Category Archives: Travel

Now, before and much earlier

At the same time as I read Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, which briefly featured the men who built the railways across America, I was facebook stalking Son and Dodo on their travels across America on possibly the very same rails. Or maybe newer versions of what was being built 150 years ago. It felt like one of those odd coincidences.

Amtrak

Besides, modern people don’t usually cross that vast continent down at ground level, taking days travelling at speeds of 40 mph.

Crossing America

After Reading Buffalo Soldier, the one unread book which I suddenly felt I must read was Laurie Halse Anderson’s Forge. It was the ‘black soldier in American history’ theme, although I had actually forgotten that Laurie’s characters lived a hundred years before Tanya’s.

They too were slaves, and the war is America versus England, instead of North versus South. I did find the war in Buffalo Soldier very harsh, but it is nothing compared with the war to free ‘the country of the free’ from European rule. The conditions were atrocious.

The place names have only ever been names to me. Yes, maybe someone fought a battle there, but it’s history. Now I can put so much misery to the small gains made with such great sacrifice by all the soldiers involved, whether English or American, free or slave.

Son and Dodo are back home, and they turned up yesterday, telling us all about the trip and giving us a picture show on two laptops simultaneously. And they’d visited Concord, one of those places where much blood flowed and people suffered. Because it’s what you do as a tourist.

Without Forge, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

Boston

It’s strange how the realities between the three centuries have changed. Freedom fight in the 18th century. Civil war in the 19th. Leisurely travel, accompanied by digital cameras, laptops and facebook in the early 21st century. I wonder what Tanya’s and Laurie’s characters would have thought if they’d had an inkling of what was to come?

Marcus Sedgwick on horror and sheds

The Marcus Sedgwick interview is ready for your entertainment today. I wish you could hear Marcus, as well as just read. He laughs a lot and he talks ‘just right’ by which I mean that he is interesting on whatever stupid question someone like me might ask, and he spends time on them, but not too long.

Lagom, as we say in Sweden.

He is someone who has been on my interview radar for years, and it’s mainly coincidence that it was his new adult novel, A Love Like Blood, that caused us to meet and talk (I ‘blame’ the very helpful Kerry at Hodder), which is why I used up some of our ‘adult’ time on talking about his – slightly – younger books as well.

Marcus Sedgwick

And his shed. (It’s not necessary to buy a house that has a good shed. You can actually build a nice shed once you’ve found the house of your dreams.)

Marcus claims not to be obsessed by horror, but he is a man who scares me a lot, through his books. They are the kind of books you read hiding behind the sofa.

Tomorrow Can Wait: Exploring Europe With Our Autistic Child

When Monika Scheele Knight first told me about her book, I was only paying attention to the travelling. I felt it was a very ambitious – perhaps too ambitious – task to undertake with an autistic child. Easier to stay at home, I thought. But, each to their own.

German Monika lives in Berlin with her American husband Scott and their 13-year-old son John. Her book about travelling with John is self published (at least the English version, as I understand it), and exists in two languages. Once I’d begun reading, I had to ask her what language they use at home, feeling it unlikely they could be bilingual with a mostly non-verbal boy. Her reply was that John does understand some English, as it’s what she and Scott use, so she reckons he is a non-speaking bilingual child.

As soon as I had started reading, I also understood why they travelled, and why Monika needed to write about it. After meeting the mother of a 30-year-old autistic son who refuses to go out, effectively imprisoning her in the home, Monika vowed to travel with John to try and prevent that fate for herself. As a toddler John was reasonably willing to go out, if it was on his terms.

So she set off for Rhodes for a week on her own with John, and it went well. What I particularly like is the way Monika and Scott realise they need to take things slowly and not force John (unless absolutely necessary), which means holidays where they occasionally do ‘nothing’ or just a little, like eating lunch bought in the local shop in a deserted children’s playground.

And it’s not just about travelling. In each chapter about a different place they visited, Monika writes about John’s autism in general, how he develops, and what life with an autistic child is like in Germany (much better than in many other countries, I’d say). She muses about various theories, as well as the history of autism, and the murder of handicapped people in the war, and how people treat them when they are out and about. The older John gets, the easier it becomes for strangers to realise he’s behaving oddly because he is not normal, rather than being a badly brought up child.

John auf dem Fahrrad

(This rather lovely photo of a smiling John, in Holland, was taken almost immediately after a major meltdown, which is such an autistic way for things to work out. I have borrowed the picture from Monika’s blog, as it was used for the back cover of the book.)

You feel exhausted following the family round Europe. All the driving, or having meltdowns in airports, or moving things out of John’s reach, or stopping him from hurting himself, seem like an endless lot of hard work with no respite. And I’m sorry their experience of Sweden was so poor.

I find case histories irresistible, and this book is one big case history. Very interesting and very inspiring.

16 floors

On arrival in London yesterday, we had to repair to a nearby hotel’s facilities to make an emergency medical dressing repair (plasters and acetone do not make good partners, but at least no one fainted). Once done we made it on time – if only just – to Hodder & Stoughton’s 16th floor offices, with no visible blood whatsoever. The lovely receptionist even made sure I didn’t have to go up in the glass elevator by ordering me a proper old-fashioned lift.

When we got there, I made sure I sat with my newly dressed back to the windows, which according to my Photographer offered great views. (She went in the glass elevator, no doubt to show off.)

The blood aspect was unexpectedly apt, as we were there to interview Marcus Sedgwick about his new ‘bloody’ novel – A Love Like Blood. There was a slight misunderstanding as to his arrival on floor 16, which meant we had a nice long chat in the lobby, with me carefully not asking him about ‘the other stuff’ and instead discussing the high points of Gothenburg and hair raising theme park rides (neither of which I like very much).

Marcus Sedgwick

We got to meet publicist Kerry’s lovely dog, which I’d only seen photos of before. I think we’d get on; plodding walking pace and a fondness for hanging out in kitchens. (Dog, not Kerry.) We diligently interviewed, and then Marcus had to rush off to finalise things to do with his book launch, while we walked to another kitchen (the Scandinavian Kitchen, for a late Lent bun).

After that we whiled away our remaining spare time in Trafalgar Square, looking at tourists, pigeons and an enormous blue rooster, before walking over to Goldsboro Books for the book launch. Thanks to Kerry’s sun dance, it didn’t rain at all. That’s what I call service.

Marcus Sedgwick, A Love Like Blood

I believe there was champagne, or some such drink, judging by popping corks, but we stayed nice and sober (I am obviously not suggesting anyone else was drunk), and chatted to people, including Thomas Taylor, who does not like blood, much. I have to admit to advising him not to read Marcus’s book.

Children’s author Linda Chapman was there. And Cliff McNish and I really must stop meeting like this. That’s twice in eight days. He’s got a nice new book out about nice dogs, with no creepyness or blood.

And then my Photographer and I sneaked out before we suffered social overload, and sort of limped home in a tired kind of way.

They came for dinner

I started leaning on them a week ago. At various points most of them could either come or not come and it kept changing until the last minute, and I moved venue two days before, but finally they were here.

Dinner table

On Thursday evening it was time for my annual tradition (three times is tradition, yes?) of asking the shortlisted authors coming to the Salford Children’s Book Award to meet for dinner on the night before the ceremony. Not all of them managed to come up with a convincing enough excuse for not joining me – and Daughter – so three authors and one very cool aunt actually made it to Carluccio’s at Piccadilly.

Gill Lewis

Sally Nicholls

Gill Lewis arrived nice and early, and we decided to string out the dining experience by having starters we strictly speaking didn’t need. Olives, crispy pasta. That sort of thing. Sally Nicholls, accompanied by her Cool Aunt, got there at the end of our main course, and Cliff McNish wasn’t too far behind.

This year the award is a Top Ten kind of arrangement, so the authors had all won their year, and this morning they have to fight it out between them (including Michael Morpurgo who even has to fight himself), to see who is the overall winner of the last ten years. (Daughter pointed out it was like The Hunger Games, except they’d had dinner, and hopefully they will all be alive at the end.)

We talked about being a vet, about big animals and small animals and disobedient dog sled dogs. There was some general writing world gossip, and just as it got really exciting I was asked to sign the official secrets act, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything. Deadlines. Editors. Killing the wrong character. Who’s been buried in the garden. Mmmphh… (OK, I will be quiet now.)

Cliff McNish

Cliff had questions on everything, including why I arranged the dinner. (Stupid question. I want to hang out with the cool kids. Obviously.) Sally waved her minestrone about and talked, making the table shake. Cool Aunt makes puppets (films and television), and she has a brand new grandchild, as well as the sense to bring photos of the baby. Adorable!

At some point the latecomers caught up with the menu, and Cool Aunt was seen finishing the large and rather green olives which were still around. Just before we were chucked out, we managed to work out how much money we needed to find, before going in search of taxis to Salford Quays and last trains for Cool Aunt and Daughter and me.

It was lucky no one was hoping for an early night, except MC Alan Gibbons who had flown in from Hong Kong in the small hours, and who came to the belated conclusion he actually needed some sleep. Which is why he didn’t join us.

The other hopefuls this morning are Paul Adam, Georgia Byng, Angie Sage and the sisters of Siobhan Dowd. Robert Muchamore and Michael Morpurgo won’t be there, but might still win. I’ll update this when I know.

(Michael Morpurgo won with Shadow.)

Neighbourhood watch

I walked round the neighbourhood in the recent – and very welcome – sunshine. So sunny was it, that when I came level with Mr Beaverman’s house, I didn’t see him at first, hidden in the shade, killing off his weeds.

But he called out a greeting and I stopped for a chat. The funny thing is, I can’t quite remember how we first started talking, years ago. But it’s that sort of neighbourhood; you feel a connection with someone further down the road, across generations and occupations and any other obstacles you might come up with.

Once the primroses had been discussed, I mentioned I needed to get back to packing more books. I moaned about the number of books we have, and Mr Beaverman countered with how many he owns. Lots of metres…

And then he said – in an apologetic kind of way – that most of them were only (and here I imagined he’d say they were mostly boring ones, like the Resident IT Consultant’s books) whodunnits. Just think! Here we’ve been polite for years and we have never ventured onto a shared interest in crime. Because you don’t, when there are primroses and world economics and important stuff that you can talk about.

Ian Rankin

He likes Ian Rankin. He has read all of his books. I was desperately trying not to say I’ve only read one. (Sorry about that.) And having read all of Rankin, he has moved on to Stuart MacBride. I shuddered and asked how he managed that, saying I’d only read a short (Barrington Stoke) MacBride and that was more than enough for my ladylike nerves.

Mr Beaverman admitted the books are gory, but that’s OK. He then described what happens in the one he’s reading now…

I mentioned I’d heard Stuart at Bloody Scotland last September, and how entertaining he and Val McDermid had been. We agreed that swearing is all right if there is a reason for it.

James Oswald, Natural Causes

And then I tried to interest Mr B in James Oswald, since he is obviously into Scottish crime. I pointed to the Edinburgh setting, which ought to be just right for someone who has exhausted Rebus & Co, but totally forgot to say that James has named his sidekick for Stuart. Must go back and tell him.

Mr B would like to go on a Rebus walk in Edinburgh, but the trouble is when he is there, he’s so busy visiting people, he’s never had the time.

It might be time to force him.

Meanwhile I’m pondering who else Mr Beaverman would enjoy. Knowing me, I won’t settle until I’ve got a long list. (And I went back to my house with a view to seeing if I had any crime I could off-load.)

Cuidado con el perro

That’s when I pushed the Resident IT Consultant forward. If there was going to be any biting by dogs, I didn’t want to be first through the door. Luckily my Spanish was there to warn me. Although, as it turned out, the doggy had been banished to the car. We stopped on our way out and Daughter teased it, a little. I suppose she felt safe enough with a bit of car in between.

So, day two of house speed-dating, or whatever you should call it. I can assure you that by the end of the day the Resident IT Consultant’s head was reeling, and he needed gentle guidance on where which toilet was, and that if the bedroom dimensions seemed small, that’s because it was a bathroom.

Eaves. I still don’t get why a steeper sloping roof has bigger eaves. It ought to be the other way round.

As you may have gathered, Daughter joined us for the day. She wasn’t in the slightest impressed by the estate agent who jokingly placed her in the boxroom, next to those eaves. But she did open all under stairs cupboards and make Harry Potter jokes. And, she felt the doggy property was straight out of Privet Drive.

I began the day by putting my boots on (well, I obviously had breakfast and things first first) and as I did so, the thought that I’d prefer not to have to take them off during the day, on account of them being difficult to put on, crossed my mind. That was before I discovered I had a 50p piece in my left boot so it had to come off again. But you will not be surprised to find that two house owners were of the take-your-shoes-off persuasion. Not that we did, but still. It was one of those witchy thoughts I get. Obviously, if I’d found more money in my boots, I would ‘happily’ have removed them. (This is Scotland. How much money can a witch expect to encounter inside her footwear?)

If we were proper people who kept up with all manner of normal stuff, we’d most likely have recognised one house vendor. As he opened a cupboard, which happened to be full of books (weird place to keep your books; as though they are an embarrassment) I noticed a pile of ten or so, new, pristine books, spine out, bearing his name. I refrained from asking if he was an author (which was very lucky), and went on admiring the house.

The silver shoe in the kitchen should have been a clue. We just thought it was an unusual taste in trinkets, but it seems it’s a trophy of the kind a successful football player might get. Because that’s what he was. Anyone normal would probably have said ‘don’t I recognise you?’

We gate-crashed one house viewing and sneaked around in the garden of another. We are fairly sure what we would like. We just can’t act on it yet. And when we can, it’s bound to be too late.

But at least we now have a spreadsheet listing the number of bathrooms and the distance to Lidl…

You have arrived at your destination

Offspring named her Emma, but to me she can never be anything but Muriel. And she definitely has her own ideas about a number of things. The Resident IT Consultant had to ‘shut her up ‘ a little yesterday. I suppose having two women telling him what to do was one – or maybe two – too many.

Muriel is our dear, ancient satnav. But it’s not merely old age. She just doesn’t know where we live. Or rather, once we get close, she sends us (or would, if we were stupid enough to take her advice) the opposite way, which would simply not get us there at all.

Yesterday Muriel was given permission to speak, as long as she did so quietly, in order to keep us updated on last minute calamities on the roads. But he forgot to mention lunch to her. So as the Resident IT Consultant left the motorway for his favourite café in Lockerbie (that’s favourite in Lockerbie, not the world), Muriel got quite wordy, after having behaved nicely for a couple of hours. ‘In 200 hundred yards, turn left!’ That kind of thing.

Being left in the car park while we ate, didn’t seem to calm her down. She was fine once back on the motorway, but pretty soon the Resident IT Consultant decided on the scenic route (i.e. one of them), and she frantically suggested left turns and right turns and u-turns, pretty please. Although she cottoned on after some time.

We went high enough to be in the snow. It went white half due to mist and half due to snow, until we went lower down again. Quite enough for me, that was.

Muriel didn’t care much for his avoidance technique when we got to the Penicuik ‘downtown’ traffic lights and roundabouts. She was fine again, until I feared she’d demand to be taken to IKEA. I mean, what woman can just drive past and not want to go in for a look round? Especially when the official road sign suggests her favourite move; the u-turn.

She tried to get her revenge as we were a couple of minutes from Son’s and Dodo’s by pretending it was another three miles. Honestly!

But I suppose we love her, deep down. As I love all of you (except you, in the corner, obviously – yes, you). Thank you for being here. Unless Muriel guided you, in which case I haven’t got a clue where you are.

Formby Books

You have another six weeks to shop at Formby Books. After that, Tony Higginson will close his shop for ‘good.’ Which, is not good at all.

This is the man whose enthusiasm for books and reading, and especially for children’s books, reached me all the way over here, when he was manager at Pritchards in Formby, years ago. I always meant to visit, to see what the fuss was about. But Formby is just that little bit further than is convenient from where I am.

When Pritchards closed, Tony set up his own shop. I met him soon afterwards, except I didn’t actually know it was him. The reason we met was that Tony – unlike me – never seems to feel that anywhere is too far away. He travels tirelessly; not just for his own events, but to put in an appearance when his author pals do events elsewhere.

Tony Higginson and Philip Caveney

And tireless is what he has been, arranging events in the shop, and at larger venues when necessary. He went out of his way to invite me to his ScareFests in Waterloo, and he was there to rescue me when I was lost and locked out, ‘wasting’ his money buying me a drink in the pub.

Tony knows everybody. And everybody knows him. The man reads an incredible number of books, even allowing for him not ever sleeping. I simply don’t want to hear about all the books he’s read, because it makes me feel inadequate.

But this kind of enthusiasm isn’t enough. Not enough people come into his shop to buy books. I find that hard to understand. There are far too many shops where staff aren’t interested in you, or know very much about what you might like to read. My fear is that if a shop run by someone like Tony can’t survive, then there isn’t much hope for anyone, other than maybe the biggest.

I kept thinking I’d get the Resident IT Consultant into the car and off we’d go for the day, visiting bookshops in the Northwest. I’ve left it too late for Formby. Should have gone years ago. (Not that any purchases I could have made would have been big enough to secure the future of the shop. But still.)

Seven, and half-baked

The text message from Son asking for the failed cake recipe reached me shortly after Daughter and I had witnessed Matt Smith miss our train in Milton Keynes. Which, it has to be said, he did with considerable skill. Mind you, he was merely Jim Taylor from Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart in those days.

We were about to see Tim Bowler’s Starseeker on the stage, and we were in Northampton, so had very limited access to any recipes at all. The job went to the Resident IT Consultant, who had to find this alien recipe book featuring half-baked cakes, and pass the relevant one on to Son, sitting in the Swedish wardrobe, waiting to show off for a picnic with Dodo.

As you can tell, I don’t know what to call this cake. But do have a slice, to help me celebrate seven years of blogging. It’s hard. Well, actually, it isn’t. It’s mostly soft and gooey. Failed. On purpose. (I am of course talking about the cake now. Not the blogging, which isn’t gooey at all.)

When I left the old country many years ago, it was still adhering to rules like cake should be spongy and rise beautifully in the oven and all that. 15 years into my foreign existence, I woke up to the fact that there is something called kladdkaka. We learned about it in church. After church. For coffee. But as it was chocolate I could never try it.

It’s all over Sweden these days (hardly surprising with runny cake) and Offspring have eaten their way through a lot of it. Years later I found myself the owner of a recipe book containing nothing but versions of kladdkaka. The author of this book rather charmingly referred back to her childhood when she had never heard of calories, so baked and ate one of these a day.

Sounds like heaven, if you ask me.

One day last week I got so annoyed over a missing ingredient for something else, that I decided to make failed cake myself, using carob instead of cocoa. (It was a bit dry, to be honest.) So despite having heard about calories, I had another go. It was so runny the Resident IT Consultant had to be polite about the result. (Perhaps I should have let it cool first?) I’m suspecting I might have to experiment and fail some more cake before I get it just right.

It’s good with whipped cream. In case you wondered. And since we are celebrating, that’s absolutely fine.