Category Archives: Blogs

The onion fryers

I’m reading a real onion fryer kind of book right now. I almost got impatient with the Resident IT Consultant for coming back from his walk, because I was reading so comfortably and there he was and I had to make conversation instead. Who am I kidding? I did get impatient, but only quietly. It was just the right kind of day for reading; chilly and dark, and it was so inviting, there in my holey armchair. (Don’t worry, I’ve covered the holes with a blanket for the moment. Tartan. Because we’re in Scotland.)

Despair had been creeping in, because I’d had a few books I wasn’t rushing to get back to. They don’t have to be real onion fryers (that’s my name for them, borrowed from Adèle Geras, who has described the can’t-let-go-of books as ones she reads while stirring the onions she’s frying for dinner), but I like to feel a certain longing when I think of returning to my reading chair. Coming up with other things to do instead is not a recommendation.

What I find so amazing is that my current onion fryer was offered by a writer so diffident, but who truly belongs to the very greatest of children’s authors, that I’d have snatched it out of their hands, had we been in the same room.

I have a few onion books sitting around at the moment. One of them was also of the hard to come by kind, as I only found out about it by chance and then had to ask for it. Now, is it wrong to be so desperate for onion style sequels by – I would think – one of the more reliably bestselling authors of today? Should I leave an excellent book by someone who is less in need of another review, in favour of a needier book? In fact, is that why I had to ask for it? Did the publisher feel it needed less TLC?

For about a year I’ve carried a book round with me on trips, expecting to ‘read it next’ and when I finally got to it the other week, I was rather underwhelmed. I didn’t mind it, but neither was I making excuses to go and sit down with it. All I wanted to do was to grab one of my onion fryers instead.

I think my reasoning here is along the lines of that intelligent Dave Allen sketch about bread. You have fresh bread, warm from the oven. But you have a bit of yesterday’s stale bread, and you must eat it first. Which means that today’s lovely fresh bread will be tomorrow’s stale offering, which you have to eat before… And so on. Whereas I reckon I can just as well toast yesterday’s bread tomorrow as today, so will eat the new bread first.

The same goes for books. I’m all set to read every one – or most – of the onion books now. And maybe when I’m done, there will be more of them waiting. Just not sure what to do about the ‘toast.’ Because I do like toast.

Yes! We have no milk today

Nor do we seem to have a duty manager. Or at least we don’t know who it might be.

I was quite impressed with Son’s tale of needing milk (he was always fond of it) a while back. Living in a metropolis (Edinburgh does count as one of those, I trust?) he is in the somewhat unusual situation that his corner shop is, well, one of the large supermarket chains. It is only a few minutes away from his flat and being enormous, it has done what large shops do; killed off the competition.

Hence it being his corner shop. There is no other place to get milk (or sliced bread or bananas, which apparently are the basics every shop must always stock, even if there is no lobster), unless he travels. Used to finding his preferred kind of milk occasionally unavailable, he was still pretty taken aback to find an aisle totally devoid of anything milky.

Neither the half pint or the six pint or anything else. He photographed the rows of empty shelves and went to see the duty manager. Unfortunately the staff on the information counter didn’t know who this was, so couldn’t arrange for our disgruntled milk drinker to complain to the person in charge. Nor did they know that they had no milk, or why that’s a bad thing for a large branch of …

Oops.

There was plenty of black tea for Dodo and Son as they waited for the milk supply to reappear. And they don’t much care for bananas.

To be more right than others

Honestly, I prepared last Wednesday’s blog post because I liked the list of books and its ethos, but basically I was being lazy. I imagined the list would pass silently by most of you.

But oh no. When you least expect it, trouble brews. And it brewed pretty stormily, too. Because two of the books celebrating diversity were ‘only spouting stereotyping.’ In this case of Native Americans (and I don’t know if this is the acceptable term, but it was used by my attackers), and no one could have been more surprised than I was.

The authors, on the other hand, were not. They have been the target for this kind of thing before.

As I said, I have not read Apache, so will leave it out for the moment. I have read and enjoyed Amazing Grace. My understanding of the diversity aspect of Grace is that it’s because she is a black girl in England. The fact that she spends a moment pretending to be a Native American is beside the point. There are many of us who have done so.

Now, you could (as an author or a publisher) consult specialists, to make sure you don’t go upsetting anyone. I understand this happens more often than you think. But experts can be ‘wrong,’ too, or not of quite the same persuasion as those who later complain or harass.

What’s more, the comments last week felt as if they were aimed at me. I didn’t compile the list and I didn’t write the books, although I wish I had. I am white, but that doesn’t automatically make me one of the people who have mistreated Native Americans. There are many white people who have also been – and still are – unfairly treated and discriminated against.

When you feel really strongly about something, there is a tendency to forget others. It’s ‘me, me, me’ all the way. It’s also easy to use a tone of voice that will generally not get you far. Even for serious matters, a sense of humour and a portion of intelligent conversation will get you more followers and better results.

Most children like pretending. It’s part of normal childhood. There is nothing wrong with that, unless you use violence or have access to an adult’s weapons (as is far too common in some places). As a dear friend of mine put it: ‘I don’t think little girls wearing head-dresses and sitting cross-legged is the cause of the tremendously awful situation of Indians, or if all these illustrations were wiped off the face of the earth, anything would change.’

When the young Witch played at being an Indian, it was from the perspective of admiring the people she saw in Westerns on television. They seemed exciting and they looked beautiful. To be told now that I was stereotyping, and effectively colluding in the awful treatment of these people in real life is upsetting, and also very useless. No one saw me. If they had, I’d have looked pitiful. It was on the inside of my mind that great things were taking place. I didn’t use books or obtain views of the world from the – apparently – bad British media. I only had Hollywood films.

I’m sure I am far more prejudiced than I would like to think. I don’t always have all the facts, or the totally correct, most recent facts. But I mean well, and any political correctness comes from my heart, not through clichés. It’s human to make mistakes. I’d like to think that any persecution of authors of children’s books are just that; human mistakes.

I make plenty of mistakes, all the time. And I’d prefer not be criticised for it, but I’d rather someone tells me off for the bad things I do, than for an author who has written a rather lovely book about a nice little girl who likes to play and use her imagination. Neither I, or the author or Grace have had anything to do with what mostly white Americans have done to the people who lived there first.

Nor do I believe that removing a couple of books from a list will make life better for Native Americans.

Kalmar and me

Meet Kalmar, Ivar’s second cousin. Actually, I’m not sure it is Kalmar. That might have been the Habitat cousin once removed. But a witch has to call her shelves by name, so they will be be Kalmar. They came from the Coop in Sweden, and travelled here in that fateful VW van I’ve mentioned before. The one so full of wardrobes  – and shelves – that we thought it’d never make it.

Ivar is the current IKEA ‘equivalent,’ which used to be called Ingo. It’s hard to keep up with these booky boys, who can’t all be Billy. I preferred Kalmar because he was taller. I wanted tall, because that way I’d have room for more books.

The first house the Resident IT Consultant and I lived in had a small livingroom. It had small everything, really, but the livingroom was where the shelves had to go. By the end we had five bookcases in that room. Could have done with more.

Then we moved Kalmar and ourselves to a much larger house, where Kalmar moved from room to room, wherever he was needed. When Offspring wanted space, I reluctantly put Kalmar up for sale in Loot. Luckily, only half the parts were sold, and in the end I decided the remaining two bookcases were just right for Offspring. One in each room. Offspring. Kalmar.

Then the shelves shifted round again, and Daughter got both Kalmars and Son had some new Ivars. When Daughter went to university I appropriated Kalmar for my own needs. And in this latest move, I’m afraid to say I thought Kalmar might go and live in the garage. We do need lots of shelves, but Kalmar is deep, and could theoretically be replaced by someone half as deep, thereby leaving more room for us. (Did I mention this house is smaller? Although not as small as the first house.)

But I am nothing if not dithery, so I have decreed that Kalmar will live in Son’s room (=guest room), but will need to be white. 32 years as pine is more than enough, and white is the new, erm, new, whatever.

So, I am painting. I need to out-paint the Resident IT Consultant, who’s been attached to a paintbrush for far too long. I am the painter here. (For anything of a size that I can reach up to, or bend down to.)

The shelves before

Here stand all 16 Kalmar shelves, awaiting their very first meeting with undercoat. They are in a room which is itself awaiting all manner of things, and is therefore available, and one must make the most of an empty room, now that the Resident IT Consultant has killed and buried its wallful of fitted wardrobes.

The shelves before

I am going to give the undersides of the shelves one coat (undercoat; geddit?), just in case someone sees the pine shine if they lie down on the floor and look up the underneath of Kalmar. Which will have to pay for being too deep by doubling everything. One in front, one in the back.

Bad(diel and) Bookwitch

There’s no point in trying to play it safe, as has become obvious in the last few days.

A couple of weeks ago I referred obliquely to a celebrity children’s book. I was asked to do an interview with the author, but on second thoughts I decided against, because he didn’t have time to take part in this publicity the way I’d like.

I knew next to nothing about David Baddiel, so had nothing bad to say. Or good. After googling him, I found him to be a pleasant looking man, and as he has previously written a few adult novels, I’m thinking he might not be a bad author, even of children’s books. The topic – choosing your parents – doesn’t appeal, but then I’m more parent than child, and would rather not be unchosen by mine.

Guardian article

Reading the Guardian Family last Saturday I discovered David had had time for them. At least to pose for a very nice photo. The interview might have been a phone one, for all I know, and is sufficiently padded that it could have been pretty brief. And I guess the article writer hadn’t read the book.

If I’d got access to David, I would have. And let’s be honest, I was only vaguely interested in the whole thing because he’s a bit famous (while not being Katie Price). And because I didn’t know him or his work, I felt that might make it fun.

Apparently he did a radio interview about the book as well. That’s fine. His publicist got him a lot of attention, as she should do. I just don’t know why I was asked. I don’t get paid. I need something in return, other than a book. To meet people I have chosen myself is my main reward. Having ‘unknowns’ thrust upon me, I need to feel there is something a wee bit different, even outstanding, about my victim.

And they do need to reciprocate a little in effort. I will travel, and meet up, and write up, in return for as little as twenty minutes in person. Stupid of me, I know.

David seems like a nice man. Which is nice. Just too busy. Which for his sake is probably also nice. I’m also busy, so it was for the best that we were busy being busy at the same time.

Down the close

Do you recall my meeting with the Plague Doctor five months ago? I was in Edinburgh, outside The Real Mary King’s Close, on my way to hear Philip Caveney frighten school children. So was the Plague Doctor; on his way to frighten school children.

Mary King's Close

In ‘real’ life the good doctor works for Mary King’s Close, and I said a few things about it. Like me not wanting to have a look round, because of the plague and also because I might not like the dark and narrow and steep passages. Naturally their publicist Caroline invited me to come and be walked round the place with her, before they open for plague business in the morning. I said yes – having been promised I could escape whenever I wanted. And then I was felled by migraine and couldn’t go. And then when I thought about it again, on the other side of moving house, I decided it’d be a bit forward of me to email and ask if I could come now.

Luckily, Caroline sensed this and emailed me to say it was high time we did this. (She did use more finesse than that in her choice of words.) I decided to face the plague there and then, so the resident IT Consultant and I got up really early one morning last week to get to MKC for nine.

(I, erm, went to the Ladies on arrival. The WC screams as you flush. Thought you might want to know. It’s a little disturbing.)

We set off down the first set of stairs and I paused a bit to see whether I wanted to freak out and panic a little, but came to the conclusion I might be all right. And I was. The hardest thing was how steep the actual close is, and you want to mind your head in places, even at my modest height.

View of Mary King's Close

It’s interesting to see how people used to live. So close together, in small rooms with low ceilings and extremely basic facilities. Cooking, sleeping, using the toilet, looking after cattle. No wonder the plague did well under such circumstances.

Usually visitors are taken round by guides, dressed as real people from those days. Caroline seemed to feel she wasn’t as good as the regular guides, but she did marvellously well. We could stop as and when we liked. MKC was home to people of all sorts. Not just the poor, but also to better-off people, some even with their own front door. (I liked the chap who was so proud of his toilet that it’s the room you see immediately from the street entrance.)

Mary King

We came upon a woman who’d just murdered her son-in-law (he had it coming). We met Mary King herself, and a couple of her neighbours. They could talk, so we found out a fair bit about them. And we saw the room with all the toys; beanie babies and Barbies and goodness knows what. It seems there was a sad ghost girl who’d lost her doll, and now she has something to play with again.

Annie's Shrine

People would hang their washing out, high above the close. And unlike when we were there, the close would be full of stalls and people shopping. We could hear them, but not see them. But the worst was seeing the people who were sick, and the Plague Doctor at work.

After our fantastic private tour, we had another look at the model of MKC in the shop, to see where we’d been. We looked at what else the shop had, including plenty of copies of Philip Caveney’s Crow Boy.

MKC also put on events, and as part of their Close Fest, which runs for a week from Halloween, there will be a sort of talk by Arran Johnston on November 6th at 19.30, A Close Encounter With Charles Edward Stuart. I think it might be in the cowshed…

Cowshed

Afterwards the Resident IT Consultant and I felt we needed elevenses, as we’d had such an early start, and we went to the St Giles Bar & Café just round the corner. We felt the name had a nice ring to it, somehow.

Bookwitch bites #128

Listing. Not me personally, or at least, not very much. I’ve had some sleep now. But there are lists. Everywhere.

And I will start with me. It seems I am on the Cision Top 10 UK Children’s Literature Blogs. Which is nice. (I’m sure they are mistaken, but I will not insist on a recount.) I’m in excellent company, and I shall bask in the glory for a day or two.

Various lists appear every now and then, listing (well, obviously) really good books. There was the UKLA list a couple of weeks ago, and I was relieved to see I’d actually read a respectable number of the books on there.

Then we had the 100 best children’s books in the Sunday Times, and I can’t tell you much at all about them. Plenty of people on fb were enthusing, but most ran out of steam before they’d copied all 100 book titles for us who are on the wrong side of the Times paywall. I do know Helen Grant and Keith Gray were on it, which I’m pleased about. The pleasure I’d get from knowing how many of the 100 I’ve read and liked, will have to wait. Possibly forever.

The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award list was made public this week, and I’m definitely not going to publish the names of all 197 candidates. Good luck to them!

It’s been an awardy kind of week, hasn’t it? The Nobel prize almost passed me by completely, as I was so busy I barely even registered it was that time of year again. The 2014 prize went to Patrick Modiano, as I’m sure you know. (Has anyone here read him?) I was intrigued to see that Philip Roth should have got it instead. (Surely there must be more writers out there who ‘should’ have won?)

On the popularity front I’m sure Malala getting the Nobel peace prize is good news to – almost – everyone. Let’s hope it will make a difference, somehow.