Monthly Archives: November 2014

The cookbook

As a forgetful kind of person I make notes in my diary regarding almost everything I need to remember. Mid-October it tells me to make the Christmas cake. It’s early, but not too early, since I’m aware I tend to procrastinate a bit, and will need the extra time.

This year I started on the right day. By the right day I mean I sat down to write a list for what to buy; the dried fruit, plenty of glacé cherries for Son, and maybe some new brandy. (I had forced most of my old ingredients onto our now ex-neighbours before the move.)

Do you recall what happened to the Sara Paretsky novel I wanted signing when she was in Edinburgh in August? It was still in a box. Somewhere. That’s what will have happened to the Good Housekeeping Cookbook, too. Back in April, Christmas felt a long way away and I judged it a less urgent accessory than some other (cook)books, and into a box it went.

To write my shopping list, and to actually bake, I had to resort to asking on Facebook if anyone had a copy and if they could scan the recipe for me. I just didn’t feel adventurous enough to test a different recipe, even if ‘everyone’ online swears by Delia.

Luckily, Mrs Pendolino’s sister is a baking sort of woman and could provide me with what I needed. Thank you! Christmas is saved, cakewise. The recipe even spread to a friend who read my appeal and wanted to have a go at a ‘real English’ fruitcake. (Couldn’t quite make her interested in the icing, however.)

I went for a little walk the other day. It felt nicely autumnal, and I decided I’d make some Scotch pancakes when I got in.

But you know what happened, don’t you? Yes, that was another Good Housekeeping secret. This time I went online and guesstimated a pancake batter from the various recipes I found.

You really can’t beat a reliable kitchen companion.


Witch livingroom library #1

Livingroom shelves 1

Well, it’s a start. The upright thingies and the brackets are in place. The black dust has settled. (We have black bricks.)

The shelves are resting losely on the brackets, in order to ease the painting of them. Nine shelves, all with undersides and topsides, not to mention edges.

Livingroom shelves 2

Right now I’d like to see a painting scene like you get in these film snippets where the film speed has been ‘improved’ on. That way those shelves could be snow white tomorrow.

The joiner asked if we have many books. The Resident IT Consultant has yet to learn that it’s easier to count them in metres than as thousands of volumes.

The joiner has three books. I almost envy him. It feels so certain, and so un-encumbersome. He knows what they are, and he knows why he’s got them. And he knows how to put those upright thingies on walls, which is a good skill to have.

Knowing how

When a friend nudged me and said it was my turn now, it irritated me. She had gone back to school and studied and gained qualifications when her children were about ten or twelve. She was so happy, and I was happy for her, too. But I really didn’t feel like going back to school. This kept irritating me for some time, until I worked out why. I mean, I know I’m lazy, but I also felt I didn’t have the time. Nevertheless, it’s a good thing to do.

It wasn’t until I started thinking about what I’d study, if I did it, that the penny dropped. We were different, my friend and I. And the reason I didn’t actually have to do what she had done, was that I already had a university degree. I know, you can always do more. But she had done nothing before she married and had children, which is why her new education was such a big deal for her. Her assumption was that I was the same.

My reaction proves that you can soon feel inadequate, however. The other weekend I noticed that the Guardian had a couple of courses on offer, that sort of spoke to me. There was a one day course, Secrets of successful blogging, £99. And a two day affair, Blogging for absolute beginners at a staggering £449.

And, I immediately felt I ought to better myself, somehow. I know that I won’t try either course, for cost reasons, and because they are in London. But I’m finding it harder to actually convince myself that I don’t need them.

Which is stupid, since whatever I am, beginner is not it. I just wonder what they teach and why it will take all of two days. And if you are willing to spend nearly half a K on this kind of thing, you either have too much money, or you believe blogging will pay you back. It would be an investment.

That leads me directly to the £99 course. What are the secrets of successful blogging? Are they so secret I’ve never encountered them? And what exactly do they mean by successful blogging? Is it what I do? I sit down and write something and I get it onto WordPress and out into the world it goes.

Do they mean number of readers? If so, at what number are you successful? Does successful merely mean you write well? Or are we back to the expectation that you can make money out of it? Is that successful?

I just don’t know, and with some effort I could be made to feel inadequate enough to tell myself I would benefit from some tuition.

Michelle Magorian in the limelight

If anyone had told me ten years ago that I’d be able to put together a few questions for Michelle Magorian, and that she’d actually answer them for me, and take the time to check that she hadn’t written too much (too much? – Impossible!), would have seemed close to unbelievable.

There is a love and respect for Michelle both among ‘ordinary’ readers and among her peers, which stands out. She’s not the most famous author in the world, nor the richest, but there is something about the way people have a special room in their hearts for her and Mister Tom.

I loved her new novel Impossible! and I felt I wanted to ask her about it, and why it took so much longer to appear in print than you’d expect from a ‘Michelle Magorian novel.’ Why didn’t publishers tear it from her hands? Here is Michelle with – nearly all – the answers:

  1. You must be the same age as Josie. What things do/did you have in common? Were you in the Girl Guides?

I was in the Girl Guides. It was the only way I could go camping. Like Josie I was also a tomboy and went to ballet classes and I loved acting. In my teens I used to hide in our local theatre and watch new companies set up the scenery and lights. I was discovered by the man who ran the theatre who said, ‘you naughty girl!’ He directed to me to his office where he promptly gave me fliers to hand out to people to advertise the new show.

  1. And did you watch ITV? You must have got those commercials from somewhere.

Yes. My family watched some of the programmes mentioned in Impossible! Other commercial jingles around at the time were:

            Don’t forget the fruit gums Mum, You’re never alone with a strand and You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.

  1. Were you too young to have seen a Joan Littlewood production back then, or is this told from experience? If not then, did you see one later?

I was too young but when I was a drama student I knew of her and I assumed most people did. It was only later when I was carrying out research that I discovered how badly the Arts Council in this country had treated her and how she was fêted abroad. At a time when new playwrights in England were being hailed as angry young men, girls and women were told that they must never show their anger as it would make them appear ugly. Joan Littlewood did not follow this advice!

During my research I also began to have the most extraordinary coincidences. I remember looking at my October 1959 calendar and thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if Joan Littlewood was directing a production that had crowd scenes in it so that Josie could be one of the crowd’. To my astonishment I discovered that at that exact time she was directing a new musical called Make Me an Offer and that there were market scenes in the Portobello Road. I couldn’t believe it. Then I discovered that one of the cast was a young Sheila Hancock.

  1. And for the celebrity question; do you know Sheila Hancock?

I had met her briefly at award ceremonies and then later when she was made Chancellor of Portsmouth University. I received a doctorate there and try to attend at least one ceremony a year to show my support to the students who are receiving their degrees. She very kindly allowed me to interview her and shared her memories with me.

And then, before one of the summer ceremonies, when I was standing in the waiting area in my robe she suddenly walked up to me and said, ‘I’ve been offered the part of the grandmother in Just Henry.’ I was stunned having only just received the script the previous evening. After we had chatted I realised that the vice-chancellor was standing nearby. ‘This is all under wraps, ‘ I exclaimed. ‘I haven’t heard a word,’ he said.

  1. Who actually were Scowler and Moustache? Just a couple of crooks?

If I answer this question it will give away some of the Just Henry plot. So – and this is for your eyes only…


  1. I know you researched things, but were there really that many police available to solve crimes and rescue people even then?

The River Police were fantastic. As I mentioned many of them were ex-Navy. One of their many jobs (which I haven’t mentioned in the book) is that they had to keep an eye out for ‘jumpers’ (people who committed suicide). In Impossible! the extremely nasty piece of work who is after Josie has been known to Scotland Yard for some time, which is why they are using extra man power. Although he has been responsible for a number of crimes they have never had enough evidence to pin him down as he always has other people to do his dirty work and if those ‘hired helps’ don’t do a good job they ‘disappear’ until their bodies are found. Naturally I haven’t put those details in the story as it is a book for young people but I have hinted at it in a conversation between DI Gallaway and Auntie Win. They are also convinced that Josie’s life is in danger.

  1. Five years ago you reckoned the book could be out in a year. What slowed things down?

When I delivered it to my publisher I was extremely shocked to be told that she wanted me to cut most of it and make it more of a stage school story, and for it to be no more than 60,000 words but the book was mainly about a child actor working professionally in an adult world and how those experiences changed her. I looked for ways I could cut it but realised that she was telling me that it was not the kind of book she wanted to publish. In other words it was a rejection.

The literary agent representing me offered it to other publishers but she told me that they had rejected it too because it was historical fiction and that my way of writing was too traditional. She suggested I find a publisher for it myself but as you know publishers won’t look at a book unless it comes through a literary agent.

I decided to ask Martin West for advice. He had been my editor for Goodnight Mister Tom. It was then that I discovered that he had started an independent publishing company called Troika Books. He asked me to send him the manuscript and loved it. He said it had him laughing one moment and then wondering how the hell Josie was going to get out of trouble the next, which was exactly what I had intended, a mixture of comedy and drama.

He also knew of Joan Littlewood and had actually been and seen the original performance of Oh What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was later that I began to wonder if some of those publishers who had rejected the manuscript had thought that Joan Littlewood was a character I had invented as I have discovered since then that there are many people who have never heard of her.

By the way, they loved her in Sweden! And in France and in Russia and…

  1. Do you think people and publishers see you mainly as a writer of WW11 fiction? More of your novels are about the theatre, although Cuckoo In the Nest obviously shares some wartime experiences.

Perhaps they do. I don’t know. Most of my books contain the seeds of later books. Goodnight Mister Tom and A Little Love Song are the only novels I have written set in the second world war although Back Home, Cuckoo In the Nest, A Spoonful of Jam and Just Henry are about families finding ways to adjust to living together and cope with post war problems.

In 1947 there was a baby boom as demobbed men returned to England and families took to their beds to keep warm as electricity was rationed during the coldest winter since the 1880s so even Josie’s existence is influenced by the second world war.

  1. Do you have any thoughts on publishing today (that you are willing to share?)

I think thoughts about publishing today would be better coming from someone inside the industry. I have noticed a lot of moving around of staff from one publisher to another.

  1. Might you return to these characters in another book? Or have they suffered enough?

I will be returning to some minor characters for another children’s novel for Troika Books but I have to confess that I would also like to write an adult book about one of the people who is in Impossible!

Witch and Michelle Magorian

Coincidences are good. They show that something was meant to be. Michelle’s writing is ‘too traditional?’ And they don’t want historical fiction? What’s wrong with people? God bless Troika Books.

I’m already looking forward to both these books. Take your time, though, Michelle. I can wait.

And I can’t resist this: ‘Den gula hinnan det är känt, den borstas bort med Pepsodent!’ It’s the only jingle I can recite, and try and visualise it delivered by Björn Borg if you can.

BZRK Apocalypse

When you approach Michael Grant’s third BZRK novel, Apocalypse, it’s worth remembering what happened at the start of the first one. People died. They seemed nice, but they still died before you really got to know them. To think that the third book is likely to be sweeter and less violent than the first is plain ridiculous.

It won’t be. Can’t be. But how many deaths is Michael prepared to ’cause?’

Quite a few. You know what Apocalypse means, don’t you? That.

Michael Grant, BZRK Apocalypse

At the beginning there were the evil Armstrong Twins, and the slightly better BZRK, fighting them. The twins might be weakening, but not so BZRK. Although, that’s not as good a thing as you’d want it to be.

‘Excuse me. I believe I’m about to go mad. You may want to move away.’ That’s about as polite and collected as it gets, in this book where very many people go mad. It’s not a pretty sight, and it will not end well. Michael has a go at many people we ‘know’ and it would be wrong if he let characters miraculously survive, because they were on the same side as us.

After the first book I could see that someone like Bug Man would change and do things differently. Well, it wasn’t this kind of different I had in mind!

We learn who the main players behind our diminishing group of fighters are; the ones we’ve come to rely on, who will lead wisely, and make sure the world is all right. Hah!

This might be based on games, but there is still a strong feeling that it wouldn’t take much to make this reality. And while I believe that, I’m not so sure that the knowledge and bravery displayed by the ‘good guys’ is terribly likely to be there to help us.

A thrill all the way to the end.

Topping & Company Booksellers

So, two days after Kirkland Ciccone’s crazy bookshop tour, saw your Bookwitch in St Andrews, in the brand new branch of Topping & Company Booksellers (to call them by their long and proper name; from now on Topping’s). I, too, am crazy like that. I had a[nother] Christmas tree to deliver, so decided to kill both tree and new bookshop with the one stone.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

You might recall I had pressed my nose against the shop window during my bookshop crawl on my last visit. Now I didn’t dare, as the shop was nice and done and open and I’m certain the window was lovely and clean.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Instead I went in, followed by the Resident IT Consultant and Daughter, on standby to catch me if I looked like I might get my wallet out (my sincere apologies to Topping’s). And let me tell you, the shop is so wonderful that any wallet is at great risk. Even mine. (It actually broke yesterday…)

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

This was my first visit to a Topping’s, and I can quite see what all the fuss is about. I’m most grateful to my favourite Hodder publicist, who was the one to tell me this new shop was on the cards. If I leave my wallet at home, I can see I might be allowed to return to this haven.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

The place was full of people. Much fuller than the photos suggest, as I tried to avoid people so you can see the books and the shelves and the ladders and the chairs and tables, and the woodburning stove and anything else. Sofas. Little rooms at the back. Window overlooking some local wilderness. And all this just round the corner from the Students’ Union.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Charming children’s books corner, containing what you’d want and expect, plus rather a lot more. Pleased to see Nicola Morgan’s Stress on the reference shelf.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

They have a lot of signed first editions, including Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, which is quite a feat I feel.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

I located a man who looked like he might be Mr Topping himself, and he was. It seems that one reason behind the new branch is that he has done what the Bookwitch just did; moved to Scotland. He will be running the St Andrews shop.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

I suppose all this is what you can expect from a man who was sacked by Waterstones for selling too many books.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Sketches From A Nameless Land – The Art of The Arrival

When ‘reading’ Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, I wondered a great deal about the background to the book, and how he had managed to work on one thing for so long.

Now I know. There is a companion volume out, where Shaun describes his work on The Arrival, and how he thought, and how the ideas arrived. It is beautiful.

It’d be so easy to assume that a ‘picture book’ can’t mean a lot of work. But here you can see just how much went into each and every one of all those drawings that fill The Arrival. For instance, there is a picture of a group of people sharing a meal together. Simple? Well, first Shaun invited some friends round for a meal, then he filmed them eating, and then he drew countless pictures of the people round the table, until it became what’s in the book.

As for how he built a small city of cardboard boxes, and filmed himself with his dad’s overalls and a garden pesticide sprayer, to achieve that industrialised genocide feeling, well…

Shaun Tan, The Arrival

This book is like being invited to Shaun’s studio and getting a personally guided tour where he explains all his thoughts and how he tried various ideas until he got it right.

If you liked The Arrival, then this is a must.