A Book List For Teachers

I’ve done my last school visit of 2014. It’s been a good year for them. I’ve met thousands of children and laughed and written and had a great time with them all. Hopefully some of them will remember something about our meeting – a fragment of information about an animal, a little tip about how to approach writing, a spark of inspiration that will make them want to read. One thing that’s struck me again and again, is how hard it is for busy teachers to find out about my books – about ANY books. So here, for anyone who wants it is a list of some of my books, with a little description of what they are,  what year group they could be used for, and what topics they could be used for. Then, if you want to know more, its just a couple of click from here to explore my website.

You can see covers on my website nicola-davies.com and some reviews and prizes/ shortlistings

NON FICTION

Non fiction Picture Books    

Good for reception and infants but can be used for primary too:

A First Book of Nature     Walker Books 2012

Poems and prose poems about first experiences of the nature.

Good for all aspects of natural history and also for reading aloud.

Big Blue Whale    Walker Books 1997

Topics: Adaptation. Marine life. Migration.

Bat Loves the Night Walker Books 2000

Topics: Nocturnal animals. Flight. Animal senses. (echolocation)

One Tiny Turtle  Walker Books 2000

Topics: Marine life. Migration. Navigation. Classification (turtles are reptiles lay eggs but breathe air and must breed on land) Adaptation (contrast between tortoises and turtles.) Conservation (most spp of turtles now declining).

White Own Barn Owl  Walker Books 2007

Topics: Birds. Nocturnal animals. Adaptation.  Conservation (putting up owl boxes helps replace lost nest sites in barns old trees etc).

Tiny. The Invisible World of Microbes Walker Book 2014

Topics: Disease and health. Basic life processes (decay, recycling of nutrients, soil, air.) Food and fermentation (yoghourt, cheese vinegar etc). Variety of living things.

 

Good for infants year 1- 3

Surprising Sharks   Walker Books 2002 

Topics: Marine life. Diversity (lots of shark species, not just one) Perception of animals (are all sharks maneaters and scary? No!) Conservation (not just the cute fluffy things that are worth saving. Sharks under huge threat from over fishing). Animal senses.

Dolphin Baby             Walker Books 2011

Topics: Animal babies and mums. Growth and development. Marine life. Senses. Taxonomy (mammals but live in the sea). Adaptation.

Just Ducks     Walker 2012

Topics: Wildlife in the town. What is a wild creature? (mallards will come close to you in the park but free to fly off.) Birds. Adaptation.

Good for year 4 plus 

Ice Bear            Walker Books 2005

Topics: Arctic. Predators. Adaptation. Inuits. (also climate change, peripherally).

Grow Your Own Monsters    Frances Lincoln    2010

Topics: Plants. Seeds. Growth. Gardening.

 

Longer non fiction.

Good for years 4, 5, 6 (also 7,8,9! Boys in particular)

Series of six books, all illustrated with fun, cartoon style pictures by Neal Layton, each about 7000 words long. Each one covers a particular topic in biology and contains quite a density of scientific information in an accessible, narrative form. The titles tell you all you need to know! (except perhaps for Poo which covers a wide range of topics from animal communication to paleontology, but is really about how biologists go about finding out about animals using their poo). All we be re-isued in 2014/15 with new covers and a different format.

Poo: A Natural History of the Unmentionable    Walker Books 2004

Extreme Animals       Walker Books 2006 (adaptation to extreme environments)

Who’s Eating You. The Inside story of parasites.    Walker Books 2007

Just the Right Size. Why Big Animals Are Big and Little Animals Are Little      Walker Books 2009

Talk, Talk Squawk. How and Why Animals Communicate   Walker Books 2010

Deadly, Animals That Bite Back    Walker 2012

 

FICTION

Picture books

All ages

The Promise Walker Books 2013

Topics: Environment. Trees. Growing. Responsibility. Personal growth and change.

 

Year 3 plus

Silver Street Farm Series

Six chapter books overall length 7-8000 words, with short chapters and line drawing illustration. All set on an imaginary city farm with three main child characters reflecting ethnic diversity of inner city communities. Fun adventures with animals, lots of humour and warm happy endings. Also available as audio books.

Welcome to Silver Street Farm

Escape From Silver Street Farm

Spring Fever  at Silver Street Farm

All Aboard at Silver Street Farm

Crowded out At Silver Street Farm

Frozen Solid at Silver Street Farm    Walker Books 2011/12

 

Year 4, 5 and 6 

Heros of The Wild Series: (fiction/ non fiction ) Walker Books 2012/13

Short, exciting novels based on real conservation stories and real people. Each written with an indigenous child at the heart of the story and with a post script detailing the factual back ground to the story.

The Lion Who Stole My Arm

Elephant Road

Manatee Baby

Walking the Bear 

A Girl Called Dog  Random House  2011

Modern fairy tale about a girl kept as a slave in a pet shop, who escapes with the help of animal friends.

year 5 and 6

Rubbish Town Hero   Random House 2012

Set on a West African rubbish tip. Chipo and his disabled sister Gentle, get into trouble when a plan to steal some valuable ‘trash’ goes wrong. They find new friends and an improvised family in a war torn country.

Whale Boy   Random House 2013 (shortlisted for the Blue Peter Best Story award 2014)

A boy growing up on a Caribbean Island is given the chance to won his own boat by a mysterious stranger. He makes friends with a young sperm whale but find out that his new boat comes at a price and that ‘the bigger the bait, the bigger the hook hidden inside’.

 

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One Heart At A Time

DSC_0012The Promise was published just 14 months ago. It seems like much, much longer. I’m four more books further down the line from it now, but more than any other book I’ve ever written the stories of how it is reaching out into the world, exactly as I hoped it would, are singing back to me.

Children often ask me what is your favourite book that you have written, and I always answer “that’s like asking a Mummy who their favourite child is, and Mummies love all their children”. It’s true. I do love all my books, because that’s what they’re made from: my love of the natural world and my love of children. I make each book as good as I can, because I believe in the job that my books can do in the world. But right from the start ‘The  Promise’ was special.DSC_0009

Writing, as I’ve often said in this blog, is a solitary struggle. I write slowly. I rewrite all the time as I go. I never just bash on to the end and then go and knock it into shape (the one time I did, it was a disaster). Picture books are especially tricky and, in terms of time spent per word, take the longest by far to write. The picture book I’ve started this week may not be finished before Christmas and it’s just 600 words.

I came to write The Promise because my beloved editor at Walker Books, Caroline Royds, suggested  I write a retelling of ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’ ( sorry if you’d heard this before in an earlier blog ). I knew the story very well but wanted to write something of my own, and something that would speak to urban kids; particularly kids who were having a bad start in life. One of the things that recurs in my stories (Rubbish Town Hero, A Girl Called Dog) is children with a bad start. I see a lot of them on my travels – lone street kids in the poorer parts of the world, neglected ones in the richer – and I always want to reach out to them in some way. All I knew about the story I would write on the Monday morning when I sat down at my desk was that it was about a street child who planted acorns. Two hours later The Promise was written and – somewhat scarily- I cannot tell you how – it just came out of my fingers onto the screen. Since that first draft that made my editor cry, it has changed by a total of 6 words. I knew at once that this was a story with the power to change hearts – and as I’m always saying these days ‘ the world can change, one heart at a time’.

I’ve written in an earlier blog about how Laura Carlin was really the ONLY choice for the illustrator of the story, and when her first images began to take shape, I knew she’d heard the heart of The Promise beating. So  the day when we sat in the Walker Books meeting room, signing copies together, was a very happy one.DSC02172

It seemed that every adult I shared it with was moved to tears, editors, reviewers, bloggers, members of my family, all reached for the tissues. It was touching some kind of nerve. But knowing you have made something good doesn’t mean its going to appeal to or be liked by booksellers or reviewers. The Promise’s first outing wasn’t promising: I presented it at a session for the Bath Children’s Literary festival, to an audience of 12 people six of whom were from my publisher. But among the six who weren’t obliged to be there was a mum and her two children. None of them said much at the time and I finished the session feeling pretty dispirited, feeling that we’d created something that actually nobody was going to understand. But a few weeks later the mum contacted me to say that she’d been so struck by The Promise that her children’s school were going to do a whole project on it – art work, poems – and were writing their own ‘Promises to the Planet’ . Also, they wanted to spread the book in the spirit of the story, so were sending a copy to the African school they are twinned with, hung a copy in a tree in the village with a note to ‘please read me and pass me on’ and were even sending a copy up in the air, attached to a balloon!IMG_0602

Quietly enthusiastic reviews followed. A few people visited the website we’d set up to promote the book and encourage people to fund real tree planting and forest saving by donating to my adopted charity The World Land Trust. But really no big bells and whistles. Except for Spain, where Il Mundo gave us a whole page review with photographs of me and Laura and the cover of the book. I wondered if perhaps, the droughts that parts of Spain had experienced in recent years made this story speak especially to them?

MUN05SESAN

Two things kept my spirits up:  my great friend Jackie Morris and her faith, unfailing support and relentless reviewing and promotion of The Promise,  and Eddie. Eddie is the son of another friend and WLT colleague, Simon Barnes and Eddie became my biggest fan. He loved The Promise and had to have it read every night (I did begin to feel a bit sorry for Simon because any book you have to read night after night,gets old. Eddie’s family even started to read it in different voices to stop themselves getting bored. His older brother did a fabulous reading as William Hurt.) I came to feel that if no one else had ever read The Promise the fact that Eddie held it in his heart made the whole enterprise worthwhile.

IMG_0406In March the WLT hosted an exhibition of Laura’s art work for the book. I brought little pots of acorns collected from last Autumns bumper harvest and grown on in my garden. Laura did art work and words on the walls around her exquisite pictures and ceramics. We sat and waited for visitors. And waited. And waited. Almost no one came – we did lots of very lovely and useful talking about stories and pictures, we hatched various plots, but still no one came. Eddie came, as he lives nearby and that for me was the highlight of the Spring; his face through the window of the gallery as we recognised each other.

Over the following weeks I was very occupied with two new short novels, crossovers of fiction and non fiction telling real conservation stories in a fictional holder, and as I wrote, evidence of  evidence of the way The Promise was working, actually exactly as I’d hoped, came trickling in. E mails from teachers whose classes had loved it – older children right down to little tinies in year 1. Schools that were doing whole projects on the book, tweets from other authors, teachers and bloggers across the world.

In September the wonderful Scottish Book Trust took me on a tour of schools in Argyl and Bute. Children here had made their own responses to the story, with artworks and writing. I began to end every session I did in each school with a reading of the Promise and every time, you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes a teacher at the back of the class would wipe a tear with a finger.IMG_1127

In Hackney, where I have a longstanding friendship with two primary schools I read The Promise to a tough crowd, a group of ‘too cool for school’ year six kids. As I got to the pages where the city is transformed by growing things the whole class gasped – I wish Laura could hear those gasps, now repeated so many times. At the end the children applauded quite spontaneously “The planting’s going to go on and on!” one little boy exclaimed joyously, “It will fill the whole world!”

At the Wells Festival a very bouncy audience of 200 primary school kids fell silent and also gassed at the last page, the end page of the book where the grey pavement we began with is transformed by plants. Very trendy year elevens were happy to pose with copies of the Promise.

Just before I was about to leave for the US in October I had a lovely e mail. A post grad student on the Bath Spa Writing for Young People MA had heard me read the story before its publication and, when it was out ,bought a copy for her sister, an aid worker in Afghanistan, helping to re-establish gardens and growing in areas damaged by the conflict. The email told me that copies of the book were ‘ passing from hand to hand across the most war torn regions’. I spent a long time crying over my e mails that morning.

In the suburbs of Boston the kids I met loved to hear The Promise read. Once again there was that response – the gasp on the page turn, and the recognition that cities could be mean and hard and ugly. On my last day I worked in a particularly beautiful school library, but some of the children were clearly having problems in their lives; one little boy hid behind a row of chairs at the back of the room and did not come out. It was obvious from the teachers’ reaction that this was the norm with this child. I proceeded with my session, talking about stories and animals and writing, and at the end, read The Promise. I was suddenly aware that someone was leaning against my leg as I sat. I looked down into the dark eyes of the little boy who had been behind the chairs. As I closed the book he tapped my knee to get my attention and pointed to The Promise,

“That’s me, “he whispered, ” that story, it’s about me.”

IMG_1436

The schools I worked in next were in Amsterdam, upstate New York. Amsterdam was once a thriving town, but years of unemployment have eroded it and the people who live there. The schools are doing a great job of caring for their students, supporting them, encouraging them and trying to help them transcend their start in life. Whenever I spoke to those kids I could look out into the audience and see at least four children who very clearly didn’t have adult looking out for them at home. I learnt the stories of some of the children and their families, and greater tragedies of deprivation it would hard to find. And it was these children who most of all responded to The Promise. The wonderful librarian with whom I worked told me that one little girl, with a particularly sad story of her own, had turned to her and said “Isn’t this great? ” as I read The Promise. “You know, “the librarian told me, “I had to turn away because I was crying. I’d never seen that little girl smile before.”

I went on to stay in Montreal with friends at the end of the trip. I sat in a coffee bar with them and searched the pages of the New York Times. I’d been told The Promise had been picked as one of their best picture books of 2014. I didn’t really believe it could be true.IMG_1471

“Its not going to be in!” I said to my friends, feeling bad that I’d even mentioned it. But there it was, one of the New York Times top picture books of 2014. It was a wonderful moment but mostly because it means that the message the story carries – that change is possible, that personal transformation is within the grasp of all of us and that through our change, we can transform the world – will reach an ever wider audience.

There’s a chance that The Promise may become a theatre production in Montreal. I’ve begun to think about how the layers of meaning in the marriage of text and pictures can be unpacked and translated into movement, music, dialogue, drama. It’s very exciting, and hugely creatively stimulating to think in this new format. It also reaffirms my faith in what the story has to tell – its message is so big that its easily enough to fill an hour or more of stage time. It would be the biggest dream come true if it all happened, but the most important moments for me will always be those that show that the story Laura and I created has touched the hearts of the people who need it most.IMG_1440

 

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LIVE, WITH LOVE

DSC_0465It’s been so beautiful this week. Perfect weather, warm and still, like a blessing. Thanks to a shoulder injury that means more than 4 hours at my computer is agony, I’ve been out in it too, far more than I would have been normally. Normally I would have been frantically working, trying to Get Everything Done because from next week I’m not really at home until the middle of November.

This is the calm before the storm. Next week I start six weeks of almost constant travel. Italy for the pordenonlegge festival, http://www.pordenonelegge.it/it/index_inglese.htmlthen Scotland for a Scottish Book trust tour, then sundry UK festivals (Bath, Cheltenham, Wells)followed by a tour of schools in Boston and New York State. I really love this part of my work – talking directly to children and to adults, reading my work, talking about the stories behind my books (as I always tell children every story has a story of how it became a story). So I’ll be telling audiences in Italy at the Pordenonelgge Festival about the real conservation stories behind each of the four ‘Heros of the Wild’ books, and about the people I met and the places I visited in the course of researching them.

I love taking photographs when I travel so I like to share those too sometimes, as long asDSC_0951 technology – ipads/ projector screens – doesn’t take over. What’s most enjoyable for me, and seems to work best for my audiences, is the simplest of connections – talking, listening, answering questions without anything even approaching a power point presentation!

Answering questions is actually one of my favourite things. Of course I often get asked the same ones – particularly as I talk about animals, I get asked ‘whats the biggest/smallest /scariest/ ‘ type questions and every writer gets asked ‘where do you get your ideas from’. I can honestly say with my hand on my heart that I NEVER, EVER get tired of answering the same things, because for the person asking, it’s a new question and I’m giving new information. The opportunity to deliver information to a young person who really wants to hear it is so precious, and inspiring the desire to ask questions is kind of the whole point of my writing life. I don’t want any book to be a dead end – whether its non fiction or fiction – I want my readers to know more, think more, ask more, imagine more, when they get to the end of one of my books.with reception KICS

One of the other things I love about working directly with live audiences is it gives me the chance to present things straight to audiences, without the gatekeepers of publishing getting in the way. I’m hugely grateful to my publishers – they make it possible for me to do what I do – but there are some things they don’t want to publish. So I can tell stories to live audiences that will perhaps never make it onto the published page. (The swift story that I wrote about in a blog earlier this year is one of those: kids love it, teachers love it, can I get it published? Nope.) I can road test things too, and see how they work, and I can try out ideas that may then work their way back into a book. One thing I’ve been doing with live audiences for more than 20 years now, is teaching kids how to sing like a humpback whale. The crazy thing about this is, that although humpbacks were the first whale I studied, I’ve never written about them. There’s so much more known about humpback song than when I saw my first humpy in (gulp) 1979 I really do want to do a book. It would be great to have a book to back up all those noises that kids all over the country and now all over the world have learnt in one of my sessions.DSCN0757

Writing is solitary and often dispiriting. Getting anything published is a struggle. Your best ideas are rejected. You favourite books fail to sell. But when you are in front of an audience its just you and them, nobody to get in the way, nobody to tell you what readers like. You can find out immediately for yourself and get instant feedback – and happily for me that feedback is always really good, really encouraging. And once in a while it’s astonishing, once in while I see the lightbulb coming on in the head of a child, and I know I’ve sparked something important that they are going to remember for a long time.  Seeing live audiences of children, listening to their questions, seeing them taking in what I have to say reminds me of WHY I do this.

So here’s a little list of places where I’ll be over the next few weeks where you can come and say hello!

September 17th http://www.pordenonelegge.it/it/index_inglese.html

September 21st to 26th touring schools in Argyll and Bute with Scottish Book Trust

BATH CHILDREN”S LITERATURE FESTIVAL 

October 3rd  10 -11am Toppings Bookshop in Bath

13.15 A Natural History Of The Unmentionable, The Guildhall, Bath.

 

October 4th  11am Natural Inspiration,  Prior Park College Bath

SOCIETY OF BIOLGY CHILDREN’s EVENT

October 6th  5.30  The ICK Factor , Ipswich Museum

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL

October 7th   13.30 School’s Event The Inkpot, Imperial Square Gardens

16.00  Fun at Four Picture Book Event The Studio, Imperial Square.

READING AND PAINTING, WITH JACKIE MORRIS

October 9th  12 noon onwards Number Seven bookshop and gallery Dulverton, Devon

WELLS FESTIVAL 

October 16th  14.00 – 15.15 Wells Town Hall

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FACT AND FICTION and STORY SPACE

As the author of books that are put in non fiction and fiction sections of libraries I don’t see that there is a hard boundary between fact and fiction. Look at any great works of fiction and you find truthful information about the real world – portraits of Victorian poverty and social injustice in Dickens or the pin sharp critique of the Russian revolution in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Photography, supposedly the most ‘non fictional’ medium of all, but you only have to reflect for a moment about how you’ve cropped your own pictures on facebook to know that photography’s credentials as non fiction are not impeccable. Robert Capa’s photograph of the Spanish Civil War  ‘Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death’ is one of the most famous documentary pictures of all time not for what it’s supposed to portray, but for the debate about whether or not it was staged.

My point is that the line between fiction is and non fiction is at best made with wiggly crayon and that trying to draw it with an indelible marker is actually getting in the way of children’s learning, reinforcing gender stereotypes and undermining libraries. Instead of dividing non fiction and fiction, we might do better to talk about different kinds of narrative, drawn from different sources.

I’m interested in igniting the spark of curiosity in my readers. My aim is to start a fire so big it can consume world of information and experience and burn for a lifetime. And the best way I know for doing that is using narrative. It’s an incredibly flexible and robust device – it can hold information about the deepest tides and currents in our nature, the instructions for making a soup or the life history of a polar bear. Narrative is good at providing combustible material in exactly the right form to get those sparks crackling away. A search engine provides you with a whole freshly cut tree. Just ask Ray Mears how good that is for firestarting. Narrative breaks knowledge into nice dry twigs and feeds them to the flames at exactly the right rate.

Narrative works by creating story space, which I would argue is perhaps the most important and powerful invention of human culture. Story space is a liminal region, a territory between the exterior world and the interior world of emotion and reflection. In it, boundaries are dissolved, the real and the imagined are combined in unique cocktails of experience, allowing us new insights into the world and our place within it. Story space allows us to to see things differently; it facilitates fresh thinking and helps both artists and scientists to formulate new questions, theories, new ways to investigate and describe the world. It is the business of the writer to create the narrative, to shape the story space; what goes in that space is information, either drawn from imagination or evidence from the real world.

Children understand the nature of story space and what can happen there. They are happy with narratives – both visual and verbal – that convey all sorts of information, factual, emotional, spatial, real and imaginary. This was vividly demonstrated to me a few years ago when I was working with Tate Modern, talking to groups of children about particular works in its collections. The work ‘Gothic Landscape’ by Lee Krasner, was particularly popular with the children with whom I worked – I probably should say here that these children had never been to any sort of art gallery before. A little girl said ‘This painting is about a bird landing in a tree. It’s about how the wings beat and how it feels to land in the tree going fast and then slow’. I think it’s telling that she used the word ‘about’. Not this ‘painting is a picture ‘of’ or ‘this painting shows’ but this ‘painting is about’. So this little girl was perfectly happy that the painting was a narrative that told a story about space – the tree and the bird; about time – the bird going fast then slow, and about emotion– how it feels to land in a tree. All real things, represented in an obviously fictional, abstract painting. (Jake Chapman put that in your ready-made-pipe and smoke it).

My narratives hold information about the natural world. Sometimes those narratives are found stories – real things that I pick up off the ground and sometimes they are entirely invented, poems, myths, made only from a weave of words. Sometimes the information I put in the story space is factual – the diet of a bat, the number of eggs a turtle lays – and sometimes it’s emotional – how you feel when you are close to a wild animal, or when you have promised to plant a whole forest. What this combining of fact and fiction offers me is the opportunity to convey the emotional roots that every natural history fact has put down in my own soul.

What I’m making the case for here is narrative non fiction with attitude, with voice with personality. Somehow we are familiar with the value of this kind of writing for adults, but not for kids. And far, far from being obsolete in a world where information is just a click away, passionate narrative non fiction has never, ever been so important. The division of non fiction from fiction, and the lack of attention to the role of narrative in conveying information about the real world has eroded the status of libraries particularly in schools. The line of thought goes something like this . Learning is about putting facts in your head. Facts are things you look up, and you used to look up facts in a library. That’s what libraries  are for. But if facts come from the internet, why then do you need a library? With so very much information easily available a child is at risk of being swamped by an overload of facts, demotivated by over exposure (see Ray Mears and the tree above). What narrative non fiction offers is a route, a guide a companion, a means and motivation for finding out, and structure in which to place new information. A good narrative doesn’t carry all the facts – just  enough to make the reader want more; it infects the reader with curiosity, the most virulent and powerful way to create self motivated learners, who will become the curators of their own minds throughout life. And at the moment good narratives are not the strong point of google search.

In America this is understood. I think the tradition of narrative non fiction there, of nature writing in particular is stronger. What they found was that high school graduates raised on an exclusive diet of fiction did not have the skills to interrogate a text – pretty essential for any university course. In the US they now place the reading and writing of narrative non fiction at the heart of their curriculum. This teachers children how to process information in one form, and present it in another – about the most transferable skill set you can acquire.

Writing non fiction based on personal observation of the world around them hones children’s ability to look, and to question; it gives them something to write about and helps them to find the power of their voices as writers, speakers and human beings. I represent this process through reading non fiction to writing non fiction very simply like this

your world into your words into my brain

my world from my brain into my words

my words into your brain you see my world

This seems so obvious, yet some children go through the whole of their education without understanding what words can do, what their words can do. Reading narrative non fiction models it; writing narrative non fiction teaches it. Simples.

Somebody asked me the other day if I’d ever written ‘a real picture book’. This question embodies the attitude to children’s non fiction in the UK. Frankly its a ghetto created by dividing fiction from non fiction and forgetting about the existence of narratives and the creative role of the writer in their creation. There is a perception that children’s non fiction books aren’t proper books and that the writers of children’s non fiction are not proper writers. I once heard a librarian tell children not to look in the non fiction section but to look for a ‘real book’ and I’ve frequently encountered teachers who encourage the reading of fiction but don’t count non fiction reading at all. I think this is at least in part a gender issue: women tend not to read non fiction and most teachers and librarians are women. But ladies, we need boys to read too, and what men and boys like are stories drawn from the real world. And girls need to read about more than fairies and witches if we are to raise female scientists and engineers.

The last twenty years has divided the world into Harry Potter on one side and google search on the other. Fantasy is not the only kind of narrative and ramming in lists of facts is not how we learn. We don’t even learn only with our brains, but with our bodies, our hearts, our souls. We need to rethink our concept of learning, and of how we learn best. We are, to paraphrase the conclusion of Phillip Reeve’s marvelous science fiction story cycle ‘Mortal Engines‘, ‘engines for making stories’. We are made of story, our very lives have a beginning, a middle and an end and to learn about the world, to learn how to be the best of ourselves we need all sorts of stories – real and imagined and mixtures of the two – and that’s what writers, and publishers and libraries are for.

 

 

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Insect Story for Insect Week: Richard’s Bug

More proper posts soon…

But in the meantime a ‘story-ette’ I wrote for a friend’s retirement do. Looking at it again I think it could be one of a little series, and certainly longer. Anyway I like it. See if you do.

Richard’s Bug

 

Richard’s little sister Kelly, was standing up in her cot saying one of the only two words she knew

“OK.” she said ” Ohh kaye!” there was a kind of upturn on the ‘kay’ part and a higher pitch with every repetition.

“Oh kayyye”

This was a bad because it showed that, right now for Kelly, things were really not OK at all. ‘OK’ was what she said when something scared her. She tried hard not to panic about stuff, Richard knew that,  but when you are not quite two, not panicking is hard, because you don’t know anything. Every new thing in your world is potentially lethal. ‘OK’ was what Kelly said just before she did actually  panic and started to scream. And Kelly screaming was a very bad thing, not just because it was loud and it hurt your ears, but  because it attracted the wrong kind of attention. A parent coming to a screaming Kelly, mean somebody got slapped, especially if it was

“Too flippin’early”. Which it was now, because the sky was pinky coloured and that was the colour of sky when it was ‘too flipping’ early’. Richard knew this because he was five.

For a moment Richard contemplated simply sliding underneath his duvet and pretending to be asleep so, in a moment, when Kelly would begin to really scream, only she would get slapped. But he knew that was mean. He was Kelly’s big brother and it was up to him to look out for her.

He got out of bed and climbed into her cot. Snot and tears were rolling down Kelly’s face and her nappy was all yellow and saggy. She was staring at something in the corner of her cot

“Oooohhh kaaye. Ooooowww kaaaye!”

Richard couldn’t immediately see what it was, but it couldn’t be anything really bad, because something really bad, like a murderer or a crocodile couldn’t fit in the cot. He stood right beside Kelly and let her cling on to him and bury her snotty little face in his Bob the Builder  pyjama top. Then he looked where she had been looking.

It was so weird he almost wanted to say ‘Oh kaaaye’ himself. It was a bug, but not any kind he had seen before. It was pretty big (though much smaller than he was Richard told himself. He could squish it easy if things got tricky) and  bright green, like apples, with two long feelers like green hairs and long, bendy back legs. Also it had eyes. Richard, being five, knew that bugs had eyes, but only dots, not eyes that looked at you. This bug was definitely looking at him.

That was interesting. Richard stopped needing to say ‘Oh kay’ to himself in his head. He found Kelly’s cuddly and gave it to her, so she could suck her thumb, then he went down on his hands and knees and slowly approached the bug.  Now he was nose to nose with it, almost. It wasn’t scared at all. It stood still, waving its feeler things and looking at him with its funny eyes, that were like green glass or mirrors, kind of see through and not at the same time.

Gently, Richard slid his hand forward, so the tips of his fingers were touching the bug’s front feet. They were serrated, like paper was after Mrs Bernstein cut it with her special scissors, so when the bug moved forward onto his hand it was sort of prickly, but in a good way. Richard could feel the tiny, spiky imprint of all of the bug’s six legs and even feel the minute brushings of its feelers as it investigated his skin. He lifted up his hand until the bug was at the level of his face. It was beautiful. In fact Richard realised that it was probably the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Kelly saw it on his hand and took the dummy straight out of her mouth

“ohhhh kaaaaayyyy”. That was the kind of OK that came right before a full volume scream. Richard had to act fast. He said sorry to the bug and cupped his other hand over it, whilst he climbed out of the cot. He went to the open window and positioned his body so Kelly could no longer see if he was holding the bug. He heard the ‘supp’ sound as she replaced the dummy in her mouth. All he had to do now was work out how to put the bug back where it came from.

Richard stood on tiptoe and held the bug on his hand just outside the window. The air was already warm, and the traffic in the streets far below was already starting to growl. The window had to be how the bug had got in, but where from? The nearest park was out of sight, even from up here on the sixty third floor. And how did it get up here? He remembered some TV show had said that fleas could jump over the Empire State building. Maybe it had jumped way up here, but a bug like this couldn’t live down there amongst the cars and concrete. It must have flown. Some bugs could fold up their wings as neat as a mini umbrella, so you hardly knew they were there.

He spoke to the bug. He knew this was kind of stupid, but it had looked at him so maybe talking to it might help.

“You have to go now,” he told it, “I like you, but my sister, she’s only two and she’s scared.”

The bug looked back at him and waved its feelers a bit. He wiggled his hand up and down to make an encouraging breeze. This worked because big, green and yellow wings unfolded, suddenly, as if someone had pressed a button on a pop up toy. There was a dry, whirring sound and the bug took off. It looked a bit wobbly and its flight path was rather banana shaped, but it was fast and in less than heartbeat Richard had lost sight of it.

He closed the window, to keep out the traffic noise and climbed into Kelly’s cot. He snuggled up with her under her duvet. Mrs Bernstein always said ‘things happen for a reason’, so why had the bug happened? What did it mean?

He thought about  it, its greeness, its whirring wings and its strange  eyes that had seen him. And then, Richard knew the meaning of the bug. The meaning was that there was a world, big and wide, quite beautiful, out there, where no morning was too flippin’ early, and nobody ever needed to say ‘oh kaaayy’, even in their head. He smiled, shut his eyes and went back to sleep.

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Armenian Dreaming

Ararat

Ararat

Driving up the steep red-rock track to the FPWC eco centre lodge on Caucasus Wildlife Refuge near the village of Urtsadzor, in the dry mountains of central Armenia, was like arriving on the set of a spaghetti western: the light was harsh and the rocks were stacked like giant building blocks 2000m high. I expected Sergio Leone to appear at the top of ravine at any moment. The landscape looked as if the rigors of the minus 32 degree winters and the plus 40 summers had simply leached the colour out of it. The dry slopes appeared denuded and the rocky heights bleached into the pale sky.

Eco Lodge at Caucasian Wildlife Refuge

Eco Lodge at Caucasian Wildlife Refuge

 

We dumped our bags in our very nice rooms (I think I’d expected some sort of hut with three wall and a semi functioning roof, not a triumph of modern sustainable architecture) and then sat on the terrace.

Bill Oddie, Simon Barnes and WLT (World Land Trust) CEO, John Burton were soon birding away… black headed bunting, black wheatear, lesser grey shrike, short toed eagle…. Within seconds they were having recreational arguments about the true identity of bird shapes too distant and too fleeting for me to even see. Really, I just can’t keep up.

Bird disputes

Bird disputes

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I pootled to the edge of the terrace and looked down, and this was the moment that the magic of Armenia really began to work on me, because in the space of a square meter there were maybe fifteen or more different kinds of plants. As I sat puzzling them out in my Caucasian flora  (using the time honoured non-botanist technique of flicking-through-the-pictures-till-you-find-a-match) I realized that the half the plants I was looking at were endemics, species found no-where else on earth. I began to be enchanted.DSC_0457

That first day, the enchantments went on and on: the nosferatu shapes of lammergeiers floating over cliffs whose height you didn’t appreciate until the vultures’ two and a half meter wingspan was as lost as an ant against them; clouds of wild roses, filling a gully with their scent; the voice of a herdsman defining the space and the silence of the valley as he rounded up his cattle ready for the night. (why? because Armenia is still properly wild, and their are bears and wolves that will eat your animals if you don’t pay attention). Then, as the sun sank and took a slant on the mountainsides, slopes that had appeared to be bare, raw-sienna scree, were suddenly shown to be clothed in a lovely blue-green peach-fuzz of vegetation. In the cooler air of dusk, the hardy little plants breathed out their scents – camphor, lavender and thyme, like sharp incense. For me, that moment when sunset revealed a truth about the life and diversity of the dry mountains, was when I really, really lost my heart to Armenia.

Hillside at Caucasian Wildlife Refuge

Hillside at Caucasian Wildlife Refuge

Manuk, Bezoar spotting
Manuk, Bezoar spotting

I’d come to Armenia as part of my role as World Land Trust Ambassador, but also to research the location for my next children’s book, about the rare (rare to almost vanishing point) Caucasian Leopard. I knew the place and its people would give me the detail I needed to make a story live and breathe.

I knew of course I wouldn’t see a leopard – WLT’s partner organisation FPWC, (Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets) only know they are there from animals caught on camera trap videos; I didn’t even expect to see the leopards favourite meal, the bezoar goat, almost as rare as its predator. But the next morning, as I sat in the daze of Armenia Love, Manuk Manukyan lynchpin of FPWC, and an extraordinary naturalist, looked through his binoculars and said ‘Bezoar!’

There, high, high, high on a rocky stage 1500 m up, a male bezoar goat was showing off his profile, with his curved horns the size and shape of a warlord’s sabres. We followed him up there, on horseback, picking our way up steep stony paths, one stunning, enticing new plant after another appearing under our horses hooves. The climb through the embroidered detail of the plants and rocks, in the still air caught between the peaks and in the canyons, to reach the stage where the

imagebezoars had stood, will always be one of the most wonderful and precious two hours of my life. At the top, we gave our sure footed obedient little horses a rest and looked out at a view the lammergeiers get. I collected bezoar goat poo, because not everyone can carry faeces of world class rarity in their pocket.

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These are the places that are threatened in Armenia now, these transcendent mountain spaces, where plants from Europe and Asia mix to make a rich cocktail of biodiversity. (6500 plant species in the Caucusus). Once the junipers grew unmolested, slowly reaching the height of a hedge in 300 years, Bezoar goats grazed and clashed their sabre horns, lynx, wolves, bears and leopards hunted. Some of the most ancient churches in Armenia have stone carvings of animals that were once commonplace on the mountain heights. But now, the poorest people have been driven off their common lands by changes in ownership, the way the British poor were in John Clare’s day, and the mountain heights are the only place they can go to graze their stock, find firewood, plants to eat and animals to hunt. There’s poaching too – oligarchs with too much money and not enough sense drop in by helicopter to plunder the precious rarity of Armenia’s gorgeous big mammals.

imageSo FPWC has its hands full. To secure the future of the leopard, a mountain corridor needs to be left undisturbed along the spine of Armenia, one day perhaps connecting with Georgia to the North and Iran to the South. Mountainsides, woodlands and alpine pasture must be relieved of their current heavy burden of human use.  It’s a huge task, but FPWC, supported by projects manager for WLT Mary McEvoy, and CEO John, and by IUCN Netherlands,  are stepping up to shoulder this massive burden. The 1701 hectare Caucasian Wildlife Refuge is just the start – Manuk and FPWC director Ruben Khatchatryan have plans to lease other tracts of land to set up reserves and work with villagers to reduce their impact on the landscape and its wildlife.

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Luckily, Armenians are still close to their land. Most rural families depend on their gardens and their animals for their food so they are open to changes that can improve the way the land is used, changes that can improve their lives as well as having conservation benefits. Among FPWC plans are community woodlands to generate firewood and protect ancient juniper trees, sustainable energy generation and nurseries for native plants. FPWC has already had a direct practical impact by setting up the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge, protecting the wildlife within it from exploitation and poaching. It’s seeding the future of conservation too, by running eco clubs to educate children about environmental issues and training them to be the wildlife film-makers of the future.

In Nagorno Karabakh with WFPC

In Nagorno Karabakh with WFPC

FPWC were the most wonderful hosts – they showed us so much of their fabulous country: ravishingly beautiful mountain scenery and huge variety of vegetation types from semi desert, to alpine meadow and lush forest; vultures hanging at the lip of gorges like something out of Game of Thrones; herds of sheep streaming into villages for the night; pink starlings flying over waterfalls; white storks on a backdrop of Noah’s mountain, Ararat. At the end of our week traveling round the country I was punch drunk with relentless loveliness, saturated with hundreds of memories to carry home, too many to tell. (and a camera full of plants that only the botanist Eleonora Gabrielian who I met on our last day in Armenia, could identify ) But there are four things that I will keep at the top of the file in my heart marked ‘Armenia’.

 

imageThe first is a tiny seed head of a minute scabious, growing on the arid slopes around the Eco centre. Mary and I spotted it on our last morning and sat looking at its diamond cluster  loveliness. It symbolised for me the endless detail in the Armenian landscape that I so adored, like a long, long series of secret spells waiting to be learned and chanted.

 

The second is a stop we made in village in Ngorno Karabash where I wanted to photograph the fifty imageor so beehives that stood to the side of a small house. (LOADS of beehives in Armenia). imageWe drew up in our two landrovers and piled out, disturbing the quiet cultivation of a woman, her husband and little girl. Far from being put out, they were so welcoming. The woman particularly struck me, her open face with clear dark eyes under her sun hat, shone with warmth and a deep, sweet humanity. Although we didn’t share a single word of common language, and only spent a fragment of time smiling at each other, some small piece of real, true communication passed between us; not complicated but a simple acknowledgement of each other’s existence and the glory of being up from the dirt briefly together on this dear warm spring day.

 

The third is the face of the botanist Eleanora Gabrielian, who I was privilaged to meet at the eco imagecentre on the last day. Dr Gabrielian has studied the flora of Armenia and the whole Caucusus for 60 years and described all 6500 species of its plants. She collected a whole pile of plant sprigs to share with me, and talked me through them all with a delight and heart popping enthusiasm that lit up the day. My notebook is bulging with the plants she gave me, still holding the incense smell of the mountains and carrying a cloud of her wonderful energy.

 

imageAnd the fourth is a strong sense of the bonds built across countries and cultures by a shared passion for the natural world, and the joint enterprises of trying to protect it. Time and again I witnessed the strength and warmth of the professional friendships between FPWC rangers and staff and their visiting colleagues from WLT in the UK. One evening Ruben played an Armenian tune on bagpipes, the mayor of Urtsadzor raised toasts to, in succession, ‘beautiful ladies and strong men’, ‘friendship’, and ‘ Armenian nature’, Bill Oddie did a jazz drum solo, and the IUCN Netherlands contingent sang the Dutch version of happy birthday to you. This is what real, lasting conservation looks like, this is how it is forged, not in committee rooms, or on computer screens, not in the wording of treaties and laws, but in the relationships made between individuals who grow to know, respect and love each other and work together for the same thing.

 

On our last afternoon in the mountains Mary, Manuk and I visited the mayor in his Town Hall, (also Manuk’s grand parents for home made peach cognac…but that’s another story). He’s a larger than life character with a huge moustache.

Manuk and his mayor

Manuk and his mayor

If Stalin had had a sweet natured, very jolly brother, this is what he would have looked like. His intention, he explained, was to make his town into an ‘eco paradise’. As we toured the town hall we heard the girls choir practicing and peeped in. The girls sang us an Amenian song, linking little fingers and stepping in time to the music. There wasn’t a trace of pop music aping in their voices, nor of the childish piping UK children produce; they sang loud, low and strong, every note riven through with their identity as Armenians. This celebration of Armenian culture is an important part of what FWPC do – they understand that landscapes, wildlife and human culture are  linked in mutual dependence; so it’s just possible that Ustradzoar, with FPWC help and WLT’s support, will become the mayor’s vision of eco paradise. But it will be homegrown, a paradise made in Armenia, dreamed with Armenian dreams, and all the better and more lasting, for it.

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Flashes of Inspiration

Arctic Willow shaped by wind and cold

Arctic Willow shaped by wind and cold

When I lived in Bristol, there were pollarded plane trees lining the busy rat-run to the main road, down which I drove most mornings. Caught in a queue of cars one morning, I glanced up to where the branches just managed to link hands above the brow of the hill. Against the light sky was the un-mistakable outline of a nest among the bare, Winter twigs. The traffic began to move and I had to put my eyes back on the road, but in that momentary glimpse, I’d had a small but extraordinarily powerful experience – a clear flash of shifted perspective, as sharp and vivid as a sudden pain or a dip in ice water: a vision of the view from that nest. Inside my head a version of myself said ‘how would it be to be born in a tree?’ At the time, I had small children of my own, who were peeping over the edge of their own ‘nest’ and sussing out the world, so the image of that other baby’s perspective had a particular emotional power. Whatever the reason, that tiny, intense moment of insight comes back to me now whenever I see a nest, or a place in a tree where there could be one, and for a split second I’m up there, looking down.

I’ve had other fleeting flashes like this, sudden slips in the perceptual fault line, shifting me to another place in the human scheme of things, or a different location on the evolutionary tree. Each time it happens it feels like a blessed patch of coolness inside the hot chaos of my brain. Each time the image and sensations, the ideas, imprint in me in a way that feels much more than memory. Insight is the word closest to what these slivers are – but insight of a depth and clarity, and a pleasureable-ness, that transcends the usual meaning of the word.

Sometimes ‘insights’ are triggered by something in the natural world – a swopping of places with an animal I’m watching – and sometimes they come vicariously through someone else’s insight, transmitted by their writing. These second hand ‘insights’ are no less powerful and imprint on me in the same way.  J.A  Baker’s ‘The Peregrine’ gave me so many the first time I read it, that I never got to the end, my reading slowed and slowed, continually blissed out by a stream of intense moments of perception-slip. The narrative voice of Richard Holmes’ ‘The Age of Wonders’ was a such a neon of insight that I closed the book after reading the first page and hugged it to my chest, out on the deck of a small research boat in the Sea of Cortez, where I was reading at 2am, on watch. Book induced insights bind to things in my own life too: whenever I dig in the garden I’m digging Susan Garland’s wooden doll from Alison Uttley’s ‘A Country Child’; the Suffolk lanes where I grew up rekindle my own version of Alain Fournier’s ‘Lost Domain’, as alive inside me as my own blood, singing in me like a fever. My friend Julia Green’s dreamlike evocations of Scillonian beaches have melded with every Summer beach I walk on now. Occasionally, and especially blissfully, these insight moments can be shared, which feels like a mind meld. My son read ‘Matthew Kneale’s ‘English Passengers’ and for a while, the character Peevay was so alive in our house that all bad things were described as ‘Piss poor blunt spears’.

Some of the most intense fault-line shifts have come from the writing of my old friend Richard Mabey. Its the combination of the natural world, which already mainlines my consciousness, and his clarity of thought and effortlessly sharp imagination. I started a Richard book I hadn’t read beore, ‘The Ash and The Beech’,  last night and, as always, from the first sentence I was beguiled, captured, transported. Within minutes I had my first splash of cold water ‘Trees…are what dry land aspires to become’. There, in that one little phrase is the whole of ecological succession, terminal moraine to ringing oak wood, time lapsed elegantly into one, portable sentence; a perspective bigger, longer, wider than my own, presented with surgical precision blended with poetic punch; meaning layered like the horizons in a deep soil.

Richard’s ability to step outside time, and give me this ecological history in a single heart stopping idea returned me, suddenly, to the nest above Berkely Road, and made me think again, ‘what would it be like to be born in a nest’. But this time I think I might be ready to do something more with that idea than hold it. I think the seed of a picture book just germinated.

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Swifts, Creatures and Climate Change

Glacia in Alaska 1989

Glacia in Alaska 1989

When I was little, between nought and seven that is, I lived in Victorian house in the midlands. I look at photos of it now and it looks huge and posh. I’m really not sure how my parents managed to buy it. It had a walled garden which to me seemed enormous, and an old stable block with a apple store and a pigeon loft. I rode my trike around the yard under the cooing of the pigeons, I learned to climb trees on its apple trees and how to find nests in the bushes and borders. The place was my whole world, and when we left it, I would – at the age of 8 or 9 – announce sadly that my childhood had ended on that day. I think almost everything I feel to be at the deepest core of myself is rooted in that garden…the crocuses in spring, the bluebells under the pear trees, the raspberry canes, the blue tits nest, the tawny owls on the branches of the monkey puzzle tree. And the swifts.

One of the great sorrows of ‘this wounded Earth we walk upon ‘ as Karine Polwart puts it is the declining numbers of swifts. In Bromsgrove in the sixites there were hundreds. Huge screeching flocks of them, mad and wild truly devil birds. I completely adored them. Even the thought of that sound, and their reckless, scimitar-winged, daredevil speed makes me happy. They nested under the roof and could be seen furtively landing and taking off as if dissolving into and materialising from the shadow under the eaves. They arrived around my birthday in early May and always seemed like a special personal present delivered by nature for me. I can remember watching the flocks of non breeding or at least non incubating birds, flying up and up into the dusk sky to disappear into the sky – swifts when they dont have eggs or young sleep on the wing. Fledgling swifts can’t practice flying all they can do is press ups in the nest – really they do- to get ready and then, out flight or fail, and they’re on the wing continuously after that for at least two years.

Late one Summer I found a fledgling, failed in its first flight crashed on the lawn. Seeing it close up was like being able to handle a fairy and see how its wings attached to its back. The feathers are oddly unlustrous, with a sooty, matt finish, bitter chocolate rather than black. The eyes are huge and look at you calmly. The beak is endearingly small, a little down turned smut of a thing, with a wide gape, and the legs a ridiculous afterthought, the claws tough but the leg itself puny and shorter than a single finger joint. My grandfather told me to carry it to the attic and throw it out of the window. I reached up with my swift in my hand and awkwardly poked my arms through the tiny space. Beyond was the stable, the gardens, the green of suburban England, far below, and curving as if matching the Earth’s shape. I hesitated.

“Throw him”. Grandpa told me. I’ve since found you should just hold them out and let them make their own minds about taking off. But i didnt know that then. Grandpa could find nests and mice and squirrels without fail so I trusted him. I threw the little black bundle. Its wings flickered and it was gone…just a speck in the sky within moments.

A couple of weeks back I told this story to the children in Southwold School in Hackney because they already seemed to know a LOT about the swifts that come to their part of London in the Summer. I pointed to the back of the class pretending to point at my freed swift and the kids were so with the story they all turned to look.

So I thought it was time to turn it into a story, a proper one.

The story I’ve written connects how broken the crashed swift looks with a childs perception of his new born sister…born with a disability, which makes the brother unable to bond with her. Until he sets the swift free…

I won’t jinx it by printing it here yet. It hasnt yet found a home and may never do, but it will get an outing here eventually.

So with that done…a story I wasn’t supposed to be writing, now I have to get back on schedule with the things I’m contracted to do. Next on the list is a wonderful project with the utterly fab Petr Horacek. It’s a book that’s simply about animals ‘A First Book of Animals’ – an introduction to the delights of zoology for the under fives. I’ve started mapping it out – and its SOOO hard to decide what to leave out. Do you go for all the obvious things? Do you include obscure things that are wonderful but even parents won’t know about? Do you include scary stuff or just the cute and fluffy? I’ve decided I’m going to go for the things I love best, which will include creatures that fall into all of these categories. Its a wonderful thing to think about, all the beautiful fascinating species there are in the world, but it also fills me with fear for their future. Climate change is like a dark cloud that’s coming to get us all – and no body seems to be doing anything. Radio four managed this morning to go from the latest IPCC report and back to the football reports without anyone thinking that it was weird.

We need a big government education campaign like the one we had about aids (well , no not quite like that cos it was rubbish) but that level of seriousness. There isn’t any more debate to be had. We just have to act. End of. And its the governments duty to tell us this, to explain what a serious threat this is so we can gird our loins for action. Not doing so is a failure of leadership and of care, in the same way that failing to tell us that there was a smallpox epidemic or an invading army on the Kent beaches would be. Without such action we’ll be engulfed by the cloud while the oil companies and the tea Party are still bleating about climate change being a communist conspiracy.

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Sleeping Beauty Episode One

IMG_0169This isn’t really a sensible post of any kind. It’s just playing. Almost all of the writing I do now is Goal Orientated Behaviour, writing to a deadline, writing with a definite purpose, usually to fit an idea I may have sold to a publisher months, or even year ago. Because I’ve always written for work, to make a living I hardly ever allow myself writing playtime, but today, after a long stretch of writing to contracts and visiting schools I’ve done a few hours of playing. Revising stories that I’ve posted before ‘Mother Cary’s Butterknife’ and ‘The White Hare’ and thinking about other ways of using that ‘fairy story’ space, maybe not as a way of writing for dosh, but as a playground I can run about in sometimes.

So here is something from the playground. It’s the start of a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. It’s written for grown ups because that’s another thing I don’t get to do much these days, write for adults. Retellings are total holiday to write because, rather like working with non fiction, you don’t have to invent the basic set up, all you have to do is decide where to place yourself in that set up, walk around and choose a place from which to observe, and speak. The other great thing about re tellings is that you can use the stuff that’s already inside your reader’s heads. This means you don’t have to write everything, all you need to do is remind them of what they already have lying around in their brains and they will do the work for you. There’s huge comedy potential in this too, and in the characterisation that’s available to you with well known stories – you can play with the stereotypes and mess with your audience’s heads in a way that entrtaining for you as a writer, and hopefully for them as readers.

Maybe one day I’ll give myself to do a whole series of these fairy story retellings and read them on camera and post on vimeo…maybe over the Summer.

 

But in the meantime here is Sleeping Beauty episode one

The thing about magic, real magic that is, not the stuff that exists in your world, the thing about it is that it’s practical. And specific. Very specific. Why? Well I don’t know why do I? I’m a witch, not a physicist. And the thing about witches is that they are very pragmatic. We don’t do theories. Most Witches are also old and female (most, I said not all) so their perspective on what is useful and practical, and therefore worth making magic about, is, well, old and female. When it comes to gifts, they tend to give the sort of gifts they wish somebody had given them. This can seem like the magical equivalent of the husband who gives his wife two litres of white emulsion or a a set of golf clubs for her birthday. It’s also how it all started – the forest of thorns, the economy asleep for a century, the whole Sleeping Beauty phenomenon.

It began with a very stylish seventeenth birthday party. You know the kind of thing, marquee in the grounds, seven hundred meters of colour coded fairy lights, mini burgers and thimble sized fish and chips, served on scrubbed roofing slates. A famous eighties band playing because a cousin had once snogged the drummer. This was a family with connections, fingers in a multiplicity of cultural and political pies.

And their only child was a daughter, Beauty. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was too good for their special little girl. Especially on her birthday.

But Beauty had been doing some freelance, off piste growing up. She wasn’t what you’d call a straight A student. In fact, the only letter of the alphabet in which she had expressed  consistent interest was e. She’d climbed out of so many of the upstairs windows of both her parents’ house and her very exclusive school, that she could easily have been apprenticed to a cat burglar. Often, when Mummy and Daddy thought she was safely tucked up with her teddies, she was either pole dancing, or in bed with something a lot more anatomically correct than a genderless furry animal.

Of course, none of us knew that, not then. And on the afternoon of her birthday party Beauty was being the perfect daughter. Fresh-faced and mascara free, in a demure little linen frock and flat pumps, she greeted Aunts and Uncles, and the stream of old family friends – potters and musicians, radical backbenchers and actors who you thought you remembered seeing in a TV drama three years ago. She wasn’t just pretending either, because, whatever anyone says about her, Beauty wasn’t a bad girl and she really did love her parents and her family. So, on that afternoon her manners were perfection. She smiled at every single one of the Senior Coven members and treated them with charm and grace. She didn’t turn a hair at the eccentric behaviour exhibited by a bunch of women who spend much of their time alone And Don’t Get Out Much, and managed to be complimentary about outfits that would have made Vivienne Westwood and Zhandra Rhodes blanch.

All of us brought gifts for Beauty. Terribly carefully chosen – like I said, this was a very connected family – and of course, as is the case with all magical gifts, hand made. You can’t schlepp into Harvey Nicks and buy an off the peg spell! Each one must be tailor made for the recipient. It must also be formally accepted within twenty four hours of it being crafted and given, or it simply goes off, like pears do in the fruit bowl the moment you turn your back.

The gifts we brought were particularly good, taking into account Beauty’s particular strengths and weaknesses as we then knew them. And they were very, very specific, because one of the reasons that magic is specific is that it guards against the evil of unforseen consequences.

The gifts we brought included a charm against stretch marks, another to prevent bingo wings and still another to allow lifelong sunbathing without getting a decolletage like a crepe bandage by the age of fifty five. There was a lovely little spell to keep black spot off your roses and a perfectly made pelvic floor charm that meant that Beauty would never have to visit the Tenna Lady counter in Boots. (I must say, when I saw that one on the pile I was tempted to take it home and modify it for myself. No, no, I really mustn’t laugh!)

So all fantastically valuable and useful presents, that any woman with good sense and foresight would be delighted to receive. But at seventeen, who has sense and foresight?

The gifts lay displayed on the dining room sideboard, while we made free with the champagne, hoovered up the smoked salmon and moaned about the VAT on wands. And while we were not paying attention, one last guest arrived; a guest none of the witches expected, but, had we had the sense and foresight we later berated Beauty for lacking, we should have.

A male guest. A male witch. Yes, most witches are female, but not all. He arrived, snake hipped in the levis he’d been wearing since 1976, still with most of his dark, wavy hair and eyelashes like a paintbrush. His hooded, green eyes peeped over the top of his Ray Bans, and his mouth, even embedded in dodgy white stubble still made you think…well, really, do I have to spell it out?

He brought a gift that was neither practical nor specific, but it was fresh; hot, you might say, from the oven. Rushed to the door on the back of his Italian motorbike, wrapped in scarlet paper and tied with a lizard-skin thong: speed. A gift dripping with unintended consequences. And like all hand crafted spells, made to last a hundred years, because a fifty year spell just makes you look like a cheapskate or a pessimist.

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Khartoum and Addis Ababa: KICS and ICS

I’ve just come back from two weeks working in international schools – one in Khartoum (Khartoum International Community School) and one in Addis Ababa (International Community School Addis). I can’t begin to describe the welcome and warmth with which I was received. I had the most wonderful time, woking with children, teachers and librarians, and being shown  a little of two amazing african nations.

I’ll write properly about it soon but in the meantime here are some pictures from Khartoum and a poem I wrote in response to the many things I saw and felt, and the responses of pupils at KICS, to the city and to the experience of coming to a new place, a new language and a new culture…at first unfamiliar and then, beloved. From a distance the impression of  Sudan can be negative, but up close it is a wonderful, an extraordinary country, with the friendliest, kindest people.

More about the delights of Addis when I’ve downloaded my pictures!

Sudan

From the air Sudan shines, but on the ground you see the dust….

At first the new apartment stank of loneliness.

We slept under one blanket,

We were not ourselves –

I hit my brother with a golf club,

Not quite by accident.

 

Outside the streets made no sense.

There was rubbish in the treetops,

And the heat felt like a punishment,

A brutal weight of light.

I stumbled, blinded in new language

With nothing on my tongue but dust.

 

And then, like camels walking from a mirage:

Words and meaning,

‘Friend’ and ‘welcome’ and ‘hello’

From the haboob of the strange and new,

A pattern grew:

Everyday the same man and his donkey,

His feet kick, kick, kicking;

Everyday the dawn light slanting

To make the colours sing;

Everyday the mid-day spiral kites,

The chairs waiting on the riverbank for dusk;

Everyday, the calls to prayer

Naming, then, now and tomorrow.

 

Everyday, everyday, everyday

Until Khartoum was beating in my heart.

 

From the air you smell the smoke of burning tyres;

You hear the gunshots;

But on the ground, green shoots through the desert’s crust,

The people smile, ‘Peace be upon you.’

 

with reception KICSShark teethShark lessons receptionLovely KICS librariansEvening Talk to ParentsWith taseer in Sudanese national dress

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