Category Archives: Biography

Terry Pratchett – A Life With Footnotes

He was there. All the way. And that makes a difference.

So thank you Rob Wilkins, for writing the biography of Terry Pratchett, and for writing it so well, making it almost as humorous as if Terry himself had had a go at it. But most of all, thank you for being there with Terry, especially towards the end, when it can’t have been much fun.*

It’s been a while since I enjoyed a book quite as much as this one. Even when tears threatened to overwhelm me towards the end of the book, it was still [sort of] funny.

The doubts were there from the beginning. Can Rob really write a book, and can he write this particular book? Well, yes, he can and he did. He had help, from Terry himself, who had begun to gather facts about his life, especially the early years. Convenient, since Rob wasn’t around then. Other people helped, like his UK editor Philippa Dickinson.** (When Philippa once talked to me about editing Terry’s books, it wasn’t at all obvious how much she did. Now I know.)

Setting aside the fame and the money and the ability to write all those lovely books, I discovered I had a lot in common with Terry. He was clearly more right than I was when he suggested this.***

And, I know this is not about me at all. But I could only read A Life With Footnotes by keeping in mind where and when our paths crossed. I was at some of the events mentioned. In other cases I was there before or right after. And it seems I was less wrong than I thought in ‘holding on to’ Terry on that September day in 2010. Also, much of the off the record information I’ve been keeping quiet about has now been revealed.

I’ve said this before; I am so glad I have as many books left to read as I do. Now that Rob has shared what went on backstage, I feel the urge to go and check stuff again.****

If you love Terry Pratchett, this is the book for you.

*That taxi ride in New York, for instance.

** Who is ‘not a cantankerous bat after all.’

***At our second interview in 2010.

****I will need to make lists.

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The Spice Boys

They were tricked. Lured to the Project Room under false pretenses.

And everyone else knew. The emails had suggested the weather or football if you ran into them, and actually had to have a conversation. No slips of tongues permitted. I get very nervous when words like confidential and secret are used. I mean, it’s just asking for accidents to happen, isn’t it?

So, the Spice Boys. Arne and Bjarne. It’s like a double act. They were, ever since that day back in 1889 when they first met. (I always thought they looked old. But that’s the effect of teachers. They need to be.)

So, since 1989 (which seems like a much more realistic date) Norwegian Arne Kruse and Dane Bjarne Thomsen have prodded and polished countless students in the Scandinavian languages at the University of Edinburgh, including the current head of the Scandinavian department. And now they were retiring, and there was to be a celebratory gathering and a handing over of a festschrift put together by their old friends and colleagues.

They knew this. It’s just they thought it was for the other one. They’d contributed, and they had a speech. About the other one.

But they were so touched by the surprise that the speeches suffered a little.

I thought the gathering was surprisingly full of older people until it dawned on me that the ones needing to honour these two men would of necessity be a little older than the young people who had lied to Arne and Bjarne, and tried to keep this a secret for a couple of years. Then it dawned on me that I was also an old people, permitted to be present because the editor of Bjarne’s book actually invited their mother.

Tack!

There was much chat and tea and coffee before. After there was much more chat and cake and something in fancy glasses.

The Spice Boys name is from the 1990s when Arne and Bjarne started their annual mulled wine. Glögg.

Resist

It’s the tulip bulbs I’ve never forgotten. Even as a child, learning that Audrey Hepburn had to eat tulip bulbs to survive during the war, it seemed both fantastic – in a bad way – and hard to believe. Just as I couldn’t really get my head round what Audrey was doing in the Netherlands.

If you read Tom Palmer’s new book Resist, you will find out, and it will probably leave you with tears in your eyes. Unlike many novels about the resistance in the war, in whatever country the story might be set, this one is a little more – dare I say it? – ordinary. Because it is based so much on what actually happened to Audrey and her family, rather than what an author has simply made up.

You meet Audrey – called Edda here, for her own safety – in her home village of Velp, near Arnhem, as she is setting out on helping the local resistance. It’s the kind of thing you need to keep secret, because the less anyone else knows, the safer you all are. Edda’s family have had bad things happen to them, and lying low is the way forward.

Covering the last two years of WWII, we learn much about ordinary Dutch people. Except, they are not ordinary; they are brave, albeit often in a quiet, life-saving way. I learned more about Arnhem, which to me was ‘just’ a place name connected with the war, in a bad way. And the tulips.

The same age as Anne Frank, we have to be grateful Audrey survived, if only just. It’s hard to believe that starvation can be so much more of a threat than being hit by bombs, say. And people fleeing their old homes has become much more of a current thing than we could ever have thought, until recently.

This is the latest of many thoughtful books from Tom Palmer about WWII and its effects. Its brevity adds to its seriousness. And the cover art from Tom Clohosy Cole is stunning.

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.