John Bird: Great ideas come when you’re away with the fairies

"Possibly the most wonderful thing to come out of my time at Cove Park near Glasgow was the idea of having some Big Issue artists or writers come up and stay, as a kind of Cove Park-Big Issue Fellowship. What a brill thing that would be"

I was wrestling with fairies in the most incredible scenery I had stayed in for many years. It was on a Scottish peninsula that stuck out between two lochs off the Firth of Clyde in Argyll and Bute. I had been given the chance to stay in a hut at the Cove Park art centre, a kind of retreat where artists can go and work.

My wrestling was with my latest book, which in spite of its silly title – The Fairy that Came in From the Cold– is a very serious book about how we understand history. How ingredients make up events, and it’s not worth sticking with one cause to explain an event. Brexit did not happen simply because some people voted against staying. It was and is a multi-layered phenomenon – scores of ingredients had to come together for it to happen; some honest and open, some hidden.

Or Trump; you cannot simply put him down to a decision by millions of people to throw their lot in with a multi-millionaire.

So, my book is about the ingredients that make up the First World War. You’ll be surprised what I have come up with as some of the ingredients. Not all military or political, but also creative and literary ingredients which at first seem unrelated to any great event.

Cove Park was created to aid artists of all kinds – writers, painters, dancers and more – to get some space to work, and succeed, or even fail. The important thing is that it is creative time and you are to a large extent on your own. There are other writers and artists occupying the other hut and pod dwellings, but everyone seemed to want to get on with their work; so sociability was not high on the list.

I was at first thrown, and depressed. I missed the usual loud chorus that surrounds me – with me a large part of the noise. It was just me and a mirror, and a bedroom and facilities. And the great surrounding beauty of hills, water, sailing boats and low clouds, woods and streams.

But it was not all roughing it. Cove Park has a great centre with books to read, tables to sit at and places to eat, study and create.

I found the washing machine most useful, as I had left suddenly and had not brought enough shirts and smalls. I did however, forget to leave a pound for the machine use and will have to make arrangements to obviate this oversight. (In the old days I could have sent a £1 postal order for a cost of three pence. But enough of the trivial).


If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

Possibly the most wonderful thing to come out of my time there was the idea of having some Big Issue artists or writers come up and stay, as a kind of Cove Park-Big Issue Fellowship. What a brill thing that would be. Cove Park is a charity and the idea of working with The Big Issue is right up their street.

One day I was pleased to see the centre packed, as various galleries, artists and the Scottish Arts Council came to have a conference about Scotland’s entry to the Venice Biennale, one of the most prestigious festivals in the art world. After their whirligig visit they were off – back to Glasgow and other parts of Scotland. Cove Park is only 25 minutes from Helensburgh and a train into Glasgow takes under an hour. Yet you would think you were in the Highlands, miles from the urban.

One day I stood at the bottom of the peninsula at a beautiful little town called Kilcreggan and looked a mile or two across the water at Greenock. I had never been to Greenock but knew its reputation for being a tough town of shipbuilding near Glasgow.

But I also knew it as the birthplace of one of Scotland’s greatest poets, WS Graham. As I stood there, I composed a poem to Graham, a Faber poet, describing the time I met him in Cornwall in 1970. Graham and I shared a friend. I was lying and boasting with this friend in Graham’s local pub – the William IV – about a three-book deal with Faber for my poetry. And my recent receipt of an Arts Council award for my poetic works.

Poor Graham, who had to eke out a living and whose wife had to clean holiday cottages to survive – poetry pays jack shit – was livid. When it came time to go back to his house for a further drink he barred my way. And when I tried to push past him he punched me hard and knocked me down. Being a bragging scumbag at the time I got up and asked him if that was all he could do? We bonded over the punch and I got to know his poetry later and it is of the highest order.

The Fairies all fell into place eventually and I reluctantly rejoined the urban world – though I look forward to our Cove Park-Big Issue fellowship flowering; replenished and fairiefied.

Image: Cove Park