Category Archives: History

W.A.R.P. – The Forever Man

That FBI. It gets everywhere, including the 17th century. But that explains a lot, actually. And it’s lucky they wear those fetching overalls, with the letters on the back, so you will know it’s them. And there is always one more wormhole through which any combination of characters can fall, to some time other than their own. Quantum foam. Hah.

Yes. So Eoin Colfer thought it’d be more normal to write about time travelling FBI agents than leprechauns. It’s easy peasy getting your head round tunnelling dwarves and foil-clad centaurs, but my head always gets confused when it tries to think about time travel. Like, if so-and-so did this then something would/would not happen. And you mustn’t meet yourself.

Eoin Colfer, The Forever Man

I enjoyed The Forever Man, which is the last instalment of Eoin’s W.A.R.P., the time travel-based witness protection scheme which put people safely in Victorian London. I wasn’t sure I would, as the time travel slipped back to Cromwell’s days – which I’m not keen on – and Riley’s old boss was going to reappear. I’d really hoped to have seen the last of him. But that strange thing happened; where you find yourself almost fond of the baddie, because you go a long way back and familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt.

So – the now unkillable – Garrick is back, and his latest hobby is to burn witches at the stake. And he decides Agent Chevie is a witch. Riley needs to free her, but the trouble is that he and Garrick know each other so well, that it’s almost impossible for one to trick the other. Luckily the FBI has one or two tricks up its sleeves, and not everyone in this witch-hunting village believes that burning witches is a marvellous idea.

This is exciting, and romantic – yes – and funny. It even restored my faith in the FBI.

Eoin; please consult me if you need more timetravelling Swedish bores. Sorry, boars. Or similar. Especially if they are to be called Olaf.

Stirling Literary Society

The Resident IT Consultant had been a couple of times, but I needed something special to tempt me out on a wet and dark Monday night, so it was my first time. Stirling Literary Society meet at The Smith [local museum] once a month, and the thing that got me out of the house was Scottish Children’s Literature. Dr Maureen Farrell from the University of Glasgow drove through floods to tell us about it.

When she realised that her degree didn’t cover any Scottish books Maureen decided to do her PhD on Scottish children’s literature, but was dissuaded because it was thought there wasn’t enough material for a doctorate… (I was unsure in the end if she went ahead with it anyway, or not. But whichever way, Maureen knows a few things about those non-existent children’s books.)

In the ‘beginning’ there were books, and some children read them. And there were chapbooks, sold by travelling chapmen. In the 18th century James Janeway published A Token for Children. Often books were written by puritans who wanted to educate, and needed to use language accessible to children. As early as 1744 there were ‘magazine giveaways’ with balls for boys and hoops for girls.

Then we had Sir Walter Scott. Naturally. He wrote a book for his grandson, but as a ‘very wordy writer’ it probably wasn’t all that easy to read. But he enjoyed it so much he wanted to give up writing adult books. The first proper children’s book in Scotland seems to have been Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House, where children played and were naughty.

Maureen Farrell’s criteria for what counts as Scottish literature are books by someone Scottish, set in Scotland or about Scottish people. If not, we couldn’t lay claim to J K Rowling or Julia Donaldson.

There wasn’t really time enough to talk even quite briefly about most Scottish authors. Maureen galloped past Treasure Island, The Light Princess, Peter Pan, and on to Theresa Breslin and Eric Linklater, explaining what the Carnegie Medal is (very elderly audience, but maybe not necessary?), Molly Hunter, Joan Lingard, and she showed us covers of lots of books, including The Wee Free Men.

She described the beginning chapter of Nicola Morgan’s Fleshmarket, and I decided I could possibly avoid fainting if I was lucky. Jackie Kay cropped up with both fiction and poetry, local author Rennie McOwan got some attention, as did Mairi Hedderwick and Debi Gliori.

And then there were the books in Scots, of which she had many to show us. I particularly liked Roald Dahl’s The Twits, which became The Eejits.

I reckon you can deduce that there’s enough for a PhD there, somewhere. We could have gone on for hours and only skimmed the surface. There was a lot I knew about, obviously, but there was also quite a bit I didn’t, because I was never a small Scottish child, unlike others in the audience who had strong and fond memories of many of the books mentioned.

The Endless Steppe

Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe was re-issued a few years ago now, and it has been sitting on my close radar ever since. I knew it’d be good, but perhaps not quite this good. It’s the kind of book you kick yourself for not having got to sooner. But I comfort myself in the knowledge that I finished reading it on – what would have been – Esther’s 85 birthday. She celebrates a few birthdays in the book, so it seemed appropriate.

Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe

If you’ve read Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, this – especially the beginning – will seem awfully familiar. Nothing to do with copying; it’s just that both are describing the same event, for very similar people. It’s when the Russians rounded up the Jews in Vilnius in 1941 and put them on goods trains to Siberia.

Ten-year-old Esther gets taken from the large house, and loving home, where she lived with nearly all her relatives. Many of them disappeared that morning, and it’s only Esther and her parents and grandparents who are put on the back of a lorry. But they were the ‘lucky’ ones, as everyone else eventually died in the concentration camps.

They spent five years in Rubtsovsk, which was then merely a village. After a tough start planting potatoes and trying to make them grow in the harsh Siberian conditions, the family ended up working and living mainly in Rubtsovsk. It sounds good, but life for them was very difficult. Even for people who had been born there life was hard. The winters sound so cruel you can’t believe anyone could survive.

Her beautiful mother almost kills herself working in one job worse than the other, and her father is often forced to work away, while living conditions [renting a small corner of someone else’s very small home] meant that they couldn’t always be with Esther’s grandmother. As for herself, at the end she almost comes to love it in Siberia. She has friends and she adores school.

This being an account of what happened to real people it is very inspiring while also being quite awful. You have all the memories of the hunger and the cold, beautifully combined with the tale of a child growing up, and all the humour that this entails, as well as ordinary childhood angst. Written in the 1960s, it’s not that long afterwards, so I imagine Esther remembered most of the details. I was left wanting to know more about her life, and that of her parents. I hoped she’d still be alive, but she died in 2009.

Fling and Sling

Or Fling, Sling and Batter your way to Victory as the full title reads. It’s ‘all you need to know about medieval weaponry.’

What’s more, this ‘book’ written by Philip Steele is as much toy as book, since you can build a working catapult with the 15 model pieces and the two rubber bands. (I like the preciseness of the number of rubber bands…)

Fling, Sling and Batter your way to Victory

It’s actually quite interesting. I learned things I didn’t know before. You know how when you read medieval novels (ones set in those days, rather than being quite that old) and there is fighting, they will mention ‘stuff’? Well, I’m the kind of person who just reads on, not necessarily able to visualise quite how these warriors are fighting each other.

Mobile towers (no, not anything to do with phone reception) and battering rams are both concepts from past reading. And it’s not until now I actually know both what they look like and how they work!

I’m not totally sold on catapults, however, and the trebuchet looks lethal. I know which end of it I’d prefer to be. And ‘storming the breach’ looks much more dangerous than the words suggest.

I suspect that real catapults didn’t depend on rubber bands, either.

This is very hands-on non-fiction reading.

The graphic Peter Pan

I wish there had been graphic novels when I was young. I could be wrong, but I believe we only had comics. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but it would have been fun to have had access to the classics in picture form. There must have been many of us who’d never dream of reading one of those well known classic novels. The kind where you’d know the title, and you might have seen the film, but where you’d stop and think the book will just be too hard to read. Because it’s a ‘proper’ book.

J M Barrie, Peter Pan, adapted by Stref with Fin Cramb

Now Birlinn have transformed Peter Pan into a beautiful picture story, adapted by Stref with Fin Cramb (what fantastic names!).

The illustrations are most attractive, and some of them I could sit and stare at for a long time. And if you read the whole thing, you get all of Peter Pan as well.

J M Barrie, Peter Pan, adapted by Stref with Fin Cramb

Light on Dumyat

Light on Dumyat is an old book, but not as old as I’d believed. First published in 1982, Rennie McOwan doesn’t say when it is set, but I’m guessing the 1950s. There are sheep in the middle of Stirling, and that rather determines the period. As the Resident IT Consultant said, there were just about sheep in his time, so I’m thinking this is a little before then.

Rennie McOwan, Light on Dumyat

Rennie McOwan lives very locally. Maybe I see him out and don’t know it. The Resident IT Consultant once went walking with him, when he was a teenager. That’s the Resident IT Consultant, not Rennie, who as an adult was a good companion because he had a car and could offer a walk somewhere more interesting.

Not that Stirling isn’t interesting, and Dumyat, which is a hill in the nearby Ochils, is as worthy as anywhere. You can tell that Rennie knows about walking and living wild. Light on Dumyat is basically the Famous Five in the Scottish countryside, and by now a wonderful period piece as well.

The book features 12-year-old Gavin who comes to stay for the holidays with his aunt and uncle near Stirling, and this young Englishman really takes to the hills. He meets three local children who seem to have adventures all the time and they set him a challenge to see if he can join their gang.

Gavin is stronger and more cunning than they thought, but the whole adventure is sidetracked when thieves try to steal his uncle’s valuable silver. That’s when his new friends really come into their own.

Very nice and innocent, and the kind of thing I’d have lapped up at the right age. Now, I’m too unfit to attempt Dumyat [that’s dum-eye-at], so will have to gaze at it from afar instead.

(I see there are a few more books about these children.)

Darker Ends

If you are feeling nervous, and would like to read a book to calm you down, I suggest you don’t choose Alex Nye’s new novel Darker Ends. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind feeling scared as you are transported into the depths of a dark and snowy Glencoe at night, then it might well be just your thing.

Alex Nye, Darker Ends

I liked the book, but rather wished I’d not been reading it when I was reading it. Unless, yes, perhaps there is no safe place in which to read Darker Ends, and in that case…

We meet 14-year-old Maggie and her nine-year-old brother Rory home alone (scream!!) at the ancient inn their parents have just bought in Glencoe.

And now the parents have gone out to do some shopping (honestly!) and they are not returning home, and it’s dark and there is a snowstorm outside and the old inn creaks and groans and the children are feeling increasingly scared,

when a strange man knocks on the door asking for shelter. He’s not their only concern, either. There appears to be a resident ghost upstairs. So between the stranded traveller, the mysterious ghost boy, the weather and being suddenly thrown in with a group of people fleeing for their lives back in 1692 – Massacre of Glencoe – Maggie and Rory have a most eventful night.

Who, or what, will kill them first? And are their parents all right?