Monday, 23 November 2020

The Occasional Backroom: Chris Dolan

 Saraband's blurb for Chris Dolan's new book 'Everything Passes Everything Remains'  immediately attracted me. "It's a kind of travelogue, over time, and through some lesser-known parts...but mostly it's about how the past plays merry hell with the present." Chris' new book is a memoir of his times in Spain but it sounds like it's also a journey through his own memory and his own head, a wee bit like my own McMillan's Galloway. I believe these books should be twinned, especially as I'd be bound to sell more on Chris' coat-tails as he is a hugely wide ranging and successful writer, straddling a whole range of forms. 

Chris' books include Aliyyah (2015), Redlegs (2012), and Ascension Day (1999) which won the McKitterick Prize. His first collection of short stories, Poor Angels, was shortlisted for the Saltire Award and a story from it won the Scotland on Sunday prize. 

His stage plays include: The Pitiless Storm (2014) and The Cause of Thunder (2017), both for David Hayman. Sabina won a Fringe First in 1998. He has written over 70 hours of television, including popular series like  Taggart, and River City and drama-documentaries like An Anarchist’s Story (BBC 2007). He has written and presented TV docs including Barbado’ed: Scotland’s Sugar Slaves (BBC), and The Scots Who Fought Franco (STV). His films include The Ring (BBC), Poor Angels, and the Imax production, Mistgate. He has written over 20 radio plays, including adaptations of Stevenson’s classic Kidnapped and books by many authors including García Márquez, Umberto Eco, and Balzac. His original plays include 2014’s The Strange Case of Dr. Hyde.

He was Writing Fellow at the University of Strathclyde, 2011 -2012 and founded and taught the Taller de Escritura, Pamplona. He is currently Programme Leader of MATV, the only dedicated television scriptwriting masters in the UK. He is Honorary President of the Ullapool Book Festival and is active on the boards of both Aye Write (Glasgow) and Wordplay (Shetland) book festivals.

Just about the only thing we've got over him I hear you mutter is poetry, but unhappily he's good at that too. His poetry takes inspiration as it should from ordinary life and he's volunteered here a cheerful and accessible piece, particularly welcome at this drab and cheerless time when its hard to keep the spirits up. People have always turned to poetry when the emotional heat is on, and we look to it for consolation, ceremony and the boosting of morale. This poem 'Greedy Me' is just bursting with life:  


I want my choice on the menu. And I also want yours 
I love the disease, and seek out the cure. 
I wanna dance, dance, dance the whole night through. 
And go to bed early with an improving book. 

I’m going to train so hard for that perfect PB. 
And have myself a dram when I finish this beer. 
Gonna climb that mountain. And stay in my bed 
Have my cake and eat it, if even force-fed. 

I get up early and I like a long lie 
An independent mind, I take both sides. 
I’m a nature boy, and prowl the city at night. 
The Tay and the Tyne; Bonnie and Clyde. 

I’m hail-fellow-well-met, but leave me alone! 
Keep myself to myself, and yak all night on the phone. 
I talk to God, but proclaim that He’s gone. 
I’m a follower of Marx, a fan of Proudhon. 

Oh so many things I can be 
Professor of hermeneutical bibliology 
Fix your car, a molecular engineer 
Pen smash hits, or a slim volume of poetry. 

I’m perfectly suited for today. But also the jazz age. 
I want to stay as I am, and quickly turn the page. 
I see every point of view, but I’ve got my own crusade 
I say, hey Peace man, as I’m building the barricades. 

I’m teacher and learner, United and City 
I wanna be your lion, and your cuddly kitty. 
I lead from the outside, but I’m on the committee 
I’m self-possessed, but feel I deserve your pity. 

I want prizes and baubles, and I want to refuse them 
I’ll shout the odds, while in secret collusion. 
I want facts and figures, and believe nothing is proven 
I have no conclusions, but I know how to use ‘em. 

I’m an example to children, and a scandalous old rogue
I’m a Mod and a Rocker. I’ll be young when I’m old
Give me southern warmth – and the crystal north cold
I’ll be the dragon. And also St. George.

I know that I’m right, but welcome corrections
A happy lost soul who still hopes for redemption
I always hit deadlines but demand an extension.
Rub my tummy and head in different directions.

Fighter, lover
Bach and The Who
Tarkovsky and Corrie
Steak and tofu.
I wanna be me and I wanna be you.

I can be real, I can pretend
Save my pennies, and spend, spend, spend!
Not give a toss – and repent, repent!
Give me it straight, give me a blend
Stranger in your midst, and all things to all men.

I want to be useful. I want to be dreamy
I want to find everything that maybe is in me
It’s never ‘or’ but always ‘and’ with me
I want it all, the A to the Zee, so gimme, gimme, gimme!

More Info about Chris here:

An Interview with Chris here:

Everything Remains: a Song inspired by his Spanish journey and Memories

A Link to 'Everything Passes Everything Remains': 

Saturday, 14 November 2020

The Occasional Backroom: Mandy Haggith

In the midst of new lockdowns, we are well overdue a laugh. I have been long inclined to use humour in poetry to lever the door open for some important truths, and so does today's guest in the Backroom, Mandy Haggith. Her serious issues are ours' and will prevail long after Covid. Are we all really going to reboot our relationship with nature when all this is over, or was that all just lockdown wishful thinking to keep us whimsically occupied while we gear up top start again exactly as before? 

Mandy Haggith has been a passionate environmental campaigner all her life. She lives in Assynt and teaches Literature and Creative Writing at the University of the Highlands and Islands where she runs a project about tree poetry called A-B-Tree, inspired by the Gaelic tree alphabet. Her first novel won the Robin Jenkins Literary Award for environmental writing in 2009 and she has been poet in residence at the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens and Inverewe Gardens. Her books include four poetry collections, a poetry anthology, a non-fiction book and five novels. Her 'Stone Stories' trilogy are based on Iron Age history and published by Saraband. 

Here she reminds us why we should never take the piss out of a walrus. Great rhyming couplet at the end!

You wouldn’t want to wrestle with a walrus

Cos his head’s like a dustbin with three foot tusks
He’ll kiss you to bits with his suction lips
His whiskers’ll tickle till you lose your grip
His penis bone’s like a walking stick
And he won’t feel your punches, his skin’s so thick.
He is two tonnes of blubber and built like a bus,
No you wouldn’t want to wrestle with a walrus

He farts like a rocket and he belches pepper spray
He flaps his flippers like he’s practicing for flag day
He’ll scratch you with his nails if you try to pin him down
Or push you down the sandy beach and roll you till you drown
If you grab him by the flippers he will squash you with no fuss
No, you wouldn’t want to wrestle with a walrus.

He can hang out under water, he’s a deep sea diver
He’s like jaws with claws, has no sense of humour either
He looks kind of cuddly when he gives you a wave
But taking him on is neither big nor brave
He’s got 20 of his pals lying out there on the isthmus
No, you wouldn’t want to wrestle with a walrus.


in from the riverside
where the putter of boat engines dulls

you practise scales
by a low pool among trees

long slow notes climb up your flute
as rain drops ring

young sad notes
almost as still as the leaves

sweet green notes
tugging at the sleeves of ghosts

pulling over the water
like a kind of grieving

reeling us in
to stand in the rain


(From Castings (Ullapool: Two Ravens, 2007)

Monday, 2 November 2020

The Backroom Archive: Willie Neill Poet of Galloway

Willie Neill is probably the south of Scotland’s finest poet since Burns. He was unique in speaking fluently the three languages of Scotland, English, Scots and Gaelic. Although he was an adult when he learned Gaelic, he won the Gold Medal at the 1969 Mod. He was fiercely proud of the history and language of south west Scotland and unlike many writers from the region ‘stayed put’, an act through which his national reputation probably suffered. He was contemptuous of those who courted success in the poetry ‘centres of power’. He saw his poetry as ‘standing up for the small tongues against the big mouths’. He is really the poetic soul of Galloway, his poetry ranging through its history, its people and its language.

In this video, Neill is reading ‘Duilleagan’ in Gaelic, and the translation ‘Leaves’ is read by Gregor Ross. Linked at the foot of the page is a small program in which Neill reads more and is interviewed on his poetry and use of Gaelic and Scots. He makes a particularly impassioned defence of Scots as the living language of the common people.


Falleadh foghair na mo chuinnean
cubhras eader beatha 's bas:
aodach sracte craobh an t-samhraidh
lar-bhrat iomchaidh do mo chas.

Duilleagan na h-oige 'r tuiteam
ranaig mo reis fhein gu foghair:
duilleagan nam bliadhna fodham
feadhainn dathte, feadhainn odhar.


The smell of Autumn in my nostrils
a scent between life and death;
the torn garments of summer
carpet fitting for my feet.

The leaves of youth have fallen
my own time reaches autumn;
the leaves of the years beneath me
some coloured, some plain. 

William Neill was born in Prestwick, Ayrshire in 1922. He joined the RAF on leaving school, and having seen many parts of the world, left the forces in the 1960s, and studied Celtic literatures as a mature student at the University of Edinburgh. He then taught English in Galloway, before retiring to the village of Crossmichael where he died in 2010.

His first collection of poems was published when he was in his fifties; Selected Poems 1969-1992 was issued by Canongate in 1994, and Caledonian Cramboclink by Luath Press in 2000. William Neill’s impressive body of work includes translations from various European languages, often exploring other ‘minority’ European languages and attitudes to them. He translated The Odyssey into Scots.

The footage in this small series of videos comes from 'Poets of the South West', an innovative series of 5 small programs supported by the Dumfries and Galloway Education Department for use in schools. These were filmed on VHS in 1984 and were the brainchild of two teachers, Pat Kirby and Gregor Ross, whose prescience meant that we now have unique footage of five regional poets. In the case of two of these, it is the only existing footage. In the case of one, Willie Neill, it comprises a large part of the existing primary visual material.

A Link to the whole program: