Jul 032017
 

David Innes reviews  St Valéry And Its Aftermath by Stewart Mitchell.

Although it is almost inevitable that events are overtaken by time, and that the effect of history on localities dissipates, the name St Valéry-en-Caux, a small Normandy fishing village, continues to resonate in NE Scotland, even 77 years on from the scenes that accord that tiny French port a special place in Scottish military history.

It is said that there is scarcely an NE family which hasn’t been touched in some way by the events of June 1940, the surrender of the stranded and embattled 51st (Highland) Division, and the incarceration of thousands of Scottish soldiers in prisoner of war camps for the duration of the Second World War.

These were our forgotten casualties of that conflict, and it was a gross unfairness and insult to these brave, fortitudinous men who suffered the privations of capture, forced march and imprisonment to be described as having enjoyed an Easy War.

Stewart Mitchell, who named the Gordon Highlanders’ Museum’s excellent 2011 POW exhibition The Easy War, re-tells the story of the lead-up to Dunkirk and St Valéry, using personal accounts, some of which are now in the public domain for the first time, without resorting to military tactical terminology and technical jargon, often confusing to the lay reader.

Those of us who have had a long fascination with this episode of military and social history will have read accounts of the 51st’s manoeuvres, capture, treatment and liberation and of the social outcomes of returning home after half a decade of imprisonment. Tony Rennell, Sean Longden, Saul David, Alan Allport, Julie Summers, and Banffshire’s own Charles Morrison have all contributed to building a picture of a time of uncertainty, fortitude and, all too often, personal and familial misfortune.

It is in the re-telling of personal accounts that Mitchell excels, and he succeeds in making St Valéry more than just another military history. We hear of regular soldiers, Territorials and militiamen called up to serve when war was declared in September 1939, their backstories often of innocent city, village and country loons thrown into the jaws of an unforgiving mechanised conflict, and losing some of their most promising youthful years behind barbed wire.

Yet, there are personal recollections of derring-do, heroism, resourcefulness, smeddum and survival against heavily-stacked odds, told in fitting tribute to often forgotten men.

The volume’s appendix is unique in imbuing a personal touch to what is a harrowing, yet spirit-affirming story. Mitchell’s painstaking research has seen him identify from military records, every Gordon Highlander captured or killed in France in 1940.

My own maternal grandfather, army number 2870474 among the oldest of the Territorials called up at 37, who was 38 by the time of capture, and 44 before he was liberated, is included. That that saw my emotions well up 77 years after that fateful morning in Normandy, verifies that this a book that goes way beyond normal military history, as a chronicle of a part-generation of NE men. For that, it deserves your support.

Stewart Mitchell is making a generous contribution from the book’s sales to the Gordon Highlanders’ Museum Appeal. Please consider giving this splendid local cultural venue your support too.

STEWART MITCHELL
St Valéry And Its Aftermath
The Gordon Highlanders Captured In France In 1940
Pen & Sword Military
235 pp
Hardback ISBN 978 1 47388 658 2
£25.00

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Jun 082017
 

Duncan Harley reviews Mark Jackson’s Red White and Blue.

Mark Jackson’s take on the beautiful game, of rugby, is a welcome distraction from that stereotypical play on sweating giants in short shorts which generally populates the sporting-fiction bookshelf.

Set against a backdrop of rarefied privilege in the lead up to the 1924 Paris Olympiad the story follows American student Jack Morgan as, on the trail of burning ambition, he vows to secure selection for the US Olympic team. Along the way he must pick up a Rugby Blue, bag the girl of his dreams and, of course, win that Gold.

Following a meeting at Stamford University, during which he accepts the challenge “Climb that Everest and perchance other mountains may be scaled”, he secures a scholarship at Oxford and sets off on his quest.

Morgan is young, wealthy and gifted. When he arrives at Oxford in 1923, he is paired, by the sniffy College porter, with new room-mate Saul Warburg.

“What are you here for?” asked Morgan
“Isn’t it obvious? Law. It’s the Inns of Court for Saul Warburg QC. You?” replied Saul.
“Get my degree and win a Blue.”
“Ah, the odd-shaped ball.”
“It’s the Great Game,” countered Morgan.

As if the odds were not already sufficiently stacked against him, Jack soon sets sights on the beautiful Rose. She, an ‘English Rose’, is of course none other than the Varsity team captain’s ‘girl’; and his quest for that coveted Oxford Blue appears to be already in jeopardy.

The setting, in a 1920’s privileged England, echoes realism and while the Red White and Blue storyline is strong, character development is perhaps not so. Heading towards the last page there were still unanswered questions regarding the main character. Additionally, the historical-political context outwith the narrow confine of the international rugby world seemed sparse.

Staccato dialogue inhabits these chapters and a perceptible spectre of a Spillane-like Mike Hammer, minus the whisky-swilling-machismo, hummed along in the background. Indeed the upbeat and sometimes stirring rugby commentary raises suspicion that author Mark Jackson, a newspaperman, was perhaps in some previous life a sports-commentator.

Hopefully this powerful foray into the rainbow world of Varsity conflict is just the first of a long series which will see the mighty Morgan’s sporting career flourish. Perhaps in part two we might hear of his exploits in introducing both the odd-shaped-ball and Jesse Owens to the Berlin Olympiad.

Red White and Blue (163pp) is published by Matador at £8.99  
ISBN: 9781785892851

First published in the May Edition of Leopard Magazine – A magazine which celebrates the people, the culture and the places of North-east Scotland

May 052017
 

David Innes reviews Craiginches – Life In Aberdeen’s Prison.

If you assume that any book about life in prison, even on the non-felon side of the bars, will tell horror stories of desperate bad-to-the-bone incarcerated people, and of the means used to control them, Bryan Glennie’s memoirs of his long career as a prison officer may come as a surprise.
Although Glennie never loses sight of the fact that prison, its inmates, and its culture can be brutal, and that dangerous situations can arise in the most innocuous circumstances, Craiginches concentrates on the more positive aspects, and rehabilitative opportunities offered to those serving sentences.

Of course, our own former Butlins-By-The-Dee never housed the most dangerous and desperate of miscreants housed in institutions like Peterhead, and the brutality and simmering tensions of such jails are only touched upon briefly when the author is a first-hand witness to the aftermath of a riot in the Blue Toon’s grim Victorian penitentiary.

Rather, Craiginches reveals Glennie’s own admirable belief that the primary purpose of prison is rehabilitation of offenders, and that if such second chances have the dual benefit of improving the communities in which prisons are located, there are no losers.

Thus, the reader will learn of the hard graft and dedication invested by prisoners and staff alike in charitable and community projects in Aberdeen and further afield in the city’s hinterland. The author’s enthusiasm for these, and his staunch belief in such projects’ contribution to prisoner welfare and societal re-integration is heartening.

Craiginches shows too the positive impact of initiatives designed to relieve the boredom and drudgery of cell-life, with art classes, sports events and musical entertainment among the devices employed to lighten the debilitating monotony of prison life.

There are also insights to the comradeship among those in the prison service, and of the change in culture from Officer Mackay-like mistrust and suspicion, to the more-humanised atmosphere in prison that, one hopes, prevails today. And, if the contents are occasionally just a little too homely, this is only because of the author’s admirable optimism and belief in the innate good of misguided people.

Craiginches – Life In Aberdeen’s Prison

Bryan Glennie with Scott Burns
Black & White Publishing
ISBN 978-1-78530-121-6
253 pages

£9.99

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Apr 202017
 

With thanks to Emma Brown.

Today sees the launch of a stunning new photo book showcasing one of Britain’s favourite mammals and at the same time making the case for the expansion of its native woodland home.

The Red Squirrel: A future in the forest features jaw-dropping imagery by award-winning wildlife photographer Neil McIntyre, who has spent the last 20 years documenting the lives of the red squirrels near his home in the Cairngorms National Park.

Neil’s astonishing portfolio of images, captured deep in the heart of one of Scotland’s largest remaining fragments of Caledonian Pine Forest, is accompanied by insightful and evocative words from celebrated writer Polly Pullar, to create a beautiful and thought-provoking book which aims to raise awareness of the plight of the red squirrel.

With native woodland covering just 2% of Scotland’s land area, red squirrel populations are fragmented on isolated islands of trees and their long-term future remains uncertain.

Conservation photographer and Director of SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, the book’s publisher, Peter Cairns said:

“Neil’s beautiful images shine a unique light on one of Scotland’s best-loved mammals, but squirrels need forests just as much as forests need squirrels. I hope this book will ignite fresh conversations about that crucial link.”

The publication of The Red Squirrel: A future in the forest follows a successful crowdfunding campaign, which ran throughout November 2016 and was supported by over 500 backers.
It is the first in a series of stunning conservation books from SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, a project which works to amplify the case for a wilder Scotland.

The Red Squirrel: A future in the forest is available now from www.scotlandbigpicture.com.

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Mar 312017
 

Duncan Harley reviews ‘Scalan – Leaves from the Master’s Day Book’ by John Watts.

Commissioned by the trustees of the Scalan Association to mark the 300th anniversary of the secret seminary at Glenlivet, Leaves from the Master’s Day Book, is a fictional account of the day to day activities at the seminary during the post-reformation years 1741-1756.

John Watts is no stranger to the Scalan story having previously published the thoroughly researched Scalan – The Forbidden College, 1716-1799, a detailed chronological account of the history of the clandestine community from inception right through to eventual closure following the repeal of the Penal Laws.

In this new book, Dr Watts has used his extensive knowledge of both the history of the times and the specific history of Scalan to create a daily diary, or day book, recording both the mundane aspects of daily life at the seminary and the wider political events which impacted on religious life in those troubled times.

Written in a style typical of the mid-eighteenth century the text consists of entries from a fictional diary kept by the college’s tenth master Mr William Duthie detailing events from fifteen of his seventeen years at the college. There is of course no surviving diary however William Duthie was indeed a master at the college and his tenure included a period of reconstruction following the destruction of Scalan by government troops on 17th May 1746.

“Yester afternoon our greatest fear was confirm’d. A troop of 8 Red soldgers marched up to Scal. at about 2 ½ of the clock. Of course they found it empty, w’ nought within, and nought w’out but the peat stack. I imagine they were much chagrin’d to find the birds flown, for now they took out their spite upon the house itself … W’in 2 hours they were away back whence they had come, leaving us only black walls and ashes.”

Scripture study, the arrival of visiting Bishops and the wider context of the politics of the time are all detailed in the diary alongside mentions of whisky smugglers, cattle thieves and events surrounding the 1745 rebellion.

From the outset, Dr Watts states his intention that Leaves from the Master’s Day Book should allow the reader an open door to Scalan and few would disagree that he has indeed achieved his aim.

Available from The Scalan Association and Blairs Museum, Aberdeen (95pp) at £3 plus postage.
ISBN 978-1-903821-81-7

Words © Duncan Harley. First published in the March issue of Leopard magazine.

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Oct 272016
 

ally-begg-bookBy Red Fin Hall.

What’s the connection between a failed football player, a member of a successful 90s boy band and a TV presenter turned TV producer? The answer: Ally Begg.

Ally was brought up in Newburgh, had trials with Aberdeen FC, was a member of Bad Boys inc, and worked as a presenter on various sports TV channels before landing his current position as producer on beINSPORTS in Qatar.

His book, Begg To Differ, is the fascinating account of his life where everything always comes back to football.

It is an absolute fans’ view of the game, albeit a fan with some notable connections. Like Sir Alex Ferguson.

It is the story of his childhood growing up in the outskirts of Aberdeen and his pestering of his father to go to watch his favourite team, a team that was always at the forefront of his mind, even when he was working for one the rival teams’ television station.

He expresses his dis-satisfaction of the way his music career was handled and his decision to quit the business altogether.

How he deals with a catastrophic leg injury and its long term effect on his life, makes you cringe. Not by the writing but by the excruciating pain he has had to suffer.

The book deals with the ups and downs in his life without asking you to feel sorry for him, and subsequently his contentment in life, being married with a child. 

All in all, it’s a fine read, a giant step away from the usual football related tomes. Well worth investing your money in.

More comments on Begg to Differ here.

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Feb 192016
 

Her Sisters giftDavid Innes reviews Her Sister’s Gift, Isabel Jackson’s debut novel.

Sunday Mail Fiction Prize winner Isabel Jackson’s debut novel is rooted in her grandparents’ experiences and developed by estimable creative skills into Her Sister’s Gift. It resonates with industrial Scotland’s working class pride, and its resilience in the face of hardships, as the twentieth century gave way to The Great War and daily struggles to survive.
Strong women and flawed but brave, hard-working men populate Her Sister’s Gift, and the author captures well the conflicts and anxieties that result from this accepted dichotomy, the engine of the novel.

Scarred emotionally by an early harrowing double tragedy, Isa Dick is an admirable heroine, who plots her own destiny, limited by the class system and gender inequalities of the time.

She is inspirational in her family circle and beyond, and is credible in finding inner strength to thwart, for the most part, the cruelties visited on her and those she learns to protect.

She is all our mothers or grandmothers. Yet those early psychological wounds never heal fully, with the obsessive protection of her own children and nagging guilt repressed since childhood, bringing their own traumas.

Where Her Sister’s Gift does fall down a little is when some passages feel over-written or over-detailed and in plot incidentals introduced, but not followed through. It would be interesting to have the effect of Isa’s out-of-the-blue religious conversion, or any outcome from the discovery of her father’s knuckleduster explored, for example. Some of the conversational exchanges too, could do with sharpening.

It’s a story well told, however, an excellent and evocative series of mini-dramas, psychological conflict and near-cinematic scenes of early twentieth century working class life. With more disciplined editing, further Isabel Jackson tales have the potential to be very worthwhile chronicles of lives and trials wherever and whenever set.

Her Sister’s Gift
Isabel Jackson
Black & White Publishing
310pp

£7.99
ISBN 978-1-78530-010-3

May 222015
 

PushingBoatWith thanks to Freda Hasler.

North-East Scotland’s Magazine of New Writing and the Visual Arts launched Issue 13 in April 2015.

Stories and poetry from this wonderful new edition will be performed by writers and members of the Pushing Out The Boat team at the AU May Festival on Sunday 31 May, at noon. Copies will be available for purchase.

What a lot the team have achieved since the last edition!

They have:

  • become a Scottish Charity, ‘for the advancement of the arts, heritage & culture’
  • launched an online Submissions system, with a major upgrade to its website
  • reached financial independence – fully funding this edition for the first time ever.

In around 100 pages of stories, poems and visual art, the contributors,  57 writers and artists –  many from or with connections to the North East of Scotland, plus a few from as far afield as the USA & Australia – are introduced in a glowing Foreword by aclaimed local writer Esher Woolfson.

As always, the first-time published are represented, as well as youngsters aged from 12 to under-18, all alongside their recognised peers.

After its launch on 26 April, this new edition of Pushing Out the Boat, alongside many of its predecessors, can be read in the public and school libraries of both City and Shire, and those of Aberdeen’s Universities and Colleges. The magazine retails in many galleries, shops and cafés throughout the North East, and costs £7 (the first increase for three years). For online orders add postage and packing.

More Info:

email: info@pushingouttheboat.co.uk
Book tickets for the MayFestival.

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Jun 132014
 

SilverLynx1A new Aberdeen based literary journal has begun the process for ‘proving the existence of contemporary culture in Scotland north of Edinburgh – and refining it’. With thanks to Andrew J Douglas.

The Silver Lynx Sporadical, ‘a literary journal on an enigmatic publication schedule’, has launched an online campaign to spread awareness and has already started reviewing submissions for their debut print issue.

Intended as a throwback to when print was the foremost method of storytelling, The Silver Lynx was established by two friends who found themselves tired of constantly furrowing their brows in a vain attempt to understand the lack of original literature being read in Aberdeen by people who live in Aberdeen.

The Editors-in-Collective, Andrew J. Douglas and Christopher W. Bradley, may not have been born in our fair granite city, but they say the fact they have stuck the place out, living on the ‘breadcrumb’ line, is a reflection of a magic energy found here which is lacking in other cities.

Andrew said:

“We both moved to Aberdeen for Uni.

“I have an immigrant’s love for the place because it has afforded me with opportunities I found severely lacking in Glasgow.

“Glasgow and Edinburgh are seen as the bedrock of Scottish culture but who gives a shit? Aberdeen has always been a town of note throughout the world for its history but in terms of a city it has only really started to grow into itself since the oil was found.

“There are subcultures and lifestyles being lived here that no one knows about because traditional media in the city either ignores it or fails in its editorial responsibilities by reporting from a loaded point of view.

“The Sporadical is primarily a literary journal, but we have bigger plans on various back burners to turn it into a key weapon in the battle for the North-East’s heart, soul, voice and identity.”

The key players in The Silver Lynx certainly have the right kind of credentials for starting this kind if venture.

Editor-in-Collective Christopher W. Bradley is an English literature graduate whose prose style is heavily influenced by the Icelandic sagas (specifically Njal’s), and he harbours delusions of being:

” the world’s last skald with a Bukowskian twist”

Editor-in-Collective Andrew J. Douglas is a journalist and currently lead reporter at the Deeside Piper but writes fiction because he ‘can’t not’.

In-House Artist Ezra Fraserburg says his qualifications are being:

“gay, depressed and having access to sharpies.”

What kind of thing are they looking for?

Andrew:

“We don’t want anyone to be put off from submitting… except idiots writing thinly veiled porn and calling it chic lit, westerns, romance or fantasy.

We want to read about living here, being from here, moving here, that penny you found on George Street that changed your life, that abandoned building in Ferryhill, that night in Torry, that day in Duthie park… We just want to read anything that anyone who thinks they can write has written.

This is a place of struggle and opposing ideas. It is a breeding ground for creativity.”

Christopher:

“Everything Andy said, but I’ll add: if you’re not from the North-East nor writing about the North-East, still submit. We still want to read what you’ve got to write (assuming its excellent). Sure, The Beast sleeps in the granite city, and a large portion of the stories will be relating to Aberdeen, but the city’s just the conduit.

So long as it’s in English and we think it’s brilliant, it’ll probably go in.

“I see The Lynx as a significant turning point for the city, and if we get it right, a significant turning point for literature. Aberdeen is the frontier town of consumer-capitalism… black gold in the sea and what should be a cultural hub from all the nations it attracts people from for their share of it, but its not… yet.”

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