Hazel McHaffie

Michael Morpurgo

On my bookshelves

It’s notable that so many folk we’re seeing on our screens these days – politicians, scientists, celebrities, TV presenters – appear in front of bookshelves. But hey, when I’m at Zoom meetings, so do I! Probably because for many of us, our main computers are in the rooms where we work. But it didn’t occur to me to criticize the material on other people’s shelves until Michael Gove was harangued for having a book by a Holocaust denier alongside other rather extreme literature, on his. Hmmm. It made me wonder … what would people make of my choices? Well, the truth is, it depends on which way the camera is facing in the room. Different walls display different genres. And the books I’m especially devoted to, appear in front of me – ie. behind the camera. But in any case, I certainly don’t agree with the substance or premises of every book we own. What would be the point in only reading things that you agree with? Surely you need to understand other perspectives, other ideas, in order to hone your own thinking.

It made me wonder, though. How do people judge me? As you know, I’ve been putting books outside at the end of our drive for passers-by to help themselves to, by way of distraction for lockdown. For the first few days the books, DVDs and CDs were all mine, but a neighbour put a post on Facebook about the bookcase, and since then I’ve had a tremendous selection of books, jigsaws, games, DVDs, quietly popped on the shelves – beautiful coffee-table hardbacks, dense tomes on the -ologies, best-sellers, how-to manuals, fourth-hand paperbacks, much loved children’s tales. The turn-over has been amazing. And despite the number that are snapped up rapidly, we’ve reached three shelves-full this week! An unexpected bonus. But … am I personally being judged by the books on display? Who knows.

Lockdown is offering lots of unforeseen opportunities for random acts of kindness and helping others, and I’ve been the beneficiary of one myself this past weekend. I attended a virtual Book Festival!

No need to take out a mortgage to pay for tickets, travel, accommodation. No necessity to hang around aimlessly for hours between events. This one came free, a composite of events originally scheduled for different venues around the country, now beamed directly into my study – no one able to peer critically at my book titles either! And I could even knit while I listened – a bonus when you’re just starting an adult jersey – a Gansey from Guernsey in fact – on size 13 (2.25mm) needles.

I particularly enjoyed listening to Terry Waite and Michael Morpurgo, who have such interesting takes on life as well as being brilliant writers. But there was something for everyone, so perhaps it’s not surprising that over twenty thousand people tuned in! Fabulous.

Hats off to the enterprising people who are masterminding these fantastic opportunities. I’ve already booked in for the famous Hay Book Festival later this month – what a treat. As are the multitude of programmes available to watch/hear: fabulous ballets, operas, plays, concerts, masterclasses. The arts and artists themselves have risen to the occasion magnificently, giving their time and skills generously, and I for one am profoundly grateful for all the extra cultural offerings which help to maintain mental stability and well-being in these troubled times.


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Book Festival

Like Joan Bakewell I say with some amazement that ‘Edinburgh’s jamboree will have to fizz without me‘ this year. Yep, for the first time for donkey’s years I have no tickets for the International Book Festival. Nary a one.

Why? Well, various other responsibilities and commitments have swallowed up these two weeks and I simply can’t spread myself any more thinly. I am, of course, a tiny tad disappointed to be missing the excitement of the tented domes of Charlotte Square, and listening to fellow-authors telling of their inner lives and exploits. Oh yes, and those interesting conversations that crop up every year as we wait in queues or compare notes over a coffee. But I confess I’m also aware of a smidgeon of relief that I’m not up writing reviews at all hours for this or anyone else’s blog.

However, I have been festivalling. Yes sir! I’ve taken to the Festival Fringe – the unregulated unofficial part of the programme – big time, in the delightful company of my appreciative guests. For those of you who aren’t aficionados, the Fringe sells over 2 million tickets and attracts over 3000 acts and events; it’s been described as the world’s largest arts festival … and it’s on my doorstep!

On the way between shows, we’ve been taking leisurely strolls through the Old Town, and the craft stalls of the West End … Craft Fair

… pausing to enjoy the street theatre, (even in the teeth of hurricane Bertha one decidedly damp afternoon!).

Levitating alien

Headless man

And wow! were we lucky with our choice of events. Every single one we went to was well worth seeing (it’s a hit and miss experience normally). Particularly impressive were the Saltmine Company‘s production of John Newton – Amazing Grace (relating the story of the slave-trader cum hymn writer through music and drama); and a dramatic telling of Michael Morpurgo‘s 16 year old Private Peaceful looking back at his life on the night before his execution by firing squad. We were all spell-bound.

Both these events were well attended, but some of the others had tiny audiences and yet were excellent performances. Imagine baring your soul about a suicide or depression or loss or hopelessness to an audience of one for a whole hour! But they grit their teeth and do it. I wish them all huge success. After all, that lone listener might just be a top agent or critic. Many a famous name has been discovered in the Fringe.

NB. You may be reading about Edinburgh at Festival time, but I’m actually currently soaking up the incredibly beautiful scenery and pure air of Switzerland … of which more on my return.

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Remembrance Day

In this week during which we remember those who gave their lives in the service of their country, I wish I could say that I’d had the foresight to select appropriate books to read. But it wouldn’t be true. I’ve been rather bogged down in dense scientific papers actually, and committee meetings, and preparing for a debate and … all rather boring to anyone else, so I won’t go into details. So it’s a surprise to me to find that the one book I have read in a lull between storms, and that I’m burning to tell you about in today’s post, is as relevant as it is.

Last week I waxed lyrical about The Book Thief, set in the time of the holocaust. This week, we go back to the First World War. Hmmm. Maybe they were subliminal choices after all.

Biggest surprise of all though – today’s offering is a children’s book, by that popular author, Michael Morpurgo. It’s one of those books that’s been on my to-be-read list for years, ever since it hit the literary headlines in 2003. I spotted it in a boxed set in my grandson’s collection and next thing I know, it’s in my hand.

Now, I’m a reluctant borrower, I must confess. So I only opened the pages a crack, just enough to read it but not to crease the pristine spine. None of the usual propping it in a book deckchair while I simultaneously knit and read. Fortunately for me the story had me gripped throughout, so the totally unrelaxed position I adopted was soon forgotten. And it’s only 187 pages long.

It’s called Private Peaceful. Tommo Peaceful is only fifteen when he goes off to war with his older brother, Charlie. The story begins with a count down: Five past ten. Private Peaceful is facing the last night before a cataclysmic event at 6 o’clock the following morning. Less than eight hours to go. He’s determined to remain awake and re-live every precious moment of his life to date. We don’t discover until near the end what that shocking event is, but the tension hovers throughout.

Hunkered down close to the battlefields Tommo reflects on life before the war … the boys love for their friend, Molly … their fierce protection of their big brother, Joe, who isn’t like other boys … the scrapes they get in … Charlie’s audacity … Tommo’s struggle to keep up …

Alongside the reminiscences, Tommo recounts with stark honesty the humiliation of life in the army, the terror of ‘going over the top’. Powerful writing in its very simplicity. And the suspense grips you right through till you reach the final chapter: One minute to six. The fateful morning when you just want to weep at the unexpected ending.

War. So much senseless waste. So much pain and sorrow. I defy you to read this book and not be moved. Or to be challenged by the horrific deeds done in the name of patriotism and duty.

A fantastic book that fully deserves the prizes and plaudits it received. BUT … I have one big reservation. This is a children’s book: Morpurgo says it’s for 8 to 12 year olds. And many children I know happily soak up anything he writes; parents confidently leave them to do so. Maybe I’m seriously out of step with today’s acceptable standards, but my personal view is that this one needs to carry a PG sticker. The language, and in places the content, are not those I’d buy for my own grandchildren without some kind of discussion and explanation.

But if you adults want to be reminded of the futility and horror of war, I recommend it wholeheartedly. Just give yourself recovery time afterwards.

And on Remembrance Day, let’s end with a challenge for us all:
World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassionXIVth Dalai Lama

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