Monthly Archives: May 2015

Michael F. Russell takes to the stage at Ullapool!

I’ve attended all 11 Ullapool Book Festivals, writing up eight or nine hour-long sessions per May weekend for the West Highland Free Press. This year was different. As well as my usual piece for the paper I was also one of the featured authors. Thanks to the team at Polygon my first novel ‘Lie of the Land’ is due to be published on the 16th of June. So my eleventh Ullapool Book Festival was special indeed. Number 10, as it happens, was pretty good too: reading a selection of my published micro-fiction brought me to Polygon’s attention.

Lie of the Land

Lie of the Land

As far as the mechanics of staging the event are concerned, Joan and the other committee members, the sound technicians, Ceilidh Place staff and the women in the FairTrade marquee (baking galore), delivered an eleventh May weekend to cherish. They make hard work look easy. If it’s of a mind to, Loch Broom in spring might lend a hand, and it often does, though it can just as easily try to disperse the crowd with water cannons.

Being a complete novice, my goal was simple – don’t mess it up. My best guess is that I didn’t, although I have nothing to compare it to, no benchmark of manageable performance anxiety to measure my appearance against.

That being said, there are a number of scenarios that would most certainly have constituted messing it up, even in the eyes of the most generous and fair-minded member of the audience. Those scenarios are too painful for me to delineate, though I can say they occupy a spectrum that ranges from incipient to full-blown mental collapse, with simian-like sub-vocality thrown in for good measure.

I’m glad to say that none of that happened. While I’d stop short of saying my session (quizzed by the literary mainframe that is Stuart Kelly, in front of 200 people) produced a state of emotional equilibrium, it showed me what is possible. Hopefully, I can continue to develop as a writer, and there will be other festivals; other gatherings of creative and thoughtful people. It’s possible. But there is only one first time for anything, and I’ll always remember Ullapool 2015.

Here’s to the future, and to not messing things up.

Michael F. Russell

Sikkim and Scotland

Andrew Duff, author of Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom reflects on how he put his book together, and the connections he found between that distant province and his home in Scotland. 

In September 2014, just as the fever over the Scottish referendum peaked, I found myself writing the closing chapter of my first book, Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom (the story behind India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1975).

I had often thought of comparisons between Scotland and the tiny Himalayan kingdom perched between Nepal and Bhutan. Here was a small, self-contained country whose people were generous and welcoming in a way that would not have been amiss in the Scottish Highlands. The terrain, too, sometimes conjured up thoughts of home: Sir Francis Younghusband, the adventurer whose infamous 1904 expedition passed through Sikkim en route to Tibet, found that the rivers reminded him of nothing more than a day fishing near Kelso.

The connection went deeper. I had first discovered Sikkim thanks to my grandfather, who had moved from Scotland to India in 1920. Two years later he had walked into Sikkim from nearby Darjeeling. He had left notes and photographs of the journey which I used to pore over as a child, captivated by the pictures of enormous mountains, rushing streams and spectacular Buddhist monasteries perched on hilltops. It looked so different from the image of India that dominated the UK media.

In 2008 I decided to take a one-way flight to India, with my grandfather’s Himalayan notes and photographs tucked in the bottom of my rucksack. By April 2009 I had reached Darjeeling where I began to follow my grandfather’s footsteps, walking down 5000 feet to the river that marks the border into Sikkim.

Sikkim - 8pp mono plate section

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a magical journey through an extraordinary landscape, but it was in a hill-top monastery that I started to learn something about Sikkim’s past – and moved towards the next Scottish connection.

The monk told me the remarkable tale surrounding India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1975, and about the last King Thondup’s marriage to American Hope Cooke, who some in India had believed was a CIA agent. The story seemed improbable enough, but when it turned out the monk had been the right hand man to the King, I was completely hooked.

On my return to the UK, I started to dig further into the story. I found two Scottish women who had taught at a school in Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok. Both had been close to the palace, and had written weekly letters home throughout the 1960s and 1970s when the relationship between Sikkim, India and China had been at its most tense, spilling over into war in the Himalayas.
One of them put me in touch with Hope Cooke (still alive in New York and who had her own affinity for Scotland via her first governess). Although she was unwilling to interview about the events in Sikkim, she encouraged me to delve deeper into the story, again emphasising Sikkim’s Scottish connections.

King Thondup and Hope Cooke

As I read her extraordinary confessional autobiography Time Change, I discovered another Scot at the centre of Sikkim’s drama: the so-called Kazini of Chakung, the wife of the main politician in Sikkim opposed to King Thondup and Hope Cooke. It took some time to track down the Kazini’s true identity; in Sikkim there are many who still think she was Belgian. In fact she was a Scottish adventuress par excellence: already through two husbands by the time she met the Kazi, she had been Elisa-Maria Langford Rae when they married. I eventually discovered she had been born plain Ethel Maud Shirran in the small town of Doune, in Central Scotland. Her amazing capacity for reinvention fitted with a story that just grew and grew. That she should have ended up in a book alongside Henry Kissinger, Mao Zedong, Kufikar Ali Bhutto, and Indira Gandhi would have tickled her immensely.

When my book comes out next month, I’m sure there will be those who draw analogies between the referendums held in Scotland last September and that held in the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim when it was absorbed into India in 1975. In truth, the circumstances were very different. During the late stages of my research, for instance, I discovered British and American intelligence records that confirmed what many had told me anecdotally: that Sikkim’s referendum had not been left to chance. In fact things had got so bad that one of the missionary teachers had resorted to writing home in broad Scots (to confuse the Indian government censors who were opening every letter) when she wanted to get the message out about the dubious actions of the Indian government and its intelligence agents in Sikkim. It made me reflect on the extraordinarily polite and peaceful conduct of the Scottish referendum.

There are many more connections between Scotland and Sikkim, many of which hark back to more than a century before any of the examples given above. But that’s another story!

I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it – mostly from a cottage in the Angus glens – and that it might lead to more connections between Scotland and this fascinating corner of the world, now India’s 22nd state.

Andrew Duff

Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom is available for pre-order now on the Birlinn website, and will be available in all good bookshops from 14 May