Peggy Hughes: Listening to Books that Talk

Article published on Feb. 8, 2014
Article published on Feb. 8, 2014

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!’

Deli­ble tat­toos

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?’