Category Archives: Writing

Czech this

Oddly enough, until yesterday I never really looked into Tom Stoppard’s past. I mean, no more than what seems to be generally known, like him having been born in Czechoslovakia, and writing highly amusing drama. It’s odd, because he was my favourite dramatist when I was at university, and it was only my tutor’s perception that Tom lacked depth that meant I never ‘did’ anything about him in an academic way.

Perhaps it was the lack of Google and Wikipedia? Although, I did have a volume on British dramatists where I could look people up. Or maybe I simply felt that Tom’s work spoke for him?

I used to think he was awfully clever; to have been born a foreigner and still be able to write the way he did. Yeah, I know. I sound almost xenophobic, but that’s not what I meant. I believed that if a language was not your native one, then there would always be something that you couldn’t do with it. I knew I couldn’t.

And it seems that Tom agreed with me in some way. I found this quote on Wikipedia: ‘His stepfather believed strongly that “to be born an Englishman was to have drawn first prize in the lottery of life” – a quote from Cecil Rhodes – telling his small stepson: “Don’t you realise that I made you British?” setting up Stoppard’s desire as a child to become “an honorary Englishman”. “I fairly often find I’m with people who forget I don’t quite belong in the world we’re in”, he says. “I find I put a foot wrong – it could be pronunciation, an arcane bit of English history – and suddenly I’m there naked, as someone with a pass, a press ticket.’

Two years ago I’d have found that amusing. Now I don’t.

It’s noteworthy that his stepfather was happy to marry a foreigner, and to take on two little foreign boys as his sons. But what’s more, Mr Stoppard appears to have believed that the act of doing so made these little foreigners British. How many people – who matter – share his thoughts today?

As for the pronunciation, the arcane history, or being naked; I’ve been there too. At least I share something with Sir Tom.

So, as I was saying, I adored his humour back then. I must have read almost every single play he wrote, up until the mid 1980s when I moved on to other reading material. But I always wanted to be able to write like Tom Stoppard, even if he ‘lacked depth.’

I had a bit of an epiphany thinking about my tutor’s comment. I’d like to think she has changed her mind over the years, and with hindsight I see that humorous drama like Tom’s could very well be viewed like children’s books, or crime; not quite properly grown-up.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have everything you could want.

The very same tutor was terribly ambitious, so after I teased the group with my frequent trips to London, going to the theatre to see new and exciting plays, she organised a drama week for us. She bought tickets for about eight plays in six days and charmed a lot of money from someone at some party or conference, which meant that we could all have a week in London for next to no cost.

And one of those plays was a Stoppard, Night and Day, starring John Thaw, but sadly not Diana Rigg.

Where am I going with this? Not sure. But Sir Tom is clearly an immigrant, with a refugee past, a Jew, who made it in Britain. Made it to Britain. And he dares to be clever with the language spoken here. Whether he has stopped feeling inadequate I have no idea. And I suspect he won’t be one of the first to be forced to leave when Brexit really gets going.

Bookwitch bites #139

At last! The tail is gone and the tale might be with us later this year. Philip Pullman has had a haircut – unless that BBC interview yesterday was recorded years ago – and there are claims that the first part of The Book of Dust will be available on Philip’s birthday in October. Well.

Philip Pullman

It’s been ten years since Son and I were in Oxford, when Philip and David Fickling reckoned Dust would be ready in 2009. What I didn’t know is that Dust would be a trilogy. No wonder Philip’s been so long in writing it, especially as it sounds like the second part is also complete. That just leaves the ending of this equel to His Dark Materials to be written.

The Branford Boase longlist has been announced. I haven’t read a single book on the list, and to the best of my knowledge I have not been offered any of them either. Would quite like to read Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy, which is the only one I’ve heard of. I would probably like to read a few of the others, too. Maybe I’ll be spurred into action when the shortlist comes.

I have just been followed on Twitter by Jacqueline Wilson. Well, not her personally, as I believe Jacqueline is sensible enough not to waste time on social media, but someone doing it for her. I’m hardly ever on there, so I won’t be taking up too much of anyone’s time.

Both Philip and Jacky have been the big draw names at the Branford Boase award evenings. Celebrities, perhaps, but celebrities in the book world; not in the book world because they are celebrities.

Chris Priestley has been quoted in recent discussions on celebrity authors. It’s mainly the crazy aspect of how some very good writers still have to have a day job to feed themselves, while a lot of book sales go to those who need it less, and whose books just might not be of quite the same calibre as those by authors holding down two jobs. After all, if you are doing two jobs, it means you are pretty keen to write, and you are likely to do a better job of it.

Juno Dawson does her job pretty well as far as I understand. She writes books teenagers want to read, and she knows how teenagers feel. Juno was recently booked to talk at a school, when they decided to uninvite her at the last moment. It was deemed ‘inappropriate’, it seems. As the school back-pedalled, they said it had nothing to do with Juno being transgender. Oh no, not at all.

Most books are important and worthwhile. Hilary McKay – who claims not to mind if her books are turned into motorways – sent me this link to an article about how books are being rescued from becoming landfill. Better World Books collect unwanted books in Fife and sell them online, raising funds for literacy and libraries. Books not becoming Dust, so to speak.

I love cheese

I also love books.

Today’s the day when one should talk about love. I’ve been trying to come up with ‘love’ stuff to mention.

So that’s cheese and books. I love my family.

And, I quite like Bookwitch. Yes, awfully narcissistic of me. It’s not love, though.

The other day I had cause to search through older parts of Bookwitch, looking for something. Gold possibly. And I found I enjoyed re-reading older posts. Not all of them, but some were reasonably entertaining.

So that was nice. Reassuring. Maybe it hasn’t been a complete waste of time.

I came to the conclusion I am [a bit] like Gwendolen Fairfax, who said:  ‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.’

Cough.

Well.

And I discovered a fan letter I’d completely forgotten about. Clearly I could do with regular re-readings, if only to remind myself of my destroyed life, as imagined by my fairy blogmother.

I just love fan letters❣️

Bookwitch bites #138

If I was in Manchester this Saturday, I could celebrate Harry Potter turning twenty. But I’m not, so I can’t. It’s slightly premature, but that’s all right. If all his birthday parties happened at the same time, we couldn’t go to all of them. It’s the lovely people of Manchester Children’s Book Festival (oh, how I miss them) who are Pottering this weekend.

Strangely, I had been thinking of Andy McNab recently, and here he is popping up in the Guardian, no less. Andy has opinions on how children learn to read, or in his own case and that of many others, how they don’t learn. Yesterday saw the 2017 batch of Quick Reads launched, and as always the books look fabulous, and I’d like to pop out and get all of them. I hope many of them will reach a large number of readers who need books like these. We obviously ought to have many, many more Quick Reads, and not only once a year.

In times like these it almost feels as if we need to look for news that isn’t too bad, as opposed to actively good or wonderful. These are also times when far too many people turn out to have misplaced their spines at some point, now that we could do with a few more good strong backbones.

Malorie Blackman is doing the right thing in saying she won’t be visiting the US in the near future. Hopefully this is one of many actions that will be instrumental in changing what must be changed.

Barry Hutchison is someone who acts instead of talking. You will remember Tommy Donbavand who was diagnosed with cancer a year ago, and whose livelihood of writing books and making school visits was threatened by his illness. He was optimistic that he’d be able to write while getting treatment, but found he was far too unwell and exhausted to do much. So not only did his good friend Barry alert the rest of us that help was needed, occasionally writing Tommy’s cancer blog, but he actually stepped in and wrote Tommy’s books for him.

Tony Higginson, David Gatward, Barry Hutchison, Tommy Donbavand, Jon Mayhew, Philip Caveney and Joseph Delaney at Scarefest 3 - photo by Sean Steele

Deadlines have to be met, and while I’m sure Barry might have had the odd deadline of his own (there is a steady stream of books from Barry), he wanted to help Tommy, and knowing quite a lot about what Tommy had planned and what his books are like, he wrote a book and a half for his friend.

That’s friendship! If I ever need a friend to rummage in my sock drawer I suppose I shall have to ask someone else, because Barry is a very busy man.

Read, Enjoy, Debate # 11

It was chilly. And there I was, in Falkirk, red clothes, rosy cheeks and everything, and the station footbridge was being repaired. Luckily I had my folding broom with me, so managed to cross the railway lines (my apologies for any subsequent unentangling required) and arrived at fth (Falkirk Town Hall; keep up!) with barely any delay, for a day of the 11th RED book award.

Greeted Cathy MacPhail who was shortlisted for the umpteenth time (they know a good author when they see one), still basking in the glow of her birthday the day before. She introduced me to Narinder Dhami (13 Hours), and we spent some happy minutes saying gossipy stuff about [some] people. Very satisfying. A few of the students were going round interviewing the four shortlisted authors, who also included Clare Furniss (The Year of the Rat) and Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (The Apple Tart of Hope). All beautifully decked out in red, and all looking very beautiful, too. And they were nice people…

Yvonne Manning

RED captain Yvonne Manning was wearing red fairy lights. Clothes, too, but those lights really caught the eye. She welcomed each school and they were as noisy as ever. She encouraged them, it has to be said. (That woman is not a normal librarian! Whatever happened to silence?)

The schools charged straight ahead with their dramatised presentations of the books, two schools for each book. Between every little show, the same slow stagehands cleared up. They really want to look into who they employ. At times they sat down and read the paper and took selfies. If we’re not careful they’ll get used to this kind of slacking, and the audience encouraging them.

Presentation of Devil You Know on behalf of Polmont Young Offenders

As well as the eight schools who took part, they were shadowed by boys from Polmont Young Offenders (who for obvious reasons were not present, although I suspect if this had been Sweden they would have been). One of them had written a script for Cathy MacPhail’s book, Devil You Know (very appropriate), and Yvonne got seven volunteers on stage to act it out, totally unrehearsed. They would have found it easier had there been more microphones and printing of words on one side of the paper only, I reckon. But well done to everyone; actors and script-writer!

There were prizes for best reviews, before Provost Reid went off to a council budget meeting on libraries, and as we broke for coffee Yvonne introduced ‘selfie corner.’ (It was really only a cardboard frame…)

Narinder Dhami

You could tell Cathy had been before, as she managed to get coffee long before anyone else. But eventually we all sat down and chatted, and I had a really good idea for a blog post from what we talked about. (It would have been even better if I could remember what it was.)

RED coffee

Once back, Yvonne had changed into an enthusiastic red wig, with fairy lights on top. She hoped it wasn’t too much. Well, I’m sure we were too polite to say. Before the last set of book presentations, the authors got their three minutes of saying whatever they wanted. Each. Narinder told us about her breakfast that morning (sort of, anyway), Sarah has a lovely Irish accent and Clare wore fabulous red high heeled boots, while Cathy said how pleased she was that the young offenders got her book.

The stagehands grew ever more inept as the day wore on.

Provost Reid was back by then, and he whispered to me that he could smell lunch. Clare was extremly fortunate with her school, who presented her with an iced cake at the end of their presentation. (I was worried it’d turn into a pie throwing event at first.)

RED lunch

Covers 13 Hours

At lunch we said how fantastic it was to have an all-women shortlist and we discussed agoraphobia. As you do. The authors were asked to go and cast their votes on alternative book covers, before the signings. I asked the Provost what happened to his retirement from politics plans from last year, and he seems to have sacrificed himself for the greater good.

Narinder Dhami and Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

Clare Furniss and Cathy MacPhail

RED award disco

Back in the hall there was disco dancing in one corner, with Yvonne and her fairy lights leading the way. Most of the students were singing at the top of their voices, and I couldn’t help wondering if they know how ancient that music is. Grease must have been at least forty years ago?

RED award disco

RED award

The authors got to sit on the sofas in readiness for question time, while more prizes were handed out; for best presentation, for best red accessories (I especially liked the feathers one girl wore in her hair), the stage hands, and for best book covers.

RED award

Questions were many and varied, on how long to write a book, is it hard to get published, inspiration, apple tarts, do they Google themselves, why read books, advice to themselves as teenagers, and favourite children’s books. Little Princess did well. Believe in yourself. Yes, some do Google. Time to write a book depends. Lots of good questions and the answers were all right too.

Librarian Anne Ngabia told us the latest news about her book collecting for libraries in Kenya (I have plenty more!), saying how good our children have it with free schools, even if it doesn’t feel like it. How in Kenya people might walk for three hours to the library, queueing up when it opens, and walking three hours back again. (I dare say this could happen here too, if libraries get scarcer.) And thanks to the army and the air force for sending the books out with the troops.

RED award

The boy with the lovely red hat got the job of opening the red envelope, to announce the RED winner. That envelope was made with very good glue. It had glued itself to the paper inside and only after a prolonged, manful struggle did red hat boy sort of manage to peer into the mangled remains of the inside and tell us that this year’s winner was Narinder Dhami!

Narinder Dhami

Narinder made a short speech, not even thanking her cat, cried a bit, and then she needed to sit down to stop her legs from shaking. But there were photographs to be taken of everyone, of her, the provost, envelope boy and the award (a photo of the famous Kelpies).

RED award, Yvonne Manning, Cathy MacPhail, Narinder Dhami, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, Clare Furniss, Provost Reid

Then we went home. Me not forgetting I came with a coat, and Cathy hunting for hers. The Provost let the students try on his red ‘coat’. And Clare had a cake to carry. It was a good day.

A Monster Calls – the film

This was the film we tried to go and see all week. We should be grateful it made it to the local cinema, because who would want to be deprived of a good long cry? As it was, Kleenex were required, and there was a bucket too.

A Monster Calls

I can no longer recall the exact details of the book* by Patrick Ness, and by that I mean the minor characters and any minor plots. I think there were some. They are not in the film, which is good, as you don’t want anything to detract from the main story about Conor, his dying mum and his angry grandma. And the school bullies, because to be beaten up every day as your mother is dying is obviously [not] what a 13-year-old boy needs.

A Monster Calls

The film let us concentrate on Conor’s nightmares and the subsequent meetings with a tree monster who comes to the house (voiced by Liam Neeson) to tell him stories.

Then there is grandma, played by Sigourney Weaver, doing a good British accent, while going around being at least as angry as her grandson. And who can blame her; she is losing her child, and gaining a grandchild who hates her.

A Monster Calls

At first the film went so slowly I was afraid it would ruin things but, almost imperceptibly, it sped up and before we knew it we were hooked, by Conor’s dismal daily life, and his mum’s sufferings, and you could literally see her getting worse.

Beautifully filmed in the Northwest, it looked like home to us (not quite as I’d imagined it from the book or from Jim Kay’s illustrations).

And it was only on the way out I remembered I had tissues in my bag, after casting around in my mind what we could possibly use to mop those tears with.


*Based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd

Why not me?

The lists are gathering all over the internet. I am gathering a few books myself for my 2016 list, which is fairly imminent. Some people I admire, who are very knowledgeable about children’s books, are moaning and asking if this ‘list is any good?’ because they haven’t heard of a single book on it, or at least not read them.

And I’m rather like that myself. Not the moaning, obviously. I never moan. Except when I do, like now.

On most of those lists I have managed to find one I’ve read, and liked, and occasionally another I’ve heard of or even received but not read. My own gathering list already has too many books on it, even when I stick to my rules, children’s books published this year, which automatically disqualifies great adult crime and some really excellent books that were last year’s. But you have to have boundaries.

So I’m not short of wonderful books. I’m merely pondering why so many of the ones on other lists have not passed over my threshold. Or, it seems, a number of other thresholds either.

It is well nigh impossible to request books you don’t know exist, or I would do. And by the time enough people have enthused about them somewhere, there is less scope to jump on the bandwaggon. If they were by authors I know and have read before, the chances of hearing about their new books is greater. Except, even those writers who first became published during the Bookwitch era, and are considered – by me – to be established authors, seem to find it difficult to have their new books bought by publishers.

And at the same time there are countless debut authors. It makes me wonder if publishers actively go for new rather than established, because the established ones have failed to write the next Harry Potter, so the debut writers are seen as more likely to do a JKR? OK, so she was a beginner, but surely a new Potter success could come from anyone? Clearly not on quite the same unlikely scale, but still big.

Is a hitherto unpublished writer more likely to strike gold than the author who has had four really good novels published, but who is now not having any luck with their latest offering? Surely it must be possible to have plodded along for ten years before hitting on just the right thing at the right time?

Unless the only money publishers are looking for will be coming from celebrity books, ghost written or not?

Whatever.