The Honour of Russian Seamen

At the old Leith Academy in Edinburgh, which is currently being converted into apartments, students had to walk round the corridors in one direction. God alone could help you if you were caught walking in the other direction.

The ladies adviser made girls stand with their hands out palms up, and if she could see the underneath of any nails, she would cut them with a large pair of scissors carried for this purpose, before sending the unfortunate girl to the janitor’s office for a brush and pan to sweep up the clippings. Fifth and sixth year girls were not allowed out of school grounds when Russian ships were in docks so as not to entice the seamen. I don’t know why only the Russian sailors posed such a threat; perhaps the school was worried about the spread of communism? Fourth and third year girls were considered safe to leave the grounds because they were younger and therefore not attractive to a crew of hearty seamen.

In some freak arrangement between the local education system and the master of Leith Docks, girls who were learning Russian at the Academy were taken down to the docks on a Saturday morning by the French and the Russian masters so they could converse with real Russians. Just try and picture that today.


Hello sailor...whoops..privet moryak
Hello sailor…whoops..privet moryak

i, Note

Tidying up on my phone I realised I haven’t used the Note function for about 16 months. I have phone numbers for a Lorraine, a Jason and a Norman. Who the hell is Norman? There are the vital statistics of my godson, including his full name, date of birth and a reading list. 16 months ago he was reading HP and the Chamber of Secrets, and his brother was into the Radio 4 quiz show Just a Minute.

There are numerous licence plate numbers of vehicles who have done me wrong; shopping lists, and a 10 year plan which simply states: Money. Writing.

There are cryptic notes clearly intended to provide the inspiration for a novel and a note made during the launch for James Robertson‘s latest book The Professor of Truth in which, after listening to a stupid man ask a stupid question, I decide that readers should be imagined and never allowed to speak to an author. There is a poetic lament that James Robertson always makes me feel like a shit Scot, and half a recipe for courgette soup.

note to self

The Log of Consciousness

Taking nearly all the magic out of writing, researchers in New York have developed an algorithm to determine if you have written a best seller. Or not, as is more often the case.

This procedure for ‘calculating’ a bestseller looks at the correlation between writing style and commercial success. Not surprisingly the research began at Project Gutenberg with the success of the novel determined by the number of downloads. Less successful novels relied on Amazon’s sales ranking, and The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown was included because of the sheer weight of negative critical evaluation in spite of its enormous commercial success.

The study found the more successful a novel, the lower its readability factor, which not only makes me  hope I never write a bestseller, but also makes me worry about the number of downloads of ‘Taken by the T-Rex’ by Christie Sims. I can only hope this epic 17 page novel about a woman having sex with a dinosaur didn’t skew the math.  (For the fashion conscious, the book cover does confirm the bikini was invented during the Cretaceous period).

I’m not sure how to apply this algorithm to my writing. I have a much more basic shit-from-shinola methodology. I write something, wait a few days, go back and see if I like it. I usually don’t.  So I rewrite. The problem is I can do this indefinitely, which means I write the same 1,000 words over and over, and produce very little.

First drafts are supposed to be shit. You need to get something on paper to mould, to hack at, or like a parent to fuck up.  For a writer it’s a very liberating concept, though I still find first drafts difficult. They embarrass me. They are often so removed from what I was trying to say that I wonder what’s wrong with me. And then I have a glass of wine. Even when I write something I like, I know I will change it in a couple of days.

I was speaking with a producer for BBC Radio 4 who explained when she writes, she thinks about the one person who will be so moved, so interested, so excited by the show that her fear of writing simply does not enter the equation. For her, this focus helps take off the pressure. When I write I think about a panel of Man Booker judges and Harold Bloom. This makes me sit with a pen poised above the paper crying.

I have never been entirely sure what an algorithm is; I think I had one once with tonic, but it might have been integral calculus with coke. Luckily I had a dream, about how to be a great writer. You had to sleep for a whole night balanced on the Log of Consciousness. If you made it through to morning without falling off you were a writer. No math, no drafts and no bestsellers; just uncanny balance and determination.




Currently Reading…


…What we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

One of the brilliant things about the Book Festival is the opportunity it allows to discover new writers. Nathan Englander is one such writer for me. He chaired the Writer’s Conference event about Style vs Content, with Ali Smith as the keynote speaker. They formed a formidable duo.

I later saw Nathan with his friend and fellow writer Junot Diaz, chaired by the brilliant Stuart Kelly. Junot is a favoured writer of mine and it was a thrill to listen to three very smart, very funny men in discussion.

July Budget – the one before the Book Festival


It would be wrong of me to tell you I blew my budget for July by the twelfth day. What would be more accurate is that I snuck up behind my budget and violently pressed a wad of tissues drenched in chloroform to its mouth while simultaneously slicing its Achilles tendons so it would fall at my feet. Then I heaved it into the trunk of my car where I proceeded to beat it with a baseball bat. Next I drove it to the top of an abandoned quarry and drop-kicked it into the murky depths. Cos that’s how I roll. Now send money because I know where you live….