Writing up Scotswrite 2017

It’s been a spectacular team effort, but we made it! So just as 2017 is closing, it seemed about time to write up my bit about Scotswrite 2017.

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The conference was held in September this year and organised by the committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland. It took us a good eighteen months (plus) to organise, and none of it would have happened without the energy and creative input of Linda Strachan and the great team of SoAiS volunteers who make up the Committee – more about us below.

The aims of our weekend conference were to empower writers by enabling them to learn from experts and to expand their knowledge of the craft and the business of writing, and to encourage them to network and share ideas. A key feature of the conference was diversification for writers, enabling them to confront the challenges of finding new creative and financial streams.

Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 10.43.20These aims were summed up in what proved to be an inspirational choice of logo – thanks to Linda Strachan, our Chair, and to Giorgio Granozio for the blue&white pen-nib design.

Ikigai – which is similar to the concept of wellbeing – represents a number of intersecting themes that worked extremely well as a focus for the entire conference. The themes represent passion, profession, vocation and mission, which link with the four phrases: ‘what you’re good at’, ‘what you love’, ‘what you can be paid for’, and ‘what the world needs’. Our conference programme strands focused on these four different areas, and also included physical and mental wellbeing specifically for writers. We found that this worked very well and the Ikigai themes were appreciated in delegate feedback.

We fulfilled the aim to offer specialist knowledge to our delegates by focusing on a number of key areas: legal rights (in this we were well supported by the legal team from Gillespie MacAndrew), technology (the writing software, Scrivener), the business of writing itself, and a focus on specialist writing skills, like translation (thanks to Daniel Hahn and Ruth Martin for their session – here at the signing panel with Denise Mina!).


In the run up to the conference we had concerns regarding the creative heterogeneity of our delegates (different writing backgrounds and genres, different ages and expectations) but we found that by focusing on diversification in writing, and by using the interlinking Ikigai themes, we were able to turn this into a major strength which was noted by delegates in their feedback.

We offered fifteen breakouts (full programme here) on a wide variety of topics and genres, and feedback from delegates commented on the success of this strategy, offering the possibility to move beyond habitual areas of interest and explore new genres (including radio, TV, and writing for children and young adults). We were also able to include all publishing options, from traditional, small and independent publishers, as well as self-publishing (Joanna Penn’s masterclass and keynote talk on self-publishing were highlights for many delegates). We were all inspired by Joanne Harris‘ opening talk, and by Jane Johnson‘s insights into her own professional and creative story.

We fulfilled the conference aim to encourage networking and the sharing of ideas in a number of ways. The feedback from delegates confirmed that the welcoming and inclusive atmosphere provided excellent opportunities for networking. Our programme was intentionally designed to allow space for networking, and our social events were also appreciated in this respect (not least, the ceilidh!). We were also keen to move beyond the physical constraints of the conference by encouraging delegates to use social media. One feature that worked well in this respect was to offer a prize for the best Tweet. The twitter feed for the conference confirmed the overall impression that the conference had been – to quote Kevin MacNeil – “engaging, illuminating, provocative and friendly. Bravo!”.

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Of course funding for this was crucial and Scotswrite 2017 was generously supported by Creative Scotland, with National Lottery funding. Other companies hosted, funding in kind, sponsored sessions, and provided support in many ways.

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At a personal level, I and, I’m pretty sure, all the Scotswrite 2017 committee faced the (not unexpected) challenges of taking large chunks of time out of our normal working/writing lives to dedicate to the organisation. We were undoubtedly helped enormously by having a professional coordinator, Jenny Kumar, to guide us, and also in choosing a hotel – The Westerwood, Cumbernauld – whose efficient staff went a long way to making the weekend run without a hitch (barring a couple of missing bathrobes, and the odd hairdryer or two!). And did I mention the excellent food – and the cake?


For the Society of Authors in Scotland, the conference has given both members and non-members a fantastic occasion to network and benefit from the strengths of membership/friendship, as well as the professional experience of Society of Authors itself. The SoA acts as a trade union for writers of all kinds and its leverage can prove invaluable to writers whose interests are all too often dwarfed by those of publishing companies. Delegates were able to learn more about the benefits of membership of the Society and were introduced to the different membership options now available, including student membership.

For those not attending the conference a number of blogs, articles and podcasts are now available, all of which have disseminated the information and discussions held during the conference to the wider community of writers, aspiring writers and readers in Scotland. To mention a few of the many blogs… Kim Sanderson, Claire Wingfield, Sasha Greene, Philip Paris…. and the extensive Twitter feed using the #Scotswrite2017

From another perspective, the London office of Society of Authors was made aware of the strengths of the committee running its Scottish regional group: the Society of Authors in Scotland. We hope that the conference has deepened the head office’s understanding of what its Scottish members expect and how best to meet their needs.

A question frequently included in feedback from delegates was ‘when’s the next one?’ For the volunteers on the committee, the organisation of the 2017 conference was a steep but valuable learning curve. (Ok, you can re-read that as: “extremely hard work, which we won’t undertake again in a hurry, and we wouldn’t have managed anyway without Jenny Kumar!) But we’ve taken some time since the end of the conference, in September, to ensure that the “learning outcomes” (ah, the pleasures of educational jargon…) have been documented and basically a “conference-in-a-box kit” (add a committee… some gin, whisky, and hey presto!) has been filed away which we hope will prove useful in the future.

The overall response from delegates to Scotswrite 2017 showed without a doubt that the conference responded to a number of key needs in the writing community in Scotland. It may not happen for two or more years, but in due course a new voluntary committee will be able to build on the Scotswrite 2017 conference. They’ll bring their own fresh ideas to meet new expectations from writers and to respond to the relevant challenges of the moment.

Any volunteers?

Posted in historical fiction, translation, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Image of the Translator – Past, Present, Future

Today, 30 September, is St Jerome’s day, aka Eusebius Hieronymus, aka the patron saint of translators. He was an extraordinary character in many ways. He was born in Stridon, near present-day Ljubljana, Slovenia, in c. 347 C.E. and died in 419/20 at Bethlehem, Palestine.

Having spent some years as a hermit, in the desert of Chalcis, he undertook most of his translation work when he was secretary to Pope Damasus I, and then later in the monastery he established at Bethlehem. He learnt Greek, Hebrew from a Jewish convert – while in the desert – and sought out original documents, including the copy of a Hebrew gospel alleged to be the original Gospel of Matthew. He was an outspoken advocate of Origen’s exegetical methods and translated several of his homilies – although in his later life he was to turn against Origen (185-245 CE).

Jerome’s culminating work was, of course, a revision of the Latin version of the Gospels on the basis of the best Greek manuscripts. Then, when in Bethlehem, between 391 and 406, he produced a Latin translation of the Old Testament on the basis of the original text.

The iconography of Jerome during the Renaissance varied, as can be seen from just these three very well-known examples: the rather affluent figure – dressed in a cardinal’s robe – portrayed by Antonello da Messina, the hermit rendered in all the agony of his suffering in the desert by Leonardo, and finally shown as a semi-clothed ascetic, in an engraving by De Barbari. Of course, there are plenty more images, and plenty more learned comments on them, too.

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Jumping forward a few hundred years, the importance of women translators in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been highlighted by several recent studies. As many have noted, translation was one of the few fields open to women. It even allowed some to earn a living. Examples include Sarah Austin (1793-1867) and Lucie Duff-Gordon (1821-69): both worked from German to English. Lucie Duff-Gordon is even better known for her own work, Letters from Egypt, a notable contribution to the travel literature of the time.


Lucie Duff-Gordon

Just one more example from the late nineteenth century, Constance Black (better known as Constance Garnett), who was born in Brighton in 1861 (and died in 1946). She graduated in classics from Cambridge, but her interest in socialism led her into the circle of exiles from Tsarist Russia. She took up translation in the early 1890s, having learnt Russian from the revolutionary journalist Felix Volkhovsky. Garnett’s translation of Anna Karenina was published in 1901, and she made her second trip to Russia in the summer of 1904, immediately after completing War and Peace. As Rosamund Bartlett writes (author of ‘Tolstoy: A Russian Life’, and translator of ‘Anna Karenina), “arguments have raged for decades” over the merits and flaws of Garnett’s translation and those of the Maudes. “Having lived in Russia for so long, the Maudes had flawless Russian, as well as Tolstoy’s imprimatur, while Garnett’s less advanced linguistic skills were compensated by her greater literary sensitivity.” Anyone who’s read the Pevear & Volokhnosky translation, or indeed the one by Anthony Briggs (whose dialogue is probably insuperable), will know how Garnett’s literary English phrasing sometimes overrides Tolstoy’s meaning.


Constance Garnett and her son David, known as Bunny, mid-1890s. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/06/23/socks-translating-anna-karenina/

And this brings me to the present and future: well, I can hardly produce pictures of today’s translators – in various states of (un)dress, seated in front their computers! (guilty as charged). However, I will say that they are extraordinarily well-trained, far more so than in the past. Nowadays, a masters in literary translation or translation studies is virtually compulsory before you can make a start as a literary translator. When I started in the late 1980s, I had a Ph.D., it’s true, but in history rather than in translation. So far, it’s served me well: my first book was for the great Bolognese historian and anthropologist, Piero Camporesi: The Fear of Hell was published in 1991. Since then, I’ve worked on other fabulous books, by historians, sociologists and art historians, not to mention endless articles and shorter pieces. My latest books (since 2014) include:

Antonio Foscari, Frescos in the Rooms of Palladio: La Malcontenta (1557-75). Lars Müller, 2014

Marzio Barbagli, Farewell to the World. A History of Suicide. Polity, 2015

Antonio Forcellino, Leonardo. A Restless Genius. Wiley, March 2018

Sandro Carocci, Lordships of the Mezzogiorno, Viella (still working on this one)

I’ve taught translation at University of Edinburgh for the past few years, which is both a pleasure and a privilege. Some of these young linguists – who are in their fourth year  – bring fabulously fresh insights and clarity to their work, even though for many of them, this is the first time they’ve done any formal translation – certainly at university level.

Together with other younger translators, whom I’ve met through the Translators Association, in London, or more frequently at ScotNet, the Scottish branch of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, they are the translators of the future: well placed to bring increasing numbers of translated works, from a wide range of languages, to fascinate, enthuse, and educate (in the broadest sense) readers here – of all ages.

Let’s smash those barriers and do what we all do best – carry words across cultures and build bridges that unite, rather than divide, the world.

The good news is that books, in all forms, are here to stay, and that the market is expanding – as are the different publishing models available. We’ve hardly even started on self-publishing for translators – either working for a self-published author or doing it for yourself. For a taster of what’s possible, try Tina Tenneberg’s article at Free Word.

What’s more, while Google Translate is improving all the time, it’ll be hard to replace the human translator!

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(courtesy of Google Translate – https://translate.google.co.uk/)

Happy International Translation Day, everyone!

Posted in Cultural history, Italian translation, translation, translator | Tagged , ,

A Tribute to Helen Dunmore. The Moment: Gone Forever, but also Here, Now

I was very saddened to read of Helen Dunmore’s death earlier this month and I wanted to republish this (rather long) interview that describes our meeting in Edinburgh, back in 2008.  I can still picture her sitting in the Signing Tent where we met for tea. It was raining, but then it was August at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

I now look forward to reading her latest novel, Birdcage Walk, with a great sense of poignancy.  As she neared the end of the editing phase, she added an afterword in which she acknowledged her approaching end because, she writes, the novel is “full of a sharper light, rather as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm”.

IMG_1269The following profile appeared in SOLANDER, vol. 12 NOVEMBER 2008, pp. 30-32.

(It’s long, but do persist – some real gems by Dunmore here.)

The Moment: Gone Forever, but Also Here, Now

Lucinda Byatt talks to HELEN DUNMORE

Passing showers at the Edinburgh Book Festival are such a regular annual feature that the extraordinary spirit of the occasion is barely affected. However, this year’s downpours were so persistent that a raft of yellow plastic ducks appeared overnight in one of the many puddles that swamped the immaculate lawn of Edinburgh’s classiest square, and a walkway between the marquees even carried the ominous warning “Do not use, these boards will sink”. On the afternoon when Helen Dunmore was speaking the rain fortunately held off for an hour or two – lucky for both the speakers and those listening because the thrumming rain can be deafening. I met her afterwards to talk about her latest book, Counting the Stars, and also to enjoy a wide-ranging discussion of her other books and her approaches to writing historical fiction.

Helen Dunmore’s engaging smile and tall figure make her instantly recognisable. She is a writer – not only of historical fiction – a children’s novelist and poet of considerable standing. I started by asking what drew her to write about such a variety of periods and countries? Zennor in Darkness, her first historical novel and winner of the McKitterick prize, is set in Cornwall after the outbreak of the First World War, while later works are set in Finland (House of Orphans) and Leningrad (The Siege, shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel award). A Spell of Winter, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1996, is also set in England and spans the first few decades of the last century.

“I would say that all my historical novels have been written out of a long-standing fascination with the period, the setting and the people. That is, I have never decided that it might be interesting to write about a certain time or about particular characters, and then begun the research ‘cold’. Sometimes I can identify the moment when reading, study, travel and reflection coalesced into the knowledge that this was going to become a novel.”

I pointed out that her latest book Counting the Stars marks a complete contrast by jumping back to the late Roman Republic. Dunmore added that “in this case, it was when I realised that there might be a story behind the death of the pet sparrow that Clodia/Lesbia loved so much … and another story behind that, of another death. There were secrets there, and the beginnings of a plot.”

Counting the StarsHowever, for Dunmore, the starting point for any novel goes a long way back. There is a latency in the emergence of ideas that seems to be a fundamental part of her creative process. Dunmore first came across Catullus’ works at school. “I first read and translated his poetry when I was thirteen, when he appeared immensely adult, sophisticated and often puzzling. Now, as an adult who is much older than Catullus ever was, I see other things; a young man’s vulnerability as well as his brilliance, a love shaded by obsession as well as by passion, and a great poet who has influenced the way succeeding generations read and write about love.” Catullus, she adds, also forms part of a select group of poets and writers who succeed in perfectly conveying the spirit of their age, like Pepys and Donne.

“When I first read Catullus’ poems I knew relatively little about the historical context in which he wrote, or about the other great figures of his time, such as Cicero. One might argue that this led to a very pure, disinterested reading … However, in the novel I wanted to write about the world of Rome in the late years of the Republic, about a young man coming to the city to make his name and create a place for himself in a sophisticated, turbulent, often violent society. I wanted to write about a society where slavery was the normal underpinning of every transaction and relationship; where enormous wealth was expending itself in display; where Julius Caesar was rising to greater and greater power; and where a young man could write devastatingly obscene and abusive poetry about Caesar and yet be invited to dine with him.”

Republican Rome emerges vividly from her writing, but as Dunmore reminds me, the “art of the novelist is never to instruct or inform. What I try to achieve is to make the reader subtly aware of the society and the facts.” Indeed, she continued, “information has to be pared back to allow the narrative to be the driving force.” Or in this case, the twin narratives, because in Counting the Stars, there are two stories, a love story and a murder, that are closely entwined.

We then moved on to talk about the characters. Having researched the historical background, I commented that she manages to put it aside so that the characters could grow and change through the events that occur. The development continues even when her characters become isolated, as in A Spell of Winter where Cathy seems to grow in isolation, trapped in the crumbling house, or in The Siege where Anna and Andrei’s world shrinks around them. Elsewhere in Dunmore’s writings, I’d come across her comment that “From novel to novel the experience of character changes. The characters demand a different handling. And so the writer moves on.”

Returning to Counting the Stars, Dunmore told me that she

“was particularly interested in the character of Clodia Metelli. Cicero’s portrait of her in his ‘Pro Caelio’ speech is compelling, as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. Cicero attacks Clodia’s reputation with the full force of his eloquence; but even though his explicit purpose is to belittle and ridicule her, he can’t prevent her charisma coming through the lines of his speech. And there’s a social edge, too, because Clodia belongs to the patrician class, and Cicero does not, and he is always intensely aware of every gradation of rank and power. It’s intriguing to imagine Cicero and Clodia face to face, in private, and what they might say to each other then.

My own feeling is that the development of character is a slower process that even the writer may realise. Perhaps character is not such much invented as gradually apprehended. Long before I begin to write, my understanding of character is slowly forming. At first this can be very vague – a few notes, a sensation. I need to know much more than I’ll ever write down. I need to know this character in solitude as well as in relation to the other characters. The author is privileged, because we never really see other human beings when they are alone – and the reader will share this privileged intimacy.

I’ve experimented with exploring this sense of a character’s solitude in many ways, through interior monologue, through dreams, diaries, letters, and through the dozens of careless spontaneous things that we all do when we’re alone, and which are so deeply and privately part of us.”

The sense of place is incredibly strong in all of Dunmore’s novels: the colours, scents and atmosphere of a setting are beautifully evoked, and in many instances the place, or even a house in the case of A Spell of Winter, become protagonists in their own right. In Zennor in Darkness, Dunmore readily admits that

“the Cornish world is the third element of the novel. And again, this goes back into my own past and a more than thirty-year-old relationship with that part of West Penwith. The character of the place is as important in the novel as any of the human characters. Of course the Zennor and St Ives of Zennor in Darkness are imagined places as well as known and researched ones, just as the Coynes and Trevails are imagined characters, but also owe their existence to research and to personal experience. In creating the Trevail clan I drew on my own history of belonging to a huge extended family; I felt on sure ground in describing such a web of relationships, some intimate, some apparently casual but always underpinned by the sense of blood kinship.”

The SiegeI asked her about her use of changing narrators, a technique that she uses most effectively in The Siege where the narration slips from Anna to Marina, or occasionally to Andrei or an outside character, the only deliberate exception being the boy, Kolya. The effect is one that Dunmore describes as “modulating consciousness”, or the slippage created in the narrator’s voice as it moves from character to character, offering the reader a different slant on the same event. “As a writer and as readers, we are enormously privileged to have insight into their thoughts and motives. I am also fascinated by what a character doesn’t say or by a dishonest character … then the fun really starts!”

This brings us to the question of language. Dunmore highlighted the difficulty of finding the right tone of voice. “Part of creating a character is listening to a voice,” she said. But, in such a hierarchical society, for instance, she had to ask herself what kind of accent would slaves use when talking to one another, and would the language change between master and slave? How could she show these differences in English? In the end, Dunmore opts for the captivating, contemporary language that builds what she describes as a “layered reading”: “I want people to feel that these people live in the present moment, although their ‘mental furniture’ may be different.” Each character has his or her own vocabulary and register. To do this well, a writer needs to know a lot of intimate detail about a character and, in particular, their childhood. A perfect example of this is Philoctetes, the doctor, who uses a very florid, rotund phrases to reveal his Greek background and education, but yet in an emergency he becomes virtually monosyllabic and straight to the point.

I then asked her about the process of researching the background for her historical novels? “For me,” she replied, “the word ‘research’ is problematic, because it suggests a systematic if not scholarly approach to writing fiction. The long process of ‘finding-out’ which eventually results in the writing of a novel is complex and not always easily defined. Sometimes the word research is a good fit, but at other times it isn’t.” She then focused on the background work that preceded the writing of Zennor in Darkness.

“Long before I thought of writing it, I had read all the novels and short stories of D H Lawrence, as well as a lot of biographical material about Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, John Middleton Murray, Lady Ottoline Morrell and other members of Lawrence’s circle. I had also taken a special paper on Lawrence at university. For three years, as a girl, I had lived in Nottingham, and knew the area that Lawrence wrote about in Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow and Women in Love, as well as in many of his stories.

Zennor in Darkness is set during the First World War and deals with the period which Lawrence and Frieda spent in Cornwall. I had been reading the history and literature of the First World War since my teens: poetry, diaries, novels and letters. I found, for example, that Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Diaries gave an illuminating insight into Lawrence during that war, and also into the writing of Lawrence’s novella The Ladybird. Novels such as Irene Rathbone’s We That Were Young gave a compelling account of young women breaking tradition and leaving the home for war service, with a rather different approach to that of Vera Brittain in the better-known Testament of Youth.

The long, slow process of reading and brooding over material about the First World War was a matter of many years, not of months, and I could not have written Zennor in Darkness without it. I would describe it as formation, as much as research.”

Dunmore’s books are often described as sensuous, filled with exquisite descriptions of food, plants and gardens, clothing, furnishings, and buildings. These carefully selected details recreate the worlds her characters inhabit, and also help to form their personalities. I asked her how difficult it was not to succumb to the temptation to include too much research?

“To return to the present, palpable moment, to create the present tense, I have to make sure that my research is invisible as research. I must know what Lawrence saw when he glanced out of his cottage window, and what vegetables he grew. I must know how much fabric went into Clare’s skirt, and the formula for funeral announcements in St Ives. I must know what happened at Bodmin Barracks when men went up for physical examination; what the newspapers were saying about the progress of the war on a particular date in 1917; how flowers were packed for sending by post in wartime; what the sea sounds like at night in Barnoon Cemetery; what colour the walls were. But I must not know these things in order to describe them to the reader. I must know them so that I can find my way around the rooms of the past with my eyes closed, and only then will I be able to convey to the reader the confidence that he or she is in safe hands. I have not researched in order to impress the reader, or inform the reader, or tell the reader about the past; but to bring the reader into this moment which is gone for ever but also here, now.”

It is the compelling feeling of here and now that is such a moving component of all Helen Dunmore’s books. We are not onlookers, but rather participants, sharing the same present. She highlighted this by confirming that

“one of my chief aims in writing fiction is to give a sense of the present, palpable moment, uncoloured by hindsight. In Zennor in Darkness, the characters do not know that they are living through the First World War: there has been no second. They don’t know that there will be an Armistice next November. They don’t know, either, that the U-boat campaign on the Western Approaches has had a devastating effect upon food supplies in Britain, and is causing huge anxiety at the highest levels; nor do they know how this anxiety may affect their own lives. They certainly don’t know that Germany will be defeated, and must not ever seem like people whose present is coloured by certainty about the future.”

Elsewhere Dunmore takes this further by stating that it is “far better to follow Tolstoy’s example, as he lets his characters stumble around the battlefield without knowing either exactly where they are or what is happening. Instead they see everything feelingly, every fibre of their bodies engaged, their minds sometimes hectic, sometimes lucid, sometimes overwhelmed. They are defined by characteristic and often instinctive acts.” (1)

One last aspect of her writing that emerged from our conversation is the extent to which women writers can be pigeon-holed. Many critics have ignored the political content of Dunmore’s books, choosing instead to focus on women’s issues. All of Dunmore’s writing highlights political issues of the time, whether slavery or the tragedy of the war brides (“when Clare Coyne sleeps with John William, she doesn’t know that women up and down the country are breaking all the taboos of their upbringing and having sexual relationships with ‘best boys’ or fiancés home on leave”). Again, the story of Zennor in Darkness focuses on “how the First World War redefined the relationship of the State to the individual, and permanently altered the social fabric: for example the impacts of the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914 and of the Military Service Act of 1916 cannot be overestimated”. She uses this political focus to examine the nature of history and to explore the ways in which individuals as well as nations deal with their past. For example, the tensions between different versions of Finland’s history are central to House of Orphans, and are expressed through characters who cling passionately to their opposing beliefs.

When I asked about her next book, Helen Dunmore revealed that she is working on a story that is strongly connected to an earlier work: it is “something to do with the characters and the intimacy you create with them that makes you go back to them.” Any ideas whom she might have in mind?


1 Helen Dunmore, “Making it up”, www.helendunmore.com (accessed 1 October 2008)

© Lucinda Byatt

Posted in Edinburgh Book Festival, historical fiction | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Meet Eat Drink Think

Robbie Bushe from University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Open Learning organised this great event at the end of February as part of the University’s Festival of Creative Learning. It was held in collaboration with one of Edinburgh’s newest and most innovative restaurants, The Food Studio, brainchild of Benedict Reade and Sashana Souza Zanella. The restaurant was started in November 2015 and has garnered praise and The List’s Newcomer of the Year award in 2016.

Meet Eat Drink Think was run on three consecutive evenings and the purpose was to highlight the contribution of Europe and Europeans to Scottish food and culture. Each evening four university tutors from the Centre for Open Learning gave short talks on various aspects of food and culture, and the menu served by Food Studio was inspired by the subjects of these presentations.

MEDT photo

Alongside me were Carina Dahlstrom-Mair, John Gordon and Pasquale Iannone.  Carina started the proceedings with a lovely talk titled “Light and Summer in a Bottle”, highlighting the importance of nature and outdoor eating to the Swedes. She also dwelled on the art of keeping everything simple, foraging and preserves, and what a splash of colour can do not only for your mood and your senses, but also for your health.

John Gordon gave a wonderfully informative talk on “Luxury, Taste and Politeness”, which explored the spread of coffee-houses and tea-houses in the early eighteenth century, but more excitingly also highlighted the fact that David Hume had been a good amateur cook towards the end of his life.  His recipe for Potage à la Reyne was served (or at least a variation of it was). John also looked at vistors’ impressions of Scottish cuisine, starting with Samuel Johnson and Tobias Smollett, before he examined a few recipes from a cookbook by Elizabeth Cleland (A New and Easy Method of Cookery, Edinburgh, first published in 1759) (Google Books: 1755).

My talk started in sixteenth-century Rome with food as performance (particularly the carver and other officials who engaged in a choreographed performance of table ritual), and then moved on to Catherine de’ Medici, the fork and the mistrust of the “Englishman italianate” that was generated in England in the late Elizabethan period. This all came under the title “‘Enchantments of Circes’: Why the Fork and Italian Table Manners were regarded with Suspicion”.

Lastly, Pasquale Iannone showed an entertaining audio-visual essay that explored Scottish and Italian culture through ice cream: “Identity Carved in Ice (Cream)”.  He put together clips from films such as Comfort and Joy (1984), Soft Top Hard Shoulder (1992), American Cousins (2003).

Comfort and Joy

Bill Paterson and Eleanor David in Comfort and Joy (1984)


This was a really creative and different form of collaboration, celebrating learning in an unusually appetising format and highlighting the extraordinary links that were forged in the past and are felt just as strongly today between us and our European neighbours.

UPDATE: On 16 March the Meet Eat Drink Think event won the Creative Learning Award given by the Festival of Creative Learning! To quote Jenny Hoy, Head of Short Courses at the Centre for Open Learning:

The Festival run an awards scheme alongside the programme which celebrates the variety of events offered and the skill involved in bringing them to fruition. I’m delighted to say that both of our short course events were shortlisted and went on to win despite some stiff competition from across the University



Posted in Cultural history, food history, Scottish history | 1 Comment