Sunday, 11 March 2018

Waiting rooms

Sentinel by Steph Masterson

In the last post I said I would write something about the documentary film Unrest (2017) so…

Unrest was made by Jennifer Brea about the illness ME (also sometimes known as CFS). One of my closest friends has had ME for over 16 years so I was very interested to see this film (it is available now in various ways – showing at some cinemas but also available on most streaming services). There have been various programmes and features about ME on TV and radio over the years but this one is different for several reasons – it was directed by someone with the illness, it is a feature film (and a quality piece of work) and it really does seem to be making some waves about its subject. I found it really compelling (and emotional) and would totally recommend it as a fascinating, moving, very stirring piece of art and life. It tackles many of the myths about ME (as every piece about ME seems to have to do) but it does a lot of its work by just showing the everyday lives and challenges of Brea and a selection of other people who suffer from ME (and the suffering comes over loud and clear in this film). In fact one of the reasons many people don’t like the use of CFS, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, as a name for the illness is its implication that fatigue is the main problem for people with ME, when sufferers will tell you it is pain (relentless, extreme pain), amongst other things, that is a much bigger issue. The film does have medical content (experts and so on – not that there are many ME experts – and the film looks at that issue too) but what it has, almost most of all, is enough anger and determination to present its evidence in a way that makes it hard for viewers to look away. Unrest is part (a big part) of a growing campaign to get more research into ME, to try to finally offer people with the illness some hopes for cure and recovery (you might have heard recovery stories already but there are many more people who are not recovering and who are getting virtually no solutions from medical sources). It is hard for many people with ME (and their carers and friends and family) to be involved in campaigning because of the nature of the illness but Unrest is a big step on their behalf. A related campaign is MillionsMissing (part of ME Action, one of several ME-related groups) – the ‘millions’ referring to the number of people who have the illness (worldwide cases can only be estimated at this stage but all the ones I found online started with figures like 17 million and, within that, 4 times as many women as men).

ME is one of those subjects that a lot of people think they know something about but in reality very few do (both in the medical world and elsewhere). You may have a heard a scrap of a story about someone who was off work for a couple of months and ‘people said they had ME’ and ‘they didn’t seem ill to me’ but it’s most likely that these bits of stories are not about ME at all (and a lot of them are very old bits of stories and, often, told with malice for reasons I won't get into here...). This film, by concentrating on individuals who are far more typical of ME cases, draws attention to the pain and the suffering and the long-term problems that ME can and does cause. Thinking about it I kept coming back to the idea of waiting rooms. I think that lots of us feel like we spend too much time in waiting rooms (literally and figuratively). Sometimes it can feel like we are always waiting around for things to happen, either waiting to see a doctor of some kind (if that's what we need) or waiting for something or someone to fix things in other parts of our lives (and sometimes that person is us). We are dissatisfied so often and everything seems to take so long (and sometimes we are right to be dissatisfied, but other times much less so). But for people with ME (and those who love them), especially those who have had it for a very long time, they are both in a waiting room (this being a room in their home usually, for years and years in some cases) and yet, at the same time, they aren’t in a waiting room at all (because there just isn’t one – there is no doctor to see them in many cases, no cure, no hopes offered). These people are told, aloud and by actions (and inaction), that they are not important and that is a hard situation to deal with, whenever or however it occurs (and especially when you are in pretty constant pain). In some instances (see the Unrest section on Denmark) people with ME are even punished.

Other thoughts I had recently (partly to do with this film, partly to do with other things) were about strength and weakness. Around International Women’s Day last week I saw so many posts about ‘strong’ women and, whilst I understand the sentiment and the desire to stand up in the face of oppression, the repetition of this word ‘strong’ unsettled me a little (more and more every time I saw it...). I feel that if women (and I include here anyone who wants to use that word) become too fixated on the strong we are all too likely to repeat mistakes that have already been made by men (many, many men...). It would be so easy to end up taking ourselves down the cul-de-sac that some men find themselves in today, a place where ‘strength’ and ‘power’ are cages that don’t let anything else in or out (‘don’t show weakness’, ‘don’t admit defeat’). Unrest is something else entirely and I feel that by making this film Brea has shown both extreme strength and extreme weakness and that is another reason I found it so effective and impressive and whole. We can all be strong, yes, but we can be so much more besides.

Find Unrest here.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Writing about writing about writing

Messing about with art, Dundee

Last week I came second in a writing competition. It wasn't a huge affair (it was organised by the brilliant local theatre Dundee Rep as part of the promotion for their production of Deathtrap) but it was still nice to be able to say to myself 'maybe you aren't completely crap then'. The brief was to write a piece/story about writing (500 words max.) and it was my kind of competition in that you had to work quickly, you didn't have to pay to enter and they chose the winners pretty quickly too. You can see a photo of a few of us 'prize winners' here. My piece is more monologue than story and I will paste it below. It is fiction, for the most part. I'll be back in a couple of days to tell you how brilliant the film/documentary Unrest is (and if you haven't seen it, seek it out).


Someone on Twitter has won a prize. Well, that almost never happens.

Someone else on Twitter has won a prize. I’m thrilled for them both.

I eat a bag of Aldi crisps, switch to sweet (cooking chocolate), have a cup of tea.

I do some editing and while I’m doing it I notice links between some of the words in the piece that I’ve never noticed before. I think that maybe the words know what they are doing and this is a relief. Maybe they could just get an agent on their own and miss me out of the process altogether. Maybe that could be the plot of an independent film and I could write it. Or maybe that film already exists. It’s probably not my kind of thing.

I flick online to tread some time. Someone I once met at a festival has just been mentioned online by someone else who is quite famous. The someone I once met at a festival (a poet) might sell some books now so that is good for them and I am pleased. That someone was friendly and they work hard and deserve success. I think all this but I don’t really feel it. Only the dog knows the truth.

The dog looks at me with hungry eyes. Sometimes she wonders what is so special about the clicking machine but if I take her out for a walk she forgets about it soon enough. I take her out for a morning stretch and the great outdoors is full of inspiration and stories. I’m quite glad to get back home to be honest. It’s all a bit overwhelmingly real out there.
Someone on Instagram has also been outside. I see their photograph of the sunrise earlier today. It is amazing.

RF 2018

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Tick Tock


There is so much blah
gif, banter, gif
And the clock is getting ruder
tick, Tick, TICK

No, not that clock
Fuck that forever
Heaped pressures of the pack
That game is crap

On a bloody drum
This clock beats days
It counts us down
To the final gun

RF 2018

Here's a poem, a new poem. It has a swear word in it for which I make no apology. I don't use swear words in poems very much but that is probably mostly due to the fact that I have been raising a child for the past 17 or so years and most of us use fewer swear words around children (and when you do that those words sort of drop out of your vocabulary for a while). But that child is very nearly 18... so the language is relaxing a little more every day. And sometimes a swear word is just the one you are looking for.

I have also been using more punctuation in poems in the past few years but I often find it infuriating so I was glad to ditch it (or take a holiday from it anyway) for this poem. I make no apology for that either. 

Monday, 29 January 2018

Sucked in...

Local tree, just before Xmas.

Having words

Here we go again,
Let us please lock keys,
Let us curtly tell each other
To get back down on our knees.

Let us bark out orders,
That seems totally fine:
Wear this, eat this, write this, suck this,
There is one way, and it’s mine.

You are wrong, wrong, wrong,
I am right, right, right.
Take your dirty little secrets,
Hide them tightly out of sight.

Don’t make us all look bad
With your artless whine,
Only some of us are winners,
Did you miss my special sign?

Don’t be spitting here,
Or playing children’s games,
There’s one pretty road to heaven
And one tidy list of names.

Messy people, silly scribbles,
Turn the stomach green.
This is how we do it –
Keep the front step clean.

RF 2018

or if you'd rather listen than read off the page try this:

I'm not a big one for literary criticism (shocker, I know), partly because when I read some of it it makes me feel like I need to have a long hot bath to get clean again. I particularly dislike writers being lumped together into groups to make a weak point (as happened in a recent article that you may or may not be aware of and, if not, be glad!). 

Instead listen to this week's edition of 'Poetry Please' , co-hosted by Hollie McNish. It features a particularly powerful poem called 'An Abortion' by the illustrious Liz Lochhead (who was mentioned in last week's post on the Marra book) and 'April Sunshine' by Scotland's fabulous current Makar, Jackie Kay.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Take time


Since Boxing Day I have been reading one of my Xmas presents – ‘Michael Marra - Arrest This Moment’ by James Robertson (Big Sky, 2017). As a huge fan of the Dundee* songwriter (and singer, musician, artist and actor) I knew I would love this book and I wasn’t mistaken. In fact I purposefully didn’t get it when it came out in October but waited to receive it as a Xmas present. I wanted it to feel special, to look forward to it, and these feelings are less and less common, I think. So often now we want something and we just get it, right then and there, ‘order today to arrive by 9am tomorrow’, but Marra’s work was so brilliant that I didn’t want to rush reading this book about him. It arrived slowly and I read it slowly. I cried quite a bit (Marra died in 2012 – a fairly early death by today’s standards) but there was much joy too, especially in returning to his music with cleaned-out ears and a lighter head. James Robertson is a successful Scottish novelist but for this task, most importantly, he was also a friend and neighbour to Marra and so ‘Arrest’ feels serious but also personal and that is just as it should be. Marra was a huge talent but he chose to stay close to his roots, to write in the language he grew up in, to work with the people who meant something to him (you can learn all the details of this in ‘Arrest’, his move to London, his return and so much more). The book took me about a month to read but I may just read it all over again in February. I guess I am a fan (but I knew that already). Pretty much everyone who saw him perform or heard his music, or even just met him, was a Michael Marra fan of some kind. For me he was a voice of reason, a voice that joined depth and humour in just the right places, a voice I could listen to all day. And I loved his piano playing too.

It’s interesting to be writing this today because tomorrow is the day, here and elsewhere, when one of Scotland’s other famous writing laddies gets his annual celebrations. Both Burns and Marra were experts with words and lived for the tunes and one of Marra’s most well-known performances, perhaps, is his version of Burns’ ‘Green Grow the Rashes’ (I just caught it again as part of a Liz Lochhead feature/interview on Radio Scotland). It’s an immaculate version and, much as I like and admire Lochhead, I always find it difficult not to envy the long working relationship she had with Marra (though I work hard to send that envy on its way because it is a silly reaction and no good to anyone!). The best foil for a poet is often a really great musician of some kind and Lochhead and Marra struck gold with each other I think. I never saw one of their joint performances (though I saw Marra live 3 or 4 times on his own) but Lochhead is one of the many people who is interviewed about Michael Marra in ‘Arrest This Moment’. He was loved, admired and respected by most, if not all, of the writers and musicians who have become huge favourites in this house since we moved to Scotland (Rab Noakes and Karine Polwart, for example) and many of them feature in this unashamed tribute of a book. Marra's name may not be that well-known outside Scotland but this is everyone else’s loss – he was, for me undoubtedly, a mostly 20th century great along the lines of David Bowie and Nina Simone (in Marra’s case, he was a great songwriter, a great performer, a trailblazer, an artist, a collaborator and an unforgettable and unique singer). We don’t need to decide who was the greatest of the greats I don’t think – we can just be glad we had them all in our lives (and ignore any that weren’t personal favourites, there’s no need to fight about it – god knows, we fight about enough already).

I didn’t know Marra personally at all (and that's probably why I refer to him as Marra and not Michael). We exchanged a few words once in Dundee, in 2009, when I was lucky enough to be on the same bill at a benefit night, but in ‘Arrest’, and the words of those who knew him well, he is very much Michael. Unlike so many heroes (and I am aware he wasn’t someone who wanted to be a hero necessarily but I’m afraid that ship has sailed…) it seems clear that Marra was a good man too (brother, husband, father, friend). As someone who hardly knew their father, I enjoyed some of the details about his relationship with his children but I'd be lying if I didn't admit they prompted a good share of tears as well (this time it wasn't envy that needed chasing away but some old sadness and longing that's mostly dealt with, I promise…). What a father to have had (and both children, Matthew and Alice, are now musicians and involved in music in all kinds of ways). Alice Marra put out an album of her father’s songs last year (‘Chain up the Swings’). They are carrying on the best work in the best ways. 

To finish I should say that I am aware this is not a book review (I am not a huge fan of many book reviews anyway so I don’t really mind). I did write reviews regularly years ago (of books and other things) but the whole business of bashing through a book at 100mph so you can then rave or bash (or a combination of the two…) – it wasn’t really for me. These days I just write about a book when it moves me (and this one definitely did that). But it was songs that were Michael Marra’s bread, butter and jam so I think I need to end this with one of those. I don’t have a favourite of his songs (so many excellent ones) but as Dundee is much on my mind just now (we’re hoping to move that way this year… ) I’ll choose this one (MM is minus the trademark beret but the sound is good on this video). And I would suggest you all share some Michael Marra with someone some time soon – it's never a mistake.

*I always thought Marra was known as the Bard of Lochee (the part of Dundee where he lived as a child) but I have also seen him referred to as the Bard of Dundee... anyone know anything about this (which came first, which is most common, whether he hated the very notion...)? Thanks.

p.s. I have written about Marra on this and my previous blog many times… my little poetic tribute to him from 2008, for example, is here (and local songwriter Gary Anderson’s version of that poem in a song is here).

p.p.s. I got a bit excited writing this piece (haven't written much over Xmas etc.) and so left lots out that I should have mentioned. For example, I had somehow never heard about Marra's song about footballer Gil Heron (Gil Scott Heron's father). I'm not sure how I managed to avoid knowing about that as I am a huge GSH fan too (evidence in poem form here)? Anyway, in the 'football' chapter there are details about this song and about Gerry Hassan taking a demo of it to GSH in New York. Gerry Hassan has a good piece reviewing 'Arrest This Moment' at his blog here.

Monday, 20 November 2017


A garden turbine on the edge of Dundee...

An old friend of mine is crowdfunding for her new EP. Her name is Ana Laan and all the information about the EP and options to pledge/buy are here. You can hear the title track 'Camino del Agua' here (spoiler - it's lovely!). The title track is in Spanish but Ana sings in English too (and French and Swedish...). Support her if you can...

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Dead inside

Living blues

Stop all the rot, put down the blessed phone,
A dog will eat itself if you leave it too alone,
The radio has dropped to a heartless hum,
We know all the news that is still to come.

The sky was on fire and it’s in my head,
The memories hot as they freeze the dead,
The funeral lasts like the longest love,
My eyes look down, hell burns high above.

I have no direction, or home, or rest,
There’s a rattling thing inside my chest,
I know I once could sing a song;
I thought that music stayed forever: that was wrong.

The stars are way too far, they can help no-one,
Not the dead inside, not our dying sun;
Hear my broken voice, scratch my name in wood.
I feel like nothing, for nothing is good.

RF 2017 (with obvious debt to W.H.Auden)

I usually like to start posts on here with a photo... but I can't think of a suitable one for this kind of piece. This post is just a poem and that poem the product of watching this news interview with a Grenfell survivor yesterday and then watching, later the same day, a documentary about the poet W.H.Auden (1907-1973). The documentary featured his well-known poem 'Funeral Blues' ('Stop all the clocks...') and so this afternoon I found myself reworking it with the Grenfell interview (and mental health matters in general, I suppose) in mind – they are never far from my mind to be honest, and are much in the news too just now. There are many reasons this Auden poem is significant in many of our lives (whether we like it or not) and its fabulous rhyme and rhythm have a lot to do with it (though there is the film/movie issue too of course... I am not a rom-com fan but I know someone who is...). When I watched the interview online yesterday I wanted to send my friend (who is a very good counsellor) down to the woman immediately... but of course my friend is very busy, as all good counsellors are, because they are so in demand. Our societies are broken in so many places that we struggle to manage day-to-day lives, never mind huge, terrible occurrences like the Grenfell fire.

p.s. I suppose some people won't approve of me reworking a 'classic' but I like this kind of thing (I'm quite partial to Benjamin Zephaniah's 'What If' reworking of Kipling's 'If', for example). And it works in music (you can like an original track and a cover version or a track that uses a sample of that original... see Chic and 'Rapper's Delight'). Not that I'm saying it's in that kind of category. Anyway...