When I was a very small Bookwitch indeed, I travelled quite a lot. Mother-of-Witch travelled by train with me from when I was a week old.
At some point she got chatting to a kindly older lady who pointed out that she’d be much more comfortable if she didn’t drag my enormous brown bear with us. For travelling it’d be better to have a tiny bear, she said. Thus I became carer of a little pink bear, who was much more travel-appropriate.
I grew up with them both; the bigger brown bear and the travel-sized pink bear.
You will have gathered that I recently packed some of my belongings to come and join me at the current Bookwitch Towers. I told Daughter neither bear was coming. She was shocked. She said I should at least take pink bear. I decided I could do, and then I asked her to photograph the two bears together, one last time, to say goodbye.
When I looked at the photo I almost burst into tears. How could I do that to brown bear? He looked as if he’d understand, but still. It felt cruel. And separating them, too. Not kind.
So, well, instead of a picture of pink bear on his own, here they are, having travelled safely with The Hungarian.
Others do not. It may have escaped your notice – or not – that the Bookwitch clan has travelled. Not much. Only out, and back again. Both were fraught with worryings, as things are these days.
He’d got no further than the gate at our local airport before the Resident IT Consultant was stopped. His arms waved. I caught up with him and asked the British Airways man at the gate if there was a problem. This is not something I regularly get to do, being a mere wife, and a foreigner to boot. Yes, he was not allowed to travel to his destination. ‘It’s all right’, I said, ‘ because I am. And he’s with me. Here’s the marriage certificate.’ (Never travel without it.)
And if we had been short of lorries at home, I can assure you they were all over there instead. In the dark, in the rain.
Very nearly the first thing we did was to go and see the optician. You will remember we like doing this. It was lovely, and thankfully the other two bought new glasses, which excused me from spending money while still letting me see him. On our last evening nearly three weeks later he came to the house to deliver Daughter’s sunglasses, because what is a twenty mile round trip in the dark for customers having come all the way from Scotland?
Son joined us briefly, and on his first day we went to a favourite spot to eat lunch al fresco, because Sweden in October is so right for that… Daughter even paddled in the sea afterwards and that is so not normal that clearly something had changed.
I had brought gin to reward the neighbours. I believe it’s all the rage. The gin, I mean. And it was a change from whisky. But seriously, would you mow my ‘lawn’ for two years in return for a bottle of gin? Admittedly there was shortbread too, but still. I have better neighbours than I deserve.
That nice view I discovered at my friends’ house last time? Well, it’s gone now. Thankfully they asked us over for soup in the evening, so it was too dark to see the view that can no longer be seen. Honestly, people build new roofs on houses they should have no right to build. At all.
This time when we went for Sunday lunch, the ‘salmon car park’ offered a magnificent toadstool. I’m trying to work out if that’s a change for the better compared to the large cars two years ago.
And then we went for Sunday lunch the next Sunday, too. Same place I mean. So no change.
And because it would have been a shame to break a good tradition we returned for a third salmon Sunday, before running out of Sundays.
In between that we had three lots of visitors who all offered to buy some salmon for us to eat, but I managed to persuade one of them not to.
Don’t be alarmed. We also ate a lot of take out pizza, and might just have eaten at Max a few times where they do a decent selection of vegan burgers. All this saved me from virtually any cooking of proper meals.
But at least one can now buy the ‘vinegary stuff’ you put on insect bites again. (And I believe I spy face masks on the left, even if no one seemed to wear them.)
The wool shop in town was gone. In its place the next door tea shop had expanded. That’s tea shop as in sells dry tea, not tea in cups. And Marimekko stuff. You can’t have too much Marimekko stuff. So we didn’t even go in, just to be on the safe side. At the library Daughter was in raptures over the 3D printer, and the chap running the library café looked jolly pleased to have taken a selfie with Prince Daniel.
Daughter wanted to look in the bookshop. Good thing she did, or we wouldn’t have discovered her favourite clothes shop had moved [before it was too late]. The surprise pharmacy that popped up in the bank’s old premises? Gone. As for the bank itself, we popped upstairs to talk to them before giving up. The staff were mostly on their lunch break, and so were the customers. Hence the ‘queue’.
You still need change, if only to put into the supermarket trolley. No change for the toilets, but credit cards will do. (It just feels a bit extravagant using credit to spend a penny!) Although, one of the public toilets had gone. As in gone gone.
The local bus company has mislaid £150 of my money. That’s anything but change.
Returning home we flew SAS, but rather regret doing so. They have changed, and not for the better. They also changed our seats. Often. Partly because of a change of aircraft, which was not for the better. But the thing is, if I pay good money for an aisle seat at the back and to not sit near the Resident IT Consultant, that should still be possible. There is a back to most plane types, and many of them have aisles. Most of them also have enough rows of seats that we can each have what we prefer when we fly. Which is not the same. Having said that, considering how cramped the plane was, I dare say it was a blessing that the man whose lap I almost sat on, was my own husband rather than someone else’s.
They let me back into the country. The only change I’ve discovered so far is that the neighbour has a larger greenhouse.
The moment the Hungarian arrived in Sweden last week I offered him some tea, on the basis that a UK-based man with a van would be suitably adjusted to tea. (We had packed the coffee.) He declined, but upon seeing the two coffee machines on the kitchen worktop, said he’d have a coffee.
Hmm. Using my initiative, I cobbled together two pods of café au lait into a large mug, not inquiring whether he wanted milk [non-lait not being an option] or sugar. He drank it.
Daughter found this Hungarian online a couple of years ago, and liked him well enough to ask for a repeat move last year. And now there was me.
I have a pleasing symmetry, using Hungarians help move my stuff away from the [same] house in Sweden. It felt as if it must have been meant.
I was impressed with his willingness to drive long distances to move some paltry belongings in this day and age of difficult border crossings. Not to mention the red tape. And when I said I could do with him turning up in the next two weeks, he turned up, although just back from Italy. Perhaps sensing some slight hysteria on my part, he emailed me saying ‘all will be well’.
So tea was the least I could offer the man (who said he had eaten on the ferry so was all right). Except it turned into weird coffee.
He carried and he talked, and then sat on the piano stool filling in forms before driving off again.
Today he phoned to say he was a few hours away from the Scottish Bookwitch Towers, so we quickly cleared a path through the house for our junk. I instructed the Resident IT Consultant to do the offering of coffee and to make it proper coffee this time.
I’ve been lucky. Or perhaps I should call it successful, if that’s not too big a word to use? Because I have achieved what I set out to do, fourteen and a half years ago.
I have done writing. And reading. I have travelled and I’ve met a lot of great people. I have been to fun events. Occasionally I was almost a little bit famous, in the right circles. Not too much, but still.
Giving this up is hard. So hard that I am going to take a little break first. This means there are few promises as to what will come, but I suspect I will find it impossible to stay away completely. Expect a trickle of witchy stuff for a while. Maybe.
But right now I have one or two things to do, and I need to attend to them without feeling I’ve not written today’s blog post yet.
There are some books outstanding. Some books are also outstanding. I imagine I will tell you about them. Later.
I wasn’t sure how to choose my ‘when’ moment, but after so long of no live events and no live meetings with authors, I feel Saturday’s Pitch Black Humour is a good one to finish with. After all, it featured a Finnish crime writer, a local[ish] author closely connected with Bloody Scotland, which in turn is set in my current home town, plus my favourite author from Fort William, who I’d never heard of before Bookwitch, and who now features big in our minds, here at Bookwitch Towers.
The word has become more fashionable than ever, but I feel people have misunderstood. Maybe it’s the brainfog that comes after Covid? My brain is certainly fogging worse than ever.
A long time ago, mostly pre-Offspring, the Resident IT Consultant and I occasionally staycationed. This was for financial reasons, not being anywhere near as rich (cough) as we are now. But also, we felt we could quite like visiting places near us. For the day.
Because that surely is what it is? You stay at home. The same place as all the other days and nights of the year. And whether you have a picnic in the garden, if you have a garden, or get the bus to a nearby attractive spot, you sleep in your own bed. Or you might visit friends or family, if you have people in your vicinity. (We didn’t.)
Now it appears to mean that you haven’t gone abroad. People have had holidays – not staycations – for decades, never leaving the country, but paying for travel and hotels and meals out. Those weren’t staycations. They were holidays. Just not in Spain.
And of course, I have been known to travel outside Britain, without it being a holiday. That’s also a thing. Leaving the country you are a resident of does not equal a holiday. Not even if it’s not for business. Nursing a very ill relative isn’t much fun. Nor is going to their funeral, regardless of where it takes place.
Those outings we made from our house in Brighton; they were good. Sometimes we had to work out if the money would stretch to both bus fare and a cream tea. But I would say such a day was no less fun than Spain (we’re not the nightclub type).
It might not be the end, of course. For me and the book festival, I mean. There are events galore that I want to see, so will carry on when I can. I just didn’t feel up to more consorting with strangers on trains. That situation may well improve at some point.
Some people have been negative about the new ways. But in this instance ‘we’ have to try new ways to survive. One day they might feel like the old ways.
All the photos I’ve since seen from the Art College suggest that people came and they sat and they enjoyed. Maybe on a smaller scale. But they came. Some authors also came. It would have been nice to see more of them actually there, but the way it was done, the ‘menu’ had scope to be more exotic.
Perhaps the days of seeing Garth Nix in the flesh are over. (Just picking an Oz author at random here.) And if they are, then so be it. I had the opportunity of seeing him live live, and will be able to live on memories. Soon people will not have this kind of expectation when the new becomes the norm. A Garth on a screen is still a Garth.
The authors – and the audiences – have not been not travelling just because of Covid. It is also a greener thing to not travel, and the planet might last a little longer if we refrain from frying it too much. I’m sure some authors have enjoyed traversing the globe for events, but am equally sure some have hated it, or at least the accompanying exhaustion.
So here’s to a few more years of trialling the next ‘old ways’ of bookfesting. Garth on a screen, and Bookwitch at her desk. Both of us dreaming of the olden days. Or not.
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.
Today was the first day of the rest of its life, for the new Edinburgh International Book Festival. I had to be there. It’s now in the Edinburgh College of Art in Lauriston Place. It’s different, but not that different. As the Photographer and I dithered near the entrance, the first person we encountered was Ian Rankin. Rather like on our first ever EIBF in 2009. This was clearly a good omen.
The next thing for us was to find the press yurt, looking smaller than ever, but still our press yurt. It still had Frances Sutton and were it not for current circumstances we could have hugged her. We all agreed we had missed this very much; this getting together in the same place, especially with people who had not Zoomed endlessly during the last year and a bit.
The ducks were in situ, which was a relief for us and them. However, the badge for my Photographer was classier than mine. Just saying.
We saw one of the crew (I’m never quite sure what he does, but we’ve seen him every year), who still had Covid hair. Very fetching.
Walked around the courtyard of the college, getting our bearings. It’s smallish, and very green. It’s got a lot of decking, because although small, it’s ‘hilly’. Trees and tent coverings have my favourite little string lights. I’ll have to come back in the dark. There are picnic tables and several mobile bars serving stuff, as well as the college café which does hot food. Play tent for the young and first aid tent for the unfortunate.
Didn’t think much of the bookshop. Few books and looked more like the old signing tent.*
There is a large, but not too large, screen in the middle of all this. We arrived in time for the live event with Zoë Wicomb, talking to Stuart Kelly (another stalwart of the festival, who is always there), and this was something I liked. It was a free event to enjoy from wherever you might be sitting, resting, eating lunch, or whatever. Good quality picture and decent sound. I’d never heard of Zoë, and for that reason would never have bought a ticket to see her, but this was good. I dipped in and out of their chat, feeling it personified the general sentiment of the bookfest.
Saw two gentlemen wearing top hats and tails, and felt they looked a bit familiar. Decided they were Macastory, whose job it was to do live talks and walks on the Meadows. So there were a few familiar faces, at this new hybrid affair of books. Missed Daniel Hahn whose recorded event with Jenny Erpenbeck was done closer to [his] home than previously advertised. I only cried a little into my cups over that, but they were Moomin cups, so…
Having brought with us foreign food to eat, just in case, we then made the sacrifice of road testing the college café as well. Just to be sure. It was very pleasant. I could go back. (At least if the train journey wasn’t quite so hot and crowded.)
*That would be because it was the signing tent. As we left, turning the corner to go find a train home, we came across the real bookshop. It was bigger, with more books. And it has seating outside if you are overcome by some urge to read what you bought.
I went for a haircut the other day. I have this theory at the moment, that while it’s possible, I will go. Last December I was intending to, was ‘too busy’ one week and then we were locked down for quite a number of centimetres. Of hair.
Because I hate waiting I always arrive as close to the hour as possible. Easy, as it’s a two minute walk there. Hard, because one never knows if someone else is delaying them.
This time I had to sit and wait, and my hairdresser dragged a chair covered in magazines over to me. I did have Bookwitch on my mobile, but decided I could educate myself with a magazine. I think it was called Hello. It had the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the cover.
Ever since our last holiday in St Andrews in May, I have a problem with them. I can’t see a photo of Will and Kate without thinking ‘scones!’ and I did so this time as well. I already knew about the café where they reputedly used to hang out, falling in love and all that. But it’s always been at the wrong end of town for me, so I’d never patronised the place.
This time, however, we stayed two minutes walk away (a bit like the hairdresser…) so I ‘just happened’ to pop in a couple of times. It was too busy to eat in, or sit on the pavement, but perfect for getting a few scones to take back to our airbnb.
They were easily among the best I’ve ever eaten, and the best if I count more recent times. This is especially noticeable when most cafés overdo the raising agent, leaving me disappointed with the flavour.
So, Will and Kate’s scones rock. I can’t remember the name of the café, but Will and Kate is as good a description as any. And with every photo of them, my mouth waters. But all the hairdresser offered was tea or coffee. Maybe I should have asked?
My 2015 piccalilli trip to London, as I think of it, was full of serendipities. It began when Liz Kessler wrote to ask if I could make it to her London book launch. And I felt I could; having determined that something special was all I required to invest in train tickets. I’d obviously need to stay two nights, before and after, to make sure I was there for the main event.
And then I started looking to see what else might be on.
The Society of Authors had an event on the evening I arrived in London. It was ‘only’ Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively chatting to Daniel Hahn at Waterstones Piccadilly, but I was happy enough with that. 😉
Son bought me a ticket for the event, which I wasn’t supposed to use. So I bought another. When Anne Rooney realised she wanted to go but was too late to buy a ticket, wasn’t it handy that I just happened to have a Society of Authors member ticket? Yes it was. And her predictive texting gave me the piccalilli.
It was Celia Rees who had told me about the event, so she was around too. And then there was the sighting of Judith Kerr one row in front of mine. That wasn’t a half bad evening.
For the next morning I’d agreed to have coffee with Marnie Riches, who just happened to be in town, before leaving again. From there I almost had to run to get to my next meeting, having booked an interview with Anthony McGowan, seeing as I had so much time on my hands! Somewhere there must have been a brief opportunity to eat my lunch sandwich. I’ve forgotten. Although I can tell you that the Hampstead pub we met in could use a longer setting for the light in the Ladies. Good thing I have arms to wave.
Tony was also going to Liz’s launch, which is where we went next. And basically everyone was at the launch.
For my second morning I had arranged to do brunch with Candy Gourlay before hopping on a northbound train.
It’s amazing how many authors can be fitted into slightly less than 48 hours. I keep living in hope, but there has yet to be a repeat of this.