Friday, 11 April 2014


This week, I've enjoyed seeing an artist who writes poetry and a novelist who writes libretti. I've also learned that there are more similarities between life in Korea and Scotland than I might have imagined, and that a 1940s childhood was pretty much the same whether it was lived in Arbroath or Acton.  And it won't surprise you to know that I've had an excellent scone (or two.)

Edinburgh Makar Ron Butlin was in conversation with Scotsman Books Editor David Robinson at Blackwell's.

Butlin (right) says he is a lucky man,

‘I still wake up in the morning with the same boyish enthusiasm that I had in my twenties.  I can’t wait to get on with my work in progress.’

He’s been Makar for six years, counts Neil Rankin, Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith amongst his admirers, has written novels, short stories, poetry, operas and plays, and is now launching his latest book, Ghost Moon, the story of Maggie and her son Tom.  It’s a story of cruelty, intolerance, shame - and ultimate redemption, of Edinburgh society in the early post-war years when ‘nothing was open on a Sunday and the swings were all locked up.’  A society that shuns a young pregnant woman, a woman who flees to the Western Isles only to have more doors slammed in her face. It’s also the story of Maggie now – back in Scotland and suffering from Altzheimer’s – and of how the disease allows her to confront her pain and come to terms with her past.

In conversation with David Robinson at Blackwell’s, Butlin described how the idea for the book came to him at a very difficult time in his life.  He heard an inner voice saying just a few words, about a woman walking up and down a ship’s deck.  Butlin has a great deal of time for inner voices, ‘the only thing in the world that is on your side’ – he listened, and realised that the woman was in fact his own mother.  Pregnant and unmarried, she had been thrown out by her own family in 1949; her desperation was such that she sailed to Canada to find distant relatives.  They opened the door, saw her and shut it firmly.

Butlin and his sister did not discover his mother’s past until he was in his thirties and already a writer. Photos of Canada were dismissed as ‘holiday snaps’, and his mother was always reluctant to talk about her past. He stresses that the novel is a work of fiction – many blanks remain in his mother’s story, blanks which he has filled in for Maggie and Tom. Writing the book gave him an understanding of his mother’s suffering, and of how magnificently she fought through it, but he is saddened that she died before he was able to share this with her.

Although Ghost Moon’s themes are sometimes bleak, there is plenty of humour.  Butlin is a happy person whose love of life is shines through in his animated readings and conversation.  Humour, he says, is fundamental, it illuminates dark moments and ‘takes you right to the heart of things.’

And the title? Butlin was once asked to suggest a name for the moon when it is seen in the daytime sky, when it is there but a little bit out of place and time, half seen but intangible. Ghost Moon seems a fitting term for that, and also for the touching story of one woman’s survival and ultimate peace.

Ghost Moon is published by Salt Publishing and available from Blackwell’s, Edinburgh.
The Scottish National Galllery's Hawthornden Theatre was packed for a lunchtime talk by Adrian Wiszniewski.

This article was first published on The Edinburgh Reporter

If you think modern artists are too full of themselves, you would have had that opinion changed at this entertaining talk.  A funnier, more self-deprecating, down-to-earth man then Wisniewski you could not hope to meet.

Adrian was in conversation with Senior Curator Patrick Elliott to celebrate the launch of a monograph by his friend Alex Kidson and a new exhibition of his work.  He is known for his huge and colourful figure paintings, which combine everyday life with images of fantasy and myth.

Born into a large, and largely non-artistic, family in Castlemilk, he recalls being fascinated by pictures of paintings and sculptures in the only books in the house, a set of encyclopaedias –  (the only colour plates were of the Royal Family – ‘I had a close acquaintance with Prince Charles from an early age.’)  His mother, when asked what he should draw next, replied:

‘Draw me a five pound note and see if we can spend it.’

After an initial foray into architecture, he applied to the Macintosh School of Art Painting & Drawing course, and was accepted straight into second year.  He remembers that time as one of great freedom and tremendous creative energy – students had carte blanche to do what they liked, and learned from one another.  In third year, he studied mixed media and conceptual art, working with fellow students Steven Campbell, Ken Currie and Peter Howson. He and Campbell staged their own show, ‘borrowing’ the refreshments from the rather more affluent fashion department.

The 1980s dawned; the arts were taking off in Glasgow.  Adrian felt he had nothing to lose by trying a career in painting (‘a great job because you can sit in front of the telly all day, ‘thinking’ ‘) He had no money, and had to abandon the use of oil paints because he couldn’t afford them.  His first painting after leaving college, ‘My Jewish Brother’, was rejected by the Scottish Society of Artists.  It is now one of his most celebrated works.

There followed a decade of rapid success, with exhibitions at the Compass Gallery, Third Eye Centre, Tate and MOMA.  Most of Adrian’s work from that time has ended up in the public domain, an outcome that pleases him greatly.  He acknowledges the influence of ‘hard core’ conceptual artists like Bruce Nauman and Bruce McLean, admiring the wit in their work. 

By the 90s, and again short of money, Adrian began to work with distemper because it was cheap.  He also recommends compressed charcoal - ‘it lasts forever’, and has experimented with paint pads as a change from brushes. He draws and re-draws his subjects, but then ‘just paints’, often not knowing how a work will turn out until it is finished.  Simple as he makes it sound, his work is full of complex imagery and symbolism – the purely decorative is not for him. He paints such huge pictures ‘because you’ve got to hog the space.’  Every exhibition entry costs money; it’s cheaper to submit one work and make a big impression.

Bored with developments in the late 90s art world, Adrian took a residency at Liverpool’s Walker Gallery – here he relished the opportunity to develop his own work without the pressure of selling, and later designed everything from rugs and wallpaper to a tower in Hamilton and even a Dundee car park. Damien Hirst was now in his ascendance, but for Adrian the corporate values of the Cool Britannia scene were unacceptable; he wanted to remain engaged with the real world.  Always looking for new ways to express his ideas, he also writes poetry, plays and books, and will ‘have a go’ at most things.  A recent interest is nature, particularly flowers.

After a very informative and enjoyable hour, Adrian was off to the Dovecot Studios for the first sight of a rug he has designed.  In the evening, his new exhibition opened, and will run at the Open Eye Gallery until 23rd April.  He is clearly a man of many talents, but also that rare thing in the art world, a man with both feet on the ground.

Open Eye Gallery, 34 Abercromby Place EH3 6QE:
‘Adrian Wiszniewski’ by Alex Kidson, Sansom & Co, 2014, Bristol:

This article was first published on The Edinburgh Reporter

The British Council, LTI Korea and LBF Korea are currently sponsoring an 18 month exchange programme between the UK and South Korea.  At the Central Library on Thursday evening, writers Kim Insuk and Han Kang took the stage with Glasgow’s own Karen Campbell to discuss themes of the individual, social alienation and migration.  The discussion was chaired by BBC Arts Producer, Serena Field.

Kim Insuk has won all three major Korean literary awards in the course of her career. She is part of Korea’s ‘386 generation’ – people born in the 1960s, who became students in the 1980s and who were in their thirties when the term was invented fifteen years ago.  The 1980s were a very difficult time in Korea – a military dictatorship was in power, and Insuk recalled that students spent more time protesting than studying.  Her most painful and powerful memory of those years was seeing a friend set fire to himself; as she watched him die slowly in hospital, she asked herself ‘what more can I do to after this?’ – yet she knew she had to do something, and that literature had to play its part in attacking the injustices in society.  This gave her a very clear remit.

The democratic election of a president in 1987 led to a huge feeling of positive energy in Korean society; young people believed that they could do great things, but as they have aged, Insuk feels they have become complacent and part of the ‘old guard’ themselves.  Korean society has changed beyond measure, and at a speed never seen in the West.  Insuk has to work harder to find the themes for her writing, and has become interested in how individuals become alienated from society.  Her story ‘Long Road’ is about a member of the 386 generation who, disillusioned  with Korean life, emigrates illegally to Australia.  Emigration and alienation are traditional themes in Korean literature; Insuk is, however, more interested in how an individual may alienate himself from society than in how gaps in income levels and the modernisation of society may alienate him.  Korean writing is now focusing on immigrants to the country and also considering the position of Koreans returning to Korea after growing up overseas, who may feel alienated in their own homeland.

Han Kang, a professor of creative writing in Seoul, is younger than the 386 generation, but still remembers the 1980s; she was aware of the Gwangu Massacre (in which up to 169 people may have died in protests against the military government), and from childhood she questioned how people could do such terrible things to their fellow men.  She writes to ask questions not to offer solutions, and says that she could not have started writing if she had felt that other writers had all the answers.  Her novel ‘The Vegetarian’ is about a girl who decides to live without harming others; she eventually believes she is a plant, and starts to starve herself to death. Meat-eating is used as a symbol for man’s violence and cruelty – Kang poses the question, is it possible to live without causing any harm at all, or will this in itself cause harm?  What is the individual’s role in society?

Karen Campbell’s new book ‘This is where I am’ looks at alienation through the life of Abdi, a Somalian refugee in Glasgow and his mentor, Deborah.  Although Karen has previously written crime novels, all of her work has been about identity; she writes about facades, what goes on behind closed doors and behind our personal barriers.  Just as people have preconceptions about police officers, so they make assumptions about refugees – people don’t have the time or interest to challenge this social shorthand.

Karen seeks to show how a person away from their own home can become an infantilised, truncated version of themselves – they may be defined by the word ‘refugee’, and feel that they can only share a small part of their lives with strangers.  We can all choose the identities that we present to the world, but refugees may have far more baggage and far less chance to unload it.  They may also find it too painful to speak about their experiences, especially to someone like Deborah, a woman volunteering for a charity and who has been told to keep some emotional distance.

With this new novel, Karen has had her best ever reader response - she was heartened to hear that the members of a rather conservative book group reported that it had ‘made us look at refugees in a different light.’

This was a fascinating and thought provoking evening.  The British Council is hoping to arrange further collaborations between the two countries before the programme ends in October 2014.

This article was first published on The Edinburgh Reporter

I want also to mention an excellent exhibition that opened at the Doubtfire Gallery this week.  'Soor Plooms and Sair Knees' features the work of Bob Dewar, illustrator and cartoonist, and tells the story of a 1940s childhood in small town Scotland.  It's full of humour, with brilliant drawings of all those things we've forgotten - chimney sweeps, rag & bone men, sweetshops, family TV evenings (yes, those!), wet and windy seaside holidays; even if, like me, you grew up far from Scotland and a few years later, you'll find so much that is familiar in this hugely enjoyable collection.  There are free 'soor plooms' too, provided by the very nice gallery owner.

Sair Plooms & Sair Knees is on until 26th April at the Doubtfire Gallery, 1-3 South East Circus Place; Monday to Saturday 10-5.  You can also buy the excellent book of the same name from the galllery or for £12.99.

This article was first published on The Edinburgh Reporter

My featured cafe this week is Bon Papillon in Howe Street. 

 It's an art gallery and framers run by Ingrid Nilsson and Stuart Allan, and the front of the shop is a peaceful place to enjoy their wonderful home baking, soups,salads and rolls.  The scones are freshly made by Stuart, who is always experimenting with different flavours - this week I gobbled up my raspberry one so quickly that I only remembered to take a photo at the 11th hour. The hot drinks are served in very pretty mugs too - always a bonus - and of course you can take in the beautiful art at the same time, and even watch Ingrid working away in the back.   There's free wi-fi and they also offer a take-away service. Definitely my favourite place in the New Town.

Bon Papillon, 15 Howe Street -  open 9-5 Wednesday to Sunday (

It's been a busy week.  How was yours?

1 comment:

  1. The Ghost Moon sounds like an interesting read I'll have to check it out. I too remember when the swings were chained up from 6 pm at night and on a Sunday. I will really have to buy Soor Plumes looks like the forties were much like the fifties and even the sixties.