Category Archives: Humour

An inspiration lost

I don’t quite remember why Lars Westman was talking to the postbox. But it was the kind of thing he was wont to do.

I’m thinking it had to do with no stamps or not enough postage on something he had just posted, and he was trying to persuade the postbox to give the letter back, so it could be rectified. It’s obvious, you put your face close to the opening and say what you need to say.

In this case, the most interesting thing was that there was a reply. I believe there was a postal worker the other side of the hole where you post your letters, which probably means it was one of those postboxes inserted into a wall, or there would hardly have been room for a man inside the box. Certainly, my own postal background does not incorporate talking postboxes, however crazy we might have been.

It was a hilarious tale, the way many of Lars’s columns in Vi Magazine were. I read him for decades and he was always good. He was one of the people who made me want to write.

And now he’s dead. Retired for some years, he was 86. But his entertaining columns, and longer articles are ones I still remember. Except when I’ve half forgotten, like the talking postbox. (I was fully expecting Lars to get stuck, or something. Not that there’d be an actual response from within.)

Give it a Dent

‘Do you feel like lying down in front of the tree-cutters next week?’ I asked the Resident IT Consultant. He did not wish to channel his inner Arthur Dent, so I suspect neither of us will demonstrate our displeasure with Stirling Council (and yes, I’m sure those plans have been there for anyone to see for a long time. I mean, we do know about them, so…) in the near future.

But we ought to. Do it. Wanting is saying too much, but why would we want them to spend £3m on something really stupid and unnecessary, when at the same time they need to cut down on services because they need to save £8m. If they were to ask me, I could show them how they would only need to find a way to not spend £5m.

We’re not activists. But even if we were, can one afford to engage in physical protest at a time like this? Fear of covid means no one is likely to get up close to any workers, to prevent the council from chopping down a dozen huge trees to make way for a road no one needs.

What I suspect might happen is that it’s too late to save the trees, so they will go. And then someone has second thoughts or discovers they don’t actually have the money after all, and nothing much happens. But let’s start by demolishing a wooded green area near the town centre.

I’ve often wanted to believe I was an Arthur Dent, slightly ridiculous, but a little bit brave, standing up for my rights. Not this time.

A literary lift

When the time came to hand out the Christmas presents, I barely noticed that the Resident IT Consultant slipped away for a brief time. (No, he did not don a red outfit and long white beard.) He suggested that if I checked my emails, I might find a Kindle book email there. I did. And I did. Apparently this is the way. You buy and the recipient takes delivery almost instantly.

It wasn’t wrapped, though. I have to say that.

*It* was the complete works by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Apparently ‘why buy one book when you can buy them all?’ is the reigning idea. Indeed. My thanks to Amanda Craig, whose Guardian article Books to Bring Cheer caused a bit of book buying at Bookwitch Towers. Rather craftily I asked for some books for me, and then divided things up by giving the Resident IT Consultant one I wanted to read too. What’s his is mine, or some such thing.

Whereas Daughter can think up ideas by herself, for us. Everything I’ve happened to mention gets noted. Which accounts for the Tom Stoppard collection. And my craving for codewords to solve has now received a real challenge. One for every day! What I want to know is whether I will be allowed to solve the one for, say, 13th May on a later date in May?

A grown-up Eva Ibbotson and a new book by Sally Nicholls complete my book presents.

My other pile of books supported the family Christmas gathering. We had a Boxing Day worldwide party, starting in Texas and ending in Moscow. As with everything else in 2020 it was on Zoom, and I was determined to get my chins under control. Hence the lifting of the laptop with the help of literature.

It was nice. People who didn’t often see each other, even before lockdowns became widespread, were able to join in. Before the day was over there had even been an online crossword for one new recruit. Otherwise we’d all spent the day on the Hungarian Accountant’s Russian quiz. (I know. He’s moved.) It was quite a devious one, and I seem to have outwitted the Resident IT Consultant. (There was a trick question. Or two.)

‘My Mom got me my job’

I’d like to think that Hadley Freeman and I are [almost] the same. She’s just more famous, and mostly gets to interview more famous people than I do, but we both do it for the same reason; to meet people we admire. So that’s why I simply had to attend Hadley’s event for Arvon at Home this evening.

She apologised in advance for any potential interruptions from her young children. There were none, but I’d say she was a little tense, just in case they’d decide to join us. I’d have liked it if they did, and I’m sure most of the others would too.

To start, Hadley read from the beginning of her latest book, House of Glass, about her French grandmother. I’d read about it in the Guardian, so knew it would be interesting, and almost enough to make me want to read something other than children’s books. Deauville is not like Cincinnati. And none of the elderly relatives five-year-old Hadley met on that holiday in France were the type to run around like she was used to doing with cousins.

Having spent something like twenty years on this book, after finding a shoebox at the back of her late Grandmother’s wardrobe, it was interesting to learn how she set about her research and the writing. Her American – but bilingual – father helped with some of the French, while the Polish was done by the wives of her Polish builders at the time.

For the structure of the whole thing, help came from all directions, and as I keep quoting others on, you should always ask your friends. Apart from different coloured files, which is always attractive, you should know your subject completely, but write only what’s interesting and what your readers will want to know. Like the interviews, in fact.

Hadley’s Grandmother and her siblings never spoke of what happened in the war, but they kept everything. It was there for Hadley to find and to read. It took her 18 months to write the book, and the way you achieve this with three children under five, is to have the right husband who does the parenting at weekends, leaving Sundays for writing.

For her second reading Hadley chose her 2015 book Life Moves Pretty Fast. I think it’s about her love for the 1980s, and in particular for 1980s films. And music. Apparently they are better than 1960s stuff, which I can almost believe. (Except for the music.) She herself was surprised to discover that her mother, being the kind who only gives you fruit for dessert, let her discover these movies at a young age.

But then, it was that same mother who sent an early interview to a competition, which Hadley went on to win, and which brought her to the attention of the Guardian, where she has been for the last twenty years. Mothers are good.

Questions, and compliments, from the audience seemed to surprise Hadley. I think it’s time she realises that quite a few of us admire her writing quite a lot. No, scratch that. It’s better she doesn’t, in case it goes to her head.

As you were, Hadley.

Travels From my Twilight Zone

You’ll remember Jeff Zycinski and his autobiographical The Red Light Zone, about his years as Head of Radio at BBC Scotland. It was very good, and as I said at the time – barely two years ago – you could remove the radio and you’d have excellent coverage of 25 years of life in Scotland.

Not only has Jeff now been seriously ill, while narrowly avoiding the dreaded virus of 2020, but he has written another autobiography, mostly about the years before the radio years. And it is an even better tale. ‘Morphine, memories and make-believe’ describes it perfectly.

We start with Jeff not being the slightest concerned that ‘it might be mouth cancer.’ Well, it was. So first we see him in his hospital bed, at the start of the year. And while he works on getting better, we read about his early life in Easterhouse, the seventh son of a Polish father and a Scottish mother.

It has completely changed my outsider’s view of Easterhouse, and it has reinforced my feeling that we are all mostly the same. A few years younger than me, and a Catholic boy in Glasgow, it still seems as if Jeff had a childhood I can relate to. It is fascinating in its ordinariness.

He tells it so well, and I’m beginning to believe he could tell me absolutely anything, and I’d believe it, and have fun. So, yes please, go on!

The second part of the book is fiction. Probably. The first story about the man not far from Loch Ness reminded me of Jeff. So, about that money..? All super stories, really enjoyable, and just that bit different from many other stories.

Then we return to Jeff’s health – please stay well! – before he takes us on a trip round Scotland, outlining the best of the places mentioned in the biographical first half. And I hope he has been allowed to hug his children again. Even if they are adults now.

Grace’s North-South divide

She was a little vague about the where, but the difference between southern food and northern food is whether people like it wet or dry. It settled a discussion Daughter and I had had just that day, about my – apparently southern – liking for dry food, whereas some people can’t have too much sauce.

Or champagne. This is the Guardian’s Grace Dent we’re talking about, and she was very grateful, but surprised, that some of us had paid money to hear her talk about her new book, Hungry, because otherwise she’d have been sitting there talking to herself, drinking champagne. As it was, Grace was chatting to Felicity Cloake, also of the Guardian, and general facilitator of how to make the best Waldorf salad, for instance.

I had happily forked out my £5 for an hour with Grace, but when Kirkland Ciccone decided to launch his book at exactly the same time, he won. So that’s why, a couple of weeks later, I sat down with Grace and Felicity and my cheese sandwich, for a belated hour of fun.

Not yet having seen Grace’s book, I am merely guessing that it is an autobiography of her life so far. I read some excerpts in the paper a while back, and they were mostly about her dad. Being northern, they like Asda, and unhealthy food. I know, that sounds a bit prejudiced, but it’s roughly how Grace put it, and there is nothing wrong with this. It’s merely an observation. She feels safe in Asda, and her father was always very happy to be taken out for meals there, or to Morrison’s.

I had hoped that Grace could still eat out incognito, but it seems not. Not even when she covers her face with masks and glasses and everything. So yes, if she were ever to walk into my restaurant, should I have one, I’d be trembling with fear.

The chat covered a lot of common sense, and a lot of food and eating and cooking. I’m relieved to see we see eye to eye on many things, and Grace is right to concentrate on entertaining all of us who will rarely, if ever, make it to one of those places, rather than on making the fortune of the restaurants. I like a [food] writer who wants nothing more than to fill a restaurant with dynamite and get rid of the whole lot. Even if it turned out to be much better than expected, and with no real need for that dynamite.

I suspect Hungry is a fun book to read. I mean, it even gives away Grace’s deep, dark secret of comfort-eating oven chips with Bisto. I obviously wouldn’t, but why not?

In your arms only

When asked – and sometimes even when not asked – about what makes the Edinburgh International Book Festival so special, or who you might meet there, I have often borrowed the tale below to describe what could happen.

But it’s never as good as when the someone who was there tells it. And since Julie Bertagna put it on Twitter, I feel it’s out there, in public.

It’s a lovely way of remembering Sean Connery. And what a lucky man he was, to have Julie in his arms!

Besides, rugs are a nuisance…

The Turning Tide

Having fallen in love with Catriona McPherson’s 13th Dandy Gilver crime novel, I’ve moved on to the 14th, The Turning Tide. I am enjoying taking up a new [to me] crime series, allowing myself to read instalments as they come, even if I might struggle to catch up with the earlier books.

Cramond Island has a ring of mystery to it, although I’ve never been. It’s where Dandy and her partner in crime, Alec, go to work out why the ferry woman has stopped ferrying people, and possibly also to escape from newborn baby grandchildren.

There are potatoes involved, some unexpected nudity for 1936, and much skulduggery from the locals, and how did the young man Dandy’s family have always known come to die?

I love the friendship and banter between Dandy and Alec, even if they are rather well off and occasionally unaware of how the other half – more like 95%, perhaps? – lives. And then there is the war. The old one was dreadful, but now there is the threat of a second war looming and Dandy’s sons are just the right age…

This is lovely. And fun. And they do go back home, because ‘there are babies to dandle’. And if I could have Dandy’s maid Grant, I’d be most grateful.

Sir Tom

I should read more Tom Stoppard.

And I realise this is my second Sir Tom for the week, but you can’t have too many of them.

Enjoyed the Guardian’s online conversation between Tom Stoppard and his biographer Hermione Lee this evening. I gather her book about him is published tomorrow.

For all that he has been a favourite of mine for so long, I don’t believe I have heard him talk much, if at all. His plays and his opinions have been enough. I gather he’s gone more serious in later years, whereas it was the humour I was attracted to all those decades ago.

There were some slight technical problems to begin with. Hermione and Tom seemed not to be sure when to speak and spoke across each other. But it got better. Tom also seemed to have some woman escaping on the left hand side of the screen. Not as fun as toddlers in walkers, but nicely human.

And he smokes! I don’t know why that surprised me, but it did. Someone has to, I suppose, even now when it’s become so unusual as to be a shock.

Mechanical tortoises featured. Apparently actors prefer them to live dogs. He couldn’t quite recall the title of a Shakespeare play that he admires. There has been a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead done with puppets…

Well.

I took no notes. This was purely an event intended for my enjoyment. And as I said, I might have to read a play or two.

‘One of mum’s fanciful ideas’

Or welcome to Bloody Scotland 2020!

After a worthy introduction by the First Minister herself, this year’s online Bloody Scotland kicked off with four crime writers dishing dirt and trashing reputations and generally having a good time, despite the fact that Lin Anderson, Craig Robertson and Gordon Brown, kept in some sort of check by Abir Mukherjee, were all at home. Each in their own, where we were treated to two sets of book backgrounds, one of posters plus Lin’s sauna, although I suspect that might have been a joke.

Bloody Scotland as ‘one of mum’s fanciful ideas’ was how Lin’s children explained how it came about. ‘A lot of good ideas come out of alcohol’, and as Gordon said, organising a crime festival ‘cannae be that hard’. For this year’s online weekend, Lin had apparently suggested that the whole country could light torches. Gordon had to tell how he ruined the town’s bowling green when he set up the football pitch five years ago. The grass died in a pitch pattern.

They all feel that this new crime festival has many advantages, including the ability for anyone, anywhere to attend; both authors and audience. It was great being able to ask Ian [Rankin] and Val [McDermid] who they most wanted to talk to, when anyone is possible.

The Curly Coo – the pub where shenanigans take place on the Saturday night – is actually Craig’s local pub and it was his ‘daft idea’ to organise an event there. It usually sells out in seconds.

Abir asked the others how the pandemic had affected them. He had found that his usual workflow of 15000 words per month dwindled to about 15. Craig found writing easier, if only because he couldn’t pop to the Curly Coo all the time. Gordon got up at five every morning and wrote a new novel, while Lin was so traumatised she couldn’t write at all, and had to stick to jotting down ideas for later.

Two thirds of the way into this event, I got up to go to the kitchen and put dinner on. This has never ever happened to me at the Albert Halls. But the four Bloody Scotland board members were able to follow me there and merely continued their bickering.

There were audience questions, and we learned that Abir once got asked about another authors book, because they were both brown authors. Gordon [also Brown] once had to explain to an irate bookshop customer why he was out signing novels instead of attending to the election. Lin told a fan at an event why she’s so good at sex. Lots of practice, I gather. A fondness for pina coladas is spreading wherever Abir goes, because he treats all crime gatherings like holidays.

Whether that will have to change now, we don’t know, but they believe there will be a Bloody Scotland after the virus. If there is an after the virus. And continuing digitally looks like a real possibility, regardless of viral status.

Abir did well, getting his unruly lot to finish on time, just as the pasta was ready.