Forth Bridge Writer in Residence Diary – Part 3

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.  

Some impressive entries for the art competition for P1-P3s. We received 135 entries for the competitions, far exceeding our expectations!

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.

A drawing filter protects kids’ identities online, but the ambition for the bridge challenge is unmistakeable!

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.

South Queensferry Library’s Scott, reciting a very challenging Forth Bridge poem

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.

Frank in action

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.

And selfishly:

Their writer in residence was utterly wiped out.

Forth Bridge Writer-in-Residence Diary – Part 2

My train rattled onto the bridge and I had to fight the sudden urge to announce to my crowded carriage: ‘Hey! Listen! I am the Writer-in-Residence for this bridge! Just so you know!’

What I did instead, coward that I am, is surreptitiously take a video and tweet it.

Oh well, it’s the thought that counts…

I’ll give you a laugh – as a joke, a Twitter pal actually designed me a little logo as Forth Bridge Writer in Residence. I wonder what you make of it, blurry as it is. I am still trying to work out whether I should be flattered by his portrayal, but one thing is certain: that head-dress takes some beating. Genius!

The artwork 🙂

So, what have I been up to as Writer-in-Residence? Well, at the risk of sounding boring, I have been doing battle with a lengthy funding application for a possible Forth-Bridge related book project. I really hope that this does get off the ground: a collaboration with a portrait photographer, profiling the many, many people who in some way are the faces of the Forth Bridge. You know the ones: those who maintain it, promote it, live beneath it, sail around it, paint it, proposed on top of it, research it, love it… – you get the idea. Wish us luck with the application! I am buzzing to get started.

Edits are shortly due for my forthcoming children’s book on the bridge, too. Rivet Boy is not out until February (if you are interested, you can pre-order here), but all the hard work for the author lies in the editing stages, long before publication. It’s my editor’s job to ask me the awkward questions: are the voices consistent? Can you add more atmosphere, or description, or drama? She will also gently point out my foibles – for example my propensity to use exclamation marks, or my unhelpful overuse of the words seem/seem to, kind/kindly/kind-looking, smile, gently, once more, all around me. Excitingly, an illustrator is working on chapter headings for Rivet Boy in the meanwhile. I always think that a children’s book comes to life with images and I am very excited to share the result with all of you early next year!

But right now, my focus is on Book Week Scotland. We are planning a really wonderful event with the South Queensferry Library, and if you love the Forth Bridge you will really enjoy it. Please consider joining the competition, too – and share far and wide, especially with schools! The more the merrier – I really hope to see some of you there! 🙂

Forth Bridge Writer in Residence Diary: Part 1

Crack of dawn.

I pull on my hoodie and tiptoe towards the car, careful not to make too much noise. I’ve got a bit of a drive ahead of me: Inverness to North Queensferry. At least the horizon is beginning to lighten.

My destination: The Forth Bridge and the YourView event raising funds for Barnardo’s. Photo: Miles Oglethorpe

Music and radio keep me company as I devour the miles down the infamous A9. I’m a bit nervous if I’m honest. There are several reasons for this.

  1. As of today, I am the Forth Bridge Writer in Residence. That’s wildly exciting, but also a little daunting. There will be many people to meet, and I can only hope that I will be able to deliver something of value to the organisations which have placed their trust in me.
  2. Today is also the Barnardo’s Your View event at the Forth Bridge. I will interview visitors as they arrive and depart and try to get a sense of what this bridge means to them.
  3.  ‘And while you’re there, Barbara, you may have a chance to go up the bridge if we can fit you in.’ My stomach churns. I am famous for my pathetic inability to countenance any kind of height at all, even the attic ladder is a step too far. And yet I nod at this. What’s wrong with me? Have I forgotten who I am?
My first day as Writer in Residence at the Forth Rail Bridge

Once I get near my destination, I begin to worry about other, insignificant things too – will I find a parking space? No need to fret: a Balfour Beatty employee beneath the bridge waves me enthusiastically towards their small car park. I am almost blinded by the off-the-scale-visibility of his attire, only second to the brightness of his smile.

‘I’m one of the volunteers,’ I whimper through the window, slightly defensively. I don’t think he could have cared less, already directing his cheerful waves at the next passing car. A lean man in a cap and raincoat waits beside my car, clutching a shoulder bag and an i-pad – ah, I recognise him from some of the Zoom meetings I attended: Miles, the Forth Bridge World Heritage Management Group Chairman. I feel better already. By the time I get to the portacabins, Katie Rawlings, the Barnardo’s special events manager, whizzes by. Wiry and fiercely cheerful, she weaves her way through the crowd and introduces me to what feels like the population of a small country. I do what I do best: reach for my notebook and begin:

‘Hi!’ If the total strangers before me are unsettled by my slightly deranged smile and welcoming gesture, they don’t show it. I continue: ‘Have you just come off the bridge? Was it amazing?’ The answers are always affirmative. I move to the heart of my task: ‘What does the bridge mean to you? Have you got any special connection? Any stories? Anecdotes?’

And so it begins. Shirley from Livingston remembers driving under the bridge on her second date, listening to music and discovering all the things she and her then-boyfriend had in common. ‘It’s just inspirational, this bridge. I marvel at the engineering, but it’s my thinking space too. I sit under the span when I have a problem or there is something on my mind. I’ve waited years to do this, to go up!’

Davie O’Donnell

Dunfermline’s Davie O’Donnell works for Network Rail and is often seen at Waverley Station in a top hat. Today, he has returned to the Forth Bridge to lend a hand. However, Davie has his own stories to tell too: He had his distinctive mass of white hair and his beard shaved off for charity atop the Forth Bridge as a fundraiser for MacMillan cancer support, by Rangers legend Mark Hately – not a day you could easily forget! The pages in my notebook are filling up fast: memories of Sunday school trips from Bo’ness to Kinghorn. According my interviewee, the highlight was winding down the windows of the train and throwing out pennies for luck over the water. Another lady recalled her four-year-old sister throwing out the entire contents of her fluffy purse – all her holiday money for Scarborough was gone – to her mother’s horror!

Kirstie had won a ballot to go across the Forth Road bridge in a minibus just the day before. ‘Quite unusual, I think, to do both bridges in a weekend. We got a tour and even walked in the cabling! And today I’m going up the Forth Rail Bridge!’ Soon after, I meet self-confessed adrenaline junkie May Macleod who abseiled from the bridge as a treat for her 60th birthday, years ago.

May Macleod abseiled from the Forth Bridge for her 60th birthday.

Barbara, a volunteer for the North Queensferry Heritage Trust recalls going up the Forth Rail Bridge in the ‘old hoist’ and regales me with a very entertaining dramatic performance of the experience: ‘It was going up in instalments, with a jolt, like this!’ she laughs, jiggling.  The North Queensferry Heritage Trust is also represented by Garry and Robert Irvine, with their portacabin display of images and documents attracting a steady flow of visitors. I also meet Malcolm, employed by Balfour Beatty down south, who never misses an opportunity to return to the Forth Rail Bridge. He shows me stunning photographs of the bridge’s delicate patterns, perfectly reflected in the still waters of the Forth.

90 years old, and not one bit daunted, it seems!

And still they arrive: the engineering enthusiast who travelled all the way from Liverpool, just to ascend the Forth Bridge. A son and his 90-year-old father, taking the hoist together as a birthday treat for the older man. A lady in reflective mood, paying tribute to her late father as she scales the bridge he loved, in memory of him. A young engineer who chose his professional path inspired by the Forth Bridge.

I spend a bit of time interviewing Colin Hardie, the Balfour Beatty Project lead a the Forth Bridge. His child refers to the structure as “Daddy’s bridge”. ‘I was so proud when she said that!’ he admits.

Some of the most impressive people I meet are the employees and volunteers: supervisors, site workers, scaffolders (can you imagine building a scaffold on that bridge!), safety inspectors and the Briggers, a local heritage group who ably demonstrate the Bridge’s impressive history, including a hands-on riveting demonstration.

I have a few misgivings about heading into that hoist…

Finally, the time has come. ‘Looks like you are going to get a chance to go up, Barbara, alongside the other volunteers.’ I am ushered to the safety briefing, kitted out with a fetching yellow vest and a stylish hard hat. No turning back. I am so grateful for my cheery sidekick Gillian who coordinates the region’s fostering for Barnardo’s. If she isn’t scared, then I need to get a grip of myself. How hard can it be?

Barnardo’s Gillian made me feel at ease. She wasn’t bothered by the height at all!

The hoist feels substantial enough, and in any case, I am too far gone now. Fear may have a hold on my mind, but I am not ready to embarrass myself in front of my new friends! I am going to stand on top of this bridge and if it’s the last thing I do…

The views are incredible!

Granted, my legs wobble a little as I emerge out of the hoist, but the overwhelming sense is one of space and freedom. The scale of the structure is immense, and the thought that Victorians built this without the aid of computer calculations and modern technology leaves me all but speechless. I am astounded that Berwick Law and Edinburgh Castle are clearly visible from here. There is a photographer, precariously balanced on a raised platform, ready to immortalise the moment, and I strike a pose.

It is almost dark by the time I retrace my steps to the car. As I chase the darkening clouds northwards, I ponder my luck. What a privilege, to be among those people, in that place, on this day.

As far as writer’s gigs go, this has got to be up there.

Pardon the pun!