OK, I admit to having seen and promptly borrowed this idea from a woman author on Facebook. Or stolen. But thank you, anyway.
The idea is to show photos of women authors, because it’s International Women’s Day today. And there have been ‘a few’ over the years. This is in no way fair or representative, and I could have spent all day looking at photos and it still wouldn’t be.
First, my fairy blogmother, Meg Rosoff, without whom I wouldn’t be able to subject you to this Bookwitchery.
Second, my – in this case rather wet – main photographer. (It’s how they do it at university.)
‘My’ first author in real life, Adèle Geras and Theresa Breslin, who was so interested in meeting me. (I don’t know why.)
Eleanor Updale and Sally Gardner, caught in the Edinburgh greenery in our second year at Charlotte Square.
Sara Paretsky, who has put up with being followed round the country by me.
And Helen Grant who buys me tulips.
Thank you all. And your literary sisters everywhere. I love you.
A year ago Bookwitch ruminated on what sells and what she reads and why.
Today I’m – because we are the same, Bookwitch and I – thinking about the effect Bookwitching has had not just on me but on the young and innocent, like Daughter. We have both put sixteen behind us – but only just. Obviously. Today it’s Bookwitch’s turn to hum ‘She was only sixteen…’
As you may have gathered, Daughter has recently moved and has some vintage shelves to arrange with books. And, it seems, a polar bear. Also two bookmarks, one of which I was intrigued to find personally dedicated and signed by Michelle Magorian.
This is the effect I mean. Somehow a lot of young literature has happened to Offspring. The vintage shelves I mentioned seem to contain mostly books by people I ‘know’ and who Daughter has met through being dragged on bring-your-child-to-work days.
There are an inordinate number of Cathy Hopkins books, and that’s as it should be. Likewise Caroline Lawrence and Liz Kessler and Jacqueline Wilson. Although the latter has had to be pruned down to more manageable numbers of books.
I won’t list them all, but basically, the story of Bookwitch can be seen on these shelves. There won’t be so many new ones, as the e-reader has taken over. This is just as well, because however lovely the vintageness from the local auction-hunter, a flat has only so much space.
Apologies for the tile samples. There is a kitchen splashback to deal with. And I would like it to be known that that book by Vaseem Khan has been ‘borrowed’ from a kind parent.
The title of Meg Rosoff’s new novel – Friends Like These – should be seen as a warning that things will be dark, and somewhat sordid. Certainly, the cockroaches are not fun. But I suspect Meg knows of what she’s writing. Unlike her heroine Beth she wasn’t 18 in the 1980s, but most of us were 18 once, and Meg will know what a hot summer in New York might have entailed. Sweat, cockroaches, drugs and sex. And friends.
Sort of friends.
Beth meets Oliver and Dan, and her new best friend Edie, when she arrives in Manhattan for an internship as a wannabe journalist. It’s about being rich or poor, Jewish or WASP; knowing your way around or learning as you go. Edie knows everything, and Beth is happy to let her lead, to have a new, really good friend.
I’m sort of Beth, and I wonder if Meg is too, but I couldn’t possibly tag along like that, agreeing to every crazy idea Edie comes up with. Beth works hard, and has to play even harder, just to keep up.
I loved most of this book. As you’d expect. Perhaps not that part in the middle where I was sure Beth would be going straight to hell. But after that I was able to see what Beth was capable of, and Edie too, and I could breathe again.
Is this a YA book? Not sure. It’s about teenagers, doing teenagery stuff. But it’s historical, too, and I wonder if the doings of the 1980s are more for us who lived through those times, than 18-year-olds today? Beth is an innocent behaving like a mini adult. And Edie, well…
It is interesting, this seeing how others live, be it the non-judgemental Beth or the manipulating Edie.
I’m a lot later with this than the Resident IT Consultant was. He’s the one around here who listens to the radio, and four weeks ago he sent me the link to Michael Berkeley’s interview with Meg Rosoff. I think he sort of suspected I wouldn’t mind listening to this. It was Private Passions on Radio 3, which seems to be a classier Desert Island Discs, like with more classical, proper music.
I kept intending to listen, but so many things got in the way, and the available number of days left shrank at an alarming rate. This is why I’m only letting you have just over a day to listen. Depending on when you read this. Although Daughter said she thought these things last ‘forever’. She could be right. Or she could be wrong.
Anyway, I finally hit on the solution to finding time. I had some Seville oranges to cut for the Resident IT Consultant’s marmalade making. It takes time. And it’s better for some audio entertainment to jolly me along. It clearly sounded so irresistible that Daughter said she’d slice the oranges with me.
So there we were, Meg’s Number One Fan and her Second Favourite Physicist, slicing away with increasingly sticky fingers. Yes, we used knives, obviously, but it’s still sticky business.
I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know any of Meg’s music choices, and worse still, while I enjoyed most of them I really didn’t care for the one described as her favourite… I think it was the one where she uttered the probably more truthful phrase than Mr Berkeley credited, ‘words fail me’….
You know the old joke, ‘I recognised you by your dress’, suggesting someone hasn’t updated their wardrobe contents for a while?
Well, I suspect the same can be said about my black jacket. No matter how much I think I could/should vary my outfits more, it’s generally the black jacket for Edinburgh.
Back in 2008 Meg Rosoff – somewhat erroneously – suggested I had to dress up for the Puffin summer party. I bought a jacket. No, I bought two. The one I wanted and which I wore to the Tate Modern that time, and the other one, suggested by pushy saleswoman.
Never wore my choice again.
Have worn the other jacket a lot.
Happened to give it a good look just now. It’s got a hole in the back. Probably where my bag has rested all these years. It will need mending… So it will most likely not come with me to the remaining book festival 2021. (To protect it. Not because I am vain. I’d like both it and me to have another few years in us still.)
The jacket, ten years ago, hiding behind Theresa Breslin and Karen Campbell.
Barbara Henderson’s book Scottish by Inclination could be described as an essential read for all other types of Scottish people, not to mention English people, and those further afield who still don’t see, or believe, that Brexit had much effect. Especially not on me, or us, or anyone perceived to be an OK sort of foreigner. Unlike ‘those others’.
Once I began reading the book I couldn’t stop. It’s just so good and so interesting and feels so real. It’s back to what I keep going on about; if you write what’s close to you, it will always be far better than anything else. And Barbara knows how to be German in Scotland, until she ‘forgot she was a foreigner’.
This is the story of Barbara’s life in Scotland, starting a little before she decided to study in Edinburgh, continuing with her departure from all she knew and loved best and her arrival at Glasgow airport thirty years ago. Just the fact that it was Glasgow then, when now it is nearly always Edinburgh. Short chapters on what it was like to be a student, on getting married, training for a job and starting work. Having babies and ending up in Inverness, where she still lives.
Every short chapter ends with a brief interview with other foreigners, from all the corners of the EU, showing why they came and what they do now, and showing that even those from some of the countries people have been suspicious of, are nice people, working hard, belonging. They are worthy of being here.
Although why immigrants should have to be so much ‘better’ than the people born in a country is beyond me.
I’m certainly not better than anyone. Just thinking about all the things Barbara did, working so very hard, having so much energy, and smiling so much, and, I believe, learning to understand what people in Glasgow say. (Only joking. A little.)
One of the EU citizens Barbara interviewed was your own witch. She even makes me sound interesting.
It’s my belief that anyone would enjoy this book. As I said, I started and couldn’t put it down. Bunkered up with sandwiches for lunch so I could read straight through the afternoon. After dinner the Resident IT Consultant took over and if you knew him, you’d know that not going for that walk he was going on but just sitting there reading and smiling, well… As an Edinburgh alumnus, albeit older, he enjoyed seeing what Barbara’s crowd got up to.
We are all foreigners, and it was a relief to see that someone else had had the same or similar problems to mine. And I appreciated the quotes from old and famous people for each chapter. It’s amazing not only how much wisdom there can be in a selection of quotes, but how apt they were for what the chapters were about.
There are photos of nearly all the EU interviewees, and what strikes me is how they look like people I’ve always known. (I’m the only one who’s turning her back on the reader.)
Yeah, did I mention I think everyone ought to read Scottish by Inclination? I really do.
And we would like to stay. I think that’s really what last night’s launch for Barbara Henderson’s book Scottish by Inclination was about. She came here thirty years ago, and has now written a non-fiction book about her time in Scotland, including interviews with a number of EU citizens who also came here some time in the past, and were expecting the right to a future.
The letter from the Scottish Government, telling us we are welcome here and they want us here, helped. But it’s no guarantee. Barbara has now acquired British citizenship, just to be on the safe side. She did this on the advice of Elizabeth Wein, who felt that it’s the only reliable thing to do, if you want to be sure.
Wearing her starry EU t-shirt, Barbara was talking to Margaret Kirk (who almost struggled to get a word in edgeways…). Barbara is a very cheerful force to be reckoned with. She read to us. Her arrival at Glasgow airport, where her first task was to find Fergus, which involved her walking round the arrivals hall singing, to attract the attention of the right very tall person. Then she read her memories from June 23rd five years ago, when the result of the referendum took her completely by surprise. (Available on YouTube.)
At first Barbara had no wish to write her memoirs, when it was suggested to her, but she changed her mind. And as I usually say, no one can tell you you have got your own story wrong.
She shared her path to British citizenship, which wasn’t plain sailing. With help from an excellent lawyer and making far too many trips from Inverness to Glasgow, she’s been successful. Barbara tested us on our knowledge of ‘Life in the UK’ from the official test (which I passed with flying colours). This could be because I have also taken, and studied for, this test. Mostly it seems people (those born here) got three out of five.
There was a question as to whether as a foreigner you have to be better, prove that you can do more than the natives. It certainly seems like it. But by now Barbara has decided she doesn’t need permission from others to determine ‘how Scottish’ she is. It’s her right to say, and she is Scottish by Inclination.
And so say all of us.
This, of course, has no bearing as to which football team she was rooting for on Wednesday evening.
Some of you may have been a little surprised that I’ve as yet not mentioned my fairy blog mother in my ‘memory’ pieces. The thing is that Meg Rosoff – for it is she – features in so many ways, from so many points in time.
I’ve recently been thinking of the holiday in Penzance in 2006, when Daughter and I got freezing cold on our way home via London to see Meg for the first time. The time when she talked about her new dogs, and then insisted on buying us something to eat and drink, first counting the money in her pocket. It was just over £6 and covered several items from the cafeteria. And then she drove us back to Euston, only partially engaging in some mild road rage in the middle of Euston Road.
And I remember the Aye Write in Glasgow in 2016, when she fed me again; some very nice Indian food, before limping back to her hotel, wearing new boots. That was just before we found out she was that year’s ALMA winner, which in turn meant that I stalked her round several parts of Sweden, meeting her US family who came over to the ceremony in Stockholm. (And I talked to Astrid’s daughter!) The Gothenburg book fair in September was particularly nice, with the two of us somehow bumping into each other over the couple of days I allowed myself there.
Or the book launch on the houseboat on the Thames, even before the Glasgow boot night. That’s not the sort of thing that happens all the time. Just the once, actually.
Two interviews in Meg’s house, one with decent photos and one not. A gathering in the same house for K M Peyton, one of Meg’s literary heroes.
A Puffin party at the Tate Modern, a fundraiser somewhere in Mayfair and the memorial service for Siobhan Dowd in Oxford. I’ve really got around, haven’t I? And so has Meg, obviously. Or the day when Daughter travelled to Oxford, and ran into Meg at the station, and enjoyed a little chat. This is an author who keeps track of people, and knows her ‘second favourite physicist’ in the wild. And will hug other people’s children, like when Son met her in Stockholm.
What else? Lots of Edinburgh bookfest appearances, where I particularly remember a lovely balmy evening with Elspeth Graham a few years ago. That was worth missing the good train home for.
I could go on. But you’ll be grateful that I won’t.
And we’ll say no more about the borrowed £1 twelve years ago.
How do you know that your favourite author will remain your favourite? And I don’t mean that they will suddenly become a really bad author, but what if you want to/need to replace them, or add to your – potentially growing – collection of favourites?
Relax. That hasn’t happened. But it was a thought that struck me some years ago. Meg Rosoff stepped up on that pedestal (?) in 2004. And about eight years later she was joined in close second place by Elizabeth Wein.
There is, of course, a difference between the author and their books. But let’s not delve too deeply into this.
What I’m really waffling about is the best of 2020. What a year.
When the time came to decide, I ‘discovered’ I had read rather fewer books this year, and many of them did not qualify, being adult or published before 2020. But before I had time to sink into depths of despair over my reading, I quickly came to the happy conclusion that there was no contest at all about the best books.
The authors of my first and second favourite novels have both had new books this year. If they were horses, they’d have arrived at the finishing line in the same split second. Although, I suppose they don’t have to be horses to do that…
So, anyway, here they are, the Bookwitch winners of 2020:
The Great Godden, by Meg Rosoff and The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein. If you haven’t read them, may I respectfully suggest you now know what to do over Christmas? It’s not as if you’ll be seeing Grandma, is it?
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