Category Archives: Languages

The Spice Boys

They were tricked. Lured to the Project Room under false pretenses.

And everyone else knew. The emails had suggested the weather or football if you ran into them, and actually had to have a conversation. No slips of tongues permitted. I get very nervous when words like confidential and secret are used. I mean, it’s just asking for accidents to happen, isn’t it?

So, the Spice Boys. Arne and Bjarne. It’s like a double act. They were, ever since that day back in 1889 when they first met. (I always thought they looked old. But that’s the effect of teachers. They need to be.)

So, since 1989 (which seems like a much more realistic date) Norwegian Arne Kruse and Dane Bjarne Thomsen have prodded and polished countless students in the Scandinavian languages at the University of Edinburgh, including the current head of the Scandinavian department. And now they were retiring, and there was to be a celebratory gathering and a handing over of a festschrift put together by their old friends and colleagues.

They knew this. It’s just they thought it was for the other one. They’d contributed, and they had a speech. About the other one.

But they were so touched by the surprise that the speeches suffered a little.

I thought the gathering was surprisingly full of older people until it dawned on me that the ones needing to honour these two men would of necessity be a little older than the young people who had lied to Arne and Bjarne, and tried to keep this a secret for a couple of years. Then it dawned on me that I was also an old people, permitted to be present because the editor of Bjarne’s book actually invited their mother.

Tack!

There was much chat and tea and coffee before. After there was much more chat and cake and something in fancy glasses.

The Spice Boys name is from the 1990s when Arne and Bjarne started their annual mulled wine. Glögg.

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The Cs have it

We felt safe with the idea of Canada. We went to see the Canadian branch of the family, because we were so ‘close’, being on the right side of the Atlantic.

Cousin C and her husband ‘No. 27’ picked us up and drove for a very long time so we could see where they live (along with Cousin E; more of whom later). Who’d have thought Toronto was so large and so full of traffic? When Son first went, he made it sound like it was like driving through Småland…

Anyway, it was lovely to see their small town and their house and the rather gorgeous and exotic looking birds they have in their garden. We also drove through C-town which boasts at least one Swede. I know, because this woman once phoned Son to let him know her organisation was going to give him money. (Which is always nice.) She said she lived in a small Canadian town he wouldn’t have heard of. ‘I know C-town’ he said, ‘my cousin runs the quilting shop there, and I’ve visited.’ Small world.

And then our second visit to C’s home was curtailed by Covid. For health reasons, the cousins required us to test. The second test was only negative for me, so some bed rest followed while we checked out the country’s Covid rules. But the view over Lake Ontario was nice. Just wish Tim Hortons hadn’t ‘forgotten’ the cream cheese.

We came to Canada not only to visit the cousins, but for Daughter to see a former colleague of hers. Meeting up ‘for a cup of tea’ is much more work with an ocean in between.

Languages can be difficult, especially for non-French speakers like your Bookwitch. Montréal is a lot more French than I had imagined. Our Uber driver listed his languages as French, Spanish and Creole. He apologised profusely for not speaking better English.

But he drove us to the airport, where I was tickled to find the cannabis disposal bin.

Beignets and bagels

Breakfast was late. That was the first breakfast, which due to jet lag was supposed to feed me round about two in the afternoon, but because of [their] lateness was almost three. Or nine, over there. Apart from our empty tummies, the wait was pleasant enough, in the early morning sunshine on the terrace next to the San Antonio Riverwalk. I ordered a churro waffle with cream and strawberries. Start as I didn’t mean to go on, kind of thing. Very American.

It was downhill all the way from there on. The waiter at the next hotel assured me that three pancakes would be enough. One and a half and I was ready to burst. (In my defense, I had imagined much smaller pancakes.) Via blueberry muffins I arrived at bagels with cream cheese, to bagels with cream cheese where the cream cheese got forgotten. (Both times. Thank you Tim Hortons.) Finally there was the hotel receptionist who assured ‘madam’ that the breakfast was there. In fact, she could see it. (The wonders of CCTV…) They placed breakfast baskets outside the rooms. And clearly Bookwitch madam was stupid beyond belief in not finding hers, despite me saying this was my third morning and I’d managed just fine the first two. In the end her ‘did you say room 205?’ made me realise she had been seeing the wrong breakfast. The one outside room 206…)

As well as pancakes New Orleans offered beignets. They are little deep fried things with two kilos of icing sugar on top, and come with their own sweeper-upper of the surplus sugar.

Boats played their part, from the Día de los Muertos floats in San Antonio, the old style Mississippi steamer, the ferries on New York’s East River, smaller boats in the marina on Lake Ontario to something larger on the St Lawrence. I like water fronts.

There being a wedding involved, we mustn’t forget the baraat, where the groom was danced towards his bride, assisted by his family. I’d read up on this, and was a little disappointed there was no horse. But dancing is fine too.

SELTA at 40

Well, me. And a few other people, at least one of whom I know.

Personally I like my ambassadors to be present when I visit, but then they probably quite like me to be there when invited too. In the end neither the ambassador nor I made it, so I suppose we’re even. (I had a cough.)

The event was to celebrate the 40th birthday of SELTA, which took place in the ambassador’s home. You want a bit of bling on occasion. The embassy’s Kulturråd hosted the party, and the chair of SELTA was there, saying a few things. I have every faith in them, and I’m sure a great time was had by all.

Not only was it a birthday, but ‘chair Ian Giles announced the news that SELTA has been awarded Svenska Akademiens pris för introduktion av svensk kultur utomlands (the Swedish Academy’s Prize for the Introduction of Swedish Culture Abroad). This is an annual prize, established in 1992, for efforts to disseminate and promote Swedish culture outside of Sweden). The prize is worth SEK 160,000 (£12,600).’

So that was quite a nice birthday present.

Marcus and the ‘maneater’ jellyfish

Marcus Sedgwick died this morning. He was far too young to go, and I understand it was unexpected. Many very good books will now not be written.

I have a small bookcase near my bed, with some of my favourite books. There is more than one by Marcus, because you just had to like them.

When I first became aware of him and his writing, I was surprised to learn that he was taking Swedish lessons. I wrote to him to ask. Because that’s the kind of thing I did. And when I looked back on our correspondence today, I discovered that occasionally he wrote to me in Swedish, completely unprompted. (Maneter are jellyfish, and to the English-speaker they sound like man-eaters. This is something Marcus incorporated into an event, or two.)

Eight years ago I interviewed him on the day of his adult book launch for A Love Like Blood. It was a fun, but slightly traumatising, event for me. Mostly because of it happening on the 16th floor, and less because of the blood. But we sort of agreed on roller coasters.

Tack Marcus, och hej då!

A report from the pavement

I spent quite a bit of my Bloody Scotland weekend trying to hunt Elly Griffiths down. This entailed looking into bars; a thing I don’t normally do. I wanted her to sign a book, but by the time I had the book, Elly was nowhere to be found.

She was one of the crime writers taking part in Vaseem and Abir’s Red Hot Night of a Million Games. It was a very silly night, but a lot of fun, and it cheered both Daughter and me up. We’ll go next year too if it’s on. Daughter’s favourite was Luca Veste singing Hit Me Baby One More Time. Again. We got to wave our lit-up mobiles in the air and everything. Elly did some good moves with her maracas. Helen Fitzgerald played a convincing corpse on the floor. There was much cheating.

And when all’s said and done, it has very little to do with crime fiction, except that these authors are fun to spend time with.

In Houses From Hell, all I wanted to do was move the furniture on the stage around. Lovely, tartan armchairs, but Helen Grant, Lesley Thomson and Stuart Neville didn’t get to interact enough, because they were not seated in a convenient semi-circle. (Please take note!) Besides that, between you and me, they are quite creepy people. No, that’s not right. They have creepy interests and they put all sorts into their books. Helen even managed to scare her own husband.

When the programme for Bloody Scotland came I wanted to go to so many events. But I know my [lack of] strength, so decided to pace myself, and opted for four, thinking I could add to them later. When the time came, however, four seemed like really quite enough.

After many years of not meeting Martin Edwards in person, there was no way I was going to miss his Cosy Makes a Comeback event. I think of him as a cosy writer. And then he started off by saying he prefers traditional; not cosy. Conveniently enough both the other participants, Jonathan Whitelaw and S J Bennett, as well as the audience, were quick to adapt and the word traditional got a lot of airing. Big audience, too, so I have to say that we are many who like cosy crime. Pardon, traditional.

Hadn’t been sure how the death of the Queen was going to influence the discussion, seeing as S J’s detective actually is the Queen. But she has many plans, and always lets fictional characters do the actual deeds, so this may well continue working. Martin’s excellence at editing [other people’s] vintage crime got a mention, with very many of us being big fans and wanting to know that there will be more from the British Library. He’d initially expected to edit two. There are now over a hundred, so that clearly exceeded expectations.

At the cosy event (sorry!) I said hello to Lizzy Siddal, who I now recognised, and was introduced to her companion Marina Sofia. This turned out to be serendipitous since Marina bore down on me outside the room for the evening event about Detective Duos. We exchanged cards, the way civilised people do, and talked. A lot. For obvious reasons we were able to talk about funny foreigners. Marina is a publisher of translated crime. When Son arrived, in his role as translator of David Lagercrantz’s book, I introduced them, and it turned out they knew about each other already, and a lot more conversation took place.

The Detective Duos event was interesting, and I was pleased to finally come across Ayo Onatade who chaired it. Must have been aware of her for ten years at least. And I had thought it was her I saw down at the Albert Halls the previous night. It obviously was.

One day I’ll have to explain to David Lagercrantz about spoilers. Like not mentioning them too much at events… I liked new-to-me author Ajay Chowdhury, who is a Bloody Scotland-made success, having won a competition to write new crime. Having decided against buying his book before the event on the grounds that it was a hardback, I hurried out afterwards to hand over my money, and still make it to be first in the signing queue.

Simon Mason talked about his two DI R Wilkinses, and if I’d not already read and loved his book, I’d have bought that too. At the end Ayo put them all on the spot, and David agonised at great length before giving up on answering. (In case you want to know what it was about, I’m afraid I can’t remember.) When asked about their personal favourite detective duos, I was very pleased that Ajay chose Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Haven’t heard those names mentioned in a long time.

I then proceeded to confuse everyone by chatting to Simon and David at more or less the same time at the signing table, about different things in two different languages. I think maybe I won’t do that again. But it was nice to reminisce a little with Simon, and good to introduce myself as the mother of you-know-who to David, who got quite carried away. And he finally got to meet his translator. So I suppose that was all good.

Afterwards Son and Dodo and the Resident IT Consultant went for a beer somewhere. Probably not where I was looking for Elly. Instead I hugged an author and talked about cows with another while I waited outside on the pavement for Daughter to pick me up. It’s quite nice this, finding yourself right next to some favourite writers on the pavement (where many of them go to smoke. But not these two!).

As you may have guessed the cow conversation was with James Oswald, which in turn started Vaseem Khan on the Scots use of the word coo. I worked out later that they might have been on their way to Crime at the Coo. Talked elephants with Vaseem. Obviously. And said what fun we’d had the previous night. Soon after the hug Daughter turned up and she tried to invite him round for chilli. Vaseem turned us down very nicely. But we can try again next year.

So, as I said, you find a lot of authors milling about both in and out of the Golden Lion. And when the ticket table remained unstaffed for rather longer than it should have, Gordon Brown came to the rescue.

Dark Music

I surprised myself by reading David Lagercrantz’s Dark Music. But what with David appearing at Bloody Scotland this Saturday, and the fact that a copy of his book ended up in my hands, I decided to see what he could do with two detectives from two completely different backgrounds.

In fact, seen from my exile point of view, I am wondering why Chileans seem to pop up so much. Are they – the second generation immigrants – seen as more attractive than some other nationalities? More attractive to me, having met some of the parent generation fleeing Chile back in the day. Anyway, here we have Micaela Vargas, who almost ruins her family’s reputation by joining the police. I’m curious to see if her delinquent brothers will be made more of in future books.

And on the opposite, but same, side we have the Holmesian Hans Rekke, a professor who sees too much and who is frequently high on drugs. He’s rich, too. Being clever can be a drawback, and it can be hard to stop thinking, and seeing.

Together these two start solving a murder that the police gave up on. It’s 2003/2004 and most of the signs point to Afghanistan. The crime as such is perhaps not so interesting, but the way the two detectives interact is. And then there’s the government and various foreign agents. What’s so special about a football referee from Kabul?

I quite liked the way David introduces the next book. At least, I hope it’s the next book. So I suppose that means I want to see more of Vargas and Rekke?

(Translation by Ian Giles)

Handy to be alive

It is. And we are so grateful that Michael Rosen came out of Covid almost as good as new. I’d forgotten quite how much of a performer he is. Not for Michael this sitting down in one of the book fest’s trendy armchairs and chat quietly to a chairperson like Daniel Hahn. No. He allowed himself to be introduced, and then it was full speed ahead with an hour of absolute comedy.

Comedy mixed with serious stuff, because nearly dying, or being from the stone age, isn’t all fun. But it’s possible to talk about it entertainingly, and in such a way that a roomful of very young children don’t get bored. Michael told us about being ‘put to sleep’ by the NHS, and how hard it was to wake up after forty days, and how his resourceful wife brought in a mobile phone and had his children chat to him and getting him talking (and now he can’t stop).

He had to relearn how to walk and talk. The first with the help of Sticky McStickstick, who assisted Michael all the way to the toilet and back. The talking by learning to sing Frère Jacques by making the somewhat rude noise that sounds a bit like farts (and he had the audience doing just that…). I couldn’t help thinking of the aerosol effect when so many people blow/sing raspberries.

Anyway, he now walks and talks. About pasta, for instance. There was much said about pasta, and Rigatoni the pasta cat. Although Michael prefers fusilli, with bolognese – with mushrooms – sticking to every little fold.

His current favourite [own] book is the as yet unpublished Gaston le dog. This led to a lot of French being bandied about, and coming on top of Frère Jacques and also Daniel’s translation thing, it was a very French sort of day.

Born in 1946, and not the stone age (he lied), Michael and his brother were very naughty boys. And noisy. This brought back the story of how their father used to deal with noise. He would put his hand to the side of his face (see Bookwitch archive photo of Michael demonstrating this in 2012) and simply utter the words ‘The Noise’.

Which coincidentally is how it sounds to people in the rest of the world when Michael says the word ‘nice’. It’s tricky. So is not breathing, which seems to have been something that happened at school, but which was alleviated by flapping the lid of your [ancient style] school desk lid, and breathing behind it. This saved several lives in Michael’s school.

Of course, it could be that he just made all this up.

And because this was about poetry, and because Michael is a poet, he told us some poems, making the audience repeat them.

His favourite pudding is blackcurrant sorbet, or cassis.

After an hour of fun it was Daniel’s thankless task to tell us it had to come to an end.

The Translator’s Craft and Graft

He’d found a pair of jeans in time for his first event on Sunday. No more need for Daniel Hahn to shiver in the relative ‘chill’ Edinburgh offered him. He was here to talk about his book Catching Fire, about translating Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire, because you can never have enough books about other books.

It was one of those events I like so much. The book is fabulous and Daniel is always so [seemingly] relaxed when chatting in public like this. He started off with the regular crossed legs, but towards the end I noticed he’d sort of crept up in his armchair the way you do when sitting reading in the comfort of your own home.

Chaired by his publisher Sam McDowell of Charco Press, the two of them chatted about the sorts of things the large audience liked. Daniel is the kind of person who thinks carefully about what word to use in a particular place, and also the kind of son to accept an OBE ‘because he’s got parents.’ It made them happy. He also felt that an OBE is good for the general business of translating, no matter which translator is honoured.

Xenophobia is growing, so we need those foreign books. Without foreign language skills, we need someone to translate those books for us.

Something I’d never thought of is that Daniel’s English is not the same as other people’s; it all depends on how and where and with whom you grow up. So any translation will rely on the language that particular translator has. It’s very interesting.

He read a few pages from his book, and as ever it was entertaining both for what it was and how Daniel reads. It just made me want to reread Catching Fire again.

After this event in the Northside Theatre, we all mostly trooped over to the signing tent where I was happy to note I wasn’t at the end of the queue. Having acquired a post-it with my name on so he’d know who I was 😊.

He put it to the side as he wrote a nice long message, after which I felt it prudent to retrieve my post-it before he signed all the books after me to Ann. Nice enough name, but it’d be confusing.

Resist

It’s the tulip bulbs I’ve never forgotten. Even as a child, learning that Audrey Hepburn had to eat tulip bulbs to survive during the war, it seemed both fantastic – in a bad way – and hard to believe. Just as I couldn’t really get my head round what Audrey was doing in the Netherlands.

If you read Tom Palmer’s new book Resist, you will find out, and it will probably leave you with tears in your eyes. Unlike many novels about the resistance in the war, in whatever country the story might be set, this one is a little more – dare I say it? – ordinary. Because it is based so much on what actually happened to Audrey and her family, rather than what an author has simply made up.

You meet Audrey – called Edda here, for her own safety – in her home village of Velp, near Arnhem, as she is setting out on helping the local resistance. It’s the kind of thing you need to keep secret, because the less anyone else knows, the safer you all are. Edda’s family have had bad things happen to them, and lying low is the way forward.

Covering the last two years of WWII, we learn much about ordinary Dutch people. Except, they are not ordinary; they are brave, albeit often in a quiet, life-saving way. I learned more about Arnhem, which to me was ‘just’ a place name connected with the war, in a bad way. And the tulips.

The same age as Anne Frank, we have to be grateful Audrey survived, if only just. It’s hard to believe that starvation can be so much more of a threat than being hit by bombs, say. And people fleeing their old homes has become much more of a current thing than we could ever have thought, until recently.

This is the latest of many thoughtful books from Tom Palmer about WWII and its effects. Its brevity adds to its seriousness. And the cover art from Tom Clohosy Cole is stunning.