Category Archives: History

When Philip met Danny

It’s all my fault. I wanted to ask Danny Weston a few questions on his winning the Scottish Children’s Book Award last week. But then I had this – I thought – brilliant idea. So I asked Philip Caveney if he’d have a go and do the interview. I might get better questions that way.

I’m so sorry.

“The brief was very straightforward. ‘Get an interview with Danny Weston,’ she said. ‘Go to his house and get him to talk.’ It sounded easy enough.

But it wasn’t as simple as I might have imagined. For a start, it wasn’t to be at his apartment in Tollcross; that would have been too easy. No, it was to be recorded at his ancestral home in the Highlands, a big rambling Victorian construction out in the sticks and the only way to get there was to hire a pony and trap at the local station. There followed a long, slow ride across the moors and the aged driver, a grey bearded fellow with a wizened face, clearly wasn’t in the mood to make polite conservation.

‘Do you know Mr Weston?’ I asked him and he gave me a long, withering look.

‘Aye, I know him,’ he said darkly, and spoke no more.

When we finally arrived at the house, I asked the driver if he’d wait for me but he simply shook his head and set off back in the direction from which we had come, whipping up the horses into a near gallop. Charming, I thought. The ancient front door of the house was ajar. I pushed it open and stepped into the hallway. There were no lights on within and the place smelled of decay and neglect. I shouted Weston’s name and my voice seemed to echo throughout the house but there was no reply.

I was obliged to wander disconsolately from room to room until I finally found him sitting in what looked like a library, surrounded by shelves of mouldering books. ‘What kept you?’ he snarled and indicated a vacant seat in front of him. There was no offer of refreshment after my long journey so I settled myself down, thinking what a poor host this man was. Perhaps everything I’d heard about him was true.

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I switched on my voice recorder. ‘You must be pleased,’ I ventured. ‘After winning the Scottish Book Award and everything.’

‘Delirious,’ he said, but his expression remained grave.

‘But it must be nice, surely? After all, this is your first attempt at a novel…’

There was no reaction to that, so I decided to dispense with the niceties and asked him a few questions about his childhood. I was amazed to discover that the two of us had rather a lot in common – both of us had fathers in the Royal Air Force, we had spent much of our childhoods in boarding schools and both of us acquired the overpowering urge to write in our teens. Astonishingly, we were inspired by the very same book, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. ‘I’m not always banging on about it like you, though,’ he muttered ungraciously. I let that one go.

‘So what attracts you to such dark stories?’ I asked.

He looked annoyed at the question. ‘Your stories aren’t exactly Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,’ he growled.

Fair point, I admitted, but… a vengeful ghost haunting two young evacuees on Romney Marsh? And the new book, Mr Sparks… a twisted ventriloquist’s dummy who outlives his operators? Where do these strange ideas come from?

He gave me a scornful look as though he thought I should have known better than to ask that question.

‘Is there anything new in the pipeline?’ I asked. I was floundering here.

‘There will be a new story along in September,’ he said. ‘The Haunting of Jessop Rise…’

‘See, right there,’ I interrupted him. ‘That’s clearly not going to be a laugh riot.’

‘Young readers love to be scared,’ he assured me. ‘And little wonder! What are the very first stories we give them? Little Red Riding Hood… Hansel and Gretel… These are horror stories and they are of course, thrilled by them, as soon as they’re old enough to understand words.’ He gestured to a shelf of books to his left. ‘It’s not as though you’re unfamiliar with the idea yourself, after all.’

I was astonished to see a whole row of my old titles residing there. ‘What about your Edinburgh trilogy?’ he asked me. ‘As I said before, your books are not all sweetness and light are they? In Crow Boy you deal with the bubonic plague. And Seventeen Coffins features the serial killers, Burke and Hare.’

I was frankly astonished. ‘I had no idea you were familiar with my work,’ I said.

‘My dear fellow, you are one of my biggest influences,’ he assured me. ‘After all, we have so much in common.’

‘Some of my books are lighter in tone,’ I protested. ‘The new book, The Calling, for instance, that’s about all the statues in Edinburgh, coming to life for one night a year. It’s quite funny in places…’

‘… and also features a brutal kidnapping,’ he interrupted. He raised his eyebrows. ‘The publishers sent me a proof copy,’ he added by way of explanation. Then his expression changed to one of annoyance. ‘Isn’t this supposed to be about me?’ he snapped.

‘Oh, er… yes. So… Jessop Rise. Tell me a bit about that.’

‘It features all my favourite things,’ he said, looking animated for the first time. ‘Ghosts. Children terrorized by things that go bump in the night. An ancient supernatural being. Oh yes, and a really cruel villain.’ He smirked. ‘There’s one scene where…’ He leaned closer and whispered something into my ear. I blanched. I’ve been writing for something like 40 years but that…. that was going too far.

He grinned at me, his face ghoulish in the already fading light. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked me. ‘Have I offended you? Are you shocked?’

‘Not at all,’ I said but I was beginning to feel distinctly nervous. I was uncomfortably aware that it was already getting late and I had no transport arranged. I glanced at my watch.’ ‘I er…. really should be getting back,’ I murmured. ‘I was wondering if you had a phone number for the coachman at the station.’

He smiled grimly, shook his head. ‘There are no phones in this house,’ he said. ‘And even if there were, the old man wouldn’t come all the way out here this late in the day. Not after what happened last time.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to walk back. Unless of course, you’d like to stay in the guest room for the night? The sheets haven’t been changed in several years and there’s been an invasion of slugs, but if you’d prefer to…’

‘No thanks,’ I said, a little too quickly. ‘I’ll walk. I… could do with the exercise.’

‘As you wish.’ He picked up an oil lamp from the table and handed it to me. ‘You’ll need this,’ he said. ‘To light your way. But a word of warning. Whatever you do, stay on the track. And make sure you keep your gaze fixed on the way ahead…’

It took me hours to get back to the station, by which time it was dark and the moon was up. The place was absolutely deserted. Sitting alone in the ancient waiting room by the light of the failing oil lamp, I wondered if I had got enough from Weston to actually write up the interview. I took out my recorder to listen back to what was on there.

There was nothing. Not a single word – only a deep rasping chuckle. And then, without any warning, the lamp went out.”

Monster mum

Beowulf for dyslexic readers. And for me. I’m not saying I couldn’t read the ‘normal’ Beowulf, but the fact remains I’ve never felt the urge to give him a go.

Here in Brian Patten’s short easy version, with irresistibly monsterous illustrations by Chris Riddell, you have it all. Well, most of it; the core of what matters.

Brian Patten and Chris Riddell, Monster Slayer

In Monster Slayer, we learn about the King’s party to which Grendel the monster wasn’t invited (a mistake, I believe), and how he discovers this and comes and eats some of the King’s best warriors. Which is not good.

Many try to kill Grendel, but he is one of the worst monsters around, and it’s not until Beowulf turns up that Grendel can be beaten. And then they have another party! (I can’t help but feel that they should party less.)

Even horrible monsters have mothers, and Grendel’s monster mum comes looking for revenge for her son’s death. Beowulf needs all his strength and cunning to deal with this furious mother.

This is the perfect way to read a classic, enabling you to be like everyone else, while also learning about Beowulf.

2016 Scottish Children’s Book Awards

I encountered Elizabeth Wein at Stirling station as I caught the train to Glasgow yesterday morning. We were both heading to the 2016 Scottish Children’s Book Awards. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked. ‘I missed my train,’ she replied, which might have been true, but I wanted to know why she missed it in Stirling, seeing as Elizabeth has her own perfectly good railway station from which to miss trains. I met ‘Mr Wein’ who is very nice, but unfortunately I gave him the wet handshake. Sorry! I wasn’t expecting to be socialising that early.

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We made it to the Glasgow Central Hotel, along with 1000 children and most of the shortlisted authors for this year’s award. Not having missed ‘my’ train, I arrived just in time for the photoshoot, where school children posed with their favourite authors. We were only a little bit in the way of hotel staff and their drinks trolleys and things, and there was an umbrella in my way and my camera stopped working for a bit, and someone mistook Elizabeth’s lovely book for photographic support…

Black Dove, White Raven - 2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

I repaired to the Green Room, managing to lose most of my marbles on the way. Apologies to anyone subjected to my complete lack of conversational skills. (Age and sleep deprivation, I reckon.) Chatted to ‘Mrs Danny Weston’ and Lindsey Fraser, who was there representing Joan Lingard. I turned down the kind offer of exclusive interviews in place of informal gossip. And not every event has someone whose job it is to go round hunting for The Blue Feather. (Never discovered if it was found.)

Refreshed by a cup of tea, I went to the awards ceremony for the Older Readers, where Danny talked of [non-pc] battleaxes, and of wanting to terrorise children, which he did very nicely with a picture of ‘those dolls.’ Elizabeth impressed the audience with a photo of herself on top of an airborne plane. Lindsey took a photo of us to show Joan, and described how Joan uses an iPad for all her research.

Two students did an interview with the authors and there was a Q&A session, which revealed how Danny runs after his characters with a notebook in his hand, to see what they will do, and Elizabeth said she always has to tell her book cover artist that they’ve got the wrong plane… There were prizes for best book reviews (they won an author!), and then there was the Scottish Children’s Book Award which went to Danny Weston for The Piper. He thanked his wife, his editor Charlie Sheppard and his ‘friend’ Philip Caveney who taught him everything he knows.

Elizabeth Wein at the 2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

Having brought loads – well, five – books to be signed, I joined the queues and was given a model plane to make by Elizabeth. Danny’s queue was too long so I went for lunch instead. Found Gillian Philip tackling the sandwiches, and we talked about motherhood and kelpies. Elizabeth Laird asked who I was, so I explained that I’m the one who always emails her after every event. She wondered if she ever writes back, and I assured her she always does.

The other morning session, which I had to miss, was for the [youngest] Bookbug Readers, and the winners were Simon Puttock and Ali Pye. Simon will be carrying his prize around for a couple of days, until he gets home. While ‘Mrs Weston’ secured sandwiches for her hubby I went and joined his queue, which had shrunk a little. Elizabeth Wein was interviewed on camera by someone, and I had the pleasure of witnessing another wet handshake, so at least I’m not the only one.

Danny Weston at the 2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

The Younger Readers award session started after lunch, with host Fergus introducing Gillian Philip, Liz Laird and Ross MacKenzie. When Fergus said they were going to read to us, they rebelled and said they were not. They’d decided to do things differently. (Good for them!)

Gillian talked about island holidays, cliffhangers, Saturday cinema and had a photo of the cutest puppy in a teacup. Her – very – early work consisted of many three-page books. Liz talked about Ethiopia and the running everyone does there, and mentioned the Emperor’s lion in 1968, and said she wasn’t guilty of that murder she was accused of. She also writes her books on the backs of used paper. (My kind of woman.) Ross described how you can find magic shops almost anywhere if you just look closely, and said an early reading memory was The Witches at school.

2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

After a very successful game of Consequences (it’s funny how funny those little stories always are), it was time for more prizes for reviews (another author), as well as a prize for best book trailer (most professional). And then Ross MacKenzie went and won his category of the 2016 Scottish Children’s Book Awards for The Nowhere Emporium. He did the usual, thanking his parents and his wife and his children and all those other people he might have forgotten.

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The children queued up to have books signed, and I went to find a train to take me home. Which means I didn’t take any more of my failed photos of Liz. I suppose there’s always next time.

A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E.

Some books know when to tell you it’s time. Penny Dolan’s A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. is one such – extremely patient – book. Suddenly, after years, I knew I had to read about Mouse.

Penny Dolan, A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E.

It’s a lovely book; a sort of Jane Eyre meets The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Set in the days when wealthy parents might take off to some far flung corner of the Earth, leaving their toddler with his rich grandfather, his angry uncle and his loving nanny, before being ‘lost,’ thought dead.

The grandfather seemingly doesn’t care about young Mouse, and the uncle looks like he wants a shortcut to his inheritance, so the nanny removes her charge to somewhere safe, loving Mouse as though he’s her own son.

But uncle Scrope can compete with the worst of fictional villains, and he sets things in motion to find Mouse, and then to put him in a ‘school’ which is one of the worst I’ve come across, even for Victorian fiction. Eventually the longsuffering Mouse escapes and makes his own life, meeting good, normal people, who help him, and who point him in the right direction.

Mouse grows into a capable and loveable boy, with friends and things to do. And then…

Well, I won’t tell you. If you haven’t already, then join me in discovering Mouse and his world.

(Nicely old style illustrations by Peter Bailey.)

Front Lines

My overriding feeling right now is that there is nothing to read. That’s because I sat up late, wanting to finish Michael Grant’s Front Lines.

What a book! I strongly suspect it’s the best Michael has written, which is why I had to sit up to finish the book, and why I feel so empty now, and why I’d like to tie him to his writing chair and tell him to hurry up with the next book.

Michael Grant, Front Lines

I have spent countless hours in the trenches of WWI, as a soldier and nearby as a nurse, in many fantastic war novels for young readers. I have read loads of WWII novels as well. But what struck me this week was that they are the war as seen from England, or maybe Germany, and even Italy, say. I’ve read many pilot stories (among them my second favourite book ever, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein), and I’ve been at sea, and I know about food rationing and clever dogs and so on. Americans are the dashing heroes who bring oranges and nylon stockings and are always riding in as the cavalry, being gallant and fun.

In Front Lines, for the first time, I have crawled in the desert with my rifle, hungry and dirty and desperately tired. And I have done this both because Michael’s book is the first I’ve read that takes you to the non-gallant places where war was fought, and also because of his genius idea to have women drafted.

I liked the idea when he described it to me in the summer, and I absolutely love it now that I’ve read the first book. It is so simple, while being so clever and so moving.

We meet four American girls, not all of them even of age to volunteer, who sign up to go to war. Two friends from a small Californian town, a tiny black girl who dreams of becoming a doctor but is so poor she signs up to feed her parents, and a Jewish New York girl with plenty of ambition.

The reader accompanies them to where they volunteer, and then on to camp where they learn to become soldiers, meeting prejudice from older military personnel as well as the young men who have joined up, who all feel girls have no place in the army or at war. To be Jewish, or black, is even worse, and there is plenty of name-calling.

Over time you come to half accept even the more moronic members of the group of soldiers, just as the girl soldiers do; when fighting and suffering together there is a certain unavoidable camaraderie. People die, and the new young soldiers witness death wherever they go.

This is so realistic and so very interesting, and above all so tremendously exciting. I simply want the second book to be here now!

(In the bibliography Michael mentions reading Code Name Verity while writing Front Lines, and trying to make his book be as good as Elizabeth’s. He’s close. Very close indeed.)

A Dark Trade

Mary Hooper, A Dark Trade

Mary Hooper has done what she does so well, which is to take the tales of poor servant girls in the past, and put them in a book that anyone can read. So often this kind of story only comes as an old, fat classic of 500 pages or more, and with small print to boot. Thank you to Barrington Stoke who understand that everyone would want to read this.

In A Dark Trade we meet orphan Gina, who at 16 is ready to leave the cruel orphanage and go to work. In her case a seemingly lovely big house in London in the mid-1800s. But of course it doesn’t work out like that. Big houses, however beautiful, come with their own problems, and in this case it’s a young master with the wrong idea of what a girl servant is for.

Gina makes a run for it, and disguises herself as a boy. But it’s the usual fire and frying pan scenario, and she is no better off as a male shop assistant.

Mary occasionally lets a book end less well than you’d hoped for, so I wasn’t sure what she might have up her sleeve this time. Read the book and find out!

Queen of the Silver Arrow

Caroline Lawrence has written a story to inspire girls that they can do more. Admittedly, the cover features a beautiful girl with a bow and arrow, and I understand that recent films (and the books behind them) have made bows and arrows the thing to have. But why not?

Caroline Lawrence, Queen of the Silver Arrow

This re-working of Virgil’s The Aeneid for Barrington Stoke tells the story of Camilla, who is the Queen of the Silver Arrow. Her father, who’s a King, brought her up in the woods where he fled with his baby daughter, and she learns to be of service to the Goddess Diana.

Camilla’s story becomes well known in the neighbourhood, and Acca who is the same age, dreams of being like her, and so do some of the rich girls in town. Eventually they all meet and Camilla trains the girls to be warriors, something that becomes necessary when the Trojans arrive.

Violent and bloody in parts, it’s still a beautiful piece of history (it was real, wasn’t it?), and as I said, very inspiring for girls. It needn’t all be about getting married. Or at least not without doing something worthwhile first.

Sometimes we all want to be like an Amazon, although perhaps stopping short at baring a breast.