Glasgow Writers: Gillian Mayes
Gillian Mayes is an academic who went over to the other side, taking the M.Litt. course in Creative Writing at Glasgow University.
She has written a great deal, starting at aged eleven with diaries which had to be abandoned when her children learned to read. Not quite true, but a large task of editing will have to be done at some point and she’s hoping not to be run over by a bus before it’s completed.
As an academic she’s the author, along with other people, of journal articles, reviews, research reports and a book – mostly in the area of child welfare and safety. On the fiction side, she’s had a number of pieces published, including a regular column of fiction for the Herald a few years ago. More recently she’s had short stories published in ‘New Writing Scotland’ and ‘thi wurd’.
She has a set of short stories, too, which are all based on the experience of grannyhood: ‘You don’t need to love slugs’.
She has given a number of readings, is hoping to do more and is currently looking for a publisher for her novel, ‘Marking Time’, a campus novel drawing on her time as an academic. If novellas were ever published, she has one of these too.
Finally, hello! That was me, writing about myself in the third person. An odd convention really.
Gillian is part of the Ten Writers Telling Lies Project – where ten of Glasgow’s most talented writers have got together with the musician Jim Byrne, to produce a book and CD. The product will be launched in 2017. You can catch a preview at the West End Festival 2016.
Excerpts from Gillian’s Work
A Chapter from the novel ‘Marking Time’ (contains some profanities)
I have to shout it twice. She’s out of breath, I’m gratified to note. It’s not just older people who fail after four flights of stairs.
‘Sorry I’m a bit late,’ she says. ‘I don’t really do mornings.’
I want to say, A bit late? A bit? I call twenty five minutes a lot. Do you realise I’ve not been able to settle to anything because I’ve been thinking you were coming any minute? There’s a double nougat stack of emails to answer and a pile of marking that would frighten a trout.
‘That’s all right. Have a seat and catch your breath.’
She starts pulling out notes, journal papers. A pair of tights falls on the floor and gets stuffed back into the bag.
‘I think I’m just getting a bit overwhelmed. I’ve got too much material, really.’
‘That’s ok. It’s normal. You can’t see the wood for the trees, sort of thing. Have you got any kind of plan? Or do you just want to show me the papers you’ve got?’
‘I thought I’d look at the long-term effects of child sexual abuse – like I said in my email. So I’ve got the topic. I’ve got masses of articles on eating disorders, and depression, and psychosis – there doesn’t seem to be much of a link there, alcoholism – sorry, alcohol dependency…’
She’s needing to do her roots. It’s clear that she dyes her own hair from the stark line of new growth in her fringe. Or is this a fashion? I wish I knew.
‘You need to remember – I’m sure I’ve said this in lectures – if you find a higher incidence of childhood sexual abuse in a group of depressed adults, for example, this says nothing about causality. Take any group of adults who have some sort of problem or psychopathology and you’ll find higher levels of early abuse. It doesn’t imply a causal relationship. Also you have to…’
‘But one of these papers says that eating disorders are caused by it.’
‘Maybe they’re overclaiming. I mean, this is what your critical review is about – you’ve got to think critically about what you read. Just because something is published doesn’t mean to say it’s good. Some of it’ll be good. But quite often if you think about what they’re saying there’s something wrong. Maybe they’ve only studied female psychology students, for example. You can’t make generalisations from that.’
‘I’ve a sort of plan,’ she goes on.
She dives back into her bag and produces a notepad. She flicks through it slowly. I look out the window at the magpies’ nest.
‘Here we are.’
I start to read it when there’s another knock at the door.
A youth from third year comes in early for the tutorial. He advances to the table with the chairs set round it.
‘Sorry Malcolm. Could you just wait outside a minute? I shouldn’t be too long.’
The boy smiles and chats to the girl briefly before going out, leaving the door ajar. I hear the word ‘club’. Is it a party, or could they possibly be talking about a student political society?
Close the fucking door, I don’t actually say. And don’t fucking mind me just sitting about here like a turnip while you conduct your social lives. Try fucking working instead.
‘This seems ok. You’re on the right tracks anyway. Maybe you need to fill in a bit more detail before starting to write it up. You can come…’
The ‘phone goes.
‘Excuse me,’ I say to the girl. ‘I’ll just see who it is.’
The voice sounds like a five year old.
‘I missed the lecture last week and just wondered if there were any handouts.’
‘May I ask who’s speaking?’
‘I’m in fourth year.’
There are one hundred and forty students in fourth year.
‘Yes, but do you have a name?’
‘Oh. Yes. Geraldine.’
‘Geraldine. Ok Geraldine. Yes, there were handouts. I can give you them at next week’s lecture, though. You don’t really need them just now.’
‘Are they not on the portal then?’
‘No. They’re not on the portal. They’re not things that can be uploaded. Which is why I brought hard copies to the lecture. But you can get them next week.’
‘It’s just that I’m not going to be here next week.’
‘I’ve got to go home. I live up north.’
‘I hope there aren’t any problems for you?’
‘No, it’s just cheaper if I go earlier.’
‘I see. Well why don’t you just drop in and collect them? I’m around all day pretty well. I’m lecturing from two till three but apart from that….’
‘Eh…I’m just off to work now.’
‘Have you got a lecture?’
‘No – my job. I work in Tesco’s.’
‘In that case I’ll put them in an envelope in my pigeonhole across the corridor and you can pick them up in your own good time.’
‘I was wondering whether they could be sent out to me. I don’t think I’ll be back in before the term ends…’
‘You just get a pal to pick them up then. Ok? Bye now.’
The girl in the room is fiddling through her papers.
‘Sorry about that. And I’m afraid we’ll need to stop now. I’ve got a tutorial group starting this minute. You can email me your plan when you’ve worked on it a bit more and then we can meet up for a longer discussion.’
Maybe scheduled for the afternoon, if you ‘do’ afternoons. Or will it have to be in the evening? The middle of the night?
I show her out and usher in the four who have been waiting outside. Of course there should be six altogether but this is the best attendance yet.
‘So. How are we all doing with ‘Creativity and Madness’?
When the tutorial is over, I grab my things for the lecture. Outside I bump into Tony, my neighbour in the corridor. He’s wearing a suit today. Not a funeral, it transpires, but a meeting with someone from HR.
‘You teaching?’ he asks
‘Fourth year. Last one of the season.’
‘Remember not to cheer at the end, then. Anyway, can I drop in later? I need to talk to you.’
‘Do you want to give me a clue or is it a nice surprise?’
‘Did you get a letter from HOD?’ he goes on.
‘No. Is that good or bad?’
‘It can only be bad, I think. I’ve been invited in to ‘have a chat’. That’s never good is it? I phoned Tessa to ask if she knew what it was about but she was saying nothing. Maybe you’re not getting one.’
‘God. Something else to worry about. Anyway, sorry – I need to rush. I’ll speak to you later. I’ll call in after my lecture.’
Like he says, it’s never good to ‘have a chat’. It might mean demotion, an all teaching contract. Siberia, even, if they’ve found a way of doing it. Such chats are always styled ‘consultation’ but the outcome never reflects the content. Thanks Tony, I think. Back to waking at four in the morning with worry. And at this time of year, not even birdsong.
I trudge along for the ten minutes it takes to get to the hall, carrying my laptop and a briefcase with handouts. I like them to have something to take away – a sort of party bag. I’m buffeted by crowds of students coming towards me who walk three and four abreast taking up the whole pavement. I won’t be pushed on to the road so I end up banging into a number of them. A girl’s bag gets locked with my briefcase and we do our best to smile. My arms are sore with the weight of everything and I begin to worry about the fight with technology that’s ahead. It’s raining and I wonder if it’s seeping into my lecture notes and washing out the hard copy written in ink. Everyone else seems to be carrying a large polystyrene cup. Have they taken over from phones as the new transitional objects – ‘sooky blankets’ for grownups? I promise myself a decent coffee after the lecture and positively will the next hour to fly. At last I struggle through the heavy doors of the Maths Building and make my way up to the staff toilet on the third floor. I’ve just been to the loo but of course need it again. I check my hair in the mirror. The last time I looked I was twenty six. What happened?
Most of the class have arrived but they’re still standing about chatting in groups. They sound excited but I suspect it’s not about me or my lecture. The majority haven’t noticed I’m there. I look round them boldly – this is a well- practised tactic – and exchange a couple of smiles. There are so many in the class I can’t hope to know their faces, far less their names. I tell them at the beginning of the session to say hello if I should be walking past without acknowledging them. This is probably better than the earlier strategy of smiling at everyone under twenty four in the street.
Bugger. The previous lecturer has undone all the plugs for projecting from laptop to screen. And the connections are numerous and deeply mysterious.
My head is still under the table. Perhaps these children have not been taught the importance of eye contact. But I mustn’t call them children.
‘I just wanted to ask you something about…’
The student tails off.
‘It won’t take a minute…’ she persists.
‘Can you come at the end please? I’ve still got to sort this out and we need to start soon.’
On the wall there’s a printed code for the wiring but it bears no relation to what I can see. After five minutes I decide to go with the visualiser instead. Thank goodness for the old overheads. But that previous idiot bastard has also raised the screen. Since this is the last lecture theatre in the University to be modernised, it’s manual rather than electronic and I have to jump to pull it down since the loop is high up. I manage to reach it on the third attempt. It’s very hot in the room and I’m aware my face is red in spite of wearing summer clothes on a winter’s day.
‘Ok can we begin now?’
The noise is deafening. It’s like a toddlers’ party.
‘Can we start now?’ I bawl.
Two students notice I’m trying to speak and look at me encouragingly.
‘Qui-et!’ I scream.
They all look at me, surprised.
‘Today I want to talk about medical models of psychological abnormality and the problems associated with a category system. The idea that so-called mental diseases can be classified in the same way as physical diseases – into discrete categories so that, for example, you’ve either got ‘schizophrenia’ or you haven’t. Just like you either have measles or don’t have measles.’
I look round the class, trying not to favour the right hand side. A girl on the second front row is looking intently at me while she spoons soup into her mouth from a bowl.
‘I want us to consider whether this is valid, reliable or in any way appropriate and I’ll be looking at some of the evidence on these questions today. Just as a first thought: remember – mental patients don’t always have the grace to fit into categories that other people devise for them.’
This is my favourite line and I like to get it in early in case I forget. I also worry in case I’ve already used it with this group. Forgetting is generally a bit of a problem. Sometimes in the middle of a subordinate clause I forget how I started. I’ve stopped covering up. Now I just ask the class – how did I start that? What was I talking about? I suspect they don’t believe me.
I’m nearing the end now. My mouth is dry but the empty glass provided is dirty and the water jug is full of tadpoles.
‘So – on the validity question for today – we need to think about the role of social context when diagnoses are being made. As I hope you now realise, diagnostic categories are not derived objectively and psychiatrists are actually making social judgements about a person’s behaviour. Just think about someone having auditory hallucinations. As I’ve said, these are really quite common in the so-called normal population – between ten and fifteen per cent of people hear voices, particularly under certain conditions. But one man’s hallucination will bring him a diagnosis and career as a mental patient, while another will be revered for the very same thing. Just think about religious believers.’
I suddenly have the thought that there will be fundamentalists in the class:
‘Dear Vice Chancellor, I was deeply offended by Dr. Lamb’s lecture today. She was very rude about Christians, one of whom I am proud to count myself. I think this is racist and she ought to lose her job.’
‘Do you remember Wing,’ I go on with a degree of trepidation now, ‘the Chief of Police who used to hear god speak to him, telling him what to do? Nobody seemed to think he was abnormal. He kept his job. People looked up to him. There are lots of examples of this sort of thing. So – here’s your homework for the vacation. Have a think. Where does religious belief stop and madness begin?’
I’m quite pleased with this ending. By now they’re packing up and leaving. I overhear bits of chat.
‘… to Andy’s tonight? I was speaking to Sarah and she’s…’
‘…chilli peppers, ordinary peppers, courgettes, ginger…’
As always, there’s a small queue of people wanting to speak to me. They’ll tell me about their ‘friend’ who has psychological problems and I’ll do my best. First in line is one of the overseas students. I know because he’s excessively polite.
‘Can I ask you something about last week’s lecture please? Or is it too late now?’
‘On the list which you gave us, about possible signs of child sexual abuse, there was one which said something about ears.’
‘Yes. Some sort of damage or marking on the ears. I was wondering why ears.’
‘It’s one of the erogenous zones,’ I hear myself saying, ‘and sometimes…’
Pick it up and run, son.
‘What does that mean?’
Is he having me on?
‘It’s an area of sexual pleasure.’
He doesn’t say anything but takes off his glasses and puts his pen back in his jacket pocket. I’m wondering whether he’s going to ask me about sexual pleasure now. The glasses have made me take him seriously; but that’s stereotyping for you. You have to be careful. He turns away, ceding to the next in line. And I’m still not sure.
Ten minutes later I’m sitting in the café on the ground floor with a latte in front of me.
Two excerpts from a memoir of grannyhood – ‘You don’t have to love slugs.’
This is from no. 6 ‘The Wedding’, being the occasion of my son’s wedding, when Ooo-an was three.
Ooo-an’s wearing his best shirt and trousers and the baby is very clean.
‘My, you’re a boy and a half,’ I say to Ooo-an when they come in.
‘No I’m not. I’m a boy and a week.’
He looks at my bare legs. I’m still in my dressing gown.
‘You’re very very old, Granny.’
‘I’m not old. Not very old.’
‘Just a bit smelly and a bit bit bit bit more dusty.’
It’s the day of the wedding: Uncle N and Auntie M. The whole family come to my house early in the morning since Mummy is getting her hair done nearby. I live in town, half an hour away from suburbia, having been careful to choose a location where socialists outnumber labradors.
The bride is coming later, along with her mother and father, to get dressed in her wedding outfit.
I’ve been up early, making canapés and putting champagne in the fridge. Well, fizzy, and the canapés are kind of, like, snacks. I have full make up on, ready for the wedding which is hours later. The outfit will go on at the last minute while the face will just have to last.
‘Let’s go to the toys, shall we?’
The room has been scoured for small parts, since the baby still puts everything into his mouth. A stage I never left behind, if I look at my own history: bite nails, stop biting nails, eat too much, stop eating too much, smoke and smoke too much, stop smoking, bite nails. If I were more honest and open, alcohol would also feature in this account.
‘What are you doing pet?’
He’s sticking playdoh in his tummy button.
‘I’m filling myself up. I’m very smooth,’ he says.
‘You’re perfect, pet.’
‘Yes I am, amn’t I? I love you granny. You my bes friend.’
‘I love you too,’ I say.
I lean forward to kiss him and he licks my face.
We join the adults in the kitchen. Noisy laughter, bubbly stuff splashing into glasses, everyone nervous of the big day but in a nice sort of way. Mummy has arrived back from the hairdresser’s and is now disaggregating £80 worth of expertise in order to return to her original style. I have a last minute check at my makeup. Oh no! My skin is flaking, my cheeks are crumbling. Is old age so sudden? I wipe at it again. Not age, not a skin disease. Just a Farley’s rusk that the baby has ground into my face.
Finally we’re in the marriage suite at the Registry Office. Not a big crowd. Twenty four. We’re waiting for the appearance of the bride. My son, the groom, is standing at the front with his friend, the best man. (Just five minutes ago the pair of them were coming in from school at lunchtime, big noisy cuckoos eating a lot and spilling out beyond their space, bigger than the walls.)
There are empty seats in the front row at one side, reserved for the bridesmaid (conveniently Mummy, since she’s a good friend of the bride as well as being sister to the groom) and other important personages. Ooo-an decides to set up camp there and sits on his own, singing to himself and swinging the lucky horseshoe he knows he has to give to someone. When the waiting guests laugh at something the groom has said, Ooo-an stands up and turns round to face them:
‘Stop laughing everybody!’
Two minutes later he decides to award the horseshoe.
‘Here you are.’ He steps forward and presents it to the best man.
‘Not yet, Ooo-an,’ he says. ‘You’ve to give it to Aunty Maria.’
Ooo-an looks round.
‘ Where is she? When is she coming?’
He’s not asking the big question: “What the hell is going on?”
Instead he moves to the second row where guests are sitting, and tries to hand it to one of them. When they set him on the right path, he whirls the thing round his head a few times and we’re only saved from injury by the arrival of the bride on her father’s arm. She advances to join her husband to be. My son. (Did I say?) I’m holding the baby who’s asleep and my tears splash onto his cheek.
Ooo-an escapes from his father’s grip and takes what he considers to be his rightful place between the bride and groom. Like a little bird, he looks up from one to the other as they make their vows and exchange rings.
Don’t get me wrong. We tried. One person after another went up and rehearsed the blandishments, bribes and threats that are common to such situations. But anything to avoid a showdown at a wedding, so he remained there for the duration, I’m afraid to say.
‘Do you think he’s actually married to one of them now? Legally?’ I ask Grandad afterwards.
‘Don’t ask,’ he says. ‘Don’t ask.’
Gillian can be contacted by email
Launch of New Writing Scotland
The launch of this year’s ‘New Writing Scotland’ (NWS 32) is being held in Blackwell’s bookshop, 53-36 south Bridge, Edinburgh 6pm. Wednesday 26th August.
Gillian Mayes will be reading and the editors, Gerry Cambridge and Zoe Strachan, will be there, along with Gwen Enstam from the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Glasgow University.
This section: Ten Writers Telling Lies, writers, Writing
- Town Hall Meeting U.S.A. Leela Soma
- Scottish Writers Showcase University of Glasgow 2019
- Flour Power – Live Language School Glasgow
- Govanhill: Portrait of a Community review Pat Byrne
- Mary Irvine’s Blog: Bruce Biddolph Outstanding as ‘The Inquisitor’
- Scottish PEN Writers In Exile review by Pat Byrne
- Pure Love – The Voice of Ella Fitzgerald review by Jim Byrne
- An Afternoon of Fiction, Poetry and Performance
- An Evening with Multi Award winning author Robin Lloyd-Jones
- Dan Richards Booked! Festival 2019 review Mary Irvine
- Mary Irvine review: Polly Clarke – the tiger lady! Booked! Festival
- Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn Tour, The Mitchell review Pat Byrne
- Richard Holloway ‘Waiting for the Last Bus’ review Mary Irvine
- Two poems by Finola Scott: ‘Garlic’ and ‘Rhubarb’
- Glasgow Writer: Mary Irvine
- Onion by Leela Soma – vegetable inspired poetry
- Mum’s Favourite Flowers by Mussie Abbasi Harrison
- Flowers – poems by Leela Soma
- Aye Write 2019! Sara Sheridan introduces Anne Griffin and Anstey Harris
- Aye Write: Tribes of Glasgow review by Pat Byrne