Category Archives: Education

Losing it

You repeat something so often that you come to know it as a fact, whereas it could of course turn out merely to be a myth.

My old professor Alvar Ellegård reputedly lost his PhD thesis (on the uses of the word do) down the ‘sopnedkast’ and had to re-write the whole thing.

I’m not sure whether us students were told this as an amusing fact, or if it was intended as a warning never to tidy our flats. And maybe he never did throw his thesis away. But it’s what I remember him by. That, and a textbook I actually hung on to for a surprisingly long time.

Sopnedkast is a rubbish chute. It’s what we had in the semi-olden days for getting rid of rubbish. And PhD theses, obviously. Keys were also pretty good to chuck down this hole-in-the-wall, as not infrequently you’d need the aforementioned keys both to re-enter your flat, or to gain access to the rubbish room with the bins, where the keys had ended up. (I never did this.)

What with recycling and sorting your rubbish properly, the chutes are long gone. Well, not gone gone; just firmly shut. People simply have to carry their well-separated items down all those stairs.

These days there is always the delete button. (For theses. Not so much for milk cartons and newspapers.)

Saga’s saga

Never underestimate the entertainment value of history, and especially not the history all around you, where you live. I hinted earlier at having read the manuscript of a children’s book, written by a friend. That sort of thing can be quite awkward, as they could turn out to have written something really appalling. But I felt safe with Ingrid (Magnusson Rading) because not only is she both interesting and intelligent, but she had already written a gorgeous coffee table book about our shared summer paradise. So I knew she could write.

And unlike the young witch who used to imagine herself writing a Famous Five type book set in Haverdal, because there were so many intriguing settings all over the place, where villains could roam and all that, Ingrid not only stopped dreaming and set to work, but she chose a much superior format; a quiet fantasy adventure set in today’s Haverdal with time travelling to the past, using much of the research she did for her other book.

Jättastuans hemlighet – as it is currently called – is about a girl called Saga, who just might be Ingrid’s as yet unborn granddaughter. Saga’s gran bears a suspicious resemblance to someone I know, as does her grandfather and the cottage where she’s come to stay for a week. Jättastuan is a sort of cave near the beach, and Saga’s gran shares a secret with her on that first day.


And before you know it, Saga has been transported to the 17th century, where life was pretty hard. Instead of your normal time travel, Saga actually becomes Ellika, a girl who lived back then, and we see the family’s struggle to survive bad winters and failing crops. Learning about history like this brings it to life and makes it relevant in a way that pure facts never do.

There is time travel in the opposite direction too, with some hilarious descriptions of life today, as observed by someone from five hundred years ago. And when the reader has loved, and suffered with, Ellika’s family, we meet some much more recent historical characters from about a hundred years ago, set in and around the quarry that covers much of the area. So that’s more people to love and identify with, and more facts that come alive.

I think any middle grade reader would love this book. I’d have liked it when I was ten. I certainly enjoyed it now. And I wouldn’t mind more of the same (I believe Ingrid has ideas for another period or two from the past). If children still learn about their local area for history at school, Jättastuans hemlighet [The Secret of Jättastuan] would be a fantastic resource for teachers. And what could be better, education and fun all in one go?

Very local children would also enjoy knowing exactly where Saga goes, as I did. It’s an added bonus, but not essential. But as has been said recently, we like to find ourselves in books, and this will firmly place Haverdal children in literature.

Halving your equations

It was really very interesting. I may not know too much about maths and physics, but that doesn’t mean an event where people who do know about these things and talk about them, can’t be fascinating.

Christophe Galfard and Ulf Danielsson spoke to Karin Bojs about the universe, last thing on Thursday at the book fair. Christophe is famous for having done his PhD with Stephen Hawking, but they were at pains to point out that Ulf had studied with David Gross of Nobel fame, and he is now Professor at the University of Uppsala. Words like theoretical physics and string theory always have entertainment value.

Christophe Galfard, Ulf Danielsson and Karin Bojs

Apparently it was ‘quite easy’ to become a disciple of Stephen Hawking. You just turn up as sober as possible, the day after the May Ball in Cambridge, and you talk to the people there and decide who you like best. It was hard work once he got in, though, but also good because in such illustrious company you get to meet the greatest names in the business. You have to ‘think the unthinkable’ to get ahead.

Karin made Christophe explain the rather famous E = mc2, which seemed to surprise him, and this led to the wisdom of avoiding equations when you write for us normal people, as you halve the number of readers for each equation used. (That strikes me as an equation on its own.)

Ulf also worked hard, and he once carried Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair. It was heavy. During his time working for his PhD he also became a father, while Christophe said he didn’t, or at least not that he knows of. A bit risqué, perhaps.

David Gross insisted Ulf had to learn how to keep his papers in order, and Christophe remembered the time Stephen’s computer voice broke as he was about to talk to his peers, and first year Christophe had to do the talking in his place.

Christophe Galfard

The first book for Christophe was George’s Secret Key to the Universe, which he wrote with Stephen and Lucy Hawking. He said the name helps sales. It’s a story everyone can understand. He is interested in what we don’t know, but also what we don’t know we don’t know. Christophe no longer works with research, but writes full time. He explained why we can’t fly, as well as why we don’t sink through the chairs we sit on. Something to do with quantum physics. And there’s some string theory at the end of his new book, The Universe in Your Hand.

As a professor Ulf has other work to do, but gets his writing in at night on the principle that a little will eventually become a book. He used words like dark matter, dark energy and a Star Wars-y title (Mörkret vid tidens ände), but also has thoughts on geography. His new book, Vårt klot så ömkligt litet, is about Earth and how we are no different from stone age people. And he’s flying back to Uppsala.

The bad news from Christophe is that the Sun will die. And if only the dinosaurs had had a university, they might have learned about theoretical physics and done something about becoming extinct. Not sure if this had any bearing on his trilogy on climate for children. He feels it’s important.

As I said, this was really very interesting.

Afterwards I hung around at the signing, just so I could walk up to Christophe and say hello and tell him we’d met before, and that I wasn’t buying his book. And ‘does he really speak Swedish?’ A little, it seems. Who’d have thought?

Lit hotel

Take one old(ish) communist millionaire, allow him to have quite a lot of opinions about a lot of things, and you can work out that he will make enemies as he goes about his daily business. Which includes running a couple of hotels.

I have known [about] this owner of Hotell Gästis in Varberg for many years, and been vaguely acquainted with him since that literature module at university nearly forty years ago, but haven’t seen him except for a couple of years ago at Uncle’s funeral.

I have been aware of the hotel all my life, as it’s opposite the block of flats where GP Cousin grew up. But this was my first stay there, and I was intrigued to find owner Lasse Diding sharing his latest feud on facebook only a day before I travelled.

Hotell Gästis - wall art

He likes books, so is well suited to host a Bookwitch. The rooms are stuffed with books to read (and if you haven’t finished when you leave you can take it with you), and the corridors and the bar and the restaurant are even more stuffed. With books.

Hotell Gästis - book cover poster and books

So, the feud. I gather Lasse doesn’t get on with the leader writer on the local paper Hallands Nyheter. The latest trick is to uninvite him to sponsor the annual Book Day in town, where visiting authors have been put up in the hotel. It seems a shame, as this centrally placed book-hotel couldn’t be more ideal. (Well, perhaps anyone similarly afflicted to your Bookwitch might have opinions on the outlandish arrangements for ablutions in the bathroom, but we are not all like that.)

Hotell Gästis - the bath, shower?

(There is also a Lenin spa. Obviously.)

An earlier feud was over the statue Lasse bought and donated to the town. Some twenty years ago a woman somewhere in Sweden witnessed a neo-nazi march and got so furious that she hit them with her handbag. This has now been made into a statue, and not everyone is keen on it. It’s a shame, since we need more of this kind of courage.

Hotell Gästis - books

What I personally needed as I arrived, was plenty of tea. Lasse is not a member of the kettle in your room brigade, which I’m afraid I feel is a service that cannot ever be over-rated. There is a fridge. Books. Lovely period armchairs. Old-fashioned desk, and broadband. (The password is a literary one.) Books. Shoehorn. Magazines. Art on the walls. Fan. Outlandish bath/shower arrangement. Books. ‘Oriental’ rugs everywhere.

He does, however, include a buffet dinner in the room price. I drank a large cup of Earl Grey after dinner. Then another. Whoever chose that blend of Earl Grey should have a statue made of them.

Hotell Gästis - armchair

And if the coffee is as good, I can – almost – understand the local conservative politician who regularly calls in to steal cups of coffee and biscuits. I believe this is now in the hands of the law. I’d just about be prepared to nick some tea when passing through town. Except I wouldn’t. Just because someone is well off, and a communist, doesn’t mean we should steal from them.

But we could accept their statues.

There is obviously no way I will be helping myself to a book for the onward journey.

The Children’s Launderette was here

Scottish Friendly book tour banner

When my window situation prevented me from seeing Chris Riddell in Edinburgh three weeks ago I was a bit upset. But when Chris came to Stirling yesterday – which I have to say was awfully convenient – I was happy again. I wish people would do this more often.

And then – me being me – I spent the morning wondering why I do these things; blogging in general, and arranging to see Laureates in particular. I can tell you why now. It’s because people like Chris Riddell are so very lovely to meet and talk to. They make you feel all nice and warm inside.

Children's Launderette

He had been invited by Scottish Friendly to be taken round the country by Scottish Book Trust in their friendly little book van, visiting as many schools as can be fitted into a week. That’s two a day, plus interviews with radio stations and Bookwitches and that kind of thing.

Tiny Vader

I joined them at Riverside Primary where the children were being mesmerised by Chris as I arrived (it’s not always easy to work out how to enter schools these days) and I had some time sitting in on the questions and answers session. They had put answers on cards in a cheerfully lit box, and Chris drew some cards to answer, and then he drew the answers on a thingummy which enabled everyone to see his hand and the drawing on a big screen on the wall.

Chris Riddell, the pizza tester

Little Cameron was quite taken when Chris drew him a personal Tiny Vader (really Darth Teddi), and that was after we’d seen [a drawing of] the scalpel that airport security had removed from Chris’s possession the other day, leaving his pencil blunter than it wants to be. If Chris didn’t draw, he’d be a [fat] pizza tester, and he rather hopes to be drawing until he’s very old (=for ever and ever). And if that lets us see lots more drawings of his drawers and other garments, that is fine with me. This Children’s Launderette is fun.

Chris Riddell

The session over-ran. Obviously. The queue for the book signing took forever, as it should. Chris gave the children attention and answered more questions. Scottish Book Trust’s Beth ran back to the van for more books when required. Her colleague Tom and I photographed the children’s own drawings, which were very good.

Riverside Primary drawings

Scottish Friendly Children's Book Tour

Eventually it was time to squeeze them and me into the van, recently used by, and now decorated by, Sarah McIntyre. Fuelled by enormous chocolate buttons we drove to Toast (yes it was warm), and found they were about to close, but this was quickly resolved by going next door to Frankie & Benny’s, where the old witch had tea, the Laureate drank wine – because he could – and the young ones ordered attractive looking, but dubiously colourful shakes.

Yes, I did mention I was interviewing Chris, didn’t I? We got through all the important stuff, like his passion for reading and libraries and their future, before he was to be driven to a live radio interview in Perth. But apparently I shouldn’t feel sorry for him, for having such a busy schedule. Chris thrives on it. So far he’s eaten pizza three times, going from not so good to pretty decent. Somewhere in Perth clearly has a duty to come up with a spectacular one. And then an even better one in Aberdeen.

As Beth and Tom began hustling Chris out the door, I managed to get my copy of The Graveyard Book out for a little doodle, next to where Neil Gaiman had already given me a tombstone…

The Graveyard Book and Chris Riddell

Scottish Friendly

Yes, he is. Very Scottish Friendly. Look who’s here!

Scottish Booktrust - Chris Riddell

I reckon Chris can carry off the kilt look. Don’t you?

Little Bookbugs

FREE TO USE - Kids in Scotland Illustrate a Love of Reading with first-ever Bookbug Picture Book Prize

Can you tell what this is? Dear reader, below you have the happy faces of three illustrators whose books have been shortlisted for the very first Bookbug Picture Book Prize, set up to celebrate the most popular picture books by Scottish authors or illustrators. It is run by Scottish Book Trust with support from Creative Scotland.

Ross Collins

Alison Murray

Nick Sharratt

Ross Collins, Alison Murray and Nick Sharratt are the worthy hopefuls. The winner will be announced on 12th January next year. Shortlisted authors and illustrators receive £500 per book, and the winner will receive £3,000.

Ross Collins, There's a Bear on my Chair

And there’s even more to smile about, as all three books will be handed out to every child in Primary 1 during Book Week Scotland in November. Long may this continue! (With new books every time. Obviously.)

Alison Murrey, Hare and Tortoise

Nick Sharratt, Shark in the Park on a Windy Day

I just don’t know which cover I like the best, as they are all rather sweet and funny. Best shirt prize will have to go to Nick Sharratt, however, and that’s not counting the chair back that gets me every time…

(Bookbug photo by Rob McDougall)