From bedroom boxes to the International Booker
Robert Davidson and the rise of Sandstone Press
by Kenny Taylor
When Celestial Bodies won the world’s most prestigious prize for a single book translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland this year, it was cause for wide celebration, not least because it was the first work by a writer in Arabic to do so. In the Highlands and for Northwords Now, it was a source of particular pride and pleasure. For this is a work brought to global attention by a relatively small, Highland-based publishing house whose founder is a former Northwords editor. Visiting Robert Davidson this summer, with the excitement of the recent win still rippling though the new Sandstone Press offices in Inverness, I learned more about the roads of writing, editing and publishing that led to here.
Sandstone. It begins with single grains. The grains form layers; the layers build. Over time, those layers can make mountains. The towering beauties in Torridon are built from the stuff, formed from material swept-in from ancient northern rivers. It settled and became rock. Later, it amazed.
Many of Glasgow’s tenements – arguably the city’s most distinctive architecture – are made from sandstone, shaped by the unseen hands of those who quarried, shaped and raised the blocks of honeyed stone. To Robert Davidson (Bob to his friends), a Glaswegian from Maryhill, the metaphors embedded in sandstone still excite: “It’s a building thing.
“Blocks, one on top of the other, and a search for beauty. Years ago, from my home in Dingwall, my mind’s eye went beyond the slopes of Ben Wyvis above the town to the sandstone mountains of the north and back to the tenements of Glasgow. It happened in a moment.”
As a writer, Bob’s love of words stretches back to his teens, including early forays into crime fiction and later, poetry collections, song lyrics and a libretto. But paid employment for many years was with the water industry. Eventually, he took three months out: “not so much resting, as healing.”
At the same time, Angus Dunn stood down as editor of Northwords. With encouragement from Ann Yule (to this day, the driving force behind the Neil Gunn Writing Competition) and her husband, Kerr, Bob took up the reins. “What can be done with this?” was his first question.
Part of the answer came with the formation of a strong Northwords team. This included writer Moira Forsyth (now his partner and a director of Sandstone Press) as fiction editor, Colin Dunning for reviews, Rody Gorman as Gaelic editor, Jim Paterson tackling events and marketing and – later – Rhoda Michael as poetry editor.
The experience of working with this talented group of people not only helped to shape a new look and content for Northwords, as “Scotland’s magazine of contemporary arts’, but also helped Bob to learn aspects of the business of editing and publishing that were new to him. “Northwords was crucial to me sitting here now,” he says, with passion in his voice, as we chat over coffee in the Sandstone Press offices.
When the first edition was published in the summer of 2002, Bob’s editorial commented on the new look and content, included the stellar array of featured writers, including “poetry from some of the most accomplished writers in Scotland, as well as highly talented newcomers.”
Those writers included the superb pairing of Michel Faber interviewing John Byrne -serendipitous, since both lived in Easter Ross at the time. This gives insights into John’s feisty disregard for the received prejudices of contemporary art and art critics. Michel comments that: “Nowadays there seems to be a critical consensus that craft only gets in the way…Technical competence is seen as a kind of sterility, and true artists are supposed to be raw and undisciplined and instinctive.”
John’s reply – as with the rest of that conversation – is as relevant today as it was near the start of the millennium: “Yes, but what if you applied the same criticism to writing? Let’s say you can barely form words, you cannae put words together in any semblance of coherence, you’re just struggling to get something down…In the same way, I see someone struggling in a painting, because they cannae draw. They’re inept. I cannae see the point in that.”
And how about Andrew Greig writing about the ‘prose of poetry, poetry of prose’, describing his early writing and name-checking the Incredible String Band? Fifteen years later, he’d be touring book festivals and performing music on stage with Mike Heron, one of the two great songwriters in that influential group.
Looking at that issue now, one thing that strikes me is that Bob Davidson, as an editor and publisher, has long had an eye for both talent and emerging possibilities. “Our aim is to present intelligent, interesting writing to readers who are, all too often, starved of such material,” he says in his first Northwords editorial. “We also wish to bring wonderfully talented artists to your attention.” Those are values that Northwords Now still holds and celebrates.
Problems with funding eventually forced Northwords to cease publication, with a brief hiatus before Rhoda Michael launched the next incarnation, with the first issue of Northwords Now. But in the years of his editorship, Bob says he’s proud to have more than quadrupled the circulation and, importantly, to have strengthened his resolve to bring fresh and interesting work to readers.
“I believed in new writing, but what next?” The answer came in what had already been established, with the help of colleagues, during the Northwords days. The nascent Sandstone Press published some poetry collections by writers such as Janet MacInnes, Ian Crockatt, James Miller and others. “We even made money from them!” says Bob, aware of how unusual that still is in the poetry market.
In those days, storage of titles could include cardboard boxes piled in his bedroom – building blocks for the company, but hardly the layers that inspired the company’s name and aspiration. Publishing for adult learners followed, with the Sandstone Vista series.This included titles by Isla Dewar, Des Dillon and Suhayl Saadi. These taught the small team a great deal, says Sandstone Director and Editor, Moira Forsyth, including about editing, print production and distribution.
After that, non-fiction was the mainstay for several years, including books on hillwalking, climbing and the environment. Some of these enjoyed good sales, but Bob admits that he “still hadn’t learned enough about selling.”
First forays into fiction were in 2010, with wider attention quick to come. The first title to attract the attention of Man Booker judges was Jane Roger’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Long-listed in 2011, it gave Sandstone a taste of the kind of attention that such a prestigious prize can bring. Speaking to The Bookseller, Bob admitted that some of the coverage, especially from London-based reporters, could have a condescending tone, as if it seemed near impossible for a firm in the Highlands to be in contention for the world’s most prestigious literary prize.
But he’s also upbeat about such prejudice, reckoning that: “to be a publisher in a famously beautiful locale, but not a ‘local’ publisher is to be supremely advantaged in brand recognition, after you have conquered the practicalities.” Since 2011, the company has advanced “in jumps” he says, with expansion of staff and a need for more space; hence the move to new premises in Inverness this summer.
Non-fiction continues to be a strand of the yearly output, now running in total to around 30 titles, with recent success for titles such as Cameron McNeish’s There’s Always the Hills, Johnny Muir’s The Mountains Are Calling and photographer Andy Howard’s The Secret Life of the Mountain Hare (bit of theme in these titles, you’ll note). But to date, the brightest gem among the treasures in the Sandstone mountain is undoubtedly Celestial Bodies.
Written by Omani novelist, Jokha Alharthi, and translated by Marilyn Booth – who shared this year’s £50,000 International Booker Prize - this sets a family saga, seen from different viewpoints, within Oman’s transition from slave-trading hub to oil power. It’s the first work by a female Omani novelist to be translated into English, and the first book by a writer in Arabic to have won the International Booker. Chair of the panel of judges, Bettany Hughes, said that: “Its delicate artistry draws us into a richly imagined community, opening out to tackle profound questions of time and mortality.”
After the win, Jokha Alharthi said that Omani authors want foreign readers to look at the country “with an open mind and heart.
“No matter where you are, love, loss, friendship and hope are the same feelings and humanity still has a lot of work to do to believe in this truth.”
Year by year, book by book, layer by layer, Sandstone is now playing a part in that work. It’s a long way from Dingwall to Oman. But the connections are there, the building blocks rising. And that’s important.
It’s a kind of beauty.↑