An evening with Henry Bell: biographer, poet, editor – 13 January 2021

Ken McGaffin, committee member and moderator for the evening, gave a warm and enthusiastic introduction for Henry Bell: the editor-in-chief of the award-winning Gutter magazine, widely published poet and most recently a successful biographer.

The evening was organised in two parts, the first an exploration of Bell’s biography – John Maclean, Hero of Red Clydeside. He discussed how he chose his subject, his research methods and why Maclean was such an important figure in the pantheon of Scottish socialists. The second part of the evening focused on the world of publishing; the tremendous work that goes into producing a bi-annual literary magazine including the editing, reviewing and shortlisting of hundreds of poems and short stories.

Henry Bell chose a compelling subject for his first biography; Maclean was a man at the forefront of the Red Clydeside movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, an era of potent, political radicalism in Glasgow. Maclean was once described by the head of British Military Intelligence as “The most dangerous man in Britain”.

Bell’s passion for his subject was infectious as he described how he overcame his publisher’s reluctance for a Scottish hero to a London and broadly English audience. Bell arrived in Scotland in 2004 and adopted the Southside as his home and he soon fell in love with Glasgow.

Bell’s research was extensive and wide ranging: the Mitchell library, the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh, and the National Library of Scotland, where he discovered three large containers full of files about Maclean. This evidence the British government had collected to prove how seditious and treacherous the Scotsman was! Bell took three years to complete the book.

There was lots of interest in the biography and Ken interjected at opportune moments with thoughtful questions from the audience, including a request to read an excerpt from the biography. We had hardly noticed where the time had gone and the coffee break was upon us. Bell had a short exercise ready, a provocation to write poetry and the theme was ‘slip on the ice’.

There were a number of great tips that Bell offered as we began the second half and he described his experiences of writing, reviewing and working as the editor-in-chief of Gutter magazine.

Bell began by saying it was privilege to receive the mountain submissions that come to the magazine every year. Bell mentioned that a key criterion for judging a submission is its accessibility and its generosity, it was immediately clear that that generosity is ever present when Bell presents his ideas. He communicates his thoughts clearly and effortlessly.

When it comes to writing a draft, Bell urges: firstly, cut away anything that should not be there, secondly make sure it makes sense and communicates what it’s supposed to, and thirdly that every word counts and they are the right words.

In his role, as editor-in-chief, Bell had these helpful pointers for all of us to consider before we submit any of our stories or poems to competitions:

  • Does the poem or story begin in the right place, is there a preamble that can be cut?
  • Is there something missing, is the writing generous and hospitable or does it make it difficult for the reader?
  • Hunt down cliches and write it in your own voice.
  • Always read out aloud, do this frequently during the drafting process.
  • Be ruthless with the edits.

His final point, remember the dangers of the keyboard and try to re-write or print your work so you can spot errors you might miss.

So ended a generous, enjoyable and informative evening.

Ajay Joglekar

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