Category Archives: Harry Potter

Bookwitch bites #130

At times this summer it has felt as though everyone has died. I know that’s not true, but over a few weeks, many people left us. One such person whom I’ve not mentioned earlier, was Helena Forsås-Scott. She was Honorary Professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

I only met her a couple of times, but we had enough in common that it was nice to speak to her. She was a filosofie magister from Gothenburg, and so am I. She also had a PhD from the University of Aberdeen, which I don’t. But you know, the similarities were there. Helena attended the Nordic conference in February, and she was most friendly and supportive of Son in his work at the department.

Moving slightly south of the Scottish border, Newcastle’s Seven Stories has just re-opened. When I was there a few years ago, I felt everything was perfect, but it seems you can improve on perfection, which is what they have achieved with their recent overhaul. Some of the things they have to offer are Painting with Rainbows – A Michael Foreman Exhibition, Rhyme Around the World, A Bear Called Paddington, and a new Harry Potter installation in the Attic. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Who knew spoons were so important? I didn’t, and I speak as one who uses them every day. Explorer and education advocate Justin Miles travelled in Kenya, and he found that if school children could use a spoon to eat their food, instead of their fingers, it’s possible to stay healthier, save on days lost from school, and hopefully prevent spreading disease further.

QED Publishing have just agreed to donate at least one spoon to ‘Educate The World’ for every copy of Justin’s Ultimate Explorer Guide for Kids sold. You can support the cause by donating or raising awareness for the #SpoonAppeal.

In our rich western world we worry about other things, like how untidy our children’s rooms are. Here is a clip of Nicola Morgan talking about the way teenagers function, and showing photos of one teenager’s very messy bedroom. There might even be a spoon or two lying about in there. Nothing to do with me though… Or very little.

The memorial service

They didn’t go in for children’s books so much in the 1930s and 40s. That will be why the Grandmother, when she learned to read all those years ago, read Dickens and Scott for fun by the age of eight. And that’s why Daughter did a reading of the end of The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott at her Grandmother’s memorial service on Wednesday.

It was quite a nice service, if I do say so myself. We persuaded Son to be our MC, and he introduced the Resident IT Consultant’s eulogy, which was fairly amusing in places. The Grandmother had once been too young to sign the Official Secrets Act (while having cause to do so). And she used a cardboard box for the Resident IT Consultant to sleep in.

Odd sleeping habits must have run in the family, as her sister reminisced about the three or four years the two of them slept in the understairs cupboard, like some early Harry Potters.

At the crematorium before the memorial Son had the pleasure of hearing ‘Paul Temple’ reading William Penn, and this piece was repeated by Daughter in the next session.

We’re not exactly in the habit of organising this kind of thing, but we knew what we wanted. It was the knowing where to get hold of the right people that was hard. (Many thanks to the Scottish children’s author who didn’t object to questions about suitable musicians.)

In the end we were lucky, as Paul Temple introduced us to a 16-year-old local girl who played Schubert and Stradella on the cello, before charming everyone by singing Mononoke Hime – in Japanese – a cappella. Even an old witch can shed a tear over such perfection.

Initially we’d asked a local church if we could use it as our venue, but we were found too God-less, which meant that we actually ended up somewhere quite perfect in its place. Cowane’s Hospital was just right; the right size, nice and old, beautiful acoustics, situated next to the castle, and generally feeling like our kind of place.

Stirling Highland Hotel

Afterwards we wandered downhill a little – literally – for afternoon tea at the Stirling Highland Hotel, where I normally go to hear about gruesome murders during Bloody Scotland. It couldn’t have been nicer. And no funeral tea is complete without a quick trip upstairs to the Old High School Telescope. The Resident IT Consultant helped paint it, decades ago.

Full circle

Five years on, Candy Gourlay and I were back where we started. No, not on Facebook. At Carluccio’s St Pancras. When thinking about what we might do – briefly – before I got on my northbound broomstick, I realised that we could finally have some more of the coffee ice cream we have reminisced about over the years. We both like it, and we both eat it sometimes, but never together.

I got there early, and was sitting reading, completely engrossed in Lucy Coats’s Cleo, when I realised someone was standing there, staring at me. But I suppose it’s fairly suitable to be found nose down in a book when you have a brunch date with an author.

And over my poached eggs we discussed lots of publishing stuff and books and writers. None of which I’ll tell you about. Children. Interior decorating. How to stay warm in our old age. Yes, really. Actually Candy believes she’s already too old, which doesn’t leave much hope for me. But we agreed that you need to have lived before you can write worthwhile stuff.

After the eggs, and the coffee ice cream, Candy accompanied me across the road to the other station, the one with a perennial queue for platform 9 3/4, but I said there was no reason for her to wait with me. I promised to leave town even if not escorted, and I did so by following the sudden stampede towards platform 4, once the Aberdeen train had been announced.

It’s good to have gone to London, but better still to get home again. I’m too old for all this big city life, seeing lots of people in crowds. I’ll have to set up meetings with people one at a time in future. If anyone ever wants to see me…

(The recipe for the coffee cheesecake will, possibly, turn up some time if I don’t forget.)

The drawbacks of being Scottish

Well, I’m not, obviously. But some people are.

There are good books being published by Scottish publishers, written by Scottish authors or authors resident in Scotland, sometimes actually about something Scottish. But not always.

It makes a great deal of sense to highlight the Scottish aspect of these books when you do PR in Scotland. We all like to buy homegrown, be it haggis from the next field or whatever. Nearby is good. Fresher. More like you. Just look at how the voting in Eurovision is done.

But that’s not to say that the Scottish author and his/her book does not travel well, or that no one outside Scotland would ever want to read a Scottish book. It’s not all tartans and heather and ‘och aye.’ Scottish authors are just as capable of writing books that will appeal to people all over the world as, say, J K Rowling. (Oh. She wrote the Harry Potter books in Scotland, you say?)

Scotland has about five million inhabitants, while the UK is more than ten times that, and as for the number of people in the rest of the world who can read books in English, that’s a wee bit larger still.

I spoke to a Scottish author recently. One who writes marvellous books, and which as far as I can tell are not particularly Scottish (any more so than a novel set in Newcastle would be deemed suitable only for the good people of that city). Anyway, this author told me of speaking to booksellers south of the border, and they were puzzled. Because they didn’t stock these books, and the reason they didn’t, was that the publicity had been such as to suggest ‘tartan books to be read in Scotland only.’ Sigh…

So, when selling at home, do point out it’s by ‘one of our own’ and when selling anywhere else, say it’s the best book ever. Maybe that the author lives in Scotland, like J K.

Ye ken?

The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature

The second edition, that is, rather nicely written and edited by Daniel Hahn. Although, as he acknowledges, he had a little help from his friends. And a foreword from Michael Morpurgo.

It seems Daniel is not a stranger to this business of reading a book and getting it signed and loving it to bits. He was once eight years old and met Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake and had his copy of The BFG signed by both of them. And here he is, a few years later, having actually edited The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature.

Thirty years earlier the Resident IT Consultant had cottoned on to the fact that I quite liked children’s books, despite being married and old and all that. He went out and bought me (us, really) a copy of the first edition of the Companion, by Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard. It is this text Daniel has edited, partly by removing a few old entries and partly by shortening some, in order to find room for all the exciting things that have happened to children’s literature in the intervening period.

It’s not just Harry Potter (the longest new entry). Try to imagine a world without Jacqueline Wilson, or Philip Pullman! Or all those other lovely writers and illustrators. Both the ones who made it into this edition, and the ones Daniel was forced to leave out. (I’ll have to speak to him about a few of them.)

I couldn’t help getting my (our) old copy out and making some very random comparisons. Roald Dahl has not only doubled in length, but he has died. Dick Barton is still in, as is Dido Twite. (I did mention it’s not only the authors, but their characters and various other types of entries that are in this book, did I?) And Daddy Long-Legs makes it.

The – to me – completely unheard of Hesba Stretton is still in. Carolyn Keene hasn’t changed, and I reckon Robert Heinlein and KM Peyton are both mostly intact. Likewise Joan Aiken, although she has been updated, obviously. There might be less of Peter Pan; I’m not sure, not having counted the words.

For a while I thought the entry on racism was bound to be a modern phenomenon, but it existed and was recognised in the 1980s as well.

There are about 70 more pages in the second edition, plus some very useful appendices on awards.

Carpenter, Prichard, Hahn, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature

If you like children’s books, there is no question about it; you need a copy of the second edition. As for me, I suspect I won’t be able to part with the first, even though I can see that the new edition will be much more useful in my ‘work’ as well as for my own private enjoyment. The two volumes will look good together. And I might not last until a third edition comes along.

The Murdstone Trilogy

I am very grateful to Mal Peet. He may have written a novel bearing the title The Murdstone Trilogy, but it isn’t. A trilogy, I mean. And he has the sense to point this out in a message from the author, so the reader can relax and settle down with his bleddy fantastick nobble. (What’s more, this nobble from David Fickling Books is an adult nobble, which is interesting for someone you connect with children’s books. But DFB can do what they like, and they clearly like this book, and so do I.)

Mal seems to have set out to write a non-fantasy story. But for an anti-fantasy writer (if that’s what he is) Mal knows a lot about fantasy. (Btw, he claims it’s not autobiographical, but I was unable to read it without visualising Mal as his hero Philip Murdstone.)

Mal Peet, The Murdstone Trilogy

More than one recent novel claims to deal with the publishing world, but I haven’t seen anything that does it quite like this. What do I know? But it seems so very true. Why should the author Philip Murdstone keep writing worthy books about brave children, when his agent needs him to write a bestselling fantasy?

This non-trilogy trilogy (I mean it is a trilogy, in that it’s divided into three parts. But it’s all there, which is more than one can say for Mr Murdstone) is like nothing else. My online social circle of literary people kept going on about Mal’s book as though it’s the best thing since sliced bread, so I had to ask to be allowed to have a taste, and it is. People were falling over each other to quote the best quote from the book. This is really very rare, even for people who will – rightly – praise each other’s work.

You can’t describe it, and if you could it would serve to ruin the experience for anyone else. Let’s just say that Devon is over-run by weird stuff happening . Maybe that’s normal there. What do I know? But Philip Murdstone ends up living his fantasy, which is the book, the trilogy, he must write. It’s enough to drive anyone over the edge.

(I was there when Mal won the Guardian prize. I sincerely hope he hasn’t been Murdstoning about the countryside with gremlins and people with interesting accents since then. He deserves better. Let him not write fantasy. If that’s what he wants not to write.)

My teacher, Mrs Christie

When Sophie Hannah was talking at Bloody Scotland about growing up with Agatha Christie, it was like hearing myself speak. Or it would have been if I could sound as intelligent and articulate as Sophie. And I wished I’d known this ‘sister’ back when I was twelve, except at the time her mother Adèle Geras was barely out of university herself, so Sophie and I were never destined to be the same age at the same time.

Also, we wouldn’t have had a language in common. It was more our behaviour and reading patterns that seem to have coincided. I’m pretty sure I didn’t go to school with children who read Agatha Christie at twelve. If I had I might not have felt like a freak.

And if there was a likeminded child at school, I’m reasonably certain they didn’t read Agatha in English. (This peculiar habit of reading in a foreign language really only took off with Harry Potter.) Mrs Christie was my English mentor/teacher. If not for her, I wouldn’t have tried. And I suppose I wouldn’t have attempted it if first I’d had to go to the library to check out their foreign langauges section. It helped that Mother-of-witch had a few Christies in the original; leftovers of her own attempts at educational improvement. So I could test drive them to see if it would work, and it did. Reasonably.

Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit

I was going to ask the rhetorical question of whether I’d be blogging right now, were it not for Agatha Christie. But my question has to go deeper than that. Not to be blogging wouldn’t be the end of the world (I mean, if I’d not started, I’d not know what I was missing). But would I have come to Britain to live? There would in all likelihood not have been a Resident IT Consultant. Or Offspring.

Perhaps Agatha wasn’t so much my English teacher, as my life designer. Not that she knew, but still.

It’s extraordinary what an early exposure to niblicks will do to a little girl.