Mary's musings

Mary Hoffman, author of over 90 children's books, including the Stravaganza series and Amazing Grace, has begun a web journal which will be updated roughly once a week. You can read more on

Monday, September 18, 2006

Hocus Pocus in Lund

I left for Copenhagen straight after coming back from the retreat at Charney (see last blog) and mistimed my departure, so that I was sure I would miss the plane. However, I just scraped on and then sat for half an hour waiting for delayed take-off. BA had said no cosmetics, books or bottles of water in hand-luggage so I had minimal belongings and no time to buy more once through the interminable security.

So when my suitcase didn't turn up at Copenhagen airport I had even less than normal. Lovely Agnes from Litteralund met me and we took a train to Lund, crossing the sea from Denmark but it was too dark to see it. We arrived at my hotel at midnight, having bought toothbrush and paste, deodorant, a magazine and some snacks from a Seven Eleven. I had to put my contact lens in a glass of mineral water and wrap myself in a towel to go to bed.

How I wished next morning that I had taken Katherine Roberts' advice at Charney and worn two pairs of knickers on the flight! As it was I had no lipstick and was very grateful for the green Litteralund Festival T-shirt I had been presented with on my arrival.

I met up with Kate Cann, the other English writer, and her husband at breakfast and then set out to explore Lund and buy some essentials. People told me it was like Oxford and indeed it has an ancient university and I saw many students in fancy dress so it must have been Rag Week. But it is much quieter than Oxford and far fewer people. I bought underwear, lipstick, foundation and a book (life's essentials) and then joined the organisers for lunch in the Grand Hotel. One of them had been all the way back to Copenhagen airport and been refused my suitcase but it was soon in transit to Lund, after a ludicrous phone call in which the airport official told me my hotel didn't exist and I was reduced to saying, "But I'm sitting in it!"

It didn't arrive in time for my first appearance. Kate was giving a session for adults (teachers and librarians) in the very grand hall of the Grand Hotel and it had been arranged that I would make a mystery appearance at the end. The rather whacky but nice librarian Barbro had decided to put me in a black velvet cloak with hood and have me propelled through some double doors at the back of the hall as Kate came to ther end of her reading. This was OK but I was guided through the wrong set of doors. I couldn't see a thing since the black hood was pulled down over my eyes, except my own feet walking out of the hall, so I turned and went the other way. I was then "unmasked" to great hilarity and a warm reception.

I was relieved that they knew who I was - Stravaganza seems popular in Sweden. I talked a bit about my books and then Kate and I had a lovely relaxed dialogue about how we work. It went very well. Fascinating to hear that Kate likes writing on her laptop in bed, since I sit on the sofa in my study with mine. The physiotherapist from Charney would have something to say about that.

My suitcase had arrived when I got back to my hotel so I was able to change in time for dinner with Kate, Jeff and our two publicists from our respective Swedish publishers, plus a friend of one of them. We went to an Italian restaurant, since there isn't really a Swedish tradition of vegetarianism. It was a good evening with plenty of nice food and wine. The two publicists and their friend were all young women with very young children (each had one of four and one of two) and they were enjoying a bit of freedom from domestic responsibilities.

This evening ended bizarrely with my being locked out of my room (no night porter - or pejhaps the hotrel really didn't exist?) I'll draw a veil over the next hour and a half, since the prospect of a second night without my belongings reduced me to a quivering wreck, but after negotiations like something out of the UN, my posse of wonderful young women got me into my room and I fell into bed with relief.

The next day, Saturday, was the one for young readers to attend the festival and both Kate and I had sessions with teenagers in a tiny theatre. I had my PowerPoint presentation with my on disk and the organisers had found an Apple laptop, projector and screen. Just for once, all the technology worked. There were about 35 in the audience, many of whom stayed on to have books signed. Their questions were as always more perceptive than those from a comparable English audience would have been. Alfabeta had made a poster saying, "Mary Hoffman, Queen of Fantasy," in Swedish, which was very nice.

Kate's session went well too and then there was a party in the same theatre to round off the festival. It was a buffet at 9pm and I had eaten cake in the afternoon so was ready to wait but Kate and Jeff and the three young women decided to go out for a meal while I watched some US Open tennis on my hotel TV set. Hence, at the buffet, they picked delicately at a few morsels, while I piled my plate, giving a misleading impression of our respective appetites.

It was a very nice party but Kate and I nearly misbehaved ourselves badly when the entertainment came on. He was a singer and guitarist of a depressive turn of mind, a but like a young Swedish Leonard Cohen. After two or three suicidal songs, I'm afraid we had to leave because we had a fit of the giggles and Kate was threatening to grab the mike and burst into My Old Man. It must have been the sense of relief at everything having turned out all right - plus the alcohol.

Next day I had some free time and went to High Mass in the cathedral, celebrated by a woman bishop - Christina Odenburg(?) It was a good chance to see the inside of the building, which is one of the great Mediaeval cathedrals of Europe. But Sunday in Lund is very quiet, with no shops open, so not really like Oxford. When I crossed back over the bridge across the ?Skattegat, I could see the sea this time.

Back to London, where I was reunited with husband and with our youngest daughter, who had returned from three weeks in India. She was surprised to discover how warm it had been in Sweden. Indeed summer seems to have returned, even in England and we spent lots of this last weekend in the garden. A last burst of sunshine before we go back to woolly jumpers.

Writers united

The "other SAS" (Scattered Authors Society) had their fifth (or was it sixth?) annual retreat at Charney Bassett the first week in September. I've been to every one, though they usually happen in July. We were blessed by a week of hot and sunny weather and had some extraordinarily good sessions, on editors, ergonomics, writing with or without contracts, reviews, writing historical fiction and whether to get involved in trilogies or series.

I went in a glow of virtue, having finished the penultimate round of Falconer's Knot corrections AND the first full draft of my adult novel. So I was able to get the most out of Charney. We had a literary quiz one evening in which my team ended up being the Five Horsewomen of the Apocalypse, or, as Adele Geras put it, War, Famine, Death, Pestilence and Julia Jarman. We came second to Chris d'Lacey's team but only because he kept looking at our answers, I'm sure. I was very proud of being able to remember that the author of Archie and the Strict Anabaptists was John Betjeman.

We do five-minute reads at the beginning of each session and last year I gave them a snippet of Christina on the Nursery Floor, so it felt really good to tell everyone I had now finished it. I read the opening of The Falconer's Knot and people were very complimentary. But we are a nice bunch.

We do Recommended Reads too and I raved about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. There was a lot of recommended non-fiction this year, including 1599, a year in the life of William Shakespeare.

I had three hours at home on the Thursday to re-pack for Sweden - and it should have been only two - but that is all for the next post.

Rock n' Roll

I went to see this new play by Tom Stoppard for rather unworthy motives, i.e. to drool over the divine Rufus Sewell on stage. Bex got us house seats so the view was perfect. Not so the play. In fact I found myself wondering if it would have even been performed had it not been over the signature of Sir Tom.

You've probably already read the reviews (this blog is rather late since I saw the play on 2nd Sept). It is a series of snapshots from 1968, when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia to 1986 and features Jan (Rufus) a graduate student in Cambridge with a taste for decadent Western music, his tutor and the tutor's family. When Jan returns to Prague, he becomes involved in the music of a band called Plastic People of the Universe - the Plastics for short. Their lyrics are subversive and their anarchic attitude frowned on by the Russians and both they and Jan end up in jail.

Meanwhile back in Cambridge the tutor's wife has the cancer that eventually kills her, his daughter, who has romantic yearnings for Jan, gets pregnant and lives in a commune and dreams of Syd Barrett, whom she once saw in the family's garden behaving like the original piper at the gates of dawn.

Time passes, the wife dies and the actor (Sinead Cusack) who played her gets to come back as her own daughter now grown up and still obsessed with Syd Barrett, still hankering after her lost Czech. Rufus (of course this is a totally unbiased account) is stunning as Jan, managing the physical and postural changes from mid-twenties to early middle age brilliantly. Brian Cox was very good as the Communist tutor too, wrestling with whether to stay in the Party or not..

But it isn't a play! The scene changes are punctuated by rock songs of the time including pirate recordings of the Plastic People, at which point a black screen comes up with the song details in white and the hugely amplified sound fills the theatre.

You might have thought all this would be resonant for me, since I was at Cambridge till 1967, was at UCL during the Czech invasion the following year and joined protest marches and fund raising appeals about it. I also lived with a communist from 1970 to 1975 who had tussled with whether to leave the Party in 1968 as many of her friends had in 1956 at the time of the invasion of Hungary. And of course I knew the music, especially Pink Floyd and the Stones - though I'd never heard of the Plastics.

But it was a mishmash not a synthesis and various elements, like the wife's cancer and the fact that all the women were studying Sappho seemed gratuitous. As for stagecraft, Bex and I were getting up to leave when there were two more unexpected and unnecessary scenes. And the idea that a reporter from the Cambridge Evening News would be sent to Prague to file a story on dissidents was so bizarre it made you wonder if Stoppard knew anything about either city. Poor old Syd Barrett's death was a gift to him though, creating an entirely spurious poignancy in that part of the story.