Category Archives: Biography

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.

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.

Bookwitch bites #150

Kindle-sharing is the new thing at Bookwitch Towers. With me actually paying £1.99 for ebooks that the Resident IT Consultant might also enjoy, I can’t just suggest he doesn’t drop my [paper] book in the bath. So, what’s his is mine, and the other way round.

The Resident IT Consultant has had the benefit of reading some of J D Kirk’s crime novels. If someone reads more than one, it is an indication the book wasn’t too bad. Or so I believe. But recently I gathered J D had put in an Ofsted inspection where none ought to be. When I told J D he was so upset he stopped talking to me. Until I woke up and discovered he and the Resident IT Consultant were on such friendly terms that they had balanced a tankard of beer on my head.

😳

The Edinburgh International Book Festival are planning some December Winter Warmer events. On Saturday 12th there is a full programme of book events for you. Free to access.

It’s Advent. Daughter requested I get out the Jostein Gaarder advent book for her daily read. The thing that always strikes me is how his book sits right next to Cornelia Funke’s advent book. It’s almost as if it had been planned.

We also have a real, live – well, you know what I mean – advent calendar. We take turns opening the doors. This was sent to us by a very kind author, who ‘lives’ a little bit along from Jostein on the shelf.

I have been asked for a wish-list. The Resident IT Consultant wants help with ideas for me. Daughter does not want a list. She will come up with her own ideas. Which are usually very good. My list had only books on it. I know. This is crazy. I don’t need books. But I need other stuff even less. Except when Daughter has come up with the perfect thing. I’ve still to read my way through the books from last Christmas. And the ones I bought myself in August. Also the books I bought the Resident IT Consultant last Christmas…

But books still make sense.

Travels From my Twilight Zone

You’ll remember Jeff Zycinski and his autobiographical The Red Light Zone, about his years as Head of Radio at BBC Scotland. It was very good, and as I said at the time – barely two years ago – you could remove the radio and you’d have excellent coverage of 25 years of life in Scotland.

Not only has Jeff now been seriously ill, while narrowly avoiding the dreaded virus of 2020, but he has written another autobiography, mostly about the years before the radio years. And it is an even better tale. ‘Morphine, memories and make-believe’ describes it perfectly.

We start with Jeff not being the slightest concerned that ‘it might be mouth cancer.’ Well, it was. So first we see him in his hospital bed, at the start of the year. And while he works on getting better, we read about his early life in Easterhouse, the seventh son of a Polish father and a Scottish mother.

It has completely changed my outsider’s view of Easterhouse, and it has reinforced my feeling that we are all mostly the same. A few years younger than me, and a Catholic boy in Glasgow, it still seems as if Jeff had a childhood I can relate to. It is fascinating in its ordinariness.

He tells it so well, and I’m beginning to believe he could tell me absolutely anything, and I’d believe it, and have fun. So, yes please, go on!

The second part of the book is fiction. Probably. The first story about the man not far from Loch Ness reminded me of Jeff. So, about that money..? All super stories, really enjoyable, and just that bit different from many other stories.

Then we return to Jeff’s health – please stay well! – before he takes us on a trip round Scotland, outlining the best of the places mentioned in the biographical first half. And I hope he has been allowed to hug his children again. Even if they are adults now.

Both Sides of the news

I’m more of an ice hockey girl myself. However I do know some names of football players, although Nicklas Bendtner was not one of them.

He appears to be a successful Danish football import, now returned to his own shores, where he teamed up with a most respectable ‘ghost’ writer, Rune Skyum-Nielsen, for his autobiography Both Sides. This is according to his translator, Ian Giles. So Nicklas was responsible for the exciting doings, Rune for writing about them well, and Ian for making it possible for you to read the whole thing, now that the English translation is out.

I have my own copy, I’m pleased to say, but will probably not get round to reading. The Resident IT Consultant did, though, and survived. (He’s not really into sports.)

With my experience of book publicity, I’d say Nicklas’s PR team is pretty good. Being famous for kicking a ball obviously helps, but so far this week there has been a double spread of excerpts from the book in the Daily Fail, followed by another couple of pages interviewing the man. This morning there were another couple of pages in the Guardian, adding quality. In the sports pages, so I could easily have missed the happy event.

I understand this is the translator’s first Danish book, so has very little to do with me.

Looking back some more, and forward

When I had the idea to cover more [than my average] black fiction during June, I came up with a lot of titles and authors. And then I realised that many of these authors were white, which is what much of the criticism of books featuring black characters has been about. So I vowed to avoid those books, however great they may be.

I also came up with a list of books I wanted to read, but was unable to fit into one month. If nothing else, it would have been unfair to the books, as I wouldn’t have given them the time they deserved.

Two ‘recent’ books were Mare’s War by Tanita S Davis, and Home Home by Lisa Allen-Agostini. The former is about black American women serving in Europe during WWII, and the latter is about being an immigrant in a very white part of Canada. Neither is typical and I enjoyed them. Also, the two authors are not really household names, which adds to the fun.

Speaking of household names, I am getting a lot closer to reading Toni Morrison. And despite her being very well known, I have to admit to wanting to read Michelle Obama’s autobiography. And Kwame Alexander’s The Undefeated which, while being a picture book, is so much more.

Jag vet varför burfågeln sjunger

Or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, as you will know it.

There was a time when I read books simply because I had them to hand. Like all Swedes I subscribed to book parcels from Bra Böcker for a number of years. They published three volumes of an encyclopaedia a year. Along with it came a couple of novels. Usually they were not books I’d heard of, or they were oldish Swedish classics. But I was young and believed collecting books was a good thing.

It obviously is, but perhaps not this way. I suspect the Billy bookcases were born to deal with Bra Böcker.

One of those novels was Maya Angelou’s Jag vet varför burfågeln sjunger. As so often, I didn’t like the title, but read the book anyway. And what a book! I bought all of them in the end. Although, perhaps not. I see now there were seven, and in my day there were only three. They were the ones I read.

I was shocked by what happened to young Maya, believing abuse like that was a modern thing. But what an inspiration she was, and how far she went, and all in the face of a difficult start in life.

I wish I’d known then that she would go on to even greater things, reading her poems and launching Presidents, eventually being awarded the Medal of Freedom. She’s quite a role model.

And I’m thinking that those unsolicited books were indeed A Good Thing. They opened my eyes and my mind.

Marie Fredriksson always said hello

Marie Fredriksson has died. I know that has very little to do with books, but it affects me. Part of her past happened in the place where I lived with Mother-of-witch. I had long moved away when Roxette burst onto the music scene, so I came late to that wonderful voice of hers.

The odd thing was that last week when countless Roxette tracks made their way into my iTunes shuffle I stopped and thought again what a great voice she had.

When Offspring were small we spent part of what was still term time in England going to the playgroup near my old home, because we had weeks and weeks and needed something to do. “The other mothers had cause to gossip about rich foreigners with houses nearby, and people too grand to behave like normal people. ‘But at least Marie Fredriksson always says hello’, was the verdict. She lived near at the time, in the house Mother-of-witch desperately fancied living in. Perhaps if she’d been a rockstar?”*

So, basically, Marie behaved as though she was a normal person.

I recall when she was diagnosed with the brain tumour. I had just arrived in Sweden to sit with Favourite Aunt as she lay dying, and saw the tabloid headlines on my way past the newsagent’s. It’s a memory that has stayed with me, and I was so grateful when it seemed Marie had beaten her illness. After all, with two small children, that’s what you’d hope for.

Ten years later she was well enough to tour, and did a concert at the Manchester Arena with Per Gessle. Offspring and I went, and Marie was definitely the star. Better voice than Per and much prettier. Nice memory, and we were lucky to catch them.

There is a book, actually; Kärleken till livet, by Helena von Zweigbergk. After the brain tumour Marie could no longer read and write, but she still had a story to tell.

Marie Fredriksson

*From CultureWitch August 2010

The Children of Willesden Lane

This is not a fictional tale about WWII, but the memoirs of Lisa Jura, who at the age of 14 came to London from Vienna with the Kindertransport. Written by Lisa’s daughter Mona Golabek with Lee Cohen, it is a simplified version of what Lisa used to tell Mona about as she grew up.

It lacks a little of the good quality story that you come to expect from this topic, but in the end I found I just wanted to see what Lisa’s life would have been like in England during the war. And as with many other books about refugees in the past, the reader marvels at how differently [from today] the new arrivals were treated by the British. At how many opportunities were offered them, even during the war.

And it makes you feel ashamed.

Lisa was one of three sisters, chosen by her parents for her age – not too young and not too old – and for her skills in playing the piano. They hoped she would be able to make something of herself in a new country.

Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, The Children of Willesden Lane

Things didn’t always go to plan, but the new arrivals were looked after. In Lisa’s case in a house full of child refugees, in Willesden Lane in London. And that confirms my theory that when you lose someone, while no one can replace dear family members, if you have someone else, your life isn’t empty. The children of Willesden Lane had each other, and they were looked after and loved by Mrs Cohen.

While not unique, this is still a very heartwarming, true story. Bad things happened, but the good things carried people through.

I would like to hope for a few more Lisas today.

Mårbacka

It took me a while to work out what Mårbacka was. As a child I’d read another Selma Lagerlöf autobiographical book with very nearly the same title. I was reluctant then, but as a book-starved young thing, there was no way I could ignore even a boring looking book for very long, and once I began reading I loved it.

Selma Lagerlöf, Mårbacka

This time I felt much the same, except this new translation – by Sarah Death – does not look boring. It’s very pretty with its red roses on the cover. But I thought it might go over the same ground (I suppose it does, but not so it matters), and I really don’t feel I ought to read it in anything but the original.

But once I got past that bit of snobbery, I discovered it was fun, in a quiet Swedish kind of way. Disconcerting, too, as I feel that this was more or less my life, one hundred years earlier. I wonder if this is something that many Swedes are afflicted by? I grew up in a small family with not much money, in a town. Selma was part of a larger and wealthier family in the countryside.

It could have been my life too. And the anecdotal way of telling us about her life is a good technique. It’s almost like a regular column in a magazine. And like them, entertaining and partly truthful while also being helped along with some embellishments to the truth.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help stopping every now and then to consider what the original might have said. A bit as with subtitles when you don’t need them; you still look for something. (I might have gone differently with the vörtbröd…)

It’s charming, and funny, and it shows the reader what Sweden was like before the big move to the towns, before socialism and before Ikea. It’s about building a new cowhouse, the Swedish way of celebrating birthdays when you can’t prevent the whole county from turning up uninvited, about having your old, former maid come to tea, coming face to face with a kelpie, dreaming of the King coming to visit, and how it took days to travel from Värmland to the West coast.

I can see that if I had been awarded the Nobel prize, I’d have done exactly what Selma did and done up my childhood paradise. After all, she only did what her own father worked on before her. What most of us would do if we could.