Like so many folks recently, I have been struggling with a viral chest infection – no, not that one, just a mild case of wintry bronchitis, remember that? The initial symptoms went fairly quickly, but my body must be a temple for microscopic creatures, or at least a luxury hotel spot, judging by the way the virus set up home in my sinuses! Shifting this lurgy had been my biggest challenge year to date…until I started scribbling the notes down for this blog!
Tonight was another Success Night – members who had been placed in competitions, or had their work published, were invited to read their celebrated piece to fellow Ayr Writers. I was first up with my poetry entry for SAW, a raw, emotive piece called Grief, Curtained. I sadly lost my beloved pet cat during lockdown; grieving for her made me think about other, less recent, losses, and how grief goes on for those involved far longer than our rat-race world is prepared to support. It was very cathartic to write, and I love how it all came together, but I was very conscious about starting the evening on a bit of an emotional downer…. little did I know what was to follow during the evening!
Rose stepped up next with her entry for one of our club competitions, a book review on All That Remains, by Sue Black. The author is well-known for being a Professor of Anthropology at Dundee University, one of her projects being to recreate Rabbie Burns’ face from a cast of his skull. Rose felt the book was a unique combination of memoir and monograph of Prof. Black’s life, taking us from age 12 up to her university success via her early working life in a butcher’s. One for my future reads, I think, as I really enjoyed the TV series that followed Prof. Black’s department at the university, although I shall remain wary of the “still warm livers”!
We then moved from non-fiction to a general short story, courtesy of Matt’s club competition entry, Oxygen Thieves. Sent away by ward nurses to get a coffee, the dejected main character is unimpressed by the large, yellow-fingered man he encounters in the hospital cafe, only to find himself called upon for emergency support when the drugged-up individual collapses in front of him. Matt cleverly took us through a number of views, both visual and mental, as his dark, hospital-based tale unfolded, leaving us a little more upbeat by the end. Matt confirmed the story was inspired by a chance encounter in a café after a stressful hospital appointment – the emergency situation and subsequent wish to beat the unconscious individual back to life were pure imagination though.
Ann, our fourth author on the list, unfortunately could not attend this evening; instead, Fiona McF kindly stepped up to read Ann’s piece, John, on the author’s behalf. John was one of eight pieces Ann had published in the Capitol Theatre’s Dementia Arts Newsletter, telling the past lives of people now affected by dementia. Ann first encountered John at the Dementia Choir, where he had displayed his lovely tenor voice, then Ann discovered John also played the trombone. A former military man, he had returned to Edinburgh post RAF, where he continued playing the trombone in numerous musicals and theatre productions. Ann’s piece was both humorous and poignant, and a timely reminder of lives fully lived behind the difficulties of dementia.
Chris followed with his placed entry in our club’s Non-fiction Article Competition, a memoir extract entitled Lamb Chops on A Hot Plate. Chris explained how his mother had served hot meals straight from oven to plate, something he had taken for granted until he went away to boarding school, where the communal dinners consisted of runny mashed potatoes, tinned tomatoes and unidentified lumps of fish! It was only later, when reflecting on his school years, that Chris realised the hot meals his mother lovingly cooked and served during the holidays were especially for him, and it became a mantra for him in adult life to always have hot plates for dinner. Everyone listening to Chris this evening was moved by the emotion and honesty in his tale – I suspect many of us could relate to that late realisation of what our parents or guardians did specifically for us, although we did not grasp it at the time.
Kirsty then read her true-life story, Another Step Along the Road, from Celebration, the Scottish Book Trust anthology published for Book Week Scotland. The tale was an honest insight into isolation caused by anxiety, and how simple, everyday things can turn into overwhelming challenges. Kirsty took us on a wander through a local country estate, revealing the internal fear that battled against her determination to complete the hour-long trek. The emotional and physical responses – thundering heartbeat, sweaty palms, rising panic – resonated with me, as did Kirsty’s delight in seeing the waterfall during her walk; it was only small, but beautiful, because of what it represented. The story finished with a cheese sandwich and a smile – the latter being something always worth celebrating.
The first half of our Success evening was completed by John, with his Rashomon-style story submitted for our club Drama competition. This style of fiction never gives you the actual events, only multiple perspectives, leaving the listener / reader to draw their own conclusions on what really happened. Kindly assisted by three more readers – Matt, Jeanette, and Fiona McF – the drama, entitled Blame, gave four different perspectives of the same story – a mother leaving her husband, children, and their family home on Boxing Day. We heard alternate versions of her actions, and their subsequent consequences, from the mother herself, her husband, her mother-in-law, and one of her sons. Whatever your interpretation of events, two things were obvious; first – the fracturing of this family was particularly heart-wrenching for the children, and second – the audience were emotional wrecks as well by the end of the reading! I don’t think we have ever been so grateful to stop for our half-time coffee and chocolate biscuit break!
With the audience partially restored with sugar and caffeine, Maggie B kicked off the second half with an apology. Her successful piece was an entry into our Children’s Story competition, and therefore light and fluffy compared to the seriousness of the first half! As one, the audience agreed we were in need of light and fluffy, and sat back in some relief to listen to Rappie Lets Her Hair Down. A clever re-write of the Rapunzel fairy tale, Maggie’s heroine, Rappie, is a sassy young girl who gets locked in a tower for safe-keeping when her Dad goes away. Easily bored, our mischievous madam sings rude songs at the top of her voice and cuts her hair off in protest, amongst other things. Along comes the rather dumb prince to rescue her…. Do they live happily ever after? Ask Maggie kindly and she may do another story time reading so you can find out what happens next.
We returned to non-fiction with Linda B and her successful Scottish article from our club competition. The piece, The Cythereans and Unfortunates of Fore Street, took us back to the industrial Kilmarnock of Victorian times and the less than salubrious area now occupied by the Burns Mall. In the mid-19th century, this was the site of a brothel, although the owner attempted to make the establishment appear more respectable by employing women as “hand sewers”, and “promoting” one of them to act as his wife, despite the fact they were not married! Newspaper articles from the time provided a wealth of information on the women, as their illicit employment and involvement in fights (both as victim and attacker) meant they were often up before the local magistrate, and the brothel continued to make headlines until the 1880s. Linda was also asked about the title of her article – in Linda’s words, apparently Cytherean refers to a “God of Naughty Stuff” – appropriate for the topic of her article!
Unfortunately, technical issues prevented Alan from giving his original talk around self-publication, which was to include pictures of his granddaughter jumping in some “really big puddles” in Ayr (surely the potholes aren’t that bad here?) Instead, Alan gave us a chatty overview on his Plop the Puddle series of educational children’s stories, which he was inspired to write after an Ayr Writer’s workshop delivered by our own Maggie B! Aimed at 5–7-year-olds, the stories introduce environmental themes related to the water cycle, and have been published both as standard size books for personal reading, and also as larger versions that teachers can use for story time in class. Alan is self-published and recommends starting your next project whilst the current one is in its final stages – it means you have something to do during the inevitable delays…
Our final success was a dramatic one. Fiona McF told us about a monologue she was recently commissioned to write, and present, as part of a weekend of celebrations for heroes of the two World Wars. She explained that Kirkmichael, a village in South Ayrshire, did not have a war memorial, as all of the villagers who had signed up for active service luckily survived and returned home. Instead, she concentrated the piece, A Tribute to Dr Herbert Kay, on one of their adopted sons. Herbert came to the village in 1938, aged 10, as one of the children evacuated from Eastern Europe through the Kindertransport programme. Initially unable to speak English, he soon settled in the village, studied hard, and eventually qualified as a GP. Having crafted the monologue, Fiona confirmed the final presentation was actually a 5-minute sketch based on a school history lesson – her clever approach to revise the monologue following an 11th hour request to involve some local school children!
So came the end of our success evening. Thank you if you’ve kept reading to the end of this blog – there was a lot to cover from this evening.
I’ll leave you with a final couple of thoughts:
- Ayr Writers are certainly cathartic with their creative scribbles, and,
- Every time I see the Burns Mall on my way to work, I’ll be thinking of the immoral Victorian ghosts that may be lurking in its foundations…