My Lockdown Books: Thirty Three

Maggie McKinley comes from a high-rise flat in one of Glasgow’s overspill estates.  James Fraser is from a town house in the Georgian New Town of Edinburgh.  They meet in the neutral space of Inverness-shire one long hot summer.  She is visiting her Granny in her unimproved cottage; he and his family are staying in their holiday home nearby.  It’s scarcely Across the Barricades but their burgeoning relationship is threatened by their backgrounds and families.

Joan Lingard is rightly best-known for her Kevin and Sadie series that begins with The Twelfth Day of July but the Maggie quartet, set predominantly in Scotland, deserves a wider readership.  It came to my attention back in the early 1980s when it was televised.  My memory (which could be well be faulty) is that it was shown on BBC2 around 6pm and that I stumbled across it inadvertently.  (Its theme tune was by BA Robertson and some of it is still in my head.)  I know it is true that as soon as the first episode I saw ended, I rushed to Lossiemouth Library to see if I could find the books upon which the TV programme was based.

Thematically, the books are structured using the history of the Highland Clearances.  Their titles nod to this: The Clearance, The Resettling, The Pilgrimage, The Reunion. Only The Pilgrimage was on the shelves that evening so my introduction to the books was a bit of a game of catch-up.  I loved The Pilgrimage though, which sees James and Maggie in the Highlands searching for her family history.

The truth is that I loved these books so much that I wrote to Joan Lingard, partly to tell her that and partly to remonstrate with her over the fourth book.  It offended my romantic sensibilities although, objectively I know – and probably even knew then – that Joan had written the right story.

An interesting footnote: when I took my copy of The Pilgrimage off my shelves to photograph it, I discovered that it had been signed by Kirsty Miller who played Maggie in the BBC serial.  I don’t remember how that came to happen.  I do remember writing to the BBC though and being sent some stills from the show!

Book Festivals and Book Launches

Over the last few weeks I’ve met and listened to about as many authors as I could cope with!  Without exception they’ve been lovely people and have had interesting books to talk about but I have to say that, when Friday came and went, I was glad to think that I had a whole week before I had another book event to attend.  It seems you can have too much of a genuinely good thing!

The main reason for my being authored out is the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  On my own account I heard a whole raft of great authors.  Some of them (whisper it!) were even talking about books written for adults.  Alexander McCall Smith was as seemingly random and entertaining as ever although I suspect his performance was more planned that it appeared.  Menzies Campbell was Raj Persaud’s guest – and a fine one he was too.  A politician with opinions he was willing to share, no less.  Waving my chair’s pass, I sneaked in to hear Margaret Drabble.  I have to confess that I’ve never read any of her work but she was fascinating.  And, trying to keep up my knowledge of Norwegian culture, I went to hear Lars Saabye Christensen, talking about Beatles.  One of the most popular Norwegian books of the last quarter century, it’s just been translated into English. 

And then there were all the children’s authors.   I was chairing some events which meant I heard people I might not have chosen myself.  And what a good thing that was!  I enjoyed all the events I was involved in but I have to make special mention of two.  I was delighted to be chairing Elizabeth Laird.  As I’ve said before I have a very high opinion of her books.  It was a joy to hear her talk about The Witching Hour and to listen to all the questions the young people had.  The other mention goes to Michelle Paver, author of The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.  I had read the first book, Wolf Brother, when it came out about five years ago but hadn’t bothered to read the rest of the series.  However, before meeting her in Edinburgh, I read Ghost Hunter, the final book.  I’m still not hugely interested in the historical setting but I found myself engrossed by the book and involved with the characters.  And Michelle really brought the books to life in her excellent session where she expertly fielded some inspired questions.  Both of these authors signed copies of their books for ages afterwards and I stayed around to talk to the young people as they queued.  So-called experts who love to suggest that young people don’t read anything (worthwhile) these days should have been there.  A special mention here to the staff and pupils from Nairn Academy who left at 5.30am to be at the festival.

I chose to go and hear some children’s authors too.  I’ve heard Keith Gray speak a number of times but always at events I’ve organised so it was a pleasure to hear him in Edinburgh where, whatever happened, it wasn’t my responsibility.  He was as funny and interesting as ever, although I have had to take him to task for suggesting that librarians and dragons might appear in the same sentence!  I’ve been reading Joan Lingard’s books for thirty years and enjoying them for as long.  Her latest book was launched at this year’s festival.  What to Do about Holly is a good read and somehow reminded me of the Maggie quartet.  The story is completely different so it must be the atmosphere that is reminiscent.  The Maggie books remain my favourite of Joan’s and I was pleased to have a faint echo of them as I read about Holly.  I’ve saved the best till last, though.  I mean no disrespect to the other authors I heard when I say that this year’s Edinburgh book festival was made for me by the appearance of Judith Kerr.  As a child, I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and loved it.  When I was older, I read the other two books in the trilogy and, for me, these are her best books.  Yes, The Tiger who Came to Tea is good fun and Mog is a lovely cat but there is something special about Pink Rabbit.  Please go and read it if you haven’t already.  When I heard that Judith was appearing at the festival, I got very excited and bought a ticket as soon as they were available.  And she didn’t disappoint.  I am so pleased to have met her.

My last book event was on Friday evening when I went to the launch of The Keepers’ Daughter by Gill Arbuthnot.  I’d been sent a copy of the book by Gill’s agent, Kathryn Ross of Fraser Ross Associates, and I’m grateful for that as it was a great book.  It’s a sort of fantasy but set in a world which is completely recognisable.  The characters step immediately off the page and are people whose fate I can care about.  And in my head I have a map of the islands on which much of the action takes place.  Altogther this is a book I can heartly recommend.

So that’s it: my book-filled three weeks.  Actually, there was one other event but more of that later.  Ahead of me (less than a week ahead) is Stirling Council Libraries’ book festival, Off the Page.  Being responsible for the children’s programme, I’m approaching it with more trepidation than anticipation but I’m sure the authors at it will be just as good as those I’ve heard recently.  Full details can be found at www.stirling.gov.uk/offthepage but just let me mention here that we have this year’s winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal appearing – Catherine Rayner.  Now there’s a coup!

The Blog’s Name

I expect that some of you recognise the allusion in the title of my blog.  It’s to Lewis Carroll, of course, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

       ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’

I’ve always liked this quote and I do agree with Alice.  I think she’s right both literally and metaphorically.

Judging for the Kate Greenaway Medal opened a whole new world of books for me.  Up until then I hadn’t paid all that much attention to picture books.  I’d bought them for the library and occasionally for the children of friends but I hadn’t really studied them.  Some of my fellow judges were real experts on the subject and I learnt so much from them about how illustration (not just in picture books but in any book) enhances the reading experience.  I love the way the words and pictures in a book can tell different stories as in Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner by John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell.  And I am enchanted by the 1920s’ style used by Shirley Hughes in Ella’s Big Chance.

My enjoyment of a novel is definitely affected by the dialogue.  I don’t necessarily like a novel because it has lots of conversations but I do struggle if there are few.  I think that the reader learns so much about characters from the conversations they have and is more easily drawn into their world.  The opening lines of Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women is a classic case in point.

But the ‘pictures and conversations’ thing is true too metaphorically.  Good books paint pictures in the mind.  As a child, I was steeped in the Chalet School books of Elinor Brent-Dyer, especially those set in Austria.  I was in my late twenties before I ever went to the Achensee, the real-life setting of the early books in the series, but I had a remarkably accurate idea of what the lake and its surrounding villages looked like.  Equally, I have never visited Vienna but, having read The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson, I feel as though I have!  I can see, too, Anne Shirley cracking her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head in the Avonlea school (and I could before ever I saw either the BBC’s excellent adaptation of LM Montgomery’s book or Kevin Sullivan’s equally brilliant offering).

And a book with any lasting impact will always engage me in a debate – often with myself but sometimes with others!  It might be about the plot or characters or it could cause me to ponder the themes and issues raised.  One such book was The Garbage King by Elizabeth Laird which had a huge impact on me when I first read it.  Set in modern Ethiopia, it contrasts (but, oh, so subtly) the lives of two boys from opposite ends of the social scale.  It stayed in my head for ages afterwards.  I’ve even been known to debate books with their authors.  As a teenager, I wrote to Joan Lingard (and received a reply) to remonstrate with her about the way she ended her Maggie quartet.  And whenever I see Linda Newbery I try, with no real hope of success, to persuade her to write a sequel to the excellent Sisterland  because I so much want to know what happens to all the characters.

So, yes, for me there is no use of a book without pictures and conversations.