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.

5 Fuss-Free Last-Minute Ideas for Book Week Scotland

Book Week Scotland is next week! Here are 5 fuss-free ways of celebrating with your school or library.

  1. Run a Book Quiz. Here are some ready-made PowerPoint quizzes about all things kid-lit which I made earlier. They even come with a wee Scottish twist. Quiz 1, Quiz 2 and Quiz 3 are ready to use and come with solutions and instructions.
  2. Battle of the first paragraphs. Wrap ten books in brown paper or newspaper. Number them. Get your class ready to rate them from 1 (boring) to 10 (really intriguing) after listening. Read the opening paragraph out and give children a few seconds to rate the book’s start, then move onto the next one. Finally, establish which book scored the highest and do the big reveal, ripping the temporary covers dramatically from the books. Kids love doing this too. It’s a great way to enthuse young people about books they wouldn’t have picked up, and also offers a good creative writing discussion about what makes for a compelling opening.
  3. Run a Blind Date with a Book show. All you need are some willing volunteers. Here is a script with instructions you can use. To this day, I think it’s the most successful book activity I have done.
  4. Pitch contest. Get pupils to pitch books they have liked in a single tweet. For extra fun, cut out Bird-shapes out of white paper and mount them on a light blue background. Explain hashtags, hooks and compelling word choice and ask someone like the head teacher to judge the competition and if you can, offer a prize. Many pupils will be less daunted by writing concisely.
  5. Book Comics. Here is how to turn a book into a comic. We may be more constrained with costumes just now, but you can add to the hilarity by handing the groups some newspaper they can use to create hats/weapons/whatever they need. Again, this can be a competition if you wish. Bottom line is: have fun. If pupils create three freeze frames per book, why not display them so that the others in the school can guess which book is represented? It can make for a memorable display.