Category Archives: Humour

The Makar and the First Minister

In the end it was just me and Shappi Khorsandi’s handbag. Fantastic handbag, actually, and I felt sort of honour bound to guard it while it was sitting there all alone. Now, if you knew me, you’d realise how odd this was. It was mere minutes after I had spectacularly missed taking photographs of Shappi. Twice. Because I didn’t recognise her well enough. And now I know what her handbag looks like.

Jackie Kay and Nicola Sturgeon

This was probably due to the excitement ‘backstage’ after the photo session with Nicola Sturgeon and Jackie Kay. We’d waited, the way you do. And then it happened so fast, the way it tends to with people who have security staff and lots of commitments, but not so many that a First Minister can’t interview a poet at a book festival. They were nicely colour coordinated, the two of them. And it’s a sign of popularity for a politician when she is addressed by her first name.

So I missed Shappi’s photo call, coming immediately after this. Then I missed my unobtrusive photos of Shappi as she was being given the Chris Close treatment. And then everyone left, except for the handbag.

Prior to this I had skipped a book signing with Simon Callow. I decided I already had enough pictures of him, so went and sat in the yurt reading and eating my lunch. Only minutes later he joined me on that bench. Admittedly with an interviewer, but still. You can’t escape the great and the good. Luckily for Simon I hadn’t helped myself to the grapes in the fruit bowl as had been my intention, so he was able to polish them off as he talked.

Zaffar Kunial

Previously out on the grass, I had come across poet Zaffar Kunial seemingly doing an impromptu session with a large group of people. Maybe these things just happen as fans encounter someone they admire…

Holly Sterling

Carol Ann Duffy

Gillian Clarke

Then it was back and forth for me, catching children’s illustrators in the children’s bookshop and the more grown-up poets in the signing tent. Holly Sterling had a line of eager children after her event, and staying with the Christmas theme, so did Carol Ann Duffy across the square, along with her fellow Welsh poet Gillian Clarke. After them Jackie Kay signed, without Nicola Sturgeon. And I finally caught up with Shappi!

Jackie Kay

Shappi Khorsandi

Fiona Bird

Found Fiona Bird signing her nature book mid-afternoon, and she has such an appropriate name for the kind of books she writes! I went hunting for Kathryn Evans and Michael Grant, who had both been hung along the boardwalks by Chris Close. Had to try Kathryn several times, to see if the light would improve.

Kathryn Evans by Chris Close

Michael Grant by Chris Close

And there were no photos, but I glimpsed Kate Leiper, and spoke to both Lindsey Fraser and Kathryn Ross.

Tried to use my afternoon sensibly, so checked out various books in the bookshops. That didn’t mean I actually did sensible thinking, looking up ‘un-known’ names or anything. If I had I wouldn’t have been so surprised later.

Unusual and Unexpected

It helps to have authors who are former actors, or just plain crazy. Last night’s brilliant performance – that is the only word for it – by Jo Cotterill and Kathryn Evans was really something. The bright spark who put them together is either quite cunning or someone simply got lucky. Jo and Kathryn felt they were mismatched, what with not writing for the same age group, and I’d had the same thought, but they are friends and they worked out what to do. Or so they claimed.

Jo Cotterill

It was fun! We could have had much more of this electric stuff. Literally.

Debut author Kathryn Evans (who is up for the First Book Award at the festival, so vote for her!) started off, and now that I’ve seen her childhood photographs and learned more about aphids, I completely see where she was coming from when writing about her set of girls in More of Me.

Kathryn Evans

Who knew you could get ideas for fiction when farming strawberries? I mean, from the actual farming, rather than just idly thinking as you farm. Creatures eating creatures eating plants. I think. Inside every aphid is another aphid. Apparently. And being given sets of Russian dolls by your Eastern European workers will also set the ball rolling.

Books by Jo Cotterill and Kathryn Evans

After both of them had agreed that being an embarrassing mother is essential, Jo Cotterill used the audience to build atoms, to explain how her Electrigirl came to be. There is audience participation and then there’s audience participation. First Jo built one atom and then a second atom, using every available electron in the tent, with Kathryn as the battery, channelling her enthusiastic PE teacher persona to the limit. (As we were in one of the smaller theatres, most of the audience got used up for this.)

Jo Cotterill

They had questions for each other, and we learned that Kathryn was surprised we all came, and Jo has been surprised to find fans believe characters are real. (They are!?) Jo once poured a pot of tea over herself (ouch!) and Kathryn wasn’t totally truthful with her agent about progress on book two. Oops, sorry. I think that was a secret meant to stay in the tent. And the book features a frozen heroine.

Then it was the turn of the audience to ask questions, and they were far better than average. Kathryn once wanted to work in a sweetshop, because she fancied a boy there. Jo was an actress and a teacher, before becoming a writer. She reckons she could let her heroine explode in book three… That might also have been a secret.

When the time came to be first in the signing queue, I witnessed some proper running. The girls were dead keen, and those who had come only knowing one of these fun – but crazy – authors were completely charmed by the other one as well. And let’s face it; how could you resist a sexy strawberry farmer with pink hair, wearing a silver grey fifties dress and uncomfortable shoes, or the ex-actress in lime green leggings and a skirt straight out of a comic, with specially painted Converse to match her book cover?

Kathryn Evans

I joined the queue, wearing both my fan girl hat and my photographer hat. Kathryn had a blue, retro Polaroid camera, and after sort of kissing me across the signing table she made me pose with her. I never do this. Never. She had a library date stamp to play with as well. In fact, I suspect neither Jo nor Kathryn were treating this very seriously…

Kathryn Evans and Jo Cotterill

After sensibly declining drinks, I got out my old person’s bus pass for the two stops to Waverley station, making sure I voted for Kathryn’s book before leaving Charlotte Square.

Princes Street was surprisingly pleasant for a Saturday night, I thought, until I remembered it was Monday.

How to be an Alien

I know. I blogged about How to be an Alien before. I love George Mikes, and particularly that book. And I feel that maybe we need more of that kind of thing. (Mine is the 24th impression, from 1978.)

George Mikes, How to be an Alien

Except, perhaps it’s now an unsafe topic of conversation? As George points out, ‘Do not forget that it is much easier to write in English than to speak English, because you can write without a foreign accent.’ Yes. My smallish vocabulary can always be blamed on my choice of writing style; pretend I prefer plain and simple. You can’t hear me.

How times have changed. George reported being told by a very kind lady ‘you really speak a most excellent accent without the slightest English.’ Don’t we all? Now though, I wonder what any kind lady is likely to say under similar circumstances.

Where are you a foreigner? Those of us who are here, would generally like to believe that in our own countries we wouldn’t be, and that this misfortune would befall the British instead, but according to George Mikes this is not so. Or more correctly, was not so, but I’m guessing many British people are not foreign even when they go and live in Spain. George was upset when he was informed that his much ‘loved and respected’ mother was a foreigner, back in her own Hungary.

I used to believe I knew and understood everything in How to be an Alien. England was charming and amusing, and you could smile fondly over her, as you would a toddler.

When I first read the book, I had never heard of Princes Square and Leinster Square in London. The whole idea seemed preposterous. Then one day I discovered I was staying in a hotel in one of them. Or was it both?

These days I tell people I live at no. 4 and that it’s the house between nos. 3 and 5. This needs to be pointed out or casual visitors may end up on the other side of the road.

Anyway, I used to reckon all I needed to do was learn how things are done here and I’d be fine. Now I find that I am taken aback by how normal things are in – to me – hitherto unknown countries on the continent, and how much I have changed over the years.

But I do feel queueing is a fair way of doing things. And I’d like to hope that the humour in George’s book will be appreciated by most people.

The Superpower Project

Exploding grannies appear to be a thing these days. Especially at the beginning of books, and I suppose it’s as well to get granny out of the way as soon as you can, plotwise and with a violent end.

Paul Bristow and Luke Newell, The Superpower Project

Paul Bristow’s first book The Superpower Project is both funny and exciting. Illustrated in comic style by Luke Newell, it looks just like the kind of book middle grade readers would be drawn to, but had I not been offered this by an adult, I’d never have looked at it twice.

And that would have been a shame, because I enjoyed it a lot, and I should know by now not to judge a book this way. The blurb is much more my kind of thing, though.

Megan and Cam suddenly discover they have superpowers. Megan can fly, and Cam can, well, turn into a hamster. This all seems to have something to do with Megan’s gran. They sort of inherit an ancient robot with amnesia, and soon after they discover that the town’s transformer-sculpture robots are out to kill them.

So why did gran explode, what did she want them to do, and what’s with all these sculptures, and their weirder than weird owner Mr Finn?

Set in Greenock, the children and their robot end up investigating old factories and an old hospital, a graveyard and the bottom of the river, among other things. They are brave and intelligent and with a nice line in humorous chat. And hamsters are obviously really useful animals.

When you think about it.

There is a promising epilogue, too, and I can only hope there might be more mayhem in Greenock before long. There are several other characters it’d be fun to see more of.

And I actually didn’t know that all schools are legally obliged to have three nice teachers.

The Adventures of Alfie Onion

I loved this! My first (yeah, sorry about that) Vivian French book. Not my last.

Vivian French, Alfie Onion

Alfie Onion is an adorable boy with a somewhat misguided but romantic mother, and a lazy slightly older brother, Magnifico Onion, the seventh son of a seventh son. He is supposed to make his mother proud.

Unfortunately he likes his food too much and is too scared to make a truly good hero. (And we all know who’s the hero in this book.)

It’s a case of going to find the princess and to kiss her and become tremendously rich. And happy. Magnifico can’t go on his own, so Alfie has to go with him. There are ogres. And trolls, and a talking horse and a couple of mice and some magpies, and Alfie’s loyal dog.

Even when you know who has to kiss whom, this is fun and exciting. Great stuff. And how to get round the seventh son nonsense.

Cute and funny illustrations by Marta Kissi.

Findus goes Fishing

No sooner has Sven Nordqvist got his 70th birthday out of the way, but he has a new book out in English.

Sven Nordqvist, Findus goes Fishing

Findus goes Fishing is darker than many other Findus books. Pettson is depressed. He sits and stares into space and he sighs and he gets angry with Findus (who – it has to be said – is behaving like a rather hyper toddler).

Finally Findus realises this is not something he can sort of jumpstart with some fooling around. He suggests going fishing. Pettson doesn’t want to fish.

In the end it takes some trickery from Findus before Pettson gives in. And what do you know? Just getting out makes him feel better. Fishing makes him feel better still. He almost smiles at the end. (And this is Pettson. He doesn’t do smiling.)

Sven Nordqvist, Findus goes Fishing

This just shows you two things; Findus is a very kind cat (deep down), and getting out of the house cheers you up.

Sometimes I wonder if these books are for children at all. It is quiet humour and lessons in living for us old ones. And it is art. That landscape they walk through to go fishing is stark and dark (and I really don’t like it…), but it is so true. A person could study the details for hours.

Sven Nordqvist, Findus goes Fishing

Get it for yourself! Never mind the little ones.

Sven Nordqvist is 70 today

And so is ‘his’ King. But never mind that little coincidence.

Do you remember Sven Nordqvist? Creator of Pettson and Findus, the cranky old man with the cunning – but kind – cat. I’m a bit surprised he is that old, to be honest, but like many Swedes he has aged well.

I like Pettson. And, all right, I like Findus, too. And Sven has a past in my old home town, so I feel sort of at home with him as well, and that crankiness is something I can sympathise with.

His famous characters first appeared 33 years ago, well before I required any picture books with lots of words for any Offspring, and had we not been given a copy by someone who knew what we were missing, we might never have been introduced. After all, who does not like pancake cake? (And when I make it, if I do, I don’t have to deal with hens and other complications first.)

Sven Nordqvist, photo by Leif R Jansson, for TT

Somewhat surprisingly he lives in a flat in the middle of Stockholm. You’d think he’d be hiding out in the wilderness, behind those clucking hens and other creatures.

And it seems that while Sven likes praise as much as the next illustrator of opinionated cats, he gets so much of it from people like me (that’s old and keen bookish females), that it no longer registers. He prefers to hear it from young readers.

According to an article in Hallandsposten the other day, these days Sven mainly works on what pleases him; drawing for himself.

I suppose today he could always pop over to the Palace with some freshly made pancakes.