After the crocodiles

It’s World Refugee Day. It shouldn’t have to be, but it is.

I’ve decided to revisit my review of In the Sea there are Crocodiles, by Fabio Geda, from ten years ago. They are both, the book and its author, favourites of mine, and describe so well one ‘typical’ journey made by an innocent and far too young a person.

In this case the person is Enaiatollah Akbari, who was due to appear with Fabio in Edinburgh, but who was denied entry into the UK. To appear at a book festival, not exactly to live.

I tried to find out what’s happened to Enaiatollah, who by now ought to be in his early thirties, but there wasn’t much. But I did discover there is a second book by Fabio, about him. Read Megan Farr’s interview with Fabio here. Whether we will get to read this book is another matter. Other countries have wanted to translate the book from the Italian, but not English-language publishers.

Storia di un figlio: Andata e ritorno (Story of a Son: There and Back) covers at least one very sad fact, which makes me angry again about why Enaiatollah had to leave his country in the first place.

The pension

To my great surprise I’ve discovered I am old. I mean, I knew this, but mostly in the creaky old knees and getting slower way. Not that I’d stop doing what I am doing, and receive a pension. And not just because this writing I do doesn’t pay. It just doesn’t feel like the sort of work one would give up, at least on age grounds.

I even have a pension. Received the first payment yesterday. It’s for work I did before 1982, and I didn’t work for all that many years, and certainly not for an unbroken period. But it seems it was enough to pay for the odd ice cream, if and when I make it across the North Sea again.

As coincidence would have it, I just read an article in The Author about authors’ pensions. They’re mostly not great, if they exist at all. I knew authors’ pay is generally lower than any of us think, or would want it to be. But this pensions thing is dire. At this rate many authors will not be thinking about ice cream. Definitely not about crossing any North Seas.

In some ways authors have it easier. ‘Just’ needing to write means they can carry on the same into their nineties. While others perhaps have to give up due to typing becoming hard in cases of arthritis, as the example in the article showed.

It’s the same for unpaid witches; there is freedom to continue, or to stop right now. The odd thing is I never thought I’d do that for age reasons. You know me, I moan and complain about other things, but not once did I consider ageing into the wrong half of one’s sixties to be a reason for hanging up the laptop.

I’m still 29 inside, just as I was when I was 40, or 50.

Happy memories

I’ve been looking for nice memories from the past. Well, I suppose memories of necessity tend to be from the past.

Anyway, here is a photo of Jon Mayhew in Edinburgh in August 2013. It was a special day. I believe it was Jon’s first at the book festival. And I wasn’t there!

‘You weren’t?’, I hear you say. No. But I sent my Photographer. Hence the picture of Jon laughing in front of Bookwitch’s favourite London Plane tree, our very own photo backdrop for when the blue or green carpet was less available. You can’t beat a good plane tree.

As I – almost – said, I have fond memories of that day. My Photographer was all grown up and able to go on her own, allowing herself one day when she could leave her brown dwarfs on their own in St Andrews, and frolic in Charlotte Square instead.

And thanks to generous people like Jon, she got tickets for events. Or so I believe. I wasn’t there. But she sent ‘home’ lots of photos of all the authors she caught that day, and it was almost as if I had been there. That’s proof of how it is in the children’s books world. You feel included, and you can send your child to them.

Having had a quick look to see how I was suffering at home, I discovered I had invited Hilary McKay round for scones. So that was all right, too.

Overseas medal winners

This year’s Carnegie Medal has gone to Jason Reynolds; someone I only heard about four years ago, from a fervent admirer. I have since seen Jason at an event, and I reckon he’s OK. His winning book, Look Both Ways, sounds interesting, so I know what I have to do…

The Kate Greenaway Medal winner is Canadian Sydney Smith with Small in the City, where one ‘small’ illustration has me in raptures, and I definitely know what I have to do.

And I could be wrong, not having read either book, but they seem to have something in common. Besides medals, I mean.

How I Live Now

It’s not going to win Most Beautiful Book Cover in the World, but the cover of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff carries so much meaning to me, that its looks are just fine. More than fine.

All of it came as a surprise to me. The look of the book. The content; which turned out not to be another WWI story. The fact that it was the best book I’d read. The fact that it changed my life.

It genuinely caused ‘how I live now’.

4 to 5 translations to pay the mortgage

I was ready to throw something at the screen. But as it was the television screen I had to restrain myself. Although, I don’t suppose the computer screen would have been a cheaper option.

I was enjoying Singing for Your Supper: How to Make it as a Translator, on Zoom last night. It was organised by DELT, which is to Denmark what SELTA is to Sweden. Literary translators. OK, so it was supposed to be literary. But to me that is as opposed to business press releases, mining reports or death certificates. Fiction.

But when Kyle Semmel, the chair of this event with Daniel Hahn and Misha Hoekstra, said as advice to new translators that there was no immediate shame to translating genre (he’d done it himself to begin with), well, I was reaching for something to throw. Because clearly you must be literary. Misha Hoekstra nodded in agreement, whereas Daniel had stressed that mortgages have to be paid and he likes to eat, too.

He wasn’t the only one to pipe up about how being paid is important. He translates four or five books a year just to make sure he has somewhere to live. Kyle translates when he feels like it, and Misha has the safety net that is a Nordic country with financial support for literature. Very different lives. I couldn’t help but feel that many of the translators or hopefuls who listened in were also in need of daily food and a roof over their heads.

Misha’s advice was probably sound for someone living and working in Denmark, and I suppose many of these translators were working from Danish, if not actually in Denmark. I know that some authors do well enough to be able to pay for someone to translate their books [without there being a buyer for it abroad], but not everyone is that lucky. The idea that a budding translator should approach some of the authors I know here in the UK, wanting money for a sample translation is, well, not terribly realistic.

If you want to know how a translator like Daniel works, I will suggest, again, his diary from earlier this year, on how he translated one particular Chilean novel. Aside from being an interesting window into how one person works, it’s a funny, well-written diary.

And no, you don’t have to love what you translate. As Daniel pointed out, there are more hopeful translators than there are books publishers want translated. And there is that mortgage that wants paying.

Genre, that is also literature. It can be crime. Or children’s. It’s not something to be looked down on. Especially not if you work with books, words and language.


For a novel about Spring, there was rather a lot of Autumn in Ali Smith’s Spring. But I like a good October as well as the next witch. And I obviously failed to read it while it was still Spring, although some people regard June as still not Summer.

As with Autumn and Winter, this is a very different and very entertaining novel. I suspect I didn’t understand it quite so well, however, but understanding isn’t everything. Feel fairly confident about who is connected to whom, and have great hopes for the next book.

Partly set in a detention centre for refugees, where they are treated as just about worse than criminals, it’s a shocking aspect of life in the UK as it is today.

It’s also a story about Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as about Charlie Chaplin. It’s about the power of television films on subjects like Beethoven, or Andy Hoffnung as it was called. And if you didn’t know how to pronounce Kingussie, then here is your chance to learn. (The disturbing thing is I know what I was doing that day in October 2018 when the film producer waits for a train. A train anywhere, really. Away from Kingussie.)

The reassuring thing is that there are people in this book who want to do the right thing, and who do it. And because of coincidence it matched up with something I saw a link to on Facebook… It felt like it was meant.

Reading Ali Smith makes me feel a bit intelligent. Not very, but some. Enough.


That’s not a year, btw. Well, it is, but not here and now. It’s how many copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were sold. Last week. Or maybe the week leading up to last week. I’m not entirely sure where the time period starts and ends, but it was in last week’s The Bookseller.

I’ve seen these figures before, and noted that J K Rowling’s wizard still appears in the top 20, two, maybe three, times. Alongside some other reasonably good books, and some not.

But that’s not what I’m about today. As I said, I’ve noted the sales figures but not considered anything more than that they still sell.

What I realised today was that 1987 new readers got the opportunity of meeting Harry for the first time, experiencing that moment of magic when you find yourself surrounded by the Dursleys, Hagrid, Muggles, lemon sherbets, and all the rest. When you realise that something very different and exciting is kicking off.

I had that moment over twenty years ago, and after reading the first three books in quick succession, had to sit back and wait for the remaining four for something like eight years. After that I was mostly envious of the new readers who didn’t have to wait, but could read all the books ‘now.’

Whereas in this new ‘now’ there are readers who weren’t even born then, who get to discover the famous books at their own pace.

Down #5 Memory Lane

Some of you may have been a little surprised that I’ve as yet not mentioned my fairy blog mother in my ‘memory’ pieces. The thing is that Meg Rosoff – for it is she – features in so many ways, from so many points in time.

I’ve recently been thinking of the holiday in Penzance in 2006, when Daughter and I got freezing cold on our way home via London to see Meg for the first time. The time when she talked about her new dogs, and then insisted on buying us something to eat and drink, first counting the money in her pocket. It was just over £6 and covered several items from the cafeteria. And then she drove us back to Euston, only partially engaging in some mild road rage in the middle of Euston Road.

And I remember the Aye Write in Glasgow in 2016, when she fed me again; some very nice Indian food, before limping back to her hotel, wearing new boots. That was just before we found out she was that year’s ALMA winner, which in turn meant that I stalked her round several parts of Sweden, meeting her US family who came over to the ceremony in Stockholm. (And I talked to Astrid’s daughter!) The Gothenburg book fair in September was particularly nice, with the two of us somehow bumping into each other over the couple of days I allowed myself there.

Or the book launch on the houseboat on the Thames, even before the Glasgow boot night. That’s not the sort of thing that happens all the time. Just the once, actually.

Two interviews in Meg’s house, one with decent photos and one not. A gathering in the same house for K M Peyton, one of Meg’s literary heroes.

A Puffin party at the Tate Modern, a fundraiser somewhere in Mayfair and the memorial service for Siobhan Dowd in Oxford. I’ve really got around, haven’t I? And so has Meg, obviously. Or the day when Daughter travelled to Oxford, and ran into Meg at the station, and enjoyed a little chat. This is an author who keeps track of people, and knows her ‘second favourite physicist’ in the wild. And will hug other people’s children, like when Son met her in Stockholm.

What else? Lots of Edinburgh bookfest appearances, where I particularly remember a lovely balmy evening with Elspeth Graham a few years ago. That was worth missing the good train home for.

I could go on. But you’ll be grateful that I won’t.

And we’ll say no more about the borrowed £1 twelve years ago.


I know which layby it would be. Just as I know which house is Mr Micawber’s.

It’s funny how you picture things in a way that clearly has nothing to do with what’s in a book, or how it’s been described.

The Swedish book business newsletter Boktugg mentioned one debut author’s solution to having a book launch when bookshops were not available. And I rather approve. She invited prospective book buyers to come to a certain layby – and this being Sweden, I imagine somewhere deep in the woods – one afternoon, and there she was, sitting in her car, signing copies of her new book.

Not that I have a book to sign, but I could immediately visualise which layby I would use, should it ever come to this. ‘My’ one even has a snack van stationed there, although I suppose if it were a real lockdown, it would have to be shut, instead of open for business. And perhaps one would need permission from the authorities. But as an idea I like it.

So that’s my layby sorted.

Mr Micawber’s house is obviously nothing at all like the ‘real’ Mr Micawber’s abode, which I imagine would be brick or stone and somewhere in civilisation. My Micawber house is a ramshackle, wooden, 20th century house in the Swedish countryside. I decided many years ago, as we travelled past it every day, that that’s what it was. And to this day I can’t unthink the label as a most unlikely Dickensian house. With a smoked salmon shop across the road…