Sgian-Dubh

This Sgian-Dubh belonged to my grandfather, who had the good luck to be wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (more of which below). I shared the same roof with him for the first year of my life, after which he passed away. I seem to have that effect on some people, my own father joining him scant years later. Hence anything I know about him comes from remaining family recollections and what records can be found in the London Scottish Army records.

By all accounts Gordon Stewart Greig was quite the character, dressing in his kilt and playing bagpipes every Hogmanay – which wouldn’t be unusual except we lived in a semi-detached house in the London suburbs a stone’s throw from the sober environs of Tony Hancock’s East Cheam, where even the smallest idiosyncracy would cause curtains to twitch and neighbours to gossip. Like many ex-pat Scots, my grandfather held onto his Scottish roots with ferocity, refusing to conform to the greyness expected of our neighbours (a young ex PM John Major lived around the corner). Here’s the thing, my own father – Gordon James Greig, was born in Epsom, Surrey. His father, Gordon Stewart Greig, was born in Millwall, London and it’s not until I reach back to his father, James Greig born 1814 in St Vigeans, Forfarshire that we actually hit tartan bedrock.

Ethnicity is a funny old thing. For half my life I considered myself hybridised English with a potpourri of Scottish, Welsh, Irish and French running through my veins. In other words, no more English than anything else. Now I’ve been living in Scotland for over thirty years I consider myself mostly Scottish. I like to think that my Scottish forebears would be content that at least one of their sons has made the trip back. Maybe something in the blood called me, like a swallow returning to a half-remembered place. All I know is that I’m home. My older brother sent me the sgian-dubh from his home in Ireland, having no use for it and his own children now firmly clasped to that land and its traditions. So this small, pitted blade has, much like myself, found its way back home.

To know yourself you have to know where you come from. I never have the time for genealogy, but I did contact my grandfather’s regiment for more information. I received this from the London Scottish Army Museum archivist and curator:

Greig, Gordon Stewart, 
Regimental No 2343 (enlisted August  1914) army number 510225 (after Sept 1916 the army decided to have a universal army wide numbering system whereas previously each regiment had a four digit number just for that one regiment . 

From the regimental roll we know that he enlisted in August 1914, deployed to France 7 March 1915 and was a sergeant (promoted 8 April 1916) in the 1st Battalion when he was wounded at Gommecourt on the first day of the battle of the Somme. Presumably he returned to The UK to recuperate and was commissioned into the London Scottish Regiment (1st/14th London’s) in 1917 – we have no further details but his Officer’s record will be available to view (not digitally down loaded yet) at the National Archives at Kew in London. 

Attachments 4 and 5 are images of the London Scottish Regimental Gazetre I. Which your Grandfather figures, first as a casualty after Gommecourt and then an announcement of him commissioning. 

My grandfather was wounded on the first day. The Imperial War Museum have this to say about that day:

As an attritional offensive, the Battle of the Somme involved heavy casualties on both sides. By the end of the first day on 1 July 1916, British forces had suffered 57,470 casualties, of whom 19,240 were killed. This represented the largest losses suffered by the British Army in a single day. 

I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like to be ordered over the top by those with no experience of leadership, no unique qualities marking them out for seniority other than accident of birth. What I do know is that my grandfather would have been one of those led by pipers into the hail of machine gun fire. The fact that he was wounded instead of being killed is the reason I’m here today.

So I have this to remember him by. Carefully and lovingly restored by Rab and Tanya Gordon of https://www.rainnea.com to whom I offer my heartfelt thanks for a job well done. As a sgian-dubh it’s a bit old and battered, almost as if its been in the wars – but as a family heirloom it’s priceless.

This will next be worn by my eldest son when he is married in just over a week. Possibly the first time in almost 100 years since it’s been worn with a kilt, back in the land of his ancestors. If that doesn’t bring a tear to this glass eye then I don’t know what will.

A Song of Winter

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That’s the contract signed for my standalone ecological thriller A Song of Winter. Once again I’m indebted to Fledgling Press and the support they offer to little known writers, and I can only hope their faith is rewarded in book sales and downloads.

What’s it about?

Take a planet – our own in this instance – and subject it to hundreds of years of pollution until climate change can no longer be denied. Take the delicate environmental systems that protect and nourish life on earth and watch them fail, one by one. Take one small intergalactic event – a spoke in the machinery of the heavens – and apply it at just the wrong moment.

Who’s it about?

A young family whose mother has an unerring accuracy with a crossbow

A group of university students whose research is too damn accurate

Politicians desperate for their own survival above all else

An ex-SAS guy who just wants to be left alone

When’s it out?

Hopefully October 2022 but watch this space.

On querying and rejection

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So you’ve written your book, tidied up the grammar, fixed the plot holes and added some literary sparkle to catch an agent or publisher’s eye. What next?

Old hands at this game already know the answer to this one – established best-selling authors no longer have to concern themselves – for the rest of us it’s time to submit. Writers lucky enough to be represented by an agent will (or should) receive detailed feedback with suggestions that usually involve the dreaded editing and re-write. Then your work is sent off to carefully selected publishers who are in the market for whatever genre or style you have produced. If all goes well, an offer is received and you sign away your opus for money and fame. (Note: your financial advance comes out of predicted sales so expect anything between £100 and £1m. I’ve heard £10k is reasonable for a fairly new writer with potential but these figures will vary considerably). Do not expect to get rich on the back of your writing unless you’re a celebrity or incredibly lucky/talented.

Unrepresented mortals have to pitch to agents or a diminishing number of publishers accepting direct submissions – usually the first 3 chapters, synopsis, brief bio – and, if you’re lucky, you’ll receive a boilerplate response after a few months stating ‘a lot to commend but not what we are looking for at the moment’. In many cases you’ll hear nothing.

Agents/Publishers are busy people – I get that. They also drown under the weight of submissions so it’s not entirely surprising that rejections far, far outweigh any requests for the full manuscript. It’s also not surprising that the occasional gem slips past unspotted (at least, that’s how I like to console myself). What I would ask is that they respond to everyone, even if the local IT guru comes up with an auto response saying ‘keep at it’ or similar. It’s basically unprofessional to leave submissions hanging in the void and it’s not a difficult problem to fix. It also means they have more chances at receiving the book they’ve been looking for rather than have writers putting them in a no-go list. End of mini rant.

To précis, you can expect rejection more often than a request for more. That is only to be expected. How you deal with that is of more concern. The usual knock back contains no useful information that you can use to improve your skills. Again, perfectly OK. The publishing industry is a business and it is not cost-effective to provide every writer with a detailed critique. The key takeaway from this is to keep going.

Writing shares a lot of attributes with bread making. Take a disparate mix of ingredients, mix them together, give it time and then expect to have the hell knocked out of it. It’s a poor baker who throws the result into the bin at this stage. There is a caveat though, and that’s to appreciate when you need to give up and try a different recipe and method.

Slightly more depressing is when you’ve had your full request declined. Hopes have been raised, so as the writer you’ve further to fall, but like the trapeze artiste you have to climb back up and perfect your art as best as you can.

That’s it, in the end – you can only do your personal best. If people like what you do – then it will sell. Yes, you can improve. You can learn techniques, style, plotting, characterisation etc and see for yourself how other writers tell a story. If writing makes you happy then you’re already winning. Sales are great, good reviews can lift you but write because it’s what you want to do – and don’t let anyone stop you.

What about the bad reviews? My own approach is to look at the average, on Amazon or Goodreads, and use that as an indication of how well/badly my work has been received. Bad reviews can come for many reasons, not necessarily connected with your writing. If they come with a written review then you have a chance to learn from them, if not then I think they’re best ignored.

Happy writing!

The Devil’s Cut

After a long period of gestation I can welcome The Devil’s Cut into the world. Like any parent, I’m immensely proud of my latest book but also worried about how it will be received. The parallels to sending your own children out to fend for themselves are only too clear and inevitably I can expect to run a gamut of emotions as the reviews come in.

The word gamut, I have learned, derives from the Latin word used in the Middle Ages to cover the entirety of notes from which melodies are composed. More latterly it has been used to describe the range of colours available in a palette, the limitations of whatever medium is used to display the colours and the available illumination meaning a colour palette covering the entirety of hues detectable by the human eye is so far unable to be reproduced except by nature.

A writer has no such limitation. We have full and unhindered access to the twenty-six letters forming the alphabet – same as everyone from Shakespeare to Thomas De Quincey (both of whom used the word gamut). Of course I am guilty of oversimplification here; the letters are the raw material but words form the building blocks of a writer’s life. Then there is the knowledge and availability of those words – I don’t believe anyone has full access to the full gamut of words in any language, especially as words are born and die within generations. Nor is a wordy tale or one using more earthy language in some way necessarily superior to the other; the skill is in the telling.

So we have the words, and sufficient concept of grammar such that whatever arrangement the words take will impart some meaning to a reader. Is that it? To distil knowledge? Not entirely. The first use of words came about verbally, perhaps our ancestors telling stories around the fire or describing the world and making sense of life. Stories would have been the first true entertainment – once the basics of food, shelter, danger had been dealt with.

I like to think that the writer, alongside the musician, are holders of that most ancient of flames. Telling stories can be a noble occupation.

By the way, in the manufacture of whisky and other spirits, a portion evaporates through the wood of a cask as the liquor matures. This is known as the angel’s share.

That element absorbed by the wood of the cask, held within the darkness, that’s the Devil’s Cut.

Research

Ben More from Ulva 21st July 2021

When I write, it’s the research that I like the most. Whether I’m looking at Celtic mythology or clockwork mechanisms through the centuries; theories on climate change or the view from one small island to another (like the one above) – the research keeps me involved in the story.

During the 2020 Pandemic, I had to rely mainly on the internet as travel was restricted, and using tools such as Google Maps is almost as good as being there. I say almost because you can’t beat physically being in a location. Take the view above as an example, not the best photograph I’ve ever taken but to get there I had to take three ferries, the last one a small 8 person boat across a narrow strait of seawater shared with a canoeist and two young swimmers who I’m sure were doing it for fun rather than to avoid paying the ferryman. The heat was very un-Scottish at 26 ºC, with the slightest sea-breeze carrying a tang of seaweed and ozone which was insufficient to cool me down. Layered over that were wild flower notes to produce a cocktail good enough to drink. It’s no wonder poets turn all whimsical by the seaside.

One thing I find strange is that there doesn’t appear to be a word for the smell of the sea. If you’re walking after a fresh rainfall then there’s a word for the characteristic smell of rain on pavements or rock – petrichor. This is a fairly recent word, named by Australian scientists in 1964 and made from the Greek Petra (for stone) and Ichor (for blood of the gods).

The smell of the sea at low tide is from chemicals called dictyopterenes, which are sex pheromones produced by seaweed eggs to attract the sperm. And on top of all this is the iodine smell of the sea, which is actually the bromophenols produced by marine worms and algae. If I combine the Greek for sex (fylo) with sea (Thalassa) I come up with the sea smelling of fylothalassa (or sexsea). And this is the trouble with research, start off with something entirely innocent and before you know it you’re up to your neck in the strangest diversions taking you well away from the route you initially had planned!

Back to the research. So I’m looking at this view, imagining a storyline running like a film in my head and breathing in the fylothalassa in the heat of the day, seeing the clouds folding around Ben More in the distance and suddenly everything is that more real. That’s why I do the research, so I can place myself in the story, describe what I see, hear and smell – and if I can do a good enough job of that then I can hopefully take the reader with me.

Accomplished writers I’m sure can do this without stirring from their comfortable chair, but if I’m not physically there then I can’t see what’s happening. In my imagination there’s a yacht not too far away, imprisoned on board is my main character and a supporting cast who develop features and characters until they become fully formed – as real as you and I. The smooth talking captain; the wiry criminal sidekick and his thuggish mate making up the crew. Wind ruffles the sails, you can hear how slack they are as they wait for a decent breeze to pick up. Out on the water, seal heads poke up inquisitively before ducking back down again like seaborne whac-a-moles. Overhead the unmistakable outline of a sea-eagle, its tail as white as a summer cloud, wings ending in feathery fingers feeling each nuance of the wind.

I now know how this goes. Being here is like placing another piece in a puzzle and revealing more of the picture. This is how writing is for me: doing a jigsaw puzzle without the benefit of an original picture to work from. To start with, I’m working blind – going by shapes and patterns until I can see what I’m making; fitting it all together until the final reveal. This isn’t a perfect analogy – some of the pieces don’t fit and have either come from another jigsaw altogether or require shifting around, modified or even hammered into place.

The best thing about it?

Being there

Write On

There is something quite surreal about finding something you’ve written sharing a bookshop shelf alongside such great authors as Alasdair Grey, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Jenni Fagan… Let me tell you it concentrates the mind like nothing else – and is a strong encouragement to keep writing .

The second book in the DI Corstophine series is finished and with my publisher, Fledgling Press in Edinburgh. The Devil’s Cut follows on from Whirligig and will be released this Autumn, and we may even be able to launch in an actual bookshop – pandemic allowing.

Hot on its heels is an environmental thriller which is ready for my agent to look at. This is something new to me, and I’ll update you as to how this progresses through from first submission through to (hopefully) signing with a publisher. This is a novel I started last year, and it’s only just reached a state where I can let it go for a first look.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’m now working on my latest project – a modern re-telling of Kidnapped for which I’m grateful to Creative Scotland and The National Lottery for providing the funding. Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s original work, my protagonist is kidnapped and has to find her way back to Edinburgh without being discovered. With the police and others on her trail, the only way home is across much the same wild route that David Balfour walked. Tackling subjects as diverse as human trafficking, sexual exploitation and the abuse of the law this will not be a YA novel!

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