Thursday, 23 June 2011

Repent, repent

Alone in a glass case in the Church section at the back of level three of the National Museum of Scotland stand two objects which, at first glance, seem quite unexceptional. One is a square wooden chair. The other, draped on a display dummy, is a dull-looking gown.
On closer inspection, the chair reveals nothing. It is simply dark and polished with use. The gown is odd, though. It is not made of any fine stuff, but rather sackcloth, now worn and threadbare. It is not a garment for grand occasions.
But this is the Church section, remember, and the church in question is an unforgiving kirk where questing nostrils were constantly alert to the stench of moral turpitude, and the salvation of souls was prosecuted with much energy, zeal and inventiveness. The chair and garment are two of the great seventeenth and eighteenth century instruments of ecclesiastical discipline. Otherwise known as the Stool and Gown of Repentance, they were to be sat upon, or worn, in front of the congregation, by fornicators, adulterers, slanderers and other wrongdoers.
Jonet Gothskirk was one such. Between July and November 1677 she appeared before the congregation of West Calder kirk on thirteen successive Sundays for her adultery with a certain William Murdoch. ‘Because of her stupidity and that she could discover no sense or feeling of her sin, nor sorrow for ye same,’ she continued to wear the gown each Sunday, week after week, while the minister fulminated at her wickedness. Nature eventually intervened and she was released on account of the imminent arrival of her child.
But what did she feel, what did she think to herself while she stood there, Sunday after Sunday, her belly swelling, her legs aching, the sackcloth scratching at her skin? Did she look out at the congregation and read behind the pursed lips, the solemn faces, ‘There but by the grace of God go I’? Did she glance at the minister and rage at the hypocrisy that the Bard would immortalise a century later in Holy Willie’s Prayer? Was she so cowed by the collective opprobrium that she simply stood there and hung her head in misery? Did she long to be back in the arms of William Murdoch for whom no punishment was recorded? Was she simply resigned to her fate? Or was she too fearful for her own future, and that of her child, to think of anything but what she would do when her present ordeal ended?
I don’t know, but I have to find out. The Gown of Repentance is my 26 Treasures object. This is the repeat of last year’s 26 project with the V&A, which we’re running this year with the National Museum of Scotland, the National Library of Wales and the Royal Ulster Museum. I have to find out because now that I’ve been to see the gown, it’s Jonet’s voice I’m beginning to hear. I don’t yet know her well enough to know what she’s saying, but I will. By the end of July, the project deadline, Jonet will have spoken. 

Friday, 17 June 2011

Ex libris

The thing I most remember from my student days about the main Aberdeen University library was the carved mouse climbing the leg of each chair. It was a lovely touch, irreverent yet also somehow appropriate to what I remember as being quite an intimate nineteenth century reading room.
On Wednesday I was back at the university for a meeting. I was a little early so I bought a sandwich and ate it in the sunshine outside King’s College ­– a glorious setting with the medieval buildings, the lawn and shady trees, and little groups of students, also enjoying the sunshine, sprawled on the grass, deep in conversation.
It was a moment of intense nostalgia as I remembered my own summers there, especially the last; and the long, long days, reading outdoors till eleven pm, as we revised for exams. It must have been round about this week, I thought, mid-June. And then it struck me that having graduated in 1971 I was, quite accidentally, marking the fortieth anniversary of my finals. It was an odd feeling, both pleasant and disconcerting.  I really don’t think of myself as someone who graduated forty years ago.
Then came another surprise. As I got up to walk to the meeting, I noticed a large glass cube towering into the sky, just the other side of the campus – the brand new £60 million university library, due to open in September. I know all about it because I wrote much of the original literature for the project, but I hadn’t yet seen it in the flesh, so to speak. I couldn’t go in, but from what I know it will be a marvel, a library of the future, a mere stone’s throw from the fifteenth century buildings of the old campus. It seems entirely right that the university has chosen to make its most conspicuous architectural statement with a library.
Yesterday it was another library, as we launched the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s 2011 programme in the grand, second-floor reference section of Edinburgh’s splendid Victorian Central Library. It’s a big space, lit by huge south, west and east-facing windows, and it was packed to the gunwales with authors, publishers, agents, journalists, sponsors and people from all the other organisations, including competing festivals, that make up literary Scotland.
It was an inspiring event with brilliant presentations by both Janet Smyth, the new children’s programme director, and Nick Barley, the main programme director, now into his second season. Revolution, inspired particularly, but not exclusively, by the Arab spring, is the theme this year. There was a buzz afterwards, a sense of collective engagement with the big events that are shaping the world around us; and as always I felt privileged to be part of this festival, the largest of its kind in the world, which may have books and authors at its heart but is in reality about so much more.
This year there was something else as well: a deeper sense of connection with our purpose, coupled with a palpable feeling of solidarity, arising from the fact that we were in Edinburgh’s main public library. A library is, after all, the ultimate symbol of a free and civilised society. What does it say that we live in times when they are being closed?

Friday, 10 June 2011

Labour of love

This is a commercial and I make no apologies for it. My friend John Simmons has written and published a beautiful book.
It’s called The angel of the stories. It’s about a young woman called Julia who lives in a small Spanish town – whitewashed, cradled by wooded hills (not so very different, in fact, from Aracena where we take a group of Dark Angels students every year). Julia yearns to become a writer and as her craft starts to blossom so too do the buds on her shoulders. Soon they flower into wings that take her on journeys into the lives of her fellow townsfolk, whose foibles and passions and longings she chronicles with great tenderness.
Technically speaking, The angel of the stories is magical realism. To me it’s purely magical. The writing is simple and limpid. The storytelling has a quiet but mythical quality. Then there are the illustrations …
The book has 21 colour plates taken from paintings by the artist Anita Klein. She and John collaborated over the writing of the book; in fact, her Italian Angels series was part of the inspiration for it. Now she has created a series of original paintings around the character of Julia. What a delectable angel Julia makes: dreamy and pensive, innocent yet knowing, voluptuous and sexy, she is charming as only Beryl Cook-meets-Modigliani could be.
And then there’s the book itself. This is book-making as craftsmanship, and the craftsman’s hand is that of designer David Carroll. It’s cloth bound and comes in a cloth-covered slip case. It has a gold silk ribbon for a bookmark. The typography is lovingly chosen, as is the paper onto which the colour plates have been hand pasted with consummate care.
The angel of the stories is, in fact, a labour of love ­from first thought to final credit, from cover illustration to endpapers. Even the colophon of John’s newly fledged publishing company, called – wait for it – Dark Angels Press, is a plump little ‘d’ sheltering beneath the ‘a’ of an outspread angel’s wing.
This is the ultimate reproach to the Kindle. Writing, typesetting, design, binding, illustration, all work in harmony to create an object that has value beyond the sum of its parts. In the age of electronic publishing, thank God for The angel of the stories. May it be but the first of many from the Dark Angels Press.
You can order the book from
You can see Anita Klein’s work at

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Other worlds

A sackcloth gown and an empty room in a disused telephone exchange might not sound much like the stuff of dreams, but the human imagination’s a wonderful thing. I’m trusting that mine is going to respond by taking me on a couple of creative journeys over the next year.
The Gown of Repentance is the object I’ve been allocated for 26 Treasures Scotland, a repeat of the project we ran last year with the V&A in London, but this year one hand of a three-hander involving the National Museum of Scotland, along with the Welsh National Library and the Royal Ulster Museum in Northern Ireland. It will take the same form as last year, a wonderful exercise in precision of language, with 62 words exactly in which to write a personal response to one’s allocated object. This year my fellow author, the indefatigable Sara Sheridan, has been making the running in Edinburgh, liaising with the museum, herding together the 26 writers (including a wheen of Scots-speakers and Gaels), and pairing them up randomly with the objects the museum has chosen to create a historical trail through its Scottish collection.
I haven’t been to see the gown yet, but I know it stands in a glass case beside its more famous neighbour, the stool – both redolent with disapproval and attended by the ghosts of stern-faced kirk elders. Personal associations with repentance have kept themselves out of sight so far, but no doubt they’ll surface when the time comes.
The room in the telephone exchange is much more of an unknown quantity. This is a brand new project which has arisen from the Dark Angels masterclass at Merton College, Oxford, in the spring. The exchange is the building which, in due course, with the necessary funds raised, will become the new home to Oxford’s wonderful Story Museum. With somewhere in the region of sixty vacant rooms, currently housing a few items of abandoned furniture and the odd dead pigeon, the place is ripe for a show of some kind before the builders move in. So my two equally indefatigable partners in Dark Angels, Stuart Delves and John Simmons, have hatched a plan to invite twenty of our most advanced former students to choose a visual artist as a partner and mount an installation in the empty room they’ve each been allocated. Stories are the theme, of course, and Other Worlds is the title of the show. This time next year it will run for two weeks to a paying public, thereby raising funds for the Story Museum and promoting Dark Angels at the same time.
Although I’m looking forward to getting to grips with that grim article of apparel in Edinburgh, I’m looking forward even more to visiting Oxford in September for the Other Worlds briefing – because I’ve chosen as my partner my daughter Ellie and her brilliant alternative floristry business, The Flower Appreciation Society. We’ve never worked together before and right now I can’t even begin to imagine how we will, but there’s something thrilling and deeply satisfying to me about the idea of words and flowers coming together, just as there is in a collaboration between father and daughter. I can't wait to get started.