Monthly Archives: January 2021

The Silent Stars Go By

This new book by Sally Nicholls is everything you’d want it to be. It tells the story of 16-year-old Margot who becomes pregnant just as her fiancé Harry goes off to fight in WWI in 1916. Harry doesn’t know, and when he’s reported missing in action, Margot eventually has to tell her parents about the baby. Her father is a vicar, and it’s not welcome news.

Three years later, Harry – who is not dead – returns home, and wants to see Margot, who is back for Christmas, and she has to decide what to do, what to tell him.

Set at a time when unmarried mothers were much more frowned upon than today, and also at a time when prospective future husbands were far fewer than some years earlier, this is not an easy problem to solve. Added to which is the fact that Margot’s parents adopted her son, so she can’t very well ‘take him back’.

Margot is lovely, and so is Harry. The whole village is pretty lovely. But there is still a problem to be solved. And there was a fact about adoptions I didn’t know before reading Sally’s book.

As the reader, you want everything to work out perfectly, but you can’t see how it can be done. Or which part of almost perfect it will end up having to be.

But take it from me, Sally Nicholls just gets better and better.

An inspiration lost

I don’t quite remember why Lars Westman was talking to the postbox. But it was the kind of thing he was wont to do.

I’m thinking it had to do with no stamps or not enough postage on something he had just posted, and he was trying to persuade the postbox to give the letter back, so it could be rectified. It’s obvious, you put your face close to the opening and say what you need to say.

In this case, the most interesting thing was that there was a reply. I believe there was a postal worker the other side of the hole where you post your letters, which probably means it was one of those postboxes inserted into a wall, or there would hardly have been room for a man inside the box. Certainly, my own postal background does not incorporate talking postboxes, however crazy we might have been.

It was a hilarious tale, the way many of Lars’s columns in Vi Magazine were. I read him for decades and he was always good. He was one of the people who made me want to write.

And now he’s dead. Retired for some years, he was 86. But his entertaining columns, and longer articles are ones I still remember. Except when I’ve half forgotten, like the talking postbox. (I was fully expecting Lars to get stuck, or something. Not that there’d be an actual response from within.)

The Humiliations of Welton Blake

Alex Wheatle knows how to write about black 12-year-old boys; especially the ones who are secretly in love with the prettiest girl in school, hoping that she will see past all their awkwardness and lack of experience.

Welton finally picks up the courage to ask Carmella out, only to find his day, possibly his whole life, collapsing into a pile of unfortunate mishaps, one after the other. And with a dead mobile phone, how can he contact her? (There’s obviously the actual speaking to her at school, but apart from that.)

It’s slapstick with realism; vomiting over a girl at school (no, not that girl), being threatened by the dangerous boy, running into a brick wall, wondering what to do when your mother’s new boyfriend looks so old he won’t last longer than 15 years.

This is all very general, proving that we are mostly the same on the inside. It’s a book that will show boys that everyone else isn’t necessarily that much better off in the social stakes. You just think that others have no problems. Although, not running into brick walls would obviously be a start.

But what is it with sowing the idea that dentists live in virtual palaces? Better off, yeah. But palaces, not so much.

Still, a great book for boys and girls, with and without dyslexia.

Give it a Dent

‘Do you feel like lying down in front of the tree-cutters next week?’ I asked the Resident IT Consultant. He did not wish to channel his inner Arthur Dent, so I suspect neither of us will demonstrate our displeasure with Stirling Council (and yes, I’m sure those plans have been there for anyone to see for a long time. I mean, we do know about them, so…) in the near future.

But we ought to. Do it. Wanting is saying too much, but why would we want them to spend £3m on something really stupid and unnecessary, when at the same time they need to cut down on services because they need to save £8m. If they were to ask me, I could show them how they would only need to find a way to not spend £5m.

We’re not activists. But even if we were, can one afford to engage in physical protest at a time like this? Fear of covid means no one is likely to get up close to any workers, to prevent the council from chopping down a dozen huge trees to make way for a road no one needs.

What I suspect might happen is that it’s too late to save the trees, so they will go. And then someone has second thoughts or discovers they don’t actually have the money after all, and nothing much happens. But let’s start by demolishing a wooded green area near the town centre.

I’ve often wanted to believe I was an Arthur Dent, slightly ridiculous, but a little bit brave, standing up for my rights. Not this time.

Neither tried nor tested

It’s funny how I do things I really ought not to. Except it’s not funny. I just feel as though I must. Must buy that book, or at the very least, put it on a list to be ‘dealt with’ soon.

I have spent several days not reading the second half of an incredibly good book. Some of those days I have instead glanced a little at the first few chapters of a book I read many years ago, which I remember to be very good, but can’t recall a thing about.

But what I thought I’d mention now are some books I’ve not read. That’s fine, isn’t it?

Nick Green has a new book out. It’s only available on Kindle, so that’s what I bought. It took me all of two minutes to decide, after Nick had told me about it. It’s called Sparrowfall, and it’s only £2.95, which is cheap for something he spent four years writing. It’s an adult novel, but even Nick didn’t know that to begin with. If you hurry, you might have time to read it before me.

Then there are books I probably won’t be buying. But you know how hard it can be to resist books with gorgeous covers! And these two travel books by Charmian Clift, are about to be reissued by Muswell Press in the spring. While we can’t travel ourselves, it’s just as well that books can do it for us.

Some people I trust more than others. And while Sophie Hannah’s ‘own’ crime scares me a lot, I trust her implicitly when she recommends certain books. The time she talked about her discovery of Agatha Christie as a child; well, that could have been me. So when she wrote in the Guardian Review that we absolutely must read Agatha’s non-crime novels, published under the name Mary Westmacott, I knew Sophie was right.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve already read one. But you know how my memory works, or rather, how it doesn’t. So I can see myself needing to read these six books. At some point. Though possibly not in the next month…

Plague event

Here’s one I went to earlier.

A chance encounter online, with a fairly cute looking plague doctor, reminded me of my real life encounter with one of those. Real life, but, I think, not real plague doctor.

On the other hand, the way things are going, how could I possibly be sure?

It’s now nearly seven years since I made the jump and crossed over the Scottish border to live, which was a generally wise choice, or so I believe. Within days there was an event at an Edinburgh school, featuring none other but another Stopfordian, who has since also moved, but hadn’t then.

It was he, Philip Caveney, who had written about a plague doctor, and ever the good publisher, Clare at Fledgling had spirited one up, complete with stick and all. Mercifully I don’t recall what he was supposed to do with the stick.

But a good day was had by all, I’m sure, and I reckon his mask was a lot more uncomfortable than the ones we are wearing now. And we’re not getting into strange cars at all.

Christmas is Murder

You’re not all done with Christmas, I hope. Although, apart from its title, Val McDermid’s Christmas is Murder isn’t primarily Christmassy. Some of the twelve stories are seasonal, but many are not. Which is fine, as I believe Val was after creating Christmas crime reading like the Norwegians do at Easter (when I suspect not all the murders are egg or chicken related).

I had just about despaired after a couple of good, but too dark [for me] stories, when Val hit me with a traditional style ‘pleasant’ murder, which cheered me up no end. The preceding murders had been of people who didn’t deserve to be killed…

The most interesting story is a Sherlock Holmes one – Holmes For Christmas – which takes the reader in an unexpected direction. Quite fun. But it set me thinking about whether you are allowed to write more of someone else’s stories? With Sherlock Holmes I feel we are always getting new material, be it written or on screen. So I don’t know whether Watson being addressed as James in one instance meant anything, or if it was an unfortunate mistake.

Anyway, once the stories became a little less dark, I enjoyed the collection. And for anyone into same sex relationships, there’s much to discover.

With a little help from Patricia

I now know what I am doing. Maybe.

A friend sent me the link to a recent Winter programme on Swedish Radio. Even for someone like me, in exile, it makes sense, because there were always Summer programmes, and one has to assume Winter is the same. Except in winter.

It seemed to be.

They are very popular, and ‘everyone’ listens to them. I don’t know how they find the time! I really wanted to listen to this one, but setting aside 90 minutes isn’t easy. In the end I cut the vegetables for a while, and then had a solitary lunch.

The pattern for the programmes is that someone – usually famous, or important/interesting for some reason – talks about their lives and plays music. A sort of Desert Island Discs.

This time it was Patricia Tudor-Sandahl, who is English but who has lived in Sweden since 1964. The other side of me, so to speak. I only knew Patricia as a psychologist, having read her column in a weekly magazine for some years. But it seems there are books, too.

And it was those that pointed the way. Patricia had been interviewed by someone who asked what sort of books she writes. Her answer was ‘the kind of books she wants to read’. Not unusual in itself, but as quite a few are not fiction, I found her reply more interesting, even if it should make no difference at all.

It made me realise that I blog what I’d like to read. That sounds presumptuous, I know. But what I mean is that I like to find other blogs like mine. And while I search I write what it is I need to write, in the hopes that someone else out there was waiting for the drivel I am offering them.

Anyway, this realisation went slightly deeper than I had expected.

As for Patricia, she spoke of her humble beginnings in Manchester – which I did not know about – having tin baths and trying to stay warm while her father fought in the war. And how she was in such a need to get away, and with a choice of Turkey or Sweden, she went to Sweden and never left. Her first job was teaching us all English, alongside Ian Dunlop who was famous on television in the 1960s.

Like me, she has adopted many, many Swedish things in her new life, but she will never be Swedish. I needed to hear that.

And I’d not listened to Mikis Theodorakis’s Zorba for far too long.

Careful with that advice

And I should obviously heed that, erm, piece of advice myself, re advice on what to tell people to read.

I can’t tell you how relieved I felt on reading today in the Guardian Review that Patricia Highsmith can be a bit iffy to read. It absolves me from the disaster that was the younger me having a go with one of her books, on the advice from someone else. I forget who. I found it a horrible book, and I can no longer recall if I soldiered on or if it was an early instance of me permitting myself to give up.

Since then I have steered well clear.

Setting personal tastes aside, I feel the suggestion was made to too young a reader. I don’t mind inappropriate sex or violence at too early an age, as you will generally just filter it out if you don’t enjoy it. But the sheer boredom of not understanding what’s being written about is a sure way of turning people off.

At what was most likely an even lower age, I was told to read Graham Greene. I started on The End of the Affair, found it incredibly boring, but made it to the, well, end of whatever this affair was. I forget. I went on to read many Greene books, but they were slightly later and they were chosen by me, so the subject was more suitable.

And at a rather more mature stage in my life, someone said I would love P D James, because she’s just like Agatha Christie. That sounded good, and I did have a go. But it was a lie. She’s not like Agatha. I’m sure she’s very good, but I was mis-sold, in all innocence. So me and P D have not really recovered from that first meeting.

I shall now go away and see if I can reign in my own advice on who should read what and when.

Love – Giraffe Can’t Dance

I have a fondness for Giles Andreae. (Just can’t spell his name with any great accuracy. Although it is a very nice name.) I also have a fondness for his lovely illustrations. Except I am always reminded he writes the words and people like Guy Parker-Rees looks after the looks of giraffes and other characters.

This board book is rather lovely. It is probably more for toddlers than babies, despite its board book-ness. The cover is purple with a giraffe, and silver stars. It’s lovely.

It’s full of things to love, and ways to love. I’m just not sure why giraffes can’t dance. Despite the title, I mean. But they can love.

If you love a little one, you might want to read to them about giraffes and love.