Category Archives: Travel

Reaching their destinations

Rachel Ward’s back where I first met her, in Edinburgh, nearly ten years on. She has left behind her ‘hideously dark’ YA novels, and is enjoying cosy, humorous crime for adults. Rachel was doing an event at Blackwell’s last night, but first she met up for coffee with your witch, after a walk in Princes’ Street Gardens in the morning darkness, visiting the Royal Yacht Britannia, and going to Waterstones for [leftover] wine with Ceris from Sandstone Press, ferrying two boxes of the stuff on the bus to the other bookshop in town. That’s dedication.

The event –  Examining the Crime Scene: Three Crime Writers in Conversation – was with fellow Sandstone Press authors Lesley Kelly and William McIntyre, and I can’t tell you how good it is to ‘meet’ two authors I didn’t know at all and discovering they are fun and interesting and that I might not be totally opposed to reading their books.

Lesley Kelly, William McIntyre, Ceris Jones and Rachel Ward

I will have to get used to events no longer run by Ann Landmann, who has left, but I dare say that will be possible. I was introduced to her replacement. I immediately forgot his name. Completely my fault. It’s my age. But I do have to say he had arranged things very nicely. Differently, but almost, well, better… Except for ‘my’ sofa, which I surreptitiously shoved a little.

Helen Grant arrived in the nick of time, having struggled with the travelling-to-Blackwell’s-for-an-event-and-trains-running-late problem. Chair Ceris allowed her authors to cheat, by showing them her questions in advance… And I didn’t get the memo, but it seems that white spots on navy or black is the way to dress. The size of the audience worried our host, because why were we all out on a Monday night, being so interested in crime?

William McIntyre

William, who seems to kill people in Linlithgow – which I find an admirable thing – believes that you should commit the crime before speaking to a lawyer. He borrows freely from his day job in the legal business and puts it all in his books, which are either nine, or four, depending on whether you count his self-published novels. It saves on research. And he says he only uses already publicly known facts.

Lesley Kelly

Lesley has a policeman father, but she wished she’d spoken before William, as she’s ‘not as interesting’. She used to be a stand-up comedian, and finds the two-year wait for laughs when writing a book rather long. You never know what readers want, but in her next book she kills a lot of civil servants.

Rachel Ward

And then we have Rachel, who based her detectives on ‘a life of food shopping.’ This is a fine thing, and you can listen to and observe people in the supermarket. Everyone shops for food. The humour in her dialogue wasn’t intentional, but when she sent her husband a chapter at a time to read, she liked hearing him laugh.

None of the three authors write about sex. Well, Rachel does, a little. There was a question as to whether you have to be a bit drunk when writing about sex.

Asked whether they plot in advance, William described how you need only know some, because as long as you can see into the near distance if you are driving in fog, you will be able to reach your destination. A little at a time, and that works for writing as well. Rachel has realised that ‘plot is quite important’ and Lesley plots because she doesn’t want to get lost.

Then there was some discussion about Tom Cruise, and I’ve forgotten how many of them want him in the film of their book. Potentially all three.

And then we got to the end. Helen and I both went up to ‘Mr Ward’ and chatted. I reckon Rachel will want to lock him up, but it was nice to meet him at last.

Spoke briefly to a book fan from Chile, as well as more formally meeting blogger Kelly, who apparently reads Bookwitch. Hello!!

Realised that Sandstone Press, and Ceris, are not from Perth. They are in Dingwall, and that is a very long way north. Very very.

Chatted some more with William and urged him to really let go in Linlithgow, without telling him the whole story. Tried to be professional, handing out business cards to him and Lesley. Just hope they’re not going to turn up outside my door..!

Then I grabbed Helen Grant, and carefully avoiding Fleshmarket Close, we walked to the station where we got our train home, and one of us almost told the guard he was too loud.

(Photos by Helen Grant)

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Kristallnacht – 80 years on

It has been 80 years since Kristallnacht, and ordinarily I’d feel relieved it is now well in the past, and not a recent memory. But somehow life has moved in a direction that makes another such event feel not in the slightest unlikely. In fact, depending on where you draw the boundaries, it’s already happening. It’s just that some of us would like to feel that it won’t take place anywhere near us.

And then there is the other important K, the Kindertransport, which started almost immediately after Kristallnacht, so that’s another 80th anniversary, and another thing we’d prefer if there was no need for it to happen again.

Both events caused some good books to be written; books I’ve ‘enjoyed’ because of their historical aspects, and because the good that happened after something so bad, was a cause for some celebration. This works for both fact-based books and pure fiction, inspired by these events.

And still bad stuff keeps happening, and we keep getting books based on what goes on in the world. The books are usually excellent, but I would so love for them not to be possible to have been written. Just think. What if these people had not been hunted out of their homes, losing their lives, or having to send their children to a strange country? Whatever great things they ended up doing here, they could have done in their own countries.

Something I read in the paper the other day made me aware that the last couple of years will by now be featuring in fiction, or are about to turn up in novels some time soon. And once I’d had that thought, I felt that I don’t want to read those books. So far everything I’ve read has been removed from me in time or place.

I’m not ready to read about my own daily fears. Maybe I never will.

Kristallnacht was bad, but I believed it could stay in the past. Because we know better now. Don’t we?

(Read this Wikipedia page on the Kindertransport. Then try to envisage the same thing being agreed – in Westminster – now.)

On walking and reading

So, I have already told you I read a bit when on the trains to Vienna last week. Didn’t read a single word when actually in Vienna. Instead I walked until I ached. The disadvantage with Daughter being in possession of one of those fitbit things is that I found out how many steps I had [most likely] walked as well.

Shocking.

Glen Coe

But the week before that, that was very different. I allowed the Resident IT Consultant to convey us both to Glen Coe, where we spent a few days at the HF walking centre. For those who’d like to know, HF stands for Husbands Found. (It worked for the Grandmother, many decades ago.)

The Resident IT Consultant went there to walk. I went to read. A full two days plus an afternoon in which to sit and do nothing but read. No dishwashers to empty, no blog posts to write. It was lovely.

HF Glen Coe

The only drawback to me channeling my inner Lucy Mangan in this way, was that it’s such a friendly set-up. In the morning people ask where you are thinking of going that day. ‘Over to that sofa to read,’ is not what they expect to hear. In the evening they ask where one went that day. ‘Absolutely nowhere,’ is not what they expect to hear.

But it was the rest – to my soul – that I required.

For the return drive home, the Resident IT Consultant almost forgot himself and offered me an outing somewhere. On realising this wasn’t what he was supposed to say, he Googled a bit (in the olden days they didn’t even have television there!), and found a café with a bookshop in the exact spot where you’d need something like that for your elevenses. So that’s where we went.

Ben Lora café and bookshop

Most civilised it was. The Ben Lora café and bookshop in Benderloch has the best of both worlds; books and newly baked scones. First we ate the scones and then we looked at their books.

Ben Lora café and bookshop

Nice selection of Scottish books, and only slightly disconcerting to find many of them were by people who have lunched at Bookwitch Towers.

Ben Lora café and bookshop

When we could manage no more scones we continued the drive home. It’s the kind of café where people come in to buy scones to take out. I would if I lived there. They had so many flavours!

Tell Me No Truths

I loved Gill Vickery’s Tell Me No Truths! Similar to Mal Peet’s Tamar it deals with what happened in Florence during WWII, and we meet three British teenagers who have come to Italy looking for answers to questions they have.

Gill Vickery, Tell Me No Truths

Twins Jade and Amber had an Italian grandfather, and they want to discover what the place he felt he could never return to is like. They speak Italian, as does their mother. Teen artist Nico is on holiday away from his boarding school, with his mum and her latest boyfriend. Nico and his mum are big fans of a crime writer who lives in the area and they want to discover more about this elusive man.

Interspersed with today’s activities, we read a sort of diary from the war, about dramatic things that happened, but we don’t quite know who is doing the telling. But it’s easy to see it has a bearing on what all three teenagers are searching for.

There is romance in the air, as well, and now is a time for families to learn to accept the past and to start again.

There are too few novels about the war from inside another country, like Italy. We don’t know enough, and we need to learn more, as do Nico, Jade and Amber.

Great blend of art, crime and food, against the backdrop of WWII and Florence as it is today.

Witch on rails

Did you work it out? What did last week’s random posts have in common?

That’s right. It was Wien, although not perhaps Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume. It was more Daughter’s Träume to spend her birthday in Vienna. So we did. She flew in, while I revisited my youth and Interrailed. Much as I love trains, I’m not sure I recommend such a lot of train travel in one go. It takes a long time to get to Vienna. On the eve of my departure I realised that three books wouldn’t be enough, so added a fourth. Jolly lucky I did!

The Resident IT Consultant had looked up how to get to the hotel. ‘Easy,’ he said. Underground to Schwedenplatz and then a short walk from there. He reckoned I could memorise that. The hotel was where Daughter stayed last year and loved it so much that nothing else would do. She was right. I’d go back in a heartbeat. Although, not necessarily by rail.

Advised by Keith Gray who moved to Vienna last year, we went for birthday tea in a lovely café. I got up to inspect the cake counter to see what I’d like. ‘Was ist das?’ I asked and pointed. The nice young man told me, and it proved easier than expected to remember. Schwedenschnitte. It was very good.

We – well, I – wanted to see the Spanish riding school, so we went for its daily morning exercise session. Maybe not the best thing to do. I’d no idea that they have seats where you can’t see the ground [and thereby not the beautiful Lipizzaners]. After which it turned out that Daughter is allergic to horses…

The next day was Austria’s national day, which could be why we had tickets for a rather Straussy morning concert at the Musikverein. Luckily it was everything Daughter wanted it to be, except possibly New Year’s Day.

From there we walked to the Palmenhaus to meet Keith Gray and his family, for a chat and tea, sitting on the terrace in the late October sunshine. It was very nice, and a treat to see how the Viennese interact with waiters in cafés. Apparently forthright ‘rudeness’ is the way, and you really do say grüß Gott to everyone, even in the supermarket. And seeing as we never made it to Dunfermline to visit Keith at home, trailing after him to Vienna seemed like a good idea.*

During our remaining time in this beautiful city we squeezed in a few more cafés, purely in the name of research. Obviously. I even tried a piece of Gugelhupf, inspired by Tim in Airs Above the Ground. Books are dangerous.

And then Daughter got on her plane home, and I found my sleeper train. By the time I got to Köln I discovered that German German is so much easier than its Austrian sibling. I also found there is such a thing as a delayed German train, but I still managed to travel all the way home, a steady four hours ahead of Son who was ‘following’ me through that bit of Europe.

Finished my third book on Eurostar, starting on the fourth as I left King’s Cross.

*There is no way of escaping a witch. No matter where you move, she’ll come for her Schwedenschnitte. And you.

Viennese balls

OK, I know it’s more like the end of October than New Year. A witch has to take what she can find, and seven years ago, that was balls:

It’s New Year’s Eve. Time for balls, for some. Especially in Vienna, but I’m beginning to suspect I’ll never make that Strauss waltz in a snowy Austria. Oh, well.

ASC SIEC ball

Edinburgh is big on New Year. Although I’m not there either. But it’s the origin of these crystal balls. Thirty years ago Mother-of-witch brought home the one on the right. She’d gone to Edinburgh for some kind of conference. She only went because it was in Edinburgh, giving her an excuse to go. And maybe the ball at the castle, I suppose.

PG SIEC ball

The Grandmother remembers seeing Swedes at the ball she attended at Edinburgh castle. Thirty years ago. That’s when the Grandfather received the ball on the right. The inscriptions on both balls say SIEC conference. (I think that might be this kind of thing.)

The bookwitch met the Resident IT Consultant the following year. It took us a bit longer to match up the crystal balls, but it’s clear the two balls at the castle were one and the same .

Are you keeping up with the balls so far?

Wolfgang the seal

Setting aside youthful dreams of Vienna waltzes, the only New Year’s ball we see these days is the one on Wolfgang’s nose in Sesame Street. It will fall at midnight. Until it does, the Count counts the seconds. Ahahah. Is it childish of us to watch the same episode of Sesame Street every year?

New Year, Sesame Street

Airs Above the Ground

Like The Star of Kazan, Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground features a stolen Lipizzaner and some fake jewels, plus romance and adventure galore, all set in Austria.

Well over forty years since I last read it, I discovered – again – that returning to a book often improves it. I remembered some things very clearly, and was delighted to find others that I really enjoyed.

Mary Stewart, Airs Above the Ground

Almost newly-wed Vanessa flies out to Vienna, ostensibly chaperoning 17-year-old Tim, who is crazy about horses, and the Spanish riding school especially. Both of them are travelling under false pretences.

A fire in a circus takes them all over Austria, and it turns out Vanessa’s husband leads a more exciting life than she’d hitherto been aware of. (Well, he is a Mary Stewart hero.)

Now that I’m much older than Vanessa (I wasn’t the first time), I can see that she is unreasonably mature at 24. But I like her, and I adore young Tim, who like Mary’s other ‘young men’ is truly lovely.

And as for the horse… well, not a dry eye left.

I wonder if Eva Ibbotson had read Airs Above the Ground? Or if great minds simply think alike? The final chapters in both books are so similar, in the most satisfying of ways.

Besides, it’s amazing how far £20 went in the early 1960s…