Tag Archives: Ulf Stark

Bookwitch bites #143

‘If the bacon flashes…’ It was late. I was tired. And some sign appeared to mention flashing bacon at Edinburgh airport. The second time I looked it said beacon. Whatever. I need to give up careless reading.

Holiday postal yield

We arrived home in the middle of the night. Thank goodness for 24 hour M&S where you can get your milk and juice and bread. Not to mention blueberries. Possibly also bacon. The postman hadn’t been too busy carting vanfuls of books to Bookwitch Towers while we were gone. Almost half of what you can see here arrived five minutes before we left. We had a quick look, in case there was anything that warranted a change of holiday reading plans. Yeah, I know the armchair should be for sitting in, but the books had to go somewhere.

Our leftover holiday milk was left (obviously) for Son who took over after us. His route from Helsingborg on Friday had him meandering between visiting the New Librarian, picking up Dodo in Copenhagen and [finally!] meeting ‘his’ author Andreas Norman, a mere three years – or is it four? – after translating Into A Raging Blaze. Seems selfies are the way to go these days. (My arms are too short.)

Andreas Norman and Ian Giles

On the home front the Carnegie Medal was busy being given to Ruta Sepetys on Monday. I wish I had read her winning book, Salt to the Sea, but despite no one sending it my way, I am sure it was a worthy winner. I’ve loved Ruta’s other books, and the refugee topic is as important today as it was in 1945.

Ending on a sad note, Swedish author Ulf Stark died a week ago. Having spent most of my life fairly unaware of him, it’s been different since I met Ulf in Manchester five years ago. There is never a good age to die, but Ulf was definitely too young to go at 72. Goodbye, and thanks for the singing.

Ulf Stark

And these days he reads to the dog

I was the only one to get the joke when Ulf Stark sang his version of the Lucia song. His translator, Julia Marshall, wisely steered clear of that minefield. But it was a fun version, and one I’d not come across before. Obviously they weren’t complete morons back in the dark ages before I was a child.

Royal Exchange Theatre

Ulf came to Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre on Tuesday morning, to talk to school children (and one elderly witch) as part of The Children’s Bookshow with Siân Williams. I’m uncertain whether the children had heard quite that much nonsense about farting from such an old adult ever before. They seemed delighted. In fact, were it not for his wild and white hair, I’d have said Ulf is about ten years of age.

Ulf Stark and Julia Marshall

Before the event I had wondered what language Ulf would be using, thinking it’s always hard to grab – and keep – the attention of children when you’re not a fluent English speaker. And that will be why they had imported the translator of his books all the way from New Zealand. Ulf would offer a short burst of incomprehensible Swedish (although he did say he hoped they would have learned by the end) which Julia transformed into something a bit more normal sounding. Apart from the singing. Or the whistling. She didn’t do those.

Ulf Stark

He’s blue and yellow. These days they are hopefully only the colours of the Swedish flag, but as a child he’d be patriotically coloured due to having an older brother, who did what older brothers often do. Come into your room and fart. Hit you and squeeze you until you’re flag-coloured.

Now that Ulf is older, he writes lots of books, one of which was handed over to baby Princess Estelle, Duchess of Östergötland (they learn to read very early over there). Ulf reckons his father would have been proud of him. He was so very lefthanded as a child that all his father could think he’d be fit for was as an excavator operator. He himself wanted to be a boxer.

Ulf talked about his writing, and warned people never to dedicate their books to girlfriends/boyfriends, because the time it takes to get a book into print means they will have ditched you long before, and that is so embarrassing. But it was ‘only’ a poetry collection, which he sincerely hopes none of us will ever read.

When Ulf found out about a writing award worth around £5000, he took six months off work to write a book to win the award. (And it seems he actually did, too.) After that, he didn’t need to go back to work. His first book was about a girl who is mistaken for a boy. Now he writes about things he knows, because he has never been a girl.

He told us about the background to another of his books, when his father invited a prince to dinner. His mother cleaned behind the radiators (that is where princes look) and hunted out a cookbook for princely food.

The background to Can you whistle, Johanna? was from when he took his small children to the north of Sweden for the snow, only to find there was none. So he showed them how to write a book instead, which the children tired of almost immediately. Ulf soldiered on, having dismissed his first idea of writing a rubbish book. And now it has become regular entertainment on television every Christmas Eve.

Julia and Ulf took turns to read from the book, and Ulf whistled the tune, so we’d know what the whole story was about.

There were plenty of questions afterwards, and we learned that thick books take longer to write, his illustrator (Anna Höglund) keeps having babies when he just wants her to draw pictures, and with his children grown up, Ulf has to resort to reading to the dog.

Ulf Stark

Long queues to buy Ulf’s books and to have them signed. I rarely see events book stalls selling out, but that seems to be what Waterstones did. Great that the children were interested. And great that they were taken to the Royal Exchange in the first place. I watched as some of the early groups arrived, and the way they looked and gasped at the theatre itself. Let’s hope they’ll be back for something else one day.

Siân Williams and MLF interviewer

While waiting to speak to Ulf I chatted to Siân about what she does, and we agreed that we need to see more foreign children’s books in Britain. Ulf did offer to send me the 400 or so he gets sent every year, but that’s not quite what we had in mind.

It was good to speak to Ulf, although I can’t remember what we talked about. The Gothenburg Book Fair, where he spoke at the weekend. Kulturrådet (Arts Council) where he gives away money after being sent 400 books to read. Touring all over the world. That sort of thing.

Ulf Stark

The people from the Manchester Literature Festival were there, and so was one of ‘my’ young men from Waterstones. It was a regular get-together, really. And Siân and I will have to change the world of books, somehow.

Can you whistle, Johanna?

The above title makes perfect sense to me, because it’s a quote from a song title (Kan du vissla Johanna?). That’s why it puzzled me so much when it appeared on the invoice which accompanied all those books I received some months ago, that weren’t for me. Because deep in this parcel madness, I could tell that with such a title, this really did have something to do with me, after all.

When the correct books arrived, all became clear. They were by Ulf Stark (his name was missing on that list) and Can you whistle, Johanna? is one of his best known books.

I say that, without actually knowing very much about Ulf. But a witch can read up on people, who have decided to become big and famous after her departure from Sweden. Ulf has written lots of books. This one, about the whistling Johanna, has been filmed and is shown on television every Christmas, meaning he is almost as big as that Disney chap. (That’s all we got in my day, you know.)

It is a very sweet little story, featuring two boys aged about seven. (And because of their age, you can work out that this must be set in the past, when little boys could roam freely and parentlessly. I’m guessing Ulf might be setting his books when he was a little boy, in which case we’re talking the 1950s.)

One boy, Ulf, tells his friend Berra about having a grandfather. It’s quite nice. So Berra wants one too, and they go to the place where you get them; the old people’s home. The prospective grandfather is happy to be adopted (not that he was actually asked), and there follows a brief period of ‘grand’-relations between the man and the boy.

It is very sweet. As I said. It ends in tears, and you can probably work out why. The question is who gained the most from their brief kinship, Berra or ‘his’ grandfather?

Ulf Stark, Can you whistle, Johanna?

(I found the film on YouTube, but came to the conclusion I didn’t want to ruin my book experience with the film. Yet, anyway.)

Interesting, and charming, illustrations by Anna Höglund.

Are those for me?

No, is the short answer. They were not.

It was just not very easy at all to work out why someone had sent me 31 books, two each of fifteen titles and one single title. Even if I feel enthusiastic about reviewing, this looked like overkill. It looked like a load of books for a bookshop.

I started my investigation, because I suspected someone somewhere was not only missing their 31, but staring in bafflement at the five (?) that were really meant for me. Or perhaps my five went somewhere different again.

The invoice was mine, but the titles looked unfamiliar, so I had no idea why I wanted them. One looked so Swedish (albeit in English) that I felt a bit funny about it.

Someone connected to the 31 slowly sorted things out. At least I think they did. I was asked to pack the 31 and have them ready for collection. And I was promised my five books. When the five arrived, the penny dropped. I had asked for them. I just didn’t know the titles, and there was no author mentioned on the invoice.

(He is Ulf Stark, a Swedish author, who will be coming my way later this year. Hopefully. And the books were there to educate me.)

All that remained was for the others to be reunited with their expectant owners.