Category Archives: Humour

‘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.

A Fantastical Escape

This was a great event to end the book festival with! Eoin Colfer is always fun, and he was complemented by Cressida Cowell and Kiran Millwood Hargrave, and kept in some sort of order by Mairi Kidd. There were many laughs and if you hadn’t read all the books yet, you’d want to by the end. Mairi was hoping there were some in the audience who still had this to discover.

Despite ‘promises’ there was no dog, sleeping or otherwise, nor a rear end of cat. But we had a past – Irish – laureate, and the current children’s laureate, and maybe a future one? Cressida was in her kitchen, Kiran in her Oxford office and Eoin was delighted to be anywhere, even in Dublin.

He was feeling smug, having written a picture book and a drama during lockdown. There was ‘nothing he could teach his sons that they’d want to know’ so he mostly ‘read books’ [on Netflix]. So did Kiran, but as she’s married to her illustrator she needed to get some work finished. And Cressida had read her books on YouTube, loving her own jokes, long forgotten.

People with a high IQ are more easily disturbed by noisy chewing. This is a fact. Apparently. Eoin wore his glasses to improve his high IQ look, and to seem more trustworthy as he talked about his fraternal, con-joined twins…

Kiran, who at a young age was traumatised by the tunnel in Eoin’s The Wish List, always has strong ideas of what her characters look like, but can’t draw them. Cressida might be an artist, but has bad visual memory, citing a pear with the stalk at the wrong end.

Eoin regrets the fact that children grow too old to dare write fiction, believing they must do it in a certain way. Kiran used to write as a child, but had forgotten this, until her mother reminded her of it, and reckons that’s 15 lost years where she’s not been ‘using it’ to make it stronger.

At this point Eoin disappeared. Broadband issues? (When he popped up again he blamed Brexit. Something about a hard border.) He’s scared by public speaking. Who’d have thought? After 25 years he’s less worried. His worst experience was doing a parachute jump. Not his choice. It was a gift from his wife… And the cords tangled.

Kiran likes the adrenaline pumping, and bungee jumps are her thing. Caving, not so much, But she got out eventually, that time, and she didn’t drown the time she wasn’t waving at her dad, either.

‘Not usually an issues guy’, Eoin is most pleased with his book Illegal. Although in Ireland you are not supposed to be proud of your own work, but as this is a collaboration, it might be OK. Cressida always likes her latest book best, and she’s always proud. With barely a minute to go, Kiran said her book titles are so long she didn’t have time to list one. Maybe the most recent book.

Llama drama

Who could resist a toy llama with attitude? Not me.

Sunday morning’s reading by author Annabelle Sami, of her book Llama Out Loud! was the kind of event I might well not have chosen in real life, being awfully resistant to new things. But it was fun, and I defy anyone not to want to find out how the noisy llama Levi might improve Yasmin’s life. She’s ten. In fact, it’s her birthday, and it didn’t go well. And she hasn’t spoken for seven years.

Yasmin wanted a different kind of guardian angel than this toy from the market in Whitechapel. But you get what you get, and Levi has to – almost – accept that their first meeting involves Yasmin potentially hitting him with a tennis racquet. The way you do when there is a strange noise coming from your wardrobe.

She quickly traps him in her laundry basket instead. Levi informs Yasmin that he doesn’t bite. He spits. And he can’t see why people want to open so many coffee shops in Whitechapel.

While Annabelle read a few chapters from her book, her illustrator Allen Fatimaharan drew pictures to show us the meeting. And I have to say that for a room belonging to a tidy girl, it somehow looks, well, untidy. As though a llama passed through.

And we learn about the purple poo incident.

If you want to know more you just have to buy a copy of Llama Out Loud!

You can also – while you wait – take Annabelle and Allen up on their challenge. Write a monologue about your very own guardian animal, or draw a picture.

Author, in a dress

What do people do? During these unusual times, I mean.

Supposedly authors, who ‘always’ work from home, tend to do so in their pyjamas. I believe that some have now started actually dressing [properly] for work, from home. Even heard of someone who ironed his clothes.

And they write. At least those who feel up to writing. It can be hard to get in the mood. Or getting out of that other mood.

Will anyone still be around to publish what they write, once they have typed ‘The End’? Will there be shops from which to buy those books?

I came across the link to a video clip, where Wendy Meddour reads her new picture book, Not in that Dress, Princess! It does have a publisher, but won’t be out for a few months yet.

It’s about what princesses can do while wearing dresses.

I like it. Do you?