North. South. Front and back. It’s hard to keep track.
On our recent long weekend away I suffered from a disappearing library. University library at that.
We stayed in a flat in St Andrews’ North Street. South side. Front windows looked out onto the library across the road. Back windows looked south. It was probably the Waterstones building we saw the back of.
Bedrooms faced front, i.e. north. Living room faced south.
Are you with me so far?
I was pleased to to have a view of the large library building where Daughter once collected her knowledge. Did her homework. But when I sat down in ‘my’ armchair, I was confused because the library wasn’t there. Just some roof top. Wrong windows. Something about which room faces front? Or back. Also, isn’t front always south? Apparently not.
Three days wasn’t long enough to learn where the library was. But I’m sure a library ought to be visible from a person’s armchair…
At least the flat had books. I’d have been quite happy to read some of them, had I come unprepared. There was also a selection of books for sale at Kinross Services, where we had time to kill while the car charged, which it only did because there was literally no parking (Bank Holiday weekend). At all. So I made the executive decision that since the charging spots were empty and we had a car that could ‘eat’ there, that’s what we would do.
You may recall my thoughts on going into bookshops to browse. Occasionally I really want to do that, to see what’s new. To touch it, and to decide. And how my local shop’s crazy lift makes me not want to browse after all. How I wait until I’m in St Andrews, where browsing can take place on the level. Street level.
So that is what I planned to engage in over the weekend. We went in. I found crime, and YA, and children’s for various ages.
What I didn’t find was inspiration. Nothing leapt out at me. Not having been informed of much that is new, I simply didn’t ‘see’ it. By the time I reached children’s, I could remember one preplanned title. Slightly hard to find, but I did walk out* with Derek Landy’s latest, the Skulduggery Pleasant prequel, Hell Breaks Loose. Which seems very prequelly indeed, going back in time considerably.
*I paid for it. Obviously.
Looked at crime on the way out again, but wasn’t inspired.
So that was that.
Didn’t even muster up any enthusiasm in the shoe shop which came next. Must be me, then.
When I got to the copy of The Bookseller which had its front page advertising Usborne turning 50 this year, I already knew that Peter Usborne, whose photograph was right there, had died. The day before the date on The Bookseller. Very sad, but he clearly did a lot for children’s books.
For quite a few years I believed that Usborne didn’t publish ‘real’ books, by which I mean mainstream novels and the like. I was wrong, and there have been a good number of YA novels just to my liking. It just seemed as though they weren’t always sitting next to all the other publishers’ books in the shops.
My own past with Usborne had to do with the bookselling parties. That was back in the 1990s. Possibly earlier and later as well, but this was my decade for selling parties in general. I was lonely, at home with Offspring, and as is so often pointed out, ‘there was no village.’ As an outsider I was ripe for selling parties; going to them and hosting them. I was also a pretty bad host, happily telling my prospective customers/guests that I didn’t care if they spent any money. I just wanted lots of people to come.
But I seem not to have ruined Usborne’s business. Possibly because I bought so many books myself, to make up any shortfall. We liked them. Content-wise they were just right, and they were so readable. While I can’t recall what the titles were, and I seem not to have kept them, they were gold for bedtime story reading. These stories could be read over and over.
And there was a video or two, mostly about the farmer, Mrs Xxxx (can’t remember her name). Much enjoyed.
So yes, Usborne should be celebrated.
(Coincidentally, I am reading an Usborne novel right now, and enjoying it a great deal.)
A year ago Bookwitch ruminated on what sells and what she reads and why.
Today I’m – because we are the same, Bookwitch and I – thinking about the effect Bookwitching has had not just on me but on the young and innocent, like Daughter. We have both put sixteen behind us – but only just. Obviously. Today it’s Bookwitch’s turn to hum ‘She was only sixteen…’
As you may have gathered, Daughter has recently moved and has some vintage shelves to arrange with books. And, it seems, a polar bear. Also two bookmarks, one of which I was intrigued to find personally dedicated and signed by Michelle Magorian.
This is the effect I mean. Somehow a lot of young literature has happened to Offspring. The vintage shelves I mentioned seem to contain mostly books by people I ‘know’ and who Daughter has met through being dragged on bring-your-child-to-work days.
There are an inordinate number of Cathy Hopkins books, and that’s as it should be. Likewise Caroline Lawrence and Liz Kessler and Jacqueline Wilson. Although the latter has had to be pruned down to more manageable numbers of books.
I won’t list them all, but basically, the story of Bookwitch can be seen on these shelves. There won’t be so many new ones, as the e-reader has taken over. This is just as well, because however lovely the vintageness from the local auction-hunter, a flat has only so much space.
Apologies for the tile samples. There is a kitchen splashback to deal with. And I would like it to be known that that book by Vaseem Khan has been ‘borrowed’ from a kind parent.
I can see why Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is planning on leaving in the autumn. From a practical point of view, it’s – probably – best to leave after the next big effort has been put to bed. In this case, that’s the festival in August 2023. It’s also the last one before the festival moves across the road.
So, new home, new blood, new lots of things. New start. It will be good, but not the same. This is partly because the EIBF are having to do what nearly all of us have to do; tighten the belt and save where possible.
I was reminded that Nick began directoring in my second EIBF year. The first year I was oblivious to who the boss might be anyway. But since then I have got used to seeing him around. I remember telling an author that I had spied him in the audience of her event. Her response was that she was glad she hadn’t known. But I’m sure Nick was there to enjoy himself, not to check whether the invited guests were up to scratch.
She was, though.
That will be fourteen years for director Barley, and it is going to be fourteen for Bookwitch. With press officer Frances Sutton retiring last year, that’s my EIBF covered. It will continue to be good, but I can also see the sense in leaving at the right time.
I spent quite a bit of my Bloody Scotland weekend trying to hunt Elly Griffiths down. This entailed looking into bars; a thing I don’t normally do. I wanted her to sign a book, but by the time I had the book, Elly was nowhere to be found.
She was one of the crime writers taking part in Vaseem and Abir’s Red Hot Night of a Million Games. It was a very silly night, but a lot of fun, and it cheered both Daughter and me up. We’ll go next year too if it’s on. Daughter’s favourite was Luca Veste singing Hit Me Baby One More Time. Again. We got to wave our lit-up mobiles in the air and everything. Elly did some good moves with her maracas. Helen Fitzgerald played a convincing corpse on the floor. There was much cheating.
And when all’s said and done, it has very little to do with crime fiction, except that these authors are fun to spend time with.
In Houses From Hell, all I wanted to do was move the furniture on the stage around. Lovely, tartan armchairs, but Helen Grant, Lesley Thomson and Stuart Neville didn’t get to interact enough, because they were not seated in a convenient semi-circle. (Please take note!) Besides that, between you and me, they are quite creepy people. No, that’s not right. They have creepy interests and they put all sorts into their books. Helen even managed to scare her own husband.
When the programme for Bloody Scotland came I wanted to go to so many events. But I know my [lack of] strength, so decided to pace myself, and opted for four, thinking I could add to them later. When the time came, however, four seemed like really quite enough.
After many years of not meeting Martin Edwards in person, there was no way I was going to miss his Cosy Makes a Comeback event. I think of him as a cosy writer. And then he started off by saying he prefers traditional; not cosy. Conveniently enough both the other participants, Jonathan Whitelaw and S J Bennett, as well as the audience, were quick to adapt and the word traditional got a lot of airing. Big audience, too, so I have to say that we are many who like cosy crime. Pardon, traditional.
Hadn’t been sure how the death of the Queen was going to influence the discussion, seeing as S J’s detective actually is the Queen. But she has many plans, and always lets fictional characters do the actual deeds, so this may well continue working. Martin’s excellence at editing [other people’s] vintage crime got a mention, with very many of us being big fans and wanting to know that there will be more from the British Library. He’d initially expected to edit two. There are now over a hundred, so that clearly exceeded expectations.
At the cosy event (sorry!) I said hello to Lizzy Siddal, who I now recognised, and was introduced to her companion Marina Sofia. This turned out to be serendipitous since Marina bore down on me outside the room for the evening event about Detective Duos. We exchanged cards, the way civilised people do, and talked. A lot. For obvious reasons we were able to talk about funny foreigners. Marina is a publisher of translated crime. When Son arrived, in his role as translator of David Lagercrantz’s book, I introduced them, and it turned out they knew about each other already, and a lot more conversation took place.
The Detective Duos event was interesting, and I was pleased to finally come across Ayo Onatade who chaired it. Must have been aware of her for ten years at least. And I had thought it was her I saw down at the Albert Halls the previous night. It obviously was.
One day I’ll have to explain to David Lagercrantz about spoilers. Like not mentioning them too much at events… I liked new-to-me author Ajay Chowdhury, who is a Bloody Scotland-made success, having won a competition to write new crime. Having decided against buying his book before the event on the grounds that it was a hardback, I hurried out afterwards to hand over my money, and still make it to be first in the signing queue.
Simon Mason talked about his two DI R Wilkinses, and if I’d not already read and loved his book, I’d have bought that too. At the end Ayo put them all on the spot, and David agonised at great length before giving up on answering. (In case you want to know what it was about, I’m afraid I can’t remember.) When asked about their personal favourite detective duos, I was very pleased that Ajay chose Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Haven’t heard those names mentioned in a long time.
I then proceeded to confuse everyone by chatting to Simon and David at more or less the same time at the signing table, about different things in two different languages. I think maybe I won’t do that again. But it was nice to reminisce a little with Simon, and good to introduce myself as the mother of you-know-who to David, who got quite carried away. And he finally got to meet his translator. So I suppose that was all good.
Afterwards Son and Dodo and the Resident IT Consultant went for a beer somewhere. Probably not where I was looking for Elly. Instead I hugged an author and talked about cows with another while I waited outside on the pavement for Daughter to pick me up. It’s quite nice this, finding yourself right next to some favourite writers on the pavement (where many of them go to smoke. But not these two!).
As you may have guessed the cow conversation was with James Oswald, which in turn started Vaseem Khan on the Scots use of the word coo. I worked out later that they might have been on their way to Crime at the Coo. Talked elephants with Vaseem. Obviously. And said what fun we’d had the previous night. Soon after the hug Daughter turned up and she tried to invite him round for chilli. Vaseem turned us down very nicely. But we can try again next year.
So, as I said, you find a lot of authors milling about both in and out of the Golden Lion. And when the ticket table remained unstaffed for rather longer than it should have, Gordon Brown came to the rescue.
It is. And we are so grateful that Michael Rosen came out of Covid almost as good as new. I’d forgotten quite how much of a performer he is. Not for Michael this sitting down in one of the book fest’s trendy armchairs and chat quietly to a chairperson like Daniel Hahn. No. He allowed himself to be introduced, and then it was full speed ahead with an hour of absolute comedy.
Comedy mixed with serious stuff, because nearly dying, or being from the stone age, isn’t all fun. But it’s possible to talk about it entertainingly, and in such a way that a roomful of very young children don’t get bored. Michael told us about being ‘put to sleep’ by the NHS, and how hard it was to wake up after forty days, and how his resourceful wife brought in a mobile phone and had his children chat to him and getting him talking (and now he can’t stop).
He had to relearn how to walk and talk. The first with the help of Sticky McStickstick, who assisted Michael all the way to the toilet and back. The talking by learning to sing Frère Jacques by making the somewhat rude noise that sounds a bit like farts (and he had the audience doing just that…). I couldn’t help thinking of the aerosol effect when so many people blow/sing raspberries.
Anyway, he now walks and talks. About pasta, for instance. There was much said about pasta, and Rigatoni the pasta cat. Although Michael prefers fusilli, with bolognese – with mushrooms – sticking to every little fold.
His current favourite [own] book is the as yet unpublished Gaston le dog. This led to a lot of French being bandied about, and coming on top of Frère Jacques and also Daniel’s translation thing, it was a very French sort of day.
Born in 1946, and not the stone age (he lied), Michael and his brother were very naughty boys. And noisy. This brought back the story of how their father used to deal with noise. He would put his hand to the side of his face (see Bookwitch archive photo of Michael demonstrating this in 2012) and simply utter the words ‘The Noise’.
Which coincidentally is how it sounds to people in the rest of the world when Michael says the word ‘nice’. It’s tricky. So is not breathing, which seems to have been something that happened at school, but which was alleviated by flapping the lid of your [ancient style] school desk, and breathing behind it. This saved several lives in Michael’s school.
Of course, it could be that he just made all this up.
And because this was about poetry, and because Michael is a poet, he told us some poems, making the audience repeat them.
His favourite pudding is blackcurrant sorbet, or cassis.
After an hour of fun it was Daniel’s thankless task to tell us it had to come to an end.
With migraines rampaging quietly around Bookwitch Towers on Saturday morning, I decided to risk it and still travel through to Edinburgh where Daniel Hahn ‘was waiting’. Drugged and with enough nice sandwiches to last the afternoon, but perhaps not enough water, I got to the Edinburgh College of Art, and found Albertina’s where I interrupted Daniel mid-chat with director Nick Barley himself. He handed over the ‘goods’ and I left again.
Well, I did cast a quick look at the Spectacular Translation Machine Daniel was running with Sarah Ardizzone, asking non-French speakers to translate a picture book from French into English. Because that is so easy. I’ve seen them trying to trick people like this before.
Clutching my chairperson’s ticket for the day’s event [with Michael Rosen], I went over to the signing tent where I hoped to find most of the relevant books I’d been after. With hindsight I might have bought too few, but three are better than two. Or one. Ran into blogger Lizzy Siddall, Daniel’s ‘other stalker’ and we chatted a bit, about chairs* – as you do – and how to get rid of books.
Clutching my new ones, I went and sat in the ‘car park’ again, having developed a fondness for somewhere to picnic that’s level. Should have refilled my water bottle too, seeing as I was sitting right next to the tap.
After my sandwiches, it was time for Michael Rosen and his chair, Daniel Hahn. More about that tomorrow…
Having feared a long and slow decline in in-coming books, I have been relieved to find that I seem to be coming to a mostly natural end. I expect the postman would agree.
It’s been a freeing experience to buy my own. In a way. If I know I would like the new – or, for that matter, old – book by A N Author, I can get it online. But when I don’t know, I tell myself that what I need is a good browse; see what looks promising. If there are any three for two offers, maybe.
The next step is deciding I’ll pop into Waterstones to see what they’ve got. And once I’ve visualised myself there, I remember the upstairs aspect of children’s books. And then I see myself in the lift, and recall what it was like the last time and how I stepped out of it once the lift-woman’s voice had stopped being downright crazy, allowing me to exit [without having moved upwards].
Never again, I thought. And as the stairs are many and high, they are also a ‘never again’ if I can help it. This is why I have been happy to visit St Andrews, where they have a couple of normal bookshops with only a downstairs. On the other hand, travelling fifty miles there and then fifty miles back, seems like taking this book buying a bit far. Fifty miles, in fact.
There are other places a witch could go. Edinburgh, for instance. But both the obvious shops involve sharing a train with others, getting on a bus for a bit, and then there are stairs or lifts as well. Children’s books will probably never be the category to be found right inside the door. A bit like shoe shops back in the day when I wielded a pushchair and children’s feet at the same time.
So… Whereas I couldn’t buy adult shoes instead, these days I have turned to crime. Crime is adult and can be found somewhere the crazy lift-woman is not needed.
He’d found a pair of jeans in time for his first event on Sunday. No more need for Daniel Hahn to shiver in the relative ‘chill’ Edinburgh offered him. He was here to talk about his book Catching Fire, about translating Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire, because you can never have enough books about other books.
It was one of those events I like so much. The book is fabulous and Daniel is always so [seemingly] relaxed when chatting in public like this. He started off with the regular crossed legs, but towards the end I noticed he’d sort of crept up in his armchair the way you do when sitting reading in the comfort of your own home.
Chaired by his publisher Sam McDowell of Charco Press, the two of them chatted about the sorts of things the large audience liked. Daniel is the kind of person who thinks carefully about what word to use in a particular place, and also the kind of son to accept an OBE ‘because he’s got parents.’ It made them happy. He also felt that an OBE is good for the general business of translating, no matter which translator is honoured.
Xenophobia is growing, so we need those foreign books. Without foreign language skills, we need someone to translate those books for us.
Something I’d never thought of is that Daniel’s English is not the same as other people’s; it all depends on how and where and with whom you grow up. So any translation will rely on the language that particular translator has. It’s very interesting.
He read a few pages from his book, and as ever it was entertaining both for what it was and how Daniel reads. It just made me want to reread Catching Fire again.
After this event in the Northside Theatre, we all mostly trooped over to the signing tent where I was happy to note I wasn’t at the end of the queue. Having acquired a post-it with my name on so he’d know who I was 😊.
He put it to the side as he wrote a nice long message, after which I felt it prudent to retrieve my post-it before he signed all the books after me to Ann. Nice enough name, but it’d be confusing.