Category Archives: Humour

Steve Cole – ‘Made to eat salad’

Steve Cole

On the 482nd anniversary of Anne Boleyn losing her head, Steve Cole walked into the Tolbooth in Stirling for his Off the Page event, to ‘deafening applause’ on a day when a few other things were also happening. Royal weddings, football, warm sunny weather. That kind of thing. He was going to tell us about writing, with the help of a ukulele. The telling, more than the writing, I believe.

Stirling Off the Page

I’d successfully climbed the hill, almost all the way to the castle, and Steve had come all the way from England, and this after his first – very eventful – encounter with oysters. The plane’s cabin crew had apparently questioned whether he really should be flying, but Steve insisted, and with a huge stack of sick bags at his side, he made it all the way.

Steve Cole

He treated us to his version of the Sick Man Blues, on ukulele. I shouldn’t think anyone in the audience will be having a meal of oysters any time soon.

This man who has written 157 books in the last 20 years, got his career started with the diary they had to write for Mrs Cave at school, every Monday. It got so boring he began to make it up, and seemingly Mrs Cave was also bored, so she told him to continue making things up.

Steve Cole

From oysters to salads, and more vomiting, this time courtesy of the dinner ladies at school. Once Steve’s parents realised they made him eat salad every Wednesday, an early introduction of packed lunches occurred. This was the dark days of the 1970s. But let that be a lesson to you; tell your parents if you are ever forced to eat your salad.

Some years after the eight-year-old Steve wrote his own Mister Men book, Mister Paint, he moved on to his Astrosaurs series of books, partly with the help of Enid Blyton’s daughter. The nice one. He told us in great detail how the dinosaurs got their names, but I suppose it’s what you should expect from the office junior at Noddy magazine.

Steve Cole

From Astrosaurs Steve went to writing Doctor Who stories, but then felt the need to return to writing about his own characters. Which must be why he borrowed Lucy the labrador from a child in the audience, and made Lucy – who I am sure is an upright, if doggy, citizen – into a secret bank robber, Canine X, master of crime. It was really to show how you can play with everyday stuff, or dogs, and make them do surprising things. Stories are everywhere.

Steve’s own alternate reality features cows. On this sad anniversary (for Anne Boleyn) he tested the audience on their knowledge of the wives of Henry VIII, and we eventually arrived at ‘the other Anne’ [of Cleves] who appears in his first CIA book. Something to do with a concrete cowpat.

This was a suitably Royal ending to an event on a day when we could hardly avoid hearing about other royal wives.

Steve Cole feedback, or book selling

The children bought books, and filled in feedback forms. (I didn’t, as I was a bit embarrassed about my age. I almost claimed I’m a year older than I am…)

Steve Cole

Steve encouraged the children to ask him questions over the book signing, and as far as I managed to overhear, there were several who required some writing advice.

Steve Cole

Steve Cole

There just might have been a hug for me as we swapped questions. I asked if he’ll ever eat oysters again, and Steve asked after Daughter. I almost suggested that next time it might be she who dedicates a ‘space book’ to him.

And no, he won’t have more oysters and advised me not to, either.

As I walked down the hill, I thought, not for the first time, how very dutiful my authors are, whether it’s murderous new boots, or oysters. They persevere, and come to talk to their fans. It’s why I love them.

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The Cloak of Feathers

What would we do without the Other Folk? Well, I would obviously get it wrong and start calling them Fairies.

Nigel Quinlan’s The Cloak of Feathers takes us to the charming Irish village of Knockmealldown, where it is time for the Great Festival. They have one every year, it is never great, but they still do it. After all, you never know if/when the Fai.., sorry, the Other Folk, will turn up.

Nigel Quinlan, The Cloak of Feathers

Our young hero, Brian, is ready to ‘fetch the stupid cow’ which he does every year. He rather wishes he could do it own his own and not have to take the village bully, Derek, who broke his bike, with him. Or Helen, who has a way with horses.

Well, you can guess that this won’t be your normal not very great Great Festival. The Fai.., oops, Other Folk do turn up, but there is a missing Princess and a mean, calculating character, who makes the lives of Brian and everyone in Knockmealldown really hard. As hard as the black bread Derek’s mum Sheila bakes every year. Out of tradition. No one ever eats it. Out of tradition.

But at least they have lives. For a while.

This is fun. There are banshees. Naturally. They play hurling. I didn’t understand any of that at all. There are ghostly pigs and odd bits of skeleton. Everything smells. And Brian and his friends need to try and free the Princess while also running the festival.

I quite like the cow.

Murder at the Grand Raj Palace

In Vaseem Khan’s fourth crime novel about his detective, ex-Inspector Chopra and his lovely elephant, Baby Ganesh, we go to Mumbai’s finest hotel, the Grand Raj Palace, which has served its wealthy guests for a hundred years. It’s my dream kind of place!

And also Poppy’s, Mrs Chopra. We think alike on so much, although here Poppy is concerned with how best to mark her silver wedding day, and how to do it in the company of her husband, when all he seems to do is solve murders.

Vaseem Khan, Murder at the Grand Raj Palace

Is it a murder though? The American billionaire appears to have committed suicide. Chopra thinks not, and sets about to prove murder, and to find who did it. Meanwhile, Poppy finds herself her own wedding-related mystery, also at the Grand Raj, which satisfies her greatly. Irfan and Ganesha come along to help, and what can be more natural at a grand hotel than to have your own elephant with you?

Chopra wades around in the murky Mumbai arts world, and Poppy makes a royal friend. Great women think alike.

This book is even more fun, and thought-provoking, than Vaseem’s earlier novels. You learn much about life in India, in Mumbai and elsewhere, and you do so while almost not noticing. And there is the humour; between them Poppy and Ganesha have got it covered.

Luckily there was very little food described this time, so I didn’t get too hungry. It was mostly just the one samosa, eaten burger-style in a bun, which sounds truly unhealthily appetising.

Astrid the Unstoppable

You probably haven’t read Maria Parr’s Astrid the Unstoppable yet. In which case you are very lucky indeed, for what a glorious story this is! I felt so happy, having access to Astrid’s never-ending adventures. (In real life I might have got wiped out by the unstoppable-ness, but in fiction? Never!)

Astrid is the only child in the Glimmerdal valley, somewhere in northern Norway. It almost doesn’t matter, because 74-year-old Gunnvald in the nearest house is her best friend. They have a very special relationship.

It’s a story about kindness and [super-]energetic behaviour, about absent parents, and about belonging to a community. This is so wonderful. I thought Maria’s first book Waffle Hearts was special. Well, Astrid the Unstoppable is even more special.

Eventually there are a few more children, and Astrid even learns to cope when it turns out Gunnvald has been keeping a big secret from her all her life (almost ten years). If you want the perfect children’s book, look no further! Here you have courage and friendship and fiddle music, and as much madcap sledging and skiing as you can digest.

It’s more than refreshing to have a story where the children can go about on their own, with no need to kill or otherwise remove the responsible adults. I never lived in a place like this or did what Astrid did, but I still felt this was a return to my childhood.

And I cried when reading the piece about Astrid’s aunts.

Maria Parr, Astrid the Unstoppable

‘Astrid thought that God must have been having a good day when he made her aunties.

“Today I’m going to come up with a surprise,” said God, and then he started putting together an auntie.

He made her skinny and freckly, and decided that she would crumple up like a concertina when she laughed. Then he stuffed her full of noise. He’d never put so much noise in an aunt before, Astrid thought. God decided that she would like everything that was funny, everything that made loud bangs, and everything that moved fast. When he’d finished, he took a step back and looked at that aunt. He’d never seen anything like her. He was so pleased with her that he decided to make another, so by the end of the day, God had made two aunts who looked exactly the same. To put the icing on the cake, he took an extra fistful of freckles from his freckle bowl and sprinkled them all over both of them, especially on their knees.

“Knee freckles are my favourite thing,” said God.’

(Beautifully translated by Guy Puzey)

Thief of Time

I can’t claim to have understood what Terry Pratchett wanted to tell me in Thief of Time. But it’s as fun and entertaining as any other Discworld novel, choc-a-bloc with deep, if obvious, thoughts about life and all the rest. And there are some good quotes.

Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time

I too like to consider myself as ‘one who was slightly intellectual.’ I also practise what Lu-Tze, the Sweeper, does, in becoming invisible because you are just so lowly and boring that no one sees you. I don’t sweep, however. That’s too much work.

There are monks and there is cherry blossom. Chocolate, even when life brings you nougat. I know that feeling.

Terry obviously thought up some deft moves between different times, and some of his characters are, if possible, even odder than usual. Lu-Tze’s apprentice Lobsang is at the more normal end, and I’ve always liked Death’s granddaughter Susan. The character who looks like a ‘society lady who had just had a really bad day in a threshing machine’ is a masterpiece, developing in an interesting way through the book.

When your reading life feels as if something is missing, it’s good to have Terry and his world to go back to.

Actually, I might sweep a little after all.

We know that!

I love Tim Dowling. I just had to mention this. His column in the Guardian Weekend ten days ago was almost like a re-run of Daughter’s attempts with her pub quiz book and me.

Parents are amazing! Especially so since their children appear to have little, or no, concept of what makes for relevant knowledge.

At last Tim was able to show his sons what he’s made of! (Mostly old sitcoms, it seems.)

I know very little about some areas of pub quiz terrain. I don’t mind this. But how Daughter could believe, even for a minute, that the Resident IT Consultant or I would know 1980s pop music is incomprehensible. We’re ancient!

But ‘What is the name of the pub in Emmerdale?’ is a different kettle of fish. I’ve not even heard of many later television shows/soaps, let alone would know who’s in them. It’s just not important.

‘The Woolpack,’ I replied.

‘How the **** do you know that???’

Honestly. Children.

Fun on the radio

What you want to do now is to put your feet up and listen to the radio.

On Boxing Day (that was yesterday) there was a programme about [Badger] The Mystical Mutt on Radio Scotland. It was really about Lyn McNicol and Laura Jackson, who are the two slightly crazy women who are Badger, and who travel tirelessly around Scotland and beyond to bring their very large dog into schools to teach and entertain.

I’ve still to catch them in the act, but the books I’ve read have been fun, as are Lyn and Laura.

You have another four weeks during which you can listen to this online, or if you get up early on New Year’s Day you can hear the programme on the radio.

And today on the Today programme, you can hear Prince Harry interview Barack Obama. That could almost be worth getting up early for.

I’m not much of a radio listener, but I might take up my own suggestions here.