10 Brilliant Books by Dundonian Writers
For this week's blog, guest author Robin Crawford takes us through 10 great books by Dundonian writers.
You get a great view of Dundee from the Tay bridges. Road and rail transition the traveller a mile or so across the river at the narrowest point between the Kingdom of Fife and the metropolis. They set the city within its landscape. To your left the surprise of the vast expanse of water as it widens just past Perth twenty miles away to the west. Fat mottled seals basking on exposed tidal sandbanks; behind, the Sidlaw Hills dotted with intricately carved Pictish stones, fields striped by row upon row of berries; and to the right out past Broughty Ferry castle on its promontory the golf links at Carnoustie and the North Sea. Ahead the city is stacked upon itself from waterfront to the beacon on top of the Law, the pinnacle hill on which the iron age dun(fort) first oversaw the growth of the town.
I’ve imagined what books my customers in Dundee have loved and what books I’d recommend to visitors coming for the first time.
Along the water is a tiny airport built on reclaimed land; the rigid iron girders of the railway bridge as it crosses the water suddenly curve into the city centre; the masts and funnel of Scott of the Antarctic’s ship “Discovery” is moored beside the new V&A museum, all angular, nautical shapes, yet organic too. On the other side of the road bridge white horizontal cruise ships dock against a backdrop of white vertical ‘multis’ – two different lifestyles at right angles. Once thriving docks are still home to a rusting light ship, the hulk of the mastless “Unicorn”, occasional North Sea oil support vessels, and wind turbine fabricators – the criss cross grids of their girders echoed in the floodlights of Tannadice (United) and Dens Park (Dundee), the city’s football teams that share a street but are forever divided.
Straight ahead lies the bookshop where I work. I’ve imagined what books my customers in Dundee have loved and what books I’d recommend to visitors coming for the first time. What would give them a flavour of the of the city’s literary culture across a range of genres, beginning with a twist on a classic, like the city itself, the same yet different.
“Whut? Whut’s a gruffalo whin it’s at hem?”
“A gruffalo? Yi mean yi dinnae ken?”
What could be a better introduction for a child to reading than ‘The Gruffalo’? Julia Donaldson’s wonderfully constructed rhymes turn parents and carers into expert storytellers. There is a familiarity to the story going back generations, a classic and reassuring repetition that comforts the reader and introduces the listener to a wider tradition. The illustrations that compliment the text are rooted in Axel Scheffler’s German upbringing, as the landscape is a Northern European one full of the creatures we see here – foxes, owls, mice. We feel like know this place; is it Tentsmuir Forest just over the water in Fife or Camperdown Woods to the north of the city?
to read “whut”, not “whit” or “what”, is a powerful, reassuring and affirming experience.
By publishing in dialect ‘Thi Dundee Gruffalo’ brings a local familiarity, stressing the importance of naturalness and honesty. To a culture outside both the British and Scottish mainstream it is vital from the very beginnings a child’s reading experience should be rooted in who they are and not in some perceived ‘correct’ language. Translator Matthew Fitt and his colleague James Robertson (see below) have been the driving force behind the cultural shift that has seen the Scots language – in all its diversity – adopted into the educational and literary centre ground in the post-devolution period.
To see a Dundonian shrug their shoulders and exclaim “Ah dinnae ken!” is to capture a tiny but vital essence of the city. For, say, a grandfather (perhaps not a great reader himself) to see in a book as famous as ‘The Gruffalo’ that phrase, to read “whut”, not “whit” or “what”, is a powerful, reassuring and affirming experience.
When Mathilde joins the class everyone wants to welcome the new girl. They show her around and let her into all their secrets, but there’s one thing about her that doesn’t seem quite right – she loves school dinners! In this Blue Peter award-winning book, Dundee teacher Butchart knows just how to tell a story from a child’s point of view. As someone who struggled to read as a child she knows the importance of pictures, and the illustrations by Thomas Flintham are an essential part of this wonderful reading experience.
With the appearance of graphic novel ‘Sabrina’ on the Man Booker shortlist this year, there has been a general recognition that a watershed moment has been reached for the genre. Dundee has long been at the forefront of the comics industry both in terms of education – offering the UK’s first degree on the subject – and as a commercial powerhouse. Publishers D.C. Thomson are synonymous with the best quality comic art and whilst Scots at home and abroad adore ‘The Broons’ and ‘Oor Wullie’, it is ‘The Beano’ – celebrating its 80th year in 2018 – that is loved universally by readers from 5 to 105. By taking its perspective from the kid’s point of view, the rebellious tone has been a constant appeal to readers for generations.
If you can’t get a table at the ever popular Parlour Cafe in Dundee, then this recipe book allows you to try some dishes at home. Both cafe owner Gillian Veal, and Emily Dewhirst of Kitchen Press, (the local publisher) are driven by a rebellious spirit and a fresh way of looking at things. Simple, cool design compliments the recipes. Delicious.
A dramatic incident from the city’s past – the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 – features in the plot of former journalist Sue Lawrence’s gripping novel. A Victorian woman’s husband disappears; was he on the ill-fated train that plunged into the river that stormy December night? In the present day at Dundee airport is another wife, another missing man. In this tightly plotted mystery Lawrence weaves the two tales together.
Marra was a musical legend more famous for his influence on others than for his own work. It is this cultural reach as a singer, songwriter, producer and actor that James Roberston brings out in this wonderful book. Like many of my choices, it is heavily illustrated – there are paintings, photographs and drawings by Marra and his contemporaries (my particular favourite is Marra’s depiction of Roberston as a church minister “not much in demand on the Burns Club circuit”). As a celebrant of the underdog, Marra was Dundonian to his core.
There is not much about Dundee that archivist Norman Watson hasn’t seen, read or written about over the years. In his most recent publication, he gives a fascinating account of the suffrage movement in the centenary of women finally gaining the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Imprisonments, hunger strikes and acts of militancy – including egg-throwing at Winston Churchill – are all documented in this fascinating book.
Educated at Dundee High School, A L Kennedy has been at the very pinnacle of the Scottish literary renaissance since the 1990, and won the Costa Book of the Year for ‘Day’ in 2007. This is her first novel and introduces the reader to some of her trademark qualities: dark realism twinned with fantasy. Always interesting, challenging and highly readable, Kennedy keeps alive the fine Scots literary tradition of duality by also performing as a stand-up comedian.
The dark underbelly of douce suburban Dundee is exposed in this crime novel by political journalist Andrew Nicoll. Based on the real life murder of Jean Milne, to all outside appearances a respectable, Edwardian, Broughty Ferry spinster, the book gradually reveals a web of deceit, hidden passions, cover-ups, bigotry and brutal killing.
“Beautiful silvery Tay/With your landscapes, so lovely and gay…” William Topaz McGonagall may be the only Dundonian versifier you’ve heard of, but there is a rich seam of contemporary poets in the city. Gary Robertson’s ‘Pure Dundee’ is a celebration of the vernacular of the schemes; W.N.Herbert writes in both Scots and English and Don Paterson has won just about all the major poetry prizes there are to win, including the Queen’s Medal for Poetry. As a highly gifted poet, translator, editor and teacher, Paterson's latest book on poetry is both fascinating and inspirational.