Category Archives: History

‘I am Mary Queen of Scots’

Or so Alex Nye claimed, when she launched For My Sins at Blackwells last night. (She laughed when she said it. So she’s perhaps not entirely serious about it.) It’s her first adult novel, and it’s about Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots

The real Mary was there too, and she was looking good for her age. Actually, on such a dark and stormy night when the rest of us were pretty drenched, I have to point out that Mary looked both dry and beautiful.

As I ran in, Tesco prawn sandwich in hand, Alex and her publisher Clare were already there, and Mary turned up soon after. She posed for photos like Royals tend to do, and I believe she even showed off what was under her skirt. Honestly. I ate my sandwich, turned down the offer of wine and was rescued from dying of thirst by the lovely Ann Landmann of Blackwells.

Roy Gill, Kirkland Ciccone and Mary Queen of Scots

We admired the book, which has unusually nice looking pages. I know this sounds strange, but it does. Several other authors turned up to celebrate, among them Kirkland Ciccone wearing a rather loud outfit, Roy Gill who looked suitably handsome, Gill Arbuthnott, Philip Caveney (or was it Danny Weston? They look so alike…) with Lady Caveney, and then Kate Leiper came and sat next to me again.

Alex talked about her love of Scottish history, and for Mary, about her research, and walking round Edinburgh for two years (that must have been tiring) to see the places Mary went, and visiting all her castles. And 28 years on, the book is finally here.

Alex Nye and Mary Queen of Scots

Luckily Alex has managed to get hold of Mary’s diary from her time ‘in jail,’ which must be considered a bit of a royal scoop.

Kate Leiper, Gill Arbuthnott, Kirkland Ciccone and Roy Gill

There was a signing afterwards, and much literary gossip. It was almost a shame some of us had to go home, but I couldn’t leave my chauffeur in the Park&Ride all night.

Alex Nye

I’m just over halfway through the book so far, and I have a dreadful feeling this isn’t going to end well.

The quiz that matters

Somehow this book has taken the fun out of quiz books. Or so it seems right now.

Quizzes have provided the Bookwitch family with some much appreciated relaxation, even when the questions have been on the silly side. You can show off or despair, and you can always complain about how silly the selection of facts is. Especially the facts that date so fast they probably never really belonged anywhere.

But now, the Resident IT Consultant brought home from the library (one doesn’t want to commit by buying) Life in the UK Test, the essential study guide for the British citizenship test. It’s not the book’s fault that it is depressing. It can only advise on what someone else has decided are pertinent facts for life in the best country in the world (I assume that’s the way they look at this ‘get the password to Britain right’ disaster.)

I tried a sample test in a newspaper once and did pretty well, totally untutored and unprepared. But these questions are tough, when they are not laughable, or downright wrong, or merely ambivalent. It doesn’t help having your future jeopardised by picking a correct answer when it’s the wrong correct answer.

It has not currently come to this, though. I am not about to change my allegiance or anything, unless forced to. But you want to be forewarned.

I have no interest in some of the topics covered. And that would be quite all right for anyone not needing to persuade a faceless tester that they could become one of them. I am very ignorant when it comes to certain Swedish facts, especially ancient history and sport. Here I need to know about rugby and what two professions Margaret Thatcher trained as before she did her bit for this country. I also need to understand how very open minded the British are about people of different religions.

‘What did the Roman army do in AD 410?’ Lots of things, one imagines.

I am a fan of Clarice Cliff’s, but I don’t reckon knowledge of what she’s famous for matters. I’d much rather feel that the immigrant/new British citizen down the road is the kind who will come to the rescue if my house is on fire. Rather than deport them.

‘The ideas of the Enlightenment.’ ‘Blood and organ donation.’ “National horse racing museum.’

As a source for information the study guide is fine. That’s what we do with lots of things in life; look them up when we need to know. But not to cram to pass a test. And don’t they understand that people from other countries know about donating blood? We also learned about Emmeline Pankhurst at school. However, Richard Arkwright was new to me. Not what he did, but his name. Bet you don’t know who invented the potato, though?

If the selection was more sensibly done and the questions asked not so ridiculous I’d feel happier about a test like this. But to decide the future of a human being on where the first tennis club was founded?

Perhaps just invite the hopefuls to tea and see what they do when you pour the carefully warmed milk into their cup? And have a nice chat?

Women

For International Women’s Day I thought I’d tell you about Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science, as well as Ma Isabel Sánchez Vegara’s books about Agatha Christie and Marie Curie in the Little People, Big Dreams series. They are the perfect way for children – boys and girls – to learn about Agatha and Marie, as well as the many intelligent and successful women in Rachel’s illustrated book about female scientists.

But I’m going to tell you about Mother-of-Witch instead. For obvious reasons, newspapers have had more ‘women articles’ in the last week. And the more I read them and the more I thought of this special day for women, the more irritated I got. The Q&A with Gloria Steinem in the Guardian was better than expected, but when even someone like her can write about reading Little Women as a child saying ‘it was the first time I realised women could be a whole human world,’ I thought enough is enough.

It’s the kind of thing I never discovered. Because I didn’t need to. As the only child of a single mother I never harboured doubts about what women did or could do or were allowed to do. The whole idea is alien to me.

My mother had a humble start, but she pulled herself up by her bootstraps, achieving a lot in her life. For me it seemed so natural and obvious that I hardly appreciated her efforts. (I’m a bit of a disappointment, not following in her footsteps or anything, but that’s another story.) If it needed doing, she did it.

That’s not to say she repaired the car exactly, but she had a car. And when our landlord came to change the washers in the bathroom taps, she peered over his shoulder to see how it was done. Later on as a house owner, she knew what to do (while her male colleague barely knew what a washer was).

For girls of her background the choice at school was cooking or typing. She was intelligent, so was allowed to learn to type. The – prizewinning – typing took her away from her home town, and she perfected her secretarial skills and was doing really well. And then I turned up, so she took those skills and got herself a teaching job, passing on her knowledge to countless students at a sixth form college, while still being the girl who’d left school at 15.

So she could enjoy the same level of education as her students, she did some distance learning by correspondence, and when I was seven she achieved her goal. A few years later she got herself a university degree in much the same way. That was ideal for me; evening lectures meant we didn’t see much of each other, and for a young teenager that’s a good thing. We were also so poor we ate a lot of macaroni and pancakes, which I loved. I didn’t spare much thought to how hard she worked, or how much she worried about money.

Teenagers!

Her old boss, the head teacher at her first school, was getting old and wanted to surround himself with his favourite staff, so he designed a teaching post requiring such specific qualifications that only she could apply for the job, and almost overnight we found ourselves back where we started.

At fifty she bought a house, even though some of her students told her that houses ought to be for younger people who could ‘enjoy them properly.’ She changed washers as required and enjoyed that house until she died, many years later.

Mother-of-Witch didn’t need any special days for women. She needed a job and an education and a home, and she got it all. She also surrounded herself with lots of friends, nearly all single women, which meant that I grew up in an almost exclusively female environment.

And that house purchase; for the second viewing she brought me along. The salesman was dreadfully disappointed as he’d counted on a sale when she came back [‘with her husband’]. I’m still working on perfecting the look she gave him as he enquired about her lack of male company.

Night Watch

Commander Vimes’s mushroom must be a little stronger than mine, which falls apart if I as much as look at it. That aside, I heartily approve of the use of such a normal tool for tasks it wasn’t exactly intended for. It proves how grounded Terry Pratchett was, and shows that Sam Vimes is adaptable, as well as polite. Not so much for bopping someone on the head with said mushroom, but more for how he came to own one in the first place.

Reading Terry’s Night Watch made me miss old-fashioned, decent behaviour. While there is much that isn’t in Night Watch, there is also a lot in there which is. Sam Vimes is a very decent man, as was his creator.

Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

In Night Watch Vimes is subjected to a spot of time travel, and contrary to the rules of such things, he actually interacts with his younger self, without Discworld exploding any more than you’d expect it to.

Time travel is interesting. Do you in fact change the past by going back, so that when you return to your present your past is a new past, or the one you always had, because you did what you did? Because you were always meant to go back?

There’s a revolution happening in Ankh-Morpork, with grannies on barricades and the lot. They are ruled by a bad man, and then they get, well, a different bad man. The way you do. The young Vetinari is there, and I liked getting more of an understanding of who he was, before he became what he is now.

Seamstresses and younger versions of Vimes’s current City Watch, including a clueless Sam Vimes, provide much background to the Ankh-Morpork of today. And I loved the young Nobby Nobbs!

You can’t easily summarise a Pratchett novel, and most of you have probably read it already. Let’s just say it was exactly what I needed in today’s climate of madness.

Dead of Night

It is World Book Day. Well, it is in the UK, anyway.

One of the £1 books this year is Dead of Night by Michael Grant. Which is a very good thing, as I was feeling the need for more stories about his girl GIs while I wait for the third full length book.

I’d been concerned it wouldn’t work, or that there would be confusion between this short book and the ‘real’ ones. Would there be spoilers?

Michael Grant, Dead of Night

But no. This is set soon after the squad arrives in Europe, and they are training – and spending Christmas 1942 – in a wet and grey Wales. They are not yet the fully fledged soldiers we met in Silver Stars. And, some of the people who die, are still alive.

This is very much Charles Dickens meets Michael Grant. It’s good.

Please enter

The other week I got so furious with everything to do with immigrants not being wanted, that I hunted out a book I’ve had lying around for about seven years and read it.

The book was Floella Benjamin’s Coming to England, which was first published twenty years ago, and tells the story of what it was like for her when she came to England in 1960 at the age of eleven.

Floella Benjamin, Coming to England

At first I was afraid it was going to turn out that Trinidad had been paradise and England was not, but their idyllic life in Trinidad turned sour when Floella’s parents had to leave four of their six children behind, as they didn’t have enough money for all at once. Life for those left behind quickly became hell, which presumably made the reality of England less bad, even if it was cold and grey and unwelcoming.

Through hard work and love they prospered and did well, and as we know, Floella has been very successful. But it wasn’t for England opening its arms and being friendly and giving things away freely, even then.

The facts of this book are more pertinent than ever. The style is rather wooden and boring, but that is outweighed by how important it is to read.


And then, I’d not had time to read the Guardian Weekend two weeks ago, so first picked it up a week late, to find Floella Benjamin the subject of their Q&A page. And the reason she was, was that the book has been republished again.

If that’s not witchy, I don’t know what is.

Mårbacka

It took me a while to work out what Mårbacka was. As a child I’d read another Selma Lagerlöf autobiographical book with very nearly the same title. I was reluctant then, but as a book-starved young thing, there was no way I could ignore even a boring looking book for very long, and once I began reading I loved it.

Selma Lagerlöf, Mårbacka

This time I felt much the same, except this new translation – by Sarah Death – does not look boring. It’s very pretty with its red roses on the cover. But I thought it might go over the same ground (I suppose it does, but not so it matters), and I really don’t feel I ought to read it in anything but the original.

But once I got past that bit of snobbery, I discovered it was fun, in a quiet Swedish kind of way. Disconcerting, too, as I feel that this was more or less my life, one hundred years earlier. I wonder if this is something that many Swedes are afflicted by? I grew up in a small family with not much money, in a town. Selma was part of a larger and wealthier family in the countryside.

It could have been my life too. And the anecdotal way of telling us about her life is a good technique. It’s almost like a regular column in a magazine. And like them, entertaining and partly truthful while also being helped along with some embellishments to the truth.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help stopping every now and then to consider what the original might have said. A bit as with subtitles when you don’t need them; you still look for something. (I might have gone differently with the vörtbröd…)

It’s charming, and funny, and it shows the reader what Sweden was like before the big move to the towns, before socialism and before Ikea. It’s about building a new cowhouse, the Swedish way of celebrating birthdays when you can’t prevent the whole county from turning up uninvited, about having your old, former maid come to tea, coming face to face with a kelpie, dreaming of the King coming to visit, and how it took days to travel from Värmland to the West coast.

I can see that if I had been awarded the Nobel prize, I’d have done exactly what Selma did and done up my childhood paradise. After all, she only did what her own father worked on before her. What most of us would do if we could.