Friday, 23 September 2011

Of Dundee, writing, ale and the river Tay

Well, here I am, sitting in the cellar bar of Drouthy Neebors in the Perth road, opposite Dundee’s art college. There’s some ale in front of me – it’s called Lia Fail, from Perthshire I’m told, and is very palatable. Soon some olives and hummus will materialize too.

I’m in Dundee for an event tomorrow, a school reunion with people I mostly have not seen since I was 18. I’m charged with a message from my sister-in-law to one of them – if I can recognize him! And I’m thinking about people past and present, and as ever the Dundee streets hold their own peculiar magic for me.

Writing is an interesting art, and one I don’t pursue enough – I mean, I write all the time, but proper writing, creative, speculative, is something of a luxury. Today on trains from Sheffield to Edinburgh and then Dundee, I got to edit and polish a piece I’ve been working on for far too long, far too sporadically. It’s a piece looking at ‘doing family history’ and meanings and contradictions inherent in this doing; and while it’s ‘academic’ as in designed for a journal, it’s drawing on creative understandings and interpretations of ancestors and places as an attempt towards anthropological investigation of meaning, and it’s partly auto-ethnographic. Recently I finished two ‘think pieces’ on animism and on Scottish landscapes and ancestors (one of them for Gordon’s book which I’ve mentioned before - and see the book blog at, and I’ve been writing a more journalistic piece on the ‘story’ of one of those elusive ancestors of mine: a boy born in Dundee and farmed out (literally) to the Angus countryside.

-- Hmm, I just had to move to a different table because of a pub quiz – but that’s OK. --

Now I have to find a home for the academic piece – one of two journals, though I have to decide which to send it to before finishing – and for the journalistic piece, which is harder. Harder, because I don’t have contacts or knowledge of this world of more popular writing. Where or who might publish accounts of ‘family stories’, written to draw in the reader and to demonstrate ‘doing’ genealogy and some of the meanings and attachments it can engender – with particular relevance to contexts of Lowland Scotland?  Might DC Thomson’s be interested?

The hummus with olives has arrived and is now nearly consumed. Soon I’ll walk back down the road to my b&b, and look out the window onto the Tay and over to Fife. As a child, growing up on the slopes in the East of Dundee, I loved to look from our house over the High School playing fields and the Mayfield trees to the Tay. Eventually the trees were too high and obscured the water… but still, a walk could take me down to the Stannergate port area, and along to the Grassy Beach where a brother had attempted to show me how to skim stones over the waves. The Tay is of course tidal here, and a little further to the east, on the sandy beach past Broughty, I learned about wave and tide, and found that swimming in the ‘sea’ or the salt estuary was less easy, because of waves and wind, than in the public swimming baths.

So, this narrative has led from a pub in the Perth Road to Broughty sands and back to the (now gone) swimming baths were I went first with my mother, then with school classes; which in turn leads back to the reunion tomorrow. What changes have occurred? I’ll find out some of them…

Now that my olives and Lia Fail are finished, it's time to head back to the b&b and type this into the laptop, as I’m writing in the old way, longhand with pen and notepad on a slightly sticky pub table, the way quite a lot of my field notes get written (though not all on a pub table). If I can decipher the nearly illegible scrawl, that is!

Or should I have another Lia Fail first?

Just for the record, I passed on the second glass of ale, with some reluctance - and so am now in the b&b, just finished typing this. From where I sit, I can see the lights of Fife, either Newport or Wormit, through the lace curtains of my room window. Mercifully the orientation of the room means that the lights of Tesco Extra, much closer, aren’t visible!
And for the record, Lia Fail ale is made by the Inveralmond Brewery. The Almond, for which it’s named, is a tributary of the Tay, and a long time ago some of 'my people' farmed near the river. I’ll look out for this ale again.