Monthly Archives: June 2021

We have all arrived

And we would like to stay. I think that’s really what last night’s launch for Barbara Henderson’s book Scottish by Inclination was about. She came here thirty years ago, and has now written a non-fiction book about her time in Scotland, including interviews with a number of EU citizens who also came here some time in the past, and were expecting the right to a future.

The letter from the Scottish Government, telling us we are welcome here and they want us here, helped. But it’s no guarantee. Barbara has now acquired British citizenship, just to be on the safe side. She did this on the advice of Elizabeth Wein, who felt that it’s the only reliable thing to do, if you want to be sure.

Wearing her starry EU t-shirt, Barbara was talking to Margaret Kirk (who almost struggled to get a word in edgeways…). Barbara is a very cheerful force to be reckoned with. She read to us. Her arrival at Glasgow airport, where her first task was to find Fergus, which involved her walking round the arrivals hall singing, to attract the attention of the right very tall person. Then she read her memories from June 23rd five years ago, when the result of the referendum took her completely by surprise. (Available on YouTube.)

At first Barbara had no wish to write her memoirs, when it was suggested to her, but she changed her mind. And as I usually say, no one can tell you you have got your own story wrong.

She shared her path to British citizenship, which wasn’t plain sailing. With help from an excellent lawyer and making far too many trips from Inverness to Glasgow, she’s been successful. Barbara tested us on our knowledge of ‘Life in the UK’ from the official test (which I passed with flying colours). This could be because I have also taken, and studied for, this test. Mostly it seems people (those born here) got three out of five.

There was a question as to whether as a foreigner you have to be better, prove that you can do more than the natives. It certainly seems like it. But by now Barbara has decided she doesn’t need permission from others to determine ‘how Scottish’ she is. It’s her right to say, and she is Scottish by Inclination.

And so say all of us.

This, of course, has no bearing as to which football team she was rooting for on Wednesday evening.

Order, order

I own an old cassette of Christmas songs, sung by Roger Whittaker. I love it. I loved it even more – at first – when I was able to buy the same album as a CD. I mean, I thought I did. Was. Same title, same songs, but fewer songs. Seems a plastic ribbon has more room on it than a shiny disc. But apart from the lack of certain songs, and they were – obviously – some of the ones I loved best, there was a lack of order. It was the wrong order, as far as I was concerned. I’d nearly worn the cassette out, so I knew how I liked my songs. And it was not the CD order of things.

Order matters.

Then I happened upon an article by Dan Brotzel in The Author about ‘working out the best sequence for your story collection’. It seems it’s really quite difficult. Dan mused about his own stories, and also looked at what others have done.

I had actually pondered this before. Whenever I pick up a collection of one author’s stories or read an anthology put together by someone, I wonder how they determined what comes first, what sits in the middle and how to end things. Unless Dan is particularly unskilled at this, it would appear that someone has agonised over this very thing each time I sit there wondering about the why or the what.

And as with Roger Whittaker, some results feel better than others.

The last day of innocence

It was a lovely day. It really was. I think back to it often. And then I think of what came after. But how wise I was to at least plan my lunch to take place the day before the referendum. Anything else would have made it impossible. How five years can change so much…

Reading this again, I have just realised that what happened after must have been my fault. Thirteen people round the tables. I’m very sorry.

(Not to mention how sorry I am for the fact that WordPress has made it impossible to grab the old post and repost it. This wobbliness was caused by multiple screen grabs.)

We’re all doomed.

The Race

There was more to Eric Liddell than running along the beach in St Andrews in the film, or the famous swap of races in the 1924 Olympics to help him keep his Sunday clear for God.

In his new book The Race, Roy Peachey has found out more about this early sports hero, and we meet Eric both as a small child in China with his missionary parents, and we see him as a student back in England and as a medical student in Edinburgh. He has three passions; rugby, running and the church. It’s the church that takes him back to China after the Olympics; this time as a missionary himself.

Eric’s running is described in parallel with modern day school girl Lili, who like Eric lives for running, and who is both Chinese and British, having been adopted from China by British parents.

Lili usually wins every race at school, but with the announcement that the Queen is coming to watch their school race, she finds she has an annoying competitor for fastest runner.

So we follow Lili’s training sessions and her family life, alongside learning about Eric Liddell, China’s first Olympic medallist.

The Race is a fabulous tale; Lili’s story interwoven with Eric Liddell’s. I loved every minute of this fairly short book, and would have liked to read more, especially about Eric. It’s this kind of surprise find that makes reading such a great pleasure.

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.