The Bailey’s Prize 2015 Shortlist


I have managed to not read a single-one of this year’s shortlisted Bailey’s Prize books – so I can give my ‘what I would think in a bookshop’ first impression of them.

First off – every single book cover is either boring, seen-it-before or actively ugly. Putting that aside and ignoring most of the content we have:

The Bees – by playwright Laline Paull – about a rebel bee leading a double life in a collapsing bee colony… it’s apparently an allegory about race or the Monarchy… or anyway… something human.

Outline by Rachel Cusk – a creative writing teacher asks her students to tell her about the one thing they noticed on their way in (which sounds like A Chorus Line without the singing)… I’m sure I read an interview with Rachel in which she had marriage issues and lived in Norfolk.

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie – is an epic about about Empires falling and Nations rising and archaeologists digging stuff up. I think its main period is the First World War and its protagonists are mainly in Turkey, London and India – but it sprawls – so I may be wrong.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith – has a half decent cover – but one that’s entirely misleading – since it makes it look like a Retronaught novel set in the 1990s’ favourite decade the 1960s. Apparently it’s about a teenage girl now and an Italian Renaissance artist then – who are somehow connected in time – and who both are a bit both.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Ann Tyler is about an American family and is described as homely, spot-on and melancholy.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – promises to be genre trash (that’s a compliment) but I have bad memories of Tipping The Velvet having terrible plot development and the prose felt like I was being dragged backwards (I mean I literally felt that – which wasn’t entirely pleasant – although it must take some skill).

So what would I buy if I was in the book shop?

The Bees – it’s about bees – it’ll either work or be funnier than The Swarm (Oh my God – Bees! Bees! Millions of bees!).

The Paying Guests – it’s about taking in lodgers in the 1920s and has a lesbian romp and a murder and got denounced by The Guardian as ‘middle-brow’ – so clearly a winner.

The rest – meh – maybe. Probably not.

The Straw Chair

Selina Boyack as Lady Grange, Pamala Reid as Isabel, the Minister's Wife  - with THE CHAIR.

Selina Boyack as Lady Grange, Pamala Reid as Isabel, the Minister’s Wife – with THE CHAIR.

I’ve fallen behind with my posts about ‘things I have done’ – I have random reviews and musings cluttering up the draft page from months ago – but last things first.

Tonight I went to see The Straw Chair by Sue Glover at The Tron (it’s on tour), directed by Liz Carruthers and produced by Liz Burton-King – for their own company ‘Hirtle’* – which – and for this I will adore and support them for all time – boasts that between them they have 100 years of professional experience. Because it should be a plus. People don’t die at 35. *

(*with Borderline –  ages unknown).

And yes – I will still sound like I’m giving them snark – but that’s my style. I give myself snark.

The Straw Chair had a tiny wee set – representing the Island of Hirta – made out of astro-turf, bouncy stones (a la Classic Doctor Who) and a bed-sheet hung at the back… I couldn’t decide if I liked it – or thought it was too literal – or liked it but didn’t like the way the actors seemed to hold themselves back on it as if they were going to fall or stub a toe.

It also had a tiny wee straw chair – the only one on the island – which seems a bit daft since it was made on the island – so you’d think they could make another one… but maybe they ate it when they ran out of eggs (they mention eggs a lot… eggs and birds… birds and eggs… ).

I liked the sounds of the sea and seagulls that played at the start (and I swear I could smell the sea)… even if it’s a cliche it’s still a powerfully evocative cliche… and what else are you going to listen to in Ye Auldie Western Isles?

The play is set sometime between 1732 and 1745 and is about a young Minister and his new wife sent as Missionaries to St Kilda (Hirta) and encountering a kidnapped Edinburgh aristocrat, Lady Grange, who intended to expose her husband as a Jacobite.

The acting was a bit under-powered… but Lady Grange was magnificently played as Edina Monsoon (from Absolutely Fabulous) and while I’m not sure that’s the way the character was meant to go – it did work… you felt sorry for the poor spoilt cow stuck in the world’s worst rehab… Unfortunately it did leave the two leads a bit adrift with their po-faced lines about marriage and God.

The Minister’s wife was very sweet – but had one facial expression and a monotone through-out and I wasn’t sure why she needed to meet Lady Grange in order to find out she quite liked plucking puffins… or why the Minister needed to spend time on an uneducated Island to find out that Highlanders have weird ideas about fairies and Edinburgh is full of corruption.

Our heroine should have been painfully caught between three things – the natural rhythm of life on Hirta (represented by the servant Oona) – the sexy High Life of Lady Grange – and the piety of her husband (who was a wet fish of a Presbyterian – his character was crying out for a few good rants). In the end she did a bit of everything, nothing bad happened – and Lady Grange was left as she was found.

I wasn’t bored though. With a bit more welly in the vocals and the action I doubt I would’ve had time to ponder what it all meant.

I love Amanda Palmer

Neil and Amanda

Neil and Amanda

I only heard of Amanda Palmer because she was married to the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman. I followed him on twitter and he tweeted to and about her a lot – so I followed her – because I followed her I looked up her videos on YouTube and I liked what I saw.

Her band The Dresden Dolls had a lovely Gothic late-90s/early-00s vibe (they called it Punk Cabaret)… and her solo songs were like Brit Pop’s American girlfriend getting in on the act.

There was a video for ‘Map of Tasmania’ and it was funny… then a hoo-ha about her being too fat for a video that inspired a Rebellyon (fans posted pictures of their own stomachs in solidarity) which prompted her to dramatically leave her record company and raise money on Kickstarter for a new album which raised a million dollars and a heap of ill-will when it was discovered that she wasn’t paying musicians who played one-night gigs with her (that was because they were part of her informal community and it was meant to be a fan jam – not a way of getting work for free – but that’s an alien concept to the media) and somehow – through all that – I developed an unconditional girl-crush on her.

(WARNING: bit rude)

The teeth, the entitlement mixed with variable self-esteem, the honesty, the unshaven armpits, the attention-seeking, the hint of potent smug mutual narcissism wafting off her relationship, the cartoon eyebrows, her family issues, the Bohos in Boston… it should all be irritating – I might even be jealous of her ‘undeserved’ profile – but I found it charming; adorable; absolutely right and just.

She’s a natural, vivid storyteller and her art is her life… Her voice is majestic but not pitch-perfect, her tunes are only nearly hum-able… but it’s the soundtrack to her personality and it’s perfect.


She wrote a book about asking people for money and stuff and help – The Art of Asking – and there are bits of it I can remember far more clearly than I can a novel… her hurting her leg in Scotland… her working in a coffee shop and being a living statue… her drawing a fan in Australia… her being mistreated by fans at a show… She’s one of my all-time favourite heroines. I want her to prosper. I want her to win. I want another chapter.

It’s that fan fervour her ‘haters’ find so incomprehensible… we forgive her her faux pas because they make the narrative more intriguing.

It’s a strange kind of art – asking – being – making your own soundtrack – but it’s still art and it’s beautiful.

To support Amanda – here’s her Patreon Page:


I Love Gerald Harper


Gerald Harper starred in two huge UK t.v. hits of the 1960s and 1970s – Adam Adamant Lives (1966-67) about an Edwardian who gets frozen in 1902 and wakes up in 1966 and who fights crimes while coming to terms with the permissive society and Gazette (renamed Hadleigh – 1969-76) where he played a laid-back country squire/newspaper proprietor who solves thorny problems for himself and the community.

He also starred in a great Francis Durbridge thriller ‘A Game of Murder’ (1966) and as Detective Inspector Alan Milton in ‘A Man Called Harry Brent’ (1965). As well as guest turns on great shows like Thriller, The Avengers and Emergency Ward 10 – and in one-off plays for ITV and the BBC.


His great charm was in his energy and authority combined with the way his voice would become quiet and sympathetic in times of great stress or injustice. If aristocrats were anything like Gerald (and they’re not) the Empire would still be flourishing and I would be doffing my cap at all times. Technically he was no looker – he had a thin face and beady eyes – but he had a warmth and charisma that made him incredibly handsome (which should be a lesson to all actors – and modern casting directors – buff can be bland – personality wins every time).

Gerald is near forgotten by the under 50s – although occasionally he’ll turn up in the press with a much younger girlfriend… but in his day he was constantly featured in magazines, newspapers and on chat shows. He became a radio host on BBC 2 and would give champagne and chocolates away as prices in between playing classic tunes. Since the show ended he’s been touring in theatre productions including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None for Bill Kenwright.

He deserves to be remembered as one of our finest stars and while his hit shows have dated they’re still well-written romps through our recent(ish) past. *

*many of them are available on DVD.

Katie Hopkins v. Simon Danczuk


How dreadful and annoying – I have Katie Hopkins –

within a hair of getting DONE & BANISHED from the media for LIFE – and I’m forced to conclude that it would be the wrong thing.

Katie has a terrible comedy routine and is nowhere near as smart as she thinks she is. She attacks the weak and simpers at the powerful… She’s the worst example of Muscular Institutionalised Middle-England I’ve ever seen… She’s like a demented attention-seeking child who occasionally pretends to be the grown-up voice of reason.

She’s vulnerable – she has a severe disability – she can only function if she’s thin and sporty – she failed in the military… but none of that can make her brand of hearty inhumanity bearable to anyone who isn’t a Suburban Hitler-lite.

Her latest – in a long long of hellish tweets – explicitly links Pakistan – and all its people – with paedophilia… and accuses a UK M.P. of being inflammatory for flying its flag for half an hour over Rochdale (scene of a recent sex grooming scandal involving white girls and older mostly Pakistani men).

The M.P. – Simon Danczuk – has reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred and – although I don’t think anyone should be reported for anything that isn’t a direct violent threat – I wasn’t fussed. Now I think he’s done the wrong thing for two reasons –

1. she probably really is saying what a significant number of people think. Rather than shut it up and force it into the murk – it may be better to accept it and talk it through until a real understanding of why it’s racist to stereotype an entire group – wither that’s assuming all white girls are sluts – or assuming all Asian men are perverts – is reached.

2. She’s been reported to the police for tweeting faster than any of the men were reported to the police for raping and beating… That makes it look as if Rochdale’s first and only priority is to protect the reputation of its Pakistani origin voters rather than the bodies and lives of its children. And that impression will incite far more – deeper and longer lasting – racial hatred than Katie Hopkins and her crap insights.

Last Dream (On Earth)


Yesterday The National Theatre of Scotland launched their new season under their new artistic director Laurie Sansom… I missed their Meet The Artists Event so I was pleased to be trotting off to one of their productions (thanks to The Tron – whose lovely staff helped me with a ticket kerfuffle).

Last Dream (On Earth) is a soundscape that weaves together two stories – one about Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space – and one about refugees from Africa trying to reach Europe.

In the spirit of verbatim theatre (which this has bits of) – I’ll transcribe my notes – most of which were written in the dark (so might go weird).

(NOTE – the audience was given headphones to be worn through out the performance. We took them off to clap at the end – because you can’t connect with stage actors when your ears are muffled). 

Five microphones. 2 musicians in place playing music – the other 3 performers will come on during the first few minutes.

Oh, God no – it’s prog rock.

World music instruments – a guitar – jamming – Oh, God – it’s Peter Gabriel prog rock.

The lights have gone down – we’re getting deep space sounds, and a bit of mission control crackling – this is an improvement.

Water is going to be a significant recurring theme. And Spain.

It’s like – a radio play, The Ninth Wave by Kate Bush, the gospel readings in Holy Week (but about space instead of Jesus).

I love the performers… they’re brilliant (although a skinny white guy on guitar and an adorable older man on bongos is making me feel I’m trapped at WOMAD – with Peter Gabriel fans).

The audience laughed at a really contrived joke involving fake banter – why do I never find this type of thing funny? What’s wrong with me?

It’s a bit like an ASMR video on YouTube or a Hypnotherapy session… the music is very relaxing considering one story is about running the gauntlet of Soviet Authority to get into the lonely vertigo of space… and the other is about a desperate journey from poverty and violence to an unfamiliar and often unwelcoming new continent…. Maybe that will be part of the point?

I really love that The NTS does edgy, experimental, musical stuff. It’s wonderful and weird that the lower down the Scottish Arts you go the more conventional they become and what should be the underground is at the top.

We’re in space with Yuri and on a boat with the refugees – there’s space and choppy seas on a giant video screen… It reminds me of a National Trust installation that tries to re-create an ancient battle or the life of pirates… I don’t feel like I’m there and I’m not getting enough character to care that Yuri and the refugees are there… Needs more drama.


Admire the professional execution.

No idea what I’m meant to feel about space travel.

I have no idea what the ‘dream’ is never mind why it’s the last one on Earth… Do we dream of travel? Is it meant to be so primal it’ll still be the last thing we’re yearning for just before we become extinct?

I feel sorry for the refugees  – but then I’m a left-winger who likes multiculturalism – I’m not sure if the play is enough to evoke that feeling in me.

I’m surprised that there’s no agit-prop speech about what nasty, Imperialist, racist bastards we are – spending money on space travel and ignoring the plight of the poor (that’s because I’m OLD – and remember the days when all plays were about what total bastards we all were).

It’s not about Scotland – which is great. The only thing worse than feeling you can NEVER write about your own country is feeling you can ONLY write about your own country… In fact – I’m not sure there’s even any Scots in the show. This is a hopeful sign that we’ll be an open-minded, inclusive, diverse place that won’t set everything on an 18th-Century croft FOREVER.

Some of the ‘dreamy’ music at the end is reminding me of ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ and ‘Return To The Forbidden Planet’ (for a few moments).

We almost got Ye Olde Political – there was a snippet of a speech meant to be read to the American Public in the Event of a Disaster that focuses on heroes, searching for new worlds, the night sky, mankind etc… and a informal speech about being lost at sea, drifting, risking death, the daytime… I wonder if that’s the take-home contrast – Yuri went from Russia to the vastness of space… the refugees went from the vastness of the ocean to Europe.

Blackout. Must put notebook quickly in bag and clap… I think… is it..? YES..! CLAP. (this is a recreation of thoughts in my head – I didn’t write this bit down).

So – I admired it. I liked it… I thought it was a tad dull but not worthy – since it was too friendly to get on its moral high-horse and spit accusations and statistics at us… which was nice… we all got tired of lectures… but that also meant it had no real bite.

It needs bite.

I heard a woman say it was ‘brilliant’ though… so the punters were happy.


I’m not sure where I came across this – but it’s a brilliant comparison of different story structures.