The Edinburgh Gathering
Before we knew that Niccolo 8 would be called Gemini, the mock title given by some inspired or perhaps psychic fans was Gemini Triumphant – the Edinburgh 2000 Gathering could well have been called Gathering Triumphant as it turned out to be a roaring success and greatly enjoyed by everyone who attended.
This newsletter is devoted to a report of the Gathering but before going into details I’d just like to send greetings to everyone I met and thank everyone who I had a chance to talk to for their kind words both about my own efforts and about my mum’s health (she’s improving but probably won’t regain her speech, although there is still hope that her paralysis may ease a little). There was little time available for much more than brief chats, and there were probably a lot of people who I didn’t manage to meet at all, but it was lovely to at last put faces to those I did and to share a few words.
I had originally hoped to write this newsletter while everything was fresh in my mind but in the event I hardly had time to draw breath before having to plunge into a major redesign of the website to incorporate both the new “Themed” style which we have introduced into the shops and also a broadening of subject matter to give a UK-wide appeal in addition to the Scottish focus. There was an unmissable deadline to coincide with publicity and with the launch of the arrangement with the Scotsman newspaper’s new site, (www.scotsman.com) for whom we are the official bookseller, so as a result I’ve been pretty inactive on the discussion groups recently and haven’t been able to keep up with my correspondence. The fruits of these labours have just gone live a few days ago so please take a look and let me know what you think – good and bad. There are new sections on History, Politics, Biography, Golf, Food & Drink, Gardening, Natural History, Travel, Photography and Bridge, and we’ll be adding lots of additional authors in the fiction section soon. The Science Fiction/Fantasy authors are gradually being updated too.
Anyway, to return to the week of the Gathering, my wife and I had already had a lovely dinner with Mickey Thies and her husband Jerry at the beginning of the week and later met a number or other early visitors (including Simon and Cindy who looked remarkably calm for a couple of impresarios on the brink of a first night(!), and Sarah Meier who presented me with a lovely t-shirt with humorous medieval illustrations) for a drink and a meal in the High Street area, so things were looking good.
However, the Gathering itself started in a rather worrying way for me, as when I arrived at our Heriot Watt campus shop on the Friday afternoon I discovered that the shop manager had come down with flu and it was doubtful if he would be able to attend during the weekend. His assistant had come in but was unable to cover the same extended hours as we’d arranged. Further I found that the Border Reivers maps which I’d ordered were unavailable. Oh dear, was it all going to go wrong at the last minute? It was therefore in a somewhat pensive mood that I lurked around the foyer as everyone started to pour in from the first of the bus-trips to register with Val and her team. It was interesting to try and guess who was who before the name-badges were collected and various delighted meetings ensued as people spotted each other and/or embraced old friends who in some cases they had never actually met before. The mood for the weekend was thus well set and was further enhanced at the dinner that evening. I wasn’t able to stay for it but I’m told that Dorothy immediately set everyone at ease with her welcoming speech, and later posed for photographs with everyone who wished it.
The following morning continued the glorious weather which had enveloped the country in the previous couple of weeks, and it was an expectant crowd who gathered in the main lecture hall. The first talk was from Pauline Brace, as delightful a speaker as she is knowledgeable about the books and the history surrounding them. Her talk on “Danger and Delight” set the day’s proceedings off to the perfect start.
During the break for coffee people began to pour into our little campus shop to buy fresh copies of the books and peruse the other items I had ordered in for the event. I was pleasantly surprised to see our manager had made it in although in truth he looked dreadful and did a stalwart job in just staying on his feet, nevermind managing the rush.
Next up was Dorothy herself, introduced by Richenda Todd, giving her talk on Gemini. I won’t go into detail here or the newsletter will be as long as the book(!) but will save it for the next one when I hope to have time to discuss the story a little. Suffice it to quote just a couple of things she said as a taster – “It was a stinker to write”. “It was one of the 3 most difficult – with problems comparable to Checkmate”. (Hmm, I don’t think she ever said which the third one was!) She wrote the epilogue first, then the story and then went back and changed the epilogue to Andreas’ view.
After lunch people started to head off to the seminar rooms which were mostly packed out. Amongst these were discussions on History by Elspeth Morrison (of which more later), Birds in DD’s books by Diana Crane, Judith Wilt on the Dunnett/Scott connection, and on the music of the period by a member of the Edinburgh Renaissance Band. I’m told that all were excellent but not wishing to deprive anyone of a place I stayed outside and chatted to Dorothy’s son Mungo and daughter-in-law Allison who had taken the photographs the previous night and was displaying them on the walls ready for everyone coming back.
Judith’s Wilt’s talk was next and she expounded a complex theory about “Twins and Doubles on the Road to Scotland” which linked not only Lymond and Nicholas but also Thorfinn and Johnson Johnson! She packs so much into her speaking that I found it impossible to take notes without losing track but it’s planned that the full text will appear in Whispering Gallery magazine and it may be possible to arrange an archive of it on the web site – I’ll keep you posted on that.
As the afternoon drew to a close we all went off to find places to change into our “posh clothes” before leaving on the buses for the undoubted highlight of the weekend – the dinner in the Great Hall of Stirling Castle. There was almost a disaster as one of the buses broke down on the way, but as it happened a number of members of the Nikado cast were on the bus and the delay was alleviated by an impromptu rehearsal at the side of the road, which must have mystified a few drivers on the motorway!! Fortunately a replacement bus was procured in time for everyone to join up again before dinner.
A great deal of money and skill has been spent on restoring the castle in general and the Great Hall in particular and it looked superb as the evening sun flooded the plains from which the castle rock rises and lit up the Ochil hills behind. The view, whether across to the Wallace Monument or down the hill to Stirling Bridge was clear and golden-bright, and was complimented by the light reflected from the gold and white lions and unicorns which decorated the top of the castle buildings. Everyone delighted in walking around the battlements and the bowling/croquet lawn, before climbing up to the main courtyard and the Chapel Royal to be served champagne and wine and to watch and listen to the display of Renaissance dancing and music.
Following a group photograph taken from the high battlements overlooking the square, we moved into the Great Hall which was laid out with large circular tables to seat the 300 guests. The only exception being the long top table which sat beneath a large and colourful crested banner which hung at the far end of the hall. People were still taking in the inspiring atmosphere enhanced by the lighting and the amber sun which streamed through the tall windows, when they realised that each chair bore a limited edition signed copy of King Hereafter. There is a picture of everyone seated in the Great Hall on the website.
The meal consisted of Courgette and Coriander soup, Baked Salmon, and Drambuie Parfait with Wild Tayberrys, and was accompanied throughout by the music of the Edinburgh Renaissance Band who played from the Minstrel’s Gallery. Later they moved to the head of the hall for further performances which included a rendition of their setting of Tant Que Je Vive – a very moving experience in such surroundings. It was easy to imagine oneself at Lymond’s party for Mary.
The speakers included Mats Hellstrom, the Swedish Ambassador to Germany, who is an enthusiastic fan and had flown from Berlin for the dinner and gave the welcoming address. Towards the end of the evening he also introduced Pauline Brace who made the presentation to Dorothy of a specially produced book of tributes, poems, drawings and other myriad contributions, by people who have been associated with or inspired by her during her writing career. Bound in Charetty blue leather and set in a superbly crafted wooden box inlaid with silver, the book had been kept a closely guarded secret and was a complete surprise to her. As Pauline said “we can keep secrets too”!! Clearly delighted, Dorothy responded with her usual apomb.
It was a happy and well satisfied group who boarded the buses for the return to Heriot Watt.
Sunday morning kicked off with Henk Beentje’s talk, introduced by Ann McMillan who surprised him by telling us of his first appearance as a Dunnett fan as the only male amongst a large collection of women. To his great amusement she then said he liked strong women ….. he was a Gelis fan! Word reached us later that despite being an experienced speaker Henke had been dreadfully nervous the previous evening because with such a discerning group he wanted everything to be perfect – there was certainly no need to worry as he delivered a wonderfully informative and amusing talk on “The Flora and Fauna of Lymondshire” with a light touch and an immediate natural rapport with his audience. He reeled off a fascinating and diverse list of the creatures and plants which help make up the details that we all love in the books and illustrated many of them with slides and samples, and in the process revealed the true mystery of the Lymond Chronicles – which is of course the colour of Lady Culter’s curtains(!), as well as bringing the house down with a picture of two helmeted sheep!!
The excellence continued with Elspeth Morrison’s second seminar which had been moved to the larger lecture theatre due to high demand. She gave a lucid and entertaining account of the background history of the Scottish Stewart monarchs and the political and economic pressures they were faced with. With her extensive knowledge I’m sure that everyone came away with a far better understanding of the period.
Charles Burnett – Ross Herald since 1988 and one of three heralds of the Scottish Court gave an fine explanation of what he called “Dorothy’s Secret Vice” – the principles of heraldry (including why the Scottish system is better than the English one!!) and how they have been applied within the books. There were slides of the Trinity College altar piece and of the Unicorn chain on the effigy of Adorne in the Jerusalemkirk, as well as a look at the Knights of St. John. He then discussed the arms that were created for Lymond – including the seven vine leaves which became the symbol of the Gathering – before showing how the system worked in practice for Alastair Dunnett’s arms and then later Dorothy’s own.
Margaret Wilkes gave an illustrated talk on maps, which was very enlightening in showing just how poor the available maps and charts were for anyone undertaking long voyages – Nicholas and Lymond were truly venturing into the unknown on many of their trips. Even the “road maps” of the time were pretty useless from the point of view of navigation and told you little more than which order towns and cities would appear in on the journey. Amongst many pictures which I would have liked to be able to inspect for far longer was the Fra Mauro map which Nicholas discovered at Murano. This was a land map. 6.5 feet across. To our eyes it seemed hardly worth the bother but to him it would be invaluable. There was also a slide of Nicholas de Nicolai’s map of Scotland which was good for the time – a 1584 edition of an Italian map of Scotland still has it as an island!
Dorothy’s second and final talk covered the whole combined series. (Again I’ll save the details for later). The similarities and differences between the two heroes, their respective strengths and weaknesses, their motivations and relationships, as well as the connections and correspondences and the family links. By the end it was getting quite emotional as we all realised – Dorothy included – that this really was the end of an era and the last of the historical series.
After a signing session in which many people produced some very old and often embellished and annotated copies which Dorothy was delighted to see, we all had dinner before the preparations began for the second “undoubted highlight of the weekend” – The Nikado.
Simon Hedges and Cindy Byrne had been preparing for months – coaching, cajoling, persuading; rehearsing people across the net and sending CDs of the music and songs to countless parts of the world. A variety of people who had mostly never met were going to put on a complex performance involving difficult songs based mostly on Gilbert and Sullivan. It was an audacious undertaking as there was only a very short period available for rehearsal in the crowded schedule of the weekend. Most professional companies would have considered it impossible and ridiculed anyone mad enough to try it. I was involved in taking care of the PA system and as a one-time professional sound engineer I’ve seen many a first night fall in a heap under far more favourable circumstances. The result was far beyond anything I could have expected and I think beyond even Simon’s hopes. All the principles not only sang superbly well but acted their parts with bravado, The chorus sang with gusto (and in unison!), all the stage directions came together perfectly and the comic timing was exactly right. The audience was spellbound and Dorothy loved it – delighting in Simon’s superbly crafted songs, the jokes and the affectionate fun poked at the characters and plot of the books. A triumph for all concerned, who put such enthusiasm and love into making it such a success. I doubt that anyone who was there will ever forget it – a perfect finish to the weekend. (You can see some photographs of the performance on Simon’s website at www.simonhedges.com)
The Philadelphia Gathering will be taking place not long after you receive this newsletter. I originally toyed with the idea of going over there but finally decided that I needed a restful holiday and some time with my wife, so we’re heading off to Switzerland at the end of this week. I’m sure Philadelphia will be a great success too, and wish everyone a great time. Perhaps I’ll manage to get over to America or Canada and meet some of you in later years. As you know, Dorothy is doing an author tour after Philly and you can find the details of that on the Random House website if you haven’t already.
Some people have asked about whether I’ll keep producing these newsletters now that the historical series are finished. They’ll certainly continue, though they may not be as frequent as before depending on how much news there is. I already write most of them at home rather than at work so that isn’t a problem. There will doubtless be changes in all the Dunnett related activities; we already know that the US version of the discussion magazine – Marzipan & Kisses – will be closing in a year’s time, although the UK one – Whispering Gallery – is still getting plenty of contributions and will continue for the foreseeable future. The DD Foundation has been wound up but has been replaced by the DD Readers Association who kindly invited me to join their steering committee. We had the first meeting last weekend and there’ll be news of the developments in the next few months.
For now I’m off to get some more packing done for Switzerland!
very best wishes