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Catherine Aitken on Dundee, working in film and her ‘menopausal coming of age’ debut novel

From her first job on Jackie magazine to her award-winning film featuring stars of Trainspotting, Dundee-born and raised Catherine Aitken reflects on life as her Broughty Ferry-set debut novel explores 'change'.

Dundee born and raised author, film producer and designer Catherine Aitken. Image: Catherine Aitken
Dundee born and raised author, film producer and designer Catherine Aitken. Image: Catherine Aitken

She’s the Dundee-born author and film producer whose award-winning first feature film included stars of Trainspotting and was shown all over the world.

Now, 21 years on, as Catherine Aitken celebrates the release of her Broughty Ferry-set debut novel, the former Rockwell Primary and Morgan Academy pupil has been reflecting on the influence of her home city – and how Courier publisher DC Thomson & Co Ltd inspired her to become a writer.

The Liberation of Bella McCaa, set mostly in Broughty Ferry, is the tale of a middle-aged woman with a killer sense of humour, fighting to get her life back after years as a carer. It’s at least partly inspired by the real-life experiences of Catherine’s sister who looked after their mother when she had dementia.

Catherine Aitken’s granny at GD Aitkens on the Hilltown, Dundee. Image: Catherine Aitken.

But the book’s publication has also got Catherine thinking about the early influence of Dundee.

Her late grocer father Charles Aitken ran the well-known GD Aitken Spar shop at the top of the Hilltown for many years, established by her grandfather in 1912.

Catherine Aitken was the ‘sad girl’ for Dundee-published Jackie magazine

When Catherine left school at 16, her first job was as an office junior with DC Thomson & Co Ltd’s Jackie magazine, specifically the Cathy & Claire page.

She had dreams of being a writer then. But she soon realised that making the jump from typist to editorial staff was not really possible for her.

“Writing was something I did as a child – I suppose a lot of children do it,” she said.

“When I got the job at DC Thomson with my two O-levels, I thought that eventually I might work on Jackie magazine itself.

Catherine Aitken working as the Jackie magazine ‘sad girl’ as a 16-year-old office junior in Dundee. Image: Catherine Aitken.

“But of course, at that time, it was so difficult to move from the typing pool. I could see that and I could understand that as well.

“People had been to university and had stayed on at school and done sensible things.

“I stayed long enough to be featured as the ‘sad girl’ on the magazine’s problem page. But there wasn’t really a future there for me, so I moved on.”

Catherine studied for Highers – before wanderlust took her around the world

Catherine went to Dundee Commercial College to get Highers and did get into university. However, she decided not to go.

Instead, she ended up living and working in Paris for a couple of years as a cook/housekeeper.

She came back to live in London. During that time, the opportunity arose to travel the world.

When she again returned to London and tried to get a job in publishing, she ended up working for a TV company instead.

Film producer Catherine Aitken in 2004.

It’s there that her career in film and TV began, eventually moving back to Edinburgh.

“I worked my way up through production into eventually producing feature films and TV drama,” she said.

“I started off in documentaries then moved to produce quite a few short films.

“I became an executive at one point working for the equivalent of Screen Scotland which at the time was Scottish Screen. I then started developing feature scripts – becoming a script editor and script development person.”

‘Dream came true’ when award-winning first feature film screened in Dundee

Catherine produced a couple of low budget feature films and small dramas for the BBC.

In 2004, a dream came true when her first feature film, AfterLife, was screened at the DCA in her native city.

The love story made on a small budget included Trainspotting stars Kevin McKidd and Dunfermline-raised actress Shirley Henderson. It had already been shown in places as far afield as the Ukraine and the US.

Shirley Henderson studied in Dunfermline
Trainspotting star Shirley Henderson starred in AfterLife. Image: Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

It took the audience prize at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2003.

Meanwhile, a mid-career pivot also led Catherine to establish a “side-hussle”, setting up a handbags and accessories brand which she combined with working in TV and film.

Eventually giving up TV and film, she got back into the industry five years ago. She now works in training, supporting new entrants to the industry.

But her ambition to get back into writing received a boost in 2019 when The History Press asked her to write a non-fiction book, Artisan Edinburgh, about crafts in the capital.

That process “seemed to release” something in her and she started writing fiction again.

Sister’s experiences looking after dementia mum inspired Broughty Ferry-set novel

“I looked out the stories I’d done in the past and ideas that I’d had,” she said.

“I wrote a short film script and it won an award, third place in a competition.

“It was a comedy script called The Pants Job, which is about a woman who diets and wears Spanx to steel money from her employer. She stuffs it all down her pants.

“But all that just kind of geed me up and I started writing The Liberation of Bella McCaa.”

The Liberation of Bell McCaa by Catherine Aitken.

Catherine describes The Liberation of Bella McCaa as a “menopausal coming of age story”.

While going through the menopause is for 50-something women arguably the hardest physical time of their lives, it’s also often a time when they have to deal with caring for older relatives and any children might be leaving home.

It was this exploration of difficult issues, change – and ‘what if?’ – that Catherine wanted to explore.

“Because my sister mostly looked after my mum when she had dementia, it inspired the journey of the character Bella,” said Catherine.

“The mother in ‘Bella’ is of course not my mum. The character’s not very nice at all!

Catherine Aitken’s late mum Florence Aitken had to be looked after when she developed dementia. Image: Catherine Aitken

“And of course it’s not my sister either. But the book was inspired by that mother daughter relationship and I could see it reflected so many times in my friends who were all of an age where caring becomes part of your life.”

She added: “I thought it would be interesting just to make that central character of the mother really someone who was not very nice and show how much more difficult that would be if besides giving up your job and your life to look after someone, that this person really is not very nice to live with.

“That was what it was inspired by. It’s like a comedy drama as well. Just about how you manage to liberate yourself from any situation that pulls you down that way.”

Catherine says there should be more conversation about the menopause

Catherine said she thinks it’s still difficult for women to talk about the menopause – especially for women who are still in work. She thinks a lot of women feel that they should “put up with it”. They don’t always get as much support when they go to the doctor’s as they should.

Sometimes TV refers to the menopause as a ‘hot flush’. But she says it’s something that isn’t often read about in books.

“You do see a little bit of it – it’s usually a hot flush, and then that’s it kind of all over. It’s not discussed much more than a hot flush.

“But of course there’s a lot more to it than that.”

Catherine says the book is probably aimed mostly at 50-something women – although not necessarily about the menopause.

It’s as much about “liberating yourself from your own background and the kind of thoughts that you create for yourself or life has created for you”.

But she also thinks it’s about change for anybody. The men who’ve read it have “thoroughly enjoyed it” as have book bloggers in their 20s and 30s, if reviews are anything to go by.

‘Natural’ to set the novel in Broughty Ferry

When it came to the writing process, Catherine took herself away on holiday and “splurged” out most of a first draft over 10 days.

This felt like “such an achievement”, and she enjoyed going back through the editing process thereafter.

But crucially, it also seemed “really natural” to set the book in Broughty Ferry and wider Dundee.

Broughty Ferry

Although now based in Leith, she regularly visits Dundee to see her sister and old school pals.

She also recently returned to visit a book group and is delighted that her novel is being stocked by The Bookhouse in Broughty Ferry.

“In some ways Dundee seems quite far away from Broughty Ferry when you are not brought up there,” added Catherine, who grew up in Muirfield Crescent off Strathmartine Road.

“It always seemed like a journey to get there. People have these misconceptions like I did perhaps years ago – how Broughty Ferry was different from the rest and it was full of old ladies and what have you.

Dundee born and raised author, film producer and designer Catherine Aitken. Image: Catherine Aitken

“But of course it’s not like that at all.

“I just wanted it to be grounded in Dundee because it’s not a place that’s written about much at all or used as a location.

“I’ve also used it as the basis of my second one, a novella called Just One Weekend set in New York but featuring characters from Dundee which is out in September. My third book, which is going to be my ‘Bella II’ book, is based in Dundee and will be out in 2025.”

The Liberation of Bella McCaa by Catherine Aitken is out now published by Handbag Press, £9.99.