Category Archives: Education

A small travelling miscellany

I lied a little. I told Daughter I’d only visited Cambridge twice, but once we got there I remembered a third time. Still, it’s not a lot, is it?

She had cause to go there for a couple of days, and I asked to be allowed to come along, to see a little more of the world and to discover if there was anything new since 2006. (Open Day, with Son, trailing round as many colleges as possible…) I’d say there was.

The weather was gloriously cold and sunny. And isn’t it marvellous how flat it is? Realised on the train home that I’d not travelled north of Cambridge before, so I really enjoyed seeing the flat landscape as I left. It might have been there on Monday as well, but it was dark so I can’t be sure.

I saw Newton’s apple tree. I’d been a little confused, thinking I was being promised to see his apple, but Daughter pointed out this was unlikely. I suppose someone ate it. I saw a Hogwarts shop. Or two. Had a nice cream tea, including the largest milk jug I’ve ever come across in a tearoom. Admired the Christmas lights in the darkening streets.

We met up with Anne Rooney, who kindly sacrificed some of her morning on us, and introduced us to a non-chain coffee shop. (If this makes it sound like we did nothing but drink tea and coffee, it’s because we – almost – didn’t.)

I didn’t actually have time to read any of the three books I’d brought until I was on the second train home, and I only finished one of them.


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.’

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.

Why, why, why?

Why do they do it? Why do authors even bother to get out of bed before the crack of dawn, to travel for hours, possibly with trains breaking down or getting cancelled, or driving hundreds of miles in their own cars. This is before they even stand up in front of school children in classrooms, talking about books, writing, reading, to audiences maybe not terribly interested. Possibly they will be told off by teachers for drinking coffee from the wrong mug in the staff room. And then they go home again, always assuming their transport works. Or they stay overnight, in dubious hotels, eating badly, before repeating the whole thing the next day.

Yes, there is – can be – money in it. Authors need to eat too. Their books will get better known. And [some of] the children will benefit from the visit by a real, live author.

But it must be so tiring.

This whole subject came up on Facebook, again, the other week. A few of those who know what it’s like, gathered to discuss travel – and other – disasters, again. Barry Hutchison told us about one of his first author outings, quite a few years ago, and I’m reproducing it here with Barry’s permission:

Barry Hutchison

“When I was just starting out, I went on a tour with HarperCollins, where myself and a few other authors visited schools around London.

One school we went to really shocked me. The teachers openly admitted they couldn’t teach the kids, and were basically just containing them until they were old enough to leave. The police were called in most days. None of the teachers had the faintest idea why we had bothered to come to the school, and told us we were wasting our time. They laughed when someone from Waterstones turned up with books to sell.

We were split up into different classes. The kids I spoke to were around 14 to 15 – older than the target audience of the one book I had out. They talked among themselves during my talk. A few of them took time out to look me up and down, whisper something to their mates, then burst out laughing.

I had 30 minutes to talk to them. After 20, I was so thrown-off by everything that I ran out of things to say. I asked if anyone had any questions. Someone said, ‘Is you a paedo, sir?’ and everyone laughed.

The teacher said nothing.

I had maybe a minute left. I asked if anyone enjoyed writing stories, and one boy down the front, who had been staring at his desk the whole time, saying nothing, raised the tip of a finger.

‘Oh!’ I said. ‘You like writing?’

All eyes turned to him. His hand went down. He told me that, no, he hated it, but his mum sometimes made him do it as a punishment.

I said no more about it.

At lunchtime, we brave authors sat at a signing table, swapping horror stories, books piled up around us that nobody was going to buy.

After 10 minutes or so, Waterstones started packing up. We were just about to leave when the boy who’d raised his hand came up, looked around nervously, then took a copy of my book out of his jacket and asked me to sign it.

I signed it and handed it back to him. He leaned closer, whispered, ‘I’ve never told anyone I like writing stories before,’ and then about-turned and hurried off.

On the way out, I found out from the librarian that he’d asked her to borrow the money for the book. She knew she’d never see the money again, so made him a deal – she’d buy him a copy if he came to her book group to discuss it. He reluctantly agreed.

She emailed me four months later to say he was still going to the book group. It consisted of him and her.

I have no idea where that kid is now, but the thought of him has seen me through some pretty abysmal school events over the years.”

Those of us following this conversation that day all admitted to reaching for a tissue when we got to those last paragraphs. Perhaps that is why they do all this stuff. And librarians, eh?

Thank you.

L J on her roots

When I discovered that debut author L J MacWhirter had attended the same secondary school as Offspring, I felt I had to know more. There were a few years between their appearances at this institution for education, and I don’t know about L J, but we were more than satisfied with the place. Although it has to be said that neither Offspring went in for history, either.

L.J. MacWhirter

How I wish I’d known that Ruth’s home was ‘really’ Bramall Hall! Why didn’t you say? I was busy trying to imagine where she lived and what it might look like.

Heh heh. Loosely, yes. But for the plot, Ruth’s home needed to be located about a day’s horse ride from London, so I invented Crowbury Hall. Perhaps the paperback should feature a picture of Bramall Hall 😉

And while we’re in Bramhall… Can we blame your old school for your vivid imagination? Did you daydream in the classroom?

Absolutely. Especially during history lessons…

The science in your book, and the interest in space; is that something you share with Ruth and her father, and grandfather? Or was it more of a plot device?

Both. My own father was an engineer and gave me microscopes and chemistry labs for teen birthdays, although all I really wanted was a hairdryer and vinyl! He took us to museums around Manchester to see working steam trains and mill pistons from the industrial revolution, which seeped into my unconscious.

I’ve always found the weird vastness of space and time completely mind-blowing. So when I visited the Science Museum in Florence, Italy, I was struck by the 16thcentury mechanical Armillary Sphere with its old representation of ‘the heavens’ with the earth at the centre. This Sphere became an important motif in Black Snow Falling.

Ruth comes across as a fairly modern girl. Did you give her a more recent type of personality to assist with her search for the truth?

Long answer to this one! According to historians, the 16thcentury was early modern Britain, and so I made Ruth an early modern girl, influenced by progressive values. Her father was an adventurous merchant in the new ‘middling’ class – socially mobile – who had married into nobility. As her mother had long since died, Ruth had been largely left her to her own devices before the Countess came along, so she was friendlier with the household than her contemporaries.

This was the time of the late Renaissance, so Ruth was well educated and had absorbed the radical notion of individuals beginning to think for themselves, especially with a secret copy of Copernicus’ heretical book (early science) in their possession. Books were Ruth’s lifeline to the outside world, which her father inhabited. These influences made her slightly out of step with her friend, Meg, who was blue-blooded nobility. The tectonic plates of culture were shifting and Ruth, with her early modernity, is trapped in those fault lines. I set this up to expose the monstrous sexism of the time.

The Countess can force Ruth into marriage and she also tells Ruth to stop reading, as it was believed to affect a woman’s fertility. I also gave Ruth universal problems that we all share. What do you do when your understanding of someone is shattered? How do you cope when you’re betrayed – or when you have let a friend down? Ruth’s story is her journey to find agency. I confess I did make her language and thought processes sound much less Elizabethan so readers could relate to her more easily.

I know you spent many years writing this book, but it is still admirably short compared to current trends of thick trilogies, or worse. Did you have to prune a lot, or is this pretty much what you wanted your story to be?

I’m a copywriter by trade. I’m pithy all over.

And what comes next?

There’s a juicy synopsis for a follow-up to Black Snow Falling but I’m enjoying writing something completely different right now, a love story set in war torn Scotland. There’s also a contemporary thriller that keeps calling me.

It remains to be seen what our pithy L J will come up with. Her hair looks fine, so I imagine the hairdryer materialised at some point. And I do hope the school library where I spent four years will buy a copy of L J’s first book. There must be some sort of proud list of what former students have got up to after they left…

Summer reads

I can’t tell* you how many emails I have received in the last couple of weeks, all about reading in the school holidays. Or about books with activities to do now that it is summer and rather boring. (It’s clearly all about English school holidays. Scottish children have been bored for weeks already, with no [fresh] active help from the publishing world.)

*Well, I suppose I could, if I looked through my Bookwitch email folder, but I’m not going to.

IKEA, that well-known bookshop, seems hellbent on getting its customers to buy reading furniture. Things like armchairs, lights, bookcases. Understandable. And in the home country school will start again soon enough.

Discovered that IKEA Wembley has a reading room. Had, as it’s already over. Something to do with the Man Booker. People could come in and sit in the comfy reading chairs and read for an hour and then take the book home.

(The next Wembley craziness is to teach customers to eat crayfish.)

Among my many emails was one from IKEA, telling me about the lovely furniture I could buy. It looked like all other emails of its kind. But then I had to shake my head a little and double-check I was not mistaken, for they recommended the top five YA reads. It was like stumbling into one of the Bookwitch emails. Or like when Google knows what I’m up to, so tells everyone else, but instead of M&S pyjamas it was actually books.

IKEA's recommended books

Seems they felt it was their duty to help customers equip their young ones with something to do once they had a pouffe to sit on.

Very odd. Not wrong. Just odd.

Tricks and threats

I liked reading about the various tricks people use to get their children to read, especially on holiday. The Guardian Review had some tips this weekend, and it’s always interesting to see what others have done. They can be quite sneaky, parents.

Once I had told Son that the one thing I expected him to do at school – this was in Y2 – was to learn to read, I don’t believe I did much else.

As parents we are supposed to lead by doing, and I did read. The trouble is that parenting takes time away from reading for pleasure, so I could have read more.

I’ve mentioned this here before, but for the formative reading years I went to the mobile library just before it was time for our three to four weeks in Sweden every July/August. I looked carefully at what they had to offer, and picked books that might suit both me and the Resident IT Consultant and Son. Children’s books, obviously.

Gillian Cross, Tightrope

There was always a lot of possible choice. But the authors that stand out from that period are Philip Pullman, Malorie Blackman, Gillian Cross, Celia Rees, Tim Bowler. At the time I knew very little or nothing about all of these excellent writers. It’s a good sign that by merely picking holiday books I was able to discover many leading YA authors.

Malorie Blackman, Tell Me No Lies

I’d take about eight books. Any more and I felt the suitcases would be too heavy. But that averaged out at two books per week, which seemed fine. Son didn’t read that fast back then, and the adults were supposed to do adult stuff like feed Offspring and take them to the beach. Maybe fly kites.

But I never told anyone they had to read. I think I would have said ‘these are the books we’re taking this year’ and left it at that.

The only other discussion on what to read or whether to read that I remember was when Son was 14 and we couldn’t agree on which one of us should vet Melvin Burgess’ Doing It before the other one could read it.

I still can’t recall who did the vetting. I blame Tim Bowler, who came to school and was so enthusiastic about his friend’s book.

Occasionally I feel the pressure from Son to read certain books gets the better of me. I say ‘should I?’ and he says ‘well, I liked it.’