Category Archives: Blogs

Which uni?

Life’s not easy.

I don’t know if anyone here remembers little ChocBiscuit? Not that he will be so little these days. Son has grown up, and hopefully, so has ChocBiscuit. Some years ago I wrote about him and his family here. Not that it matters.

But I had another narrow escape – other than the one I mentioned then – chatting to his father.

There we were, sitting on the uncomfortable chairs at the local playgroup. I must have told him about my Swedish background. That’s unusual in itself, as I tend to avoid such things. Maybe he heard me talking to Son. Because with his own connection to Sweden, he’d have understood.

Without further ado, he asked whether I’d gone to Uppsala or Lund. Which is interesting, as I’d not even hinted at being ‘educated.’ For all he knew I might have left school at 16.

But there he was, asking the Swedish equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge? As though any given country only has the two universities that you could possibly have attended. Or that you are clearly such a proper person that there are only two options, and they need to know which one, before proceeding with the conversation.

Me, I merely skulked, sinking further into the uncomfortable chair, whispering that I went to Gothenburg. I have no recollection of what he said to that. He should have mentally kicked himself for assuming too much, while possibly feeling grateful I had at least gone somewhere.

Through his first wife he had many memories of Uppsala, so he talked about those days. And I never turned the tables on him, but if I had, the answer would have been ‘Oxford.’

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Few is fine

Really. It is OK not to have rooms full of books.

I know I keep coming back to this. Which I suppose means I’ve not solved the problem, once and for all.

But I had a bit of an epiphany at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August. Three authors – Candy Gourlay, Lari Don and Elizabeth Wein – talked about their early years. And someone, maybe all of them, mentioned not having had many books as children. Going to the library for something to read.

And of course, it was the same for me. Until the age of about 15, when it suddenly dawned on me that as an almost adult, I could save my pocket money and actually buy books. So I did. I know it might sound odd. But books in Sweden were expensive and mostly things adults gave you – a few of – for birthdays and Christmases. Not something you bought yourself.

I read so much. I went to the library. I was happy with what they had to offer, and didn’t mind handing books back after three weeks. Or four.

I didn’t mind that on my own shelves I had maybe a metre or two of books belonging to me. There was no prestige involved.

Whereas now, well, not only do I want to own the books I like best, and that I’ll want to read again, but I feel the need to show off a little, as well as having a selection of books in case someone comes to stay who wants to read.

The more I think of this, the more idiotic it sounds.

I need help. Someone to climb up to the back row of the top shelf (that’s the As and the Ns), so I can start being ruthless. Perhaps.

(Almost) every time I walk past the spot at Edinburgh Waverley station where Menzies used to be, I bless the day when I discovered you could buy Alistair McLean paperbacks there for 30 pence. Even though this was in 1973, it felt impossibly cheap to me, a young witch who knew books cost a fortune.

I grabbed a few books and went up to the girl at the counter, stabbing my finger against the printed price on the backs of those books, asking ‘is that really the price?’

It really was, and from then on, my luggage always contained at least twenty new paperbacks each time I left the country. I’d simply had no idea.

And with a start like that, it’s hardly surprising I now have a habit that has to be broken. Not the reading, but the owning.

Dough comfort

The ginger biscuit dough yesterday looked a bit funny. Not that I am worried. The biscuits will either work. Or they won’t. And what’s 300 failed biscuits between friends?

I used my trusted and very worn Vår Kokbok from the mid 1970s. Mother-of-witch equipped me well when I left home. I first made ginger biscuit dough all by myself the first Christmas in the Brighton Bookwitch Towers.

That was the day when the Resident IT Consultant went out shopping for all our Christmas needs. After multiple trips lasting until about four pm I was hungry and wanted us to eat lunch. He looked at his watch and conceded that OK, we could have an early lunch! Turns out his watch had stopped and he’d been on eleven o’clock all day.

Anyway, I was worried about my dough, because every single year when Mother-of-witch made it, we never knew if the biscuits would fall to bits or not. So instead of asking for her recipe – as she never remembered from one year to the next which one she picked last year – I turned to my very own Vår Kokbok, where it said that this dough rolls out really nicely and there need be no concerns about how it handles.

So yesterday I just wanted to read that sentence again.

It wasn’t there. All these years I’ve been calmed by a non-existent reassurance.

Having said that, the biscuits have always been fine. None of the older generation’s issues.

I also made some soup. Kale soup was one of them. That well known Christmas speciality, which I discovered a few years ago was merely a family Christmas tradition and no one else makes it. It’s in Vår Kokbok too, but I can make it without looking in there now. Seeing as it’s such a tradition.

Finished my kitchen stint – the Resident IT Consultant had taken himself off to Edinburgh for the day – with a Temptation for our late dinner. Didn’t need Vår Kokbok for that either.

The bad deal

What a shame. A celebrity author who is hurt – or perhaps merely surprised – he doesn’t feature on any best books lists. Despite his books being liked by children!

Good grief.

Not DW this time, but his namesake David Baddiel, about whom I’ve previously said not altogether lovely things. I note how naïve I was, now that I’ve read this blog post by Gareth P Jones. (Who, incidentally came up with a very similar title to his post. Great minds.) Gareth is an actual children’s author. The not rich kind.

The kindest and fairest thing I can say to Mr Baddiel is that he might be quite a good author of children’s books. I don’t know, obviously, not having been supplied with a copy when I didn’t want to engage in one-sided publicity for him. However, there are a lot of quite good authors out there. And they can’t all make the best lists, no matter how much they wish.

I know this because I very recently looked through my 2018 books, and having only read somewhere between 100 and 150 books, some of which don’t qualify for best of Bookwitch rules, I had to discard a big number of really excellent books. Books I’d enjoyed a lot. Because I’d enjoyed a few others even more.

That’s how lists work. It’s rather like winning Wimbledon. They are playing because they are the best, and they don’t finish until the bestest of them all has beaten the rest.

The burning question

It appears I’m not the only one who is exhausted. Because hard though it is to be holding on to a tiger – even a small one – by the tail, it seems that the bloggers and vloggers who make money from their online job are quickly burning out now.

I guess a tiger with money is far harder to hang on to. As long as there is no, or little money, involved, you can always let go. It might be upsetting, and disappointing. It could be the end to something you love, unless you could pick it up again after a rest.

But if it’s become your only/main source of income, and pretty decent income at that? It’s not only difficult to say goodbye to this. You need to know how to replace that income.

When I read about the vloggers and their burn-out I admit to a little schaden-freude. But not much. I think our shared experience makes for more sympathy than I’d thought I could feel for these young and beautiful online successes with their enormous followings and big bank accounts.

The stress of always having something new to talk about to an insatiable audience can be hard to deal with. Even when you do have something, you still need to whip it into shape and make it presentable. Whether that’s every day, ten times a day or once a week, the regular demands can be relentless.

I’m so glad I’m unpaid! (Besides, I wouldn’t recommend that lipstick to anyone.)

Doctoring on

Graduation, McEwan Hall

Monday was exhausting! I got out of bed well before my normal comfort time, so I could be outside the McEwan Hall in Edinburgh by ten. The Resident IT Consultant and I were meeting Son and Dodo to receive our tickets for the morning’s graduation ceremony. I had to to and fro a bit with my bag and got the elderly confused witch treatment from a kind usher who’d probably seen it all before.

So with a boiled egg in my pocket, I climbed all those stairs, going round and round in a spiral. But being early, I found a seat I liked. Narrow seats, though. You have to be quite friendly with the person you sit next to.

Graduation, McEwan Hall

Anyway, a mere eleven years after arriving in Edinburgh, Son graduated for the third time, and was hit – sorry, tapped – on the head with John Knox’s breeches, and got to shake the hand of the Vice-Chancellor. By that time I’d almost nodded off, and was lucky to come to and realise a group of red-trimmed doctoral gowns were standing ready to go. I got my camera out, but as expected the results were so dreadful that I have again resorted to theft on social media. (I’m hoping most of the photos belong to Dodo. Pardon, I mean Dr Dodo.)

Graduation, McEwan Hall

Graduation McEwan Hall

Afterwards I went downstairs and was confused in front of the same usher, who remembered me from before. I’m very memorable.

Graduation, McEwan Hall - Son with supervisors

Then it was photos and chatting outside, and shaking the hands of all three of Dr Son’s supervisors. Not just the one for him. But we agreed we’d all done a great job* getting here, and I don’t just have the train journey in mind. Was also introduced to someone from Borås, which doesn’t happen all that often. (Not since early October, anyway.)

Graduation, McEwan Hall

When we’d admired each other enough, Drs Dodo and Son marched off and the Resident IT Consultant and I tried to keep pace with them, as we weren’t quite certain where lunch was to be found. (Söderbergs, a few minutes away.)

After many carbohydrates had been consumed, some of them vividly green, we walked back to Son’s university HQ for some red wine, and water, and crisps, and more chatting and shaking of – occasionally the same – hands.

And then the two oldies staggered home.

*I have read the thesis. It is actually quite good, if I say so myself. Interesting, and more readable than many such things. (Tracing the Transmission of Scandinavian Literature to the UK: 1917-2017.) Someone else, not related to him, or us, also said it wasn’t bad.

If you want to make it easy for yourself, a short version can be found in this talk in Lund earlier this year. After the first minute or so, it’s even in English.

Courtenay Wright, aka Mr Sara Paretsky

One of ‘my’ dear authors, Sara Paretsky, lost her husband, Courtenay Wright, on Thursday. I was very sorry to hear about this, having felt honoured to have been able to read various bits of news about him, and the dogs, which Sara has shared over the years. You feel you get to know people you’ve never met.

The first I ever heard of him was that he’d served with Eisenhower in WWII, and my immediate reaction was that this wasn’t possible, and followed that by thinking ‘he must be really old, then.’

Yes, thankfully Courtenay got to be quite old. He was 95 last month, on the same day as Sara’s latest book was published, and he was treated to a book launch-cum-birthday party. What’s more, he looked happy and chirpy, and that pleased me very much.

When Sara shared her sad news on social media this morning, she linked again to the recent piece on her blog, where she talked about Courtenay and what he’d meant to her, first published after a second 95th celebration, with colleagues at his old university. It’s the kind of speech that makes you want to have met him even more.

He was clearly a remarkable man.