Readers in Residence: adventures in North Lanarkshire
When I was told back in August that I'd been awarded a Reader in Residence post with the Scottish Book Trust (I always like to use that full title, so many gorgeous words), I squealed with delight. Then I phoned round my family and friends to give them the good news. One friend said I had the coolest job title in Britain. At least two others, remembering my childhood cultivating a pale blue complexion and leper-like social status in my bedroom surrounded by books, said I had finally found the role I'd been born for. I explained that it didn't mean being paid to close the door of my house and read for a year, but they didn't really believe me.
Actually, since taking up my post, I've spent far more time out of the house - riding on buses, touring the community, and even, quite literally, getting lost in the wilderness - than I have in many years. As a freelance arts journalist you spend a lot of time writing in your bedroom, venturing outside only to attend film screenings, book readings and the odd radio studio. Now I have an office in the grand old surroundings of Motherwell Library and I regularly visit other libraries and venues in North Lanarkshire.
Within a couple of weeks of my residency starting I was plunged into the region's month-long arts festival, Encounters. I found myself at special Bookbug sessions, meeting feisty, friendly three-year-old book lovers (one saw me sitting with my legs crossed and simply dropped into my lap, demanding I read Hairy McLairy to him).
I went to author readings, the most memorable with the formidable Motherwell-born Liz Lochhead in her onetime local library. I launched an informal, friendly and informative newsletter which has been sent to over 10,000 library users in North Lanarkshire every month since, notably increasing the number of people engaging with the libraries' Facebook page. I organised a children's book competition. I took a deep breath.
But there was no time for leisurely deep breathing. Book Week Scotland was almost upon us. I spent much of the week itself tearing around local supermarkets, hairdressers, dentists, GPs' surgeries, amusement arcades, bus stops, train stations, fitness centres and even Shotts prison, secreting specially bound books in unexpected places for our Great Escape campaign. It was all worth it the minute we got our first tweet from a chap who had just stumbled upon a Kafka in Cumbernauld shopping centre and was going straight home to read it.
I also spent a great morning with the lively bunch of reading enthusiasts from Cathedral Primary School. I persuaded The Big Issue to donate a pile of the best children's books of 2013, and invited the kids to grab the ones they wanted to take home, in return for voting for their favourite children's book gifts for Christmas. It really was delightful to see pictures of our local school pupils poring over books adorning an article instructing parents and grandparents across Britain what to buy their own offspring that year.
There was a short period of planning grace before Christmas, then I got stuck into the launch of my 'Drowned Village Poetry Competition', which finally opened to entrants (who must be North Lanarkshire library members) this week. I dreamt up the competition when I found out about the village of Bothwellhaugh in North Lanarkshire, which was deliberately flooded in 1965 to make way for Strathclyde Loch. The story - eerie and unsettling while also somehow romantic and enchanting - immediately sparked my imagination, and I thought it was a fantastic starting point for a poem.
It's an idea which seems to excite everyone, which is how I persuaded Liz Lochhead and Manic Street Preacher Nicky Wire to be my competition judges, and Scottish rock band Mogwai to agree to put the winning poem to music. It's even pricked the curiosity of The Sun, who have just called to tell me they're going to cover it in the newspaper. Of all the things I've ever done - including those years hanging out at the Oxo Tower with rock stars when I was a music journalist and Radio 1 producer - it makes my heart leap to think it's my work promoting poetry and libraries which has finally got me into The Sun.