Read Me Eat Me

It’s not just pictures of places that hold memories.  This is my fiftieth birthday cake.  I may have become rather over-excited about celebrating my half century, a state only intensified by a brief flirtation at death’s door the previous year.  Whatever the reason, I was determined to embrace my age and share my birthday with as many friends and family as possible.

Given the other photographs currently adorning this blog, it should come as no surprise that travel was the theme for the evening.  However books are my joy and there was never any doubt about the shape the cake would take.  The tricky part was narrowing down my short-leet to only nine.  I could have quite easily doubled the number and not have run out of significant titles.  Karen, the truly amazing creator of the cake, was already wildly nervous, however, and there’s only so much cake people can eat!

It was only long after I had made my selection that I realised that only one of the authors was still alive.  That’s not inappropriate, though, as my tastes definitely lean towards older books.  If absolutely pushed (but only then) I would claim Anne of the Island as my favourite childhood book and Persuasion as my favourite novel.  And these are the oldest books in my cake.  All but one of the rest belong to the twentieth century and only one of those was published in my lifetime.  I was fortunate enough to meet Eva Ibbotson, author of A Company of Swans, in the course of my work.  I was delighted and terrified in equal measure to be given the opportunity but I knew that I could never pass it up.  I love her writing (A Company of Swans was a random choice; I could have chosen any of her novels for children or adults) and it was an utter joy to discuss her writing with her.

The other twentieth century books are a mixture that sum up my general reading.  The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer and Nancy Calls the Tune by Dorita Fairlie Bruce belong to my childhood and also my collection of children’s books.  The former is more well-known especially for her long Chalet School series and I read those first.  I loved the Austrian setting of the early books in the series as well as the school setting.  However, as an adult I think that Dorita Fairlie Bruce is the superior writer and I am more likely to be found reading her books than the Chalet School these days.  As her name suggests, she was a Scot and as a teenager I appreciated the fact that her many Scottish characters were treated as normal human beings.  They weren’t all shy Highlanders or mad redheads!  DFB was an exiled Scot for much of her life and her books are suffused with longing for her own country.  Indeed all her most favoured characters end up living in Scotland!

In an equal opportunities stand I chose books by both John and Anna Buchan.  Huntingtower is an old favourite recommended to me by Mum.  The Galloway countryside, Dickson McCunn and the Gorbals Die-Hards have been part of my life for many years.  John’s sister Anna had such a high opinion of her brother’s writing that she wouldn’t use her own name lest she compromise his reputation.  Thus, she wrote as O Douglas.  As with Eva Ibbotson I could have chosen any of her novels but my final choice was The House that is Our Own set in the Scottish Borders and rural Canada.  Anna Buchan was nobody’s fool and her books are not as light and insubstantial as her detractors would suggest.  She might not have chosen to dwell on life’s more unpleasant situations but she knew they existed.

The last of my twentieth century novels is pretty new to me.  I’ve known of Dorothy L Sayers for many years and I knew about her books without ever having read any of them.  I can’t even remember now why I decided to read about Lord Peter Wimsey but I’m so glad I did!  I love the series even though (as all my colleagues will tell you) I NEVER read crime fiction.  Except that now I’m devouring it rapaciously, Lord Peter having opened up a vast new field of books to me.  I might have chosen Gaudy Night which is possibly a more significant book, but Busman’s Honeymoon enchants me with its romance, emotion and character study.

And so to the only book written by a living author.  Not only a living author, but an author who was actually a guest at my party!  Fifteen years ago I was a member of the judging panel for the Carnegie Medal, the most prestigious prize in the children’s book world.  One of the books we short-leeted was Sisterland by Linda Newbery.  It didn’t win (although I fought hard!) but I did in that I met Linda, worked with her in the next few years and ultimately became friends with her.  I think she’s an utterly brilliant writer, particularly in the way she brings settings to life.  Although it doesn’t have as evocative a setting as some of her novels Sisterland remains my favourite.

The cake was a huge success.  It was outstanding to look at, delicious to eat and a real conversation starter.  This picture brings back memories of a very happy evening as well as thoughts of some very excellent novels!

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