The Fringe – the world’s biggest arts festival – and the main Edinburgh Festival and Edinburgh Book Festival start in August, but we’re currently already in the Jazz and Blues Festival, which kicked off last weekend with with a carnival style parade along a packed Princes Street on a very hot day, then down into Princes Street Gardens afterwards where some performers put on shows in the Ross Theatre (open air theatre in the gardens, right below Castle Rock) and others did little bits on the parkland around the theatre too.

I loved this very colourful costume and the lettering round his tuba:

Of course, being Edinburgh as well as exotic musicians and dancers we had a pipe band:

This is how busy the Ross Theatre in the Gardens was after the parade:

Asian performers waiting to go on stage in the Gardens:

Performers relaxing on the grass after the parade

Celtic warrior woman putting on sword fighting display while band plays

Didn’t catch this foreign band’s name, but they were belting it out and really getting the crowd going

Extreme street acupuncture!

Walking home from work earlier this week on a very fine, sunny spring evening, spotted a crowd of tourists on the Royal Mile watching this street performer, Sideshow Stevie, paused on route home, had missed most of the act but did see little of his final part…

Which involved this small bed of nails, laid across his tummy

Then this fairly hefty chap climbed up and stood on the board!


Now that is a pretty extreme form of acupuncture!

Making music on the Mound

Walking through Edinburgh on the way home from work the other evening and came across this trio on the Mound, right by Princes Street Gardens, in the space next to the Royal Scottish Academy. They are called Marama and consisted of two drummers and a bagpiper, kicking out the jams to a fabulous beat, folk music but with a more modern edge, which reminded me of bands like Shooglenifty we used to go to see back in our student days who took Scots and Irish folk music but reworked it in a modern style (we danced all night to those, irresistible beat).

They were having a ball, drummers whacking away and the piper frequently dancing around them both as the beat rolled out across the city and the crowd cheered along.

Great fun to come across things like this just ambling home, another sign of moving properly into spring and summer (despite the weather!) as street performers start to appear more often.

And here’s a short video clip of them in action – sorry, being a street scene the audio isn’t that great and doesn’t do them justice really, but was only way I could try and grab at least a bit of of their sound to share:

Edinburgh After Dark

With it being dark not long after four in the afternoon now it’s a lot easier to take night shots, without having to wait till much later at night and then stand around with camera and tripod as drunks come out the pubs! I was taking a few photos in Saint Andrew Square, one of two large, grand squares (along with Charlotte Square, home to the Book Festival each August) at either end of the Georgian-era New Town part of Edinburgh. In recent years the gardens in the centre of the square have been opened up to the public again and it’s a busy spot with folks coming and going, or using the garden paths as a shortcut to the other side of the square. I had been taking pics of the column and the new, small glass coffee store all lit up in the dark of a corner of the gardens when I looked behind me and realised that the wet, glistening path lined up perfectly with the vista of broad and rather posh George Street leading west, last glimpse of twilight still in the western sky. And I thought why have I never stood here and lined up this shot before? Especially at just the right time of evening where it is dark but with that last little light of dusk still in the west:

George Street, dusk
(as ever click to see the larger versions on my Flickr)

This is a zoom in on the statues that line the top of one the large, old bank headquarters on Saint Andrew Square – shot them before bathed in sunlight but not at night, the long exposure had the side effect of giving the fluttering flag this cool sense of movement which I was quite pleased with:

statues and very fluttery fluttering flag

And here’s Sir Walter Scott, seated between the enormous pillars of the soaring Scott Monument – again I have taken various shots and angles of Watty’s statue over the years but for some reason had never thought to zoom in and line it up so the illuminated clock of the Balmoral Hotel’s tower in the background would show over it like this at night, just noticed it while taking other pics nearby and realised it would make a nice picture. Funny how I have taken night shots around there so many times before but that perspective never occurred to me. One of the nice things about taking a lot of photos is sometimes you just see something you know very well in a different way because of the time of day (or night in this case), weather, season, just looking at it slightly differently…

Sir Walter and the Balmoral Clock, winter evening

“I want the names and numbers…”

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson’s speech to the Conservative party conference recently contained her wrapping herself in the Union flag to attack the pro-independence camp in Scotland. Since the Tories were the only major party to even oppose Scotland having a devolved parliament I tend to pay little attention to what Scottish Conservatives said – they are mostly a fringe party in Scots politics, really, both in terms of Holyrood and Westminster, disliked and distrusted by the majority of the electorate, as their voting habits have shown numerous times in recent decades. Ironically the voting system for the Scots Parliament has been their best hope for clinging on to at least a small amount of politicians in Holyrood…

However my friend Alex pointed out that during her speech to the conference she said:

But 98% of Conservatives said they wanted to keep our Kingdom United.

And friends, do you know what I want? I want the names and numbers of the other 2%

Er, is that right? She wants the names and numbers of anyone who doesn’t agree with her completely? Great British Gods! How dare someone hold or express a different opinion in our democratic society! Fear being tracked down by Davidson’s secret police and dragged away in dead of night for dissenting, you disloyal scum!

Seriously though, that is quite a disturbing thing for a politician to say and more to the point why the hell are the lazy-arse Scottish media not grilling this politician over this remark? That’s their job, to hold politicians to account. And when they utter chilling phrases like that they should be held to account and questioned very closely and publicly on what they meant. Or perhaps like other right-wing politicians recently she will simply say “taken out of context” (the standard excuse) or the “it was a joke” (an excuse for uttering disturbing lines that seems to be making a come back in British politics at the moment). Either way she should have been questioned by the Scots media on this and she should also be a damned sight more careful of the wording of her speeches. As my friend remarked as we discussed this, had a Yes camp politician said something similar there would have been uproar, and rightly so.

And before anyone says I’m just doing some pro-independence biased ranting here, A) I am still waiting on a proper debate (as opposed to simple posturing and either scare stories or misty-eyed rhetoric from each side we’ve had so far) and information on which to base my decision for my vote (and lines like that above don’t help persuade me to the No camp) and B) even if I had decided completely to be in the Yes camp already it doesn’t invalidate the criticism of her quite disturbing wording.

Going medieval

A little medieval music in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh recently (an area of the Old Town directly below the Castle, which boasts inns which were centuries old even when Robert Burns came to town), part of a wee medieval fayre which was taking place among the regular farmer’s market that takes place there at weekends, and included some re-creations of Medieval music and instruments:

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And here’s a short video if you are wondering what it sounded like:

Of course there were also some knights on hand…

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And a rather fine selection of replica Medieval swords, which they were kind enough to let us pick up and try – rather heftier than the kinds of swords I trained with in my fencing days!

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We were having a good walk about taking in Doors Open Day when we saw that this was on, a perfect autumnal day too, beautiful, golden autumn sunlight and unseasonably warm for the time of year too, nice little extra bonus seeing this as we ambled around the city.

Festival time in Edinburgh

It’s August and in Edinburgh that means we go into Festival mode and a hugely visited city goes from busy with tourists to utter madness. Yes, many other cities have festivals, but none in the world have anything quite like Edinburgh, it’s on another scale, the world’s biggest arts festival (and the posh International Festival and the Book Festival have still to join the Fringe in another week or so!).

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(one of the many Fringe venues getting ready for this year’s Festival, cleaning off playbills and the blackboard signs with the schedules on them for last year’s shows)
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This young juggling lad may be youthful but he’s a veteran – I’ve taken pics of him each year for several years, usually in different costumes and hairstyles, but the same bloke, and I see he is back performing on the Royal Mile and drawing good crowds again. He’s good, if you watch his performance do slip him a few shekels:

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(lost in her music – ukulele action on the Mile)

Looking at these Fringe performers drumming up interest in their show I couldn’t help but wonder if this is how Eddie and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous look ten years on:

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Reminds me of some of the women who come on the seemingly endless and incredibly vulgar and drunken hen parties that plague the city through the year…

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Performer from A Shade of Dust on the Mile:

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Yes, it’s the Fringe so it isn’t unusual to see men in dresses walking through the historic Old Town:

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This ‘nurse’ was promoting the show Take Care:

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This chap has a show called Red Hanrahan, based on the works of the great W.B. Yeats, I asked him if ‘terrible beauty’ was included in the show:

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Friendly puppet and her lady friend:

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Yes, it’s that time when I go even more click-happy than usual taking photos around the Festival… My Flickr stream passed the 9000 images mark just a couple of weeks ago as it is and if it goes as usual in August there will be a good few more added before the month is out. In another week I’m lucky enough to be invited again to the opening night party of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and as well as going along to several shows I will actually be chairing a couple of the author events this summer too, a dubious pleasure for the audiences…

We’ve lost Iain

It’s Sunday evening, and I’ve just come home and learned that one of the UK’s most innovative and hugely bestselling novelists, Iain Banks, had succumbed to the cancer he only announced he was diagnosed with recently. The news of Iain’s illness at only 59 was a real shock to many of us in the literary world; friends and readers (and readers are often friends in our book world) were shellshocked at his announcement. To find this evening that we’ve lost him so soon, when we still held some distant hope that a treatment may help prolong his stay on this planet is devastating. I’ve had the honour and pleasure of doing many a book event with Iain over my years in the book trade, and I’m sitting here right now, like many others I expect, thinking this can’t be bloody right, trying to square my mental image of a hugely genial, friendly, good natured bloke with a love of life with this news that he simply isn’t here anymore, and it makes me feel sick to think of it.  And he was genial and friendly – the first time I met Iain I found it hard to think this smiling, open chap I was chatting to was the man who devised the disturbing Wasp Factory (one of the most astonishing Scottish novels of the 20th Century).

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(Iain signing copies of the Algebraist back in 2008 in Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre. Books to sign for readers and a pint by his hand equals contented author. Pic from my Flickr)

Iain straddled literary genres with ease, creating his science fiction (including the remarkable Culture novels) and also his ‘straight’ literary fiction (if you could call anything Iain wrote ‘straight’!) and also deviating into some non fiction for his whisky tour of Scotland (he once told me one of the few books where the research required was a genuine pleasure to undertake). Few writers get to be successful in both a genre and be equally accepted in ‘literary’ fiction (a cumbersome, imprecise term), but Iain did, and both his fiction and science fiction both were covered by the literary critics. His science fiction, in particular his Culture novels, displayed a displeasure at the inequalities of the world as it is but, like Clarke and Rodenberry, a hope and belief that humanity could be better, more evolved, more equal, more caring, more enlightened.

Iain often stuck by those principles in his own life – when Blair and his acolytes fudged ‘intelligence’ to prove why we should invade Iraq Iain refused invites to Blair’s Downing Street gatherings of various artistic worthies and instead cut up his British passport in disgust at this action and said he would do without foreign travel and getting a new passport until the wars were ended or Blair out of office. I am glad that in his last few months he got to go abroad again, having a honeymoon with his long term partner Adele (many Edinburgh geeks will know her for her sterling work in the city’s Dead by Dawn film  fest). I received an email from Iain when he was away with Adele a few weeks ago in Venice. I replied saying I hoped he wouldn’t feel compelled to emulate Byron and challenge the locals to a swimming race down the canals. No chance, came the quick reply, I’ve seen what goes into those canals… That was Iain, humour always there, even at times like that, facing what he was facing.

The very evening before I was due to start here at Forbidden Planet several years ago I was treated to a huge, slap-up feed with Iain, Adele and fellow Scottish SF author Ken MacLeod. I had a bad experience with my former bookstore and Iain and Ken had been among the writers I had worked with who stood up and defended me, which was a huge morale boost for me at a very difficult time in my life. It was to be a cheer up, could be worse night out, but by then I had met with our own Kenny who had asked me to start at FP, so it turned into a celebration night. Huge amounts of curry and wine ensued. Despite his huge bestselling status for so many years Iain remained the same friendly, open and very approachable man, the sort of bloke you could just stand in the local pub and chat to over a pint. We lose him just before his publisher, the very fine Orbit Books, one of the homes to the best in British science fiction, could get his new book out. I know they have been rushing to try and get the book out much sooner than possible, everyone thought we would have a bit more time, but again that bastard devil Cancer has had its way instead (and in the words of the current advert series “up yours, Cancer”) and now the book will come out just that bit too late. And ironically one of the main characters is a man facing terminal cancer. Sometimes when art imitates life it is interesting; in this case it may well prove interesting but also rather bitter to the many of us who loved Iain’s writing. I’ve been so looking forward to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this August, but the thought of that annual major literary bash without Iain’s usual presence seems so damned wrong.

An Iain and an Ian go into a bar
(taken just last year, two of Scotland’s bestselling authors beginning with ‘I’, Iain Banks and Ian Rankin, enjoying one of Edinburgh’s fine hostelries, pic from my Flickr)

We’ve lost one of Britian’s finest writers (held by many to be among the top 50 most influential and important writers in the UK since 1945) and a major influence in our beloved science fiction genre, and worse we’ve lost a damned good man, and far, far, far to bloody young. If you enjoy a good drink then when you have a decent ale or even better a good dram of single malt, raise a wee toast for Iain, he’d doubtless appreciate that. And maybe as well as picking up The Quarry later this month from Orbit readers may, if they are able, want to consider a wee donation in his memory to Cancer Research, still fighting fighting against this damned disease which takes too many of us (are there any of us who haven’t lost a family member or friend to it?). In a small mercy his wife Adele said that his passing was without pain.

Goodbye, Iain, your inventiveness brought so many of us onboard and you took us with you on some extraordinary expeditions into the imagination, and on a personal note you and Ken and many other writers were there for me when I needed it and stood up for me, which I will always be so grateful for. Rather than dwell on losing Iain so damnably young I prefer to remember him smilingly signing books for fans, chatting away to them and other writer friends and booksellers after the author event was over, usually in the bar over a pint, beer in his hand and big, open grin on his face. My thoughts go out to Adele, his family and closest friends who have had to endure the thought of his dreadful illness and now his sudden passing. Somewhere, in the vastly distant future, when mankind has perhaps evolved to be more like the Utopian Culture he imagined I hope one day there will be a Mind piloting a starship and it will choose to call itself after Iain.


Looping the loop

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Down at North Berwick on a very warm, sunny Sunday afternoon earlier this week, strolling along the beach we heard the drone of a propeller engine – not unusual as there is a small airfield nearby and light aircraft and small microlights fly out from it and along the coast regularly. This sounded much more powerful though and when we spotted the plane it was moving a darned site faster than the usual little Cessna type light planes you see around there (which are really the small car of the skies, very slow). This sounded like an engine beefed up for speed and it roared past quite low; as it tilted we realised it was a biplane and we thought hey, few years back, last time we saw a biplane at this spot he was practising his air display routines, I wonder… And lo and behold on went the smoke cannister and the pilot launched into a series of maneuvres, rapid climbs, dives, looping…

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After several moves the pilot roared low over North Berwick, from this perspective seemingly in line with the rocky headland which just out beyond the Scottish Seabird Centre and the harbour and I quickly tried to zoom and focus on the fast moving plane and was lucky enough to capture this scene:

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And a moment later I got another decent pic of the plane with the local landscape, this time flying past the mighty Bass Rock (once a site of pilgrimage, a monastery, a fortress and a prison across our long history, now one of the largest seabird colonies in Europe, given back to nature):

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We even got to see the pilot pull a classic stunt that goes back to the World War I dogfights, climb up at full speed, almost vertically until stalling then let the plane ‘fall’ over and straight back down into a dive:

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Turning into a climbing loop:

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And then it was all done, our brief one-man air show was finished and the biplane was roaring back inland towards the airfield. But what a cracking little surprise show we had:

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Report: the free Dundee Comics Expo 2013

This report was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog:

Last Saturday the free Dundee Comic Expo, organised by Phil Vaughan and Chris Murray (well-kent faces on the Scottish comics scene), took place in Dundee University, helping to fill the springtime comics hole left by having no Hi-Ex this March, and I headed up from Edinburgh, crossing two of Scotland’s great rivers that help carve our coastline into its distinctive shape. As with the trip to Hi-Ex the actual travelling to the convention affords some beautiful views out the train window as the Scottish landscape slips by.

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(above: shot from the train going over the Tay Bridge on a cold but bright spring day to Dundee; below: Phil Vaughan and Chris Murray, organisers of the event. I had to shoot in black and white as the camera’s colour sensor was overloaded by Chris’ shirt. All photos from my Flickr, click for the larger versions)
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I arrived a little before the doors officially opened, which gave me some time to chat briefly to Phil and Chris (after paying our respects to PC Murdoch of course) as they were seeing to last moment arrangements, and to some of the comickers behind the tables in the Baxter Suite and the larger (and very airy due to lots of natural light) College Hall, where most of the small press folk and the dealers were finishing setting up. Right away as I entered College Hall I spotted Gary Erskine, having a quick natter with Monty Nero. These days wherever Gary goes at a comic con there is likely to be some representation from the Roller Derby crew nearby – the girls on skates have become a bit of a fixture at some of the Caledonian comics events these days, brightening things up, plus it’s good to know they are there to keep an eye on Gary.

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(above: Gary Erskine chatting to Monty Nero; below: setting up before the doors officially opened to fans)
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On spotting a table full of diverse works from one of our fine UK small press teams who have effectively grown into a publishing stable, Accent UK, I thought the chap behind the table might be Colin Mathieson, and so it was. As is the nature of my work I talk to a lot of folks on the comics and books scene but since we’re all in different parts of the country I don’t get to see them, and despite the fact I’ve swapped emails for years with Colin and his Accent compadre Dave West I’ve never actually met him so it was a pleasure to actually see him in the flesh and get a chance to talk to him for a while (readers in North America can see the Accent UK gang at the upcoming MOCCA gig in New York).

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I’d remembered to bring my little leather journal which I’ve been using as a sketchbook and Colin, after telling me he was planning to return to more drawing and less concentration on just writing, was kind enough to do a great sketch for me in my wee book to add to the collection. I had a funny feeling looking at the array of their titles spread out on the table, it was like looking at a slice of Richard’s reviews on the blog as he has covered quite a few from Accent over the years. Since they were sitting there so temptingly in front of me I decided to buy a few while I was there.

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Continuing round the hall I stopped to talk to writer Jim Alexander, who I hadn’t seen since Hi-Ex the previous March.

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And since he was well placed with his table at a good corner of the hall I also nipped behind his table to take a shot of the event from the perspective of the writers and artists, so here’s the view of the Dundee Comic Expo via Jim-cam:

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Being Dundee, home of the mighty DC Thomson, it’s will surprise no-one that there was a presence from some of their titles and characters, be it PC Murdoch from the long-running Oor Wullie strip greeting visitors outside the Baxter suite, numerous DCT pieces among the artwork displayed around the expo and naturally long-running titles like the Beano and Commando were available from the DCT tables.

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And indeed if you arrive by rail there’s a collection of Dandy and Beano characters such as Dennis the Menace (with Gnasher, naturally), Desperate Dan and several of Leo Baxendale’s creations like Minnie the Minx and some of the Bash Street Kids (annoyingly I only saw it on the way home, when it was evening, so excuse the poor light quality – still a great sign to welcome visitors though!):

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Moogs Kewell had her comic work – a neat wee landscape format travel work about Japan (which I had to buy for myself to read later) in a manga-influenced style, and some fabulous hand-made jewellery – I had to take a close up photo for one of my manga and anime-mad colleagues, who was especially delighted at Moogs’ supercute Domo earrings (I thought she would be) – you can check them out and order her geektastic jewellery for yourself over on her Etsy store.

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After checking in with Pete and John from Glasgow’s Indy-friendly Plan B store who had a nice array of good titles to choose from I saw David Lloyd; I’ve swapped emails over the years with David, but never had the chance to meet him so it was a delight to meet in person the man who created the art for one of my favourite books of all time. David was sketching a certain Fawkesian-masked character for a fan and we had a short chat, then to my surprise I found an entire hour had gone past already and I had to scoot off to the lecture hall to listen to David giving his talk, which mostly concentrated on discussing Aces Weekly, the interesting new digital-only take on the traditional British anthology style weekly comic, which boasts a hugely impressive talent roster.

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David discussed the digital model, how there was no up-front payment but everyone took equal shares from anything made (he himself put his own dosh into starting it up) and, as he said, there’s no middle man like a distributor to take a cut, so anything made goes to the people who actually made the strips. With a talent pool that is obviously busy with other professional engagements it isn’t the money that’s the draw though, it’s the huge amount of creative freedom they have. David seemed quite happy with Aces as it passes its second volume mark and plans to keep it going, but as with other digital-only comics he added that there’s always a need to drive for more subscribers (and if you are thinking that sounds interesting then check David’s guest Commentary on Aces we ran here a few months ago), so do have a look.

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The vagaries of rumbling tummies and lunch meant I unfortunately missed a chunk of Laura Sneddon‘s talk on the hidden history of women in comics, but did manage to get to the second half and what I heard was interesting, some of it I had heard of before but a good bit that I hadn’t come across (always good to find out new things), and it reminded me of a similarly themed and equally fascinating talk I attended at Edinburgh’s Central Library from the Glasgow Women’s Group last year. Hannah Berry‘s talk followed and she was, as ever, delightfully animated and passionate about the medium. The only drawback for me was that in the relatively low light of the lecture hall it’s hard to get a decent picture without using the flash (which is a bit intrusive), and Hannah is so animated I had a virtual roll of picture of her obscured by the blur or rapidly gesticulating arms. I haven’t seen Hannah since she was at the Edinburgh Book Festival a few years ago so it was good to see her again and hear her talking about her latest work, the excellent and creepy Adamtine (you can read a guest Commentary by Hannah on that book here on the blog).

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(above: Laura Sneddon’s talk on the hidden history of women; below Hannah Berry’s talk)
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Bryan and Mary Talbot also gave a talk, still aglow with their win from the prestigious Costa book award (the first time a graphic novel has won that major UK literary gong, competing directly against the prose works, a great achievement for them and a nice acknowledgement of the medium and its potential). Bryan decided that Mary should do most of the talking. Most of the talk concentrated on their award-winning Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (one of my own picks for Best of the Year), and it was, appropriately for a book which has so much autobiography in it, well illustrated not only with projections of finished and work-in-progress artwork from the book but with plenty of photographs, some general reference works for the art and design, but many from family photo albums used to help in creating the work. Mary and Bryan also talked a little more at the end about Mary’s next work, which she had mentioned last summer at their Edinburgh Book Festival appearance, which will use a fictional character to explore the era of the Suffragettes. And yes, we have another guest Commentary post to point you to if you missed it last year, where Mary and Bryan talked us through making Dotter (obviously we’ll hope to bring you more on the new work further down the line too).

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Sadly I had to miss Nigel Dobbyn‘s talk so I could get a last turn around the two rooms where the creators and dealers had their tables, and managed to get brief chats with some more folks and see how it had gone for them – the general consensus was that it was a nice event, small but very accessible and nicely scaled for folk to chat to each other, and they seemed pleased with how they had done on the tables too. For my part I had a great time talking to folks (annoyingly I only found out later on Twitter I had missed a couple of folks I know online who were there and who didn’t know I was, c’est la vie), getting to meet others for the first time, picking up some small press comics for my collection, and the nature of the event lent it a very accessible and friendly, open feeling with readers, dealers and the writers and artists, both professional and self published, all mixing freely, a very nice vibe to the day.

Cloudscape, skyscape, landscape: Scottish river, Scottish sky

Crossing the Tay rail bridge at the weekend, a bright, sharp but chill Easter weekend. As the bridge curves across the mighty Firth of Tay towards Dundee the river was at low tide, still as a mirror and reflecting the cloudscape above beautifully. It was a glorious Scottish landscape to view from the train and I didn’t expect any shots taken through the window from a moving train to come out very well, but sometimes little experimental shots like that work and you get something beautiful like this:

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