Category Archives: Travel

The Enchanted April

April 2020 might not feel all that enchanted, but it still seemed appropriate to read Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April right now, seeing as it was available. It features the beauty of Italy in April, but I have to say that my part of Scotland has managed to look enchanting in its own way.

Having known nothing about the author, except recognising her name, I discovered this novel in the Guardian Review a while ago, and felt the recommendation was strong enough that I would actually order the book. And read it.

Set in 1922, four women – strangers to each other – take up the offer to spend April in a castle in Italy after seeing an ad in The Times. We meet them as the first two, Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot, slowly come to the realisation that by sharing the let, and allowing themselves to use their nest eggs, this could be a dream come true. They advertise for two more women to share the cost.

So it’s a sort of strangers in an airbnb.

Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot leave behind Mr Wilkins and Mr Arbuthnot in lowly Hampstead, whereas the elderly Mrs Fisher is a widow and the young and gorgeous Lady Caroline just wants to be left alone. (Too many admirers.)

Lotty (Mrs Wilkins) and Rose (Mrs Arbuthnot) enjoy the freedom of not having to always put their husbands first. Mrs Fisher is a bit bossy, and Lady Caroline, aka Scrap, complains all the time but does it so nicely that everyone is charmed.

It’s clear that Lotty is somewhat of a witch, in that she ‘sees’ things. And her seeings do have a tendency to come true, however annoying Mrs Fisher finds her.

The castle truly is enchanted, or how else do you explain the changes in the four women? And the effect it ends up having on several other people. It’s not only the quiet, beige, Lotty who flourishes. There is magic for everyone.

It’s not quite what I had expected, but such fun and so lovely. We could all do with enchantment and wisteria, whether in Italy in April, or by some other means. Even if it’s not going to happen this year.

Ships, and paradise

It was the ‘Ship with no harbour‘ I thought of first. Was it last month? Time is strange right now. But anyway, those cruise ships that weren’t allowed to put into harbour in the Far East because of the contagion on board.

I felt there were many parallels with Lisa Tetzner’s novel set in the late 1930s, where poor, and ill, Europeans tried to start a new life in South America. But no country wanted them so they sailed on. And on.

Closer to home [Scotland] we have Teri Terry’s Contagion from three years ago. That was pretty terrible. I’m not even going to mention percentages here. I was only able to like it because it was so very fictional.

And that witchy feeling I had about the current Bookwitch Towers? I wasn’t sure what bad stuff I was expecting until Brexit happened. Then I ‘knew.’ That’s what was going to forcibly remove me from here. Maybe.

Then there’s the television drama from 2003, Virus au Paradis. I loved it at the time. It, too, was fictional. It was, wasn’t it? But I feel a lot worse about it now.

At the moment, I can only read nice fluffy books. I can only bear watching nice fluffy films. Before long I’ll be nothing but nice and fluffy.

Out of Berlin

When Daughter moved to Berlin for work after the summer, there were all the normal feelings you have about that kind of situation. Plus, I had one more. I could visualise her being stranded in war-torn Berlin, unable to get away.

As some of you may know, I am a witch. I see things, but don’t necessarily know exactly what my seeings mean. I told myself repeatedly that this scenario was pretty unlikely, and that I was using old prejudice and mixing up WWII and Berlin with… I don’t know what with, actually.

But the image stayed in my mind.

And then she decided to move back home and I felt that was it, then. No more war in Berlin. She returned to Scotland for a couple of weeks, before finalising the moving out. I was to go with her to help pack, and we booked the flights. (Out this coming Sunday, and back early April.)

Then Friday evening last week, I felt it would be much better to go sooner. Like on the Sunday morning. Because the travel issues to do with that other war, on the virus, made everything look almost undoable. We re-booked.

When he dropped us off at the airport the Resident IT Consultant looked like he’d not be seeing us again for a very long time. And I knew we couldn’t be certain of getting out in time, so we packed while keeping in mind that we might very well be stranded in the company of many, many boxes. Although for a pessimist I was a bit optimistic.

But I couldn’t un-see my premonition of being stuck in Berlin. I just hadn’t seen myself there as well.

After 24 hours we’d made enough progress that we re-booked our return travel on the first flight to Scotland, which was for two days later. Fingers were continuously crossed as more and more borders were reported closed.

With unprecedented optimism we threw out the last fish fingers the night before, and slept very little. Checked really carefully that the outbound flight had left Glasgow, feeling that this would almost guarantee that the plane would fly back as well.

It did, and I’ve never before been so pleased to see the pretend Scottish landscape at the airport, complete with birdsong and a ‘view over the loch.’ The Resident IT Consultant had made the most of his drive there, picking up coffee beans at IKEA. The way you do.

I understand the last scheduled flight to Scotland is some time today.

A close shave.

Cancelled all over

The London Book Fair cancelled really rather late. But better late than not, maybe? Probably. Not sure, though.

Looking at it from the point of view of Son, and not some London based employee in a big publishing house, it’s hard to know what to do for the best. Obviously money already spent is lost if you don’t travel. Your own money.

But it’s also the disappointment, if you have planned the trip, looking forward to seeing people you don’t otherwise see much of, because of where you spend most days of your working life.

Yes, you can Skype. But I believe it’s the personal touch that makes book fairs so useful. It’s how you decide to work with someone, and you do it over coffee, or wine, or if in a Nordic country, over a prawn sandwich.

London based staff can spend all this week seeing other book world people, in other venues, and they are probably a lot more relaxed about the loss of the fair.

To go anyway, or not to go? That is the question.

No granite for me

All I needed to do was keep that one day in February clear. Not too hard a task, you’d think. But as with the unavoidable snow two years ago, I had this lurgy, and I could see it’d last too long. I didn’t want my event with Sara Paretsky to have a The Mirror Crack’d kind of scenario. If the woman was willing to travel all this way from Chicago, I didn’t have to go to Aberdeen to infect her and her fans with anything.

But you’d think a cold could be satisfied with a week of me.

Anyway, what I’m doing instead of seeing Sara with Denise Mina in Aberdeen, is trying not to pass the cold on to a whole different host of people, travelling, when I perhaps shouldn’t. I hope they have fun without me.

I will think back on my snowy journey to Nottingham all those years ago, and my subsequent trip to Glasgow to see Sara talk to Denise, also ‘some’ years ago. One can learn to be satisfied with what one has already had.

Besides, Sara recently admitted to having killed Mr Contreras. I mean, she didn’t, because her heroic husband threw himself in front of the bullet, and Mr Contreras lives. But still…

Granite Noir

You know you want to, so why not trek over to Aberdeen this weekend, for some dark granite?

“Granite Noir, Aberdeen’s International Crime Writing Festival, returns to the city this week. Now in its fourth year, events run from Thursday 20 to Sunday 23 February in interesting, quirky and unusual spaces across the city offering an arresting line-up for all crime fans.

Headlining Granite Noir 2020 are Sara Paretsky, Anne Holt, Ben Aaronovitch, and Scotland’s own Ian Rankin, in conversation with comedian Phill Jupitus. The connection with Scandinavia is reinforced with appearances from Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic writers and home-grown talent includes conversations with Denise Mina, Helen Fitzgerald and Ambrose Parry.

Non-fiction events include conversations with three of Britain’s most renowned forensic scientists, and Robert Jeffrey who explores the remarkable story of Peterhead Prison.

Using records from Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives, Outcasts: Women, Crime and Society, a free exhibition at the Music Hall and Lemon Tree, examines our morbid fascination with female criminals and witchcraft.

Criminally good music events include Phill Jupitus and Ian Rankin. The Locked Door: Murder at the Movies, where participants revisit the crime scene, collect clues and solve puzzles to crack the case. Film screenings, performances of Dial M For Murder, writing workshops, an evening of Gin and Sin, local history walks and talks, a Poison Cocktail Party and Poisoned High Tea complete the line-up of events for adults.

Little Detectives can enjoy Monstrously Funny Adventures with Justin Davies and learn how to howl like a werewolf (in English, French and maybe even Doric), or join the CSI: Crime Squirrel Investigators with author and CBeebies screenwriter Emily Dodd.”

For those who know me, it should be easy enough to work out what I want to do. (Should I be able to get out of bed, that is…)

Grace Dent’s shoe

It was Sherlock Holmes – the real one – who said something along the lines of making a few disjointed comments about unrelated things in order to make you sound genuinely ill and raving. Mention loose change.

I’ve enjoyed Grace Dent’s restaurant columns in the Guardian ever since she started. Almost, anyway. I didn’t take kindly to the change, but I love her now. And, well, with me feeling off colour, I’ve not really done an honest day’s work for over a week. Watering the pot plants takes it all out of me.

So I’ve spent too long hanging over the laptop, and what’s a Witch to do but read her own ancient wit from time to time? So by complete coincidence I discovered the post about my 2008 trip to Godalming to the Queen of Teen event! I believed I’d never see my home again.

I had thought of that day only recently. Something to do with The Book People going bankrupt, and me feeling that maybe they shouldn’t have arranged these pink limo events, however fun.

Where was I? Loose change. Yes. So the first thing I noticed was Grace Dent’s shoe. I remember it well. I recall thinking I needed to get a shot of shoe and leg, and it seems I succeeded. Didn’t remember whose shoe at first, but then it all came back to me; Grace, her teen books that I had not read and that she willingly dressed up in frills and pink for a day.

Long before eating all that food on our behalf. For which I am grateful. Obviously. Having got this far I had to look her up, and discovered she went to the University of Stirling…

Anyway, anyone – almost – can write teen novels. I’m really enjoying those restaurant columns. And my temperature is down.

Hubble bubble

Not until my fourth visit to Berlin in as many months did I manage to get to the Hugendubel bookshop in Tauentzienstrasse. There are two, actually. The one I visited was the one not in KaDeWe, but next door to the electronics shop five minutes away from Daughter’s flat, where they sell everything from kettles to televisions. Now that is a shop we’ve seen a lot of!

The two-storey Hugendubel shop front made me expect a veritable treasure trove of books. The reality was rather more modest. (And let’s face it, your average Waterstones is bigger than that, and the density of books much greater.)

So, two floors of not very tightly packed shelves. Mostly gift books or bestselling novels, I think. There was a play area for small children next to the picture books. (But it was right opposite the mall’s water-feature café, with no wall between them, so…)

And then I spotted Harry Potter’s old bedroom from across the shop, and walked over to where they had built a pretty credible English staircase with carpet and everything, and a sleeping space – filled with books – underneath it. No walking on the stairs, but an invitation to crawl into the under-stairs bit, and customers were encouraged to take photos. Which I did, but no crawling.

The many Harry Potter books on display suggest that the Germans, like the Swedes, go for sumptuous book covers (most likely with sumptuous prices as well), where in the UK we are more used to plainer paperbacks. Lovely, except for when it comes to paying.

Speaking of which, they overcharged me, by forgetting to take the promised 50% off my purchase. Being a witch, I’d sort of been half prepared, so noticed and made sure they didn’t fleece me more than I was prepared to be fleeced.

Breakfast with Burns

There we were, a roomful of foreigners, invited by the Scottish Government to a Burns Breakfast. I looked around and found we all appeared boringly normal. With the exception of one splendid looking man wearing what I will call a Bavarian style outfit, there was nothing to point to our foreign-ness. And I suppose that’s the whole point. We are all the same, give or take the odd thing.

The presence of quite so many press photographers became clear when Nicola Sturgeon entered the room. I should have guessed. After all, the venue was only divulged after registering. Ben Macpherson, Minister for Europe, Migration & International Development, kicked off with an introduction, and then it was time for the First Minister. It struck me that this was the first time I’d heard her speak, after so many encounters at the book festival. Basically, Scotland wants us here. We are welcome.

Thank you.

Nicola pointed out that Scots are good at having fun, even in deepest, darkest January. So before the first half ended, a young actor whose name I didn’t catch, talked about Robert Burns, and Robert’s strong belief in his own greatness, but thought the great poet might have been surprised to learn of the existence of vegan haggis. There was a most professional address to a haggis, followed by the piping in of a plateful of haggis canapés…

In the interval there was music, and Nicola Sturgeon walked round the room chatting to anyone who wanted to chat. I daresay she’d even have talked to me if I’d been able to come up with something sensible to say. She’s the mistress of selfies, and many many selfies were taken. (Daughter – via WhatsApp – demanded one of me with the FM, but I wriggled out of that by borrowing someone else’s big moment.) The thing about our First Minister is that she talks to people as though she’s a normal person. Not all politicians can.

As we started the second half, Nicola was spirited away, and the rest of us were treated to more music by the trio from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. They play very well, and the singer has the most beautiful voice. Starting with Auld Lang Syne, the audience perhaps displayed more of a foreign disposition by merely humming cautiously along, but I’d say that’s because we didn’t want to inflict our voices over that of the singer’s.

After several more wonderful songs, by the Burns chap again, Minister Macpherson thanked us, while apologising for the things Westminster is putting us through.

I had a final look at the information stalls, and helped myself to a blue and white pen. Very grip-friendly for elderly fingers, so one simply has to steal where one can.

And I never needed that book I’d brought.

Audible?

For her current commute, Daughter needs audio books. They will keep her sane and entertained during the 25 minutes on the S-Bahn and the 5 to 10 on the bus. Twice a day, five days a week. I understand that’s about the equivalent of The Hunger Games. (Not that I applaud her choice.)

Now, I have to admit here that I have not studied the finer details of having an Audible membership. Daughter has, and while she’s not thrilled with the cost, she hasn’t come up with anything better. There probably isn’t anything better, i.e. cheaper per hour.

When they were still cassette tapes I used to buy a lot. They were expensive, but I felt the benefits outweighed the cost, and there were four of us who would potentially listen, one at a time. Son wore out our copy of Kim, so bought a more hardwearing version of this Kipling story when he got older but still wanted to re-listen. As for Harry Potter, I winced when paying, but knew it was worth it.

I also frequented the mobile library when it stopped down the road, and borrowed a lot of audio cassettes, mostly for Son. That’s how I discovered children weren’t meant to read Terry Pratchett… Or Agatha Christie.

Thinking back to this time, I remembered that I must have contacted the library service at some point, about audio books for Daughter, who at that time really needed them to access literature at all. Somebody very nice provided her with a library card that allowed her free audio books, and I proceeded to request books from the mobile library, and every time they came, they would wave their latest haul at me. It was great.

Until the time we lost the nice and friendly crew and the replacement librarian got fed up with looking out for my requests, and told me so in no uncertain terms.

So that was that. Daughter learned to read for pleasure, mainly thanks to Nick Sharratt. But on her commute she prefers sound to paper. If only it wasn’t so expensive!

I recalled the event in Edinburgh in August where Sally Gardner ‘suggested to someone in the audience that if they can get a certificate from their GP that their child is dyslexic, then they have the right to access audio books for the blind and partially sighted.’ That’s probably similar to what I arranged for Daughter 15 to 20 years ago. I don’t know what would happen today.

Discovered from one author that the seemingly fair free exchange of a book if you don’t like it, can be abused. Readers listen to one book and then return it and read another for the same cost. Not surprisingly that money doesn’t then benefit either the author of the book or the narrator.

We looked at the audio books in the sale over Christmas, but there wasn’t much to her tastes. I went through my library and suggested really good books, that it would be worth paying for. Most of them weren’t available on audio…