Monthly Archives: August 2021

Goodbye Cathy

Cathy MacPhail has died. She had been ill for several years, and I often thought of her, but felt I mustn’t keep asking her family for news.

We met over ten years ago, in a [Stockport] hotel bar. The first thing Cathy did was demand I take her necklace off, so I gave it my best shot, but I must be quite a bad necklace-taker-offer. Luckily Rachel Ward arrived soon after, so I introduced them to each other, and then Rachel had a rather more successful go at removing her new friend’s necklace. (The necklace in the photo below is not that necklace. It’s the one Cathy replaced it with for the awards ceremony. Very glam.)

From then on I came across Cathy in various places, and mostly in her native Scotland. Always cheerful, always supportive of people. And always very much admired by everyone. Children liked her books. Adults, authors, liked her books. I think I especially admired the way this selfmade woman had achieved so much, and I used to enjoy thinking of her in her waterside home in Greenock, watching the large cruise ships cruise by.

When I came up with my crazy idea of inviting my dear children’s authors to lunch at Bookwitch Towers, she was the first to volunteer. Admittedly, she was about the last to arrive, because she got a wee bit lost between Greenock and Stirling. In the end I sent the Resident IT Consultant out with my mobile phone, to try and find Cathy before she turned her nice big car round to go home again.

She even returned the next year, and I do admire (there’s that word again) the way she’d get into her car and drive to all sorts of places just because people wanted to see her.

We’d meet at the RED book awards, where she’d be accompanied by one of her daughters.

The last time I saw Cathy was at the Glasgow launch of Theresa Breslin’s book about Rasputin, almost four years ago. There was a group of us who sat down where we were not supposed to sit, to have a nice gossip about the kinds of things a person needs to gossip about.

It was after another book launch, in Edinburgh, that Kirkland Ciccone asked me about Cathy’s health. He’d heard rumours about her being ill, but didn’t feel he had the right to start asking questions. I made enquiries. Sadly he was right; Cathy was ill. We kept hoping for the best, and hopefully the best is what Cathy’s family got over the last few years.


My Name Is Jensen

Today you get to do the reading. Heidi Amsinck is a UK Dane, who’s written a Nordic noir novel – My Name Is Jensen. The cover alone is enough to convince me. (Although, I do believe that red stuff is blood, not snow. Still, a gorgeous, snowy cover.)

Here is chapter three from the book, where we see the main female character, and her – also female – boss. I’d say things are not going well.

Tuesday 11:49

From the corner office of Dagbladet’s editor-in-chief, Copenhagen’s City Hall Square looked like an abstract painting, a damp mess of white pavements, yellow buses, red tail lights and people rushing to get out of the sleety weather. Jensen watched a group of pedestrians waiting patiently at the kerb for the lights to go green, though they could easily have crossed the road between the cars. In London, you never saw this respect for the rules, this reluctance to stand out from the crowd.
‘Sorry, I’m late,’ said Margrethe, barging into the room carrying a leather shoulder bag and a takeaway coffee.
She settled her tall, broad-shouldered form into the swivel chair behind her desk with a grunt. ‘Had to go and see the prime minister,’ she said.
‘Bloody waste of time, before you ask,’ she said, taking off her steamed-up glasses and wiping them on her jumper.
Jensen was about to open her mouth, grateful for the opportunity to delay the conversation she knew was coming, but Margrethe held up a hand to stop her. ‘Save it,’ she said, putting her glasses back on and reaching for her coffee.
Jensen shrank in her chair. Margrethe was one of the few people whose opinion she respected. It was Margrethe who had plucked her from the local paper as an eighteen-year-old without as much as a school leaver’s certificate and given her a job at Dagbladet. Two years later she had sent Jensen to London as the newspaper’s correspondent. There had been plenty of dissenting voices, but Margrethe had ignored them all.
She was taking her time, adding three sachets of sugar to her coffee. The wall behind her was lined with photographs of her all-male predecessors, going back to Dagbladet’s nineteenth-century origins. Compared to Margrethe, with her long grey hair, fleshy face and penetrating gaze behind thick lenses, they looked like a bunch of friendly uncles.
‘I can’t work you out, Jensen,’ said Margrethe, stirring her coffee with a pencil. ‘I fought to keep you when we closed London. They told me not to do it, that you were a pain in the arse, but I ignored them because I always thought you were a great reporter. I sacked someone, an old colleague with five years to retirement, so you could get a job back here. I protected you, took you off the daily beat to give you time for your so-called research, and this is how you repay me?’
She paused, sipping from her cup without taking her eyes off Jensen, who knew better than to interrupt her boss mid-flow.
‘You’ve been back, what, three months? And tell me, how many articles have you written?’
Jensen wriggled her hands under her thighs and looked out of the window at the square below. As she watched, a man standing too close to the kerb got sprayed with dirty slush by a passing taxi.
‘I don’t know exactly. Ten?’ she offered.
‘Four.’Margrethe rifled through a pile of papers on her desk and pulled out a slim file. ‘Let’s see, ah yes, your reportage on Denmark’s marginal communities.’
‘Took me ages to write.’
‘It’s horseshit. No heart,’ said Margrethe, tossing it to one side. ‘Next, your feature on that dramatic plane crash in Sweden before Christmas.’
‘I received a lot of nice emails afterwards.’
‘Bollocks. I’ve read more engaging articles by sixteen-year-olds on work experience. Want to look at the other two?’
‘No,’ said Jensen.
‘Right, so talk to me. What’s going on?’
‘I need time to settle in.’
Margrethe pretended to consult a printout on her desk. ‘You’ve had three months, and while you’ve got yourself nice and cosy, we’ve lost . . . let me see . . . two thousand, eight hundred and seventy subscribers. Any more staff cutbacks, and we may as well switch off the lights.’
Jensen nodded. She had seen the figures. Despite ever-more desperate forays into digital, the 120-year-old newspaper was dying on its feet. Bar a couple of overworked proofreaders, the subs had all gone, and the section editors had to lay out their own pages. The few tired journalists who remained barely had time for more than holding up a microphone to a succession of so-called experts, let alone going digging for stories. You could no longer read Dagbladet confident of finding out what had happened in the world in the previous twenty-four hours, in order of importance. The newspaper was now a personalised ‘experience’ with stories churned out online at regular intervals through the day, clickbait first. Plenty of online readers, but you needed a handful of those to earn as much as you did from one paper subscriber. The traditional business model was irreparably broken, and Dagbladet was yet to find a new one that worked.
‘Give me a chance to—’
‘I have,’ Margrethe snapped. ‘Trust me, if you’d been anyone else, I’d have kicked you out months ago.’
Jensen hung her head.
‘So, whatever is going on with you, fix it.’
‘Now leave,’ said Margrethe. ‘I am busy. There’s been another murder. It’s all over Twitter.’
The bells in the tower of City Hall struck twelve noon in the familiar sing-song chime that reminded Jensen of the midday news on the radio in her late grandmother’s kitchen. That was the problem. The bells, Magstræde, City Hall Square, Dagbladet: on the surface they were the same as always, but Copenhagen had changed while she had been away. She felt like a stranger in her own city. Not that she would ever be able to explain that to Margrethe. Her boss had no patience with feeble emotions.
Only one thing impressed Margrethe: a good story.‘ Still here?’ she said, looking irritably at Jensen.
‘Wait. I have something,’ Jensen said, making a swift decision.
‘It better be good.’
‘It was me who found the guy. This morning, in Magstræde.’
‘You did what?’
She told Margrethe everything, leaving only Henrik out of it. Margrethe’s body language softened gradually until she was leaning forward on her elbows, the coffee growing cold by her side.
‘It’s a great story,’ she said when Jensen had finished. ‘“Second homeless man found dead on Copenhagen street. Dagbladet’s reporter discovers the body.”’
‘It might be. I just—’
Margrethe’s voice hardened. ‘I said it’s a great story. This joke of a government has finally gone too far. Now beggars are being killed in the street. Its cruel, heartless, bankrupt policies are bringing shame on the country. Denmark is better than this.’
She waved Jensen off. ‘Write a feature. Eyewitness account.

Flash Forward

His inhaler, a bag of helium, and a games console were the single luxuries Wednesday morning’s three time travelling fantasy writers chose from life today. They should have thought this through more, shouldn’t they?

The indefatigable Ann Landmann was at the book festival to chat to Jonathan Stroud – who played it safe by remaining in Hertfordshire – and who’s written three gazillion books (Ann has read every one of them), and to relative newcomer Ben Oliver and debut author Femi Fadugba. This was, not surprisingly, another really good event.

They all had to start by describing themselves, so now I understand better what’s been happening at earlier events. It’s so people with impaired vision knows who’s who. Ben regretted getting his hair wet on the way, and Femi seemed to wish he’d picked a different t-shirt (I liked it).

We were promised a spoiler-free conversation, and I’m grateful, having read just Jonathan’s Scarlett & Browne, but not the other two books. I want to.

Ben is a teacher from Glasgow, who writes about a character on death row, in a world maybe 150 to 200 years in the future. It’s very dark.

For Femi Physics comes first. His book is two narratives of 4D space time, in Peckham. No, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either, but it’s how I heard it. (The short excerpt in the Guardian is Very Promising.) And as time travel goes, Femi moves only 15 years into the future. He wanted it to be somewhere well known.

Jonathan on the other hand, has placed his characters in a submerged England, maybe 500 years away, and no one much knows what happened. I expect we’ll learn along with the characters. Jonathan likes using humour, because everyone’s mostly like they would be now. Except Scarlett who started life as a middle aged man, but is now a teenage girl.

Asked if their worlds could become reality, Femi feels that maybe his already is. Ben hopes sincerely not, whereas Jonathan is full of optimism, despite the giant otters. Another question was about possible actors for any films they may have given life to. Femi already knows, but can’t tell. Ben would like young, unknown actors. Plus Hugh Grant. Jonathan, too, goes for someone unknown, as long as she has red hair.

This just left me wanting to read. And that’s really what this should all be about. More. Reading.

Charcoal magic

Debi Gliori’s short event was just the right thing to appear online. Live is fine, but here we could see every last picture of her book A Cat Called Waverley, close up, and with an explanation for every image. And Debi reads so softly, that to have the whole story read to us, with extra explanations as to what we were seeing, or what might be going on, was pure bliss.

This is the way to help young readers understand that the world can be rather different from what we think, or want it to be, but without being too scary. Some scary is necessary, and personally I believe it’s best demonstrated by my favourite illustration from the book. It has everything; the sad cat left behind, the train disappearing into the tunnel, and the sheer beauty of the railway station itself.

The sentence ‘home was where Donald was’ is enough to make anyone a bit teary. It describes what most of us feel at some time or other. It’s only home if our someone is there.

Debi wrote this story about Darren – Donald in the book – who became ‘the man who belongs to Waverley’. He used to sit at the top of the very high, and the almost impossible to draw, station steps. But as Debi put it, we don’t care if she got the steps right. All we wanted was the cat and its man. They are both there.

And I’ll leave you with this view of Waverley [the station], its station hotel [as was] and the exit from the park across the road. All this is Very Edinburgh to so many of us.

Can Robots Be Friends?

The Sunday afternoon event with Elle McNicoll and Alastair Chisholm, chaired by Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, was about robots. Not having managed to read either Elle’s Show Us Who You Are or Alastair’s Adam-2 I was a little adrift, but no worse than I could work out I need to read these books. There is a lot of talent in this neck of woods. Well, Elle has left Edinburgh for London, but otherwise they are both from around here.

Elle wore her Blue Peter badge. She has had a lot of jobs so far, which presumably is why her ideal [real] robot would clean for her. Alastair, on the other hand, wants his robot to be like a pet he can look after! His dream hologram would be Ada Lovelace, while Elle’s would be Charles Dickens.

Both their books are about relationships, and their characters are nice people. Or robots, as the case may be. Alastair is a Star Trek-Doctor Who fan, with some interest in Isaac Asimov. Doctor Who is big for Elle as well, but preferably the current day type episodes rather than galaxies far away. And Greek mythology.

And both their readings left me wanting more. They were also well chosen to tempt us. Although both authors had received letters – well, emails – from readers telling them off for not doing what they wanted, which was more books about the characters from the first book, by Alastair, and Elle got strict orders to mix her first and second books.

Elle does not want more robots while neurodiverse humans are not properly understood or treated right. Fair comment, I think. As to whether we can be friends with robots, Alastair said if we are nice enough; because we are the problem.

Asked whether they always wanted to be authors, Alastair said he wanted to be an astronaut and he’s now a computer programmer. Elle used to come to the book festival as a child, so she knew what she wanted, and said the good thing is you can write and do other jobs at the same time.

As for what I want, it is to have been at this event as it happened. It was perfect. Great authors and an excellent chair, talking just the right amount about the right kinds of things. And it was live; all three on the same stage, and with a live audience. Yes, the online event was flawless too. But I want to have been there.

Fun with Chris and Neil

It’s a comfortable affair, hanging out with Chris Riddell and Neil Gaiman. One is in Brighton and the other in New Zealand, but that’s fine. The moderator glowed over them both, but Chris had to point out that he’s less impressive than Neil. (That’s a matter of opinion, but if it makes him happy…) They first bonded over The Graveyard Book a dozen or so years ago.

And before he knew it, Neil discovered that Chris had illustrated most of his books. (You can’t leave a man with a pencil and expect him not to use it.) When it came to Fortunately the Milk Neil was almost going to threaten Chris to make him illustrate it, but luckily he didn’t have to and there was an amicable agreement for some more pictures.

Apparently Chris is the most booked up illustrator in the world (so that doesn’t bode well for when I want him to draw for me), with the wonderful Levi Pinfold coming close behind.

When it came to their latest collaboration, Pirate Stew, Neil told Chris to ‘go wild on this’ so he did. For the book fest event Neil read us the whole book, and Chris retreated from the camera and let his hand draw pictures instead. Much more comfortable for him. Neil had only the one copy of his book, but had given it away to a 7-year-old, so was forced to read from his computer, potentially changing some words here and there.

It’s mostly pirates as babysitters, and stale donuts. Your children will probably want you to read it every night.

During lockdown Chris felt it made no difference, as he’s always in his shed working anyway. But suddenly it was no fun when everyone else did it too. He even found himself wanting to see people. (I’ll come!)

Their advice to children who want to draw or write is to start now. Chris recommends a blank book to fill with pictures, and maybe a passport wallet to tuck your words into (this is what Neil did with Pirate Stew, so he wouldn’t forget).

Or you could turn pirate and break into Chris’s shed and steal his sketchbooks. (This would be a bad thing to do.)

Holey jacket

You know the old joke, ‘I recognised you by your dress’, suggesting someone hasn’t updated their wardrobe contents for a while?

Well, I suspect the same can be said about my black jacket. No matter how much I think I could/should vary my outfits more, it’s generally the black jacket for Edinburgh.

Back in 2008 Meg Rosoff – somewhat erroneously – suggested I had to dress up for the Puffin summer party. I bought a jacket. No, I bought two. The one I wanted and which I wore to the Tate Modern that time, and the other one, suggested by pushy saleswoman.

Never wore my choice again.

Have worn the other jacket a lot.

Happened to give it a good look just now. It’s got a hole in the back. Probably where my bag has rested all these years. It will need mending… So it will most likely not come with me to the remaining book festival 2021. (To protect it. Not because I am vain. I’d like both it and me to have another few years in us still.)

The jacket, ten years ago, hiding behind Theresa Breslin and Karen Campbell.

Not smelling us

Yes, Bernardine Evaristo really did regret not being able to smell us, as well as see us, and hear us, last night at the book festival. The audience was there for her Black Britain, Writing Back event with Judith Bryan, S I Martin and Nicola Williams, but the authors themselves were not.

Bernardine would be my ideal English professor and she can teach me anytime. Although, it seems not how to pronounce incomparable, which she admitted she’d been getting wrong until very recently when her husband pointed it out. She’s the one selecting the ‘black novels’ that are being republished by Hamish Hamilton, after first appearing in the 1990s.

I freely admit to never having heard of the authors she had invited yesterday. All three were interesting and had a lot to say, about themselves and other black authors, why they wrote what they did, and how they got there.

Judith sat in front of a nicely curated bookcase as she talked about her novel Bernard and the Cloth Monkey, and read a short piece from it, about a young couple meeting for the first time after getting to know each other by writing letters (!), after finding each other in a lonely hearts column. The book won her the Saga Prize, and she talked about attending writing classes at City Lit where she met Andrea Levy, among others.

[Steve] S I Martin sticks to writing about black Britain before 1948. He wants to show readers that this country has had black people living here for hundreds of years. His novel Incomparable World is set in the London of 1786, and whereas he’d hoped it would be discovered by black readers, he reckoned it mostly ended up on coffee tables in Hampstead. But that was fine, too. Bernardine said she feels his books would be perfect for becoming films, and Steve said he’s still waiting.

Barrister Nicola Williams wrote her legal thriller Without Prejudice about a black, female barrister, and she did so from midnight to four in the morning every night for nine months. (The audience question was when she slept. Between four and eight, apparently…) Nicola read the bit where her character goes back to her old, failing secondary school to give a talk about her success thanks to the school, but changing it to ‘despite’ her school. This went down well with the students. Nicola’s inspiration was reading John Grisham.

Asked who they grew up reading, the answer was mostly American authors. For closer to home now, two of the authors mentioned Luke Sutherland (from Blairgowrie) as their black Scottish inspiration, and Jackie Kay is much admired. And Judith managed a charmingly muddled senior moment when looking for a name and a place, and finding neither. I’m glad I’m not the only one!

This was another book festival event I most likely wouldn’t have chosen to go to in person in ‘the olden days’. Being able to sit at home and run the mouse down the list of events and picking – almost at random – yields some fantastic experiences. And when reading time becomes plentiful, I know what to look for.

Rapping a picture book

I took my imaginary preschooler to hear Hannah Lee read her book The Rapping Princess (who can’t sing!) while illustrator Allen Fatimaharan showed us how to draw Princess Shiloh by means of eggshaped eggshapes and hosepipe shaped arms.

It was a good little performance and I loved the story and the pictures in the book. However, my preschooler felt that the 13 minutes spent on waiting through endless photos and coughs from earlier book festivals was a wee bit on the long side.

(Even the goat sings better than the Princess…)

Hannah rapped her poetry and I enjoyed both her very green top and the drawing by the mysterious hand on the left. I have seen Allen draw before, so knew it’d be good. I was relieved to see he didn’t quite manage to finish in the time it took Hannah to rap (since I would hate for perfect pictures to be drawn at an impossible speed).

Once Hannah had solved Shiloh’s singing problems, Allen had the stage to himself, showing how to get the Princess’s hair right and everything else. I’d like to think lots of young viewers were sitting on the ready with paper, pencil and eraser.

Don’t drop those walrus tusks

Thursday morning’s bookfest event featured a talk between Barbara Henderson about her version of the Lewis chessmen and Dr Alice Blackwell from the ‘local’ museum who also knows a lot about them. The one keeping the ladies in order was dinosaur professor Steve Brusatte, who’s no dinosaur, but he knows about them, and they are even older than the chessmen.

It’s always good when grown-up academics can demonstrate so much enthusiasm for children’s fiction on a subject they might know a lot about. It’s not just me who rather liked The Chessmen Thief.

Barbara started off by reading from the beginning, where her hero does his best not to drop the walrus tusks. They will break into smithereens if you do.

She has long been fascinated by Vikings, and by board games, and the fact that not only did they carve these chess pieces nearly nine hundred years ago, but they actually played chess!

When it became impossible for Barbara to travel to Shetland for research, she re-routed to Orkney instead, which is why her characters stop by Orkney on their way from Norway to the Western Isles which they called the Southern Isles. It’s all relative. And when they got there, the much older Callanish stones were already waiting, although they were not necessarily as ancient as the dinosaurs…

Alice took over and talked about the chessmen in her museum. They have eleven of the 93 pieces found, and the British museum have some of the rest. Because we – they – don’t know everything about the chessmen, they lend themselves well to be used in fiction like this. They’re not all walrus; some pieces are carved from sperm whale teeth. Alice is their carer, and when some of the pieces are lent to other museums, she gets to travel with them.

There were questions, both from our dinosaur expert (on Skye, you should always keep your eyes open in case you find a bit of dinosaur) and from the audience. Barbara has plenty of new plans, with an eye on the Forth Bridge, and not forgetting Mary Queen of Scots.