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Time to get this show back on the road…

Well, I’m sure it has been an extraordinary year for most of us, and for many of us a year of loss and sadness.  For me, it has been, mostly, a year of isolation – wait and see, restricted for much of it to my home due to my high vulnerability to COVID-19.  Unlike many of friends in the global South, I have had the benefit of vaccination and the support of a government (in Scotland, at least) somewhat more concerned with the lives and health of their population than others seem to have been in countries like Brazil and, until recently, the USA.

A year of isolation and retreat has, however, provided an opportunity to focus fairly on writing projects and some associated music and film-making ideas.  It has also provided the opportunity to provide some online mentoring and editorial support for other writers and projects.

So, as we come out of lock-down (again and at least temporarily), it’s time to get the show on the road again on so many levels.

The Asphalt City

Over the last 12 months, with the help and support, in particular, of Mary Armour, I’ve produced (and re-produced and finally produced) Threads, a novel set in Angola, Scotland, the USA and South Korea between 2005 and 2011.

It is the product of first-hand experience, deep research and, perhaps most challenging of all, a determined empathy for all its diverse characters.  

Working in Angolan oil & gas operations in 2005, I was struck by the fact that the ‘pilgrims’ depicted in Heart of Darkness (1899) were alive and well in the 21st Century.  But any reprise of Conrad’s novella of the present age, has to offer a polyphonous, multivalent account, giving voice, especially, to indigenous perspectives.  In Threads, Caliban’s much-maligned mother, Sycorax, confronts Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz with the consequences of his actions and demands a compensation greater than his death. 

Adopting terms from Portuguese, Kimbundu, Calão and Scots, the tale challenges reader-expectations as the point-of-view switches between colonised and colonist, woman and man, living and ‘dead’, unfolding in a shatter-zone of experience and memory.

I’ll be posting more thoughts on the development of this really challenging project over the next few weeks.

Remains of Piper Alpha 7th July 1988
Remains of Piper Alpha 7th July 1988

Also ready to roll is Pibroch – my spoken word show and poetry collection exploring parallels between the Climate Emergency and the Piper Alpha disaster which occurred in the North Sea in 1988.

Pibroch was originally conceived a one-person spoken word performance with accompanying music and visuals.  And it still is and can be!   The pressures of the last year have, however, driven the piece to be far more digital that might otherwise have been the case and it will be suitable for streaming as an installation as well as a performance.  This has been a great opportunity to learn new skills in film making and music production which have been integrated into my practice. 

There is a complementary collection currently in preparation. Publication of Pibroch by Red Squirrel Press is expected in 2021.

More information on some of the themes and practical issues with the development of Pibroch will be appearing on A View from the Long Grass over the next few weeks.  So watch this space!

Fallen Stock – Poetry for life not just for Xmas.

Still a few copies of my first poetry collection – Fallen Stock – available.  Signed copies can be bought direct from the Shop here or visit Red Squirrel Press for a wide range of great titles.

So, if someone in your life (or you) fancy a wee bit of “mixing the absurd with the sublime” (Maria Apichella) or “reality in all of its rough complexity.” (Katie Ailes) or even “blue collar muscularity”(Martin Malone)…or all three! 

Look no further.




Was a busy month. I haven’t been as attentive to this blog as I ‘should’ be…but, at my age, perhaps ‘should’ is a threadbare verb.

I’ve been very busy progressing two on-going projects.

Bass: a novel I started 12 years ago and, thanks to generous critical support from Martin Walsh, Mandy Haggith, Rae Cowie, Ashley Milne and especially Mary Armour, seems to be progressing towards a final-final draft.

Pibroch : a spoken word performance/ poetry collection for which I should acknowledge the support of Imogen Stirling, Hamish Napier, Aileen Ackland and Elizabeth Rimmer.

This has been a weird year (I am sure for all of us) but the opportunity to focus, at this point in my writing journey, on large and (I hope) important projects has been a blessing. As has the continuing support of such as rich and insightful variety of correspondents and critical friends.

Yes: perhaps these close ties would not have been forged in these unusual circumstances. But the power of these artistic friendships at this time has been invaluable.

Thank you all!

Some of the elements of Pibroch got their first ‘outing’ as part of the Geological Societies ‘Geopoetry 2020’ event this month. My thanks to Patrick Corbett, Norrie Bissell and all the other organisers. Sneak preview on @geolsoc YouTube channel 1hr 45m. Comments very welcome.

Return of WORD festival on the way.

Next week sees the return to the North East calendar of a dedicated literary festival with a great programme including some of my favourite contemporary writers including Eimear McBride, Leila Aboulela and Lemn Sissay.

Eimear McBride
Lemn Sissay

wayWORD runs from Wednesday 23rd September till Sunday, 27th, the new festival solves must of my ‘what will I do at the weekend?’ problems.

The festival has been devised and developed by students at Aberdeen University with support from festival director, Helen Lynch, but events are open to all, mirroring the style and emphasis of the annual WORD festivals hosted by the University until 2011. Great too to see the involvement of great local talent such as Mae Diansangu, Shane Strachan and Sheena Blackhall and space given to creative writing from across the region including work featured in Pushing Out the Boat and Leopard Arts.

Of course, in these times, most events are online so geography or lock-down status should be no issue. Register your interest in events at the site above and get it in your diary. Look forward to seeing you there.

P.S. Yes: I am reading in the Leopard Arts – Pushing Out the Boat event on Sunday evening.

NEOS 2019 Exhibition

Only two days left in my NEOS 2019 exhibition at Leith Hall.

Really exciting and inspiring event this year, sharing a space with cally Smith, Fiona Leask and Roselyne O’Neill. Over the last week we’ve had almost two hundred visitors and lots of interesting discussions on practice covering the range from watercolour and acrylic painting through woodcuts & engraving to MIG and TIG welding…and the finer points (sorry!) of damascene steel.

Looking forward to getting back to writing and making next week but with two days left to go…do come and see. And…in this fine late September weather, the countryside and the grounds are fine. And in the meantime, I’m making good progress on a set of woodcuts to complement my First Winter sequence of haiku. really good to get a solid run at work in one form and the process of ‘translation’ from poem to wash to woodcut to print is fascinating.

It’s that time of year again…

That orbital thing that happens when mass encounters space and spins…September almost on us.

Personally, it has been a difficult summer and an ‘interesting’ year. I’ve survived cancer when others, very close to my heart, haven’t. I’ve kept on keeping on…writing, painting and printing…developing my music. Discovering my new ‘place’ hear in Huntly.’s NEOS season again. This year I’m exhibiting in Leith Hall in excellent company with artists Roselyne O’Neill, Fiona Leask and Cally Smith. We’ll be part of the Strathbogie Trail (map below).

I have a range of new work and, of course, copies of Fallen Stock will be on sale. So..whether you’re interested in painting, prints or poetry…or all 3…come along and chat.

Open from the 14th and 23rd September (Closed Wednesday to go see everyone else!). Check out the many other venues and artists in the NEOS catalogue and website.

That man again..

It is Spring here in the Northern Hemisphere of planet Earth.  Yesterday I heard a lark sing.  The daffodils here are almost done.  Tulips come. There are buds on all the trees…and blossom on the plum.

Six months of chemotherapy ended at the beginning of March.  A long winter after the dark autumn of illness.  I am feeling better. Tired but better.

And I have been busy.  Busy launching my debut collection – Fallen Stock. Busy reading and meeting friends.  Busy getting ready to flow. Again. So thank you – to everyone who has helped me on this journey out of winter – to my family and my friends, my fellow artists & collaborators (also friends) , those who have come to readings and generously bought the book, those who have viewed my paintings.  Thank you to all the nurses, doctors, helpers and volunteers at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary & Doctor Grays and Huntly.

Now for the good bad news…I’m back.

Let it flow. Let it flow. Let it flow.

On a personal note.

2018 was an interesting year here in the long grass.

In the course of those 12 months I…

  • Moved out of our marital and family home of over 20 years
  • Finally found a place of my own in a place of my choosing
  • Built myself a working studio – almost single-handedly (though my sons had to rescue me now and then!)
  • Allowed myself to be diagnosed with small-cell lymphocytic lymphoma
  • Attended the wedding of one of my sons and his amazing partner.
  • Exhibited my paintings & prints both in my own studio (NEOS19) and in other venues (WorM, Moray Arts Centre)
  • Had some poems published and agreed a publication date for my collection – Fallen Stock
  • Embarked on 6 cycles of chemotherapy.

So…much is changed.  I could reflect on what I didn’t do – or maunder on about the works in progress (there are several) – but those seem important milestones for me.  As you can imagine, it was a year of slow ascents and sudden falls.

I had known about the ‘lump’ in my neck before all of this.  It was sitting there – swelling – but I was busy and besides, stuck as I have been for so many years, the burgeoning lump seemed like a bit of a get out clause.  Maybe it would all end and I’d be free?

But I was also sleeping 15 hours a day and the night-sweats were getting tedious.  I decided these symptoms were probably related to my mental health or my on-going struggle to control addiction.

Eventually, however, professional advice (a very astute dentist) prodded me to see a doctor.  The doctor assured me I did NOT have Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma but referred me to the hospital anyway.  The maxillo-facial consultants at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary very quickly assured me I DID have Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma – an indolent form known as Small-Cell Lymphocytic Lymphoma (SLL) or Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (the terms are interchangeable).

For a while I thought I was going to die.

I was a bit miffed that my cancer was indolent – I hated the idea that anything to do with me could be seen as indolent!  It is currently incurable.  It’s a slow burn thing that will weaken me over years and then, like any ailing creature, something else will kill me.  But, for now at least, it is not painful or disfiguring.  And I realised, as I began to navigate through waiting rooms and day-units, that that was a blessing compared to many others.

I am not going to die – for a while.

Thanks to modern medical technology and the excellent health-care at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and Dr. Grays Hospital in Elgin – both NHS and free at the point of delivery – I will, they assure me, get better for a while. Be better.

After five cycles of Fludarabine-Cyclophosphamide-Rituximab chemotherapy, my many ‘lumps’ have shrunk and two weeks out of four I feel quite well.  My hair has NOT fallen out and I haven’t caught any secondary infections.  The anti-emetics I have been prescribed seem to manage the nausea of the first week of each cycle.  Again, I have had a fairly easy time compared to many others I now meet on a monthly basis.

That camaraderie – which is not much more than a nod, a smile and, often, a ‘Good luck!’- is important.  Just as with addiction recovery groups, I think it’s important to be there – to acknowledge to yourself and others, “I am one of us.  I am like you.  I am mortal.  I am suffering.  We persevere.”

How we laughed when hospital radio played Don’t Fear the Reaper last month!

So where is this moment of disclosure going – this brief glimpse of me as I cross the path between two thickets? 

This Spring I will be reborn and there will be things to do – things of my choosing, in this place of my choosing.

“I am one of us.  I am like you.  I am mortal.  I am suffering.  We persevere.”

John Bolland – First Solo Art Exhibition

Painting & prints hung and labelled. Studio clean and (fairly) tidy. Signage out. What have we missed? First-timer at North East Open Studios #NEOS but looking forward to my first #OpenStudio.

Thanks to all the NEOS team & members for their excellent organisation and constant encouragement and to those who’ve helped in the set-up and preparation for the event. . A variety of landscape, still life and abstract paintings and prints in a variety of media – my best work over the last 2 years.. But it only works if you come…

Open from Saturday at 12. Venue #29 – North East Open Studios. Most of the art on show can be previewed on the Visual Arts page for this site.

New Realism and the Anthropocene

I have become increasingly aware of the use of the term, Anthropocene in debate around human impacts of the Earth’s systems and processes whilst recent developments in philosophy speak of a New Realism, opposing itself to Post-Modernism. It is a problem, after all, what comes after Modernism (for we are all Modern) and then what comes after Post-Modernism? But a characteristic of New Realism, as articulated by thinkers such as Mauricio Ferraris, is a recovery of experience and stuff – facts if you will – from the web of interpretation and deconstruction associated with Post-Modernism and Constructivism. Stuff exists. Experience occurs, independent of the science or ideology by which we categorise and describe it. Ontology is distinct from Epistemology.

We can’t be post-fact because the facts just won’t go away.

is less ice. The world is warmer. The storms grow more frequent and more intense. This is experienced.

In a 2015 paper in Nature, Lewis and Maslin wrestle with the scientific challenge of assigning a start date to the Anthropocene. A point in time when humans definitely began to make a mark of Earth’s biological and geological systems. Their method is to seek a geological global signature, a record in the ‘rock’ which can be unequivocally connected to human history and practices – gases trapped in ice-cores, lake bed sediments, a fossil record.

They dismiss the point of coflexion in global methane levels at the beginning of the Neolithic (8000 BPE) as too vague, favouring instead the minimum CO2 levels around 1610 associated with the Colombian Exchange, the death through contagion of 55 million native Americans (90% of the pre-1492 population) and the consequent rewilding of the Americas. It satisfies the criteria, providing an unequivocal signature associated with a clear biophysical event – the arrival in the Americas of migrants from Europe and, subsequently, Asia and Africa.

Other signature points follow – the great acceleration in CO2 levels associated with the industrial burning of fossil fuels, the nuclear fallout from weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s – but 1610 is the first unequivocal blip that ‘fits the science’.

And here we enter the entanglement of interpretation. The numbers who died in the Americas at that time are informed inferences, the processes of rewilding of previously cultivated land and the associated take up of CO2 in forests is an interpretation of known patterns and processes. Those who deny the significance of human agency challenge the interpretation – deny the experience – but CO2 did dip (look at the ice cores) – millions died – look at the Aztec codexes. The social interpretation of these experiences – as a tragic accident or God’s will or a civilising mission or a vile act of plunder and destruction are texts, stories, social constructs – but death by small pox or exhaustion or gunshot wound are experiential facts and those individual experiences accumulated – like the germination and burgeoning of trees – engender shifts in reality – shifts in what is real.

Of course, human agency has been impactive from the beginning.

Humans burn forests. It’s the thing we do that no other species does – we burn things.

Humans selectively breed other species to meet their needs, rebalance numbers, exterminate competitors.

Our regional and local impacts can be traced to the Neolithic and before. Debate around whether the Anthropocene begins in 1610 or 8000BPE or 150,000 BPE are matters of cultural fine tuning set against the qualitative fact that humans are a major – and the only sentient – drivers of biophysical change on the planet.

It is believed that the Earth’s potential for life – net primary productivity – remains relatively constant over time. Stuff grows – be it cycads, conifers, jellyfish or salmon, humans or cockroaches. This resides in the balance and circulation of energy and nutrients within the biophysical system. At the moment it is estimated humans have appropriated between 25% and 38% of all primary productivity for our own use. We are – or control for our own purposes – one third of the biosphere. How can we not impact the unfolding of biophysical processes? How can we deny the reality of the Anthropocene?

Science – yes, modern science – has sharpened our interpretative awareness of experience in deep time. We experience the moment and have means of imagining experience and processes over the longue duree. And of imagining the future too. Understanding that the path of evolution, the events and instances, may be unpredictable, with unexpected tipping points and feedbacks, still we can imagine the direction of travel and the lack of resilience of our current social practices.

So this is where we get to the ART bit. The need for new stories. Realistic stories. Factual stories. Stories which acknowledge that the earth is currently in an epoch which we can think of as The Anthropocene and that that epoch will not end suddenly. That we must find a way to continue to live in and through the Anthropocene if we are all to live at all. And that, as the primary sentient change agent in the biophysical system, it is incumbent on us to have a good story, a narrative, a plan which recognises the experiential fact of our impulse to persist, sustain, procreate, survive.

To be continued in Imagining the Late Anthropocene
Imagining the Late Anthropocene