Monthly Archives: September 2020

More gigs than rehearsals

There was less music than I had hoped for, or expected, but setting that aside, Friday night’s chat between the six members of The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers was great fun. It’s so strange that a bunch of novelists can just stand up – well, almost – and sing and play and actually entertain an audience with their music, including ending up playing Glastonbury.

An early opportunity was when three of them played at Bouchercon one year; an ‘accidental shambles that worked really well’ (according to Mark Billingham).

Val McDermid is the boss, as well she should be, and the five boys don’t enjoy it when she can’t be there to perform with them. But it’s not only performances that matter, they simply love getting together as a group, each enjoying being with the others.

Craig Robertson was doing the asking, and the starting question was what the first single they bought was. I like Mark! He got I did what I did for Maria, with Tony Christie. Val’s was a Beatles one, Chris Brookmyre liked Skids, Stuart Neville got the ET soundtrack… Yeah. Doug Johnstone, I think, because he wasn’t on screen so it was just a voice admitting to Michael Jackson. Little Luca Veste, as the baby of the group, was grateful for the best decade ever in the 1990s, and he bought an Oasis single (but also likes early Britney…).

But ‘nobody should ever be ashamed of music’ as Stuart put it.

They were all rather mean to poor Chris, who was invited to join them for one song and never left, returning with new guitar playing skills and everything. According to Stuart Chris is so good that he might have been one of Stuart’s pupils! He’s so keen that he once joined them for the second half of an event, because he had his own book event to do first, so couldn’t come sooner.

Early on Doug agreed to be their drummer, because they are hard to find, while guitarists are ten a penny.

Reykjavik without Val had been scary. Some of them would have preferred to turn around and go home again. As Val said, ‘the team is greater than the sum of our parts’.

Their Spiegeltent debut in Edinburgh was fantastic, a free event were the audience clearly expected nothing, but were greatly surprised. (It was packed. I suspect that’s why I wasn’t there.)

And then there was Glastonbury, where the modest Mark asked for too few drinks for them, on what was a very hot day. They were complimented for their crew being the best, except they were their own crew, so… It was ‘a bizarre and educational experience.’ (I’d say so! Stuart even did a Bookwitch thing; arriving supporting himself on a stick, hardly being able to walk, and then feeling just fine afterwards.)

The gang can’t wait to be back together in real life. Val and Doug have done a small thing in a bookshop in Portobello, but that’s all. After all, a group who are clever enough to come up with a song like Paperback Writer can’t be all wrong!

‘One of mum’s fanciful ideas’

Or welcome to Bloody Scotland 2020!

After a worthy introduction by the First Minister herself, this year’s online Bloody Scotland kicked off with four crime writers dishing dirt and trashing reputations and generally having a good time, despite the fact that Lin Anderson, Craig Robertson and Gordon Brown, kept in some sort of check by Abir Mukherjee, were all at home. Each in their own, where we were treated to two sets of book backgrounds, one of posters plus Lin’s sauna, although I suspect that might have been a joke.

Bloody Scotland as ‘one of mum’s fanciful ideas’ was how Lin’s children explained how it came about. ‘A lot of good ideas come out of alcohol’, and as Gordon said, organising a crime festival ‘cannae be that hard’. For this year’s online weekend, Lin had apparently suggested that the whole country could light torches. Gordon had to tell how he ruined the town’s bowling green when he set up the football pitch five years ago. The grass died in a pitch pattern.

They all feel that this new crime festival has many advantages, including the ability for anyone, anywhere to attend; both authors and audience. It was great being able to ask Ian [Rankin] and Val [McDermid] who they most wanted to talk to, when anyone is possible.

The Curly Coo – the pub where shenanigans take place on the Saturday night – is actually Craig’s local pub and it was his ‘daft idea’ to organise an event there. It usually sells out in seconds.

Abir asked the others how the pandemic had affected them. He had found that his usual workflow of 15000 words per month dwindled to about 15. Craig found writing easier, if only because he couldn’t pop to the Curly Coo all the time. Gordon got up at five every morning and wrote a new novel, while Lin was so traumatised she couldn’t write at all, and had to stick to jotting down ideas for later.

Two thirds of the way into this event, I got up to go to the kitchen and put dinner on. This has never ever happened to me at the Albert Halls. But the four Bloody Scotland board members were able to follow me there and merely continued their bickering.

There were audience questions, and we learned that Abir once got asked about another authors book, because they were both brown authors. Gordon [also Brown] once had to explain to an irate bookshop customer why he was out signing novels instead of attending to the election. Lin told a fan at an event why she’s so good at sex. Lots of practice, I gather. A fondness for pina coladas is spreading wherever Abir goes, because he treats all crime gatherings like holidays.

Whether that will have to change now, we don’t know, but they believe there will be a Bloody Scotland after the virus. If there is an after the virus. And continuing digitally looks like a real possibility, regardless of viral status.

Abir did well, getting his unruly lot to finish on time, just as the pasta was ready.

Love Frankie

The long awaited ‘gay novel’ by Jacqueline Wilson is finally here. Over the years Jacky has written about almost everything, keeping track of what her fans need stories about in order to help them in their own lives. And, obviously, to entertain them.

Love Frankie features a 14-year-old girl, Frankie, living with her two sisters and their mum, who has MS and is recently divorced from their dad. So just from a normal point of view, there is much to worry about. And then Frankie finds herself falling in love with Sally, the girl who until that very moment has bullied her and been thoroughly unpleasant to her.

Everyone around Frankie warns her that Sally will be up to no good, but she can’t help the way she feels.

As an old and wise witch I found myself agreeing with them. We don’t feel that same sex romance is wrong, but we all felt that Sally was wrong for Frankie.

Nevertheless, we see the ups and downs of their relationship. I kept hoping for another love interest for Frankie, while most of her family seemed to hope for happy ever after with the lovely boy next door. So did he.

It’s well done, with nothing too easy, or too difficult, and with Jacky’s normal school type issues with children and teachers and homework, and at home there are the serious concerns about mum’s MS and having to spend weekends with their dad and his new girlfriend. All of it typical of life today for Jacqueline’s fans. You can tell she knows what she’s writing about, which of course has always been the case. And she’s on your side.

The book’s Böll, Heinrich Böll

Guardian reader Wendy, on the paper’s letters page, pointed me in the direction of Adrian Chiles and his column on bookshelves last week, which I had missed. Because we mostly don’t buy a paper on a Thursday. But that’s what the internet is for, discovering what I missed.

It’s yet another article/post/column on how some of us have too many books, and we don’t mind displaying our groaning shelves to the world via Zoom. Adrian now claims he’s going to get rid of, or actually read, some of his ignored volumes.

Easy for him to say. He’s probably not got a book blog to feed.

But, yeah, it seems his books are not even ones he doesn’t like the look of. And this is true of mine as well. I can comfortably ignore books I really wanted, maybe even bought. In fact, just the other day I was congratulating myself for having a more attractive tbr pile right now, basing it on having bought books, rather than it being only review copies of books soon to be published.

Then there are the books you acquire because someone recommended them, or worse, shamed you into feeling you should read them. That’s where Heinrich Böll comes in. Back in 1972, in my German class at school, one of the boys (we only had three, so they kind of stood out) said he’d had an inkling Böll would get the Nobel Prize, so he’d got a few of the man’s books out from the library to read in preparation.

So, of course, I did the same, only for me it was after the award was made public. But still. I dutifully read quite a few of Böll’s novels, and I’m fairly certain I didn’t enjoy any of them.

I have none of them here. Possibly one or two got left on the shelves belonging to Mother-of-Witch, but again, maybe not. Perhaps I borrowed from the library.

There will have been a few other Nobel laureates whose books I’ve read, but not many. I am cured of needing to keep up with boys in classrooms. And let’s face it, I can prune heavily and still have a most respectable looking set of shelves behind me on Zoom.

How to find your voice as a writer

We began by watching the teacher’s two-year-old daughter chatting to a cushion, telling it to sit down. It’s as good a way as any, when you are looking to find your voice.

From time to time I have stared at the lists of Guardian Masterclasses offered by the newspaper. But the time and the distance travelled would never justify the cost of them. Now though, when Covid has forced everything to go online, I grabbed the bull by the horns and signed up for a class. It was the subject, on finding my voice, and the fact that the master was Aditya Chakrabortty, that made up my mind. I thought I could always consider the fee as my contribution to the Guardian’s survival if I didn’t make it on the day.

There were technical hitches to begin with, but they mostly disappeared as we went along. And while at first it felt like quite obvious stuff, it was actually very interesting. I suspect I have already found my voice, in which case it was good to have it confirmed. And my inner cynic also tells me that however charming that voice may be, it won’t pay. I suppose that’s where I felt more could be said. It’s all very well to write a good piece, but right now I doubt anyone will want to pay for anything like that.

But that’s OK. Writing can be fun anyway.

I quite liked being told that one should never try to be someone else. (Whenever I get a bit precious I realise I’m writing absolute rubbish.) However, bits of ‘my voice’ always got edited out when I had my blogs published in the Guardian. Just saying. I could always see where someone else had had a go. Not so much the pruning away, but the words added that I would never use.

I suspect Aditya expected to talk to a younger lot than what he got. Judging by the ‘Zoom’ pictures we could see, most of us were ‘older’. I like that. It’s good to know people have ambition, even when the world might think we’re past it. (When break time came, he told us to go to the toilet and be back in five minutes. Bar one, they all got up…)

Write if you really want to, and if you have something new to say. Not the same old as everyone else. You should know what you know (I complain about this all the time!), and ‘going home’ can be good. Aditya told us about what he saw when he returned as an adult to Edmonton Green where he grew up. He talked about minorities. Etonians are a minority.

‘Be new’ and never mind Twitter.

Read, read, read. Those are the three Rs. Aditya even suggested children’s books to read. I think as a shock to the system for being so different. (I’ll have to have a word with him, before his two-year-old does.)

Listen, smell, be a camera. (I appear to have written down several ideas based on this. Wonder if I’ll ever get round to them?)

Don’t write case studies. It’s what they do on television. Don’t repeat so much, but use more rhyme. Think of the carpentry in getting sentences to stick together. Get used to just writing, however bad. Five minutes on what you did yesterday. Be yourself. Write down what you had for dinner.

Daniel Barenboim. Aditya spent a week with him for an interview, but in reality he had about 90 minutes with the man. The rest was running after him and being fed too much pudding. (This, too, reflects my own experience. Not the Barenboim pudding, exactly, but how you do a lot with quite little.)

Going through the notes, which they emailed us afterwards, saving on the note taking, makes me feel a lot more enthusiastic again.

I’ll see what I can do.

The Bear, the Piano, and Little Bear’s Concert

I read this to Daughter the other evening, when it was time for bed. It went down well. She’s a recent convert to these lovely books by David Litchfield about the piano-playing bear. I’m sure much younger children will also love this last instalment featuring the piano in the woods.

It’s a bit sad. Well, it has to be, so it can get better. I’m sure young readers instinctively understand this.

Bear continues playing the piano in front of audiences, until, well, until he doesn’t, and instead goes home to the forest. But he misses his old life and his friends, and he is sad.

Things improve when he has Little Bear to bring up and teach things. She is a lovely young bear, and when she comes across the piano in amongst the trees, she wants to know what it is. And then she hatches a plan…

It’s lovely. For an older reader like me, it’s easy to predict how it will work out, and probably also for a younger reader. But it is just as satisfying. Very beautiful, as are David’s gorgeous illustrations.

Lockdown escapes

So, the other day I moaned about – by which I mean ‘mentioned casually’ – the unlikeliness of seeing authors the way things are. Or even normal people.

The always-willing-to-try new-things Helen Grant offered to come and sit in my garden, and I went as far as to wipe the table and chairs free from bird poo.

I also got my Moomin mugs out, although I seem to need more. We were one short. And I am not saying this in order to make anyone other than me go shopping!

A couple of days ago Kirkland Ciccone – dressed to the nines – went to Oxfam. (When I found out, it was too late to entice him to come and sit in the garden.)

What I particularly like are the bibles. As a background to Kirkie, that is. He was in the ‘Grandmother’s branch’ of Oxfam, and they always do a roaring trade in bibles.

I mean, I’m sure it’s him. It’s a bit of an incognito style. Not everyone can get away with an outfit like that.

Booking a holiday

Maybe you noticed me sneaking off on holiday in August? Or not. Service has been poor, so no difference there.

With no Swedish sea and sand to be had – for me – this was replaced with the beaches of St Andrews and plenty of the famous Scottish sunshine. So that was fine. It was a no-frills home-from-home kind of week. It was right opposite my favourite shoe shop and a few doors down from Waterstones, and not far to the other bookshops or the cheese shop, where it’s possible to spend a minor fortune on cheese. Might have spent a little bit on shoes, too. It just happened, like.

Toppings have too many books, if you know what I mean. It looks gorgeous and the books go all the way to the ceiling, but it’s kind of hard to browse. No room to turn and I don’t bend well – so had to instruct Daughter to bend for me and search among the crime paperbacks right under the table. When I sat down in one of their armchairs, someone came up and offered me tea or coffee within seconds. And I only needed to rest a little…

Didn’t go very deep into the children’s books corner, as I wanted to keep my distance from the mother and child already in there, reading books. Who wants to look at children’s books, anyway? Bought a few adult books, by which I mean non-children’s, not adult adult. Picked ones I could see and reach, so choice was what it was.

In Waterstones I picked a few more, including one standing face-out on a display shelf. Kicked myself afterwards for not having replaced it with a book of my choice, but leaving the empty space empty. Oh, well. Had wanted to browse a few more books, including a look at a second book of a series I wrote about some weeks ago, to see what it was like, but they didn’t have it. In fact, neither shop had what was on my mental list to physically look at when in a real shop.

As we had already done both the jigsaw puzzles in the flat, Daughter bought another one; a Vincent van Gogh. It looked easy enough, but by the end I almost grew to hate it, and it’s long been one of my favourites. Also played Jenga, which didn’t do  much for my blood pressure. What if the whole thing toppled???

There were books in the flat. Not many, but some. Pocket walking guides. Nigella and Jamie and Gordon. I suppose in case guests were wanting to know how to cook dinner.

We watched one film. Casino Royale. The old one. We love it and that’s why it was chosen, but oh dear, how un-pc it has become. I also only read one book, a fairly short one. Seating was a bit uncomfortable, and the lack of reading lamps not good for old witches. I’ll bring one, next time, if only to keep the coffee machine company.

The week ticked all the boxes; sea, sand, sun, ice cream, books, cheese, shoes, strolls through town. The Resident IT Consultant walked a lot more properly, and felt sorry for us, but each to their own, I say. He too came across some books when out.

Starting school

Where do the years go? It feels like mere months since Boy Tollarp came to the Resident IT Consultant’s and my 60th birthday lunch. He was five weeks old at the time. Now on social media I see him wearing a blazer and tie and – admittedly – school shorts, as he starts school this week.

He’s not alone in this. Even a year like 2020 has children going to school for the first time. And it can be scary. I remember my first day, and I remember Offspring’s first days. Also scary. At least to me.

So books on what to expect and how to deal with any little problems are a useful thing. The two picture books I’ve just read will probably not become long term classics, but if they help a few children now, that’s enough to make me happy. It’s often impossible for the adults to guess which books will turn out to make a real impact on their small child. These are both lovely and might do the job.

Today I’m Strong, by Nadiya Hussain and her illustrator Ella Bailey, shows us a child who is often happy going into school. But not always. Some days she is bullied at school and would rather stay at home. She talks to her [toy?] tiger, who looks pretty much like Judith Kerr’s tiger, except less likely to eat you up. And Tiger provides her with the solution, and one day she goes in and deals with the bully, firmly and maturely.

So that’s that.

In My School Unicorn, by Willow Evans and Tom Knight, we meet another young girl, about to buy her first school uniform, and feeling worried about her life changing. In what looks like a magic uniform shop, the proprietor slips her a unicorn to keep with her at school. It’s a little thing, but it helps. School turns out to be fine, and one day that unicorn can go on to some other child.

Both books are diverse, and there is a [single?] dad looking after the unicorn girl. I’m hoping these books will help many young children as they begin the rest of their lives. And the usefulness of tigers and unicorns should not be ignored.

Fowl Film

We saved the Artemis Fowl film until we no longer felt needy. Back in May we really wanted to watch it, having already waited a year or so, and then feeling better for knowing it would be available on television, well, Disney+, with no requirement for getting to a cinema. And we kept putting it off. Son and Dodo jumped in almost on the first day, but were restrained in their judgement of it.

Let me first say it’s not Artemis Fowl, even if the name suggests it. But this happens with many books when they move to the big screen. What matters is that it’s a good, enjoyable film. That’s not what this is.

The next step is to try and decide if you’d understand what was going on if you’d never read the books. We don’t think you would. We’re not sure anyone knows what’s going on.

None of the characters are anything like what Eoin Colfer makes us believe they are. Commander Root is most like himself, despite being a woman played by Judi Dench. The others? No. The cruel, scheming Artemis is a babyish boy, wanting his daddy back. Holly Short is not dreadful, I suppose, but she’s not Holly. And Trouble is a girl.

Mulch Diggums is a sort of Hagrid, a large dwarf hoping to grow smaller. I quite liked his mouth, actually. That worked well, as did his rear end. Having Mrs Fowl dead is a bit of a drawback, should you want her to give birth to Artemis’s brothers later on. And was there really no spare piece of tinfoil to cover Foaly’s head with?

I understand that you can change stuff; that you will need to, but to rewrite the whole thing? I can’t even work out if this was to cover just the first book, or if enough of the next ones was in here that we can move directly to book four. Because there will be a sequel, won’t there?

Afterwards Daughter spent a fair length of time telling us what she thought of the film. I’m, well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.