An interview with author Angus Corby

Books, Piping

Each week we focus on one of our talented makers, and this week we meet author Angus Corby, who writes and illustrates ‘You Can’t Play Here’. A firm favourite of ours here at – with both the young and old!  The book is about young Gregor MacDonald who is thrilled when he gets a set of bagpipes for his birthday. Now he can be just like Grandad. But each time he starts to play, he hears the same angry cry, ‘You can’t play here! Poor Gregor goes from house, to loch, to barn and to hillside disturbing people, until he finds acceptance in the most unlikely of places.

Angus Corby is a landscape architect who lives in Fife. Reading to his three daughters inspired him to illustrate and write a picture book for children. Young Angus wanted to learn the bagpipes himself but discovered what a painful process it can be especially for everyone around him. Perseverence paid off, however and he’s a proficient piper. Here we speak to Angus…

Where did you get the idea for ‘You Can’t Play Here?’

The idea for the book really came from one of my children – at least, indirectly.  I have three daughters, Sacha, Megan and Jessica, and when they were small, the evening routine used to involve tea, bath and bed – usually with a bedtime story.  The 5 year age-span between the oldest and youngest girls presented an endless challenge finding a book on which they could all agree.  On one particular evening this seemed to be more of a problem than usual and I ended up making an executive decision which didn’t please Sacha, the eldest.  Whether due to being out-voted or with a genuine observation on the quality of the selected book, Sacha announced at the end of the story that it was ‘rubbish’, and to emphasise this opinion she added – ‘Even you could do better, Dad’.  Talk about being damned with faint praise!

But it did get me thinking – perhaps I could…


Angus too struggled to find a place to practice when learning to play

Is the main character of Gregor based on anyone you know?

Like many a good yarn, there is a smattering of truth in the book.  Whilst I didn’t spend my formative years wandering the Scottish countryside in a kilt, I certainly feel empathy for young Gregor Macdonald’s woes as he struggles to master the intricacies of the Highland Bagpipe without unduly upsetting those around him.  I remember when I decided to take up the instrument (slightly later in life than Gregor) I was hugely conscious of the noise the pipes can make and how far this can carry.  And, let’s face it, it sounds pretty terrible when played badly!  I recall one particular practice session when I had managed to find what I thought was an empty field with a few scraggly gorse bushes – the perfect spot to wind up the pipes without disturbing anyone….or so I thought.  Not long after getting going I heard shouting behind me and found a rather angry-looking landowner waving his crook at me.  To be honest, he was actually more bemused than angry (although he was concerned for his sheep…clearly not a music-loving flock).  I was fairly mortified by the whole episode but, obviously, the kernel of an idea was formed.

We know that your grandfather was once a piper for the Duke of Hamilton.  Did he ever tell you any interesting stories about being a piper?

Both my grandfather and his brother were keen pipers in their time and featured in their RAF squadron pipe band, and I always felt it was a shame that nobody else in the family took an interest in the instrument.  When I began playing my great uncle Willie gave me his practice chanter which I still use today.  I remember from a very young age being told about the photograph of my grandfather in Edinburgh Castle museum – this seemed awfully grand to a wee boy.  I also loved hearing about him having to pipe whilst walking up and down the Duke’s dining table at official dinners – again, walking on a table; manner from heaven to a child!  Later, he told me of his best memory of piping which began when he was unexpectedly called to the CO’s office – thinking he was getting a row for something, he was surprised when told he had been selected to pipe for an official engagement the next day at Holyrood Palace.  He arrived at the palace, tuned his pipes and waited in the allocated spot for the VIPs to emerge from the function room.  When the doors opened he was given the sign to begin playing and was then amazed to see King George VI step out of the room.  The King stopped to listen to my grandfather playing for a few minutes and then smiled and nodded before moving on.

Some 70+ years later, this royal ‘connection’ became a central theme in my book.


Edinburgh’s Millenium Parade – similar to the parade Gregor takes part in

When did you decide to become a writer and illustrator?

As described above, it was less of a calling and more of an accidental stumbling.  I have always loved drawing and, although there was never a grand plan to write and illustrate a book, it was not an unexpected development.

How long did it take you to write and illustrate ‘You Can’t Play here?’

A long time!  Probably in the region of 10 years from when I started to when the book was finally published.  This was for a number of reasons – this was never a career move and I had to balance the book development with the real job, not to mention helping my wife with the family stuff!  It was not always easy to find time to disappear into the shed at the top of the garden and churn out another drawing/painting although, it must be said, my wife was very encouraging.  After I had the story written and a few watercolours completed I decided that this might have some commercial interest rather than being simply for the family (the girls were rapidly getting beyond the bedtime story age!).  I contacted a few publishers but got nowhere and began to realise that it is not at all easy for an unknown author/illustrator to attract the attention of a publisher.  I lost interest in this struggle after a while and it was my wife who persuaded me to finish all the illustrations and try again.  This took even more time – the watercolours are not quick to set up –  and then I had a stroke of good fortune when I was introduced to a publisher who lived in the same village – she agreed to look at the manuscript/drawings and I was delighted when she said her company would take it on.  It was still took a further two years to get the book through the production stage, including having to reduce the number of words dramatically to fit the picture book format.

How old were you when to started to learn the bagpipes?

I was 20 when I eventually plucked up the courage to begin learning the pipes (and that was after a ‘push’!).  Having endured the transient lifestyle of an RAF child, I never seemed to have the opportunity to take up the instrument.  I had talked about it for years but never quite got round to it, and then one Christmas there was a rather large package under the tree with my name on it – my girlfriend (now my wife) had only gone out and bought a set of bagpipes for me.  In later years (after having to suffer the pain of listening to me practice) she confessed that she had half hoped I’d give it up and we could stick the pipes on the wall above the fireplace!


Angus playing the pipes

When you were learning to play the bagpipes, did you face the same problem as Gregor trying to find a place to practice?

Absolutely…although I don’t specifically recall being physically attacked by any animals, domestic or otherwise!

How often do you practice the bagpipes now?

Sadly, not very often!  I am painfully aware that, with any instrument, you have to put in the hours if you want to be good at it.  Actually, with the pipes I have found that you have to put in the hours if you just want to be able to play them at all!  It is very easy to lose the breathing technique which means you have to concentrate on keeping the pipes going rather than playing the tune…not pretty!

Have you ever played in a pipe band parade?

Yes, I was in a small band when we lived down south after leaving university and then, for a while, I was in the Heriot Watt Pipe Band, which was good fun.  However, being part of a band is a discipline and you have to keep up or you let others down.  I was finding it more and more difficult to put in the necessary practice ahead of band practice and, ultimately, had to bow out.


Young Gregor attempts to play the pipes 

Who are your favourite authors, both for children and adults?

I have always been a huge fan of Georges Remi (Hergé) and all the adventures of Tintin.  It is staggering how much research that Hergé used to undertake to ensure that the settings for his stories were accurate.  I also love the fact that the illustrations appear initially to be very simplistic, largely with block colour and limited shading, whereas they are actually incredibly detailed with great angles and perspective.

My other favourite author would have to be JRR Tolkien – I can’t remember how many times I read both the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was younger.

What do your children think of the fact you have your own book published?

Well, in the inimitable vocabulary of youth, they say ‘it’s pretty cool, dad…’

Do you have any plans for any other books?

Yes, several.  I developed a storyline and draft illustrations for a second book fairly soon after the first one was published, but then didn’t have time to work up the detail and complete the illustrations.  It’s still there in the shed, waiting.  I have also noted down a couple of other ideas that I think might work and I am looking at other illustration techniques that might make the books quicker to develop.  I was, and always will be, thrilled to get a book with my own illustrations published …but it would be great to have another….

What are your interests other than writing?

I try to keep fit and healthy with swimming training a couple of times a week.  I suppose my main focus at the moment is with my youngest daughter’s sabre fencing activities.  She is doing really well at the UK cadet level (under 17) and has represented GB and Scotland in the past two years.  To support this we have to travel a fair amount (a lot of the competitions are in the south) and, whilst I am happy to support her and to act as ‘coach dad’, it does mean there are even fewer weekends free to disappear back up to that shed.

Thanks to Angus for speaking to us and to see his fantastic book ‘You Can’t Play here’ visit the Book Department.

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