August is a busy time in the Great Big Jar household. It’s heading towards the end of the school holidays, bringing with it the excitement of the return to a new school year. The never ending rain is broken up with the odd day of sunshine amid the frantic search for missing plimsolls and gym shorts. However, there is always someone missing from our home for around two weeks of this month.
This is my time to delve into everything literary and embrace my love of books and the wonderful authors that write them. The welcoming doors of the Edinburgh International Book Festival finally opened on 15th August. My home from home. Come inside it said, the fire’s warm and the kettle’s boiled. Fill yer boots.
This year, the theme was translation so I scoured the immense programme and was immediately intrigued by the many diverse events that caught my eye. Here’s my journey…
Jeremy Strong was first on our list. An author that my youngest loves and was very taken with during the fun hour in the Main Theatre. We came away from this event with the knowledge that Rampaging Romans were fantastic at creating roads, wearing togas and being silly. Oh, and Jeremy let us into a little secret… all authors should have a fridge in their writing cave. Mainly to store chocolate and possibly the odd piece of fruit that would never be eaten.
My favourite quote from the event – Jeremy Strong “Kids, what do you think the Romans were good at?” Killing people, eating grapes and other violent things to do, apparently.
Swiftly followed by Translating Julia – a fantastic dramatic re-telling of What the Ladybird Heard with the help of Lydia Monks, Nick Sharratt, James Robertson and not forgetting the formidable Julia Donaldson. This event had them all taking part in the re-enactment and it was just brilliant. Fantastic to hear it in Scots ‘Whit the Clockleddy Heard’.
My favourite quote from the event – Lydia Monks “I have the best job in the world. I get to colour in all day”.
ONE OF SCOTLAND’S FINEST WRITERS
I was keen to hear Ali Smith talk about her new novel ‘How to be both’. It reminded me of the books I read when I was younger where you could choose where the story went, turn to page 86 if you want this to happen etc. A fantastic way to introduce something similar in the adult book market. Ali Smith is the humblest person I have ever heard at the book festival, she was amazed that she was in the main tent and that we had all taken the time out of our busy lives to see her. To top it all off, she has the most infectious laugh I have ever heard. Go and see her if you ever get the chance.
My favourite quote from the event – Ali Smith “I wake up feeling guilty. Now there’s a thought from our Catholic past” and “Books make us. They pull us together and give us life”.
STORIES THAT CONNECT US
Matt Haig is my super hero of all things literary. He wears his heart on his sleeve and says exactly what he thinks. He can be hounded for his views on the world but I appreciate his honesty and hope that he continues to try and make this world a better place to be. Patrick Ness spoke last year at the Siobhan O’Dowd Trust event and this year Matt had that honour. As ever, the event was filled with hope for the years ahead thanks to her legacy. Matt was as brilliant as ever and encouraged us all to be more understanding of the human soul. A request I will try my very best to do.
My favourite quote from the event – Matt Haig “Libraries are one of the few places left in the world that care more about you than your wallet”.
NOT ALWAYS CLOWNING AROUND
Comedians are a law unto themselves so I thought it would be a great idea to see one in the flesh. A real live man from the telly that really makes me laugh. None other than Paul Merton. Chaired by the even funnier Ruth Wishart, I had tears rolling down my cheeks by the end of the very quick hour. What a fantastic comedic duo they were. Paul regaled us with stories of his previous visits to Edinburgh and his stint in A& E with Hepatitis A which, when he came round from the anaesthetic, the doctors told him he got from the hospital food. Brilliant. What a very funny man. Ruth politely declined to appear on Who’s Line Is It Anyway, she would’ve given him a run for his money anyway.
My favourite quote from the event – Paul Merton”Ian Hislop’s family bought their first TV from Harrods. They asked to have the ITV button removed”.
TO READ OR NOT TO READ
A question that is possibly on the lips of many youngsters when confronted with yet more literacy homework. Dull boring books that they didn’t choose and yet they need to write an essay on why the main character has a blue toe and what effect said blue toe will have on his family. I’m exaggerating but you know what I mean. We all want them to enjoy reading. To devour books and not want them to end. To sneak a torch under the covers and read into the wee small hours before caught. Not everyone is the same though. Some need help to see the words, to stop them dancing on the page and messing with your mind. Dyslexia comes in all shapes and guises. A fact not lost on the panel that consisted of authors Keith Gray, Frank Cottrell Boyce and the managing director of Barrington Stoke, Mairi Kidd. A fascinating and passionate discussion followed the event. The audience, a few had chosen this event to air their views on what is/isn’t happening in schools, were up for the challenge of dissecting the stigma attached to having dyslexia and other reading issues. I am aware of the issues children face as I read with some pupils in my local school. Barrington Stoke is an amazing company that are bringing the reading world to children who might not have access to it. Simple, effective changes that mean the world.
My favourite quotes from the event – Keith Gray “Books are for life not just for homework” Frank Cottrell Boyce “I write what I want to write and then Barrington Stoke fix it”.
FROM PARADISE TO DR WHO
This next event was one that I was really looking forward to and I didn’t hesitate to add it to my ‘please let there be a ticket left’ list. Alison Kennedy is let loose on Dr Who. What’s not to love? I saw her last year where she read from her short story collection ‘All The Rage’. A brilliant, funny and sometimes sad snippet of life among the voices that whisper in her head. Put it on your ‘to read’ list. It’s fantastic. Anyway, I digress, back to Dr Who…
AL Kennedy is a HUGE Dr Who fan. Massive. So much so, that she apparently pestered them for years (“Pick me Dr Who” she said) before they finally agreed that she could write for them. They chose wisely in my opinion. Reading from the first few pages, you could hear a pin drop in the audience. That’s what I love about her the most, you can listen to her for hours. The way she reads her stories make you feel like you are actually there, looking over her shoulder as you type the words. Thankfully I am not on a golf course about to be eaten by a monster hiding in the bunkers.
My favourite quotes from the event – AL Kennedy “Daleks are armed with a sink plunger and a whisk and they need lino to move – so why are we so scared of them?” and “If Captain Ahab didn’t die at the end of Moby Dick, I would have him running a pub”.
THE WORLD OF NORM
Norm is the main character from a series of books that enthral young readers around the world. Jonathan Meres, is a fantastic author and all round good guy. His event was all-go from the start and had the audience laughing and cheering along with him. There were questions, jokes and a wee rendition on the keyboard. Turns out he only learned to play it shortly before the event! Norm is on his 9th book now and I really hope there are more to come. Be careful people, he has a clipboard and he’s not afraid to use it.
My favourite quote from the event – Jonathan Meres “Norm wouldn’t go into the wardrobe and find Narnia – it would be IKEA”.
BEST-SELLING BOOKS ABROAD
Crime novels are what I read when I’m not writing children’s stories. I love the tension and the ‘must check under the bed’ feeling you get from them. Peter May, the author of the Chess Men trilogy and Julia Donaldson were at my next event. And one that started off with a bang. I am very fortunate in that I can now say I have heard The Gruffalo in over 8 languages now. Julia’s entourage are to be commended for their show-stopping take on her award winning story. What I would give to live in her world for a day. Fascinating to learn that her Swedish translator is around 90 years old and wears orange linen suits. In the Snail and the Whale, the French were keen to find out about the snails feelings and liked the sentences shorter. A very funny discussion from her on the merits of publishing abroad when rhyming.
Peter May’s insight into how the Chess Men novels came to fruition was fascinating. None of the major UK publishers were interested so he accepted an offer from France and the rest, as they say, is history. Translating your book into different languages can mean you need to accept certain changes. For example, his novel The Blackhouses’ title was changed to L’Île des chasseurs d’oiseaux, which translates to The Island of Bird Hunters and not a blackhouse at all. Working on Machair and Take the High Road for all those years must have provided him with many ideas for his novels. A highlight for me was hearing an extract from The Chess Men in Italian. Sublime.
I left the event nodding in agreement that it was high time the translators appeared on the book cover beside the author and illustrator. Seems unfair. A fight just like the one many illustrators are dealing with on a daily basis.
My favourite quotes from the event – Peter May “I said to my agent, my French is terrible. Don’t worry she replied, they will think you’re cute”. Julia Donaldson ” Translating into Scots was great fun, I much prefer Clockleddy to Ladybird”.
MY FAMILY & OTHER ODDITIES
My next event took me by surprise and nearly had me in tears. People are put through the mill with life-changing incidents that can make or break family units. A writer’s thoughts and fears can come through in their work without them even realising it.
Debi Gliori and Ros Asquith are two picture book authors that shared their thoughts on life and illustrating. A humble and frank discussion on how the hard things that life can throw our way come out in our writing and illustrating. I notice that myself when writing scenes of loss and fear,they don’t come easy and can be very upsetting but they are realistic because you have a real understanding of how the character feels. Reading back at what I have written makes me realise just how emotions can play a part in my manuscripts. Edits are always required after I sometimes get lost in the moment.
My favourite quotes from the event – Debi Gliori “As a parent, you can’t always solve all of life’s problems” Ros Asquith “Our inequality in our society affects us all”.
SEX AND LIFE AND PARENTHOOD
Now. Think of the broadest Scottish accent you can and lots of smiling. You should now have Janice Galloway in your head. Janice’s enthusiasm for life is infectious and she hadn’t even said anything and I had this huge grin on my face. She doesn’t disappoint with her comments of ‘this room is full of white hair and halitosis’ and “normal has a lot to answer for”. Her novel The Trick is To Keep Breathing, is how I came to know her and her new collection of short stories ‘Jellyfish‘ is a must read for me. Out of all the events I attended this year, I took the least amount of notes at this event as I was so wrapped up in the moment.
What an amazing woman.
Her autobiography, This Is Not About Me, has been a fantastic read so far, I’ve not quite finished it yet because sleep and life keep getting in the way.
“Never have weans hen, they ruin your life” is what her mother told her from a very young age. I think she has turned our spectacularly well considering what she has gone through. With Bach posters on one bedroom wall and David Bowie on the other – she was doing OK.
I stood in line to get my copy signed and she greeted me like an old friend, until she found out that she didn’t actually know me. A very funny moment. I hadn’t met her before, but maybe in a previous life I have. Who knows.
My favourite quotes from this event (I couldn’t choose just one) – Janice Galloway “When I start to write a book, I know it’s going to take 3 years, possibly 8”, “It lifts your heart to be human and to make bubbles as you wash the dishes in the sink under the window”, “publishers look at short stories like you would a three-legged puppy – they don’t know whether to take it on or not”, the least number of times I edit is 6. Eventually, I tell myself to stop, that’s enough” and “it’s hard to fault the monetary value – the moral value is another thing altogether”.
C S AYE DUNDEE
I am a prolific crime reader. For some bizarre reason it helps me relax, I can forget all about my WIP and concentrate on blood and guts galore. A perfect way to wind down after a days writing and I know that none of it will subconsciously appear in my next draft – not really suitable for picture books really.
Forensics is an area that I would genuinely love to know more about so I was very pleased to hear that there is a course set up to study just that. http://www.dundee.ac.uk/news/2015/identifying-the-dead–your-turn-to-take-on-a-forensic-challenge.php
Seeing Val McDermid and Niamh Nic Aeid together on stage sharing the nitty gritty of bones, body fluids and other such niceties was brilliant. Discussions of crime scenes, skin, skeletons and the like took over and before we knew it we were onto mortuaries and ‘please sign up and join in the fun’. A fantastic way to spend some free time.
My favourite quote from the event – “it’ll be fun, I promise.”
A FORMIDABLE ACTIVIST
I think this event is one that will sit in the back of mind for the rest of my life. A legend in my midst, a man who has experienced horrors I cannot begin to comprehend and yet he can forgive and move on with his life with a relative amount of compassion and understanding. Ladies and gentlemen, the one and only Reverend Jesse Jackson.
‘I have a dream’ is probably one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century. Its words send shivers down my spine as I realise the power behind each letter. I wasn’t even born and yet they resonate deep down and make me want to be a better person. I am in awe of what they achieved back then, I can only hope that the people of my generation will show the same acceptance and love as they all did. The world would be a better place for everyone if we all followed that dream.
His entrance into the main tent was low key until it was difficult for them to stop the standing ovation. We all wanted to hear what he had to say but I just couldn’t help it. His presence alone made us all stand with open-mouths and watched him take a seat. I spent a lot of this event just staring. Staring at the man who will never stop trying. A man I have so much respect for.
My favourite quote of the event – Rev Jesse Jackson “we lost 4,500 soldiers in Iraq and yet we lose at least three times that in one year through gun crime.”
THE WORLD OF TOM GATES
Liz Pichon makes illustrating look very easy. For those who have seen my attempts at stick men, you will know that I don’t find it so. Her fun and inclusive event made every child in the room sit up and take notice. Every child was given a pad of paper and a pencil and told to draw. Imagine that. A free reign on a plain piece of paper. Tongues stuck out and lips pressed together in concentration. A flourish of rainbows and names and unicorns. I salute you Liz.
My favourite quote from the event – “draw what you like. Make as many mistakes as you want, just change them into shapes and no-one will know”.
MEMOIRS OF A PUNK ROCKER
My friend’s birthday falls during the book festival. So, every year, I get us a ticket for something that little bit different. This year was no exception. I went for it. I channelled our inner punk and booked us tickets for Viv Albertine.
The Slits is not a band name that comes up very often in my house, in fact The Sex Pistols are about all I have from that era in my collection. Why not, I said. Let’s hear what really happened. And off we went.
Ian Rankin arrived with a bag of vinyl records, very cool. Viv Albertine sat down and we all gasped. She looked amazing. And she looked about 15. What was her secret? Was she not up to no good and partying for three days solid back then? Stories of Sid & Nancy, altercations at gigs when she was just 14 fed our hunger to learn about that time in her life. Bottles thrown at her and her band mates as they got through their set etc – a fantastic account of life as a punk. I felt old and young at the same time.
So we hit the pub. For one beer. We know how to live.,,,anyway, what do you expect on a school night? Next time I’ll pick a Saturday night and we can show them how it’s done. Maybe.
Quote of the night “yeah, well, y’know. That’s just what we did back then. It was frightening sometimes but you learned to adapt. After a while we didn’t notice them but I didn’t like the spitting.”
FIRST MINISTERIAL APPOINTMENT WITH QUEEN OF CRIME
For me, this event was not about the SNP or the referendum, in fact it wasn’t anything at all to do with Nicola Sturgeon. It was about Val McDermid and her amazing books. The First Minister just happened to be there to chair the event. Val was just brilliant. Her attitude and infectious lust for life had us all relaxed and enjoying her company within seconds. The ‘fan girl’ beside her asked all the right questions and we were welcomed with open arms into Val’s world. Her imagination could be heard whirring away in her mind, releasing titbits of information on her writing process. The accent she took on when talking about her agent was priceless and yet her obvious respect for her shone through. A brilliant event which I wish hadn’t ended. I was very pleased to have asked the last question of the night “With all the research that you do for your books, have you ever come across a particular job within the forensic department that you would consider doing?” “Good god no. I freak out when I cut my finger”. Val, you rock.
Now that the tents have been removed and the Speigletent has closed its doors for the last time this year, Charlotte Square Gardens have returned to normal, back to the tranquil space it was before.
Until next year. Happy reading.