We ARE all Jock Tamson’s Bairns.

The first review is in. And thank you very much Bill Kirton for the comments – which have now been splashed all over everywhere I can think of (due to this FREE ebook not being available in the land of Amazon and thus incapable of garnering ‘reviews’ there.)

Jock Tamson's Bairns - Cally PhillipsGuerrilla Midgie Press has now published JOCK TAMSON’S BAIRNS in its entirety and it will be available FREE FOR ALL during the Edinburgh ebook festival (August 12th -25th) We host a residency there in the second week. 

Here’s Bill’s review which hopefully will encourage you to seek it out in the GOODY BAG of the ebook festival.  If you can’t wait till then, you can download it now here 


When you read this book, be prepared to think; not in any heavy, academic, pretentious way, just gently, quietly, reasonably. Be prepared, too, to re-examine how you use words and how you look at (and judge) other people. That doesn’t mean it’s some worthy, ‘improving’ tome, couched in arcane philosophical or psychological terms. On the contrary, it’s a careful, uncomplicated invitation for us to take a wee step back from our assumptions, the everyday attitudes we carry, the loose way we use language. It challenges the way we create compartments, chop reality into manageable chunks, box them up and label them, even though some chunks shouldn’t be in the same box and most labels are at best inadequate and at worst wrong.

And the problem inherent in such an approach is exacerbated when what we’re dealing with is not abstract ‘chunks of reality’ but people. Cally Phillips has worked a lot with people with ‘learning difficulties’. (The need to use quotation marks around apparently familiar, ‘normal’ terms is obvious from the early pages of the book.) The expression ‘learning difficulties’ has (thankfully) evolved from ‘mental retardation’ and worse because nowadays we try to be careful of the terms we use. There’s certainly been progress, but there’s still an underlying assumption that, because most of us ‘feel normal’, those who are different must be ‘abnormal’. But, as the author points out, the people who’ve decided what ‘normal’ means are – yes, you’ve guessed it – the ‘normal’ ones. ‘Normal’ isn’t a hard scientific fact; it’s a consensus.

So, we assess ‘disadvantaged’ individuals, judge them, stick labels on them so that we can accommodate them in a specially designated bit of our reality. They are ‘other’. And now we’ve dealt with them, so we can ignore them. But that doesn’t work for the author here. She doesn’t keep quiet, doesn’t look away, doesn’t hide behind the labels and attitudes provided by others. She’s honest and says what she sees. And she chooses to use a very clearly fact-based fiction to show that the category ‘abnormal’ is as rich, varied and human as its ‘normal’ counterpart and that, however we refine the labels we stick on people, they’re still restrictive and misleading.

But everything I’ve said is outlined much more simply and accessibly in the introduction. Her style is friendly, conversational and honest and, when we move to what she describes as ‘fictional stories based on factual experience’, she continues to draw us into her revelations by creating characters and situations which, yes, underline the message but are also moving, funny and entertaining. In her own words, she’s ‘respect[ing] the real-life experience of the people whose lives [she’s] fictionalised’ in order to ‘teach insight for those of us who so badly need it’.

The first story is called Gary gets to be God and there’s a beautiful irony in the title.

Gary is blind, doesn’t talk, can’t hear very well, so communication is limited. He also shuffles along on his bottom. He drools, squeaks when he’s happy and screams when he’s unhappy. For us ‘normal’ people his behaviour is ‘challenging’, there are ‘incidents’, ‘reports’. It all fits a convenient pattern doesn’t it? Why can’t he be more like us? Why can’t he be ‘normal’? Cally Phillips answers that with her own question, one which acknowledges that Gary’s ‘normality’ is different. ‘Can you imagine having to move around shuffling through the dark on your bum,’ she asks, ‘without the ability to tell someone what you want or know what’s round the corner?’

But, in a group improvisation, with the theme of ‘where do you want to go?’, poor, powerless Gary gets to be God. It’s a beautifully orchestrated story with a poignant ending.

The other three stories work in similar ways. In Jonjo Can’t Sit Still, Jonjo has Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (which we all glibly shorten to ADHD and assume that the label ‘explains’ things). The impact of this story comes from the fact that Jonjo tells it himself and so we get access to his normality, which turns out to be as legitimate as ours. Philips lets him ‘explain himself’ by using a combination of his own impulses and the language other people use about him. The writing is very clever as we see the logic, the ‘normality’ of how his mind works, of how he interprets/understands expressions. He loves to run and he’s ‘an accident waiting to happen’, so he runs, a car hits him and the accident has happened. Why did it happen? ‘There is no reason to an accident’ he says. His father uses the expression ‘you’ve hit the nail on the head’ so when he tells a doctor ‘I have low self-esteem’ and sees from her facial expression that he’s surprised her, he says ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to hit the nail on the head’.

Philips helps us to share the world as he sees it. He’s sensitive to clichés, to what others say and think. And he loves to run. So the ‘normal’ people give him Ritalin to slow him down. Then comes his first accident and he’s on crutches for a while, which allows him to share another insight. ‘Crutches slowed me down a bit,’ he says, ‘but Ritalin slows me down on the inside too and crutches only slowed me down on the outside’.

I’m doing too much story-telling, but it’s simply to illustrate how the fictions are so carefully tailored to enhance the central message with regard to the tyranny of labels. The central figures of the other two stories, Heather and Angus, have different problems again and give more examples of how badly they’re served by our preconceptions and how the differences between us and them blind us to the similarities. We are, indeed, all Jock Tamson’s Bairns – not equal, no, not by a long way, but all the same, all individuals with our idiosyncrasies and gifts, flaws and beauties. In the last part of the book, we see the fictional ‘No Labels’ drama group improvising again, interacting. All its members have ‘difficulties’, but the improvisations impose no restrictions. They can be who they are and the results show that who they are is valid. In fact, the improvisations sound like much more positive ways to pass the time than watching TV or indulging in all the other herd activities that constitute normality for the majority of ‘normals’. These are lives being lived, individuals with their own precious selves, all different, all valuable.

Labels are supposed to identify; in fact, they obscure.

Bill Kirton


Things are hotting up…

It’s just the other side of the weekend away. FairTrade Fortnight starts on Monday and so does our online festival of flash fiction.

ffvol1And to whet your appetite, here is the first review of FairTrade Fiction available now as an ebook for Kindle or Epub or as a paperback  (just click the appropriate highlight.)

A Fair Cop

Okay, my hands are up.  You’ve caught me.  It’s a fair cop, guv.  I admit it.  I’ve been a Fairtrade shunner.

You see, up until now I’ve been under the impression that Fairtrade was one of those mantras intoned by the green-wellyboot-wearing, Barbour-jacket-sporting, African-trinket-shopping brigade.  You know the brigade I mean: the comfortable, well-fed, middle-class pseudo-hippy types who invented PC.  I actually thought Fairtrade was PC.  And I don’t do PC.

Then I read this little collection of short stories, and I’m now an avid supporter of Fairtrade.  I learned more from the stories than I would ever have from any amount of haughty pronouncements by the aforementioned brigade.  I learned about the modern-day exploitation of poor workers across the globe; not just the nature of the exploitation, but the sheer scale of it and its impact on so many aspects of my life – the tea and coffee I drink, the fruit I eat, the sugar and chocolate I (shouldn’t) ingest, even the clothes I wear.  I learned about the concept of Fairtrade and how it can operate to combat that exploitation.  And I learned how to look for the Fairtrade label.  I learned all of that – and I became a Fairtrade convert into the bargain – in a very short space of time.

There’s a big lesson here for the PC crowd.  Instead of preaching, do what the author Cally Phillips has accomplished so successfully with this collection.  Write your message into short stories.  Populate your stories with everyday, believable characters.  Add a large dollop of humour and a sprinkling of make-believe.  And I guarantee you’ll have people converting to your message faster than your green wellyboots can carry you!

Reviewed by Brendan Gisby. (also known as Mr McStoryteller.) If you’re looking for great short stories of a Scottish flavour McStorytellers is the place to go. One of Cally’s FairTrade Fictions will feature on Monday!