Mussels (and poetry) in Brussels

January 17, 2011

Last week, I flew to Brussels to chair a reading by Jen Hadfield at Scotland House. (Oh, I do like saying that…)  This sounds most glamorous, and indeed it was, rather: Jen was booked as one of the Scottish Writers series of readings, arranged by the Scottish Government EU Office.

We had arrived at our incredibly chic hotel the night before, sans the odd item of missing luggage and unglamorously dripping wet because I’d wanted the adventure of getting metro and walking, rather than the sensible option of a taxi.  Brussels residents not only seem inured to scruffy, wet waifs appearing out of the dark and flapping maps, but have clearly taken a city-wide vow to offer directions in the language of your choice, set you on the road a little way, and beam fondly as you squelch off down the right street. We liked Brussels.

We were completely restored in time for the reading;  scooped up, smoothed out and cosseted by Jenny Gibbons and Julia Brown and the deputy Head of Office Ian Campbell, we had the luxury of all the setup and arrangements being taken care of – microphones! lecterns! lunch! – while we simply had to think beautiful thoughts and compose a running order. The Scottish Writers series are lunchtime readings and discussions, and the audience is made up of EU workers, expat Scots and others whose many languages include English.

I surveyed the location, weather and timing with a cynical eye, and decided that we could expect a very small and stoic audience, but there were a good 50 packed into the 8th floor room, of the charming sort who laugh nicely and murmur encouragingly and ask just one, interesting, friendly and well-judged query per question.  (Phrases like ‘So I suppose I’m actually asking three questions of the speaker’ are on my list of all-time heart-sinking utterances, along with ‘To be fair’, ‘Well, where did you lose it?’ and ‘Try not to scratch, you’ll make it worse’.)

Over some very messy mussels and chips the night before, we’d decided to talk about origins and Jen’s first collection, Almanacs, with influences from Scotland and Canada; then take a tour through the second collection, Nigh-No-Place, which is more influenced by Shetland, and talk about what she’s looking for in poems, her own and others, just now and how she works.  This included a pleasing show-and-tell section with a small, bone-coloured porcelain ‘limpet’, which Jen has become fascinated by making, each one by hand, with a slow hollowing-out, thumb-pressing technique. There’s not an obvious connection between porcelain modelling, small and inscrutable shellfish, and the process of writing poems;  but as people thoughtfully handled and turned the limpet, passing from hand to hand round the room, and as Jen talked about how the very unglamorous limpet selects its rock and gradually carves channels into its chosen home, connections appeared in plenty.

The Scottish Writers series continues with James Robertson on 26 January, and Jackie Kay on 11 February, which Robyn will chair; then finishing with Alan Warner in March.

~ Lilias

Interview with Jen here on our blog
Jen speaking to Ryan on our podcast

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