Category Archives: Summer UK 2013

The Edinburgh Book Festival

The Edinburgh Book Festival is one of the best public celebrations of books in the world. Beginning in 1983, it now goes on every August featuring an enormous range of writers and events for all sorts of readers. After years of hearing about it I finally got a firsthand taste of it last week and it was as fabulous as reported.

Arriving at Charlotte Square, a beautiful space in Edinburgh’s New Town, I found a small village of white tents (and a Spiegeltent) connected by a boardwalk, surrounding a lovely green space with plenty of places to sit and read, chat over an ice cream or glass of wine, or — if you were one of the younger attendees — to play.


At the various times of day I was there it never seemed overwhelmingly crowded, even when there were long lines waiting to get into a program or to get a book signed. In most cases, those in line had all gotten their tickets ahead of time (some for a nominal sum and some for free) and were relaxed as they waited for, what was certain to be an interesting experience. The festival programming is very thoughtfully done. For adults there were performances, readings, debates, and more from familiar and less familiar writers. The commitment to new writers as well as the famous, local as well as international was very impressive.

And their commitment to children was impressive too. The Baillie Gifford Children’s Programme had a huge range of offerings for children of all ages and they are very welcoming to families. (Here’s what was on for one of the days I was there.) They have an outreach program for those who can’t make it to the festival itself. Every morning they have a free program called “Are You Sitting Comfortably?” offering readings, singing, and other such activities in their dedicated Baillie Gifford Story Box tent and children can also go at any time to the separate Baillie Gifford Imagination Lab. And, oh my, the children’s bookstore was fabulous!


Then there are the author events. They have a stunning array! Since I also wanted to see other bits of Edinburgh I limited myself to two events, the first with Frank Cottrell Boyce. My admiration for this author started way back with his first book Millions and really took off with Cosmic, still my absolute favorite of all his works. A couple of years ago thanks to one of his US publishers, Walden Pond Press, my class and I had a Skype visit with Frank. (It was his first and he had to go to his neighbor to do it.) And then this spring we were in contact as he was our Big Kahuna for this year’s 2013 SLJ’s Battle of the Kids Books. So it was very exciting for me to finally see him in the flesh and, it turned out, for Frank to meet me too, in the flesh.


Here are some of my tweets (last ones first) from his talk. (More at my feed here and at the festival’s storify for the day.)

Asked if he was Liam as a child, says he wasn’t at all (as I know because he wrote that for his #sljbob bio). #edbookfest

Likes to write funny, having someone caught out in a line. #edbookfest

Asked if he wanted to write for adults, answers about why he likes writing for children. #edbookfest

New book he is working on involves a boy waking up and finding out he has turned bright green. #edbookfest

Villain taking Big Ben to moon [in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sequel]. “About time we had a gothic rocket.” #edbookfest

Frank does not like having to make US changes for his books. Ha! #edbookfest

“When you put words in the right order you can make people laugh even when you are not there.” #edbookfest

Said he really loved writing Cosmic because always thought he’d have been to the moon by now. #edbookfest

Asked who favorite author is, answered E. Nesbit. Urges kids to have it read to them. #edbookfest

Frank speaking of his early memory of seeing the original film [Chitty Chitty Bang Bang]. #edbookfest

FYI Frank was one of the writers for that wild Olympic opening ceremony (remember the Queen’s bit) last summer. #edbookfest

Real Chitty Bang Bang was incredibly loud due to its zeppelin engine. #edbookfest

So great to see Frank Cottrell Boyce for real talking about a dynamite party ( not to be done at home:). #edbookfest

The following day I had a lovely lunch with Elizabeth Wein. We’d met years ago at CLNE and, more recently, I’d been one of her many fans for Code Name Verity. (FYI: Her latest, Rose Under Fire, is smashing too.) It was fabulous and not long enough — such meetings never are, I’m afraid. (Thank you so much, Elizabeth!) This was followed by the panel, “What Makes a Truly Great Book?” Here’s the festival’s description of this event;

The CILIP Carnegie Medal is the UK’s oldest and most prestigious children’s book award, often described by authors as the one they ‘want to win’. It is awarded by children’s librarians but also involves a shadowing scheme, engaging thousands of young people in reading the books on the shortlist every year. Join three of this year’s shortlisted writers, Sally Gardner for Maggot Moon, R J Palacio for Wonder and Elizabeth Wein for Code Name Verity, for a discussion about books, reading and engaging young readers.

It was absolutely splendid — so smart and interesting. Kudos especially to the moderator, Joy Court, for her superb questions. Here are some of my tweets from this (last ones first and, again, some were also on the festival’s storify feed here.)

Films are just marketing for the original books. #edbookfest

@TheSallyGardner points out a film is not a book. #edbookfest

Interesting comments from @RJPalacio about how she would like to see Auggie presented in a movie. #edbookfest

@EWein2412 hopes that in 100 years people know her book for more than such catch phrases as “Kiss me, Hardy.” #edbookfest

@EWein2412 Speaks of need to abandon borders between children and adult literature. #edbookfest

August Pullman is named after Philip Pullman says @RJPalacio #edbookfest

As a young reader @RJPalacio wanted be moved by books. #edbookfest

@EWein2412 spoke of her characters bartering poetry in concentration camp. #edbookfest

@TheSallyGardner spoke of not reading until she was a teen. She was a great teller of tales. #edbookfest

Talked about tear soaked manuscripts. #edbookfest

Joy points out that originality was a hallmark of each of the authors’ books. #edbookfest

@RJPalacio ‘s kids ask her what year is it? If she answers correctly they know she is in the world. #edbookfest

@TheSallyGardner brings up geography and the weather (in the character). #edbookfest

@EWein2412 Found it worked with Maddie to use flying metaphors. #edbookfest

@EWein2412 Was easier to write Verity’s narrative than Maddie’s as the former was more literary. #edbookfest

@EWein2412 watched lots of 1930/40s movies to help picking up details, research. #edbookfest

@TheSallyGardner goes from shoes on up in creating her characters. World building. #edbookfest

@TheSallyGardner speaks of being an actress as she explores her characters’ voices. #edbookfest

@RJPalacio talks about the limitations she gave to herself for Wonder when working with multiple voices. #edbookfest

@EWein2412 begins by talking about the significance of voice and how she is surprised it isn’t part of Carnegie criteria. #edbookfest

Panel is chaired by Joy Court who begins with a lovely quote from Philip Pullman. #edbookfest

And that was it for me at the festival this time (as I sure hope to get back to it one day). My great thanks to the festival’s press office, especially Charlotte Gosling, for making this all possible.

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Our final few days were in Scotland, mostly in Edinburgh with a day trip up to Loch Ness and back. I was partly there for the Edinburgh Book Festival for which I will do a separate post. This one is about the other aspects of our time in Scotland.

First of all, we took the train from King’s Cross in London and were very amused by the activity around an erzatz Platform 9 3/4. Years back when first few Harry Potter books had just appeared but not the movies I remember taking a train from Oxford into the station and having fun taking photos at a sign-less wall between the platforms 9 and 10. Evidently the movies changed things and now there is a very popular place in the station where you can pretend to be going through the wall to the Hogwarths Express. Two employees of the nearby Harry Potter Platform 9 3/4 Store were helping out— one placing a scarf around the subject’s neck and holding it while the other took a photo that you could then purchase at the store. Of course, you could take your own photo as well. There was quite a line early in the morning as we waited for our train to Scotland.



Edinburgh was as lovely as advertised. And we enjoyed the energy of the festivals, especially all the buskers and tastes of Fringe Festival offerings. Along the busier spots there would be a serious interpretive dance going on next to a lively girl a cappella group next to someone juggling fire next to someone playing a ukelele (lots of those these days) next to someone who seemed to have wandered in from Comic.con and so forth. Not sure I could stand something like that in NYC and so wouldn’t blame Edinburgh residents if they avoid or flee it, but as a tourist it was fun!


Oh, and this (which I might even have gone to see if I’d been free to do so) for obvious reasons (if you know me, that is):



And this Soweto group I also wanted to see, but couldn’t because of scheduling conflicts.

I didn’t take many photos of the more standard touristy things, say our tour of the Castle — which, by the way, was terrific due to our excellent tour guide and just the many gorgeous vistas and buildings of Edinburgh. I was bemused by the strange unfinished war memorial on top of Calton Hill though.


We completely lucked out with our hotel, the pricey Apex Waterloo Place, as we had the most splendid view. Every night we watched the Edinburgh Military Tattoo final fireworks display right behind the Hotel Balmoral tower.



We spent our final day in Scotland on a day trip through the Highlands to Loch Ness and back. Years ago I’d spent a few weeks with a friend touring Skye, Lewis, Harris and some of the northern parts of Scotland and knew I had to see some of the Highlands this time. And so I researched tours and came up with this one which was just right. We were a small group and our guide, Colin, was excellent and has changed my view of Nessie to ” very possible.”

IMG_1159 IMG_1160 IMG_1161


Filed under Other, Summer UK 2013

London Part Two

I have to admit that my relationship with London is mixed. My mother and her sister and parents came here after escaping Germany in 1939, thanks to Lotte Passer, my cousin who passed away earlier this year at age 99. My first time was when I was six during a year we spent in Germany (my father was a specialist in German politics) and I have come many times since then. Sometimes I stayed with family friends, sometimes with my own friends (one, in particular, whom I first met in Sierra Leone, and had a lovely house in Clapham), sometimes at conference venues, sometimes at hotels for special things (say the NT production of His Dark Materials), and so on. There have been places and experiences I’ve enjoyed, but quite a few that I have not. This time has been no different.

What I like about London are the parks, the smaller neighborhoods, the eccentric little experiences and museums. What I dislike hugely are the noisy, busy, and increasingly global parts. I already live in a big noisy city and so I have absolutely zero interest in spending time in another one. And so there are increasingly parts of London that feel identical to New York and I do not like them at all. Every time I come it seems worse.

Fortunately, if I am strategic in what I do, I can still have an enjoyable time. As mentioned in my previous post, there are the parks. And so, the day after our time in Kensington Gardens, we visited Queen Mary’s Garden in Regent’s Park which was splendid and the small, but charming Lauderdale House, with its park, in Highgate (where we had a lovely day with Lizza Aiken, Joan Aiken’s daughter, whom I had also visited last summer in London).

As for eccentric museums, I was delighted that Pollack’s Toy Museum, which I’d gone to often years ago, was unchanged. It is full of fascinating and somewhat dusty-feeling toys. I wouldn’t recommend it for children (unless they are the sort that enjoy dusty sometimes creepy old things), but for those adults interested in old toys displayed in a very old-fashioned and charming way, I highly recommend it.



One day, after lunch with friends at the Cheshire Cheese pub which I’d been to last year we visited the Charles Dickens House which was interesting, but oddly missing depth given his literary output. We also wandered the South Bank which I can’t say I enjoyed — far too crowded with tourists. I was intrigued how changed the skyline was from my last time doing this in 2006. Sadly, the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern was not accessible (they are building more there), something I’d wanted Tyner to see.

Other enjoyable museum visits included the glorious Sir John Soane’s Museum and an evening at the Victoria & Albert where we were bemused to see a group of servers pick up the grand piano in one of the indoor cafe rooms (the exquisitely beautiful original rooms of Morris, Gamble, and Poyntner) and go off with it. When we went outside we saw why — music (and paddling children) at the fountain!


We saw the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical and, sadly, I have to agree with the mixed reviews. Pretty meh. My favorite characters were Mike Teavee and his mother and the number when he gets his was a lot of fun. So are the Oompa-Loompas, I should say. But, for all the impressive staging, it felt very ephemeral. Too bad.

The highlight of my time in London was an afternoon and evening with Mark and Catherine Richards of the Lewis Carroll Society who have a remarkable collection and are a complete fund of information. They not only spent the afternoon pulling out treasures and providing me with massive amounts of helpful information, but they then went on to host a fantastic dinner party in my honor. They invited a couple who are also Carrollians (and the wife was also hugely involved in other children’s literature societies —both were wonderful) and the charming actor, Kevin Moore, whom I’d seen many years ago perform Crocodiles and Cream, a terrific one-man show about Lewis Carroll. The meal was outstanding (especially Mark’s surprise extra cheese course — wow!) as was the company. Definitely, a white stone day!


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London Part One

We took it very easy yesterday and spent most of it in and around Kensington Gardens.  We walked along Kensington Place Gardens trying to figure out the flags of the different embassies.  We then entered the park and looked for the Orangery. (Years ago Roxanne and I had a lovely tea there and, since Tyner was eager to have a traditional tea, I suggested we go there.) Took a bit of time to find it as we kept being distracted by signs for the Princess Diana Memorial Walk and wondering what it was. (Now I see it is a series of walks through different parks.)  We finally found the Orangery and had an absolutely lovely tea. I had my first Pimm’s cup.  We then wandered the Gardens — enjoying especially the baby ducks at the Italian Gardens.  (We also have a rather macabre story involving a worried mother duck and a baby duck or bird falling out of a tree.) And of course we visited Peter. In years past I’d often stayed nearby and have found memories of morning runs in that area.  A lovely and relaxing day.


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Oxford and Alice (of course)!

We began by meeting Mark and Catherine Richards, old friends who lead the UK Lewis Carroll Society, and spent some time in and around Christ Church. I had fun looking for my room in Meadow Quad as it had overlooked the meadow and we all were absolutely gobsmacked at the massive lines waiting to get into the college. Huge tour groups of kids — hundreds and hundreds. Presumably all due to bits of the Harry Potter movies having been filmed there.

Finally we went in and walked about revisiting various places: the chapel, the door to the deanery (where I’d been with Catherine in 98), Carroll’s rooms at various points, the library, and the hall. I remembered so well the Buttery where we had before-dinner drinks. Here I am with the Richards in the hall (which was packed):


We then met up with Mark Davies who suggested we take a quick look at the “Imagine” Alice exhibit at the Town Hall. Some of the objects were on loan from the Richards’ own collection and then there were some lovely hangings by local artist Anne GriffithsAlice’s House” and some other smaller works by her. I picked this lovely collection of small books at the bookstore.

Later Mark Davies took Tyner and me on a lovely bus ride to a spot in the country (while the Richards walked there) where we walked about a bit and then boarded an Oxford River Cruises boat (as we had the great luck that a group had chartered it one way and so it would have otherwise returned anyway empty) and headed back on the Thames to Oxford. Mark is an expert on Carroll, Alice, and the Thames and it was a glorious ride as he pointed out relevant points along the way. It was also just fascinating in terms of locks, canal boats (Mark pointed out the one he lives in), and more. We ended the day with a lovely dinner at a restaurant at Folly Bridge. I mark this day (a la Carroll) with a white stone.

Here are few rough photos I took (blurry as they were through the boat cover — it was a bit brisk!)


The ruins of a nunnery.


Godstow where Carroll first told the Alice story to the three Liddell girls.


One of many canal boats we saw.


A lock — is opened and closed by pushing and pulling as has been the case for centuries.

My great thanks to both Marks, Catherine, and Oxford River Cruises for a great day.


Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Summer UK 2013

Oxford Day Two

We began with breakfast at the Hall at Keble College.  Our rooms are very nice, but I think it is the gorgeous Victorian quads and the hall that make staying there so unique.



Breakfast at the high table!

We then went across the street to the Pitt Rivers Museum— perhaps my favorite museum in the whole world. Here’s a post from last year’s visit to give you a taste.  This time I dragged Tyner right to my favorite object, the silver bottle with the witch, and then we separated to wander. As happens at that museum, you can become fixated on one section — this time I became obsessed with one case full of emergency money tokens from various European countries created during World War I. I was fascinated by the variety created and by the sense of the collectors at the time — the pain and horror of that war and how that is represented in a tiny way in that exhibit.


Then there was a small, but hugely important special exhibit, “Visiting with the Ancestors: The Blackfoot Shirt Project.”  Here’s the description:

What happens when museum objects go home for a visit? The Blackfoot shirts at Pitt Rivers Museum, collected in 1841, express Blackfoot culture and beliefs. In 2010, Museum staff took them home to Canada for a visit so that Blackfoot people could learn from them and strengthen cultural knowledge and identity. Blackfoot people were delighted to see these important heritage items and were inspired by them. The exhibition includes three of the shirts and quotes and photographs from the reunions with Blackfoot people.

The video and quotes from the Blackfoot people are frank, blunt, and painful.  I encourage you to visit this project website to learn more.

We then picked up sandwiches and headed for Magdalen College for a stroll along Addison’s Walk to watch the deer and picnic.


After a few shops (wanted Tyner to see the venerable Marks and Sparks) we made it to Blackwell‘s where we mostly sat in the pleasant second floor cafe and simply relaxed.  Once revived we took off to find a pub for dinner. Unfortunately, it was Saturday night and when none of the nearby pubs we’d thought to dine at had free tables (the Turf Tavern, Kings Arms, and the Lamb and Flag) we returned to the Eagle and Child (amusing our server from the previous night) where we were very happy — excellent veggie burgers.

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Oxford Day One

It felt as if our first day in Oxford was twice as long as most days, understandable as we had just completed an overnight flight from NYC*.  

We left our baggage at Keble College as our rooms weren’t ready and went over to the Vaults for breakfast. You can see the Radcliffe Camera behind Tyner near where students were preparing for graduation ceremonies being held that day.


Sitting there I saw this intriguing stone and wondered what the story behind it was.  


We then took a tour of Sir Humphrey’s Library which is totally awesome and it was fun looking out to see students all in various gowns readying themselves for the ceremony.  After that we went to a fantastic exhibit which is also online, “Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle Earth.”


We then checked in (above is the building we are in) and I highly recommend staying at Keble or another college rather than a hotel if you get the chance. We enjoyed watching the various graduates and their families take photos.  (That sign says “We can’t wait to see Claire in her silks.”)


Dinner was at the Eagle and Child with this adorable server who joked so much about everyone taking Inkling photos that we just had to do one of her (and I tweeted it, of course).


Putting tons of malt vinegar on my very nice fish and chips.


We managed to then walk around a bit more before returning to the college and collapsing.

*Kudos to Virgin Atlantic for providing legroom, amenities to coach passengers, lovely flight attendants, and a very smooth flight.

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Off to Oxford, London, and Edinburgh

I’m off on a play/work jaunt to the UK later today.

First stop is Oxford to do some research for my new Alice project.* I’ve visited many times, the most memorable being a magical week in 1998 at Christ Church, celebrating Lewis Carroll’s centenary. Ever since I’ve avoided the inside of the college, wanting to keep pure my memories of that wonderful time: living in Meadow Quad, extraordinary meals at the Hall, champaign at sunset, late night port, the Deanery Garden, and much more. Now I do need to revisit places related to the Alice story and am fortunate that my return to the college will be with Mark and Catherine Richards of the Lewis Carroll Society who organized that 1998 event (and  just may have provided that port.) And then something very special (thanks to Philip Pullman who put us in touch with each other): a boat journey with Mark Davies, author of Alice in Waterland: Lewis Carroll and the River Thames in Oxford.

Next will be London. I’m traveling with a young colleague who has never been to the UK before so I’ve been having fun thinking of my favorite things to do with her. Our plans include the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical, the Charles Dickens Museum, the Cheshire Cheese Pub,  tea in Kensington Gardens, visiting the Richards and seeing their extraordinary Carroll collection, catching up with Joan Aiken’s daughter Lizza (whom I also visited last year), having dinner in the V & A’s gorgeous Morris rooms where their cafe is located. Oh and seeing stuff there (say this special exhibit on Beatrix Potter’s sketches of a beautiful waistcoat). This visit is a little bittersweet as I will not, for the first time, be going to Swain’s Lane in Highgate to see my cousin Lotte Passer who passed away earlier this year at the age of 99. (Do read this Guardian obituary — she was an extraordinary woman who was instrumental in getting my mother and her family out of Germany in 1939 as well as many others.)

Our final stop will be Edinburgh where I’ve never been.  I’m very excited to see this city that is always so enthusiastically praised and because of the festivals that will all be going on. Thanks to the press office at the book festival I will be doing this and this and will be reporting back about both for sure.

I may or may not post while en route, otherwise, see you when I get back!

*As many who read this blog know, I’m obsessed with Alice in Wonderland. Every year I read it aloud; for a taste of last year’s students’ enthusiastic responses check out their book trailers. Providing context is key; I tell them a lot about Oxford and the life of the real Alice and her siblings, read some of the original poetry Carroll parodies, oversee an indoor croquet game, organize a caucus race (complete with confit-like prizes for all), and attempt a quadrille. Wanting to somewhat replicate this experience in book-form, I’m exploring doing so from the point of view of the Liddell children (among them the well-known Alice and the almost completely overlooked brother, Harry).

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