Fringe flavours

Where did August go?!

You might remember I wanted to post  some short reviews of shows with a referendum theme , and intended to do this around a week ago. However I’ve had quite a bit of paid work on recently – no complaints about that – but it means things like this blog fall to the wayside.

But worry not, here is a brief account of  my Fringe 2014:

First up was Aye Right? How No? The Comedy Countdown to the Referendum with Vladimir McTavish & Keir McAllister, at The Assembly Rooms. They rattled through various observations and quips – some pretty amusing – then it was time for the guests: on this date it was Propaganda Now and Rory Bremner. Yes, him, the seasoned impersonator, who kept saying “we” when talking about Scotland which is confusing, as he is one of those Edinburgh born-people with an English accent. My favourite line of his? Talking about Tony Blair and his role as Middle East Peace Envoy.:”That’s going well isn’t it? I mean, you can hear a pin drop in that part of the world just now.”

Propaganda Now show  montages of footage and statistics, making a mockery of politicians or highlighting their hypocricies in the process. For example, they showed people describing Alistair Carmichael as a “bruiser”, over and over, and then him debating with Nicola Sturgeon on STV, basically acting like a kid who wasn’t getting his way and complaining to presenter Rona Dougall to sort it out. I watched this debate and remember thinking he just came across as someone who couldn’t hold his own and gave a pathetic performance. Propaganda Now’s material was often very funny and also offered plenty food for thought – it’s the sort of thing it would be good to see for longer or even watch again, to take it all in.

Also at The Assembly Rooms was The Pure, The Dead and The Brilliant, a crowdfunded play written by Alan Bisset. It was excellent. The story – what would happen if the bogles, banshees, demons and selkies of Scots folklore were involved in the independence referendum? – was clever, offering the audience a rollicking one hour panto-esque ride, featuring a sparkling script, self-knowing jokes, energetic performances and a real warmth too. It is an unashamedly pro-Yes play and I wish I’d had an undecided-but-on-the-cusp-of-choosing-Yes friend to take. I’d imagine it could have pushed them even closer.

I wanted to go to 3,000 Trees by George Gunn too but couldn’t make it – have heard brilliant things about it and, as it’s another crowd-funded venture, I am going to get one of their ‘packages’ on offer, where they send you a film of one of the performances. Not the same as live but better than nothing.

All Back to Bowie’s has been running all month at the Stand in St Andrew Square. Inspired by Bowie’s comment, “Scotland, stay with us”, it bills itself as having a neutral referendum stance and features poets, musicians and a panel discussion on a particular referendum-linked theme. The day I went the  show was titled The Dragons Have Been Bled  (all titles are Bowie lyrics – bet they had fun thinking up those), all about Wales. A huge subject to cover and the timescale was too short to delve very deeply, which was a shame. But I heard the brilliant The New International for the first time, and really enjoyed a stirring poem by Lucy Ellinson, and decided to return again for the show on Monday, Waiting for the Gift of Sound and Vision – about, yep, the media in Scotland.

The panel, which included Ross Colquhoun from National Collective and journalist Iain Macwhirter, had some really interesting comments and insights – but again, too short a time to say it all in. The panel was not as advertised (for example I’d loved to have seen Joyce McMillan) – not anyone’s fault but the website could be updated to let the audience know who is going to be appearing. It  would have been great to hear more from Colquhoun about National Collective and their use of social media, and indeed the incredible power of social media throughout this Referendum campaign. The panel had just really got started on debating print journalism and it was time to end. Apparently they do congregate in the bar after and people can join them there to continue the debate. There was music by  Playing Politics, who said they usually play to late night crowds who have had a beer or two and drily amusing poetry by Rob Mackenzie.

I applaud the people behind  All Back to Bowie’s for putting it all together and arranging for a diverse range of people to come and share their thoughts and opinions, people  from different Scottish scenes and beyond, over 24 days. So much more accessible/interesting than the usual bland soundbites from suited politicians on the telly. I’d love to have gone to more and wondered: might it be an idea to offer a kind of ‘season’ ticket/discount, say 10 shows for the price of 5? Same with Aye Right? How No?, where the guests differ every day.

Finally, an evening by Nasty Little Press and the poets they publish, at Jura Unbound in the Spiegeltent at Edinburgh Book Festival. I wasn’t sure what to expect but (or perhaps because of this)  it turned out to be my highlight of the Fringe.  Especially enjoyed Molly Naylor, who I’d not heard of, and Luke Wright, Tim Clare and Elvis McGonagall were brilliant – hilarious, sharp and visceral. Yes, I can use the word visceral about performance poetry, and i will 🙂

I’d gone there thinking I’d check it out for an hour or two, and then found myself staying in the atmospheric Spiegeltent, having a drink and a chat and a laugh until the wee small hours, then wandering home through handsome, buzzy Edinburgh, all manner of people out and about. For a few minutes everything made sense, and that moment always comes at some point during the Fringe, which is why I love it.

Antonio O'Connell's installation piece at Summerhall
Antonio O’Connell’s installation piece at Summerhall




Self-publishing recommendations?

I have finished the draft of my book which is exciting (and will post more about it/why I’ve written it in the next while*). This means I am close to the next stage: publishing it! There’s no guarantee an established, traditional publisher will say yes to it and it takes weeks or months to hear back from them, if you do at all. I don’t want to wait that long and also like the idea of having control over the cover design etc.

THEREFORE I’ve decided to go down the self-publishing route. I am looking for recommendations. (I know there’s Google but I like traditional word of mouth too).

Please let me know if you or someone you know has found a self-publishing firm you like, and why,

It’s a short, non-fiction paperback – and here’s a bit more detail about what I’m looking for, if that helps:

1) Obviously, good quality yet affordable (I have a small budget and expect prices to reflect quality – but not to the extent they are extortionate!)

2) Produces arty/slightly DIY (as in creative, not rubbish) designs

3) Allows you to use your own cover design (or even does it for you from a brief)

4) Option of having images/illustrations on pages inside the book

5) Has links to independent bookshops/websites as potential stockists (if this is something one can do). I am NOT bothered about e-books or having an Amazon link

Thank you!

*This picture’s a clue to one of the reasons

From Give It All, Give It Now by Annie Dillard
From Give It All, Give It Now by Annie Dillard


So. You are arranging the 2014 programme for the biggest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh International Festival. This same year, in September, the country hosting the Festival will be asked: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

It follows that the theme of the programme of events will be inspired by or reflect this, right?

Er, no. There is nothing in the Edinburgh International Festival programme connected to the Referendum. There are a couple of productions touching on the theme of national identity, but focusing on this major, upcoming political event? Nothing at all. I could scarcely believe this. What a missed opportunity. Aren’t the arts meant to engage, encourage debate, stimulate, make you question pre-held beliefs? This year, there was the opportunity for food for thought that could be highly relevant to Scottish audience members, and of interest to people from elsewhere, if well presented.

Luckily the Edinburgh Fringe, like a younger, pluckier, more creative relative of the International Festival, has a few shows touching on the Referendum. Indeed, it seems some are here in response to the strange absence of the subject in the Festival programme. And in appreciation of this, I am going to attend a handful (however many my small budget will stretch to). Most of them seem to represent the Yes side, but I’d like to see something on the No side, in the interests of balance.

So, even though I had one of the best arts experiences last summer thanks to the International Festival (Patti Smith and Philip Glass, doing poetry and songs. It was powerful and sublime, and I don’t often use that word), I won’t attend anything from their programme this year. The  once-in-a-lifetime referendum is where it’s at, and so I’m going to leaf through the Fringe programme now and choose some shows. I’ll post some mini reviews here in due course…

And now: Walking down the Royal Mile earlier (in the crazy Fringe crowds, which is wonderful or a nightmare, depending on your frame of mind) and loved this shop window display of tinned haggis

Word Power Q&A

To mark (almost) 20 years in business, and ahead of the Edinburgh Book Fringe, starting on August 8,  here is a Q&A with Elaine Henry, owner of Word Power Books.

Q: How did Word Power come into existence?
A: (Smiles) It was a moment of madness.. well actually it was several years of moments of madness I suppose, because it’s such a big deal to set up your own business and something I’d never done before. I’d gone back to study, to Stirling University, to do the MPhil in publishing. It was in that year I got clear it was bookselling I wanted to do, to be on the other side of the trade really.

I did my thesis on radical bookselling, so that gave me a chance to visit a lot of radical bookstores down south. This was the early 90s, it was a thriving thing. There was still a Federation of Radical Booksellers, and I visited shops in places like Sheffield and London.

I had been a volunteer in Womanzone  in Edinburgh, which was a feminist bookshop just down the road, where Brazilian Sensation [café on Buccleuch Street] is now. In the mid 80s there were three radical bookshops: First of May, on Candlemaker Row; Womanzone and lesbian and gay bookshop Lavander Menace on Forth Street. So it gives you an idea of that time, and  books by radical publishers weren’t really taken up by the mainstream shops. You could argue maybe that all three couldn’t survive when the big chains started stocking the likes of Virago and The Women’s Press. They had prime locations and money; radical bookshops were down backstreets and didn’t have money.

So when they closed, it wasn’t because there wasn’t a demand or a need for these bookshops. There was still a market for them but it took a few years to build up to opening my own shop. I kept putting it off and thinking, ‘that’s too big’.  Then I started taking it seriously and tried to turn the fear on its head. I thought, ‘well, what’s the worst thing that could happen? As long as I don’t run up millions of pounds of debt, and end up without a roof over my head..’

So I opened Word Power in 1994 in these premises. I took a one year lease and didn’t know if it was  going to work. And here we are nearly 20 years on, which is just incredible to me and probably to anyone. So it’s very exciting.

Q: How have things changed over the years?
A: We are now a larger bookshop, we have knocked through to what was the joiners next door – that was a few years ago and enabled us to have more events in store. Nowadays we also publish books and have a website.

Q: And what about in terms of trade?
A: Business has been steady I would say but you’re always up against it. I was not aware of Amazon [launched in July 1994] when I started. In my mind they were not around then. From memory chain bookshops such as Waterstones were at a peak. They had a lot of strong author events, a good stock selection; they were on the up and they started stocking LGBT and gender issues books.

So it’s always been tough but we have our niche; we offer good customer service and have loyal customers and more than ever that’s important to survive.

Q: As mentioned previously, Word Power started in the same year Amazon was founded and, as someone on the outside, small indies surviving in its shadow seems quite remarkable! What’s your view?
A: I’ve always – and I don’t mean this in an arrogant way – carried on doing my own thing. There’s lots of things you can’t compete with them on but their knowledge of, say, more radical titles, small press titles, that’s their weakness really. And I don’t know if they still do, because I’m not an active visitor to their site, but they certainly used to put on a surcharge for what they called “hard to find” books, which would include pretty much anything from the small presses.

They are more interested in making money. Books are simply a commodity they sell. I try to offer something different. Customers interested in the stock we have do return, and those who have never been before are genuinely quite bowled over. I mean I’m not exaggerating by saying that; almost every day someone comments on the selection of books so we stand out in that way.

Q: Do you think you – and other indie bookshops – offer something special at a wider level too?
A: Yes, I don’t see us operating in isolation, we are very much part of the community. We have a well-used noticeboard, we are part of the Love Your Indie scheme, which aims to keep books on the high street, and we do a lot of book stalls at events, and offer a whole range of creative writing events and author events. We run the Independent Radical Book Fair every October. And this month the Edinburgh Book Fringe takes place.

Q: Tell us more about that.
A: We started the Book Fringe a few years ago, since we got the extra space. They are all free events because we really believe strongly that literary events should be accessible to all. Not everybody can afford £8 a ticket to see a writer. And again it links into trying to support the small presses, writers outwith the mainstream or local writers.  I’m aware that a lot of local writers don’t get a look-in at the Book Festival [the much larger Edinburgh International Book Festival which takes place in Charlotte Square Gardens] so this an opportunity to offer them the chance to participate during August.

There’s an intimacy you get here, and we always give a lot of time for questions and discussion. That’s equally as important as the writer speaking. It’s meant to be an inclusive as possible in that respect and they get asked more real questions rather than formulaic questions: you know, “Are you working on a new book?” and questions like that can get a bit dull. And in bigger audiences people can feel a bit intimidated about asking questions. Here writers can be a bit more revealing because of the intimacy and rapport that’s been built up. So all in all it works better for writers as well as the audience.

Q: Is the Book Fringe well attended?
A: Yes, events are generally well supported. Apparently the average audience at a Fringe show is four so you never know who you’re going to get through the door, it is a bit pot luck. But when Edwyn Collins came to do a reading he did an impromptu set of three or four songs and everyone had to cram up. There must have been about 100 people, who were treated to a private gig. We’ve had comedians like Stewart Lee and Mark Thomas. There’s much more unpredictability because they suddenly have great ideas of what they’re going to do. [Comedian] David O’Doherty decided just beforehand he wanted to project things on to the ceiling.

So it’s anything goes and much more in the original spirit of the Fringe as well: everything’s free, creativity is encouraged, heckling is fine..! We are free of corporate sponsorship so we can do what we want and let writers do what they want.

Q: Can you give us a couple of highlights from this year’s programme?
A: I am excited by all of the events at the Book Fringe! [Laughs]. Well, we have Selina Todd, author of The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910—2010, a fascinating book. The graphic novelist Bryan Talbot, who wrote Dotter of her Father’s Eyes with daughter Mary Talbot [about James Joyce’s daughter Lucia, it won the Costa biography prize] – they will be here with Kate Charlesworth, to discuss the trio’s graphic novel, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette.

Q: What subjects or books are popular just now?
A: Books related to the independence referendum are popular. We have just published, with National Collective, Inspired by Independence: Artists and Writers Imagine a Better Scotland.
A very popular book just now is Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. It’s surprising, you wouldn’t think a £30 hardback book on economics would sell so well, but it has.

Q: And in terms of reaching customers, how have you adapted over the years?
A: We took the plunge to have all books available in the UK on our website, so these days we sell all over the world. We weren’t at the cutting edge of social media but we do use Twitter and Facebook now. It seems to be the way things are going and it’s about targeting different groups. We are in extremely close proximity to the university, for example, but we don’t get as many student customers as we’d like.

Q: Why do you think that is?
A: There’s not necessarily a tremendous awareness among students about thinking about where you shop. It’s not unusual for them to come in and be checking the Amazon prices on their phones, or to actually say to you, “oh I’ll get that on Amazon, it’s cheaper”. There’s that lack of connection between the fact that, if everybody kept shopping on Amazon, there would be no bookshops left. It’s important people realise we are not just a showroom for online shopping here, we are a bookshop.

If you are doing a course and the book is there, right in front of you, why not make that leap and think, ‘I’m supporting a local shop  here, that’s a good thing to do. It may be £1 more but by the time I pay for postage and packing, and have to wait to be in to get book delivered, buying online is not necessarily so convenient.

Q: So do you find it’s the younger generation who will automatically choose Amazon?
A: It’s among students but not exclusively so. There was a massive difference when it was reported that Amazon were not paying taxes. A lot of people came in and said they weren’t going to use them again. It was good at the time but it’s quite easy for people to slip back into the ‘one click’ mentality. So it’s a big challenge.

But if you make the connection about supporting local shops, to buy your fruit and veg at the local greengrocers and not buy everything in Tesco – then supporting your local bookshop is a natural extension of that. It’s about joining the dots. Of course there’s enough people who are, and we are surviving, but it’s a precarious situation as always.

Q: Has the number of customers coming into the shop decreased since you launched your website?
I wouldn’t say so, a lot of customers still come in, and we encourage that. If it’s a textbook on a reading list and you’ve just got to buy it, that’s one thing, but if you’re looking for a novel then I think it’s so much nicer to be able to touch the books, read the back, see what it’s about. And to be able to choose. The range we stock is carefully selected. It’s customer recommendations, it’s small publishers, it’s books we’ve read, it’s authors we know who are worth stocking. It is hand-picked, effectively, in that way.


  • The 2014 Edinburgh Book Fringe takes place from August 8th to 23rd. See for more information.
  • And in November it is, officially, Happy 20th Birthday to Word Power 🙂 Keep an eye on the website or notices in the shop for details of planned celebrations

Appreciating Independents #3

(Read about why I started this series here)

Word Power Books, 43-45 West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9DB. 0131 662 9112

Word Power has been a part of my life pretty much ever since it opened, in 1994, largely due to my late (and hugely missed) mum regularly shopping there; for books (obviously) but also leftfield magazines, postcards, birthday cards and gift vouchers at Christmas time.

After my mum passed away last year, one of the ways I decided to pay tribute to  her, on a day-to-day basis, was to buy my books at Word Power. I’d shopped there before but, like so many, had been lured to Amazon over the past few years, with its promise of cheap prices and buying without having to leave the house (and yet, how did the latter become such a selling point?). I wasn’t entirely comfortable about online shopping, and the threat to high street shops however. Then I read about this and decided I would not – could not – buy from them.

Perhaps I should also add, I worked in James Thin (George Street, Edinburgh) and Hatchards (Piccadilly, London), both places adding to  my appreciation of characterful bookshops, where range of stock and higgledy-piggledy shop layouts (plus many interesting colleagues) were part of the rich experience. Not monthly financial targets (that was a priority at another  bookshop I worked at, a chain where  always disappointing sales figures were displayed on a whiteboard in the staffroom, just in case you wanted to feel gloomy while eating lunch) .

So about a year ago I started going to Word Power again. And how pleased I am to have made this decision! The first time, I went in to order a book (they can order any book published in the UK). But I browsed too – it’s like a sweetie shop for book lovers, so impossible not to – and really enjoyed looking at the varied stock. Fascinating political and women’s studies books; novels and short story collections, beautifully bound with colourful and intriguing covers, and that’s just for starters. And here you don’t just stare at the titles on a computer screen, impatiently scrolling down for the price. You can pick them up, touch them, read the blurb, take a few minutes to decide if you wish to buy it.

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I stumbled across a book I’d been wanting to buy for ages (A Sideways Look at Time by Jay Griffiths). This, combined with the friendliness of the owner and her dog Marshall (who lies by the till and, if he’s not sleeping, paws you to say hello), and being able to carry my book home, there and then…well, it all made this shopping experience, and ones since then, a pleasure. Perhaps it cost a couple of quid more than it would online, but, in terms of shopping satisfaction (and zero frustration), isn’t that money well spent?

Word Power is 20 years old this November. It also has an exciting line-up for its Edinburgh Book Fringe, which starts this Friday, August 8th. I spoke to owner Elaine Henry about the beginnings of Word Power  and how the first two decades have been – see the  next post.

Hot hot hot

Haven’t posted for a while as I was in Manchester then London for a week and a bit. Lovely to see old friends – now for the complaining bit, from a Scot who moans about cold, dreich winter days yet can’t handle the summer heat.

That’s not strictly true, I can sometimes handle it and very well too. I love holidaying in hot climates and worked on farms in Italy in the middle of summer, on days when the temperature reached 32 degrees. However, at times like these you work with the temperature, you don’t battle against it. In other words, you sightsee/work in the mornings and evenings and, at the hottest part of the day, you STOP. You go indoors, enjoy some food and drink, chill out and maybe have a quick, reviving siesta. Then you’re refreshed and ready for the late afternoon and evening too.

In London I arranged to sightsee and meet friends in the middle of the day, as you do. Almost every tube journey was horrendous, because it was in 30+ degree heat (higher inside I expect) with no air conditioning. I don’t even like travelling by tube and normally get the bus, but my god, they were even worse – I ‘nipped’ on the 56 from where I was staying in Walthamstow , to meet a friend in Islington (not very far in London terms) but it was rush hour and the bus really was like a greenhouse. I was sweating buckets by the time I arrived – you’d have thought I’d hiked there from the Sussex Downs or somewhere.

My last day there, I met friends for a picnic in St James’s Park, and was DELIGHTED to discover the Circle Line had a/c. As I waited for the connecting tube at Moorgate (a City station and very quiet at the weekend), the cool air blowing round the platform, I half-considered spending the rest of the afternoon there. I even had a mobile signal so could’ve been entertained for hours.

I enjoyed all the classic views of London but didn’t record them – I don’t have a decent camera and besides things like sunsets never quite look as good in a photo as they do at the time.

But, these caught my eye: Tiled tube station/sign; Summer is: a picnic on a tartan rug; chewing gum turned into pictures on the Millennium Bridge; sun catching the exterior of Tate Modern (Matisse and Malevich exhibitions both worth a visit); my friend Matthew’s shoes. He bought them on Boxing Day and already they are well-worn (shouldn’t all shoes be well-worn?) – sometimes when he doesn’t fancy public transport he does a two-hour walk from his home in south London to his work near the Barbican. Good on you Matthew!


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