Category Archives: Travel

An ‘attention seeking little brat’

is how Helen Grant describes her younger self, in the days when her pudding basin hairstyle made people think she was a boy. Well, I don’t think they’ll make that mistake any more. Helen is a beautiful woman, who feels that Hannibal Lecter got a bit tame in the end, and that’s not how she wants to write her books.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

Helen Grant

The Bookwitch family were part of the discerning, quality audience at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh on Tuesday evening, there to launch Urban Legends. Admittedly, Son only popped in to say he couldn’t stay, but it was still somewhat of a witchy family gathering. The way I like it when an author reads from her book and chooses the bit where the killer eases off the strangling of his victim, because he has to have a hand free to grab his axe.

Even the lovely Susy McPhee, whose task it was to chat to Helen and ask her difficult questions, admitted she had been rather terrified of Urban Legends. Whereas Helen actually reads her own book in the bath (one assumes to relax…), which is why her copy looks decidedly dogeared.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

Susy started off by asking what the difference is between entertaining books and literature. Helen reckons she is neither a Dan Brown nor a Nobel prize hopeful, but somewhere in-between. She doesn’t want to be more literary than she is. With her earlier books Helen pussy-footed around, while now she’s ready to ‘go for it, gloves off.’

Quite.

Helen Grant

If Urban Legends was a television programme, Susy said she would have switched off when they got to page 38. Helen admits Urban Legends is not for younger readers. She likes creepy, not bloody, and doesn’t set out to be deliberately gross. Here she used the word eviscerated, which Susy said she’d have to look up. And to make her pay, Susy had prepared some tricky words for the audience to test Helen on. Mine was vivandiere. Helen ‘cheated’ by knowing Latin too well.

The weirdest thing Helen has eaten is probably not crocodile (which Susy agreed is delicious), but the fried ants as served in Jericho in Oxford. (At this point I could see Daughter silently removing Jericho as somewhere she would ever return to. She had already decided she’s not up to reading Urban Legends.)

This might be a trilogy, but Helen won’t rule out more books. She likes Veerle’s world, and would love to write more. She herself has tried a lot of what’s in the books, visiting sewers and getting herself inside a forbidden church, for example. Her favourite is the definitely-not-allowed visit to a former factory, which she put most of into her book, in a most charming way… She likes a high body count.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

On that note Susy brought the conversation and the questions to an end, and we mingled over the wine and the literary discussions. I introduced the Resident IT Consultant to the man [Roy Gill] who did interesting things to Jenners department store in one of his books.

Once I’d secured a signature in my copy of Helen’s book, we left in search of a bus to take us to the tram, which took us to the car and home.

We’re all bookbugs

They invited me along to the Bookbug annual conference yesterday, at the George Hotel in Edinburgh. It was really quite nice and very enlightening in many ways. They are Scottish Book Trust, and the Bookbugs are the youngest readers. You might recall that in Scotland all babies are given a bag of books to encourage reading and help them interact with their parents.

Karyn McCluskey started off by being cheerful. They are quite cheerful here, I’ve noticed. There was the sunshine to make you smile, and and the fact that reading prevents murders (if that’s not too gruesome a thing to mention). Karyn introduced the acting Minister for Children and Young People, Fiona McLeod, who is only ‘acting’ because the ‘real’ minister has been packed off on maternity leave. It’s better to start reading early, rather than putting more people in prison later on.

Next up was Dr Kate McKay, senior medical officer, child health. She herself is a product of how going to the library as a child has led to professional success in adult life. She reckons that the use of digital books will change the pathways of the human brain. Kate is also a fan of the five Rs; reading, rhyming, routines, rewards and relationships. Chaos leads to stress, and early adversity in life causes bad health in adults.

It’s important for a baby to interact with its mother, and this is something which can’t happen if the mother is drunk or drugged. By supporting girls, they become good mothers, and this in turn is good for society. And laughing is healthy. Children laugh more with their parents, and laughing a lot makes for a longer life.

The morning session ended with Margaret Clark, senior health promotion officer in Lanarkshire. She talked about the book bags, and how if you start early you stay active for life. And if the Nordic countries can do it, so can Scotland.

Then the whole roomful of – mostly – bookish ladies fought for lunch, and plates of very sweet cakes, and I believe even the water dispenser ran dry. After which we quickly returned to the conference, because Nick Sharratt was there to talk to us about his books. Dressed in one of his signature stripey shirts [red and white], Nick charmed the socks off everyone. He claimed to be nervous because it was such a large room…

Nick Sharratt

He pointed out he doesn’t have children of his own, and that he’s never become an adult himself. There was a photo of a very young Nick on a swing, drawing. He still draws, just not on a swing. Showing us lots of illustrations from his hundreds of books, he then read a few to us. And he wore his purple wig and sunglasses, which was so 1970s.

One of the books was What’s in the Witch’s Kitchen, and that’s something I’ve often wondered myself. Nick feels we should learn to relax with picture books. They are not purely for the very young. When he started writing his own books, he began by rhyming and using very few words. Food is important in his books, as long as it’s not butterbeans.

Split page books allow for plenty of interaction between adult and child, as well as offering many combinations of crazy things. Nick showed us similar books made by child fans, and they are truly inspirational. At the end of his hour long session we had a coffee break and people queued up to have their books signed. I couldn’t help wondering which would prove to be the longest; the coffee break or the queue.

The queue won and was eventually shown the door so we could get on with the panel discussion on digital books. Chaired by Tam Baillie, the speakers were Tom Bonnick from Nosy Crow, Lydia Plowman and Andrew Manches from the University of Edinburgh, and Jim McCormick.

On the whole the panel were in favour of digital even for the very young, and according to Lydia a surprising percentage of pre-schoolers have tablets; often an older hand-me-down. She reckons not to worry about it, though, and to remember that the adult is still boss, and that the adult is a role model, so cut down on the continual staring at your own phone or other screen.

Other thoughts include how easy it is to share digital material, in a positive sense. The quality of teachers is important and so is the relationship between school and home.

I had somehow expected to hear that digital would make it easier to access reading, but the debate seemed to go in a different direction. We had a Q&A session, and for the first time during the whole day we could hear a few small squeaks from the conference’s youngest participant, a – very – young man [I’m guessing from the pale blue] who mostly enjoyed being breastfed and playing with finger puppets. Lovely baby!

Tam Baillie let us finish with a song; Three Craws. The Scots are as crazy as the Nordics they admire so much…

A Birlinn rendezvous

There is a certain freedom – not to mention a sense of adventure – in standing at a railway station as a train comes in, and you’ve got a trainload of alighting passengers to choose from. Who to go and ‘have coffee’ with. Well, to be truthful, I had already googled Sally from Birlinn, so I had an idea of who to look out for, and she knew to find a short, fat witch. And she did.

Sally was coming all the way to me, to talk about the many good children’s books Birlinn – who are an Edinburgh based publisher – are about to let loose on the world this year. I walked her to the Burgh Coffee House, as she confessed to earlier youthful trips to the Rainbow Slides in Stirling. What’s more, she came here from Linlithgow, and the less said about this lovely place and me, the better. (Actually, Sally has more or less sold me on the town, now. It has a good bookshop just by the station, apparently, so as long as I manage to get off the train in the first place…)

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin and Joe Friedman, The Secret Dog

So, Birlinn. Sally brought me books by Joan Lennon and Joe Friedman, which both look promising. She talked me through their whole 2015 catalogue, and plans include a Peter Pan graphic novel, books by Alexander McCall Smith about the young Precious Ramotswe, history by Allan Burnett, the Polish bear Wojtek, Lynne Rickards and the ever orange Tobermory Cat by Debi Gliori. There will be poetry and there will be naughty young lambs.

The books all have some connection to Scotland, be it setting or author or anything else. I knew it already, really, but it’s worth saying again, that Scotland has books all its own. It’s not just an appendix to England. If Norway can have a publishing industry, then so can Scotland.

There was a bit of gossip, too, and a secret that can’t be mentioned. And after that Sally ran for her train back to the big city, hoping that someone else would have done all the work by the time she got back to the office.

Black Dove, White Raven

I was left with a warm glow of contentment on finishing Elizabeth Wein’s Black Dove, White Raven, and I would have started re-reading the book at that point if I could have. While the first pages didn’t set me off quite like Code Name Verity did, I was soon lost in the magic of flying, friendship and adventure.

Elizabeth Wein, Black Dove, White Raven

Like CNV it’s a story told through diary entries and flight log books, as well as the odd attempt at writing adventure stories by and about Black Dove and White Raven. I had imagined that they were the flying mothers of Em and Teo, but it’s really the children themselves who are telling this tale. Mainly Em, and sometimes her adopted brother Teo. Em’s voice is almost that of Verity’s. Almost.

Their mothers Delia and Rhoda are soulmates; they fly together, have babies together, live and work together, until the day Delia dies. This is America in the 1920s, so friendship between a white woman and a black woman was never going to be straightforward. Nor is the situation where Rhoda simply takes over as Teo’s mother, or when they all move to Ethiopia to live Delia’s dream.

As the book begins, Em has a problem, and the novel is her way of describing to Emperor Haile Selassie what has happened and why he must help her.

I knew very little about Ethiopia, and even less about the war in Abyssinia. It’s easy to think of that war as merely being far away and a long time ago, and almost unimportant, but Black Dove, White Raven brings it to life in a scary way. We simply have had no idea what Italy did in Africa back then.

It’s easy to say that you should write about what you know, or that fiction is about making things up, so you don’t have to. But if Elizabeth didn’t know Ethiopia, and more importantly, didn’t know how to fly, this story wouldn’t get off the ground. And it’s as well that she practised flying on the outside of planes too, or you wouldn’t believe what goes on in this book.

Black Dove, White Raven is a seductive mix of nostalgia and reality, with courage and friendship at its core. It leaves me wanting more.

The well-travelled library bed

I spoke too soon. It could be that Son would quite like the hifi somewhere in that room. The – ahem – library-cum-guestroom-cum-firstborn’s bedroom. We’ll have to see.

The much-thrown-about bed has been slept in. It’s the one Son adopted from some people in the Wirral a few years ago, which – on arrival in Edinburgh – proved too large to go down into the tenement basement flat, and which instead was walked round half the block, taken into the tenement opposite, through and out into that ‘garden’ and chucked over the fence into Son’s garden and in.

Bed move 2

A year later it was similarly chucked uphill back over the fence when it was time to move elsewhere, but at least this had been planned and there were more chuckers.

Another year on and Son sent the bed to us to be his bed in the new bedroom. And because there was a lot of decorating and unpacking needing doing, the poor bed has been shoved back and forth, with no room to call home. Until now. For a while it thought it would always have to stand on its side in the livingroom. But then it was displaced by the Christmas tree and spent December in the hall.

To make up for all this, the witch went to Glasgow and bought it something new to wear.

Flying bed

And then, when the hifi had been pondered and the now stationary bed slept in, the Resident IT Consultant and Son crept into the Grandmother’s flat while she was out and stole her kitchen table. But not her one and only. She has a collection of them. We needed a temporary desk for the boy.

They also lifted a rather nice bookcase, which I’ve had my eye on for almost 25 years. Although that was with permission.

It was a piece of cake

First, let me say that serving cake to eat during a book event is the most civilised thing in the world. Especially if you supply a ‘table’ surface on which to rest the cake as you take notes and photographs of said event.

Second, let me say I will say no more today. I’m done in. Tired. Pooped. The author talk and the translation of books talk on Friday afternoon, in conjunction with the NRN conference, were so good they need more attention than I can give them right now.

Nordic Research Network cake

Apologies for the napkin being a little bit upside down. This did in no way affect my enjoyment of the cake.

‘A land frightful to live in’

Not content with what Nordic-ness I could get at the conference, I decided to add a few more ingredients to an already busy, or potentially full, day. So, by skipping the morning conferency bits again, I went to church instead. The same church I walked past on my way to Nicola Morgan’s Brain event a couple of years ago, and decided I really liked. By some coincidence it hosted a Swedish service, ministered by God’s right hand – Swedish – man in London, who is up in Caledonia for a couple of days. (I omitted mentioning I belong to the militants from Liverpool. Just to be on the safe side. But he, and his wife, seemed very nice.)

Religion was swiftly followed by lunch at the pub round the corner, which is Swedish owned (Edinburgh is being taken over by Swedes). Lots more people there, enjoying meatballs or salmon. I sat with three friendly ladies, who knew how to discuss the rolling of meatballs. One of them even has a friend in common with me. Before a double chocolate dessert I wasn’t going to eat, I offered my apologies and left.

I had more things to do. The very kind Nicola Morgan had asked me round for Earl Grey – well, coffee, really – seeing as I was in the neighbourhood. (You know, I could do a blog post on authors and their kitchens.) My aim was to be out of there in 30 minutes, so that Nicola could go back to doing all that work she needs to do, and I almost succeeded. It was more like 35.

Pietari Kääpä

Managed to find the no. 5 bus that would take me from there to George Square and more conference and its very last session on Nation and Identities, chaired by Stirling’s own Pietari Kääpä.

Essi Viitanen

First out was Essi Viitanen with an interesting piece on film-makers Aho&Soldan: Filming a Modern Finland. Essi showed us snippets from films from the 1930s on subjects as varied as lumber and Helsinki beaches.

Marja Lahelma

Marja Lahelma was next, talking about Nordic Art and Mythical ‘Northernness’ Around the Year 1900. Back then there was a lot of thought on whether the cold climate makes us much more intelligent, or much more stupid…

William Norman

Third we had William Norman’s Savages and Slaves: Scotland in the Icelandic Family Sagas. That was surprisingly interesting (to me), considering it was about kings and heroics and treachery. The Scots were ‘fleeter of foot’ which seems to have been a bad thing. And William mentioned the ‘black hole for Scandinavian settlement’ in Central Scotland. (I don’t know what he means! I settled just fine.)

Ersev Ersoy

Finally Ersev Ersoy has a soft spot for Ossian, and she talked about 18th Century Epic: Nation in Ossian and Kalevala. I was intrigued by the notion of early ‘reviews’ and translations of Ossian.

And there I left, narrowly missing Son’s closing speech. (Sigh.) Not content with one children’s author, I had agreed to have drinks with another one, at Hemma, the day’s second Swedish owned bar and restaurant, where the conference had booked in for their celebratory meal. But I was stood up… (Sigh.) Two Swedish meals in one day might appear excessive, but it sort of made up for the sandwiches I lived on the previous day.

I had a good time (I don’t always), chatting to one of the people who is less blonde than my imagination made her, but very nice. And someone from close to ‘home’ who is looking into the way Gothenburgers and Stockholm people pronounce the letter ‘i’ and which meant she has no – professional – interest in me, despite the Resident IT Consultant doing his best to offer me. He had to say ‘sausages’ instead.

The ‘public’ sandwiches having been chauffeured enough, he was also available to drive me all the way home.

That just leaves today!