Doomed love, letters to Audrey Hepburn, deadly war weapons, Winston Churchill’s ghost and the adventures of a Dundonian window cleaner – what could these things possibly have in common?
They are, in fact, some of the topics of short stories created by writers from Tayside around the theme of the Nethergate – one of Dundee’s oldest streets.
The stories have been published as part of a book by Nethergate Writers, a local group celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.
Although predominantly a group for amateur writers, some have gone on to become published authors – crime writers Claire MacLeary and Gillian Duff are former alumni of the organisation.
This week, chairman Roddie McKenzie, Nethergate Writers’ longest-standing member, reminisces about 15 years of involvement with the group of diverse wordsmiths and tells us about their new anthology of short stories.
“The Low Road: A Celebration Of Dundee’s Nethergate is our 11th book, which we started putting together just before the pandemic,” says Roddie.
“After much debate we came up with the idea of a book with the theme of Nethergate as a central, uniting theme. The Nethergate has always been a significant street in Dundee, with a lot of history behind it. I believe it used to be called the Flukergate, due to its association with fishing. In medieval times, the water would have come up over what is now Dock Street.
“Part of the project is to highlight local landmarks, either present or past ones, that readers would identify. The Queen’s Hotel and the Deep Sea restaurant feature a lot.
“The Queen’s Hotel in particular is significant because of its associations with Churchill, who stayed there. But apart from specifying the stories had to feature the Nethergate, the writers were free to do whatever they wanted to. Each story is unique and it’s interesting to see how each writer has interpreted the theme.”
Publishing the book
Getting the book ready for publication was a real team effort, with the experienced writers from the group editing the stories and making constructive suggestions.
The group’s previous book, Fifty Shades Of Tay, a collection of flash fiction, was deemed a success, which encouraged the writers to continue publishing.
Although slowed down by being unable to meet in person during the lockdowns, Nethergate Writers were able to get a finished draft copy of the book by August 2021. Around 100 initial copies were printed by Forfar-based Robertson’s Printers at the start of October.
“These copies have now sold out but we will do another print run, then we will have a launch, to take the book to a wider audience,” explains Roddie. “We’re working on making it available to buy through our website.”
History of Nethergate Writers
Nethergate Writers has its roots in a creative writing class created by former DC Thomson employee Esther Read, who had worked on The Courier and Jackie magazine, Roddy said.
The classes were part of the adult education programme at Dundee University and run as a mixture of taught lessons and discussion sessions.
“Our first group project was one where we took folk stories and put a modern spin on them,” adds Roddie. “It was called Mythellany and it got a really good response. Nethergate Writers was created in 2007 as the publication arm of the classes.
Turn Back the Cover
“The name of the group came from the fact that we met in the Tower building of the university, which is on the Nethergate. To begin with, we put together a book of stories, all written on the theme of the Queen’s Hotel, called Turn Back The Cover.
“We had a launch event in the university and the hotel sold copies of the book. We were really encouraged by the success and thereafter we turned out one book a year. We usually release the books around October/November time, with Christmas in mind, so that people can buy them as a gift.”
The vast majority of the books have been based on a theme centred around the Dundee and Angus area, ensuring the group keeps its local character.
However, most of the members were not originally born in Tayside and hail from various corners of the country and abroad. There are currently around 20 members and it is hoped more will join the group.
“In 2015 Esther retired and around half of the original members who had been in the group since it started also left,” reminisces Roddie.
“However we were keen to keep the group going. We are still recruiting new members, as people hear about us through the new website we’ve created. People don’t have to come to all of the meetings, it’s quite flexible. Usually there’s a core group of around 10 people who come.
“These days it’s not really taught classes, it’s more of a group where you can bring along your work – short stories, poems, plays, anything really – and get feedback. We usually circulate the work by email prior to the classes, then when we meet we discuss it and members offer feedback on each other’s work.
“But now we’re getting more members who don’t have much experience of writing, so we’re looking at maybe creating a hybrid model, where we have some sessions where we teach writing techniques, such as using metaphors, descriptions, points of view and dialogue, and then other sessions where it’s more about reviewing work.
“We’re also looking at whether we’ll have a hybrid way of working when it comes to online/in person. Over lockdown we met over Zoom, but it doesn’t work for everyone.”
Over the summer, Nethergate Writers collaborated with Pitlochry Theatre to produce four monologues on the themes of hope, light and joy. These were then read out by actors, the purpose being to lift people’s spirits during lockdown.
The group has also been involved in Pecha Kucha nights, as well as readings at the former Dundee Literary Festival.
Writing for mental health
These days the group is a mixture of people who write for leisure, as well as those who publish and use the group as a way of testing out ideas before publication. There is a mix of ages and backgrounds – some members are young students, while others are older professionals and some are retired.
Writing can be a way to not only be creative but also to improve one’s mental health after living through the anxiety-inducing 18 months of a pandemic, said Roddie.
“Writing offers the chance to create a world less grim than the one we’ve been living in recently. I work as a counsellor and I found that what many people struggled with was the lack of control regarding what they could do and where they could go.
“A common piece of advice was for people to do activities where they have a degree of control, and writing offers that. There’s the satisfaction of producing something that will remain out there in the world. Everyone has their own reasons for writing.”
It was her time with Nethergate writers that helped launch Claire MacLeary’s career as a crime author. After a fruitful career in business, the former training consultant, antiques dealer and entrepreneur decided to reignite her passion for writing.
“I read English at university, but then went into business and later I was married with kids, so I only really wrote short stories,” she explains.
“It was only when my kids were older that I went to a few creative writing classes in St Andrews. I heard about Nethergate Writers and rang Esther to join.
Creative writing classes
“She had a very calm and measured way of teaching. The first thing she said when someone read out their work was: ‘What do you like about it?’ Then, after talking about the positives, it was much easier for people to take on board any criticism.
“We put together an anthology and sold it at Waterstones. I remember that we all took turns to sit there and sign the books. The people of Dundee were very kind and it was my first taste of writing success. It made me think that maybe I could write a book.
“I signed up for an MLitt in Creative Writing at Dundee University, which I passed with distinction. It was during my time on the course that I wrote the first chapter of my first novel, Cross Purpose.
“It was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year in 2017 and it was incredible to be up on stage at Stirling Castle with the likes of Cal McDermid and Ian Rankin. My latest book, Death Drop, will be out in February.”