Peggy Hughes: Listening to Books that Talk
Peggy Hughes can often be seen dipping her finger into one of Edinburgh’s many literary pies, before adding salt, pepper or nutmeg. That's when she isn't organising literary salons, festivals and publications within her role as Dundee's Literary Development Officer. We caught up with her in Edinburghs' cafe-bookshop Looking Glass Books to talk about Electric Bookshop and literary tattoos
Electric Bookshop is one of Peggy’s current babies: a project which runs workshops and networking events ‘about digital publishing but also design, the future of reading and writing and exciting developments in the world of books’, as she puts it. Electric Bookshop started when Peggy, who then worked at Edinburgh City of Literature, and Claire Stewart, a friend working at Scottish Book Trust, spotted an event called Book to the Future. ‘It was a sort of networking night run by the Bookseller in London,’ explains Peggy, ‘based around future of the book type stuff. They invited all sorts of industry people, but really it was a brilliant opportunity to meet like-minded folk.’ Given that the event was in the wrong city, and there wasn’t an equivalent in Edinburgh the two decided to organise an event themselves. ‘Edinburgh’s a great literary city but it’s also got a really incredible informatics, computing, artificial intelligence sort of, um,’ she searches for the right word and finishes with an apologetic grin, ‘thing.’
Paper that plays a tune
Peggy breaks off to chat to the waitress who brings over our hot chocolate, and then takes a sip before continuing. ‘So that was how it started. Padmini Ray Murray who teaches publishing at the University of Stirling joined us. We knew we wanted it to be social and cultural and to give people the opportunity to chat. If there’s a writer in the room who wants to move into digital practice, we wanted to be able to help make that happen. The way it transpired, we usually have three guests who give us a little taster of what they’re doing, and that’s usually been pitched to a theme – paper, fashion, science, and so on.’
As well as the regular salons, Electric Bookshop are currently working on a project which is going to be a publishing time-machine, funded by New Media Scotland’s Alt-W award. ‘It’s quite cool—it’s going to get people to engage with their reading practices,’ explains Peggy. ‘Our last Electric Bookshop event was part of that project. We wanted to explore the science and the development of paper.’ Guests ranged from the ‘analogue’ and traditional—visual artist Yvette Hawkins—to the very modern—with Mike Shorter, who makes electronic paper (‘He can make a piece of paper play a tune!’ exclaims Peggy). Also on the podium was the artist Alyson Fielding. ‘Alyson hacks books,’ explains Peggy, describing the demonstration as one of her favourite moments from Electric Bookshop. ‘You know on your iphone or whatever, you’ve got Siri and you say ‘Where’s Looking Glass Books?’ and it tells you? She’s done that with a book. While the book doesn’t respond to you in the same way, it does talk to you! Alyson had a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped with her. She set it down and the book went,’ Peggy puts on a deep, funny, friendly voice, ‘”Hello, pick me up! Go on, pick me up!” Alyson had never done it in public before, so the moment when the book spoke—that was just amazing!’
The question of what piece of poetry someone would choose to have as a tattoo is normally met with a perplexed silence. Somehow it doesn’t come as a surprise that Peggy is my first interviewee to answer the question with the words, ‘Well, funny that, ‘cause I nearly did get a couple of poetry tattoos on my body.’ She laughs. ‘I’m really, really glad I didn’t now, because I wouldn’t want it. This would have been just before I graduated, so I was 21 or so. I actually looked at the pricing and everything. It was a haiku by Issa but it was in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which is one of my favourite books.—Have you read Franny and Zooey?’ she interrupts herself. I shake my head ruefully. ‘Everyone’s read Catcher in the Rye, but Salinger’s Glass Family books, they’re superb, they’re superb!’ she enthuses. She glances at the book-lined walls of the coffee and slowly recites ‘“O, little snail! Climb Mt. Fuji. But slowly, slowly!” I thought that one of the most delightful things I had ever come across. I was going to get in courier sans on my wrist, here.’ She taps the inside of her wrist with her index finger. ‘But then I, firstly, chickened out and, secondly, was just about to graduate and was quite skint. It was quite expensive really! I’m glad I didn’t, because I really would look at that now and think, oh, I wish I hadn’t!’ She pulls an expression of mock horror.
‘Sometimes I do write stuff on my wrist, and then I wash it off,’ Peggy muses. ‘Sometimes, I just write ‘choose kind’. Sometimes I write ‘allergic to penicillin’, because I am. I’m meant to wear a bracelet, but I don’t like jewellery. So if that one day that it’s written there something happens…’ She drifts off, and then chuckles. ‘I think what I mean is, I’d like there to be a tattoo that I could just wash off. A wipe clean tattoo. If it was more permanent than just pen, but you could change every day. Maybe that could be a project, the indelible tattoo!’ Doesn’t she mean the delible tattoo? I interrupt. Her face lights up with a grin. ‘Oh, a new project! Have we come up with up with a firm?’