AUTUMN BOOK FRENZY

This time of year is always crazily busy. It’s literary festival season and the start of the new school year so children’s authors are dashing about the countryside. At least I had had a bit of a calm before the storm, as I had most of August at home writing two novels for Walker Books, designed to inspire ocean-love in their readers (more about these soon). But once I hit the road everything was more than usually busy.

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In the last few weeks I’ve run a writing course and signed books with my friend Jackie Morris (her new ones The Quiet Music of the Gently Falling Snow  and White Fox are  STUNNING)

done several  different literary festivalsimg_1762, Crickhowell, Cheltenham, and Turn the Page in Totnes. And, as I’ve had a lot of different books to tell people about, it’s been a slightly schizophrenic existence.

 

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The first are three books published by Graffeg and illustrated by an extraordinarily talented young illustrator called Abbie Cameron. All three are about animals (durr, of course they are they’re by me) but they are also about playing with words, because they are all in rhyme. I love writing in rhyme; you can use the aural echo rhyme creates to punch home a point, you can make new information fun 9781910862438_lrand accessible and rhyme immediately makes everyone happy, and ready to join in. I’m not usually allowed to work in rhyme as the perception is that it gives translators a problem and makes foreign r9781910862445_lrights sales difficult for publishers (though I’m not sure how much of an obstacle to success this has been for Julia Donaldson and Axel Shaffer). Having these rhyming texts to work with in schools and at literary festivals gives me something that is instantly an interactive performance. I’ve already had lots of fun with them and look forward to using them for years to come (and Abbie and I will be doing three more books together). You can see a video about these here 

 

 

The next two, The White Hare and Mother Carys Butterknife are also published by Graffeg and also use the talents of new illustratorsimg_1483
and Anastasia Izlesou,  Anja Uhren respectively. These short stories are the first in a series of six folk tales – invented by me or retold and adapted from traditional stories. They have that fairy tale feel and a touch of darkness, enhanced by the illustration.

 

Anyone can read them – I wrote them to be accessible for any age- and imagined that they could be books to slip into a coat pocket and read in one sitting on a journey. Graffeg have done a beautiful job and the books look wonderful, and very distinctive. I can’t wait for the next two to be published and to have some space in my life to write the
last two stories in the series. In truth I hope they aren’t the last, I could write these stories forever. They are wonderful to tell and live audiences seem to love them.

 

Last and very definitely not least ‘A First Book of Animals’ was published on October 6th and is now out in the world. I was so lucky to img_1733be able to work with author and illustrator Petr Horacek on this book. It’s a collection of poems and prose poems, each one about a particular animal and each one embodying some aspect of its appearance, behaviour or ecology.

I wanted each poem to be a fresh and clear as possible – so that readers would be captivated by creatures they’d never heard of before and see familiar animals in a new way. And I wanted everything about the writing of this book to be enjoyable, so I didn’t worry about making choices about which animals to include. I chose my favourites, and animals that I remembered getting excited about when I was little. As a child,I was lit up by the blackbirds and frogs and hedgehogs in our back garden; animals far away, that I read about or saw on the TV, gleamed and glittered in my imagination. The wonderful thing about Petr’s illustrations, is that they all glow with that heart-shine – they aren’t simply beautiful images they are full of emotion and reflect what animals look like inside me where they are the stars of my heart.

Petr and I have been doing events together and its worked so well – it’s great fun being on stage together and the audiences get to see Petr painting live which is incredibly exciting.

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The bigger message of A First Book of Animals is to communicate the wonder and value of nature’s variety. I have two more books
coming out in the next year that do this job (more about this soon too) but each one will work for a different sort of audience, which means I’ll have a way of talking to almost anyone about the most important subject there is BIODIVERSITY and how to save it. I’ll be going to the World Land Trust symposium in Mexico all next week and meeting conservationists from all over the world. I’ll be sharing with them some of the pages of these books and showing one of the ways in which we can create the conservationists of the future.

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PERFECT BABIES

Last night I watched an amazing documentary, ‘A World Without Down’s Syndrome?‘on BBC iplayer, made by the actor Sally Phillips. It was about her experience of having her son Ollie, who has Down’s Syndrome. I’d recommend that you watch it, if only to see the opening sequence of Sally (who is the sort of person you instantly wish was your best mate) having a water fight with Ollie and his two brothers, who are all just gorgeous boys.

But it wasn’t a sanitised feel-good film saying that ‘every family should have a disabled child, it’s lovely.’ It raised some really difficult questions about choice, and if it’s always a good thing: do we really have the insight and intelligence necessary to make choices that modern medical technology allows us to make? Do we even have the right information to make those choices?

When I was pregnant – a very, very long time ago – I had the standard test to see how likely it was that I was carrying a child with odro3243Down’s Syndrome. I clearly remember the dread with which I waited for those results. I don’t know how I would have reacted to a result that said I was carrying a disabled baby; I’m pretty certain I would have had a termination. But what would that choice have been based on?

Firstly this: seeing Down’s syndrome adults on an outing in a local cafe when I was 10, and picking up the horror and disgust expressed by the other patrons. The default setting of our society is that disability of any kind should be seen and not heard, locked away where we ‘normal’ people shouldn’t have to look at it. The big message that society gave then, and still gives now, is that disability is just not OK. And of course that’s a vicious circle. The less visible people with disability become, the less we experience them as PEOPLE, the more we feel them to be OTHER. And who wants their child to be part of that gang?

And secondly, this: I was a working mum. Terrified, at the time, that the children that I truly, desperately wanted, would impede my progression up the career ladder. Working as TV presenter, as I was back then, required me to tell the world that I could give birth and go straight back to work. Just about possible, I felt, with a ‘normal’ baby, but what about a disabled one? I feared the unknown, and with no experience of seeing mothers with disabled kids, my ignorance coloured that space black.

Since then, I’ve had more contact with families and children living with disabilities. I’ve seen kids with miserable cocktails of multiple klft1947impairments, who really are having no fun, and their poor ragged, exhausted families who aren’t either. And I’ve seen kids with disabilities who have lit up and glued together their domestic situations and become the irreplaceable stars of their family universes. And many shades in between.( look at this wonderful book Hole in the Heart Bringing up Beth by Henny Beaumont)

The problem is, that, because of our inability, as a society, to talk about any of this openly, our perception of disability is always entirely negative. Sally’s excellent argument was, that as medical science gets better and better at predicting what
a foetus will be like, we will weed out more and more babies with any kind of disability. And then any kind of feature we don’t want – a big nose, the wrong colour eyes, a predilection for mental instability.

As a biologist I think this is risky territory. Over the next 300 years life is going to be pretty tricky as we sort out our relationship with our parent planet – who know what genes that lie hidden in the tangle of our DNA might get us out of a hole? So it seems crazy to be pruning our population to an ever narrower vision of what is normal, beautiful, sane and well.

As a human I feel that the notion that we can control our lives and what happens in them is pretty illusory. The unexpected, the unpredicted, the serendipitous is the grit in the oyster of our lives, that can cover us in pearl dust even as it cuts our flesh.

The modern world with its requirements to rush, achieve, get, get, get, leaves little space for caring, for spending a morning making sandcastles or holding someone’s hand. It is this society of ‘getting and spending’ as Auden said, that ‘lays waste our powers’, our powers as loving, insightful humans, growing from the day we are born to the day we die. It requires us to edit out of the world all that is in the way of things and stuff – people who need help, people who need care, people who don’t give a damn about poggenpol kitchens and ipods. These are the very people who might just remind us of what really matters.

So should we give up testing our unborn children? I can’t answer that. I am lucky, my kids are fine and well (touch wood). But we should certainly talk about all this and stop shutting disabled people behind doors, as if they were not part of the human race.

And here is a footnote: a really lovely thing happened this week in connection with all this. This year my story ‘Perfect’ illustrated by Cathy Fisher was published. I’ve written about this elsewhere, ( and here too) but it concerns the birth of a disabled child. Every big publisher img_3205turned it down, including those with whom I have a long track record. It was finally taken by a wonderful small (but growing) publisher here in Wales, Graffeg Books . It is now available in America and, in November,will be getting a stared reviewed in Kirkus Reviews (V V big deal for kids books in the States):

‘A fledgling swift helps a child cope with disappointment when a baby sister is different than expected. The swifts return the same day the baby comes home from the hospital. The white narrator watches from the window, imagining “racing and chasing” with the baby. But something is wrong; dark, looping scrawls suddenly mar Fisher’s eloquent, luminous pastel compositions. The baby is too still. (The baby’s condition and prognosis are unknown; the baby herself is often shrouded in mist.) The birds circle as the pensive child plays alone and confesses, “I didn’t want to feel the way I felt. But I couldn’t love my sister, no matter how I tried.” But after the child helps an injured fledgling to fly, the child wonders if the baby likewise “only needs a little help.” A close-up of the fledgling’s sharp-eyed face is mirrored by a close-up of the baby’s white, frail face—the baby’s dark eyes are sunken but gaze at readers with a similarly knowing expression. As the siblings lie in the garden, the narrator declares how it will be: the two of them, “screaming with delight and laughter.” Davies deftly addresses—and respects—a dark feeling, and though her optimistic symbolism will certainly reassure children, it will equally reassure parents struggling with their own uncertainty or grief. An emotionally vivid, hopeful illustration of unpredictability, disappointment, and acceptance—recommended for children and parents alike. (Picture book. 4 & up)’

This reviewer seemed to completely get what we were trying to do with the book.I’m not saying any more, but you can join the dots; hopefully our book will open up some much needed conversation about all of this. 

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Back In The Real World


IMG_1013Last week I was three ways high. High in the Abruzzi mountains of Italy, up in a medieval hill top village looking out on a landscape of hobbit hills and snow streaked peaks.

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High on the smell and sound of the place – awash with flowers and alive with natural music, nightingales, cuckoos,frogs.

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High on singing for three or more hours every day in places like this https://singingholidays.com IMG_1093

with 15 other keen singers and our wonderful course teachers Rachel and Becky Unthank http://www.the-unthanks.com

Actually, four ways high because the experience of being in close proximity to Rachel and Becky as they sang their beautiful harmonies was completely magical and transforming.

This week has been more mixed, as I’m back to the misunderstandings and crossed wires of the real world, that sometimes have me questioning if I can carry on writing at all.

First, was the e mail from a publisher asking me to make my proposal for a children’s natural history title more ‘non fiction-y’- ie more like a list. The stated reason for this request was that if fiction and non fiction are too combined, the booksellers and librarians don’t know where to put the book. This is like saying you can’t knit an orange jersey, because the shop only has yellow and red shelves.
It was a depressing request for a number of reasons:
1) anyone who knows my work, knows that combining nf and F is kind of what I’m all about. And with quite a lot of awards under my belt, more than 40 books and a track record of international sales, that seems to work.

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2) narrative non fiction is the new black in children’s publishing, especially as the US has now put it at the very heart of their curriculum, and finally
3) one would hope that bookshops would stock more than one copy, offering the easy solution of one on the NF shelves and one in the F shelves.

I’ve had these kind of battles all my career. I once had an editors tell me I couldn’t write about polar bears from the perspective of an Inuit because I’m not an Inuit. One priceless question in the course of that particular tussle was ‘ could you say that you had been encouraged to write this by a close personal Inuit friend?’ Presumably answering ‘yes’ would have dispelled the editor’s misgivings.

Deviate from a list of facts and some people begin to twitch. Luckily, my main publisher, Walker Books, and my wonderful long standing editor there, Caroline Royds, have pioneered narrative non fiction in the UK. They understand the magic of story space – the imaginative place created by the words and illustrations in a picture book, where the real can be combined with the imagined, to convey all manner of factual material. It is the nature of narrative that you have a narrator, and a narrative perspective – both these can be invented in non fiction and be used to contain and convey factual material.

But having to explain this again and again and again is wearing. It’s like having to constantly justify my existence. Having to fight the corner for narrative non fiction, to people who profess to want to publish it is intensely discouraging. And I’m very, very tired of it.

Happily I never have to explain to my readers, who just get it at once.

The third crossed wire was over my recent picture book Perfect
http://www.walesartsreview.org/perfect-nicola-davies-on-picture-books/

with illustrations by Cathy Fisher http://www.cathyfisher.co.uk

It was reviewed in  Book for Keeps.
http://booksforkeeps.co.uk/issue/218/childrens-books/reviews/perfect-by-nicola-davies

and the reviewer really didn’t like it, because, she claimed, it presented disability as something fearful and by telling the story from the perspective of the disabled newborn’s sibling, I was denying the disabled child self determination.

Sigh.

It’s depressing when someone totally misses the point. How could I have written the story differently so that the reviewer really understood what I wanted the book to say? That initially disability can seem scary and strange; that disability does not define a person, the person defines the person; that all of us need a little help from time to time, and that helping and relying on each other is what families – and society – are all about. And that everyone, no matter what the configuration of their minds and bodies, is perfect, and perfectly loveable.

I also felt, reading that review, that the opinions expressed were exactly the reason that I wanted to write Perfect.

http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/blog/teachers-librarians/2016/03/why-i-wanted-to-write-about-disability

The reviewer seemed to be suggesting that any negative comment about disability was un acceptable, and that only the disabled were entitled to talk about disability. I think this is a very unhelpful attitude that shuts down conversations about disability and its impact on families and society. It creates a reluctance to talk naturally about disability and ultimately reinforces the imposed silence that drives people with disabilities into the shadows, and expects them to be invisible. I have watched the impact of disability on families. I’ve seen the worry, the shock, the sheer logistical hassle that the disability of a a family member can cause – it is unhelpful to deny these negative experiences. But the message of Perfect is that those negative feelings and experiences do not have to define the whole of a life: that the personhood of a disabled family member is more important than their disability and that giving them access to autonomous life, through offering a little sensible support, should be as natural as breathing.

If I break my leg, my family have to help me. Everyone has to make adjustments, but it doesn’t stop me being myself or being loved and being able to give love in return. It’s not helpful to deny the pain and inconvenience.

I’ve been hugely moved by the response of children with disabled family members, by people with disabilities and organisations representing people with disabilities. All of which have been incredibly positive. Tracy Elliot head of research at Cerebra told me the book delivered many of the messages they strive to put over. A disabled mum told me it was her children’s favourite bedtime read. I’ll hold onto those responses in my heart.

But just when I’m wondering if I’m really only fit for shelf stacking or if I should run away to sea, something good happens. Yesterday it was this, Emily Sutton’s http://www.emillustrates.com first sketches for our ‘A First Book Of The Sea’

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This will be the third in a series of books of poems, following ‘A First Book Of Nature’ illustrated by Mark Hearld https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byG6w2qaWnw and ‘A First Book Of Animals’ illustrated by Petr Horacek http://www.petrhoracek.co.uk/about.htm and out this Autumn (more about this here soon).

A first Book of the Sea is a little different from the other two – it’s about humans as well as nature and about the role that the sea plays in our lives and in our hearts. I wrote the poems last Summer,
thinking about Emily’s style as I did. It was wonderful to see so many of the images I’d imagined, and many that I could never have thought of, already dancing across the pages of Emily’s sketch book. I adore artist’s first sketches – I’ve often longed to do two editions of picture books, one with the first, free pencil marks and one with the gorgeous finished full colours.

Yesterday had a second inspiration in it too. Because of my poem ‘The Day War Came’
(and another wonderful response to that here http://www.armathwaite.cumbria.sch.uk/3000-chairs-empty-chairs-for-syrian-refugees/)
I was invited to the opening of an exhibition called ‘Drawing Our Stories’ of writing and pictures by refugees and migrants, curated by Jane Ray and Sita Brahmachari.
http://www.islingtoncentre.co.uk/events/4592555857
It was simply wonderful. I couldn’t stay for the whole event (trains to South Wales wait for no one) but I heard several of the writers and artists read, and speak about, their work.

 

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Their words were very powerful, very moving, written from the crucible of some of the most difficult experiences humans can have, being forced to leave the place where you feel you belong.

On the banks of the river stands my father

A young man then

And here we are, the next generation

Catching the stories of the Ubangi before we were born

At su set in the Summer

The river changes to yellow and purple

In my counytry

In the Congo

These colours

This river

Is caught forever

In the nets of our family memory

I was reminded of my privileged position, to be living in a peaceful country, with a passport and a nationality that matches who I feel I am; and to be able to make a life of words.

So, thanks to Emily, and the courageous writers and artists of the Islington centre for refugees and migrants, I’m humbled, untangled and recharged. I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep mixing up fiction and non fiction to try to tell truths about the world, about nature, about humanity and about how they weave and twine together through our lives. And if I have to fight for my stories, then I’ll fight.IMG_0988

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KEEP DRAWING #3000CHAIRS

The first chair by Jackie Morris

The first chair by Jackie Morris

 

 

 

 

 

 

Less than two weeks ago I wrote The Day the War Came, kind of a poem but really intended

to be a picture book that will spread its message for years to come. It ends like this,

I came to a school.
I looked in through the window.
They were learning all about volcanos
And drawing birds and singing.

I went inside. My footsteps echoed in the hall
I pushed the door and faces turned towards me
but the teacher didn’t smile.
She said, there is no room for you,
you see, there is no chair for you to sit on,
you have to go away.

And then I understood that war had got here too.

I turned around and went back to the hut, the corner and the blanket
and crawled inside.
It seemed that war had taken all the world and all the people in it.

The door banged.
I thought it was the wind.
But a child’s voice spoke
“I brought you this,” she said “so you can come to school.”
It was a chair.
A chair for me to sit on and learn about volcanoes, frogs and singing
And drive the war out of my heart.

She smiled and said
“My friends have brought theirs too, so all the children here can come to school”

Out of every hut a child came and we walked together,
on a road all lined with chairs.
Pushing back the war with every step.

When it was posted on the Guardian website,

http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/apr/28/the-day-the-war-came-poem-about-unaccompanied-child-refugees

with a lovely empty chair from Jackie Morris, other empty chairs began to appear…on twitter, on Jackie’s Facebook, in my in box. Pretty soon I’d lost count, Pretty soon I couldn’t keep up with giving a personal thank you to every one who had drawn, painted, embroidered, felted an empty chair.

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I’ve had emails from people in other countries sending chairs, translating the story into other languages. I’ve had emails telling me about empty chair demonstrations – lining up of chairs to protest about the UK governments, and the whole worlds general indifference to refugees.

Something about this story, something about the image of an empty chair touched a deep, deep nerve.

Refugees are not new. The first people to leave African and spread human beings around the world were probably refugees of sorts – from small tribal skirmishes, from famine, from too many big predators. And as soon as there were enough of us we started creating wars.

South Wales where I live received refugees of sorts in the many Italian families who came here in the last century to set up cafes in mining towns.

(Their initial sense of loss and alienation is the subject of my story, now this wonderful theatre production
http://www.nptartsandents.co.uk/en/event-19368)

Refugees are not going to stop existing. Even if we can stop shooting and bombing each other we’ve messed up FullSizeRenderour planet so much that there will be ever more natural disasters, and so more refugees.

As I said in my last post. This is not ideal. This is not what we’d chose. But it is the way it is.
And whatever you think, the reality is that only luck stops you and me, our kids, our grandchildren from being refugees. Tomorrow we could be the ones fleeing for our lives with our babies on our backs and the wrong kind of shoes on our feet.

So we need to be kind. We need to share. Because we could be next. Because every person matters. Because that’s what makes us truly human. People talk about ‘human nature’ as a negative. War is ‘human nature’. But if that were the whole story we’d be extinct already. Human nature – the really successful bit – is compassion, is empathy. Remember we have special words for people without those qualities, medical diagnoses.

What a simple and clear symbol of sharing: getting up so someone else can sit down for a minute.
Giving up your chair for someone less able to stand. Offering the spare chair at your table for someone who needs it.

IMGP3504 (2)Please, if you haven’t drawn a chair, do it now as a small symbol of our humanity and our ability to share. Its completely irrelevant if you can draw or not. Just do it. And upload it on the guardian witness website. There are far more chairs already a part of #3000chairs than have been put on the site…so if you’ve already done a chair, put it on there. Lets see if we can really get THREE THOUSAND…but work fast.
https://witness.theguardian.com/assignment/5728a57fe4b0a2f120515071?page=2

And if you really can’t draw on (though I can’t see why not..) then log onto the site and recommend chairs…look at them all they’re so lovely…and loveliest are the ones by people who just had a go

To inspire you listen to this while you draw : The utterly wonderful Karine Polwart singing so insightfully about the dual nature of humans.

https://www.google.co.uk/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=Karine+Polwart+better+things&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&gfe_rd=cr&ei=pusxV7_wE9LS8Af2rIjQDw

here are some of Karine’s brilliant lyrics

Ten thousand years of big ideas
Distilled into a million fears
A grand design a shiny rocket
A bullet in a bully’s pocket

So mesmerised by particles
We disregard the articles
The ones we write to keep the peace
Sullied now by blood and greed and grease

Is this the best that we can do?
Oh I can think of better things cant’ you?

We can think of better things, can’t we?
Get drawing.

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THE DAY WAR CAME AND 3000 EMPTY CHAIRS

The first chair by Jackie Morris

The first chair by Jackie Morris

In an ideal world there wouldn’t be children without parents. In an ideal world hospitals wouldn’t be bombed because they looked a bit like something else. In an ideal world everything would be sweet and smooth and we could all afford to be as selfish as we liked and it wouldn’t matter.

But it isn’t. Its messy and unpredictable, and no matter how much time we spend moaning about how bloody inconvenient that is it won’t change. We can’t change the cards we are dealt, but we can change how we play them.

The 3000 children, alone with no one, who have fled from all manner of ghastliness that it’s hard to even imagine, have been dealt some pretty bad cards by the world. We don’t have to go into who dealt them and if we have some role in how the deck was shuffled. No. It’s much more simple than that. Three thousand kids with no one looking out for them. So somebody has to. Who is it going to be?

Our government this week decided on our behalf that it definitely wouldn’t be us. Because if we did that, then every parent across the world would be putting their child in an envelope and sending them to the UK. (Presumably the Tories think the same of the NHS that curing people only encourages people to be ill.)

So who will take on the task of taking care of these three thousand children with nothing and noone, who have had everything taken from them, and now risk having their futures taken too? There is a queue of child traffickers eager to take on the job.

The sickening shamefulness of this got to me so much on Thursday that I put aside all the other things I was supposed to be doing and wrote in the genre I can do best, a picture book text – though obviously without the pictures. It ends with a child being turned away from a school because there’s no chair for her to sit on.

I Skyped my friend Jackie Morris cos the words were burning me and I had to read them to someone.

http://www.jackiemorris.co.uk

In the middle of a million things she has to do she said she’d draw a chair. Then I sent it to Emily Drabble at the Guardian and by Thursday evening it was up on the internet.

http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/apr/28/the-day-the-war-came-poem-about-unaccompanied-child-refugees

Yesterday afternoon talking to my friend Petr Horacek, I told him about the story and he offered to do a chair too.

Somehow the idea of 3000 empty chairs, one each for those lone, rejected children seemed like a good one. A chair, so shaped for a human, so strange and purposeless without body to sit on it.

And now, less than 24 hours later, illustrators, writers, readers, parents, children are sending chairs…drawn, painted, even and embroidered House of commons one from Karen Celestine.

Celestine.https://twitter.com/andtheHare/status/726308183040507904

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could gather three thousand chairs ready to parade across the internet and make the people who voted to shrug their shoulders and throw those kids to the traffickers hang their heads in shame.

If you want to add a chair…it doesn’t matter if you can’t draw for toffee, just have a go

Emily Sutton's studio chair

Emily Sutton’s studio chair

e mail it to me or tweet it with the hashtag #3000chairs and include Emily Drabble’s twitter handle @EmilyDrabs so your chairs wont get lost in the internet cracks and we can add it to the guardian gallery of empty chairs,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what I wrote

The Day War Came

The day war came there were flowers on the windowsill
and my father sang my baby brother back to sleep.
My mother made my breakfast, kissed my nose
and walked with me to school

That morning I learned about volcanos,
I sang a song about how tadpoles turn at last to frogs
I made a picture of myself with wings.

Then, just after lunch,
while I watched a cloud shaped like a dolphin,
war came.
At first, just like a spattering of hail
a voice of thunder…
then all smoke and fire and noise, that I didn’t understand.

It came across the playground.
It came into my teacher’s face.
It brought the roof down.
and turned my town to rubble.

I can’t say the words that tell you
about the blackened hole that had been my home.

All I can say is this:

war took everything

war took everyone

I was ragged, bloody, all alone.

I ran. Rode on the back of trucks, in buses;
walked over fields and roads and mountains,
in the cold and mud and rain;
on a boat that leaked and almost sank
and up a beach where babies lay face down in the sand.

I ran until I couldn’t run
until I reached a row of huts
and found a corner with a dirty blanket
and a door that rattled in the wind

But war had followed me.
It was underneath my skin,
behind my eyes,
and in my dreams.
It had taken possession of my heart.

I walked and walked to try and drive war out of myself,
to try and find a place it hadn’t reached.
But war was in the way that doors shut when I came down the street
It was in the way the people didn’t smile, and turned away.

I came to a school.
I looked in through the window.
They were learning all about volcanos
And drawing birds and singing.

I went inside. My footsteps echoed in the hall
I pushed the door and faces turned towards me
but the teacher didn’t smile.
She said, there is no room for you,
you see, there is no chair for you to sit on,
you have to go away.

And then I understood that war had got here too.

I turned around and went back to the hut, the corner and the blanket
and crawled inside.
It seemed that war had taken all the world and all the people in it.

The door banged.
I thought it was the wind.
But a child’s voice spoke
“I brought you this,” she said “so you can come to school.”
It was a chair.
A chair for me to sit on and learn about volcanoes, frogs and singing
And drive the war out of my heart.

She smiled and said
“My friends have brought theirs too, so all the children here can come to school”

Out of every hut a child came and we walked together,
on a road all lined with chairs.
Pushing back the war with every step.

The first chair by Jackie Morris

The first chair by Jackie Morris

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Perfect, the story of a story

OGBQ3614I’m no sportswoman. In fact I could be the world’s most uncoordinated writer. So to use a tennis analogy seems a bit of a cheek, but it really is the only one that will do. I’m hopeless at tennis – of course- but my very sweet and long suffering son gave me a tennis lesson and, just once, I managed to hit the ball properly. It felt amazing; completely different from all the other times I’d ever ineptly whacked a tennis ball. The sound it made was wonderful, as if the ball and racket were resonant parts of a musical instrument. I  knew instantly that I’d got it right.

Just three times in my life I’ve got that feeling, instantly, from a story, that resonant thwack of knowing you’ve hit the narrative sweet spot. One of those times was early 2014. I wrote a picture book text  – ‘Perfect’ – that connected swifts and the birth of a baby, written from the perspective of the baby’s older brother. (you can read some of the back ground to the story in an earlier blog post) It addresses the negative feelings that sometimes surround the birth of any sibling, but is specifically about a disabled sibling. I hate to use that word ‘disabled’, as if that’s all there is to say about a person. But that’s kind of the point of the book – you learn that the word, the label, doesn’t matter; that a person is a person and that’s all.  Having had some contact with families with ‘disabled’ children I knew that initially it can be hard to see through the word to the person, and that there can be a period of pain, confusion, disappointment, before the person shines through and love does its magic. I wanted to give a space for those negative feelings, a way to say its normal to feel this stuff but it will pass and something good will come.

From publisher’s perspectives this is a PC minefield. All the same, I thought it was an important topic to air, and I felt I’d done it well. So I was sad (disappointed, gutted, depressed etc) when it was rejected by everyone, from my main publisher through every other major publishing house in the land.

Rejection usually puts me into a spiral of self doubt, but for some reason this just made me cross and determined. Luckily for me a small but perfectly formed publishing house in Wales, Graffeg, who had published my great friend Jackie Morris’ work, took it on. Initially I hoped to find a student illustrator to illustrate the text, but carrying a narrative is a big burden for a first outing as an illustrator so instead – quite by chance – I found Cathy Fisher. One look at a single image of hers told me that here was the person with the skill, the insight and the life experience to carry this story. I am still pinching myself that the universe dealt me such a fine card. Cathy’s images for ‘Perfect’ are stunning. Everyone who I’ve shown them to just gasps.

The book will be published in the Spring 2016, but it already has friends – people to whom I’ve read the story, and now, people who have been enchanted by Cathy’s illustrations. You can see some of their comments below. And from the 30th of December 2015 you can see some of Cathy’s images too as lovely LOVELY Emily Drabble at the Guardian is putting them up on the website. You can read the text at the end of this blog.HCRQ7425

Closer to publication I’ll post a reading of the story on line and of course you can always pre-order your copy. But for now, look at the Guardian Children’s books website and share the link with as many people as you can, so that the bravery of Graffeg – small and VERY perfect – can be rewarded.

 

Here’s what Cathy Fisher says about the experience of illustrating Perfect.

When I first met Nicola, by chance (because she had seen one my pictures on my friend’s wall) I was so exited. I felt like a child who had just found a new friend! She read “Perfect” to me in a cafe and my mind instantly filled with tender images. I was so touched. It is such an honest story. I drove home hoping she would ask me to illustrate it for her. I was thrilled when she asked me and felt blessed to have the excuse to spend summer watching swifts.It was hard to find them at first, which perturbed me. I remember so many swifts in summers when I was young. They really have dwindled.

In August I found them. That’s when I really started to understand them. At the same time I found the Boy, Baby and (although they hardly appear) Mother and Father.

The characters come to life through research, drawing and constantly thinking about them. I trawl the internet for images, study other artist’s work, take photos, read, write down thoughts, watch people, draw a lot and obsess!

I collaged my cuttings and drawings into a sketchbook, then worked out the illustrations for each page in a story board and made a dummy book.

Before I began the final artwork I presented it all to Nicola and Graffeg. From the beginning I have always felt that Nicola and I understood each other so it has felt very easy to exchange and interpret thoughts and ideas with her.

I have eight siblings and four of my own children. One of my sisters has had many years experience of fostering, so complex family stories have been intertwined in mine over the years. Experiences in my life have made me feel empathy for all the characters in “Perfect”.

All the time I was working on the final artwork I was thinking of the baby, the boy and imagining I was flying with swifts. I have been dreaming about the pictures. With each illustration I imagined I was the character while I worked.

I work with mixed media, painting and drawing, on heavy weight, handmade watercolour paper. Throughout the whole process I listened to Max Richter’s eight hour lullaby, “Sleep”. A beautiful continuous piece of music, which I am sure influenced the flow and the mood of the illustrations.

When I was drawing the illustration of Baby in the cot, I wanted to express the boys confusion to his reaction to his new baby sister. I wanted to express a gentle, soft silence, a reverence, but also his inner turmoil. The ‘scribble’ above her cot, which tumbles down and spills over into the next page, is to represent the boys own angry frustrated scribble. I was shocked at my own reaction when I drew it – I felt such anger, I cried. Expressing feelings through drawing and painting can be quite cathartic!

Nicola’s story needs to be read, listened to and talked about. I feel honoured that she asked me to illustrate it.

Almost the first person to hear Perfect was Laura Carlin, my collaborator on ‘The Promise’. Talking to Laura in the WorldLand Trust Gallery in Halesworth where we had an exhibition of Laura’s artwork for ‘The Promise’ was actually the start of ‘Perfect’

Nicola knows how to tell a story without putting on a voice for children – something you still see too much of in children’s publishing. Children aren’t stupid, they see and feel when things haven’t turned out as planned. So, as important it is to not talk down to them, we should also involve them in the not-so rosy side of life. ‘Perfect’ is beautifully written – and it does tend to make you cry – but it also tells a very truthful and real story. It made me breathe a sigh of relief to remember that words and pictures can help widen and explain the world for children. It intrigues, involves and soothes it’s reader – all at the same time.

I read ‘Perfect’ to Jackie Morris just after it was hitting its first round of rejections. She helped keep up my spirits and encouraged me to keep trying to find a publisher.

”Perfect” is a story about disappointment, and the emotions that go along with all the whirl of feelings that swirl around this. The first time Nicola read this to me it made me cry. People talk so much about diversity in books. What this has taught me is something about my painting. Every piece of work I do is a disappointment because it is never ‘perfect’. But it is what it is. And if I can see it and appreciate it for itself, then that is so much better.

It’s more than that, so much more. The pictures are gems, each one. They sing off the page. I know this text travelled through a few publishers and Nic almost gave up on ever seeing it in print. It’s so discouraging, to have such faith in a piece of work and be knocked back. I am so glad it found a home with Graffeg. It will shine. One of the best picture books I have ever read.

Nikki Gamble visionary force behind children’s literacy consultancy ‘Imagine’ let me read Perfect to her at the FCBG in Spring 2015. I should have thought to supply tissues. 

When I first heard this story, it was one of those precious moments when silence is the best response – silence to allow the beautifully wrought prose to resonate. Because stories as deeply felt, and as exquisitely crafted as ‘Perfect’ are the food that nourish the soul and help us to become better versions of ourselves. I will be reading this and putting it into the hands of as many teachers, students and children as I can.

 

PERFECT
I loved the little bedroom on the top floor of our pointy house. 
In Summer, swifts nested in the roof above it and I watched their fledglings first flights from its window. They were perfect from the very start, soaring high to slice the sky with crescent wings.
All Winter, I waited for them to return. And I waited for the baby who would sleep in the tiny, rooftop room.
The day she came was the same day that the swifts came back. They raced and chased each other, screaming over rooftops with the joy of being home
I watched them from the window.  That’s how it will be I thought, me and my sister, racing and chasing, screaming with laughter and delight.
But when my sister came home from the hospital, I could see that she would never race or chase. She didn’t even scream. Her dark eyes looked at me and she lay quite still.
 I didn’t want to hold her so I ran into the garden. I lay there, on my back, to watch the swifts, and let my tears run down into the grass, where nobody would see them.
All Summer long I played outside, alone.
When people asked about my sister, I turned my head away.
 I didn’t want to feel the way I felt. But I couldn’t love my sister, no matter how I tried.
 Every night I watched the swifts fly up and up into the dusk. They disappeared into the blue.  Sometimes I wished that I could vanish with them.
Every morning they’d be back, snipping at the air between the rooftops with their scissory wings. Their screams as sharp as arrows pointing to the stillness in my sisters room.
From outside in the garden, I’d watch them, visiting their nests in the roof above her quiet window.
Then one August dawn, I saw something on the grass, like a sooty piece of half burned paper from a garden bonfire: a fledgling swift had crashed onto the lawn. 
Down on the ground it looked all wrong, its puny legs too small, its crumpled wings too long.But when I gently stretched its crescent wings, they were quite perfect.
 Its dark eye looked at me as it lay quiet in my hands.
Perhaps, I thought, it only needs a little help
I went inside, and carried it upstairs, right up to the little bedroom on the top floor of our pointy house. 
I opened up the window and held the swift out on my hands, so it could see the sky and feel the air.
Its small feet gripped my finger for a moment, and its body trembled.
Then, its wings flickered, fast as thinking and it was gone! Scissor-slicing through the morning air until it was a black dot, high above the rooftops.
I turned around and stood beside my sister’s cot.
Her dark eyes opened and her tiny fingers curled tightly onto mine.
She smiled at me, a perfect, perfect, perfect smile.
 Perhaps, I thought, she only needs a little help.
 I picked her up. So small and warm and soft inside my arms.
I took her out into the garden and we watched the swifts together.
And I told her how it was going to be, the two of us together,
racing, chasing, screaming with delight and laughter. 
 

 

 

 

 

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Some of My Year In Random Pictures

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WHALE SINGING

Me and LarryWhen I was 17 I bought an album that wasn’t anything like the LPs that my friends talked about on the bus to school. Rather than moody, unsmiling, adolescent boys, its cover featured an artwork of a breaching whale. I played it for the first time on my father’s radiogram, at night, lying flat on the floor and staring into the darkness. High sweeping moans, bubbling rumbles, whoops and squeaks came from the record, sounds unlike those made by any human instrument, and yet this was quite obviously music. It spoke straight to my heart and I was instantly besotted. Over the next three years ‘The Song of the Humpback Whale’ recorded by American biologist, Roger Payne, became the soundtrack of my journey from school girl to fledgling biologist.

 

But in 1970s Britain whales were impossibly distant, away in the realm of dragons or unicorns. Something to campaign about – whaling was still alive, well and legal back then- or dream about, but not, I thought, creatures I could ever really see or study. Then, quite by chance, in my second year at university, I met Hal Whitehead. In whaley-circles nowadays that name is legendary, but back then, Hal wasn’t Professor Whitehead, the most eminent whale biologist of his generation, but a scruffy post doc, looking for a research assistant – and that turned out to be me.

 

 

davies9So, in June 1979 I stood on a cliff in Newfoundland and looked down to see three humpback whales in the water below, their fins showing turquoise through the jade-coloured ocean. I spent two summers there, studying humpback feeding behaviour, as they hoovered up the shoals of spawning capelin that lay just under the surface, like heaped hoards of silver doubloons. They breached, just like the whale on the album cover, sometimes multiple times. One whale did 47 breaches in a row, although by the time it did the last one, it wasn’t getting very far out of the water. When the sea mist rolled in and brimmed to the cliff top like milk, I’d listen to their blows and snorts carrying up from the water below.

At the end of the first of my two Summers in Newfoundland, and almost as exciting as seeing real live humpbacks, I met Roger Payne and his musicologist partner Katy, who did much of the work on humpback song. I spent an afternoon – entirely overawed and star struck – at their ‘lab’ outside Boston. I remember a light filled loft, surrounded by trees; green, leafy-light streaming in and falling on huge worktops, covered in sonograms of whale song; intense grad students arguing about what humpbacks did and didn’t do in the warm tropical waters where they courted and had their calves.

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The research that Katy and Roger began has now grown into decades of recordings of humpback song from around the world. It’s shown that humpback song is the most complicated display created by any animal. But unlike bird song or courtship display, it changes, sometimes quite radically, not because of genetic change but because whales learn from and react to each other. All male humpbacks in one place sing the same song each year but by the following year, perhaps a new ‘verse’ or a different ‘chorus’ has been added. Gradually some of these changes spread across oceans from one population to another, usually in a predictable direction and at a steady speed. And once in a few years there is a huge song-shift and another, very different , song takes over, completely replacing the original song. As if the all whales suddenly decide to stop singing Beyonce and switch to Adele, or even Beethoven. In other words humpback song can change not because of evolution but because of revolution – a change is as much cultural as human changes in musical tastes.

Throughout my two summer studying humpbacks I dreamed longing dreams about tropical oceans, filled with whale song and I wanted more than anything in the world to see and hear humpbacks living their other, more beautiful, romantic life. But humpbacks only sing on their winter breeding grounds, and I had to wait thirty years before I was finally heard humpbacks sing.

DSC_0333_2In 2013 I was, at last, back on another of Hal’s research boats, ‘Baleana’, in the deep waters off the Caribbean island of Dominica. It was captained by Hal’s research partner Shane Gero, who runs the long term study of sperm whales there, so humpbacks were not really on the agenda. It was almost the last night of my two week stay and I was on watch in the wee small hours. Black water lapped around the boat, the sky was streaked with navy blue clouds and veiled stars. A hydrophone over the side allowed us to eavesdrop on what was going on in the ocean beneath us and part of my job on watch was to listen out for sperm whale clicks, at regular intervals. I put on the headphones and shut my eyes. There were the familiar noises – dolphin whistles, thin high wisps of sound and the frantic clock ticking noises that announced that a pod of sperm whales was hunting somewhere a thousand meters under our keel. But then a new sound, one I hadn’t heard at all before but instantly recoginized, an ascending keening-curve of sound, a rumble, a running series of short whoops and long, low note, off the lowest register of an oboe. Humpback song! Almost as soon as I heard the first, there was a second. The song soaked into me and I knew that somewhere inside, I had been hungry for this sound for every second of those thirty years. I felt as if it was entering every cell and settling into my DNA like a new bit of code.

Ever since, I’ve been planning to write something about humpback song and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to go back to a tropical ocean somewhere to hear it again. But a davies20unique  collaboration between musicologists and biologists sciences, initiated by Dr Alexis Kirke senior research fellow at the School Of Humanites and Performing Arts at Plymouth University could give me an opportunity to hear it, closer to home.

Back in 2010 Alexis got interested in blue whale songs and the very precise pitching of their sounds http://www.sfsu.edu/news/prsrelea/fy10/002.html Reading the paper got him thinking “Shortly after” Alexis says, “I was sitting in a meeting and the director of Peninsula Arts said she wanted to commission a piece of music.I pitched the idea of the Saxophone and Blue Whales performance and got the gig.” As Alexis dived deeper into whale biology as part of his research for the piece he met biologist Simon Ingram who told him about humpback song, and introduced him to the whale science team at St Andrew’s University, lead by Dr Luke Rendel (Hal’s collaborator). The first result was a performance, ‘Fast Travel’ , that combined live saxophone performance with the singing of virtual whales, whose songs were programmed to react to the saxophone and to each other  http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2011-07/25/whale-song-alex-kirke The second result is a much larger, evolving collaboration between Alexis, Simon, Luke and their Phd Students. The plan is, Alexis explained, to “use the modelling of humpback whales as a way both to investigate their marine science and to develop tools for multi-robot system communication”

For the time being the focus is very much on the whales. The team aim to unravel some of the mysteries of humpback song, which have resisted almost four decades of scientific study: why and how does the song change over time and what exactly is the role it plays in the lives of humpback whales?  Using models developed by Alexis’ team in  Plymouth, computer programmes will mimic humpback songs, as described by hundred of hours of field studies and recordings. These programmes will create twenty, virtual whales  – referred to in the study as ‘agents’ – who will sing in the virtual ocean of cyberspace and react to each others songs. The ‘agents’ can be imbued with different characteristics – a liking for new sounds or an aversion to them, for example- and the number of whales singing, their volume and spacing can also be varied.  Six months worth of humpback singing can happen in cyberspace in just two minutes, so it will be possible for Luke and his collaborators to run hundreds of different virtual scenarios with the agents in their virtual ocean. “We hope” Luke told me” that we can generate a model that exactly mirrors the patterns of song evolution we see in real whale populations”.

As I talked with the team in Plymouth back in October we began to think about some possible spin offs from the project, things not strictly speaking part of the research… Could the virtual whale song be part of Plymouths annual festival of contemporary music? Could the whale song model be made into an app allowing people to run different whale song scenarios for themselves, and generate new kinds of songs? Could the songs be visually represented, like animated sonograms?

IMG_0374The ideas that got me most excited were, off course, the ones related to children. For years I’ve been ending almost every school visit or literary festival performance by teaching audiences of children a potted version off humpback song that they can reproduce easily. Of course, children love the opportunity to make loud noises – especially ones like farts – so this always goes down a storm. But could this be combined with Luke’s project in a more sophisticated way? One possibility would be to design an interactive app that allowed children to make their own whale songs using their own voices and then include them in a virtual song scene with other virtual whales, and see how those whales reacted to their song. Can you lure a whale closer with your song? How must you change your song composition to do this? Can you invent and sing a song, so popular it brings about a whale cultural revolution?  This could be something that schools could run on a computer in class, as part of a science or a music lesson, or something that could run in a ‘Whale Song Booth ‘ at a cultural festival.

I’m also keen to explore some of the story possibilities of humpback song. Many of my own stories feature children who, in some way struggle to be heard, or whose voice, opinions, personality are at odds with those around them. So, there are some obvious parallels with humpback song. The surface of the water is an almost perfect barrier to sound so a whale can be singing in the water and inaudible in the air above. A child may be singing or crying on the inside but that emotional voice may be completely inaudible to the adults around her. A novel song may be ignored by a population of humpbacks, or bring about a revolution so that all whales sing the new song, just as a  child, very different from her piers, may be the outcast or the most popular kid in class. I’m also very interested in the image of the singing whale as an archetype – a symbol of freedom and of the beauty of the wild. I have an image in my head of a child, frightened and alone, in a dark room reaching out to find a whale swimming close in the darkness.

The weekend after I met the two teams in Plymouth, I was playing  around with a singing bowl filled with water, watching the water form a small fountain, simply with the sound waves produced by stroking the bowl around its edge. It got me thinking; humpback song is very loud and humpbacks hearing it are immersed in water. What effect does humpback song have on the water and on the whale bodies immersed in it? Could whales be perceiving their songs in a very different way from the way we choose to record and document them? Could the whales listening but not singing – the females- be conducting the sound in the way the bowl conducts the sound waves?

I’m just at the beginning of thinking about how a narrative with human meaning might be linked, counterpointed, harmonised, with the story of humpback song. Right now I have all sorts of things swimming around in my head, but I know that as always its as important to look out, as it is to look in when you search for stories. So I’m waiting to hear what Alexis, Luke and his collaborators discover when they begin to play with virtual whales, and looking forward to more cross curricular conversations between biology and music.

And I’m planning to go and hear humpback song in the wild again…I’m in need of new adventures.

 

DO READ

‘The Cultural Lives of Whales’, By Hal Whitehead and  Luke Rendel from St Andrews University,

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The Show Went On:The King of the Sky On Stage

 

At Hay before going on the Starlight Stage

At Hay before going on the Starlight Stage

Generally speaking dreams don’t come true, but, over the last two weeks, one of mine has. It stepped from inside my head and came to vivid, singing life. All thanks to the talent and hard work of an extraordinary director and a group of actors, with the support of a fantastic arts centre, ‘The King of the Sky’, the picture book text I wrote more than two years ago, really is a theatre production.

It had its first performances at Pontadawe Arts Centre last week and played to a packed house in the Starlight Theatre at the Hay Festival over the weekend.

Getting ready to go on stage at Hay with the gong

Getting ready to go on stage at Hay with the gong

How did this happen? I can’t give a complete answer because some of it is alchemy that’s happened between the director Derek Cobley, the musical director Chrys Blanchard and the cast – Roger Delves-Broughton, Sonia Beck, Huw Novelli, Tessa Bide and Oliver Davies; it’s a magic that I’ve seen and can’t quite describe. But I can give you some idea of the process, the steps we took.

A page from my notebook

A page from my notebook

The first step happened in my heart. From the moment I wrote the last word of this story I knew it could have a bigger life on the stage. This is slightly crazy because my experience of theatre is very limited, confined to seeing most of Kneehigh Theatre’s productions over the last 20 years. That has given all my stories a fantasy life of music, action and performance – somehow The King of the Sky was the one where the fantasy was so powerful, that it compelled me to take step number two: sending the raw text, with no illustration to clothe it, to Derek Cobley, who I knew through his directorship of the Swansea Wordplay Festival.

 

All the set came out of these

All the set came out of these

Derek has a head full of theatre-sense. So when he agreed that it could work, I knew I wasn’t just going mad. His track record helped to gain the support of Angie Dickinson, director of Pontadawe Arts Centre, who got us a budget to rehearse and develop the piece, like a conjuror pulling a rabbit out of a hat. This allowed Derek to take all the next steps – working out how the story could be staged with almost no budget. He also instinctively understood how the story needed to be extended to make it intelligible to a live theatre audience. So the stage version begins in Rome not Wales and the two locations are packed and unpacked from a collection of suitcases. Everything – the streets of Rome, the South Wales village and hills, even the door of the cafe and the pigeon loft, Derek decided should come out of suitcases.

 

This translation from one medium to another has been fascinating for me. A picture book operates outside any time line; the reader can

Chrys getting Oliver to sing out

Chrys getting Oliver to sing out

absorb the complexity of the emotion and information delivered by the marriage of words and pictures, at their own pace – turning pages slowly, turning back, jumping, re reading. On the stage, the story plays out to a set time line, every moment of which must be understood by the audience as it happens. The set, the script, the action, the music must do the job, in the moment, that words and illustrations do in their own story-time, delivering back story, character and plot. Although I didn’t really know how this translation would work, I felt that music was going to be really important so the other vital step was getting Chrys Blanchard on board. Her experience with composing for theatre and radio and working with voices and singing, together with her extraordinary collection of instruments, was perfect. She listened patiently to my half formed ideas about counter pointed melodies made of Welsh and Italian surnames and didn’t turn a hair when I sent her yet more lyrics needing a melody to dress them. She even taught herself how to play piano accordian when the accordian playing actress originally cast for the part of Mum, had to pull out.

Ffion and Dan trying to work out how pigeons fly

Ffion and Dan trying to work out how pigeons fly

We had a set in suitcases. We had music, we even had a sort of script but we also needed pigeons. The eponymous star of the show is a racing pigeon; he and his flock are part of the action and symbolism of the story. There was no budget for animatronics, or even clever lighting to suggest a flying flock, so puppet makers Marta Gemma and Mae Vogel gave us a flock, a bird that could flap and, very importantly, a bird that could be cuddled. This one, double life size so as to be visible from the back of the theatre, was handled by everyone in the cast at some stage and for some reason was only ever referred to as ‘Barry’.

 

 

 

Roger and Chrys in 'the town band'

Roger and Chrys in ‘the town band’

On Monday 11th of May we began rehearsals in the upstairs studio of Pontadawe arts, surrounded by the little town that, 90 years ago could have been a dead ringer for the one in the story. Having never been involved in a theatre production before I had expected a sort of construction job – building the piece scene by scene like a wall of bricks. But it wasn’t like that at all. We sort of sidled up to it instead of constructing it, like twirling dancers, pulling in ideas and images, threads of character and meaning as we whirled around.

The very first thing we did was sing. I joined in all the singing bits in rehearsal, partly because I love singing and partly because I just wanted my heart to be involved and inside every part of what was done. It was immediately obvious that we had a cast with really lovely voices as well as their ability to play instruments. The next thing we did was lie on the floor and listen to the landscape of sound created by Chrys’ giant gong. That was one of those alchemic moments. The gong created the sound effects for the storm that happen’s at the end of the play – but it wasn’t just an incidental sound effect. The layers of the gongs voice got inside all of us and somehow made a background of emotion that we painted on throughout the rest of the rehearsal.

That first five days was extraordinary. We sang. We learned how to make our fingers into puppets. The cast packed and unpacked the

Huw and Tessa being Mum and Dad

Huw and Tessa being Mum and Dad to Ol’s Lorenzo

set into suitcases, until the whole sequence was as choreographed as a Ginger and Fred routine. Characters and relationships grew and shaped the story. Huw and Tessa made the mother and father central to the story, so that their little, wordless set pieces, originally intended just to show the passing of time, actually told the whole back ground story of the family settling in Wales. Roger and Olly became friends just as Mr Evans and Lorenzo did. (I should say here that Olly is 14 – but actually after the first day I forgot that and simply thought of him as one of the cast).  Sonia created a whole village of people visiting the cafe.

I was constantly amazed by the craft and skill of the actors. Mesmerized by watching how they moved. A different species really – cleverer with their bodies, able to put meaning into the turn of a foot, the tilt of a head. I was fascinated by their ability to make characters live, tell a story, connect with the audience. Most of the time, inside my head I was saying ‘Oh wow! You are all soooo clever’.  And I was incredibly moved by the fact that they all understood what the story was trying to do, and were dedicated, determined, to communicate that to the audience. That was humbling. I made a resolution to be more focussed on communication in my own writing.

Huw and Tessa on the 'town band'

Huw and Tessa in the ‘town band’

I wrote and re wrote, added and subtracted. I adored the practicality of it – having to write extra lines to cover a move on stage, or a logistical problem with a prop. Everyone contributed ideas, including Dan Jones our assistant director and Ffion Davies our stage manager. It felt as if we were making a picture, pulling focus, sometimes on the back ground, sometimes on the foreground, zooming into close ups and then taking a wide. At first everything was blurred, then miraculously at the end of Friday the story was sharp, defined, in focus.

Sonia being a Welsh Mrs Overall

Sonia being a Welsh Mrs Overall

We did some quite bonkers things in the eight days of rehearsal. We did puppet performance with hankies, we practiced pigeon cooing, we tried out gloves in B and Q to see which made the best pigeon flapping noises. And every night I went home feeling more alive than ever in my life.

We came back at the start of week two with just three days refine and polish the show we’d made before the first performances. That was the only stage at which I was anxious, because I could see how good it could be, if we just got everything right. But from the first performance I stopped worrying and understood that even if everything wasn’t perfect, the cast were telling the story and connecting with the audience so powerfully, that little glitches didn’t matter. 

The response to the performances was amazing. The show didn’t simply ‘just work’, it was a hit, grown men cried and even the smallest children went out singing the songs. It had become the kind of production that people don’t just see, but experience, and carry away in their hearts.

 

 

I wasn’t surprised – it was more like the final piece of the jigsaw falling into place – but it did feel good, not in an achievement sort of way, more like the sharing of a really great meal. I felt we – the director, the cast, the stage manager and assistant director and I – had had this wonderful, wonderful time creating the show and now we had shared that two weeks of work, and fun, worry and love with hundreds of people.

Next year, if we can raise the funding The King of the Sky will go on tour. We’ll get time to refine and rewrite to do more with the components we’ve assembled. I’d like to do more with the music and make more of the lovely voices we have to play with. By then it will also be a picture book, with Laura Carlin’s wonderful pictures ( some of which already appeared in the show) so it’ll be great to see how people react to the two incarnations of the story.

Right now, I’m back at my desk, alone with my computer again, but I’ve had a life changing experience. I’ve seen that dreams really can come true, if you are lucky enough to work with the right people.DSC_0275

 

The King of the Sky

Adapted and Performed  by

Tessa Bide

Sonia Beck

OLiver Davies

Roger Delves Broughton

Huw Novelli

Directed by Derek Cobley

Stage Manager Ffion Davies

Technical support Daniel Travers

Assistant director Dan Jones

Puppets by Marta Gemma and Mae Voogd

Design by Derek Cobley and Laura Carlin

Supported by Angue Dickinson and Pontadawe Arts

 

 

 

 

 

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Suffolk Love and The Unpredictable

The UnpredictedDSC_0207

The goddess Fortune be praised (on her toothed wheel

I have been mincemeat these several years)

Last night, for a whole night, the unpredictable

Lay in my arms, in a tender and unquiet rest –

(I perceived the irrelevance of my former fears)

Lay, and then departed. I rose and walked the streets

Where a whitsuntide wind blew fresh, and blackbirds

Incontestably sang, and the people were beautiful.

John Heath Stubbs (1918-2006)

DSC_0169I often say I don’t feel I really belong anywhere, that I moved around too much as a child to learn to grow more than the shallowest of roots, but it’s not quite true. I spent seven very formative years in the Suffolk countryside. As a lonesome rather swotty ( and spotty ) adolescent, landscape became my companion and my obsession: the fields around my parents home near Clare that I tried and tried to paint, the Suffolk coast from Snape to Southwold, the Brecks, the saltmarsh sweep between Blakney and Cley in North Norfolk – I fell in love with them as only a dreamy teen can. This week, I’ve been back, wandering the Waveney near Beccles and the beaches, marshes and woods from Southwold and Westleton. I’m in love all over again.

I think what beguiles me so much about these landscapes is the combination of their lived-in-ness and their wildness. They are so human and so used. Farmed fields, boats on the river, criss crosses of paths and tractor tracks, horses and cows, gates and fences. Look at a map and every copse, lane, and field is named, known, noticed – even if not by the humans who live there now; once those names carried a meaning and symbolised a strong emotional and practical connection. The names remind me that we all were once tied to the land by the tightest bonds of necessity.

DSC_0178The wildness is there too: marsh, reedbed, ponds and rivers, islands of woodland and rushy fields, but it’s hidden in the linearity, not visible from a distance, and only there when you come upon it. Unexpectedly.

Thursday 23rd April 

Lost along the Waveney at dusk. This is when the wild expects humans to be tidied away indoors, and you can slip inside it as if passing through the spirit portal to Tir Na Nog – the land of other, the land of dream, and magic and imagination. Within sound of roads and sight of houses I felt I had passed into that secret, wild and distant place. Exactly the feeling I so adored when I roamed the ditches and hedgerows near my parents’ house. Two hares ran through the new wheat, their ears just above the green, their backs loping, like athletes just out of bed and still not warmed up. The difference between hares and rabbits is always breathtaking, shocking almost. Their movement is dangerous, unfettered even at their slowest pace. So not the homely, fluffy bounce of a bunny. Closer to the river, where the soil was velvet cake mix, lapwings zip-zipped, flashing the white undersides to their wings and a snipe jumped up and jinked away. A chinese water deer splashed through a marsh, caught by an illogical loop of dyke. And then, in the last, high, gold light a marsh harrier gleamed out, bronze, low over the ranks of reeds and then soaring high to scold me. Louche, languid, impossibly elegant and effortless – like a beautiful talent, too gorgeous to be bothered to exert itself.

 Monday 27th

RSPB Reserve, Minsmere. As a teen, I used to hate the fact that I had to be in hides, along paths, with people. Now, I found rather liked the sharing, the overheard expertise -and the reverse. I got very excited! Avocets everywhere, as always looking like someone trying to bale a boat with a teaspoon. A mobile carpet of dunlin with their dear little black tummies. A party of tufted ducks, their eyes luminous in the fierce white light of a pin-bright spring day. I found myself marching from hide to hide, eager for the next experience, my heart racing just as it did when I was 12. At noon, the epitome of the unexpected – a pair of otters gamboling in the water, not 200 m from where I sat in a hide with twenty other not especially silent watchers. I watched them through my binoculars, rolling in the water, the light shooting and sparking, emphasizing their liquid curves and catching the droplets on their whiskers. My heart suddenly squeezed and my eyes filled. I sat wiping my tears and trying to analyze what this feeling was: hope. It was hope. Hope for the wild, daily so squashed, so shattered by everything that humans do, and don’t do. But here were otters, with an audience and a back drop of a nuclear power station, and hope had flown up, joyful, jinking like a snipe into the blue, to say we might not ruin everything, it might just be ok.

DSC_0204Monday 27th Dusk

I walked out over the footbridge from Southwold Harbour to Walberswick marsh and turned north up the river. An island of purple cloud dispersed the atomic tangerine of the sunset down onto the river, staining the whole luscious curve upstream, raspberry. In the field below the pig farm, a hare limped along, more than 500m from me but still aware of my presence and wary. I stopped watching in case she was a jenny, going to give here leverets their brief suckle. A pair of shelduck peeped anxiously at my approach, paddling about on the mud, turned metallic apricot in the sunset. A curlew stepped out in front of them, like a lead actor upstaging the supporting cast. Once again I got that feeling of having passed through into a secret world, but now I was out of place, noticed, making the residents self conscious. I turned back, and stood behind the fence on the other side of the bridge, scanning the fields and the reeds. By chance, I ran my binoculars along the fence at the bottom of the dyke. A pearly heart-face looked right at me, eyes dark as space, through the intervening tangle of twigs.A barn owl, a female by the look of her, with a biscuit-coloured scatter across her white breast.  I was all too visibly human, outlined against the sky but tried the old trick anyway, ‘kissing’ my palm noisily to generate the high squeaks that to a barn owl signal ‘Vole Dinner Is Served’. She looked my way, but unconvinced took off. Barn owl flight is miraculous, the words float, glide, soar just don’t do enough to describe its other worldly quality. It seems to completely defy all normal laws and require a new vocabulary. Perhaps other langugeas have better words, but in the meantime: flap, flutter, float; up a little, down, glide, is what she did. I tracked her all the way from the footbridge, down to a gate at the end of the field next to the car park for Walberswick beach, with the rooves of houses behind, little sheds, house lights coming on. Then back, with the rigging of the yachts and fishing boats in my binocular’s field along with that wild, white owl, more silent than breath. All her beauty and wildness was magnified by the proximity to the gear and doings of humans.

Wednesday 29th

Now I’m back in Wales. Looking at the hills, thinking about the difference between them and the flat I’ve just come from.  It’s the surprise of the those linear, layered East Anglican landscapes that gets into my soul. They are undpredictable. You come upon wildness suddenly because a flat landscape keeps it secrets until the last moment. Everything is unpredicted there, until you arrive at it and it flies up like a spell. 

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