With the latest funding application finally on its way, it’s time to focus on much more enjoyable things in my role as Writer in Residence for the Forth Bridge. First up is the buzz of Book Week Scotland.
It’s hard to put into words how much I love this annual celebration of the written word. I am one of those writers who does love a live book event, and I was particularly excited about returning to our bridge for a celebration of Forth Bridge Stories. Having spent the whole trip south working on copy edits for Rivet Boy, my own Forth Bridge novel which is due for the printer’s soon, I jumped off the train at Dalmeny and wandered down towards South Queensferry Library.
Nicola, the library team leader and her lovely staff Heather and Scott were already there. I was momentarily speechless – the artwork sent in by school children for our Forth Bridge competitions was displayed beautifully along one wall. There was a varied collection of Forth Bridge books along another, and the huge window afforded glimpses of the actual bridge in the background. If Carlsberg made book event venues…
Moments later, enthusiasm on legs walked through the door in the form of Frank, one of the local research group The Briggers, and co-organiser of the event with Nicola and myself. In the months leading up to this day, I had secretly called us the three musketeers. He was definitely the one with the overview: who is coming, who can’t make it, what is needed, what is missing. Nicola began to ring some of the competition winners, so that they could attend the evening’s event and receive their prizes in person.
As the MC for the evening, I was trying my hardest to keep up with the speed of Frank’s brain, jotting down notes and then inserting more. He had looked out a whole selection of possible Forth Bridge readings for people to recite. We both crawled around in search of suitable power points for the amplifier and microphone and experimented with positioning in order to avoid feedback. I begged the library staff for masking tape for a game, leading to an epic scale search, involving several search parties. It was unsuccessful, but parcel tape would do too. It’s amazing how quickly an afternoon can fly by, occupied by this sort of faffery.
Time for a coffee with a pal, and dinner with Frank and his wife Mary Frances. A hurried application of mascara for half-hearted glamour, and we were ready to go. All we needed was people to turn up.
It has to be said: the great and the good of South Queensferry kept us on our toes. A couple of Frank’s volunteers showed up, including Len who was going to demonstrate the riveting process in a hands-on way. But where was the audience?
‘Still ten minutes to go, nothing to worry about,’ Nicola whispered calmly, before pacing by the doorway again herself, her eyes darting to the darkness outside. My friend Justin, a fellow author of children’s fiction, appeared to my intense relief. Not only is he a Forth Bridge local from North Queensferry, but he is an experienced and entertaining performer. I could be confident of one great contribution at least.
Five minutes to go. Two or three people trickled through the door. I wasn’t even convinced they had come for the event, but I enthusiastically wrestled them towards the empty chairs anyway. ‘Great, do take a seat. We’re about to make a start.’ They must have known that any argument was futile, and complied.
With less than three minutes to spare, the impossible happened. It was as if an invisible portal had opened in the darkness beyond the library door. Old and young, families and friends crowded in and filled the seats. At half past six, the library staff brought through extra chairs from the children’s section. The relief!
After Nicola’s warm welcome, I began with a Forth Bridge jumping quiz and invited volunteers, old and young, to stand on my parcel tape (ahem) line on the floor. I read out ten Forth Bridge statements which were either true or false, and on my command, participants had to jump forwards for true and backwards for false, keeping score of how many they had got right. I wish you could have been there: the sight of grown men twisting in mid air in attempt to change their minds!
Next came the announcements of the competition results. The winner of the P1-P3 artwork section had actually travelled from Perth to collect her prize. In keeping with Book Week Scotland, the prizes were either picture books or book vouchers. The girl whose entry topped the upper primary writing competition was also present to read out her winning entry – no mean feat for such a young writer. It fell to Nicola to recite Bridge Banter, the winning entry in the adult writing competition as Kennedy Meechan was unable to be there on the night.
Onwards: readings from Justin (about children and monsters being chased by ghouls on Inchgarvie island) and myself (about the first time my Victorian brigger boy ascends the bridge to work), a couple of newspaper articles from the building of the bridge, ably read by the library’s own Heather. Len’s fun and memorable riveting demonstration followed, involving children operating bellows and throwing rivets across the library with tongs, and an all-age group challenge of building a bridge only using their bodies in one minute, with surprisingly bendy results.
And it was time for the open mic. Scott from the library tackled a terrifying Forth Bridge poem in a range of poetic meters, jumping merrily from iambic pentameters to dactyls, trochees, anapaests and whatever else you can think of. I had a go in the staffroom a little earlier and got stuck after only two lines. In fairness, he spent most of his tea break practising.
I was particularly pleased that so many were willing to make themselves part of the event – local writer and musician Peter read a poignant poem he had penned himself, paying tribute to the loss of life during the bridge’s construction, before entertaining us all with a more light-hearted anecdote. Another gentleman offered a brief reading, Len contributed the tale of a pilot saved by recognising the bridge and using it to navigate his way to safety, and Frank, as a retired engineer, fittingly read from Victorian engineers’ records about the building of the bridge. At the busiest time, we think there were about fifty in attendance.
Goodness! Was that really the time? Reluctantly, I brought proceedings to a halt.
After all, these remarkably patient children would need their beds! Besides, the library staff had put in a shift and a half, to put it mildly.
Their writer in residence was utterly wiped out.