Category Archives: Education

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…


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.

Lies We Tell Ourselves

For someone like me who gets nervous before even pretty ordinary events, reading Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, about a group of the first black students to attend a white school in Virginia in 1959, was almost unbearably frightening. This is a work of fiction, but based on real people’s experiences, doing this very thing. Going to a school where they are not only not wanted, but stared at, shouted at, and generally attacked in ‘small’ ways every day. (And occasionally much bigger ways.) A place where the students count the minutes left of the school day, when they have to try and escape unhurt. The – ineffective – police were only present on the first morning. After that it was every student for themselves.

The topic is so incredibly interesting, because although most of us have read historical descriptions of the early black pioneers for integration in education, I don’t think we’ve really put ourselves in their places. Not stopped to think about what it really must have been like. Because we didn’t have to. Because many of us are white.

So, desegregation in schools would have been more than enough for one novel to deal with. I was a little surprised to find that Robin also added a relationship between a black girl and a white girl, making it an early lesbian issue, on top of everything else. I suspected this was more than would make sense.

But I was wrong. It is what makes Lies We Tell Ourselves a very special book. OK, I didn’t buy the instant attraction between them on the first day when Sarah, the black student, is already incredibly tense over the whole situation. But from then on, the reader can see the situation develop, from both sides.

Sarah is your ‘typical’ black role model; polite to all, intelligent, pretty, sings like an angel, and courageous. The same can be said about Linda, but she happens to be the daughter of a racist newspaperman, and she herself believes in the supremacy of white people and absolutely does not want black students in her school.

It’d be easy to expect a clichéd story about these two girls. But that’s not what Robin gives us. This is very, very good. And frightening. And I’m glad people like Sarah and her nine fellow black students did go through with this, or we’d probably still be looking at segregated schools.

I know. Things are still not right. But reading a book like this will tell you we are on the right path. Hopefully.

Even without the integration issues, this would count as an interesting ‘historical’ document, on how American teenagers lived fifty years ago. Yes, we see some of it in films, but this sets out the rules for dating and going steady and all those things we are only vaguely aware of. It’s fascinating!

Robin Talley, Lies We Tell Ourselves

Robin Talley, Lies We Tell Ourselves

I have added the US book cover on the right, because although the UK one is striking, its American counterpart really brings home the period and the way people looked. Makes it feel real.

A St Andrews bookshop crawl

I went to St Andrews the other day. It’s so much easier to pop over from the new Bookwitch Towers, because despite Facebook’s best attempts at putting it in England it is still in Scotland.

Monopoly mug

With a bit over an hour before my ‘assignation,’ I walked round the town in the rain. Looked in on the newly refurbished Students’ Union HQ. Fashionable seats in the new café. Small but serviceable Blackwell’s, which is where I encountered this half price Monopoly mug. The question was, half price of what? Half of the Old Kent Road at £60 or half Fleet Street, £220?

Monopoly mug

Went and pressed my nose to the shop window of the future Toppings. I found out they are opening a shop in St Andrews back in March, but still no open Toppings. Empty, but looks good. There was a light on in the back, so presumably Mr Topping was at work building shelves.

Waterstones was next. I browsed all their non-book stuff. Somehow I occasionally lose the will to look at more books, especially if I’m not buying. And the notebooks and mugs and everything looked really nice. I may not be an author, but I have the right instincts when it comes to notebooks. Rested briefly in one of their armchairs, before anyone worked out I wasn’t spending money.

At the end of town is a rather nice second hand bookshop. The rain was pouring down – as I said – so at least I had my answer to the question what they do about the pavement display of books. Do they quickly carry all the books in? No, they have a made-to-measure tarpaulin arrangement, which fits neatly over the whole book display.

After that I just may have looked in the shoeshop. It was an accident. They wanted to relieve me of my umbrella, so I didn’t linger. Quick accidental pause at the kitchenware shop that sells lots of things you want, but don’t need.

I hurried on to the next bookshop, with their beautiful window display of Advent calendars. Decided not to enquire how much they wanted for the second hand copy of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. Suspect I don’t have the time. They had a whole load of crime in one window, including many by the almost local James Oswald.

On to Oxfam. They are primarily a bookshop, so do belong to my bookshop crawl. Doesn’t mean they don’t have attractive bric-a-brac, though… Hovered outside, afterwards, as my one hour+ was over, and I almost succumbed to the cheese shop and their bread, before remembering that I can bake.

Then it was time for tea and cake with Daughter. For some obscure reason I shifted a sofa cushion and found a couple of books, but no money. They were English books, so have clearly been overlooked, lost and forgotten by the previous flat dwellers. Daughter’s shelves looked nice enough. Plenty of excellent YA books there (but then she has access to the best).

I never read on the train as it crosses the Tay. Just to be on the safe side. In my mind I waved goodbye to James Oswald and Fife (anything to avoid thinking of McGonagall), before getting off the train in one piece, and finding the next train, on which I do read, every time.

I’ll tell you about that book soon.

Migs and Pig

So. Going to school is upon us again.

Jo Hodgkinson, A Big Day for Migs

Migs is starting, for the first time (yes, I know that’s what starting means), and Jo Hodgkinson shows the reader what a typical first day at school might be like.

You worry at first, but then, like so many children, Migs discovers that this school thing isn’t bad at all. He might even want to return tomorrow.

Charlie Higson and Mark Chambers, Freddy and the Pig

Whereas Freddy in Charlie Higson’s and Mark Chambers’s Freddy and the Pig, isn’t too keen on school. He wants to stay at home and play computer games. (He’s rather lazy, truth be told.) So one day he sends his pet pig to school instead.

The thing is, in this dyslexia friendly book, that the pig actually likes school. He gets better and better at it, and by the end he’s got himself a university degree and everything.

Freddy? Er, his mother sold him.

Scottish Children’s Book Awards shortlist 2015

The latest shortlist for the Scottish Children’s Book Awards has been announced today, and from now until next year young Scottish readers can vote for their favourite books.


Bookbug Readers (3-7 years)

Princess Penelope and the Runaway Kitten by Alison Murray (Nosy Crow)

Robot Rumpus by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Ross Collins (Andersen Press)

Lost for Words by Natalie Russell (Macmillan)

Younger Readers (8-11 years)

Precious and the Mystery of the Missing Lion by Alexander McCall Smith (Birlinn)

Attack of the Giant Robot Chickens by Alex McCall (Kelpies)

Pyrate’s Boy by B. Collin (Kelpies)

Older Readers (12-16 years)

Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott (Kelpies)

The Wall by William Sutcliffe (Bloomsbury)

Mosi’s War by Cathy MacPhail (Bloomsbury)

What’s nice about this – among many other things – is that small publisher Kelpies have got three books on a list of nine. Another nice thing is that this is for Scottish authors and illustrators. And then there is the handing out of free books to readers; ‘Scottish Book Trust will give a free copy of the three Bookbug category books to every Primary 1 child during Book Week Scotland.’


As Jasmine Fassl at Scottish Book Trust says, ‘The Scottish Children’s Book Awards are much more than a celebration of Scottish literature – they are about expanding children’s horizons far beyond their physical boundaries and barriers. By simply reading just one of the shortlisted novels in their category, a 5 year old can imagine what it’s like to have rampaging robots as babysitters, a 10 year old can hop aboard a pirate ship, and a 15 year old can be transported into the mind of a teenager in a war zone.’

I’ll read to that! I can’t vote, but we will find out who wins on 4th March next year, after Scottish children have had their say. And the rampaging robots.

The long day

You can’t get into Charlotte Square before 9.30. I’d do well to remember that, and I could – and should – stay in bed for longer. But a witch can always read, so on Tuesday morning time was killed with Theresa Breslin’s Ghost Soldier.

Thanks to Theresa’s generosity I was able to be her husband for the morning. Not as nice a one as her regular Mr B, but I did my best. And I can confirm that while I was in the authors’ events prep area, I didn’t hear anything. At all.

Theresa Breslin, The School Librarian and Mary Hooper

Then I went along to Theresa’s school event with Mary Hooper, and afterwards in the bookshop I listened in amazement as Theresa asked a female fan (obviously in her upper teens) if she was the school librarian  – from one of the visiting schools. It was quite clear that she was a mature upper secondary school student. No. Apparently she was the head teacher. (The librarian was the greyhaired ponytailed gent next to her.)

Eating a sandwich very fast before my next event, I ended up letting four Swedes share my table. I didn’t share my Swedish-ness with them, however. I listened as they speculated on the nature of Charlotte Square. Apparently it’s a bookfair of some kind. ‘But where are the books?’ one of them asked. Quite. The book festival as a mere coffeeshop for tourists.

Ran into Keith Charters, who was clutching 60 copies of  David MacPhail’s Yeti On the Loose. Did some heavy hinting, which resulted in Keith handing over 59 copies to the bookshop. I mean, he had promised me one ages ago.

After school event no.2 I chatted a little with Linda Newbery, Tony Bradman and Paul Dowswell, getting my anthology signed by all three, each in the right places. Then went in search of Cathy MacPhail’s son David, and found him where I thought he’d be but not where Keith had said, along with his mother and a lovely baby. I’d been told he’d be a slightly taller version of his mum, which as Cathy drily pointed out wasn’t hard to achieve. I forgot to take a picture, but got my Yeti signed with an extra generous RAAAAAR! Then I admired the baby.

Wrote yesterday’s onsite blog post, before learning that Son and Dodo were coming over to entertain me, and to have coffee. It had got unexpectedly warm and sunny, and Son complained. We chatted, saw Ian Rankin arrive, noticed the longbearded gent from earlier years, and came to the conclusion that the scones which used to be of almost home made quality, were just dry and boring.

Son and Dodo went off to search for more Maisie books, and I had my Dyslexia event to go to. Glimpsed Nicola Morgan and Val McDermid (not together) and then it rained and got unexpectedly cold. I repaired to the yurt for a restorative sandwich and an even more restorative sip of cola to keep me awake, as well as find that cardigan I suddenly needed.

Arne Dahl

Anne Cassidy

Waited for Arne Dahl to turn up for his photocall, and did the best I could when he did, considering how dark and wet it was. He seemed bemused by the attention. While waiting for Arne’s event with John Harvey (whom I’d have snapped too, had I known who he was…) I walked over to the children’s bookshop and caught Anne Cassidy and Emma Haughton (who does not have long brown hair, after all) signing post-event.

Emma Haughton

And after a much longer day than someone my age should attempt, I limped along Princes Street for my late train home. Someone at Waverley told me to smile. He’s lucky I’m a peaceful sort of witch.

Was it Franz Ferdinand’s fault?

My second WWI event participants agreed that the war would have happened anyway. Things were tense in Europe.

School events are the best. The topics seem more interesting and the theatres are full, and the questions asked by young audiences are sometimes good, sometimes a little unexpected.

Theresa Breslin, The School Librarian and Mary Hooper

I successfully became 13 again for a whole morning listening first to Theresa Breslin and Mary Hooper discuss their WWI novels with chair Jane Sandell. Theresa’s Remembrance has been re-issued and Mary has a brand new novel out, Poppy. For added interest Theresa brought along a hand grenade. She claimed it is empty.

They both set the beginning of their books in 1915, because that’s when conscription forced ordinary men to join up, and Mary was quite taken by the idea of platoons made up by friends, football teams or factory workers. This meant that when things went badly, whole areas would be depleted of all its men.

The effect on women was that they had the opportunity to do what men usually did, and Theresa couldn’t resist returning to her story about the rich girl whose first task as a volunteer nurse was to fill a bucket with amputated limbs.

Theresa Breslin and Mary Hooper

Class boundaries disappeared to some extent, although at first it was only well off women who could volunteer, which is why Mary had to arrange some financial help for her Poppy, who was working class. Theresa agonised over whether to allow her WWI characters a happy ending, with a baby, when she realised that the baby would definitely end up being slaughtered in WWII.

It was Remembrance Day 1999 that inspired Theresa to write Remembrance. She could see that there were no books about the young of WWI. Mary remembers a real life story about a dog that jumped into the water after its master as he sailed off to war, which she felt was so poignant.

Paul Dowswell, Tony Bradman and Linda Newbery

There was barely any need for a break before Tony Bradman chatted to Linda Newbery and Paul Dowswell, two of the twelve contributors to the WWI anthology he edited.

Linda has written about the war before, and in her story Dandelions For Margo, she wanted to concentrate on the role of women, especially the Land Army. She read an extract about a German plane crashing near where her characters lived. (And she had a sweet explanation for the title of her story, which hinges on the similarities between a tortoise and a hand grenade…)

Paul wrote about the Unknown Soldier, and he talked about a photo of some soldiers taken in the morning before the battle of the Somme. He too mentioned the Pals Battalions, and described the outbreak of WWI as similar in euphoria to a football final.

They discussed some of their other books about war, and Tony became rather outspoken about Gove’s view of ‘noble sacrifices.’ He suspects there will be no OBE now. Both Linda and Paul advocated a trip to Flanders for anyone with an interest in WWI and described the vast fields of crosses, as well as tiny cemeteries with perhaps only twelve graves.

Tony said he’s particularly excited to be talking about this here in Scotland, a month before the referendum, and made comparisons with Ireland a hundred years ago. And as they all pointed out, it wasn’t only the British and the Irish who fought, but Indians, West Indians, and even the Chinese were forced to join in the war effort.

Paul Dowswell, Tony Bradman and Linda Newbery