I was the only one to get the joke when Ulf Stark sang his version of the Lucia song. His translator, Julia Marshall, wisely steered clear of that minefield. But it was a fun version, and one I’d not come across before. Obviously they weren’t complete morons back in the dark ages before I was a child.
Ulf came to Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre on Tuesday morning, to talk to school children (and one elderly witch) as part of The Children’s Bookshow with Siân Williams. I’m uncertain whether the children had heard quite that much nonsense about farting from such an old adult ever before. They seemed delighted. In fact, were it not for his wild and white hair, I’d have said Ulf is about ten years of age.
Before the event I had wondered what language Ulf would be using, thinking it’s always hard to grab – and keep – the attention of children when you’re not a fluent English speaker. And that will be why they had imported the translator of his books all the way from New Zealand. Ulf would offer a short burst of incomprehensible Swedish (although he did say he hoped they would have learned by the end) which Julia transformed into something a bit more normal sounding. Apart from the singing. Or the whistling. She didn’t do those.
He’s blue and yellow. These days they are hopefully only the colours of the Swedish flag, but as a child he’d be patriotically coloured due to having an older brother, who did what older brothers often do. Come into your room and fart. Hit you and squeeze you until you’re flag-coloured.
Now that Ulf is older, he writes lots of books, one of which was handed over to baby Princess Estelle, Duchess of Östergötland (they learn to read very early over there). Ulf reckons his father would have been proud of him. He was so very lefthanded as a child that all his father could think he’d be fit for was as an excavator operator. He himself wanted to be a boxer.
Ulf talked about his writing, and warned people never to dedicate their books to girlfriends/boyfriends, because the time it takes to get a book into print means they will have ditched you long before, and that is so embarrassing. But it was ‘only’ a poetry collection, which he sincerely hopes none of us will ever read.
When Ulf found out about a writing award worth around £5000, he took six months off work to write a book to win the award. (And it seems he actually did, too.) After that, he didn’t need to go back to work. His first book was about a girl who is mistaken for a boy. Now he writes about things he knows, because he has never been a girl.
He told us about the background to another of his books, when his father invited a prince to dinner. His mother cleaned behind the radiators (that is where princes look) and hunted out a cookbook for princely food.
The background to Can you whistle, Johanna? was from when he took his small children to the north of Sweden for the snow, only to find there was none. So he showed them how to write a book instead, which the children tired of almost immediately. Ulf soldiered on, having dismissed his first idea of writing a rubbish book. And now it has become regular entertainment on television every Christmas Eve.
Julia and Ulf took turns to read from the book, and Ulf whistled the tune, so we’d know what the whole story was about.
There were plenty of questions afterwards, and we learned that thick books take longer to write, his illustrator (Anna Höglund) keeps having babies when he just wants her to draw pictures, and with his children grown up, Ulf has to resort to reading to the dog.
Long queues to buy Ulf’s books and to have them signed. I rarely see events book stalls selling out, but that seems to be what Waterstones did. Great that the children were interested. And great that they were taken to the Royal Exchange in the first place. I watched as some of the early groups arrived, and the way they looked and gasped at the theatre itself. Let’s hope they’ll be back for something else one day.
While waiting to speak to Ulf I chatted to Siân about what she does, and we agreed that we need to see more foreign children’s books in Britain. Ulf did offer to send me the 400 or so he gets sent every year, but that’s not quite what we had in mind.
It was good to speak to Ulf, although I can’t remember what we talked about. The Gothenburg Book Fair, where he spoke at the weekend. Kulturrådet (Arts Council) where he gives away money after being sent 400 books to read. Touring all over the world. That sort of thing.
The people from the Manchester Literature Festival were there, and so was one of ‘my’ young men from Waterstones. It was a regular get-together, really. And Siân and I will have to change the world of books, somehow.