from the Granite City at a meeting of the Council of the Fellowship in London.

Charles Dickens (1812-70) came to Aberdeen on two occasions, in 1858 and 1866, when he gave public readings in what were then the County Rooms (now the Music Hall), and in 1849 he declined an invitation to stand as rector of Marischal College.

The Dickens Fellowship, founded in 1902, is the biggest fan club of a dead author in the world and has branches all over the world. Aberdeen’s group, started up in 2012, the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth, and affiliated with the international organisation this past autumn. It is not only one of the newest branches but also the only one in all of Scotland.

In the early days of the Fellowship’s existence Edinburgh hosted a branch, but it folded some fifty years ago. The international Conference has been held in Scotland only twice before, in 1929 and 1994, both times in Edinburgh. The decision to come to Aberdeen is therefore a tribute to the dynamism of the Aberdeen Dickensians and recognition of the city’s commercial and cultural importance.

A civic reception will greet delegates, and the conference will be a showcase for all the attractions of Aberdeen and the North-east of Scotland generally. It will be an opportunity to show off the city’s museums and art gallery and to provide excursions to regional castles and distilleries, to the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre at Arbuthnott, and to Hospitalfield House, the arts centre in Arbroath, at which a cache of Dickens’s letters has recently been discovered.

The University of Aberdeen will have a central role to play, providing accommodation, dining, and lecture and seminar facilities. An exhibition is planned in the magnificent new Sir Duncan Rice library, which holds one of the richest collections of Dickens materials in the world .

Renowned Dickens actors Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes hope to perform at Aberdeen’s conference. The broadcaster, Aberdeen’s own James Naughtie, has agreed to speak at the conference banquet.

For more information about the conference including enquires regarding  sponsorship, participation and membership of the Aberdeen branch of the Dickens Fellowship, see the website https://sites.google.com/site/aberdeendickensfellowship/ or contact Dr Paul Schlicke at p.schlicke@abdn.ac.uk, or tel 07864945213 (moble) or 01467643337.

The University of Aberdeen is a charity registered in Scotland, No SC013683.

Mar 062014
 

David Innes updates us on all things Dickens.

Charles-Dickens-438x438

Professor Malcolm Andrews, introduced by Fellowship chairman Paul Schlicke as one of his oldest friends in the UK, visited and gave a fascinating talk on his two artistic passions, Dickens and Turner, the renowned landscape and marine artist.

Our guest has been Professor of Victorian and Visual Studies at the University of Kent and edits The Dickensian, the journal of the Dickens Fellowship.

Like Dickens, Turner was familiar with Kent and its coastline and had a fascination for the sea. Professor Andrews demonstrated how, although they differed in temperament and outlook, both men’s prodigious imaginations were fired by the Channel and Medway sea-going traffic, the urban developments and burgeoning tourist industry and the powerful force exerted by nature and brine combined.

Professor Andrews illustrated his talk with Turner’s marine paintings, immense and powerful in their colour, movement and energy, evoking the irresistible violent power of the waves and storms crashing overhead. Comparing this with Dickens’s stirring paragraphs describing the shipwreck at Yarmouth from David Copperfield, our guest showed both artists’ abilities to capture the violence of nature and the terrifying destructive force of the sea.

In so doing, he pointed out that Turner continually surmounted the age-old difficulty of capturing the single chance fleeting attention of the viewer without the poet’s tools of embellishment and amplification.

Although they did spend a short time in each other’s company, they were not friends. They were too dissimilar, it seems, and Turner does not seem to have had many friends at all. Dickens, garrulous, gregarious and with finely-honed dramatic and humorous sensibilities was in many ways the opposite of the more insular, introspective and intolerant Turner, who seemed to reserve respect for men of the sea. Their timelines did overlap, but the painter was 37 years the author’s senior.

Professor Andrews’ ability to bestride two often-disparate artistic genres and distil the similarities into a riveting hour’s talk was a triumph and we are owe him our thanks for contextualising and analysing the not-dissimilar effects of two masters of their craft.

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Dec 092013
 

David Innes updates us on all things Dickens.

Dickens Officers Dec13 - Credit: Julie Thompson

December’s, and the second official meeting of the Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship, was celebratory as the certificate confirming its status as a member of the International Fellowship was displayed.

It is all the more official since the signatures are almost illegible’, chairman Paul Schlicke joked.

After commemorative photos were taken by Voice photographer Julie Thompson, and before the official theme of the meeting, ‘Detectives and detecting in Bleak House’ was engaged, new information of local interest was shared.

A new cache of Dickens’s letters has been uncovered, relating to the Guild of Literature and Art, an organisation Dickens keenly promoted. According to the correspondence, the then occupant of Arbroath’s Hospitalfield House, offered a house near Coventry to the Guild. The letters indicate that Dickens was delighted with the offer.

Conditions attached to the proposed gift, meant, however, that the Guild had to refuse the offer. Given its connections, Aberdeen members will make a trip to Hospitalfield House in the future. It will also be of interest to delegates if Aberdeen’s bid to hold the 2016 international conference is successful.

In his talk, Paul outlined how, before 1829, the “police” were held largely in contempt and members regarded as disreputable by the population.

Dickens satirises them as incompetent in Great Expectations. When the Metropolitan force of 3000 recruits was created in 1829 as a crime prevention force, with only inspectors empowered to carry pistols, but with a multi-purpose bobby’s helmet issued, Dickens’s attitude to the police changed.

He admired their cleverness and mastery of disguise. He accompanied members, especially the 1846-52 Chief Inspector Field, on duty, seeing at first hand their methods. His journalism frequently featured imperturbable detectives and policemen. Field may have been the inspiration for Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, widely regarded as fiction’s first detective.

Dickens cert Dec13 - Credit: Julie Thompson

Certificate awarded to Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship – Credit: Julie Thompson

For all Dickens’s championing of the poor and downtrodden and railing against those who kept the poor downtrodden, and for all his overt contempt for the law and do-gooders, he had an obsession with order.

His desire to control everything about his dramas and public appearances bear this out, so it is no surprise that those with a similar outlook, military man Sergeant George and Bucket himself, are sympathetic figures in Bleak House.

Bleak House, we concluded, is full of detecting. There are up to a dozen characters all seeking information, trying to eke out truth and each for his or her own purposes.

Throughout it all, Dickens seems to be keen to expose corruption, hypocrisy and inefficiency and Esther Summerson is held up as an example of how he feels life should be lived – looking after one’s self and others and taking personal responsibility in so doing.

2013’s final gathering, on 17 December, will be a festive event. Paul will read A Christmas Carol. Members will provide light snacks and refreshments, and whilst it will hardly be a Pickwickian Dingley Dell feast, we will end the year on a suitably celebratory note.

Non-members are welcome at a nominal cost of £3, and the celebration will start at 1830 and go on until 2130. The venue is, as always, Grampian Housing, Huntly Street.

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Nov 282013
 

Scotland’s only Dickens Fellowship, whose status in the event of a Yes vote next year seems, curiously, to be missing from the governmental white paper on Scottish independence revealed this week, holds its latest monthly meeting on Tuesday 3rd December, from 19:00 to 21:00. David Innes writes.

Charles-Dickens-438x438It is with regret that many of us will leave Dickens’s masterpiece after Dr Paul Schlicke’s lecture and the resulting discussion on plots and detecting in Bleak House, this time with emphasis on numbers 16–20, chapters 50–67.

A well-written and loved book like Bleak House, however, is a gift that keeps on giving. The series of Fellowship meetings and discussions will encourage members to re-read it, such is its complexity and economy.

Before the December festivities start, Fellowship members will gather again on Tuesday 17 December, when Paul will read A Christmas Carol.

Both meetings will be hosted by Grampian Housing Association, whose offices are at the Huntly Street/Summer Street crossroads. The Grampian Housing car park provides ample free off-street parking. The Fellowship is grateful to Grampian Housing for its continuing support

Membership of the Fellowship for 2013-14 costs £20. Non-members can attend individual meetings by paying £3 on the night.

https://sites.google.com/site/aberdeendickensfellowship