Category Archives: History

Is it all because of Ladybird books?

Would I even be here if it weren’t for Ladybird books?

Years ago I blogged (rather peculiarly, it strikes me now) about Ladybird books, and how they were not part of my past, and how I almost resented this. But now it seems to me as though that one book I bought at the age of ten and could barely read, might have set me up for life. Where would I be if I hadn’t?

I have always ‘blamed’ my fascination for the UK on Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie, and while it is still true that they inspired me, I now feel I must add my sensible Ladybird book. People here think back to those days, when both they and Britain were different. I actively went in search of this charming country where children walked around in those T-bar shoes and boys wore shorts and had haircuts like they did in old films.

And there was cake.

I so wanted to go and see the Ladybird exhibition in Bexhill; not just for the books, but for the De La Warr Pavilion as well. But it was all too much at the other end of the country to be realistic. The exhibition is in London now. Can I make it to London? I don’t know.

The article in the Guardian a few weeks ago made me feel many things. It was fascinating to read that someone’s real birthday party actually ended up in the book. I mean, surely that’s the complete opposite of today’s fantasy books; finding your own reality in a book. I knew I wanted to be part of it, except you can’t wish your own past away.

Perhaps I can take up collecting Ladybird books? Not terribly original as ideas go, but maybe I can fake a new past? I never did wear shoes like that. The one time I got close to it, the woman in the shoeshop pointed out I was an adult and couldn’t have them.

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.

I’ve got it covered #2

Kodnamn Verity. You can tell what book it is, can’t you? My second favourite book ever, Code Name Verity. In Swedish. It’s – not surprisingly – very good in translation (by Carina Jansson) as well. I could easily have slipped and spent all night reading it again.

Just like my friend Pippi did recently. When she visited earlier this year, she asked what she should read. Because she was in Stirling, and in Scotland, and because I used to live in Stockport, where she had also visited, I suggested Code Name Verity. Not necessarily believing she’d obey or remember. But it seems she did.

Pippi emailed me to say she’d been kept awake reading until half past two. That’s the sort of thing I like to hear.

Elizabeth Wein, Kodnamn Verity

I thought Elizabeth Wein might like to hear it too, so I made sure she did. Because I leave no one in peace. What’s more, Elizabeth sent me a copy of Kodnamn Verity, so that I can enjoy this marvellous book in more than one language.

The cover is great. I’d seen it online before, but it’s actually much nicer in the flesh. The whole book has a nice feel to it. When I’ve finished stroking it, I might put it away. Or I could always have an accident and…

Embracing the Darkness

At one point last week I got so desperate for blogging assistance that I rounded a few likely people up. I’d like to say that Danny Weston volunteered his services, but in actual fact it was a ‘pal’ of his who made him ‘speak up.’ If he hadn’t, I’d have forced him. I mean, if he’d been anywhere near. I hope he isn’t – wasn’t – but since I don’t know this Weston chap, I can’t be sure. As long as he keeps that creepy Mr Sparks away from me!

“They say the devil has all the best tunes. That may be the single thought that fuelled my debut novel, The Piper.

Looking back, it’s hard to say exactly where the idea came from. I know I wanted to write a good old-fashioned ghost story and at the back of my mind, I was thinking about The Pied Piper of Hamelin; that much misunderstood tale that had the greedy burghers of a German town paying the ultimate price for double-crossing its eponymous hero.

And I thought about an old saying that I’d heard many times, but rarely paused to consider fully.

‘Who pays the piper calls the tune.’

So, I decided, my story would involve music. It would involve water. And it would feature a supernatural presence that has returned over the centuries to seek its revenge. Scaring people with mere words on paper is a real challenge. I knew that I needed to find a suitable landscape in which to set my story and I found it in Romney Marsh, that bleak almost treeless wilderness down on the South coast, replete with streams, lakes and canals. After some research, I found out about a church, St Leonard’s in Hythe, one of only two in the UK that house an ossuary – a place where bones are stored. As soon as I read about what was stored down in ‘the crypt,’ I knew it would feature in my story.

I decided early on that I also wanted to set the book in the past, merely because it seemed easier to convince an audience of ghostly happenings back in the day, rather than the perfectly lit interiors of the present. I focused on two time periods – the early 1800s and the eve of World War Two. My lead characters, I decided, would be evacuees, a fourteen-year-old boy, Peter and his seven-year-old sister, Daisy, exiled from their home in Dagenham and sent out into the countryside to face a terror that is centuries old. When I learned that this mass exodus, which involved 3.5 million children, was actually called ‘Operation Pied Piper,’ I realised that I had just been handed something that felt very much like a perfectly-wrapped gift. I had to use it.

In early October my new book, Mr Sparks will be released. The eponymous character is not human. He is a ventriloquist’s doll. He’s been around for a long time… a very long time. He tells everyone he meets that he used to be a real boy and quite frankly, his talents exceed those of the various ‘operators’ he’s picked up along the way. His latest sidekick is a young Welsh boy called Owen, who finds himself going to places he doesn’t really want to visit. The same places where I intend to take my readers.

Danny Weston, Mr Sparks

Once again, I’m riffing on a classic fairy tale here; in this case Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. And once again, my aim with these particular words on paper is to make the reader feel uneasy… unsettled… and dare I say it? Scared.

Have I succeeded? We’ll have to wait and see.”

Danny Weston

Eek.

 

Go Sell a First Draft

It’s one thing to be rescued by people you know, and another for a complete stranger to write a perfect and well timed blog post for a witch, just like that. Here is CJ Daugherty* on the book that everyone is talking about right now:

‘Let me start by saying, like so many writers, I love To Kill a Mockingbird. And I adore the film adaptation, which I consider to be one of the truly perfect book-to-film adaptations of all time.

TKAMB poster

When I was a child, I watched the film and cried during the courtroom scene. I was terrified of Boo Radley, whom I envisioned as a kind of ghost; an unknowable terror. But Scout saw through his frightening facade. Her belief in him, and her sympathy towards his plight, changed me.

I can honestly say that I am a kinder person because of To Kill a Mockingbird. I cannot think of many other books that affected me in this way.

So when I learned there was a sequel, at first I was thrilled. How exciting and marvellous that such a thing should be found! How wonderful for book lovers.

As more was revealed, though, my views began to change. What we know now is Go Set A Watchman isn’t a sequel. It’s an early draft.

We know that Harper Lee worked closely with her editor to revise that draft, rewriting the book over and over and over, across many years, polishing the rough stone down to the perfect faceted gem that is To Kill a Mockingbird.

I might still have been fine with the release of this early draft, if Lee hadn’t tried so hard for so long to keep it hidden away. If those who loved her and spoke for her – because she is, Boo Radley-like, afraid of the world; too frightened to leave her flat in New York when she was young, afraid to leave her home in Alabama when she grew older – if they hadn’t maintained until their deaths that there was no other Harper Lee book.

Sadly, elderly people are vulnerable, and there is money to be made. Unimaginable sums of money.

Obviously, there is simply no way for us to know if, in a nursing home in her nineties, Ms Lee did not just, at long last, change her own mind. Or if her mind was changed for her by younger, stronger people with Manhattan mortgages to pay.

Does that make you uncomfortable? I makes me very uncomfortable.

You see, I grew up surrounded by elderly southern women. This was the world of my childhood. I think of Harper Lee now and I see my grandmother, a fragile, white-haired southern lady trapped in the modern age, and bewildered by it. As a child, I watched her retreat from the real world to her garden in small-town Texas, where she spent her days taking care of her roses and listening to ancient sermons on a reel-to-reel tape player.

When she went to the supermarket in 1985, she still put on white cotton gloves and a straw hat and drove her enormous ancient Buick like a captain guiding a ship through rough seas. If the manager of the supermarket spoke to her kindly, as he often did, it flummoxed her utterly. She did not want to speak to modern men.

All the way home she would complain about it.

‘I do not understand why that man must always speak to me,’ she would say in tones of vexation.

Sometimes I would venture a defence of the kindly supermarket manager. ‘I thought he was nice.’

‘He was nice,’ she would explain as if this were perfectly obvious. ‘But I do not know him.’

When she was older, my grandmother would sign anything you wanted her to sign. Anything to make you stop asking and let her get back to her memories and her roses.

According to Harper Lee’s now-dead family, she was much the same. I think it is the way of southern ladies of that generation.

So I worry.

Then there is the fact that I am a writer. And as a writer, I know what first drafts look like. Any writer can talk with horror of ‘ugly first drafts’. Writing a novel is a process of evolution. We come to our stories gradually. Painfully. And when we get there, after much, much work, everything that came before seems disastrous to us.

The first draft of my book, Night School, contains vampires and witches. The final book is about Bullingdon Club style secret societies. I worked a long, long time to get to where I ended up.

I wouldn’t want anyone to sell the evidence of my journey.

So here, for all to see, allow me to make the following statement:

Someday, if I’m lucky, I will be 90 years old. If I am still a writer then, it is entirely possible that young lawyers in expensive suits and thrusting publishers with more ambition than morality will come to you and tell you that CJ Daugherty wants the first draft of Night School published.

If that day should ever come, remember what I am telling you now: It is a lie.’
C.J. Daugherty

(*Former crime reporter CJ Daugherty is the author of the international best-selling Night School series. Her books have been translated into 22 languages, and are number one bestsellers in multiple countries. She is now co-writing a new series, The Secret Fire, with French author Carina Rozenfeld. Find out more at www.cjdaugherty.com)

The Winter Horses

There was never any time to read the crime proof by Philip Kerr, several years ago. It looked good, though. And the book survived my culls, simply because I really wanted to read it. And I didn’t know about Philip’s children’s books. Then I was surprised to find him described as a Scottish crime writer, because I didn’t know that either. Seems he was born in Edinburgh, but doesn’t live in Scotland. Though I could be wrong on that.

Philip Kerr, The Winter Horses

But I’m not wrong about how great a book The Winter Horses is. Set in the Ukraine during WWII it makes for grim reading, but is also enormously uplifting. It’s mostly about Przewalski’s, which are very unusual horses, and during the war they were facing extinction because they weren’t pure enough for Hitler.

The ones in this book are almost human (which is more than you can say about the men who killed most of them), and although wild, can adapt to circumstances. 14-year-old Kalinka has seen all her family killed by the Germans, and most of her home city too. She won’t accept that the Germans will get these last horses as well.

With the help of an old man, this starving girl manages to get a pair of horses away, and manages not to freeze to death on the winter steppe.

This is a children’s book, so I think I’m allowed to say that much. You know there has to be something positive at the end. But I won’t tell you what or how. Only that I had been correct in feeling I’d like Philip’s writing.

Old books

When Mother-of-witch died, Offspring were young and needed looking after when I went off to be with her. There was a complete lack of available relatives at the time, so anyone who happened to be standing near when the Resident IT Consultant asked for assistance was roped in for after-school care. For six weeks! I can never thank them enough.

Yesterday morning Helen Grant took one look at this blog – or what tried to pass itself off as Bookwitch – and told me she would write it herself, if I’d let her. It feels particularly appropriate to accept her kind offer, since she is just about the only author who did meet the Grandmother, and about whom the Grandmother always asked questions, once they had met. And seeing as the Grandmother not only dealt in Oxfam books, but was known to have culled her own books rather enthusiastically, this post about old books fits right in:

‘Our household has finally obtained its first eReader. It’s not mine; whenever anyone asks me whether I have one, I always reply (truthfully) that since I do most of my reading in the bath, it probably isn’t a good idea. A paperback may survive an unexpected plunge into the water (as the crinkled pages of a number of my books will testify) but I don’t think an electronic gadget would cope.

I can imagine, however, that the day will come when I will cave in and buy one of these things for myself. At present we live in a family home whose walls are lined with bookshelves, but when I look into the distant future and imagine myself as an empty nester, I’d like to think I shall be travelling the world – and travelling light. When I went overlanding from London to Kathmandu in 1992, I took all six of Trollope’s Barchester novels with me; nowdays I could take along ten or a hundred times as many books in digital format. I suppose, too, that when we downsize from our family house I shall have to cull some of my books. (Writing this, I went to take a critical look at my bookshelves and could not see a single one I was prepared to part with. Hmmmm.)

There are some books, however, that I could never replace with a digital version. I have quite a few old books, the oldest dating to the eighteenth century, many more to the nineteenth. I have three children’s anthologies which appeared in the 1940s and belonged to my mother when she was a child. When I was a teenager, my mother had her own book cull and took those to the local charity shop; outraged, I marched down there and bought them back. They are still on my bookshelves. One of them includes one of the best fairy tales in existence, Melisande by E.Nesbit, in which the wicked fairy excluded from the christening wishes that the baby princess shall be bald.

Other treasures include The Silver Fairy Book, which I also remember from my childhood (I have failed to extract my parents’ copy from their clutches so I ordered my own from Abebooks), The Lady Ivie’s Trial by Sir John Fox, some beautiful Victorian translations of Homer, and an extensive collection of old editions of H.Rider Haggard’s adventure novels.

Leighton Library

All of these are old books, some of them centenarians, with yellowing pages and the dusty scent of age lingering about them. To replace them with eBooks would be a minor act of barbarism.

Because I treasure old books, I love antiquarian libraries. The corner of Scotland shared by the Bookwitch and myself is fortunate to have two: Innerpeffray Library near Crieff, and the Leighton Library in Dunblane. Both seventeenth century libraries created by local noblemen, each of these is very well worth a visit. One of the truly marvellous things about these libraries is that you are allowed to handle the books (respectfully, of course). I recently spent a happy half hour in the Leighton Library leafing through the pages of Buffon’s Natural History and marvelling at the engravings of animals. At Innerpeffray my pet book is The Treatise of Specters, which is crammed with spine tingling material, lovingly collected and printed in 1658. A visit to Innerpeffray also offers the opportunity to look at the chapel adjoining the library, which has, amongst other attractions, a leper squint – a small window allowing lepers (who were excluded from church) to watch the services from outside.

Library of Innerpeffray

There is, I think, a kind of magic in very old volumes. Bookwitchery, you might say…’