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News / Wordplay 2017: ‘an amazing literary party’

American roots music band The Stray Birds entertained the crowds at Mareel on Saturday night. The band is also hosting songwriting masterclass on Sunday afternoon in the Carnegie Hall in Sandwick, part of the Wordplay book festival, followed by an acoustic gig at the same venue. Photo: Dale Smith

THIS weekend’s book festival Wordplay promises plenty of inspiration and entertainment for local readers.

Shetland Arts, in conjunction with festival curator Karen Cunningham, has managed to attract a number of top authors to give talks and readings over the next four days

Most of these will take place at Mareel in Lerwick but there are also sessions at the Shetland Library and Bonhoga, as well as a dialect concert in the Aith hall.

The full Wordplay programme can be found at https://www.shetlandarts.org/our-work/festivals/wordplay

Shetland News will be reporting from the annual book festival in the form of a blog, taking in as many events as we possibly can.



Review: Places in darkness – Christopher Brookmyre

Although now presented in a newly shortened, four-day format, following a one-year hiatus, Shetland Arts 16th Wordplay festival nevertheless packed a great deal into its more compact, but still extremely busy and very diverse programme – a programme once again liberally peppered throughout with well-known and notable personalities, helping maintain the quality offered up on previous occasions by Shetland’s annual literary smorgasbord.

And so, on Sunday night, after four frenetic days under the curating control of Karen Cunningham – former head of Glasgow Libraries – and encompassing everything from Hedderwick to Hip-Hop, it falls to award winning, million-selling Scottish novelist/crime-writer Christopher Brookmyre to bring down the curtain on Wordplay 2017.

Brookmyre, often referred to as a ‘Tartan Noir’ author and who, since the publication of his first novel Quite Ugly One Morning twenty years ago, has become one of the UK’s leading crime novelists thanks to fictional characters such as investigative journalist Jack Parlabane and counter-terrorism officer Angelique de Xavia, among others, is making a return visit to the festival, this time to promote his new book Places in Darkness.

Set on a huge space-city, 100,000 miles from earth at some point in the not-so-distant future, it features two disparate ‘buddy cops’ Alice Blake, a prodigious law professor and Nicky Freeman, also known as Nicky ‘Fix’, who Brookemyre describes as a “gloriously corrupt” former LA cop, incorporating science fiction into his crime writing.

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In doing so transports the reader into an alternative reality and headlong – in more ways than one – into some very dark places indeed, examining human philosophy and consciousness along the way.

Introduced by host Chris Dolan who terms him “unclassifiable”, and describes his new novel as “a thrilling rush of a book”, it’s immediately easy to see why many of Brookmyre’s novels also contain liberal elements of comedy, he initially launches into what’s virtually a stand-up comedy routine, ahead of taking a more serious line while reading from and providing a clinical insight into the complexities of his new book.

A thoroughly engaging, enlightening and entertaining hour is rounded off by him reading a humorous short story he’d written for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games cultural programme – one of a series of short stories penned by various Scottish writers on the set subject of the Kelvingrove Gardens bandstand – his one being entitled Puck Knows.

The tale surrounds the somewhat reluctant visit of a group of Glasgow schoolchildren to the bandstands amphitheatre to witness a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with all the hilarious and ultimately magical consequences which occur as a result of that.

Brookmyre’s overall approach ensures that the old adage which advises “leave them laughing and wanting more” certainly applies here, and makes for a very suitable ending to another clearly successful Wordplay festival.

(Davie Gardner)

 Review: The many voices of Liz Lochhead

Curator of this year’s festival, Karen Cunningham, introduced Liz Lochhead as being the “top of the list” of writers she had asked local folk who they would like to appear at Wordplay 2017.

It’s no wonder. Liz Lochhead, Scots Makar from 2011 to 2016, has been an inspiration for other women writers (e.g., Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy). As the latter points out in her introduction to Liz’s selected poems Choosing, a 1980s painting entitled Poets’ Pub featured only men: that thankfully couldn’t happen now – thanks to Liz.

Liz introduced her readings by explaining that her “many voices” meant that the word ‘I’ should not always be taken by the reader/listener to be literally the author. Sometimes indeed the poem itself may be the first person singular…

Or it could be a deep pool in a river or stream, enticing and cajoling a man to “clench and come into me.”(What the Pool Said, on Midsummer’s Day).

And then there was the Milngavie/Joyce Grenfell persona in Meeting Norma Nimmo, in which suicides and breakdowns are related graciously if somewhat dismissively, in a very genteel manner. (And nae doot you’ll be the next to be related my dear).

And more recently the Dirty Diva duet: in which we were introduced (or at least I was) to two new delightful words and phrases – penetralia and salsa geriatrica.

And in spite of, or because of this, what Liz Lochhead has, “coming from the library/ with my arms full of books” (The Choosing) is a unique ‘haemly’ voice, one we’d be glad to hear and answer to warmly in the but-end afore the fire. Not for her the poet’s or bard’s frippery, in a cold court of royalty.

Mind you, her account of her Buckingham Palace encounter – when she received the Queen’s Medal for Poetry – was hilarious. That other Liz, H. M., confided that she and her sister Margaret were reduced to a fit of giggles in the poetry-reading presence of luminaries like the “nondescript” T. S. Eliot and the “not-nondescript” Dame Edith Sitwell.

Liz Lochhead has always participated with other artists, and one should not forget her abilities as a playwright (and translator) either. She finished her reading with a Spoken Song, written for the forthcoming Spirit of Light solstice cathedral concerts, to be performed with saxophonist Tommy Smith and singer Kurt Elling.

“These are the shortest days and the endless nights,” she quotes from her friend and contemporary Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. But the hope of renewal, the light in the cradle, endure. This is Liz’s message to us all.

(James Mackenzie)

Review: Donald Murray & Marion Sinclair in conversation

Lewis-born, Shetland-based Donald Murray is well known for his poetry, short stories and extensive writing on islands, their life, culture, seabirds, and most recently, herring. His love, and affinity with island communities and their inhabitants, has ensured international recognition for his award-winning work.

On Sunday he met with Marion Sinclair, chief executive of Publishing Scotland to discuss his life and career. In a cosy, intimate interview Murray read excerpts from his work, captivating his audience, he held the crowd in suspense as his tale unfolded.

Whilst discussing his highly-acclaimed book The Guga Hunters, Murray said: “I don’t write about birds, I use birds as a way of writing about people and communities.”

Published in 2008, Murray explores how the inhabitants of Ness in Lewis still depend on the guga, or young gannets, as part of both culture and diet, in stark contrast to the rest of Britain who gave up eating seabirds 100 years ago.

Speaking about his inspiration, Murray said that “every island has a different feel” and has influenced his writing in different ways. Lewis, he says, is a natural place for a short story and his first poetry was written in Uist; Shetland on the other hand, saw the emergence of the non-fiction writing which has dominated his career in recent years.

Explaining that he writes in English, rather than Gaelic because, as an islander, living on the periphery, “we were taught to devalue and diminish our culture” he questioned the way in which islanders allow outsiders to become their cultural voice.

Perhaps Murray’s greatest appeal as a writer is his skills as a raconteur, a trait picked up by the fireside, as a youth listening as his elders recalled stories from the past. This feeling was emanated by Murray in the auditorium of Mareel. His next book about peat The Dark Stuff is due to be published 5 April next year.

(Laurie Goodlad)



Buzzfeed UK special correspondent and former Guardian reporter James Ball was joined by Herald journalist Marianne Taylor and Shetland Times editor Adam Civico to discuss Ball’s new book Post-Truth. How bullshit news conquered the the world, on Saturday afternoon.


Katie Morag author Mairi Hedderwick hosted two session on Saturday morning, one a storytelling session for her younger fans, the second aimed at a more grown up audience. Laurie Goodlad went to both:

Review: Entering the wonderful world of Katie Morag

Growing up surrounded by the work of Mairi Hedderwick meant that Katie Morag, Liam and the Big Boy Cousins were well known characters in our house, as was Granny Island and the other characters on the fictional Island of Struay. So when given the chance to meet the woman who created this much loved childhood character, how could I refuse?

Forty years since her initial conception, Katie Morag, who needs no introduction, still manages to capture the imaginations of both children and adults alike. Saturday was no exception, as Mairi Hedderwick delivered to a full auditorium of children and adults at Mareel.

Hedderwick who started out as an illustrator after graduating from the Edinburgh College of Art spoke about the process of writing and illustrating her well known children’s books.

She reminded her audience to follow their dreams, stating that as a “little girl I used to love drawing and painting, in any spare minute I had”.

Asked by one of the younger members who Katie Morag was based on, Hedderwick eluded that the fictitious character may have been based on her younger self.

Raising her family on the island of Coll, Hedderwick used her environment, and her own children, as inspiration for the much loved stories. It is clear that Katie Morag’s popularity continues into another generation!

Review: Shetland Rambles

On Saturday afternoon, Mairi Hedderwick continued to take Mareel under her illustrative prowess as she met with Mary Blance to discuss her publication Shetland Rambles: A Sketching Tour which first hit the shelves in 2011.

Delivered to an altogether more sedate crowd compared to the earlier Katie Morag following, an easy approach was taken as Blance travelled with Hedderwick and uncovered the inspiration, both people and place and the authors personal thoughts on tourism in her illustrated “book for grown ups”.

Following (literally) in the footsteps of Victorian author and artist John T Reid, Hedderwick takes the reader on a thought provoking journey through the parishes, and through the centuries.

With one toe bedded in the 19th century, the reader is frequently transported through time to the Shetland which Reid encountered in his 1867 book, Art Rambles in Shetland.

The reader is then lulled out of the Victorian era and brought bang up-to-date, as Hedderwick journeys along his path recounting what she found and the people she met.

The book is beautifully illustrated with sketches and a humorous, upbeat narrative. It was further brought to life this afternoon as the duo discussed the trials and tribulations faced along the way, from “bossy teacher publishers”, unreliable Landrovers and troublesome bonxies – to whom the book is humorously dedicated to!

(Laurie Goodlad)




Described as ‘avant-garde noisemakers’ NEU! Reekie! (a spoken word project led by poets Kevin Williamson and Michael Pederson) took the stage at Mareel on Friday night. They were supported by some well-known local poets and hip-hop band Stanley Odd.


FROM supermum Judy Murray on Thursday night to a poem where every beat began with the ‘F’ word, an animation of a bus driver getting her jollies from phallic gear sticks and a Scottish hip-hop group…

Friday night of Wordplay was unusual but invigorating, and it saw Edinburgh based collective NEU! Reekie! – led by poet duo Kevin Williamson and Michael Pedersen – visit Shetland for the first time.

They bring together contemporary spoken word, animation and music and its visit to Mareel was likely to be one of the more out-there events Wordplay has ever hosted.

Pedersen told the sparse but intrigued crowd that their shows were like a “selection box” – but with “no shiters” in it.

Williamson kicked off with the poem Evidently Edinburgh – a profanity-laced ode to his adopted home city – while a film from Jenni Fagan about the Bangour psychiatric hospital in West Lothian struck a haunting chord with a dedication to those lost in its 556 unmarked graves.

Shetlander Roseanne Watt impressed with poetry backed by wistful acoustic guitar, often delving headfirst into local dialect, while islander Jen Hadfield rallied through a collection of thoughtful poems touching on subjects like limpets, hares, garden gates, a magnificent manure pile and even more limpets.

There were short films peppered throughout, kind of like an odd stream of consciousness YouTube browsing session, from an quirky Polish clip with hordes of people on loop to an excellent Oscar-winning animated short about consumerism.

It was up to the often masterful hip-hoppers Stanley Odd to close the night, with frontman Dave Hook lording the stage with musing rhymes, raps and a right rollicking good time.

It felt the enveloping rock beats and electronic flourishes were largely lost on a half-full seated venue, though, with the quintet giving it their all but receiving little energy in return.

You would imagine a headline gig in their own right across the road at the more intimate Legion with no bums-on-seats would prove far more fruitful than a slot at a well-behaved literature festival.

Nevertheless, politically charged tunes like Who Am I? touched on the Scottish Independence referendum and the concept of national identity, while final track It’s All Gone To Fuck ruminated on the state of the world.

By the end of their set Hook and his crew had the crowd – well, the more excitable punters in the audience – singing the title line from the last song with gusto, sure to leave the more austere ticket-holders a little red-faced.

Neu! Reekie! proved to be a bonafide smorgasbord of content that was at times a little confusing, yet wholly stimulating. Perhaps, like some of the best art should be.

(Chris Cope)



Review of Friday night’s Shetland FirWirds concert:

Friday’s concert in Aith hall was much appreciated by a receptive audience and featured a mixture of Shetland dialect material, serious and humorous, traditional and modern. The programme, organised by Shetland ForWirds, highlighted the oral storytelling tradition, the work of Shetland writers in prose, poetry and song, and another local tradition often over-looked – writing humorous sketches.

Ewen Balfour was a genial compere, and Eunice Henderson and four of her young fiddle pupils provided some great music.

Davy Cooper was in top storytelling form, especially in the story of the black deuks. Laureen Johnson read a shortened version of a lightsome story written by George P.S. Peterson, and obviously enjoyed it!

James Sinclair is always good to listen to, whether reading his own poems or those of others, and here he did both, leading off with Jack Peterson’s Seine Netters and finishing with two of his own dialect translations of modern poems in English.

Marie Williamson writes and sings her own strong, thoughtful contemporary songs, and was beautifully backed up by Alan Mackay and Nathan Leask. Compelling listening.

Finally, the very amusing Ronas Drama Group sketch, written by Margaret Anderson, took the form of a dialect quiz, compered by a non-dialect speaker who was a living example of the danger of putting stress on the wrong part of a word. The redoubtable panel member fae Whalsa caused a lot of hilarity especially among the Whalsa members of the audience!

A relaxed and enjoyable night ended with some enthusiastic dancing to Alan Nicolson’s Dance band.



One of the highlights on Friday was the talk of Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee and former director of public reporting at the Audit Commission, David Walker, who introduced their new book Dismembered.


One of the most telling examples Polly Toynbee gave of the dismembering of public services was that of Environmental Health Officers in Huntingdonshire. Funding has been cut by one third. Inspections of restaurants and fast food outlets have become less and less, and more rushed. But there is a twist, which Polly referred to as a “game” which has to be played in order to keep up appearances. ‘Category A’ (dodgy) establishments are subject to quarterly inspections; the frequency has not been reduced, which seems laudable, but the number of those in Category A has decreased – and not because of improved hygiene.

David Walker highlighted the effect that the reduction of rural bus services has had in Shropshire. Daily buses, once provided by the local council, are no more; there is now just one a week, with a quick turnaround, run by volunteers. The ability of folk living in the villages surrounding their nearest town to access essential services, and indeed to overcome any sense of isolation, has been drastically cut.

In urban and disadvantaged areas, children’s centres, proudly introduced by Labour, are disappearing. As David emphasised, social capital – the ability of all common people to participate constructively and enjoyably in their society – is being destroyed.

The authors are convincing in their argument that this era of austerity is a deliberate project by the Tory government to “roll back the state”, and in this it is going further than Margaret Thatcher ever did. As one audience member pointed out, even the disabled (who used to be deemed “the deserving poor”) are being targeted.

Many of the cuts are hidden from general view. Brexit provides a convenient and dishonest cover for its proponents; for the irony is that all that stuff about “more control over our affairs” (e.g. immigration) cannot be effected because the necessary public sector resources for such control are no longer there.

Asked if she remains optimistic in what appear to be doom-laden times, Polly said she felt the pendulum was just about to swing back towards a more generous society.

That may be. However, I’m left wondering: if British social attitudes tend to swing to the left after long periods of right-wing governments, and then vice-versa, how can there be a fundamental and (if we believe in progress) irreversible improvement in social capital?

(James Mackenzie) 





The festival was kicked off by one of Scotland’s most inspiring celebrities, Judy Murray, mother of tennis stars Andy and Jamie Murray. Ahead of her talk about her first book Knowing the Score, she gave Shetland News a short interview.



Judy Murray, mother to Scotland’s tennis playing superstars Andy and Jamie Murray, served the opening ace of this year’s Shetland Arts ‘Wordplay’ festival, drawing a large crowd to Mareel – Shetland’s very own cultural centre court – to hear her relate the remarkable inside story behind her new book Knowing the Score: My Family and our Tennis Story.

In it she looks at her own sporting and coaching career, and candidly unveils the trials, tribulations, ups, downs, set-backs and successes surrounding her part in the boys’ individual routes to becoming world number ones, and various Grand Slam champions, in their respective tennis disciplines – singles for Andy and doubles / mixed doubles for Jamie.

“Thank God they both had different playing styles and skills so weren’t competing against each other,” she laughs, “That does wonders for family harmony I can assure you.”

Most perhaps know Murray as the omni-present, often studiously serious and vigorously motivated celebrity mum, supporting her sons on the international tennis circuit, and possibly more for her appearances on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing than being the skilled, accomplished tennis player, international tennis coach and even ex Federation Cup captain she is in her own right.

On Thursday night, she largely dispels the stone-faced, ‘tiger mum’ image the media often labels her with, instead coming across as affable, caring, grounded, passionate about what she does and, yes, humorous too.

Here, and in the book, she enlightens us as to her own tennis and coaching career; the challenges, financial stresses, disappointments and exhilarating successes associated with helping her sons ultimately achieve their sporting ambitions; the horrors of the Dunblane High School shooting tragedy (both sons were there that day); gender inequality and prejudices in the sporting world and so much more besides.

“It’s been a huge adventure for us, “she says. “I decided long ago that life is precious, and you should live every moment and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Game set and match Mrs Murray!

(Davie Gardner)


Shetland’s 16th annual book festival Wordplay was opened by curator Karen Cunningham during a short ceremony in the upper cafe at Mareel late on Thursday afternoon.

Karen, a founder of the Aye Write! Glasgow’s Book Festival, speaks about what she has brought to the local festival as well talking about some of the big names coming up over the next days.

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