This year, our Citizen Writing Group have been more active than ever. Here we take a deeper look into what they have been working on.
It has been many months now since the first online iteration of the Citizen Writing Group, which brought together writers from across North Edinburgh and Musselburgh. Since then, the group has expanded and adapted. They meet online each week and under the guidance of Eleanor Thom, their writing goes from strength to strength. As of October, we have re-introduced a monthly in-person meet up, either at Fisherrow Centre in Musselburgh or at the Granton Hub, to bring back a convivial social element and allow everyone to share their writing, discussions and feedback from the same room.
Eleanor begins the session with prompts, often drawing on the overarching Citizen project themes: place, belonging, identity and weaving in memoir into fiction and poetry. Some of the most popular topics to write about are reflections on the quiet magic of daily existence.
A Letter about a Flat in a Coastal Town by Dave Forbes
How are things with you and Thomas. I’m sorry I moved out so abruptly. But you mustn’t worry about me. I’m pretty sure I’ll be renting a flat in Musselburgh by the end of the month. Alright I haven’t seen inside it yet but you know me, ever the optimist. I’ve got an appointment to view at the end of the week. You should see the place. The outside especially. Reminds me of no building I’ve ever seen, except possibly every building in every horror thriller where something unsettling is waiting to happen. And, so, of course, I love the prospect.
It’s in Fisherrow, at the corner of north High Street and Fishers’ Wynd. It has to be some kind of landmark. There’s three floors: on the high street the first floor is shops while the other floors look like typical tenement dwellings. The back, well, that’s where the entrance to the flat is. I’ll get to that.
The top of the Wynd. The end of the block. It looks like it’s a cut off really. Where they decided to finish the building or maybe chop a longer one to build the road. The colour is what you might call ‘dingy’, pock-marked, smeared. Not colours, really, better to call it, mucky oatmeal; what happens when you clad a building with fragile sandstone. You should see it. At a glance, if I wanted to be surreal, I’d say there’s something of the mischievous schoolboy about it, or a flabbergasted auntie. Because of the two small windows at the centre. As though someone took a pencil to the design and drew a diagonal from the top to the opposite bottom corner and said we’ll put a couple of wee windows there. Then put another couple of similar windows above them half way from the top. The lower left window makes it look like it’s been caught behind the bike sheds, while doing something more serious than smoking. Taken as a whole, though, it makes me think of a disgruntled clown’s face warning children to behave, or else. Add in the street lighting and it’s enough to scare the bejeesuz out of anyone foolhardy to be out on a dark night.
The flat, at the back, it’s on the first floor with big windows looking down on the Wynd so I can oversee the length of the street. I’m not sure I’ll be able to see the waterfront and the long coastline of Fife on the other side of the Firth. Remember we used to gawp across to Leven and Kilmarnock and think what it’d be like to visit there. The selling point about the view across the river is the way the panorama changes. The appearance of Fife is ever changing depending on the weather and the patterns of the sky on any day you happen to be there. And it’s on the estuary going down to the North Sea, so apparently there’ll be some salt in the air. That’ll affect my breathing I guess. But not too much I hope. They say it doesn’t snow much in winter. Maybe there’s a connection
To be honest the whole exterior is in need of a bath to wash away the surface dirt. Of course the muckiness is inevitable because it’s so close to the coastal winds. A process of wearing away and degradation. To be lyrical, maybe the building, if it had the choice, would rather be entirely flat and glisten in the sun – I don’t know, I just love it. The council will probably clean it up one day, and it’ll then be, you know, some kind of lovely.
Oh yes and earlier today I was looking through the gate that takes you into the grounds of the place. And what do you know, a little tortoise shell cat looking back at me. I don’t know if it belongs to a resident or it’s just one of the local moggies but, you know, I think I’m going to like it here. If the owner likes me. And if Jessie likes it. You know what she’s like.
Ok mum, I’ll end there with good news to follow, I hope. You’ll see I’ve enclosed a drawing I did yesterday of the building in question, its good side. Sorry I’ve waited so long to write to you. And at such length. Don’t worry, things will turn out.
Love you, and dad of course.
Your youngest son,
Sweet Nourishment by Jane Murray
I am a ruby red orb and I glisten and shine.
Winter months you’ll find me
A sumptuous Deutsche Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte
My Colour and form is a catalyst for all sensual delights.
I have been sung about and written about and painted many times.
They paint their lips, ruby red enhancing and pleasing to the senses
They paint their nails, ruby red suggesting confidence.
I nourish with sweetness and Colour,
The Colour so many times
Replicated to catch the eye
To tempt the senses
To come alive
What am I, who am I, I am the glace cherry
Stoned and preserved.
At the August Festival, many group members performed their work at our celebratory Stories & Scran event, while the stories they had written earlier in the year were woven into a collaborative play, One Day Ticket, which was performed script in hand to a packed audience.
More recently, Eleanor has held sessions which encourage the writers to respond to soundscapes, where each group member listens to the sounds emerging around them and responds in words. Can you imagine each writer’s setting from the pieces they’ve written below?
Soundscape by Evelyn Karlsberg
My heart sank as I boarded the coach on Jeffrey Street. It was packed. A sea of grumpy faces. Only the driver making a brief announcement and the crumpling of a crisp packet broke the silence as I made my way to the empty seats in the back row. The 17:45 LNER train –the last out of Edinburgh heading south that day—had been cancelled, and I was on a replacement coach service to Newcastle. From there a train was supposed to take me south to York, where I would be visiting my granddaughter.
As we inched our way out of Edinburgh in the heavy traffic, I could hear muffled chatting and the raised voices of children, punctuated by the occasional car horn and a siren. Whether we liked it or not, the driver had decided Kingdom Radio would keep us company. Voices soon gave way to a resigned quiet once we reached the A1. Many people had entered their own world through their headphones. Instead, I immersed myself in my book, and did my best to ignore the pelting of rain on the roof and the loud breathing of a man seated nearby who had fallen asleep well before we even left Edinburgh. Apparently, he had just been on a big stag do…
It took three hours to reach Newcastle train station. I got off the coach to be greeted by bright lights and heavy rain; a blur of people rushing about; shouting; horns honking in the confusion of traffic. Inside the station, urgent announcements blared on the tannoy. A train had just disgorged its passengers. The march of footsteps up a ramp, then crossing the bridge, the clacking and hum of suitcase wheels, excited voices, echoed through this cavernous space. And then they were gone. An eerie stillness pervaded the station, and it suddenly felt deserted. I pulled my suitcase along, the grinding wheels reverberating on the concrete. The train to York? The empty one sitting over there on platform four, I was told. I took a seat in the quiet coach and waited --an hour as it turned out-- for it to depart. Quiet? The silence was deafening. Once the train started to move, all I can recall from that part of the journey is being almost alone in that coach, the pitch darkness outside –except for the stations along the way-- and an automated voice announcing train stops. And the incessant rain. I was never so happy to finally arrive at my daughter’s house…
Royal Mile Soundscape by Dave Pickering
STEPPING off the bus on George IV Bridge I took a deep breath, mentally preparing myself for the challenge ahead.
My final destination was just a short five minute walk away, but this is Edinburgh at Festival time – and this is the Royal Mile.
Thousands upon thousands of shrill voices, everyone shouting but no-one can hear a thing. Pushing, shoving, stumbling, apologizing, swearing … and rising above it all, the unmistakable skirl of the pipes.
I’m sure the tune was supposed to be Highland Cathedral, but this was no religious experience. This was the piper from Hell.
What seemed like hours later (although it was only minutes, to be honest) I reached the blessed sanctuary of a bar – an empty bar.
Maggie didn’t have to ask what I wanted to drink and started to pour my pint in silence.
The only sound was the gentle splash as my glass was filled.
Away in the distance I could just make out the strains of Scotland The Brave. But only just. It could have been a thousand miles away.
As the nights draw in and the seasons change, this has been the perfect moment to encourage the writers to explore their spooky side, with short stories set in some of Edinburgh’s modern locations that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be haunted, including a public pool, a bicycle shop, and oatcake factory.
This is the Story of a Haunted Arcade by Bernard Harkins
It was turning out to be another routine day.
Sitting here at the kiosk giving out change and clearing the coin jams from the usual machines. I was just thinking that we should really put ‘Out of Order’ signs on the most frequent jamming offenders when I was disturbed by a tap on the kiosk window.
“Oi! A penny for your thoughts?”
It was Bob, well Jacob really, but no-one ever called him that because his surname was Marley.
“Oh! Hi Bob, what are you doing here? I wasn’t expecting you today?”
“Don’t ask me mate I just do what I’m told. I’ve got this new machine for you.”
“No-one told me.”
Bob shrugged again.
“What is it then? A beat em up? A shoot em up? Fruit machine?”
“I don’t know I just deliver them. It’s still in the packaging.”
I came out from behind the kiosk and looked round the arcade.
“Not sure where I’m going to put it?” I said rubbing my chin.
I looked at the package on Bob’s trolley. The machine was an upright one and looked just over six feet in size.
“How about across there?”
He pointed to a space that I hadn’t noticed before.
“You’re a genius Bob! How have I never noticed that?”
We pushed Bob’s trolley across to the space and started unpacking the machine.
“Thirsty work this.” Bob said.
“Okay, I can take a hint. I’ll make you a coffee once we’re done.”
When the last of the packaging was removed we stood and looked at the machine.
It was a black cabinet with a large screen, some buttons and a couple of joysticks on the console. There was some gold lettering swirls, thunderbolts and runes painted on the sides and across the top in gold gothic style writing it said:
PAST - PRESENT - FUTURE
Some other lettering said:
DARE YOU TAKE THE CHALLENGE?
FEEL THE FEAR!
“Looks a bit old-fashioned.” I said.
“Yeah, but…” Bob’s voice drifted off as if he were lost in thought.
“You were saying?”
“Ah! Yeah! Dunno there’s something about it though.”
“Beats me! Maybe I’ll see what you’re seeing when I turn it on?”
I plugged the machine in and flicked the switch.
The screen glowed green. A ghostly laugh followed by a piercing shriek emerged from the machine and then silence.
“Can’t see it pulling in the punters. I’ll leave you to it Bob while I make the coffee. I might even have a biscuit for you.”
I wandered off to the kitchen and made the drinks then stuck my head round the door.
“Hey Bob! Coffee’s ready!”
But Bob was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey! Is anybody working here today?’
I looked back towards the kiosk and saw that a queue was forming. That’s unusual for this time of year. I thought maybe a coach party had arrived. Bob would need to wait until I dealt with this.
The next couple of hours passed quickly as the people seemed to come in waves. Busy then quiet and then busy and quiet again. It was just as the queue had gone down for the second time that my phone rang.
“Hi Kingy how are you?” I said.
“Yeah, yeah I’m good thanks. Listen, have you seen Bob?”
“I saw him this morning. He dropped off a new machine but I’ve not seen him since.”
“Cheers! God knows where he is then? He should have been back here hours ago.”
“I’m sure he’ll turn up.”
“Yeah, I guess. Okay, I’ll catch you later.”
I looked round the arcade. It was empty, I checked the time on my phone. Just after four. Almost closing time, and darker than usual as the clocks had just changed. I decided to take a break from the kiosk and stretch my legs.
I walked over to the machine that Bob had delivered.
Might as well give it a try.
I put in some money and pressed the start button.
DARE YOU FIND OUT YOUR FUTURE?
ENTER IF YOU DARE!
The screen said.
So far so predictable I thought.
I followed the instructions, pressed the buttons a couple of times and moved the joystick.
A picture appeared on screen.
It was a summer’s day, the water shimmering, and I could see some rowing boats. Three people came into view, two men and a child. Something stirred in my memory. That stripy top the child was wearing, and those two men. It was me with my Dad and my uncle. I could only have been about 4 years old. I had seen a black and white picture of this very scene from time to time over the years, but now it was in vivid colour and I could actually feel the heat of the sun on the back of my neck.
Then the picture changed. This time I was sitting in a pub with a couple of friends along with some other people we barely knew. This was last weekend, when we were arguing about politics. They had been saying how the Home Secretary had been right to talk about people swamping this country and my friends and I were arguing back that she was wrong.
Then change again.
What was this?
I heard distorted music and saw four faces on the screen, my favourite band, The Sex Pistols. Johnny, Sid, Steve and Paul. It was a video clip I had seen a thousand times before, but something sounded different.
I was transfixed by Johnny’s laser-like stare as he spat out the lyrics to ‘God Save the Queen’. Their faces became white, see-through and ghostlike. Johnny’s face seemed to jump out of the screen to meet mine.
He was singing the final words of the song over and over again.
“No Future! No Future! No Future!”
I felt a cold chill in my bones and was overcome by a feeling of impending doom. A wall of faces appeared behind the band inside the machine and yes, a couple of them looked familiar. One of them was Bob, his face twisted in anguish.
That’s when I understood.
There really was no future for me or anyone else, all of us that had played this infernal machine.
For the final few weeks of November, we have an exciting collaboration underway, with 3rd year illustration students at Edinburgh College of Art responding to a series of visually rich pieces the writers have created throughout the year. We worked with last year’s illustration cohort and were blown away by the results, and are very excited to see what this year’s students come up with. The writings will be paired alongside the images for a special publication which is coming in the new year: watch this space.
We are consistently impressed and thrilled with the work that our Citizen writers produce and are grateful for their dedication, energy and passionate creativity. To celebrate the world opening back up and being able to gather in-person more frequently, we were delighted to commission Karmen Bermudez, member of the group and professional photographer, to create some beautiful portraits of our members, using the Book Festival’s offices on George Street as a photogenic backdrop.
“I have really enjoyed being part of this and I have got so much out of being involved. Ellie has given me the encouragement and confidence to put my ideas on paper, read to others and to submit my writing to different organisations.” – Citizen participant
“I feel very lucky to have the company of such a creative and welcoming group of people every Monday evening. Reading the pieces of writing that members send me between the sessions and seeing how different people interpret the themes we discuss is always a pleasure and a surprise. A good writing group is such a supportive place for creative experimentation, and it’s been great to watch this group bond and grow in confidence as writers.” – Eleanor Thom, Citizen Communities Writer in Residence
Finally, with the colder weather coming, we asked our writers to turn their creative minds to the warm and comforting theme of ‘nourish’. Here are Jeff and Margaret’s poems on that theme.
Ma Heid’s Mush, Ken by Jeff Kemp
At a barn dance
when someone asked
if I fancied a soupcon,
something tasty for the weekend,
gle blasta, I hope
I heard him say,
that’ll get you ceilidh
swinging from the thatched roof
rafters , slainte mhath,
ghaibh an te laidir,
although it takes more than a tot
be charmed by warbling broth.
Taste isn’t my strongest
sense, down the hatch,
the second’s always better
until the third and so forth
when cavorting buildings
joined nourishment bubbling
in my stomach and
the sky’s the limi, I stumble out
with a head busy with linguistic juggling
dancing barns – na shabail a dannsa –
and whisky – uisge beatha –
and it’s night to day – oidhche gu latha.
Too much diversity
imbibed in body and mind
leaves me in the dark,
fo na reultan,
Tha mi a 'gàireachdainn.
at what, it’s not
An Apple A Day by Margaret McKay
The doctor glanced briefly at Eve. He noticed that she was round and smooth. Just like the favourite daily item in his lunch box – an apple.
He stopped writing up the patient’s notes, leant back in his chair and thought about the pattern of his day and of his life.
Why did he persist in acting out the mantra of an apple a day?
Why not seek change even if, as with the first Eve, it led to danger, expulsion, and the need to start anew.
He bit into the apple, got up, closed the door, and walked away.
The Citizen Writing Group is part of Citizen, our flagship communities project which is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery and through the PLACE Programme (funded by the Scottish Government, City of Edinburgh Council, and the Edinburgh Festivals, and supported and administered by Creative Scotland).
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