Category Archives: History

Women and war

On International Women’s Day, let’s think back to what they used to do. We finally made it to see the film based on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which is a favourite of mine. I was pleased to see the other week that the appearance of the film made the book pop – temporarily – back into the top ten in book sales. The power of movies.

It was a lovely looking film, even accounting for the gore, which was most realistic. My younger self would not have enjoyed it. I’d worried about the cringe-factor of having a non-native speaker play Vera, but Alicia Vikander was perfect. (I might have to dislike her a little for that.) What people who haven’t read the book make of the film, I have no idea. It must be like Harry Potter. You run past the highlights and you will hopefully make some sense of it.

The plot which remained when all the ‘excess’ pages had been dealt with made the whole thing out to be mostly about the romance, and less about years of hard work, nursing in the war. And I suppose the romantic twist at the end was to appease viewers who had cried too much when everyone died. At least they didn’t resurrect those who died in real life.

While romantic, this film did portray WWI as far more traumatising and downright incomprehensibly awful than most war films I’ve seen. And that’s good. We need the negative propaganda. It’s also worth remembering that being allowed to go to university is a relatively new thing. If you’re a woman, I mean.

Kathryn J Atwood, Women Heroes of World War I

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Wein’s new novel, and that is also about the dreadfulness of war and what women can do. (More about that another day.)

And through Elizabeth, I had another well timed book in my letterbox yesterday. It’s Kathryn J Atwood’s Women Heroes of World War I. I haven’t read it yet, obviously, but it looks very promising. Kathryn features the lives of 16 women and what they did in the war. So watch this space.

Daughter liked Testament of Youth, the movie, but I have high hopes of her giving the book a go, too. It is far superior to the film, and everyone ought to read it.

Seeing the sewing

I managed to mislay a week so I nearly missed it. First I forgot to make a note of the start date for The Great Tapestry of Scotland in my diary, so I missed the beginning. And then I went and believed I had another week. But everything is fine, I discovered my error, and we went off to admire the tapestry yesterday, with all of two days left to run [at Stirling Castle].

So if you’re here, you can go today, or tomorrow. If not, you can go to Ayr in April and May. Or Kirkcaldy in the summer.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland at Stirling Castle

It was good. It was impressive. All those stitches to show the history of Scotland. I just wanted to reach out and stroke it, but you weren’t allowed.

There were quite a few books in there, and authors. Lots of other things, and people, including Elvis. The landscapes were breathtaking, and I found I quite liked the Cumbernauld panel, motorway junction and everything. Charles Rennie Macintosh and his roses. Scientists and other clever Scots. Sean Connery.

Suffragettes and witches and Vikings, kings and queens and murderers (not all at the same time). Education and golf, mines and car factories. I reckon it’s all there.

Ideally you should see it many, many times. Preferably without lots of other people to fight over the space with. But it’s good. We had two hours before closing. After an hour I noticed that the Resident IT Consultant had only managed to wheel the Grandmother round one third of the panels, so I told him to speed up, or we’d be thrown out before they got to the end.

So he did. And then we bumped the Grandmother along the steep cobbles outside back to the car, teeth rattling.

How to Fly with Broken Wings

‘Jump!’ Now, that’s a horrible thing to tell, or force, someone else to do. But we know it happens, and it happens a lot in Jane Elson’s book How to Fly with Broken Wings. It’s worth considering why someone would say it, though. Things are never totally straightforward.

Jane Elson, How to Fly with Broken Wings

Friendship is a difficult concept. Not only can making friends be rather hard, but even to understand what a friend is, could be close to impossible. Twelve-year-old Willem Edward Smith has Asperger Syndrome. His maths teacher gives him homework, which is to make two new friends; real friends, rather than a relative or a friendly shopkeeper.

So poor Willem tries to make friends, and ends up with Sasha from school, who is the (girl)friend of Willem’s bully, Finn. And he befriends Finn. Maybe.

What with the friendship issues, and gang warfare on the estate where he lives with his gran, and rioting, things are never going to be easy for Willem. And this story is not a happy ever after story. There is a lot of bad stuff, mixed in with the good.

Sasha and Finn are not going to change completely. Willem will probably always display aspie traits and be easily led. Staff at his school seem to be particularly stupid.

But there is Archie, the elderly man who moves in, and whose mission it is to change the estate. There are the memories of Archie’s parents, especially his mother, who flew planes in the war. There is a Spitfire, a living, breathing Spitfire, so to speak.

If it doesn’t kill them, then maybe Archie and the dreams of flying can help this troubled estate. Expect to cry, though.

Murder Most Unladylike

Who doesn’t like a good murder set in a girls’ boarding school in the 1930s? I mean, it ticks a lot of my boxes. What about you?

Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike

13-year-old students Daisy and Hazel set up detective agency Wells&Wong at Deepdean school, and it’s not long before ‘luck’ strikes, when their science teacher Miss Bell is found dead. Only for a while though, as the body disappears pretty swiftly and no one knows Miss Bell is a bit more dead than the head teacher makes out she is.

Daisy is rather bossy, not to mention fearless, while Hazel, who comes from Hong Kong, is more conventional and careful. A good detective agency needs both to succeed.

And you know, it’s rather hard to check people’s alibis when you are not the police and when there is no body or even a public acknowledgement that the corpse is indeed a corpse. But Daisy ferrets out where everyone was, and they work out what the motive might have been. Would you kill for the post of deputy head?

The detecting isn’t made any easier when you are a relatively innocent young girl, who doesn’t quite understand the undercurrents between the adults. Wells&Wong do work out who did it, and it puts them in more danger than expected.

As for me, I kept thinking it was turning out a little Midsomerish. When you deduct the number of dead people and the murderer, you’re not left with a whole lot of characters for a sequel. And I hope author Robin Stevens won’t kill more teachers and students in every book. Even a fairly dim parent would surely take their child out of a school like that?

Shoot to Kill

This was just like the films! I must admit I have not read Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. I do seem to have watched ‘a few’ Bond films, however (when Offspring did, obviously), so I knew what to expect.

Steve Cole, Shoot to Kill

Steve Cole has got young Bond down perfectly. There is not a single break for the poor boy in the whole book. He jumps and climbs and runs and is shot at or otherwise attacked, and when he is not, James drives cars illegally (he is 15 years old), fights grown men and dallies with pretty females.

I wasn’t sure I’d like it, to be honest, but I do, I do. Shoot to Kill does what it says on the cover; with the shooting being both of the gun variety, as well as the film kind of shooting. Starting off at a new school for James, in Devon, he is soon stumbling over corpses and travelling on board a Zeppelin all the way to Hollywood, where there are a lot of bad guys. This is the heyday of bad guys, and power crazy, rich types have the support of rough men from Chicago and other bad places.

James does most of the tough guy stuff, but is ably assisted by a few new school friends, a couple of whom prove very worthy accomplices. One of them I’d love to meet again, so I hope Steve is on my wavelength here.

This is classic Hollywood gangster stuff, with cars to die for (or worse) and beautifully dressed, beautiful people with too much money. And there is James. Lovely boy.

‘A land frightful to live in’

Not content with what Nordic-ness I could get at the conference, I decided to add a few more ingredients to an already busy, or potentially full, day. So, by skipping the morning conferency bits again, I went to church instead. The same church I walked past on my way to Nicola Morgan’s Brain event a couple of years ago, and decided I really liked. By some coincidence it hosted a Swedish service, ministered by God’s right hand – Swedish – man in London, who is up in Caledonia for a couple of days. (I omitted mentioning I belong to the militants from Liverpool. Just to be on the safe side. But he, and his wife, seemed very nice.)

Religion was swiftly followed by lunch at the pub round the corner, which is Swedish owned (Edinburgh is being taken over by Swedes). Lots more people there, enjoying meatballs or salmon. I sat with three friendly ladies, who knew how to discuss the rolling of meatballs. One of them even has a friend in common with me. Before a double chocolate dessert I wasn’t going to eat, I offered my apologies and left.

I had more things to do. The very kind Nicola Morgan had asked me round for Earl Grey – well, coffee, really – seeing as I was in the neighbourhood. (You know, I could do a blog post on authors and their kitchens.) My aim was to be out of there in 30 minutes, so that Nicola could go back to doing all that work she needs to do, and I almost succeeded. It was more like 35.

Pietari Kääpä

Managed to find the no. 5 bus that would take me from there to George Square and more conference and its very last session on Nation and Identities, chaired by Stirling’s own Pietari Kääpä.

Essi Viitanen

First out was Essi Viitanen with an interesting piece on film-makers Aho&Soldan: Filming a Modern Finland. Essi showed us snippets from films from the 1930s on subjects as varied as lumber and Helsinki beaches.

Marja Lahelma

Marja Lahelma was next, talking about Nordic Art and Mythical ‘Northernness’ Around the Year 1900. Back then there was a lot of thought on whether the cold climate makes us much more intelligent, or much more stupid…

William Norman

Third we had William Norman’s Savages and Slaves: Scotland in the Icelandic Family Sagas. That was surprisingly interesting (to me), considering it was about kings and heroics and treachery. The Scots were ‘fleeter of foot’ which seems to have been a bad thing. And William mentioned the ‘black hole for Scandinavian settlement’ in Central Scotland. (I don’t know what he means! I settled just fine.)

Ersev Ersoy

Finally Ersev Ersoy has a soft spot for Ossian, and she talked about 18th Century Epic: Nation in Ossian and Kalevala. I was intrigued by the notion of early ‘reviews’ and translations of Ossian.

And there I left, narrowly missing Son’s closing speech. (Sigh.) Not content with one children’s author, I had agreed to have drinks with another one, at Hemma, the day’s second Swedish owned bar and restaurant, where the conference had booked in for their celebratory meal. But I was stood up… (Sigh.) Two Swedish meals in one day might appear excessive, but it sort of made up for the sandwiches I lived on the previous day.

I had a good time (I don’t always), chatting to one of the people who is less blonde than my imagination made her, but very nice. And someone from close to ‘home’ who is looking into the way Gothenburgers and Stockholm people pronounce the letter ‘i’ and which meant she has no – professional – interest in me, despite the Resident IT Consultant doing his best to offer me. He had to say ‘sausages’ instead.

The ‘public’ sandwiches having been chauffeured enough, he was also available to drive me all the way home.

That just leaves today!

Bookwitch goes to a conference

Some people didn’t look anything like I’d imagined them. But then why should they? I went to a conference at the University of Edinburgh yesterday. Along with some similarly minded colleagues, Son has spent some time organising the Nordic Research Network conference, and the embarrassment factor of having your mother there was one I didn’t want to deprive him of. Both parents, actually, as the Resident IT Consultant had been roped in to chauffeur the sandwiches for lunch.

Ian Giles

And I did feel that this was my kind of thing; language, literature, translation. As I said, I’d been in contact with or heard of some of the people before, and you have a mental image of them, but they were generally less blonde than I had expected. Being realistic, I decided not to go to everything (it’s on today as well), but swanned in towards the end of the day when Son chaired the Translation session.

Charlotte Berry

Charlotte Berry talked about Chatto & Windus and their British Translations of Maria Gripe. It was based on notes the publisher had kept on how they discussed and decided what to translate, and that was really quite interesting. Basically, it was all down to networking, with an editor chatting to the right person somewhere else, trying to interest them in their book. And after that it was a case of organising the translating. One translator had been judged likely to be all right, because she was a mother herself… Charlotte said it was a hard topic to write about, since she didn’t want to offend anyone.

Agnes Broomé

Agnes Broomé talked on the subject of In the Wake of the Crime Wave – How to Publish Scandinavian Fiction in Translation in the New Millennium. Swedish books account for something like just over 1% of translated fiction in the English speaking world of books. Of 2000 fiction titles a year, 600-800 are translated, which is pretty good. The Nobel prize and the Astrid Lindgren award raise Sweden’s profile. (Astrid has been translated into 98 languages, coming after Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, but before Dickens and Plato.) In the past Swedish books went abroad via Danish or German, but now it is all through English. In the 1970s most translations were of children’s books, while in the last decade it’s been mostly crime. The risks with crime possibly becoming less popular are that because people have concentrated so heavily on crime fiction, other genres have suffered and are less active.

Nichola Smalley

Finally, Nichola Smalley told us about Contemporary Urban Vernaculars in Swedish Literature, and what translators do to make it work. The ways to do it are Compensation, Replacement, Representation, Adaptation or Standardisation. And the advice is not to translate dialect, though of course some do, as it’s integral to the plot in certain cases. Nichola’s conclusion was that translators work hard to avoid standardising texts, and that the finished work is often down to more than the named translator, who has probably discussed solutions with many people. She gave examples from a couple of recent Swedish novels.

There was a Q&A afterwards, with questions of the kind you’d expect from a more expert kind of audience than I usually encounter.

After coffee the first day ended with a keynote speech by Mads Bunch from Copenhagen, on the subject of North Atlantic Literature in a Scottish Context – Iceland, Faroe Islands and Orkney. (Privately I wondered what dear old Shetland had done to be excluded, and as though he’s a mind reader, Mads began by explaining why not.)

Mads Bunch

I was surprised that he mentioned fairies, until I worked out that they sound much the same as the Faroes. The Faroese are descended from seasick Vikings; those who felt so bad on the way to Iceland that they asked to be allowed to stay on the Faroe Islands.

According to Mads the peripheries (I think that’s the above islands) don’t tend to influence each other in literature, as they are sufficiently similar, and have less to give. The good stories come from the contrasts between modern westerners and the isolated islands. Mads told the story of Edwin Muir from Orkney, who travelled 150 years in the two days it took him to leave Orkney and arrive in Glasgow in 1901.

These days there are plenty of new things in Icelandic and Faroese literature, whereas Mads reckons there is little change in Orkney. They continue with their sagas, while the Icelanders write about the economic collapse, and the Faroe Islands have a thing about Buzz Aldrin…

In the Q&A session, an Icelandic reader pointed out how tired she is of hearing only Laxness mentioned all the time, and talked at length about her own favourite author (whose name I didn’t catch) who is quite excellent. And apparently they have a lot of bookshops in Iceland.

After suitable thanks, Son sent us upstairs to an evening reception with music and Lidl rye bread and cheese and olives, washed down with wine and IrnBru. Thinking of today, I made my excuses and hobbled in the direction of my train home (the sandwiches need chauffeuring one more day), instead of joining the others for dinner somwhere.