Category Archives: Travel

Monday miscellany

I’d – almost – concluded I have no friends, but before you gallantly cry that I have you, I realised how wrong I was. Today is School Friend’s birthday. (Her 60th, but don’t tell anyone. She looks like 29.) And I’m not there. I suppose that’s what I meant, really. I’m not physically surrounded by friends, but I know they are out there, at various inconvenient distances for birthday parties and the like.

I could have gone. But with a future kitchen having just arrived, sitting in the hall (which has not had book boxes stored in it for maybe as long as a couple of weeks, and was beginning to look almost normal), and a sink that needed to be crowbarred free by Son, now seems an unwise time for me to up and frolic.

I typed ’tile’ instead of ‘time’ and that was most certainly a Freudian slip. I’m not 60, nor do I look like 29, but feel rather like 79 sometimes. The Resident IT Consultant and I went shopping for tiles last week. As we walked towards the entrance to the DIY emporium I halted and nearly asked him what we’d come for. Good thing I didn’t, as he beat me to it by a split second. We managed to remember why we’d come (I did have a list in my bag, but you feel that one item should be possible to keep in your brain and not have it slosh around uncontrollably) and the outing was a relative success. I mean, only the day before, we’d also ventured out for tiles but ended up eyeing raspberry bushes at the local nursery, where we’d gone for coffee, instead.

Speaking of gardens, we made some discoveries in ours. The Grandmother found we had a pond. Well, we knew that. But once the weeds went, we realised we have dependants. One duck. Plastic. An otter. Stone. A tortoise. Also stone. Frog. Real. Frogspawn. Also real, and watched over by the parental frog. And some days later, after all that unexpected light and air, we have ‘watery’ flowers as well.

As I said, Son and Dodo were here, carrying kitchens and liberating sinks. And stuff. Then they had to go home again, partly because Son is off to the London Book Fair this week. (It’s unfair! I still haven’t been. And I had to decline an invitation to Canada House. Again.) You can tell it’s that time of year, by how many publicists are already ‘out of office’ in their emails. (So, basically, I can blog as I like, and I am, as you can see.)

Before he left, Son borrowed the complete set of Martin Beck by Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and Barry Forshaw’s Nordic Noir. Seems he’s going to need the books for some paper or other. (Someone’s been getting their translators wrong…) He asked if we wanted anything from London, and you know, I am sure I was thinking just the other day that there was something. But what?

The importance of culture

I couldn’t help noticing that The Importance of Being Earnest was on again at the weekend. Earnest has a special significance to me. He proved that my English was better than I thought.

This was while living with the G family and attending the University of Sussex for a year, back at the beginning of time. In our second term Oscar Wilde’s drama would be one of our set books, and when it was on at the university’s Gardner Arts Centre, during our first term, we were advised to go and see it. I probably would have anyway.

But I suspected I wouldn’t understand all of it; either not catch what they were saying, or not actually know all the words. I suppose I could have taken the executive decision to read the play before, but that idea didn’t seem to occur to me.

Mr G, when he heard of my plans, said ‘a handbag?’ in a funny sort of voice, the relevance of which escaped me. (I got it afterwards.) Personally I was pretty impressed that a university would have its own theatre on the premises, as it were.

Anyway, we went, we saw, we enjoyed. What’s more, I reckoned I could understand every word. (If I were to read the play now it could be I’d find a difficult word or two, but at least it seemed plain as daylight at the time.) I think in a way that’s when I stopped thinking of myself as a foreigner handicapped by limited vocabulary. These days I know there’s a lot I don’t know, but I don’t fret. In fact, there is more I don’t catch, or understand, when watching NCIS: Los Angeles, than that time with dear Earnest.

Since then I’ve been to lots more plays, and I’ve seen several more versions of what I consider ‘my drama debut.’ The famous film with Edith Evans’s handbag quote, and probably also this one that was just on television with Colin Firth, as well as other stage productions.

At least we had no problem knowing about the trains to Worthing, what with it being more or less next door to us in Brighton.

(PDF time travel back to 1977.)

Harrogate

Now I dream of Harrogate. Me, who has never even made it to Betty’s Tea Rooms. 27 years in the Northwest and not a single trip to Harrogate…

Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Weekend is not something I have seriously considered going to before, especially as it takes place in mid-July, which is a time fraught with holiday plans and trips to Sweden. And things. Last year I felt dismay when I heard JK Rowling was attending, but quickly dismissed this negative thought.

And now, now there are more people who draw me there and I so want to go. Sara Paretsky will be there, and so early that a day trip is out of the question, and all those Northern Irish boys I’m fond of, including Adrian McKinty back in the Northern hemisphere. James Oswald. Stieg Larsson, except he’s not, of course.

I looked at all the suggested crime hotels for the weekend and they look positively irresistible, straight out of an Agatha Christie novel.

It’s still the middle of July, however. And I know for a fact that when the time comes I will be pleased not to be going to yet one more place, or more events.

But right now I’m at the point where I want to!

Retiring Philippa

My pangs of envy and regret started even before Philippa Dickinson’s retirement festivities got under way on Monday. When you’re online you can see what everyone else is doing and quite a few people announced they were heading that way, making me wish I was too. But there are drawbacks to moving to Scotland, and the spontaneity of sudden trips south is one of them.

So I wasn’t there, and now I can follow – online again – those who were, and there are more pangs. But I’m glad there was a party, and that it was good, and that – almost – everyone else was there. Because Philippa deserves to be celebrated.

Philippa Dickinson

Back in 2009 when I was introduced to her at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, it felt a bit like meeting the Queen, although perhaps more relaxed. And six months later when her publicists invited me to actually come and spend a day in Ealing, I was impressed with her again, and not only for remembering me a little.

Random House Children’s Books felt like the most active publishing house at the time. And she might have been the MD, but Philippa was still hands-on (editing Terry Pratchett, the lucky thing), working like a normal person. During our brief meeting in her office, she made a point of showing me her personal recommendation and arranging for me to have a copy of Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza.

Philippa and I are almost the same age, and occasionally I have stopped and asked myself what I have achieved with my life, and why I couldn’t be a bit more like her. (Answers on a postcard, please.)

Sometimes when I think of Philippa and wonder what made her better or more interesting than other publishing bosses, I realise that apart from a few directors of smaller publishing houses, I didn’t meet or get even a little acquainted with anyone else.

So maybe that’s why. You need to be out there, possibly rubbing shoulders with the little fish.

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.