Tag Archives: Anne Holm

Refugee reads

The other night, I was suddenly reminded of Anne Holm’s I Am David. This lovely, lovely story has always been on my ‘journey book’ list. But it is also a refugee kind of story. And worth reading again.

I won’t lie. A publisher presented me with a list of their refugee books, and many of them are excellent. But I will let my mind wander of its own here, and see what I come up with. It will probably mean I forget a really important one, but…

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr. I see from the comments that Judith wanted a cuckoo clock. It brings a whole more human scale to the refugee issue.

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles, told by Enaiatollah Akbari to Fabio Geda. Enaiatollah who’s a real refugee, but who was also refused a visa to come to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Oh, those fears that everyone will want to come and live here illegally…

Like the poor souls we meet in Eoin Colfer’s and Andrew Donkin’s Illegal. All that suffering.

Life in refugee camps is no picnic, and The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon is a hard read. Necessary, but harrowing. Or you can read books by Elizabeth Laird and the Deborah Ellis stories from Afghanistan.

In No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton the refugees have arrived, but don’t know if they will be allowed to stay. You need to adapt, but with no guarantee that it will be worth it.

A Candle in the Dark by Adèle Geras is almost happy by comparison. It’s Kristallnacht and Kindertransport territory, but when we read that book we believed we were improving year by year. Yes, it was bad back then, but no more…

Like the true story told by Eva Ibbotson, by one refugee about another. Still makes me want to cry.

He knew Stieg

‘Who’s that with them?’ said Daughter as we saw Kurdo Baksi and his chair Peter Guttridge hovering just outside the door before Kurdo’s event on Sunday night. ‘It looks like Alan Macniven,’ she continued. It was. So there we were, about to listen to Stieg Larsson’s friend and colleague Kurdo Baksi, when Son’s university tutor turned up as our second interpreter for the day.

That was a coincidence, and so was Daughter’s presence. I had secured a press ticket to this sold out event with the utmost difficulty. And then when we interrupted Kurdo’s ice cream licking earlier in the day he simply said he’d fix another ticket… And he did. It’s probably not the only thing he has ever fixed.

After dinner we waited for Kurdo’s photocall, and couldn’t help noticing that photographer Murdo McLeod had just left. So no Murdo for Kurdo. (Sorry. I just had to say that.)

Kurdo Baksi

Kurdo is nothing if not a showman. He claimed to have had to learn to perform and to answer questions when helping his father as a child. He is funny. The subject of his now dead friend could be seen as just sad, but Kurdo joked about most things. Things are easier to hear if you are laughing. It could also be easier to sneak things by if told as a joke. I gather he has been known to make things up, but then we probably all have at some point. And the truth looks different depending on who you are.

His book Stieg Larsson, My Friend is admirably short, and I imagine it contains much of what Kurdo told us about on Sunday night. Stieg put his own good characteristics into Mikael Blomkvist, and his bad sides into Lisbeth Salander. Someone asked if that meant Stieg had Asperger Syndrome. Personally I feel that’s very plausible, but unfortunately the question referred to AS as a learning difficulty, so Kurdo denied it and said Stieg was perfectly well. And it’s not the same thing, and clearly he wasn’t well. Something to do with the twenty coffees a day and the chain-smoking.

Umeå University recently asked for money for a chair in Stieg’s name, which Kurdo was amused by, seeing as the university had refused to accept him for a course in journalism many years ago. But ever the optimist Kurdo felt it was good, or there would have been no move to Stockholm, and no Millennium books.

During all this Peter Guttridge was left sitting there with little opportunity to join in. Kurdo started off with a lengthy monologue, and he did this in English which was anything but perfect, but still done very well. Alan Macniven was only called on in a few emergencies.

Kurdo Baksi

The trouble with men like Kurdo is that they are so damned reasonable. Peter asked about the suggestion from Eva Gabrielsson that Kurdo’s book is slanderous, and he agreed. He has at all times tried to be friends with all parties in this ugly story, and feels he can’t stop talking to the Larsson men to please Eva.

He even said he believes the new Hollywood film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is better than the Swedish film. This is without having seen it, because he doesn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to attend the premiere in Hollywood.

You can go a long way on charm.

And he did seem to be pleased to have found a Swede in Charlotte Square. But I wish he hadn’t put me on the spot with a question on whether Anne Holt is Norwegian. She is, but her name is awfully identical to Danish Anne Holm.

When he got going on the subject of Stieg and women, he stopped abruptly, causing Peter to point out ‘you can’t just stop there!’ Well, he did.

You might be best to read the book for all the facts. It’s expensive, but will no doubt give Stieg Larsson fans a bit more to think about.

There are worse things than crocodiles

Can you imagine a civilised European country that would refuse entry to David? That’s David, as in I Am David, by Anne Holm. It’s one of my top hankie books, only recently matched by In the Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda, about Enaiatollah Akbari. The main difference between David and Enaiatollah is that David is fictional. And nicely Danish.

This isn’t the first time I’m mentioning immigration on here, and it won’t be the last either. At least not while some countries believe they are so irresistible that absolutely everyone would prefer to come and live in them, stopping at nothing to achieve their goal.

Did I ever mention the council employee in my borough who checked whether I had any undesirable relatives who might flock to Britain in search of untold riches, and I don’t know what else, if they gave me a National Insurance number? It offended me deeply, and I doubt that even had my elderly aunts been desperate to move to England, that they would have gone about it by getting me to find someone to marry, so that fifteen years later they could join me in my foreigner-‘friendly’ new country.

Anyway, here I am, complete with NI number and everything, and not an unwanted aunt in sight. This weekend I’m heading north, to take in a week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. (Typing this just now, my attention was caught by the word ‘international’. I think it means something involving several countries.)

So, I was very disappointed to find this information yesterday:  ‘Enaiatollah Akbari, whose story has been so movingly told by Fabio Geda in “In the Sea There Are Crocodiles”, has “…met an obstacle this week that he could not conquer: the UK visa system” and will be linked in to his Edinburgh Festival event by video. 5pm Sunday 21st Aug.’

I loved this book, and I had really been looking forward to the event. It will most likely still be good, with the remaining foreigner they are allowing in. The thing is, Fabio Geda is Italian, and a citizen of an EU country. Enaiatollah Akbari is presumably still an Afghan refugee with the right to remain in Italy. But no right to enter the UK.

What do they imagine he’d do? Stay?

I doubt he’d want to, but if he did, this country ought to be proud to have him. I can’t think of a nicer role model.

So we’ll miss Enaiatollah in Edinburgh. Whoever decided he couldn’t come here ought to be ashamed.  I hope I can find somewhere else that will welcome him with open arms.

(This caused me to think back 29 years, and the immigration officer at Heathrow. I remember his superior tone when enquiring if the Resident IT Consultant was born in England, because it’s a well know fact that us ghastly foreigners stick together. I had to admit that, no, he wasn’t…)

The Ann(e)s have it

When I first came up with the possibly brilliant idea of inviting guest bloggers on here, I knew there had to be some logic to the whole thing. Obviously, people have to be intelligent and witty. But there also had to be a reason they had been invited, other than that I wanted to skive off for the day, getting lazy in my old age.

Declan Burke

My guests need to belong, somehow. I clearly had to start with the blog-mother herself, Meg Rosoff, which I did last month. As my second guest I just had to have Declan Burke, who was the first person ever to link to Bookwitch. A complete stranger, but such a very serendipitous find, when it comes to cyberspace friendship and daily giggles when visiting Crime Always Pays. I like to think that it was Siobhan Dowd who introduced us.

So, I just had to have Declan. But I knew March wasn’t the best of months for him, with far too many birthdays to bake cakes for and dolls to wrap up. But the lovely man has delivered his guest post, and what an appropriate post it is:

“The first time I went to Sweden, for a friend’s wedding, I was caught unawares by the practice of taking one’s shoes off when you enter someone’s house. This is largely because, culturally speaking, I’m something of a plank; it never occurred to me that the Swedes, like the Irish, might not be blissfully ignorant of the consequences of tracking the filth and grime of the outside world across their beautiful hardwood floors. I panicked, of course, not being able to remember in the moment if the socks I’d put on that morning had holes in them (I wasn’t married then). Would anyone notice? How could they not? Would I have to go barefoot and ask for the vegetarian option, and hope they thought I was a hippy?

Happily, as a surreptitious examination revealed, the socks had no holes, and the awful prospect of the vegetarian option receded, as nightmares eventually do.

But here’s the thing. When someone invites you into their home – or onto their blog, as Ms Witch in her infinite generosity has done – there’s always some variation on the holey socks issue to worry about. How best to be a good guest? The Book Witch concentrates on young adult fiction; I’m a crime writer, who runs a blog that features (a) Irish crime writing and (b) shameless self-promotion, and not always in that order.

So Ms Witch’s invitation threw me into a tizzy. Should I write about contemporary young adult fiction, about which I know even less than domestic Swedish customs? Should I try to find a young adult crime novel, and write about that? Should I just panic, and rush outside into the metaphorical snow in my holey socks?

Of course, very few crime fiction readers started out reading crime fiction. We’re all, with cultural variations, weaned on nursery rhymes and fairy tales and work our way up through the intoxicating tales of ‘Peter and Jane Have a Picnic’ equivalents, eventually graduating to the ‘classics’, in my case Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, and the heavily abridged versions of Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, etc. I developed a passion for Richmal Compton’s ‘Just William’ stories, and the boarding school japes of Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings and his sidekick Darbyshire. Actually, boarding schools were a staple of my early reading – Malory Towers and St. Clare’s also featured heavily, although it’s probably not politically correct for a grown man to say such things these days.

When you’re a child, though, reading is much more of an adventure than as an adult. You read without prejudice or preference, without fear; you’ll read anything you can understand. It matters not a whit as to how well (or otherwise) a book is written; all you care about is the story, and finding out what happens next.

Anyway, at some point in my reading development – I can’t remember my exact age, but I probably wasn’t much older than the hero – I read Anne Holm’s I Am David (aka North to Freedom). It was, I suppose, my first ‘serious’ book. I didn’t know at the time that the camp David escapes from at the beginning of the story is a concentration camp; the cultural signifier of his name being David, and of his escaping from such a camp, was lost on me; it would be some years yet, happily enough, before I learned the word ‘holocaust’.

It didn’t matter. Anne Holm couldn’t have changed my life more profoundly had she dropped a depth charge down my throat.

For one, the idea that someone my own age could find himself in such desperate danger was completely alien to me. Despite all the bad-tempered smugglers the Famous Five encountered, Enid Blyton’s pages never crackled with the same tension. The abridged version of Treasure Island doesn’t exactly amplify the dread and terror Long John Silver inspires in Jim Hawkins.

Here was David, my own age, who was in grievous danger of being killed – killed! – if he made one wrong move, and simply for being who and what he was. The notion was virtually incomprehensible, and all the more terrifying for existing in the shadowy borders of what I understood the world to be.

There was something else that was new too. Holm’s oblique way of telling the story, which is seen through David’s eyes, and thus filtered through his limited understanding of the new cultures he experienced, was a revelation. It also hugely enhanced the tension; at any moment, you felt, a heavy hand might land on David’s shoulder.

On top of all that, there was the mind-boggling nature of David’s epic journey, from Bulgaria to Greece, onwards to Italy and Switzerland. At that point in my life I’d yet to ride on a train, yet here was this chap, more or less my own age, traversing the continent, jumping aboard ship as a stowaway, hiking over the snowy Alps. Resourceful wasn’t the word for it.

Purists might sneer at the callow David’s very resourcefulness; they can point to some blatant deus ex machina moments, particularly when David spots a picture of his mother during his sojourn in Switzerland, and learns that his host knows his mother.

I’ll give you one guess as to how much I knew about deus ex machina at that age, and how much I cared. All I cared about was that David – my David, by then – would reach safety and find his mother.

I can’t say that I Am David was the point at which something deep in my subconscious switched on, the ultimate consequence of which was that I eventually wrote and published a novel of my own. These things are mercurial, nebulous; a combination of nature and nurture, of a house well-stocked with books, of the right teacher at the right time, of a fragile ego that requires, perversely enough, the approval of strangers.

I can’t even say that the epic quest of I Am David is the kind of bedrock tale on which I build my own stories these days. All I know is that when I think back to my earliest reading, I Am David stands out above everything else like one of those Alpine peaks where David almost freezes to death, the moment when I realised that books weren’t just stories that played out like movies inside your head, but had the power to churn your stomach and scar your heart too.

I Am David, by Anne Holm. Had she called it We Are David she might have been even closer to the truth.


Declan Burke is the author of Eightball Boogie, The Big O and Crime Always Pays. He is the editor of the forthcoming collection Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century (Liberties Press). He is currently wearing socks with no holes (other than the ones built into the basic sock design).”

Beats Watership Down any day, doesn’t it? (That’s what Declan first said he might blog about. I’ve never known him to say one thing and then actually do exactly that. Tangents. Nice things. Going off on, and so forth.) Wonder if he even knows this is a Danish book? Halfway to being Swedish and all that.

And an early Happy Birthday to Princess Lily for Saturday. May there be unlimited dolls and new shoes for you!

Last night I dreamed

that I sat next to Ann Pilling. My dream was set somewhere holiday-ish where the whole witch family had gathered, and there were loads of children’s authors. I ended up sitting next to someone by the name of Ann, but it took me ages to find out who she was.

I wouldn’t be telling you about my dream, if it wasn’t for what Daughter did next. She needed occupying, so being a bookwitch I suggested reading. Of course. I also suggested Michelle Magorian’s A Little Love Song, but sadly it has turned into one of these suggestions where Offspring have to say no, just to keep up tradition. So she went off to see what else there might be and came back with Vote For Baz, by none other than Ann Pilling. Witchy.

I don’t know the book myself, as it’s one of the review cast-offs from Librarian Husband of Cousin, which has been hanging around for a few years. But it was good enough to result in Daughter not doing anything else for a whole day. But she would like it known that the cover sucks.

When Son and Dodo arrived, they proudly mentioned they’d brought a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, with a view to reminding themselves what it’s about. I told them they were idiots, as it’s the only Harry Potter we already have here on holiday, so a waste of a kilo of luggage allowance. They remedied this by reading a copy each, side by side. Then they went to the library for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The library had no other Harry Potters in English except The Deathly Hallows, and they even had two copies of it. So they have side-by-sided HP7 as well.

The library has been useful in other ways too. Daughter had to have some more audio books to listen to at night, so she found an Alex Rider and Philip Pullman’s The Scarecrow on CD. It’s free and you can keep them for four weeks.

Other than this, we have tidied the book collection a very little. Over the years we have carried spares and jumble sale books for those desperate days when you just have to have something else to read. But unless we are to hang on to lots of old books for any grandchildren we may have, we have quite frankly outgrown some of them. They are now sitting in the Salvation Army bag, waiting to go.

Holiday shelves

Daughter wanted to relieve the Salvation Army of a second-hand bookcase to put them in, but I felt we didn’t need more shelves. We need fewer books. I prune and re-order every now and then, and we have a passable collection by now. In fact, my former neighbour used to let herself in with the spare key and borrow books every winter. Well, I always wanted to be a librarian.

One book that is going nowhere, is I Am David, which Daughter read a few days ago, at long long last. She asked about the title, which she thought she had overheard when her brother listened to the audio book. They are the last words of the book, and just thinking about it made me want to cry a little. She finished the book and then told me she could find nothing sad…

What’s a witch to do?

I Am David

It took about two minutes for the tears to get going. We’re back with my journey books, and to me this is the ultimate journey book. I Am David by Anne Holm is a triple-hanky-at-the-end story, and it works on me every time.

First published in Danish in 1963, it’s unusual for having become so popular in English, as translations never seem to do so well. On the other hand, the book is all about the beauty of languages, and if it doesn’t sell you on the idea of learning a few more, then I don’t know what will.

Back to the crying. I only needed to reacquaint myself with the book a little, so leafed through it very quickly. But it didn’t help; I still felt soppy and sad. I remember listening to the audio book while doing the ironing years ago, and feeling exactly the same then.

Published as it was after years of the cold war, it’s hardly surprising that it starts in some unnamed country in southern Europe, on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. The young boy David has grown up in a kind of concentration camp, when one night the opportunity to escape turns up.

He journeys, often on foot, through Greece and across to Italy, and then the length of Italy towards Switzerland, Germany, all the time with Denmark as his goal. He is helped by his somewhat unlikely command of languages, his good manners and by being a generally really lovely person. But setting all that aside, it’s still a remarkable journey. He makes some enemies, but mostly he meets good people who help him towards his goal.

I don’t know how it works for young readers today; whether they can relate to old, but recent history like this. It’s too wonderful a book for it not to be put in front of new readers.