Category Archives: History

OK with the UK

I read the book. Of course I did. But only once, with some second glances at certain parts. I’m talking about the book that prepares you for the Life in the UK Test. It’s got a lot of superfluous stuff in it, but stuff which you are encouraged to commit to heart.

Now, over a month later, I still know more about British history than I used to. I trust it will soon go [away]. There were too many years to learn, too many James and Edward and Henry and those others, with numbers after their names. Who killed whom, and what was their religion?

But there were other things I’d read, that helped a lot. Read, as in the past. Because much to my surprise the historical fiction, for children, that I’ve read in a fairly organic kind of way, turned out to be useful. I mean, not just enjoyable. And I remembered it, when I can more often than not even recall characters’ names after a bit.

Useful in that I suddenly came to have gut feelings as to when the Romans did that thing, or the Christians or the Vikings. And I have finally sussed the Marys. Some of them, at least. Bloody Mary Queen of Scots, for instance. Plus that other one. 🙂

So yes, I believe in reading. Not so much the test. Perhaps save people the agony at what is often a difficult time in their lives anyway, and just prescribe each of us a few good British background novels.

To start you off, I recommend Elen Caldecott’s The Short Knife. This book helped with several aspects of people who invaded this country in the past, as well as the people who were already here. Which, I suppose, makes it sound like there were some that could have done with sitting test back then, too.

Bookwitch bites #149

The other day I discovered a lone book on the coffee table. That is unusual. Mostly I have a pile of three or four, that are either queueing or are emergency spares if things take a turn for the worse. But there I was, with just the one book. It’s Philip Caveney’s latest, which he’s about to launch this week. I now stand a small chance of reading the book by then. The Sins of Allie Lawrence. I’m scared already.

The Costa shortlist, by which I obviously mean the children’s Costa shortlist, turned up in the paper this past week. I’d like to think it’s because newspapers always feel this is important stuff, and not that they are keen to fill pages easily. I’ve only read one of the shortlisted books, Meg Rosoff’s The Great Godden. But as I looked at the five author photos, I could count meeting three of the writers. Should I get a hobby?

I’ve got On the Cover of The Rolling Stone whirring around in my head. At the time – like in the early 1970s ? – I didn’t really know The Rolling Stone. But as Dr Hook sang so wistfully about it, I got that it was a big deal. Not sure what authors dream of, but I imagine that ending up on the cover of The Bookseller can’t be a totally bad thing to happen. Very happy for Liz Kessler whose new book, When the World Was Ours – out in January – is covering the latest Bookseller.

Travels From my Twilight Zone

You’ll remember Jeff Zycinski and his autobiographical The Red Light Zone, about his years as Head of Radio at BBC Scotland. It was very good, and as I said at the time – barely two years ago – you could remove the radio and you’d have excellent coverage of 25 years of life in Scotland.

Not only has Jeff now been seriously ill, while narrowly avoiding the dreaded virus of 2020, but he has written another autobiography, mostly about the years before the radio years. And it is an even better tale. ‘Morphine, memories and make-believe’ describes it perfectly.

We start with Jeff not being the slightest concerned that ‘it might be mouth cancer.’ Well, it was. So first we see him in his hospital bed, at the start of the year. And while he works on getting better, we read about his early life in Easterhouse, the seventh son of a Polish father and a Scottish mother.

It has completely changed my outsider’s view of Easterhouse, and it has reinforced my feeling that we are all mostly the same. A few years younger than me, and a Catholic boy in Glasgow, it still seems as if Jeff had a childhood I can relate to. It is fascinating in its ordinariness.

He tells it so well, and I’m beginning to believe he could tell me absolutely anything, and I’d believe it, and have fun. So, yes please, go on!

The second part of the book is fiction. Probably. The first story about the man not far from Loch Ness reminded me of Jeff. So, about that money..? All super stories, really enjoyable, and just that bit different from many other stories.

Then we return to Jeff’s health – please stay well! – before he takes us on a trip round Scotland, outlining the best of the places mentioned in the biographical first half. And I hope he has been allowed to hug his children again. Even if they are adults now.

Handsome in Hemsöborna

Sven Wollter is dead. For anyone not in the know, this actor was the most handsome man in Sweden, or so the saying went. Back in the day, which was quite a while ago. 86 is a good age, but I’m sure Sven had plenty more life in him, had it not been for that bloody virus.

I was first aware of him in August Strindberg’s Hemsöborna, some time in the 1960s. The whole country watched. The young Witch thought he was very good looking, and it seems she wasn’t the only one.

I know. I shouldn’t go on about something as unimportant as looks. In Sven we had an excellent actor and a good communist. It always felt as though you could trust him.

Living in exile like I do, I have missed most of what he did in later years, but I do remember trying to tell Adéle Geras about his good looks, when she borrowed my Van Veeteren DVDs, about Håkan Nesser’s detective. And I was always pleased to discover he was still alive. Until today.

‘Her election book’

It was gratifying to discover an online book event, shared with the US, where I was still awake enough to attend. But I suppose with Elizabeth Wein sitting not too many miles north of Bookwitch Towers, it needed to be early enough, while still permitting Carole Barrowman, somewhere in the US Midwest, to have got past her morning coffee.

They met up at the end of a week filled with online events for Elizabeth’s war time book The Enigma Game, recently published in her home country America. Carole gave us all of one sentence in a Scottish accent before switching back to her American one. I wish she’d said more! It’s strange really, how she’s over there and Elizabeth is over here.

The above quote is Carole’s who, having started reading the book on election night and loving it, now felt it was her ‘election book’; the one which made her week endurable. (I just want to know why she waited so long.)

Anyway, there we were, and I suddenly realised I was sitting next to two of my former interview subjects, which felt a bit weird. But nice. And fun. Because Carole is good at this interviewing thing, and Elizabeth has just the right books to be interviewed about, even if, as she said, she’s no good at elevator pitches. After an extended pitch, Elizabeth read us an early chapter about the German and the grammophone.

For this book she learned Morse code. Of course she did. Apparently it’s easy to learn, but hard to understand when it comes at you, so to speak. It was a suitable thing for young girls to learn, giving them something to do.

As Carole pointed out, everyone in The Enigma Game has something to hide, or they are hiding, like being a traveller, or a German refugee, or in the case of Louisa, someone who can’t hide her darker skin. Elizabeth said she always has someone like her in her books, a stranger, and she thinks it’s because she has never quite belonged where she’s lived.

During the conversation Elizabeth even began mixing herself up with Louisa, which proves the point. As a child in Jamaica she spoke fluent Jamaican patois, which she quickly had to shed when moving to the US. Carole compared that with her and her brother John’s needs when they moved from Scotland to America, quickly having to fit in.

Carole kept discovering more and more of Elizabeth’s books, and made notes on what else to read. The Enigma Game was going straight to her parents. She had actually read the Star Wars book, Cobolt Squadron, which Elizabeth described as her practice for Enigma, saying ‘how much fun is it to write an air battle?’ (Quite fun, I’d say.)

She’d got the railway line up the east coast somewhat confused, which means she forgot it had to be allowed for. So the northeast of Scotland was slightly altered by Elizabeth. Her fictional airbase is based on Montrose airfield.

Slightly behind her deadline for the next book, which she is not allowed to tell us about, is a kind of Biggles for girls, set in the 1930s. That’s good enough for me! And then Carole read out my question! I never ask questions in Zoom events. But I’d really like more books about the three characters in Enigma. No pressure, but yes.

As always when you have fun, this event came to an end. But it was good, and this was a perfect pairing of people to chat about a perfect book. Like Carole said, read The Enigma Game!

And while we wait

to hear [I hope not] the worst from America, I will mention another dead old man, as far removed from US politics as it’s – probably – possible to get.

Jan Myrdal who died last week at the age of 93, was the son of two famous Swedes, Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, and I always thought of him as young. That’s probably because I left Sweden and heard very little about him for decades.

I would ‘see him’ regularly, however, emerging from a fake door in the Hotell Gästis in Varberg.

It’s where he moved in his old age (Varberg, not the hotel), seemingly through knowing the hotel owner, Lasse Diding, who also happens to be a friend of my GP Cousin. Lasse, along with his other pal, Henning Mankell, sorted out the Jan Myrdal library, where they went through and shelved 50 000 books.

According to Lasse, Jan was a little miffed to be relying on a *badly educated, communist millionaire, and they fell out a bit, but made up again.

Reading up on Jan, I realised I hadn’t realised quite how extreme left he was in his politics, nor quite how many not entirely pc opinions he held. But why not? We’re allowed to think what we think.

*Badly educated? Lasse was at university with me, and I’m not, so I’d say he isn’t.

The Ghost of Gosswater

These ghosts really belong to New Year and after, but would be just fine for Halloween as well. After all, heroines who go poking round graveyards on lonely islands in spooky lakes…

Anyway, it’s late December 1899. Lady Agatha’s father, the earl of Gosswater has just died, and Agatha – aged 12 – is about to be turned out of Gosswater Hall, her childhood home.

Her really very ghastly cousin Clarence kicks her out, sending her away to go and live with her father – her real father – in a humble cottage nearby. There is no explanation, as all the people she has known are sent away.

Agatha, or Aggie as she becomes, keeps seeing ghosts, and some people see a ghost when they look at her, too. As winter sets in around Gosswater, Aggie knows she needs to solve the puzzle of her existence. Hence the poking around graves.

Several unpleasant characters come her way, but so do a number of nice ones. After her new father is sent away, Aggie searches for the truth, with snow and ice forming a treacherous landscape for her to traipse through.

I found this a very relaxing read. Lucy Strange has a good way with characters, and the setting is cold, but attractive. Besides, ghosts can turn out to be better people than ghastly cousins.

Space Explorers

This book – 25 Extraordinary Stories of Space Exploration and Adventure – by Libby Jackson, and with the most gorgeous illustrations by Léonard Dupond, is the perfect Christmas present for your young person who is into space or who might want to become a space fan.

While it possibly doesn’t contain anything new, it is nevertheless an attractive compilation of what has happened in space up until now, starting with those first, short trips into near space and then on to the Moon programme and finishing with the International Space Station.

I would have loved it as a child, and I imagine there are plenty of children to love it now. Libby Jackson tells ‘the story’ interestingly, and as I said, the illustrations are enough for a book in themselves.

With a bit of luck, there might be more space adventures to come, both for the astronauts who go out there, but also for the many scientists on the ground. Mars next?

Very inspiring!


Once I had worked out what St Augustine did after he had made Christians of the English (Archbishop of Canterbury), and established whether Queen Elizabeth I had been a raving Catholic (she wasn’t), it all went quite quickly.

If you feel I have read far too little [fiction] this last month, I have to agree with you. I really have. Read too little. Most of my unravaged-by-Covid reading efforts have been spent on the book that teaches heathens how to be good and proper British style people, and while it is quite easy, in a way, it is also unbelievably tiresome and preachy.

It is very touching the things someone has felt us foreigners need/want to know about this lovely country. And you know what? The places we come from have similar facts we think are lovely and important and want to press on our own unsuspecting immigrants. What’s more, some of our facts are the same. Which means we are probably just as good as each other.

This afternoon I sat the Life in the UK test. It was easy. At least mine was. I know when Easter falls, and what a Beefeater is, and I was very relieved when the question about the small claims was about England and Wales, as the book had the ‘wrong’ figure for Scotland.

What wasn’t fun was the preparation, or the travelling at a time when only essential travelling is meant to happen. What was by far the worst, however, was witnessing the humiliation of a young muslim woman in front of the rest of us. For decades I have been saying how one of the things I like about the UK is how lovely its people are. The book actually says very much the same thing. But today’s experience was not an example of this.

Perhaps I’ll feel better about it tomorrow. If not I can always write to my MP.

Daisy and the Unknown Warrior

I don’t know why I never thought of it before. Like so many other tourists, I have visited the grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey. But I took it at face value, not considering what it stands for or how it came to be there. And as someone from a country that wasn’t at war, it somehow didn’t strike me as quite as important.

I am sorry.

Tony Bradman’s short book for Barrington Stoke, Daisy and the Unknown Warrior, tells the story of 11-year-old Daisy, who in autumn 1920 hears about the plans for burying an anonymous soldier at Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day. Her father never came back from the war, and the family don’t know where he’s buried. She immediately senses that the unknown warrior is her dad.

She vows to make her way there to see what happens to her father. And it seems that so did thousands of Londoners, to see their lost warrior.

After a while Daisy realises that not only does she feel better for having seen somebody’s coffin given this special treatment, but that this goes for everyone else there too. This Unknown Warrior really is the soldier these people have lost, every one of them.