Category Archives: Blogs

Feminist Treasure Troves

For a brief moment on Sunday morning I forgot what Mairi Kidd and Siobhán Parkinson were going to talk about, but as their chair Heather Parry reminded me, it was women. Mairi has written about 49 Scottish women in history in Warriors and Witches and Damn Rebel Bitches, while Siobhán’s slightly earlier book, Rocking the System, is about 20 Irish women.

Mairi Kidd and Siobhán Parkinson

Reading from their books, Mairi told the story about the doctor who turned out to have been a woman, while Siobhán chose her favourite of the twenty, a blood-guzzling woman who was first widowed at 15 before falling in love with a handsome man on a horse.

Siobhán – who published her book through the publishing company she started – couldn’t afford more than twenty women, as she wanted the book to be illustrated as well, and that’s as far as the money would go. Mairi seems to have struggled to keep it down to 49.

Mairi Kidd

The chosen women didn’t have to be dead, but needed to be at least so old that what they had done was already in the past. Mairi pointed out that in Edinburgh there are more dog statues than statues of women. And also that before 1700 women’s voices appeared in writing much more than later, because of all the witch trials.

One question was who the two would choose from people living now, for a future version of their books. And who had they left out? In many cases some women had done similar things, in which case the most obvious one was picked. Asked who Mairi’s 50th would be, she reckons her grandmother. But she had put a long list at the back of her book, listing everyone she’d thought of but not been able to add.

Siobhán Parkinson

Siobhán mentioned Bernadette Devlin, who had been in the news quite recently, and when Mairi said she can’t remember the 1970s, Siobhán can. She talked about an Ireland where contraceptives and divorces were illegal. She doesn’t believe things will go backwards now, but the state of things is not good.

We need to live the life we have, rather than the one we might wish for. We need to be a witness to what is going on.

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Yurt Sweet Yurt

Having rather carelessly planned a day where I had several events in quick succession, with the minimal 15 minutes between them, I started Sunday by gobbling an early egg sandwich to fortify myself. That’s how I noticed the country’s First Minister arrive, seemingly for a private visit, judging by her clothes. We know Nicola Sturgeon likes reading and so it’s nice to see her wanting to go to a book festival like the rest of us.

Mairi Kidd and Siobhán Parkinson

It was a grand day. (That actually came out as more unintentionally Irish than I’d been expecting. Sorry.) I saw two Irish Laureates na nÓg in one morning. First Siobhán Parkinson and later Sarah Crossan. (A bit like the two Poet Laureates the other day. They come in twos.)

Sarah Crossan, Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds

I took a turn round the square to begin the day, seeing as it was nicely quiet so early. Well, quiet and quiet; I could hear Andy Stanton being noisy in the Main Theatre. But that’s only to be expected.

During the day I came across super-librarian Yvonne Manning, and also Jake Hope, whom I’ve not seen for ages. Caught a glimpse of Dan Smith after his signing. Went to stake out Mark Haddon’s signing, and discovered someone I’ve seen many times before. We’re not acquainted, but she’s a lady who knows how to be first in the signing queue.

Mark Haddon

Went to two events, and was only foiled from staying for my third intended event – with Debi Gliori – by arriving so late there was no Bookwitch-shaped seat left. I decided Debi was in good hands with plenty of little readers, and waited until I saw her in the bookshop after, where she did her slowest book signing in the world, again. But that’s as it should be.

Debi Gliori

Once I had this extra time on my hands I decided to treat myself to tea and cake. However I was spared the date and walnut cake by me turning invisible. I know I am both short and insignificant, but the place was completely empty, and no one noticed me. So I moved sideways a little, in case I was standing in the wrong spot. Asked them this, and they were surprised I wanted to order something. Unfortunately, none of the four staff who were busy doing nothing seemed to want to serve me, and after a longer embarrassing wait I left them to it.

I mean, who wants cake, anyway?

The lovely Rosie in the press yurt organised tea for me, and I drank it outside, watching the current Laureate na nÓg being well attended by three publicists. Even I was impressed. And there was a man wearing pink leggings and a mini-kilt.

EIBF ducks

After several photo opportunities where I had to do all the work myself, as the Photographer has gone off to Iceland, I realised I’m not terribly good at this. Unless it’s my camera that’s not so good at it?

Then I went back to Waverley for the train home, encountering Jenny Colgan coming the other way.

Speaking Up

Elizabeth Acevedo and Dean Atta

Dean Atta loved ‘Elizabeth Acevedo’s brother,’ and she in turn loved ‘his uncle.’ That’s their fictional family members. I reckon these two could easily have chatted to/interviewed each other in the Speaking Up event on Thursday. As Elizabeth said when her awards were listed, ‘this isn’t awkward at all!’

They are both debut authors, writing in verse. Elizabeth won the Carnegie Medal this year for Poet X, while Dean’s first book has only been in the shops a week. I’d like to think that’s why I’d not heard of it, or him.

I like the sound of it, though, and The Black Flamingo looks fantastic in pink. It features a black, gay character, who never got that Barbie he wanted at six. And when he’s an adult he starts doing drag, just like Dean. The idea behind the black flamingo is that colour doesn’t matter. Dean read short extracts from the book, covering several age stages of his character. Elizabeth kept nodding and murmuring her approval throughout, which proves how differently a novel in verse comes across.

Elizabeth Acevedo

In Elizabeth’s reading she gave her character Xiomara a rather different accent than I’d been expecting. Done like this it would make for a great audiobook. She said she’d had no choice about writing poetry, having been ‘forced to sing to plants’ at the age of five, and realising the following day that she didn’t remember what she’d made up, because she couldn’t write. ‘Poetry is being aware of your thoughts.’

She said she used to be so nervous reading in front of people that her hands shook and she couldn’t see what was on the paper, which led her to learning the words by heart. This made her confidence grow. Elizabeth pointed out that you can look at global leaders and see if they read poetry. Or read at all. Empathy makes us human.

Dean Atta

Dean said it was important for him to have a gay main character. He had read books featuring black characters before, but felt that Poet X was special. His next books are two picture books, written for his nieces. And he’s been inspired by his mother, and by Maya Angelou. Teachers can help with confidence boosting by sharing their own problems, such as dyslexia.

Elizabeth’s inspiration comes from hiphop; people who don’t conform. Her next book will actually be in prose, as it was written before Poet X. ‘Big prose,’ she calls it. Reading a lot could help make boys softer [in a good way].

The final question from someone in the audience was a request for Dean to come to her school and do a workshop. Let’s hope he does!

(Photos by Helen Giles)

A sunny evening in Charlotte Square

Luckily the couple attempting to cross an Edinburgh street by stepping out in front of a bus were fine. Otherwise we’d have been a Poet Laureate short. Although, Simon Armitage wasn’t the only one in town, as we’d come across Carol Ann Duffy in a a pavement café earlier that afternoon. You can’t have too many poet laureates.

Ma Isabel Sánchez Vegara

Arriving at the book festival, Photographer and I breezed in and started by snapping Ma Isabel Sánchez Vegara signing books in the bookshop in Charlotte Square. She had a queue of very small fans. She was soon joined by Harriet Muncaster, whose hair will have outdone just about every other hair in the square. Harriet’s fans were slightly bigger.

Harriet Muncaster

I picked up my ticket for the day, and then we hung around, hoping for the promised photocall with Carnegie medalist Elizabeth Acevedo. We might have missed her, or she us. Her events partner Dean Atta had a go though, as well as doing much clowning around in front of Chris Close and his camera. Felt like pointing out that it’s better to have authors break a leg after their event…

Elizabeth Acevedo and Dean Atta

After an inspiring talk in the Spark theatre in George Street, we joined everyone else in the – much improved – George Street bookshop. They even have roving staff who relieve you of your money as you queue for the signing. Very efficient. My Photographer might just have told Dean Atta about her hair, while I told poet Elizabeth Acevedo how I don’t really do poetry!

Had hoped to catch Konnie Huq still signing, but were too late. Instead we headed to the Kelpies Prize award ceremony, where we encountered Lari Don and Linda Strachan, as well as Gill Arbuthnott and Sarah Broadley in the audience. It was very crowded. And hot. I sat on what seemed to be a soft, plush birch trunk with a rounded bottom. But I could easily have been mistaken.

Kelpies Prize

Left early so as not to miss Ian Rankin’s photocall. His fans were already queueing for his event, well before the event before had finished. We had to wait while the ever calm and cool Ian slipped into something more comfortable. While he did so Photographer discovered Phill Jupitus a few metres away, and was [un]suitably excited. I’m afraid I had no idea who he was.

Ian Rankin and Phill Jupitus

Then it turned out Phill was also attending Ian’s photocall (I’m guessing he was going to chat to Ian at his event). The Photographer sort of gasped as she went off. I understand that she told Phill that he’s very funny. So he shook her hand.

I’m now looking forward to a considerable saving on the cost of hand soap.

And Simon Armitage is still un-run over by a bus.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

What’s your favourite pizza topping?

Frank Cottrell Boyce

During the signing in the bookshop after Frank Cottrell Boyce’s event, I was reminded that he’s used to having people trying to get close by crawling under tables. In this case it was young fans who wanted a photo with a much admired author, while I’m remembering the bookshop owner who wanted to invite him to do an event…

Frank knows how to entertain his fans, and this turned out to be my second astronaut and space related event in one day. Having been introduced by Lindsey Fraser, he read from Runaway Robot, having first told us about lost property, which can be anything from your umbrella to a lost hand. And when you find it – the hand, I mean – it’s not necessarily yours.

He also told us the ‘story of the magic haddock.’ And there was something about a wandering pizza bot, which he did with a good Italian accent.

The questions that followed weren’t always the most original, but Frank answered them politely, with kindness, although he turned down the opportunity to help one boy with writing a book. We must have had some moon-deniers in the audience, but Frank was able to deal with that by talking about Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon.

Frank Cottrell Boyce

More reading from Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth, the lightsaber birthday party episode. This was followed by more fun questions, the best of which was ‘what is your favourite pizza topping?’ Frank did a quick check to see how the audience felt about pineapple, before admitting to liking anchovies and capers.

Second best question was ‘how much books have you read?’ Frank wasn’t sure, because he always reads. When he was asked whether he has started his next book yet, Frank felt this confirmed that his publisher had planted questions in the audience. He has ‘honestly’ just started, and won’t be late this time…

To finish he read from Cosmic, the bit where Liam starts secondary school. The he’ll ‘tell them after the biscuit,’ is a good way of deciding when to own up to not being the new teacher.

And then it was book signing in the bookshop, and children crawling under the table (which to my mind needs more space around it).

Frank Cottrell Boyce

It’s always good to see Frank. He’s a cheerer-upper.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

Blast Off!

It’d be easy to believe an event like Sheila Kanani’s about how to become an astronaut, aimed at young children, wouldn’t be of interest to an adult. And that’s where you’d be wrong.

Sheila Kanani

I have no wish to change careers and travel to Mars, unlike some of the children in the audience, but just hearing about what it could be like and what you need to learn, was Very Interesting. I knew Sheila does a lot of outreach in her job for the Royal Astronomical Society, but I hadn’t paused to consider what it might entail. Or that she’d be so good at it.

Chaired by Sarah Broadley, the session offered tables for the children to play at astronaut training with oven gloves, long colourful strips of rubber, pink rulers, headphones, Russian codes. And scissors. There were not enough tables, so more had to be found. The balance between the sexes was good, and you could tell these were young human beings who’d thought about space and travelling to Mars.

In real life you have to be at least 27, speak Russian and have a good idea of what to do when your helicopter is crashing. And if you make it all the way, you have to go to the toilet using a tube contraption thing, and for those of you who have wished upon shooting stars, you might not want to know that it could have been astronaut poo entering the atmosphere.

Before the hands-on play, we’d turned a water melon into Jupiter, with poor little Mercury represented by a peppercorn. Earth is a cherry tomato.

Sheila Kanani

Sheila, whose favourite planet is Saturn, wants to make people more enthusiastic about space science. She asked if anyone felt that it was a waste of money to invest in space research. One or two did, and they were gently told maybe they were in the wrong tent…

So, for anyone who wants to be a space vet – for the animals in space – or any of the other jobs ‘up there’ you know what to do. Start with Sheila’s book How To Be An Astronaut, and then get to work on your dexterity while wearing oven gloves.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

Fun, and hardly any rain, in Charlotte Square

It was an odd moment. There I was in the [authors’] yurt, and the two people the two Offspring aspire to be like, were both present. I don’t see how that can ever happen again.

Anyway. We had to be up early to get to Edinburgh in time, so actually got up even earlier and had breakfast before doing any festival work. Then we queued outside the Spiegel tent for our first event, with Dr Sheila Kanani, who just happened to be Photographer’s mentor at Space School many years ago.

Sheila Kanani

And afterwards as we hung around for the signing in the bookshop, we spied Frank Cottrell Boyce, looking rather like Chris Riddell’s alter ego, complete with flapping shoelace. Before we got round to tying it, I found Lynne Rickards, so had a nice chat with her, and I believe it was the day’s first mention of cellos.

Also chatted with Sarah Broadley, who was Sheila’s chair, before we all walked back to the behind-the-scenes area, for – well – more chatting. Discovered Jo Nadin in the yurt, sitting right where we all tried to fit in, which meant that the number of Doctors in the yurt went up again. We all had lots to talk about, and we were literally left holding a baby. Twice. I suppose we looked trustworthy.

Daniel Hahn came over to say hello from Son. I think this must be why I don’t see Son so much. He sees other people instead. Chris Close did planet stuff with Sheila, so we are looking forward to seeing the resulting photo after her workout in front of his camera. Meanwhile, Frank Cottrell Boyce came in, with a couple of young Cottrell Boyces. They seemed very nice.

Since I had agreed to meet the publicist from Sandstone, we said goodbye to the assembled doctors and went to buy a salad before finding Ceris, who was sitting outside the other yurt with a group of my ‘colleagues.’ Lots more chat, including the second cello reference of the day. There was also more space talk, and the books by Astrid Lindgren came up.

Frank Cottrell Boyce

Then we had to run for Frank’s event, chaired by Lindsey Fraser. It rained. It wasn’t supposed to rain. In the bookshop afterwards I was finding out why Lindsey had her arm in a sling, when Diana Hendry came up to ask the very same thing. Seems like you just had to stand still, and authors would come from all directions.

Chris Hoy

After some ‘light’ sustenance, the Photographer and I hit Charlotte Square one last time [for Tuesday]. Went to have a look at Sir Chris Hoy signing books in the company of his author Jo Nadin and illustrator Clare Elsom. They had a Very Long Queue.

Jim Al-Khalili

The last attraction of the day was Jim Al-Khalili, another doctor and professor and scientist and all that. Photographer went to speak to him, as one scientist to another. And possibly had a photo taken with him.

I tried taking a picture of one of the ducks, but that failed spectacularly. And then we went home. It was a mostly fine day. With much science. And space.

Duck

See, that’s the duck there, right on top of Chris Riddell.

(Most photos by Helen Giles)