Tag Archives | Edinburgh

Seeking inspiration

In the world of business writing you’ll find plenty of objectives, measures and rationale. Sometimes they even sit alongside insights, research and objectives. And they always come with deadlines. But I’ve rarely found much creative inspiration.

Little wonder really when you think about how hard it is to measure and quantify. What’s the ROI of a book? How much value did watching that film bring to the project? What’s the cost per idea ratio?

Creative inspiration can’t be easily quantified and defies attempts to render it into the boxes of a spreadsheet.

And yet, it’s that spark, that different way of looking at things, that new metaphor that my marketing customers are searching for and hope that creative teams will supply.

As a writer, its almost as hard for me to quantify its importance in terms of how it makes me feel or inspires me to think and write. Except to say that it is.

Performers at the Edinburgh Fringe festival

And that’s why I make an effort to seek it out, enjoy it and expect nothing from it. Yet it’s proved its worth beyond measure.

My yearly trips to the Edinburgh Book Festival are a liberal dousing of inspiration. The speakers, events and readings a rich seam, along with travelling there to take in the sights, sounds and general hullaballoo of the fringe – a huge outpouring of creative energy.

Art, theatre, cinema, music, travel, nature – these have all supplied inspiration in their time. And when all else fails I’ll read. Stories will never fail me.

On Sunday, I went to hear Simon Armitage at the Durham Book festival. He was talking about and reading from his latest prose work, based on walking part of the South West coast, relying on strangers for food and lodging and giving poetry readings at his stopping points. Themes of journey and return. Of language and experience. Of travelling in the landscape, encountering strangers. Of simultaneously craving company and wanting to be alone.

I filled a page of my notebook with phrases and filled my head with even more thoughts and ideas which may spark and grow. What will become of them, it’s too early to say. Even when I write I may not realise that’s where the idea came from.

But I was able to thank Simon Armitage for helping me find a way in to a piece of personal writing. I first encountered his poem ‘Not the Furniture Game’ http://www.simonarmitage.com/kid.html on a Dark Angels course. It’s a striking, harsh and rich piece in its own right, and when  used as a loose framework for our own creative writing, produced deep, emotional responses. It’s an exercise I’ve repeated on subsequent courses, with different objects, and it’s always bubbled up beautiful, touching and expressive images.

It helped me find a way into a personal piece I was finding impossible to write. When draft after draft nothing fit, everything sounded trite and cliched, I used the structure and exercise to unlock a way in. Sometimes that’s all it takes – a nudge in the right direction.

This weekend I’m off to Wordstock for another dose of inspiration. A journey, the fellowship of fellow writers, and a chance to listen and enjoy a range of different talks and sessions. Last time, it inspired the amazing 26 Under a Northern Sky collection.

Where do you find your creative inspiration?

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Festival inspiration

I spent a couple of days in Edinburgh recently, enjoying the Book and Fringe Festival. It’s become a regular part of my summer to spend a couple of days there, and I always wish I could stay longer and see more.

I picked some wonderful events at the Book Festival this year. There was an event I was interested in just about every day, but I cherry-picked those that would allow me to travel there and back in a day and made the most of the days I was there.

Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh

Phillipa Gregory, who writes historical fiction, and is most well known for The Other Boleyn Girl was an interesting and intelligent speaker. She immerses herself in history, taking around a year to research each novel.

Listening to her made me reflect how much of my own knowledge of history comes from reading fiction, rather than academic works. I reckon Jane Austen taught me as much about Regency England and its manners as Charles Dickens educated me about social inequalities in Victorian London.

These places and time periods become very real to me through the fictions of the time. And that continues into the modern day, with writers like Ian Rankin showing contemporary Scotland through the eyes of Rebus and Malcolm Fox.

Philippa Gregory admitted that she didn’t read historical fiction, saying “I read history, so you don’t have to.” Her work has certainly helped me understand the Wars of the Roses better than any text book ever did. She also revealed how inspiration for her book The Other Boleyn Girl came from reading about Tudor shipbuilding and finding a reference to a ship called the Mary Boleyn. Proving that no research is ever wasted, she finally got to write about those Tudor ships in her latest book.

But my trip wasn’t all history and fiction. I spent a very educational hour in the tent with David Crystal. David is a linguist and well known for his many books on the English language. His text books formed the core of my English Language studies at University.

We would be a much poorer culture had those wayfarers not persisted in going beyond the next horizon.

He was talking about accent and dialect and some of the wonderful lost dialect words in the English language. As with most people who are enthusiastic and really know their subject well, he was amusing, entertaining and taught his audience something new. He was assisted by his son, Ben, an actor, and together, discussing accents, they made a great comic double act.

I left feeling just as excited about their non fiction work as I did about the piles of fictional books I longed to take home from the bookshop. Since I came back, I’ve always had a book on the go, and find myself seeking out time to return to their pages.

As always, I was inspired by my visit to Edinburgh. I think that’s important, to have people and places that encourage me to look beyond my every day experience and to fire up an interest in learning more. Reading provides fuel for the brain and in Edinburgh at the book festival I am surrounded by fellow readers and inspired by writers. It feels like I am with my tribe.

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Words are part of the landscape

Walter Scott quote: "Love will subsist on wonderfully little ope, but not altogether without it"

I have travel on my mind at the moment. Unlike many, I’m not planning on jetting off on a summer holiday soon, but I am planning a few day trips, including time in Edinburgh.

In a couple of weeks’ time, I’ll be indulging myself at the Book Festival, and the Fringe. I have tickets for a few events and for the rest, will take the approach of turning up to see what I can get into.

I love spending time in Edinburgh. It’s far enough away to feel like an adventure, but not so far that I’m in danger of jet lag. There always feels like there’s lots to see, do and explore, no matter how many times I’ve visited. I generally walk my feet off getting from place to place.

I really enjoy the way the city wears its literature. It’s inescapable. From the Writer’s Museum to the Storytelling Centre; from the book festival to literary walking tours and pub crawls, you cannot avoid the fact that this is a Unesco City of Literature.

Many locations, street names and areas are familiar to me from reading. From Walter Scott to Alexander McCall Smith, Muriel Spark to JK Rowling, it’s been home and inspiration to many writers.

Decorative window poem in Edinburgh

When I step off the train at Waverley, I half imagine I’ll meet some of their characters as I explore. I swear one day, I’ll see Rebus somewhere about town.

Even if you were unaware of its literary connections, words pour out onto the streets. You’ll find them etched on buildings, woven into window frames and hidden among the street furniture. It’s like a secret code that speaks to readers like me. It makes me smile as I encounter a poem that others pass by and never notice.

My last visit there introduced me to a beautiful poem, November Night by Scottish writer Norman MacCaig, that I discovered on the side of a planter. In the height of a Scottish summer, it reminded me of the realities of its winter.

Here is the first verse, which I craned my neck to read on the street:

“The night tinkles like ice in glasses.
Leaves are glued to the pavement with frost.
The brown air fumes at the shop windows,
Tries the doors, and sidles past.”

I wish more cities did this kind of thing. Poetry as part of the landscape is far more appealing than when it’s stuffed into study books. It’s unlikely that I’d have found this verse and its companions if I hadn’t chanced upon it. And I feel richer for it.

As I visit again this summer, I’ll be on the look out for more words on the street.

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A trip to the Edinburgh festival 2012

Living statues at Edinburgh Festival

Performers taking a break from the festival

Another weekend filled with sights, sounds and sensations. Pipes and fiddles, clogs and choirs, Edwardian style magicians with mutton chops to outdo Bradley Wiggins, a flutter of silk kimono and fans, a madame de pompadour living statue taking a break and enjoying a glass of wine with a man with a seagull on his head. Only at the Edinburgh Festival.

I took the early train north, settled in to enjoy my book and the scenery and arrived in plenty of time for a fast and friendly parkrun. It was a glorious morning on the prom, bright, sunny and barely a breath of wind.  I set off with a couple of running pals but soon dropped back to a more measured pace.

When we turned, the bright morning sun hit my face and the heat rose, turning the air hot and dry and set me longing for the shade of the trees at the end of the run. Still I pushed on and reeled in as best I could and when I could finally see the finish line I put the hammer down and sprinted for it. Bright red and breathless, my exertions got me noticed.

After coffee and scones at the nearby cafe, I walked into the main part of the city to drink in the madness that is the festival.

The Royal Mile was a mad, glorious confusion of noise and bustle, singing, dancing, music and acrobatics as performers gave tasters of their shows and passed on flyers in a bid to attract the public. I spent a good hour people and performer watching, just soaking up the sunshine, smiling and enjoying the entertainment.

The fresh-faced students seemed so bold, so confident, so full of life. There was a group from Redditch in the Midlands dressed in the kind of clothes I associate with the cotton mills of Lancashire. Their boisterous singing and enthusiasm as an ensemble on stage caught my ears and I stayed to see their show taster which was about the needle-making industry.

Young boys playing cello and fiddles on the street

Boy band – Edinburgh festival style

They sang like they meant every word, stamped their feet and drew in the crowds, then stepped off the stage and challenged us face to face and just inches away to listen to their tale of hard work, long hours and short life expectancy.

Too much to see and wish to do and not enough time to fit it all in. But I tasted a little of everything and enjoyed wandering without plan and picking up bits and pieces of performances as I wandered by until hunger drove me in search of lunch and a well-earned sit down.

One day, I would love to spend a week at the festival, enjoying a great mix of comedy, theatre and music and more.

The only event I did have tickets for was a talk by Simon Callow about his book on Dickens and the theatre as part of the Book Festival. By the time I got to Charlotte Square, I was glad to escape some of the hustle and bustle and to slow down the pace among the reading crowds, browse the bookshop and fall into conversation with another lady waiting to see the same show.

Callow is a huge Dickens fan and so passionate, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his subject that I think the interviewer only had to ask him one question and he talked for 15 minutes. I learned a lot about this writer that I didn’t know, particularly about his love for the theatre, his career as an actor/director and bad playwright. He had a wonderful way of referring to himself as ‘the bottled lightning’.

Olympic rings on the Mound in Edinburgh

Olympic celebrations in Edinburgh

And then it was time to go. To saunter back through the city, soaking up the last snatches of festival fun. As the train passed through the outskirts of my home town,  I managed to get a mobile signal and watch as Mo Farah brought home his second gold medal.

I’d forgotten to take my headphones, so had the volume turned right down, but around me in the train carriage, people sensed I was watching something special and by the end, three of us were crowded round the little screen with me yelling ‘Go on Mo!’ and punching the air as he crossed the line.

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