Category Archives: History

Stars Shall Be Bright

Catherine MacPhail, Stars Shall Be Bright

In memory of the lost children of Maryhill, who died in the Quintinshill Rail Disaster exactly one hundred years ago today. We don’t know their names or what they were doing on a train full of soldiers going off to war.

Catherine MacPhail has a theory, which she shares with us in this Barrington Stoke story, Stars Shall Be Bright. She reckons they were siblings James, Belle and William, who set off to find their dad who was a soldier.

Their mum has just died and to avoid being taken into a home, James decides to take his brother and sister on a trek to find their dad, lying in order to get away from a ‘well meaning’ neighbour.

They hide on a stationary train, which soon fills up with over 500 soldiers, travelling from Larbert to Liverpool, on their way to Gallipoli. Near Gretna Green the train was involved in a three train crash, with 225 soldiers dead, 246 injured, and 65 walking wounded.

And then there were the bodies of three children.

Lovely (yes really) story, but awfully sad.

The book-launching mug

‘That doesn’t look like a book’ said the Resident IT Consultant as he brought in the post.

I looked at the square box and concluded he was right. ‘It’s a mug,’ I said. I knew this because Lucy Coats had very generously said she’d send me one of her special mugs to celebrate the publication of her new novel Cleo. And a witch can easily use a fabulous mug like this one. (Quite handy, actually. I don’t believe there is a single non-sawdusty drinking vessel in the whole house.)

Lucy Coats, Cleo & mug

Once I had negotiated all that parcel tape, however, I could see I had been both right and wrong. There was a book as well.

Very much looking forward to a read and some tea.

Silver Skin

The first thing I had to do after finishing Joan Lennon’s Silver Skin, was to look up Skara Brae. Like her character Rab, I learned a bit about it at school, even though it is Scottish history. Like Rab, I listened and didn’t understand and never bothered to stop and think, or to try and learn more. Now I am wondering how I can fit in a trip to Orkney, and if I can possibly avoid being seasick.

The difference between me and Rab is that he comes from a long time in the future. Earth is crowded and no one has much space, but they do have technology. And Rab and his built-in Com decide to travel to Orkney in the past – they already sort of live on Orkney, but in a tower stack high above the ground – to 1850 to be precise.

Naturally something goes wrong, and what was meant to be two hours in 1850 becomes a very long time in Stone Age Skara Brae, with Rab’s travelling silver skin and his Com being damaged on impact, when he falls out of the sky.

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin

Now, I apologise for my historical shortcomings, but I read this book not quite sure when the Stone Age was, apart from quite a long time ago. It was only as I looked up Skara Brae that I realised it was that long ago. 4000 years, give or take. Slightly different from 1850.

Rab is injured and taken into the home of Cait, who herself is an outsider, having been rescued and brought up by Old Woman Voy. Once he has healed, all Rab can think of is returning home, but only after he has collected as much information about this odd place as possible, so he can show off.

But you know, silver skins are hard to repair, and he falls in love with Cait, and…

We learn much about how life back then could have been. It’s so very interesting, while in no way making this novel anything but a fabulous read. I raced through it; both wanting to know what everyday Skara Brae was like, and what would happen to Rab and Cait.

Many thanks to Joan for educating an ignorant witch.

Yay! YA+

Cumbernauld Theatre

Yesterday saw the long awaited birth of Kirkland Ciccone’s first ever Scottish YA book festival Yay! YA+, and I really appreciate his thoughtfulness in arranging it for the day on which I celebrated my first year in Scotland. Kirkie had lined up ten teen authors, 200 teens and one tardis-like venue in the shape of the Cumbernauld Theatre. In Cumbernauld. He also arranged for the lovely people of Scotia Books to come and sell books, and between you and me, they not only had the good taste to like my sense of humour, but their mobile shop was the best I’ve seen.

Scotia Books

Once we were all in, Kirkland explained how some authors would ‘be taken out’ and split up into tiny pieces. Yeah. I don’t think he meant that literally. He wanted to say that six of the authors would be ensconced in their own little rooms (=bars and subterranean dressing rooms), where smaller groups of the audience would come to hear them read from their books, or talk about their writing, or anything else they might want to do. Ten times. Eek!

Kirkland Ciccone

Cathy MacPhail

Meanwhile, Cathy MacPhail, Theresa Breslin and Barry Hutchison stayed in the main theatre and each had 25 minutes in which to charm the half of the audience left behind, which they did with real style. Twice. Multi award-winner Cathy started by sharing the trailer to her film Another Me, based on a nightmare she once had. She can see a story in anything (perhaps because she’s from Greenock, where you know everyone), and Cathy is surprised she writes such scary books, when she really is such a nice person.

Theresa Breslin

Theresa brought her gasmask, which looked quite uncomfortable to wear, and some shrapnel from WWI. She reminisced about travelling to America a month after September 11th, and hearing he same words then, that soldiers used a 90 years earlier to describe why they went to war. Some things never change. She read a tense bit from Remembrance, before telling us how good it is to write YA for teens, as they will read everything, with no set ideas of what a book has to be.

Barry Hutchison

Last but not least, Barry Hutchison talked about his fears, so it was back to his perennially entertaining tales of ‘Death and Squirrels’ and his childhood concern whether the dead squirrel was ‘proper dead’ or might come back and attack the young Barry. I can listen to his tale of weeing in the kitchen sink as many times as he will tell it. Or about his friend Derek. Barry read from The 13th Horseman, which must have made half the children want to buy a copy.

Roy Gill and Lari Don

There was lunch – with cupcakes and fruit – and signings and even some time for hanging out. Keith Charters turned up, and admitted to a life-long ignorance of sharpies. That’s not why he came, but, still. I contemplated stealing Kirkie’s sharpies-filled lunchbox, but didn’t.

Keith Charters

After the eating I aligned myself with half the group from Cumbernauld Academy for my rounds of the nether regions of the theatre, and they were both lovely and polite as well as interested in books. Although, I joined them after their session with Linda Strachan – in the bar – which unfortunately meant I actually missed Linda’s seven minute show, as I was sitting out the empty slot with Alex Nye (one school was missing). And you’ll think I have something against Linda, since she is the only one who does not appear in any of my – frankly substandard – photos (photographer had better things to do…).

Alex Nye

Anyway, Alex spoke about her cool books, Chill and Shiver, featuring snow and ghosts, before we went to join Matt Cartney who not only sat in a warm bar, but who had been to the Sahara. Admittedly, he had been to Hardangervidda as well. His Danny Lansing Adventures (Matt loves adventures!) are set in sand, and snow, and wherever else Matt might find inspiration.

Matt Cartney

Lari Don read from Mind Blind, which was her first non-fantasy, for older readers. She had been troubled by not being able to solve problems with magic. Lari is very good with school children. We then found Roy Gill in one of the dressing rooms, and the poor man was only allowed five minutes with us, so raced like crazy through his werewolves and a reading from his latest book.

Kirkland Ciccone

We finished in another dressing room where Victoria Campbell had brought her Viking weapons. Just imagine, small basement room full of young teenagers and some – possibly not totally lethal – weapons. She dressed one volunteer in a spiky helmet but didn’t let go of either the Dane Axe or the sword. Victoria asked what the best thing so far had been, and my group reckoned it was the selfies! Apparently some of her Viking interest comes from a short period living in Sweden (good taste). Before we left her, there was an almighty scream from – I would guess – Roy’s dressing room.

Victoria Campbell with Viking

Ever the optimist, Kirkie had scheduled a panel session at the end (a full 20 minutes!), chaired by Keith. Unsurprisingly, the authors had different opinions on nearly everything. But the questions were good. Very good. This was one fine audience.

KIrkland Ciccone tweets

Theresa brought out a gift for Kirkie, which might have been a chocolate boot. And while the panel wound things up, he and some of the others hastily got ready to run off to Edinburgh, where they had an(other) event to go to. All good things come in twos.

Theresa Breslin gives Kirkland Ciccone the chocolate boot at Yay! YA+

The very lovely Barry Hutchison offered to remove me from the premises, on his way home to Fort William, which meant I was able to actually leave Cumbernauld – something that had worried me considerably earlier in the week. He set me down outside the newsagent’s after some nice conversation, and a secret.

My verdict of the day is that if we can only get Kirkland to speak less loudly in places, this worked really quite well. Might let him repeat it, if he can find more dark corners in which to stash Scotland’s finest.

(I found the photo below on facebook, and because it has Linda Strachan in it, I decided to borrow the picture, a little.)

Linda Strachan, Lari Don, Roy Gill, Alex Nye and Kirkland Ciccone

Anzac Boys

In time for Anzac Day tomorrow, I bring you Tony Bradman’s Anzac Boys; a dyslexia friendly short novel on WWI as seen from the other side of the world. And a little bit from ‘our’ end as well.

Tony Bradman, Anzac Boys

Tony writes about orphans Bert and Frank, who first end up in a children’s home in London in 1906 when their mother dies. They are soon sent off to Australia, to a ‘better life’ as the priest at the orphanage says. Bert is 12 and Frank is 9, so Bert needs to look out for his little brother and promises him always to be there.

When they arrive in Australia they are separated and there is nothing Bert can do to help Frank, who is shipped off to New Zealand. What follows are eight years of hard work on farms, often being treated badly, but with life getting a little better for Bert once he’s old enough to be allowed to have a say in where he goes and who he works for. And then war breaks out.

Bert enlists and is sent off to ‘Europe’ to fight, and much to his surprise and delight he finds Frank again, with the New Zealand army. But Frank hates his brother for deserting him.

We follow the brothers to Gallipoli, and I’m not going to tell you what happens there…

This is very sad, and very inspirational, and most of the ‘ingredients’ are true, even if there were no actual Bert and Frank Barker.

Living WWI

Having so recently re-read Rilla of Ingleside by L M Montgomery and seen the film made of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, I’ve come to realise that there is a difference between all the modern war stories – however excellent they are, because they’ve been written by great authors, who have researched the war thoroughly – and these two books written by women who lived through it.

They aren’t the only ones, I’m sure, but they are the women I’ve got fresh in mind right now. One wrote a biography and the other wrote fiction, but both offer the reader what you don’t get in later, period fiction, and that is the day-to-day facts. Other books might have the Somme, which Rilla barely mentions. It’s just one of the many place names they got far too familiar with over those four years.

Even the Blythe’s Susan keeps up with the news, learning about geography in an unforeseen way, reading the paper and keeping track of what she thinks of Wilson and Kitchener and the Kaiser.

Vera Brittain lived through the war at a much closer distance, eventually being part of it. What I remember most vividly is all the travelling she did, back and forth, to the war, through the war and away from the war. Her autobiography, of necessity, contains all of WWI, in some form or other.

L M Montgomery wrote Rilla a few years after the end of the war, when presumably everything was still fresh in her mind, and she knew these places in Europe and beyond as intimately as the Blythes did. Which will be why she put all of that in her not-so-idyllic novel, and why she had to send Anne’s and Gilbert’s sons off to war, and let the girls work at home for the war effort. It’s why she couldn’t let all her characters live. Because it wasn’t like that. Lots of Canadian boys went and never returned.

That is something Vera Brittain knew from personal experience. She lost everyone.

And then, I wonder if both women wrote their books believing they had gone through hell, but come out the other end, and that a new better world would be sure to come of it?

Vera had a son, but I don’t know if he fought in WWII. I’m thinking he might have been too young. But Rilla’s children, if she had any, would surely have had to fight in the next war, as would her nephews, as well as her soup tureen baby.

I hope Susan never found out about that.

As I read Rilla this time, I needed to go back and check when the other books were written, rather than when they were set. I had to know if L M Montgomery knew that Anne would have to lose a child to the war, and I suspect she must have, when she gave Anne and Gilbert their children.

Living through a war is not the same as reading ‘highlights’ later on, and by living I mean even those who are safe and far away. It’s the hearing of each battle as it happens, rather than learning it second hand.

I’m not saying authors now shouldn’t write war novels. On the contrary, I think they must. But it’s interesting to note the difference.

Rilla of Ingleside

I’d read L M Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside before. A long time ago. It was the one I remembered well but couldn’t get hold of as I bought all the Green Gables books in English, thirty years ago, so I’m particularly pleased it’s one of the ones re-issued by Virago. It’s also the first book to bring the reality – for normal people – of WWI to my attention.

L M Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside

I mean, if L M Montgomery couldn’t even fictionally keep Anne Shirley’s family safe from the war, then no one was safe. Which, obviously, was the truth. Before Rilla I had callously imagined that people back then were used to it and that it was a long time ago. And anyway, Anne lived in Canada, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the trenches.

Rilla of Ingleside is a sweet book, for all that it features the war so much that there is barely room for any romantic nostalgia for life on Prince Edward Island. Anne and Gilbert are growing old, and back then 50 was probably a lot older than it is now. So we concentrate on 15-year-old Rilla as war breaks out, and her brothers and friends go off to fight, one after the other, or at least to do their bit for the war closer to home.

The years between 15 and 19 were meant to be the best of her life. Instead they changed her completely; making her someone who could quite capably knit socks for the soldiers by the end of those four years. And a few other things, too.

Like what you can use a soup tureen for, and that it is possible to love an ugly baby that isn’t even yours.

There were just two things that made me cry, though. It was the neighbours’ little boy, Bruce, picking flowers for Anne (stupid Witch, crying again, now), and Jem’s dog, waiting all those years for his master to come back on the train. (Get me a hanky!)

You presumably know all this already, but when you love Anne and all those she loves, you do tend to go on about it a little.