The reign of Barley

I can see why Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is planning on leaving in the autumn. From a practical point of view, it’s – probably – best to leave after the next big effort has been put to bed. In this case, that’s the festival in August 2023. It’s also the last one before the festival moves across the road.

So, new home, new blood, new lots of things. New start. It will be good, but not the same. This is partly because the EIBF are having to do what nearly all of us have to do; tighten the belt and save where possible.

I was reminded that Nick began directoring in my second EIBF year. The first year I was oblivious to who the boss might be anyway. But since then I have got used to seeing him around. I remember telling an author that I had spied him in the audience of her event. Her response was that she was glad she hadn’t known. But I’m sure Nick was there to enjoy himself, not to check whether the invited guests were up to scratch.

She was, though.

That will be fourteen years for director Barley, and it is going to be fourteen for Bookwitch. With press officer Frances Sutton retiring last year, that’s my EIBF covered. It will continue to be good, but I can also see the sense in leaving at the right time.

With Gordon Brown in 2012.

(Photo Helen Giles)


Shelving it

Bookcases have been coming and going at Bookwitch Towers. This last week has seen several carryings in and out, both here and at Daughter’s new abode. (Well, one can’t always get the right configuration on a first try, can one?)

Until now I have stashed Son’s books – by which I mean those he has translated – on the low shelf behind my armchair. But the books have sort of outgrown that space. I don’t know how that happened. Maybe I washed the shelf and it shrunk?

So we were discussing what to do, and it seems that the Resident IT Consultant’s Scottish collection will be going upstairs, just like one of the new-to-us bookcases. And then we will display the Nordic Noirs in a more prime position than behind me.

That was when the postman called today. He huffed and puffed a bit, but not too much because he’s a very nice postman.

He was delivering two copies of a children’s Space encyclopaedia on which Daughter has been the specialist consultant. (See, we don’t have just the one consultant any longer!) And because there were two copies, it seems that us old people get to hold on to one. It needs a shelf to live on.

The book is Children’s First Space Encyclopedia by Claudia Martin. It’s the kind of book I’d have liked as a child, and which I might have got for Offspring at the right age too. It features the unnamed Goldilocks and dwarfs and giants, as well as a really large telescope. It is not the consultant’s first, nor her last, but at least she’s not going at the same speed as her brother.

I wonder how long there will be space – hah – for both space and murder on this new prime shelf? Not long I suspect.

Terry Pratchett – A Life With Footnotes

He was there. All the way. And that makes a difference.

So thank you Rob Wilkins, for writing the biography of Terry Pratchett, and for writing it so well, making it almost as humorous as if Terry himself had had a go at it. But most of all, thank you for being there with Terry, especially towards the end, when it can’t have been much fun.*

It’s been a while since I enjoyed a book quite as much as this one. Even when tears threatened to overwhelm me towards the end of the book, it was still [sort of] funny.

The doubts were there from the beginning. Can Rob really write a book, and can he write this particular book? Well, yes, he can and he did. He had help, from Terry himself, who had begun to gather facts about his life, especially the early years. Convenient, since Rob wasn’t around then. Other people helped, like his UK editor Philippa Dickinson.** (When Philippa once talked to me about editing Terry’s books, it wasn’t at all obvious how much she did. Now I know.)

Setting aside the fame and the money and the ability to write all those lovely books, I discovered I had a lot in common with Terry. He was clearly more right than I was when he suggested this.***

And, I know this is not about me at all. But I could only read A Life With Footnotes by keeping in mind where and when our paths crossed. I was at some of the events mentioned. In other cases I was there before or right after. And it seems I was less wrong than I thought in ‘holding on to’ Terry on that September day in 2010. Also, much of the off the record information I’ve been keeping quiet about has now been revealed.

I’ve said this before; I am so glad I have as many books left to read as I do. Now that Rob has shared what went on backstage, I feel the urge to go and check stuff again.****

If you love Terry Pratchett, this is the book for you.

*That taxi ride in New York, for instance.

** Who is ‘not a cantankerous bat after all.’

***At our second interview in 2010.

****I will need to make lists.

‘My Favourite Spoon’

I know I’m a witch, but this is slightly silly. For some reason, which I can no longer remember – and it was only yesterday – I was going to take a picture of a spoon and put it on here. ‘I can do that,’ I thought.

Today I started reading one of my Christmas present books, Rob Wilkins’s biography of Terry Pratchett. It’s very good.

Somewhere in the introduction he mentions ‘what Terry referred to as the “My Favourite Spoon” slots in the newspaper supplements.’ I count my lucky stars that I never asked him for one of those!

But, anyway, there I was and I had thought of spoons. And as I thought a bit more, I realised that this was indeed my favourite spoon. Here it is. I have always loved it. And I still get upset if it finds its way into someone else’s hands at the table. You can have Borås, but leave Varberg alone.

Of course, this is the story of my spoon. I’m not asking you to participate in any spoon slots.

Happy Christmas

from your Bookwitch, a borrowed Christmas flamingo, and all at Bookwitch Towers.

Wished was best

2022 was not my best year for reading. I’m sorry about that, and so are the books.

There were books, though. And because I was so hard to persuade to read, or to continue once begun, to be the best this year is pretty good.

Wished, by Lissa Evans, is the kind of book you wished for as a young reader. Even more perhaps at my age when cynicism sets in.

I’d wish for more stories like Wished, only I don’t have any magic birthday candles. But thank goodness for this one.

Cover illustration by Sarah McIntyre

Near the end

Not to be alphabetist or anything, but I think I find the letters of the early alphabet more useful. I could have gone on forever about B and D. (I hear you, and I won’t.) I shall march swiftly towards the end.

There was Marshmallow the cat. Very white and very fluffy. He was the boss of another second cousin, somewhere in Toronto. I lost my bearings, so have no idea where.

Quesadillas kept us going. Rather like my first ever meal in England in 1966, a cheese and tomato sandwich at Liverpool Street, the best quesadilla was the one in the middle of the night – GMT – on arrival in San Antonio, when I sat as far away from the window as possible on the 18th floor. Would have been even better had we had a bottle opener (which someone assured me we’d not need), in which case there would have been Mexican cola too. Could it be that the strain of travelling makes the first meal better, or were these in fact tastier than the rest?

Was intrigued to discover that Montréal’s airport code is YUL. Sounds so Christmassy. And they had the three letters plastered over some lovely, snowy posters. Snowy scenery, not posters. I mean, posters of. You know what I mean.

Which brings us to the letter Z. Zips. Our first zip came in the elevator at the New Orleans Hilton, when a fellow passenger, on discovering were were alone for the last bit, asked us to zip her up. She’d dressed beautifully for a Halloween night on the town, but travelling alone she hadn’t managed the last inch at the back. I held her hair while Daughter zipped.

Miss Martha, on the other hand, was our attendant on the Amtrak train from New Orleans to New York. All 36 hours of it. Apparently this paragon sleeps when she gets home each week. She likes it better than the chicken farm she used to run. Anyway, she’s that archetypal motherly person who looks after you, working out what to feed vegetarians when Amtrak’s sole veggie dish is not on board. Not to mention when just outside D.C. the train ‘banged’ and juddered to a rather sudden stop, leaving us standing for an hour, before stopping again. They had tried to repair the broken ‘thingy’ between the cars with duct tape. The second time they went with Miss Martha’s zip ties. She never travels without them. They held, all the way to D.C. itself where proper engineers stood by to offer something longer lasting.

That got us to New York, where the car drivers zip in and out of the traffic all the time. I don’t know how they do it, but it seems to work, and no one appears to suffer zip rage or anything.

Forgot to mention the Alamo on day one. It’s in San Antonio. But you knew that. You probably also know what it is. Quite nice, actually.


Let’s speed that alphabet up, shall we?

French Market or French Quarter? I was sure that for New Orleans Daughter would rate the French Quarter highest, but no, she wanted the market. It was nice. I had a narrow escape, but didn’t actually buy that colourful shoulder bag. I could have. But I sort of realised I’d never use it, and the last thing my bedroom door needs is another bag hanging on the back of it.

It was warm. Sunny. At least the market was shaded. And at the café Du Monde it was practically windy, by which I mean it was open to all sides and there was a welcome breeze. We sat at the table next to where they sat in the first episode of NCIS:New Orleans. Because of course we were there because of it. We even walked past the brick wall with the door in it that was ‘home’ to the NOLA federal agents. The French Quarter was quaint. Interesting. But hot.

We had some grilled cheese, in what was a beautifully cool café. Temperature wise, I mean. There was plenty of grilled cheese during our three weeks. Sometimes a witch has to live off bread/stodge with cheese.

At the Guggenheim they thought we were Glaswegians! Which was sweet of them. Tried telling the nice man in the gift shop that there is more to Scotland than Glasgow, but… He was clearly a learned man, because he knew about Louisiana. The art museum in Denmark, not the state. The weird thing was that we had talked about it just the previous day. And yes, my walls are white.

The one place we had no need for grilled cheese was in Montréal. Cultured people with really good food; not all of it meat, either. Let me recommend the Gandhi. I didn’t think there would be a decent Indian restaurant somewhere like that, but there was. Their Tarka Dal was so excellent I had to have it a second time (in two days), and the naan leftover I spirited away in my own doggy bag, tasted fantastic even 24 hours later when I was safely back at Bookwitch Towers and shouldn’t have needed any emergency reserve food. Couldn’t resist the Ras Malai for dessert, having just read about it in Vaseem Khan’s The Lost Man of Bombay.

The hotel room in San Antonio had a surprisingly versatile coffee machine, which when cleaned up made passable water for tea. Brought our own teabags, and after sending the Resident IT Consultant out for milk, life was almost perfect. He went to H-E-B, which I believe is a local chain of grocery shops. I sent along a M&S carrier bag, because one is green (and so is the bag). Then I got annoyed with him because that meant he didn’t buy one of their gorgeous Halloween bags!

This was rectified the next evening when the bridal party handed them out as goody bags in the bar where we hung out. So all was fine.

So, Halloween. It’s big over there, isn’t it? And where better to spend it than in New Orleans? Even flying there was different. The flight attendants had dressed up. The staff member on the gate was dressed as Waldo (as in ‘Where’s Waldo?’). The ‘bag lady’ at check-in wore the craziest gaudy outfit.

Pumpkins and skulls and cobwebs everywhere, and this is just the airport. New Orleans itself was heavily decorated.

But this is the thing; the next morning all the formerly orange lamp posts wore Christmas garlands. Those elves had been busy.

Elevators. Again.

I prefer elevators not to take me to the 17th floor. I mean, I prefer for me not to need them to do this. Elevators are obviously a better solution than walking all the way up. First hotel I was given a room on floor 17. I closed my eyes, prayed and survived the night, before going downstairs and begging to get something a little further down. I even arranged my facial features into a semblance of a smile, to look friendlier and maybe be more successful. Five was the lowest they go. I was happy with five. But still needed to use the elevator to get there. The ones they had clanked like wooden boxes being dragged up manually by someone.

Elevators continued being an issue, but always a new issue in each place. Next hotel had five lifts, unless you stayed on 16 or above, in which case there were faster ones to get you started. But it would have helped if all were in operation. Two lifts for the period when hundreds of new guests arrive is a little frugal. It took us half an hour to go down four floors, get cups of tea, and travel back four floors.

By Toronto there were more elevators than customers.

Elton John was there. In San Antonio. On his farewell tour we hit town on the same date. We had the wedding, he had his 65 000 fans. But somehow we all fitted into the same elevators.

It’s generally a nice thing to see real people when you’re away, so for New York I had arranged to meet blogger Monica Edinger, who has been writing Educating Alice. I’ve been aware of Monica for years, with some direct contact, and knew she lives in Manhattan. In fact, she lives in what I would term the archetypal New York apartment block. Very New York, in other words. As was her little dog, Ruby. We talked picture books and travelling, and Daughter turned out to be best versed and kept me afloat. (They’ve been to the same places.)

Last but not least there was Cousin E, who lives near Cousin C. She’s often more tied up with ‘life’, so it was a special bonus to visit Cousin E for a chilly but sunny afternoon tea in her garden. This was because of concern over Covid, but as I said, we have had two winters of cold meals outside, and we’d love to sit in her garden. It’s a nice garden, too. While one can sometimes conjure up what houses might look like, I had not been able to imagine the outside. E’s husband D had been baking, which was very kind of him. Also briefly saw their son J, so that was three new face-to-face moments. Well worth the efforts of getting to Canada.

There’s more to D

than how you dress.

Dogs for instance. New York in particular seemed to be full of them. Dog parks. Dog enclosures, where dogs met their doggy friends.

Doormen. You read in books how they whistle for a cab for you. I always wondered how they could be heard above the general din of traffic. Or distance. They have whistles… Very loud ones at that.

The drivers would have to be deaf not to hear them. We only used one taxi. That was the one where the driver took us to the wrong hotel. All the rest of the time we used Ubers. Which, if you’d told me this some years ago, I would not have believed I’d be doing. But they work. You don’t have to speak the language and you don’t need to have ready money to pay in cash. And no need for whistling.

With my dodgy knees I wouldn’t have wanted to venture into the subway, or run after any buses. So cars it was. And, you see a lot from a vehicle, saving you having to walk to experience. We saw more of mid-Texas and of New York by being driven. Sometimes in what felt like the middle of nowhere, or actually on Fifth Avenue.

Drugs… At risk of running out of paracetamol, I ventured out in Toronto to the conveniently placed pharmacy opposite the hotel. They were very nice in there, and very helpful. They also sold me the most expensive paracetamol I’ve ever encountered. But as I said, they were nice, and they didn’t try to cheat me out of my cream cheese or anything.

Drinking… That wasn’t always easy. Our Amtrak compartments were positively awash with bottles of water, and the attendants brought drinks – almost – day and night. But this needing to remember to ask for hot tea, and then to ask for milk with it, and get cream. Dragging ourselves to the nearest Starbucks in New York and finding it closed! We were thirsty! Empty fridges where you could put your own beverages. The full Deco fridge with overpriced alcohol.

Oh well. I moan a lot, don’t I?

Diners. They were fun. Tom’s Diner on Broadway stands out. Could have gone to many more, but there wasn’t time.

D.C. The train took us through the middle of D.C. although rather a lot of it was in a tunnel. But we craned our necks and saw a few snippets of famous landmarks, so we felt like we’d almost been.

The train in Canada brought us close to where Cousin Dahlia lives. We sort of waved as we passed, because she was unable to meet us. But it helps having seen her ‘neighbourhood’.

And you don’t want to be disabled. I know that’s obvious, but we were taken aback when arriving in Montréal to find they don’t have an elevator from the platform. They did have a charming member of staff who, when he saw us, waved us through a side door and then stopped everyone else crowding onto the up escalator and sent us up first… Was it that we looked particularly classy, or just infirm? He even had a man at the top pulling us off the escalator, luggage and all.