Write Aberdeen : Write Regensburg

Since 2013, I’ve been working on the Write Aberdeen – Write Regensburg project, a twin city writing initiative which culminated in the launch of a book of new writing at the 2015 May Festival to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the twinning of Aberdeen with its German twin city. The project was born out of an earlier arts project I was involved with called the 100 Words Project which sought to turn Aberdeen’s favourite Doric and Gaelic words into artworks. Interested in possible connections between the use of Doric in Aberdeen and Bavarian in Regensburg, as well as other connections between the cities, I applied for Twin City Funding from Aberdeen City Council to look into developing a project which could celebrate these dialects and cultivate new writing in both cities.

Successful in my funding bid, I visited Regensburg at the end of summer 2013 to meet potential project partners and to get a better sense of the use of Bavarian in the city, and the literary scene in general. Regensburg has around half the population of Aberdeen, but is just as well known for its industrial prowess: many multi-national car and tech companies have bases in Regensburg such as BMW, General Electric, Siemens and Toshiba. However, unlike Aberdeen, it’s hard to tell this when wandering around its spectacular city centre. The medieval Old Town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006 and is often described as “the northernmost city of Italy”, with its ancient Roman walls, colourful buildings and cobbled streets. What I found most interesting visiting from Aberdeen was the Schottenkirche St Jackob, a Scots monastery founded in the 11th century which has the names of monks hailing from Aberdeen lined across its walls – the links between the cities clearly extending well beyond sixty years…

As well as sightseeing, I had several meetings with Regensburg residents interested in being part of the project: staff at the Volkshochschule (VHS), a popular adult-education centre who match funded the project; arts organisations from across the city; and Helen Stellner, an Aberdeen quine who has lived in Regensburg for several decades teaching English at the VHS and translating works between German and English. I had met Helen once before in Aberdeen, so it was great to chat with her in her own city and discuss the potential of her husband Norbert, owner of local publisher Edition Vulpes, publishing the final book of new writing. Helen has been vital to the project given her understanding of English, German, Bavarian and Doric, which meant the final translations could incorporate all aspects of the standard to non-standard continuum in both languages, as well as all the help she offered in translating food menus! The meetings with those at the VHS and throughout the city also confirmed a couple of other aspects: that we wouldn’t restrict the writers to using dialect, but that it was an option if they wished to do so; that the theme would simply be to write about their home city in prose or poetry; that we would include images of some kind in the final publication.

Spurred on by the enthusiasm for the project from residents in both cities, competitions to find the winning pieces of writing were set up, as well as free writing workshops to encourage beginner writers to take pen to paper. For me, this was one of my favourite aspects of the project, as it meant that the funding money would not only benefit the final winning writers, but would also encourage new writing on a larger scale. In the summer of 2014, all three fully-booked workshops took place at Seventeen on Belmont Street, a relatively new arts space for Aberdeen. Each workshop was run by a professional writer and focused on different aspects of writing: Alan Spence ran a ‘writing from experience’ non-fiction workshop, Helen Lynch ran a beginner prose workshop, and Wayne Price ran a poetry workshop focused on ‘writing the city’. It was clear from these workshops that there is a big need for these sort of opportunities in Aberdeen as, outside of academic courses, creative writing has often been overlooked as other artforms have thrived; this need combined with the positive feedback from those who participated led to the decision that all proceeds from the final publication would go towards further free writing projects in the city.

After receiving over 90 entries, the five poets and five prose writers who won one of the ten prizes of £100 and publication in the final book were announced in September 2014. I was really impressed with the quality of the winning pieces, and the varied overview they build up of Aberdeen across ten relatively small pieces. It was also around this time that I received confirmation that the book launch would form part of the 2015 May Festival, which gave Helen until the end of 2014 to translate all twenty twinning pieces from both cities, and gave me the first few months of 2015 to edit, typeset and design the book before it was sent off to the printers. Thankfully I’d done a lot of similar work on Causeway/Cabshair magazine which often features Scottish Gaelic and Irish alongside English translations within its pages, so getting the layout correct wasn’t too problematic. Decided the order of the pieces wasn’t too tricky either thanks to the natural flow that stood out of moving through chronological time across the collection, bookended by general overviews of each city. The hardest part was deciding on a title! Helen and I sent many an email back and forth trying to think of something which would capture the sense of moving through time, and the coming and going from cities which many of the pieces explored. Ultimately we decided on Passages as it also conveyed that this was a collection of small pieces of prose and poetry, and it is not too distinct from its German translation, ‘Passagen’. Once this was decided, it was a bit easier to choose images for the collection from previous photography projects between Aberdeen and Regensburg. I chose a picture of the Schottenportal for the cover, the famous doorway of the Scots monastery in Regensburg, given that is emblematic of the connection between both cities.

About a month before the May Festival, the books arrived on my doorstep all the way from Regensburg. It was so exciting to hold the final publication which was of such a high quality: the cover image came out great, all 88 pages are made of creamy ‘Munken’ paper, and each copy is individually shrink-wrapped for protection – I can’t say it’s been as positive an experience receiving proofs and even final print runs of books from UK printers in the past...

Around this time, two writers from Regensburg were chosen to visit Aberdeen to read their work: Lena Dirnberger and Francisco Castiñiera. At 20 years old, Lena is the youngest writer to be included in the final publication, and Francisco, having originally hailed from Galicia before moving to Regensburg, adds a unique Celtic connection to the project. It was fun arranging flights and accommodation for them, and planning what sights to see in and around Aberdeen, but I was nervous as Helen and I headed out to the airport on the Thursday before the festival weekend to pick them up, as I wanted to make sure they’d have a brilliant time. Fortunately they were both really nice and enthusiastic when we met them, and we hit it off properly over dinner and a tour of Aberdeen city centre on the Friday morning. It was great showing them around as it’s always good to play tourist in your own city to remind yourself of what’s on your own doorstep. We visited the Tolbooth Museum, St Nicholas Kirk, Union Terrace Gardens, His Majesty’s Theatre, Marischal College, and even dropped by Seventeen on Belmont Street to check out their exhibitions.

While I headed off to get the IMMPACT play organised for the May festival on the Friday afternoon (another blog to follow soon!), Helen, Lena and Francisco visited Stonehaven and Dunnotar Castle with the Twin City Partnerships Officer, Laura. Francisco has some brilliant pictures of their time their on his own blog which he writes in Galician.

The next morning, we met at the Sir Duncan Rice Library for a quick tour before the book launch. I work part-time at the library, so it was a little odd heading there in my funcy suit, but great fun showing Francisco and Lena round, particularly Lena as she is currently studying to become a librarian in Munich, and is on placement at Regensburg University Library. We then headed to meet the Aberdeen writers who had all congregated in a room at King’s College in preparation for the reading. It was great to see the excitement in the writers’ eyes when I handed them a copy of the book for the first time. Some looked a little nervous though when I then handed them the running order for the reading… I was glad to have been that organised in the end, as we has no time in our venue pre-event and had to follow directly after another reading – after being involved in a few festivals now, I really shouldn’t have expected anything different!

Just as the writers and audience had settled into their seats in the marquee, the rain came on in time for my opening speech... I made light of it, but it was a little off putting to have to read into a hand held mic and make sure I was being heard. It really thumped down during Helen’s speech, but she did a great job of powering through it and keeping the audience’s attention. Thankfully it calmed by the time the readings began. I was really chuffed at how well each reader performed their work, particularly Lena and Francisco who were not reading in their native language; this is even more impressive in Francisco’s case since the original German version is not his first language either. There was a real warmness to some of the pieces, as well as a bit of humour now and then. Overall, it made for a varied and compelling mix which reflects the strength of the printed collection.

After the launch ended, we all headed to the council Town House on Union Street for a Civic Reception hosted by the Lord Provost, who attended the launch in the morning.

The Town House is a beautiful building which really makes you feel like you’re stepping back in time with its regal red interiors and gold-framed portraits, as well as the large Town and County Hall where the reception was held, which features a painting of Queen Victoria worth millions of pounds – not intimidating at all! Thankfully, my speech for the formal part went fine, and I finally got to fully relax and mingle with all the readers and guests. Here are some fantastic and fun pictures taken during the reception by the council’s official photographer Norman Adams, and my pal Kate Sutherland who’s been involved with the project since we launched the competition:

After the civic reception, our Regensburg guests got some rest before a stroll along Aberdeen beach and Footdee; thankfully we avoided the fits of rain, and had plenty of entertainment from the costume-clad Aberdonians heading back into town from the Granite City Comic Con at the Beach Ballroom. On this final night, Francisco remarked how he'd heard Aberdeen wasn't a very attractive city, but that he thought different after all the beautiful sights he'd been taken to – mission accomplished just before him and Lena headed home the next morning!

I got to enjoy a couple of events stress-free on the Sunday of the May Festival: the launch of the thirteenth issue of Pushing Out the Boat, and a talk on ‘Inequality and the 1%’ – both engaging for very different reasons. I also discovered that the Waterstone’s stall had sold out of the stock allocation of Passages I’d given them which was very exciting. They’re now topped up so you can get the book in store at Waterstone’s Union Bridge Aberdeen.

The book is to be launched in Regensburg during Bürgerfest 2015, while sixtieth anniversary celebrations of the twinning will be in full swing in September in Aberdeen where Passages is sure to take centre stage once more.