Category Archives: Poetry

Fun with Chris and Neil

It’s a comfortable affair, hanging out with Chris Riddell and Neil Gaiman. One is in Brighton and the other in New Zealand, but that’s fine. The moderator glowed over them both, but Chris had to point out that he’s less impressive than Neil. (That’s a matter of opinion, but if it makes him happy…) They first bonded over The Graveyard Book a dozen or so years ago.

And before he knew it, Neil discovered that Chris had illustrated most of his books. (You can’t leave a man with a pencil and expect him not to use it.) When it came to Fortunately the Milk Neil was almost going to threaten Chris to make him illustrate it, but luckily he didn’t have to and there was an amicable agreement for some more pictures.

Apparently Chris is the most booked up illustrator in the world (so that doesn’t bode well for when I want him to draw for me), with the wonderful Levi Pinfold coming close behind.

When it came to their latest collaboration, Pirate Stew, Neil told Chris to ‘go wild on this’ so he did. For the book fest event Neil read us the whole book, and Chris retreated from the camera and let his hand draw pictures instead. Much more comfortable for him. Neil had only the one copy of his book, but had given it away to a 7-year-old, so was forced to read from his computer, potentially changing some words here and there.

It’s mostly pirates as babysitters, and stale donuts. Your children will probably want you to read it every night.

During lockdown Chris felt it made no difference, as he’s always in his shed working anyway. But suddenly it was no fun when everyone else did it too. He even found himself wanting to see people. (I’ll come!)

Their advice to children who want to draw or write is to start now. Chris recommends a blank book to fill with pictures, and maybe a passport wallet to tuck your words into (this is what Neil did with Pirate Stew, so he wouldn’t forget).

Or you could turn pirate and break into Chris’s shed and steal his sketchbooks. (This would be a bad thing to do.)

Rapping a picture book

I took my imaginary preschooler to hear Hannah Lee read her book The Rapping Princess (who can’t sing!) while illustrator Allen Fatimaharan showed us how to draw Princess Shiloh by means of eggshaped eggshapes and hosepipe shaped arms.

It was a good little performance and I loved the story and the pictures in the book. However, my preschooler felt that the 13 minutes spent on waiting through endless photos and coughs from earlier book festivals was a wee bit on the long side.

(Even the goat sings better than the Princess…)

Hannah rapped her poetry and I enjoyed both her very green top and the drawing by the mysterious hand on the left. I have seen Allen draw before, so knew it’d be good. I was relieved to see he didn’t quite manage to finish in the time it took Hannah to rap (since I would hate for perfect pictures to be drawn at an impossible speed).

Once Hannah had solved Shiloh’s singing problems, Allen had the stage to himself, showing how to get the Princess’s hair right and everything else. I’d like to think lots of young viewers were sitting on the ready with paper, pencil and eraser.

Where I listen listen listen

to Michael Rosen, the Master of Repetition.

I surprised myself and ‘went’ to watch the bookfest event where Michael talked to Dean Atta. I’m very glad I did.

Michael is a born entertainer, albeit now perhaps slightly less vigorous than he was. I’m just so very grateful we still have him. I believe he used to be louder, but I like him like this.

He read some of the poems from the new book with Quentin Blake, talking about the background to his poems. And he talked about his other book about his lost great uncles in France. The two books sort of became one the way Michael talked about his relatives; the ones who survived the war and the ones who didn’t.

We learned how his mother used to tell him off, mixing English with Yiddish. And while we’re on the subject of languages, Michael is also a Master of French. He could have spoken a lot more French. It would have been a pleasure to listen to.

We learned about ‘interiority’, which is learning to see things through someone else’s eyes, by thinking yourself into their situation. He did this with his cousin Michael. The one whose parents sent him away and who therefore survived.

This was such a beautiful event! Michael doesn’t really require any steering, but what steering there was, was done very nicely by Dean.

And we now know he has numb toes. There could be a poem in this. He knows what rhymes with numb…

While not forgetting the bagel sock situation.

The unaddressed haggis

I’ll just give you the first verse of the Address to a Haggis by Robert Burns, or we’d be here all night.

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.

I’ll also just give you the first verse in translation, or we’d be here all night.

Good luck to you and your honest, plump face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.

Our dinner did not involve any of this poetry (we were hungry), nor did it involve intestines, seeing as we went to ‘Butchers Corner’ and got their veggie version. The haggis was very nice, if a bit dry. Can’t fault the flavour at all, and I’m fairly picky when it comes to haggises.

The tatties were Golden Wonder, which was partly because that’s what they had at Butchers Corner, and partly for the fun of it, remembering the Grandfather. He spoke of Golden Wonder potatoes All The Time.

Finally, there was me, the swede, or neeps as they call me here. (Rutabaga if you live on the other side of the Atlantic.) Daughter mashed me, I mean the swede, well and good, and I don’t know why, but this was the best mashed swede I’ve ever had. Could be that Butchers Corner know where to get their neeps.

Then we talked about Gay Gordons and Dashing White Sergeants. And the haggis was neither addressed nor piped in. Life can be rough sometimes.

Nobel, at home

Do you feel cheated? Or is the honour, and the money, enough? Might it even be a relief staying at home?

I sometimes feel that the handing over of the Nobel Prize is what matters. The hanging out with the Royal family, enjoying the dinner, meeting the other prize winners, and generally having a rather special few days in Stockholm as the crowning glory of a long life of work. But then I’m a Swede. I would think that.

Although, the money must be nice. And the honour of having been awarded a Nobel for your work is clearly not negligible. Except some people don’t much care for it. I forget who it was that had to be dragged out of the shower to speak to the Nobel committee this year.

I’m relieved that the Swedish Academy continued their work by awarding the literature prize to someone I’d never heard of. It’s tradition.

But I understand that poet Louise Glück is good, and she seems pleasant enough.

While today is the day, or would have been if things had been normal, and the big ceremony would have taken place in Stockholm, Louise received her prize on Sunday, from the hands of the Swedish general consul. In her own garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with only a couple of neighbours present, and the consul and her husband and a photographer. All masked and distant. Not to mention cold, in the minus 10 degrees.

At least it makes for a different experience. At least I hope it does. Let’s wish for normal for 2021. Unless lots of winners actually really do prefer awards at home. Many will do their best work at home, and alone.

(Photo by Daniel Ebersole.)

Zooming in on Linda Bondestam

This evening the Anglo-Swedish Society hosted Linda Bondestam on Zoom, all the way from Finland. Hers is the kind of name I know really well, except when I start thinking about it and I realise I know nothing.

Linda is a Swedish-speaking Finnish illustrator of, mostly, children’s books. She has more recently taken to writing a couple as well. When telling us about one of those books, which was about death, Linda described how she’d had to decide which character to kill, to bring the message home to the young reader, but deciding that killing the main character might be too harsh.

In the beginning there were political pushchairs. Or something like that. Ulf Stark, whom she admired greatly, asked her to illustrate a piece he’d written, and it seems to have taken off and started some trend to do with armed tank style pushchairs in Eastern Europe.

The Anglo-Swedish chair person suggested she could be the next Tove Jansson, and possibly also Maurice Sendak. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek Linda agreed.

There was a short clip of Ulf Stark reading his own words, and later on Linda read some of her words, translated into English.

Linda’s pictures are wonderfully quirky and colourful, and to prove that good art goes anywhere, she also puts it on fabric, showing us shirts and stuff made from her designs. (Contact Linda if you want anything like that. The website is not here yet.) I said to Daughter that maybe she could order a duvet cover, and no sooner had I mentioned it when someone on Zoom suggested sheets…

One very young viewer was so inspired that she/he produced some of their own art while watching, which we all got to admire. Such is the power of the internet.

And Linda keeps winning awards.

Crime at the Coo

‘One of those daft ideas that somehow works’, but which Craig Robertson still suggested might be better accompanied by a drink. I had a decaf latte which probably had little influence either way.

It wasn’t quite a ‘you needed to have been there’ event about an event, but it might have helped. The short summary is that Val McDermid sings a lot better than many of the others, so don’t give up the day job, Craig Robertson has a good relationship with his local pub landlady Mandy, who only offered to kill him if he ever wanted to change venue, and I really would find Crime at the Coo a sort of Hell on Earth event, and it’s just as well I never try to buy tickets in the first few seconds, because I’d never get in. Glastonbury would be easier. But I’m glad I’ve heard what it’s like.

By the way, the pub is open. Just not to Bloody Scotland. But if you’re ordinary you can drink at the Coo. My admiration for the audience member who was brave enough to ask what a coo is. I’d have suffered in silence.

Those songs… I’ve never properly heard Maxwell’s Silver Hammer before. Or did they change the lyrics?

I suspect that they showed us just about every crime writer getting up there, singing and playing away, and by ‘up there’ I seem to mean the bit of wall next to the toilets. We got none of the Slice Girls, however, despite them being Craig’s favourites.

Instead there was the hottest moment of all, the sexy sea shanty, sung a capella in German. I didn’t catch her name. Oh, I did. Just looked her up. Simone Buchholz.

I understand we were given the ‘cleaned up highlights’ with the possible exception of allowing Chris Brookmyre to reveal some of his sweariness. And speaking of him, he has quite a nice singing voice, as revealed when he did a number from home, with Christopher Brookmyre and one half of Ambrose Parry (I suspect the upper half, since you ask).

Doug Johnstone appeared several times, both as a blast from the past as well as from his home, where at least he will have been spared being heckled by Martina Cole. Covid has some uses.

I particularly enjoyed the three ladies singing a revolutionary song in Catalan; Johana Gustawsson, Jacky Collins and Teresa Solana. And ‘psycho killer’ Stuart Neville, with no fewer than ten guitars in his room. He’s reasonably good on mouth organ, too.

With one exception, the whole thing went downhill from there. We had Oscar and Herr Enger, more Brookmyre, Will Carver singing in French next to his pink boxes, Luca Veste singing Hit me baby one more time (this was worse than you’d think), and they also overran in time, but Craig said not to worry.

The exception, the one person who really stood out to me, was poet Judith Williams. Apparently Craig was too polite and too tipsy to say no when she first asked to perform at the Coo. Thank god he said yes! Here you see her looking a bit worse for lockdown, but what an enjoyable poem! (And you know me, I don’t go for poetry.) Craig allowed her one swearword, well used towards the end.

As they wound up Chris was naughty again, with beeps silencing his worst words, big boss Bob McDevitt taking to the stage at the Albert Halls, singing in the dark, until finally Val walked 500 miles. A worthy ending. And I definitely think the Coo landlady should invest in some merchandise, as suggested by someone in the audience. Coos are cute.

Sensory Stories and Crafts

I reckoned I was old enough to dispense with the dish cloth and lidded saucepan, as I settled down to listen to Ailie Finlay tell stories, and watch Kate Leiper illustrate them. This was a rather different event, with storytelling, rather than reading from a book. Ailie clearly has a lot of experience doing this, as I discovered by her lack of [picture] focus. She was so into her telling the story about the old woman who went berry picking, that she waved and blurred and smiled all over the place.

Kate, on the other hand, was calm itself with her red lentil path and ‘swishy’ grass as she showed the audience how they too could make a book to go with Ailie’s story. You can do a lot with lentils, and bark and kitchen foil, and if you have no large stapler you can stitch your pages together.

The next tale was about their recent trip to the beach, going barefoot, collecting shells and seagull feathers. And Ailie sent her fast runner, a teddy called Wilf, over to Kate’s house with some shells she’d forgotten to give her.

That teddy got a lot of exercise, because later on he had to take a pie up to Kate. Not only had they eaten ice cream, but they’d made pie with the old woman’s berries. Ailie eats hers with cream but Kate prefers custard.

And perhaps viewers could make a special memory book after seeing this inspiring event. Possibly making it a concertina book, where you can see everything at once, should you want to. Tactile books can be fun.

At least if not too many red lentils end up on the floor, crunching as you walk.

Shine On

Thursday’s event with Dean Atta and George Lester was the happiest and smiliest event I’ve ever attended. People have been happy in the past, but this was truly gay in every respect of the word, and their dentists will have been proud. What smiles! And along with moderator Erica Gillingham they all wore stripes.

I suppose sequins would have been too much? Even for the ‘sisterhood’?

This was about drag queens in verse, with all three of them sitting in front of bookshelves with books on them. Well, obviously. But they all displayed the two books for the event, Black Flamingo, and Boy Queen. Plus one rainbow and a Moomin.

Perhaps the most important fact to come out of this chat was how far LGBT fiction in YA has come in less than ten years. Where once you would have been lucky to have a queer best friend in a book, here you have not only the main character, but there are several, lots, of them! This is what readers, and not only gay ones, need in YA literature.

George and Dean fan-boyed each other, saying very similar things, to the extent that they could be hard to tell apart. The importance of mixed friend groups in the books, and good manners in having a ‘token straight boy’. George mentioned his mother and how he couldn’t avoid a Gilmore Girls moment…

‘Why didn’t I do this sooner?’ as Dean put it. George is ‘making up for lost time’, adding bigger hair and sparklier clothes. ‘Write what you need’ he says. And Dean wants ‘more trans stories.’ George mentioned discovering David Levithan, in a book which allowed the queer character to be happy, without any need to be dying, and how he sent David a long, embarrassing fan email afterwards.

The final question from listeners was their choice of alien drag queens [should the need arise], and that’s not one of your average event questions. Plus I have really been very innocent and unaware of Canada’s Drag Race…

The final final treat was Dean reading his poem from the end of Black Flamingo about being gay and how and when and why to come out, leaving no eyes dry.

Stay at Home!

It’s not only sourdough bread that has happened over the last three months. Many authors have come up with online material to offer readers. In fact, there’s been such a glut that I’ve not been able to keep up. I just know there is much to find.

Small Scottish publisher Cranachan Publishing has a free ebook offering a wide variety of things to read. Their ‘Stay at Home! Poems and Prose for Children in Lockdown is a a free, illustrated anthology of poems and stories for children aged 8-12, comprising specially written lockdown-themed contributions by 40 writers based in Scotland.’

Try it! There are household names, and there are names you might not have heard of. Yet. But this is a nice collection, and what’s almost nicer still, is how people have pulled together to make it happen.