Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Exam Time: Season 7, starring Tracy Alexander

I work from home most of the time. And I am mostly alone. Except in exceptional circumstances such as . . . exam season. It is, to clarify, my seventh public exam season. During this period I take on extra roles including taxi driver, nutritionist, supply teacher and negotiator of virtual landmines. There have been moments when I’d have rather been sitting in an office, far from the hothouse of data cramming, but being around and available when your kids are stressed is, of course, one of the privileges of flexible working. And I embrace it.
Being truly seasoned, I have tips. They may not be useful, or practical, or wise.
(There are ten, because there are always ten for alliterative purposes.)

1 A dog is invaluable
Dogs do not give you helpful advice. Dogs do not whisper about your chances. Dogs do not read your predictions. Dogs do not care about your revision timetable. Dogs lick your face. Only dogs understand what teenagers are going through.
(Warning: Dogs are for life, not just for exams.)

2 Less is more
There is too much talking. Parents have done exams themselves. They know everything. They want to tell you. This is all white noise. Talk less.
(Unless you’re discussing meal-planning for the day after the last exam, when eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in bed in front of Netflix is obligatory. Then more is more and more and more . . .)
All the words you need:
I love you.
Do you want a lift?
Do you have a bottle of water?
Don’t forget to leave your phone outside the room.
I love you.

3 Actions
Actions speak louder, and more intelligibly, than words.
Deliver, wordlessly, a hot drink or a tasty treat, a hug, or a gift*

*A stress toy, chocolate, or the pig from Moana are all top gifts.
(A Revision Guide is less appealing, but preferable to the course text book thanks to its relative size.)

4 Food and drink
Stock up on an abundance of both, nutritious and not nutritious.
Sugar is bad because of that up and down thing, but sugar is good because it tastes nice and makes people happy.
Exam mornings require easy to swallow slop.
Water all students as though they’re hydrangeas. Adrenalin starves the body of water. Dehydrated brains don’t work as well.
(It’s important for the support worker to eat delicious treats, and make the most of the units the government allows us.)

5 Rest breaks
Rest breaks are intervals between revising. They may vary in length, from most of the day to half an hour. (Less than half an hour is punctuation.)
Call me old-fashioned, but a rest break should involve something other than a screen. See 6) Exercise.

6) Exercise
The dog is the perfect excuse to get the examinee out of the house. In the absence of a dog, walk to the take-away. Walk to the bakery and buy cakes. Walk to a friend’s house.
Use those apps everyone has that count your steps and make a random minimum target for exam season . . . however small.
Even better, run, play tennis, skateboard . . . swim in the sea . . .
(Don’t eat, sleep, revise.
Also don’t check your phone, eat, check your phone, sleep, check your phone, revise, check your phone.)

7) Positivity
Exams are not the beginning or the end of the world. They’re exams. Some people do better than others. Some people work harder than others. Some people are tall and some people aren’t. Some people can remember every box on the periodic table and some can’t, and some don’t want to. Where you end up in life is about way more than a few capital letters next to a few subject names on a sheet of paper. Chill!

8 Mess
Who cares?
Leave the past papers, the scribbled-on A4 pages, the text books and the revision guides where they are. Scoop up the chocolate wrappers, the discarded drinks and the tissues. Repeat.
Abandon all ideas of personal space for the duration. 

9 Being asked for academic help . . .
Do not use the voice.
(I don’t know what the voice is, but I know not to use it. Knowing and doing are two different things.)
Do not use the word obvious.

10 Results
What’s done is done. Rejoice regardless. They’re young, and, as the lovely Mrs Gillman who taught all three of my wee ones used to say, “You’re a long time grown”.

 Tracy Alexander

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Best Place By the Fire by Steve Gladwin


When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold their future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for  --- the Storyteller.

We have a friend who prides himself on giving us rubbish presents. He unashamedly gets hold of any old tat he can and wraps them up to look impressive, handing them to us with a big smile on his face like some grinning Lancastrian Santa. Then when we open them we find things like dog-eared old books of riddles and two year old chocolate. He even shows off about it. When a mutual friend saw the two huge parcels he was giving us a few days after Christmas and asked what they were, he said, ‘Oh it’s just a pile of old crap I want to get rid of.’

A couple of months ago however he redeemed himself totally by turning up with the best presents ever. Yes, he gave me not just the DVD but the book of my favourite TV series, The Storyteller, which was created and produced by Jim Henson and first appeared here on Channel 4 in 1987. The gift was particularly special because I used to have another version of the book which accompanied the series, but foolishly lent it to someone who said she’d give it back and of course never did.. And I’d only previously had a Region 1 copy of the DVD which won’t play.

The book itself is a thing of beauty and alone reminds me of why the series itself was so special. In place of the actual photos from the series and silhouettes which were in the version I lost, this version from Boxtree has a series of beautiful coloured recreations of many of the characters, situations and perils which bring back even more the whole wonderful experience of the series.

So what could possibly be so special about a warty, ugly storyteller in a faded patchwork cloak and his grumpy talking dog? Well just how long have you got?

Let’s start with the script, for this after all is the series which made me want to be a storyteller, and I confess that I still steal the odd jewel here and there to implant them in my tales because these rare gems. These glittering and shimmering stones poured from the pen of Anthony Minghella, and for me no-one has, or could do the art of storytelling a better service. Everywhere are lines which you simply couldn’t find the like of anywhere else.

Next there’s the creatures  - the misunderstood Griffin in The Luck Child, who likes a ‘scritch –scratch before his ‘snoozie woozie’, the trolls, father and daughter in The True Bride, the latter looking to me alarmingly like the Queen in a headscarf at Ascot, the wonderful red devils in ‘The Soldier and Death’ chain-smoking and playing cards, (at which they cheat incessantly, and above all the wonderful innocent beast in the adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast story in Hans my Hedgehog. And how could I forget the bug eyed Terrible Thing which lurks in the village pond with his siren daughters to lure unsuspecting travelers down, down and yet proves strangely susceptible to Fearnot’s violin playing in the story of the same name.

Talking of Fearnot brings me to my third reason. When Fearnot and Mr Mackay the crafty tinker who he employs to teach him how to shudder, rest in the village being terrorised by the Terrible Thing and his Sisters of the Deep, Fearnot dangles his feet into the village pond uncaring about the legend. But this isn’t the village pond, it’s the storyteller’s dog’s bowl, as the series - as it does so many times - shatters the fourth wall and simply doesn’t care. Things are seen from extraordinary angles and often with a dreamlike quality - rather as they were so wonderfully when Alfonso Cuaron was given his (regretfully) one go at the Harry Potter franchise in Prisoner of Azkaban. The house where poor Hans my hedgehog lives with the mother who dotes on him and the father who tries to love him but only ends up resenting him almost as much as the villagers who call him ‘Truffle Hog’, we first see on a dinner plate on the wall, and in The Soldier and Death, when the magical soldier first tries his skills at cheating death when his master the Tsar is about to die, the various priests and grey-beards are seen muttering, wagging their beards and shaking their sticks in small silhouettes.

'A music that started like hello and ended like goodbye'

Doing his own sad muttering with the magic glass which tells him whether the Tsar will die, (death stands at the head of the bed) or live, (at the foot) is Bob Peck as the grizzled veteran with no longer any war or cause to fight, who has to find a new one. Bob Peck is just one of a whole galaxy of stars who put as much into their portrayals as such a wonderful series deserves. In Sapsorrow you get French and Saunders as the ugly sisters and at one point Dawn French steps out of the story to shake her fist in the corner of the screen to shake her fist at the storyteller’s dog who is heckling her and her sister. There is Jane Horrocks as the resentful Anya, The True Bride, with Sean Bean completely oblivious to their love while he is under the spell of the trollop, (at the first sound of this word the dog blocks his ears up!), in The Three Ravens Jonathan Pryce as the grieving king is quite oblivious to the wicked wiles of Miranda Richardson’s witch, while his daughter Joely Richardson is all too aware of them, and in The Luck Child the veteran actor Robert Flemying gives a moving and haunting performance as the weary ferryman who is forced to make his ceaseless crossing carrying passengers to and from the Griffin’s island. And at no time does any of them give a single indication that they’re not taking their role as seriously as if they were playing Chekhov.

One of the great TV partnerships

Maybe none of this would work quite so well if the storyteller under the warts and make-up wasn’t John Hurt and the dog wasn’t portrayed and voiced by Brian Henson. It’s this partnership which is the real soul of The Storyteller, because while the storyteller tells the tale as it is, or has been told to him, the dog often provides the moral conscience, but does it in such an often jokey or sarcastic way that we miss the impact until we think about it, or because he rolls his eyes and sighs.

As for John Hurt’s performance, well I can do no better than Baz Greenland’s tribute to him in this role on Digital Spy, following the actor’s death.

John Hurt was simply captivating as the storyteller, playing off his animated muppet dog (voiced by Jim Henson's son Brian). He's almost unrecognisable under the make up, with his giant ears and nose, but it hinders his performance not one bit. With his ability to draw the audience in, he could make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up with a soft whisper of an enemy, or convey the boundless joy of a happy ending. There are many wonderful performances over the series - and from some well known faces like Sean Bean, Jennifer Saunders and Jonathan Pryce - but no one comes close to Hurt's. 

There was a second series called Greek Myths, in which Michael Gambon made more than a decent fist as a new storyteller stuck with his faithful dog, (yes, he gets around!) in the Minotaur's labyrinth to tell us the tales of Jason and Perseus, Daedalus and Orpheus, but there was only one John Hurt. When interviewed about the series itself, John Hurt says he was primarily attracted to it both by the wonderful script and the respectful attitude the programme took to traditional tale. The original idea and enthusiasm, it appears, came from a folklore course that Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa took at university and their mutual enthusiasm for doing something meaningful and honourable with multi-cultural storytelling.

Clearly in order to fulfill that sort of dream, you need experienced people at the helm and Jim Henson could hardly have done better with the likes of Duncan Kenworthy as producer, (and also of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually) and directors such as John Amiel (The Singing Detective) and Charles Sturridge, (Brideshead Revisited), as well as helming a couple himself which included possibly the best episode of all, The Soldier and Death.’

Which brings us rather inevitably to the sad fact of how many of the team behind or part of The Storyteller, are no longer with us. Sadly we lost the wonderful actor Bob Peck in 1999 and Jim Henson himself even further back in 1990, but in 2008 Anthony Minghella too took his glittering array of jewels to cast a light somewhere else, and more recently the storyteller himself, Sir John Hurt, has joined him. The old ferryman Robert Flemying also made that final crossing in 1995 and as the old saying goes, ‘we may not see their like again.’

Do yourself a favour and buy this now!

It is also unlikely that we will ever see anything like The Storyteller again because this was a series which broke so many rules without doing so in an obvious, flashy way that we were barely aware that it was doing it. It was profound and moving, gripping and at times terrifying. It had a wonderfully inventive score by Rachel Portman with a clarinet that wriggled as hard as any of the devils to be let out of their sack. Above all, it gave adults and children alike a reminder of the fund of treasures to be had in traditional tale and the means by which a truly gifted writer can rearrange tale type and motif to reinvent and clothe old bones with fresh new garments, grow new leaves on old trees and always leave them seeming fresh. The Storyteller has not aged in any way but feels timeless. It was conceived and created long before the explosion of CGI and virtual reality. If you haven’t got a copy or have even never seen it, I urge you to change that because you won’t regret it, and you will maybe find like I do discover that after viewing any episode, the world just seems that bit more right and fresh and above all magical because of it .  

The Storyteller by the way, won the Emmy for best children's TV programme in 1987, following that up with the BAFTA for the same in 1989. But we all know it was for adults as well. Now go out and buy it now!

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Future of Libraries, by Dan Metcalf

I'm a former librarian, so expect this post to have some bias to it...

There has been loads written on the future of libraries,  this one for instance is a great article , far more articulate than I could ever be, but it hit the nail on the head in its first few lines:

"Libraries are not about books. In fact, they were never about books"

True - Libraries are about people.

They are about the people that come in and support them, about the people that take out the latest PD James for the tenth time, about the people who come in to do their homework, and about the people who come in just for a chat.

They are about the library assistant, forever helpful and friendly (and ok, sometimes not, but we can learn from that too). They are about the librarian, shaping and arranging information so that everyone can find it with a minimum of effort. They are about the library managers, putting on events and readings, storytimes and rhymetimes week in, week out. All these people don't do it for the cash - there are no end of year bonuses here - they do it for the people who walk over that welcome mat at the beginning of every day.

"Libraries are not about books. In fact, they were never about books." This much is obvious. Before books, there were scrolls. Before scrolls, there were stone tablets. Before stone tablets, there were crusty old men and women with minds like attics, ready to tell you the exact piece of information you needed (in fact, I think this might be my perferred information method).

IF books go the way of the dodo or the VHS tape (I'm not saying they will, at least, not for a while), then so be it. If the next incarnation of the library is digital, then so be it. But I see a time when society has crumbled and all the library buildings have been turned into GAP stores, and everyone wanders about with their head up their iPad. Those people will stop and search for that little something that is missing in their lives. And I think that missing thing will be...a library.

A place to go. A place to think. A place to find hidden gems, to find that bit of info you needed, or that you didn't know that you need. A place to create, to stimulate and above all, to interact with people.

Because that's what a library is - a people-centred interaction space. In times gone by, that may have been a campfire around which the elders of the tribe told stories and offered advice to the youngest recruits. It may have been soothsayer's corner, where nutjobs professed about the future. But at some point in human history, it became easier to write these stories and information down, and store it in one place so that people could go there and connect with it. Every time you pick up a book, you are connecting with that author, just as much as when you look at a blog, download a podcast or buy an ebook. You connect with a person.

So what will happen to libraries? I hope that the governments will invest in them, and believe in them as social centres which are crucial to the development of civilisation. They should become something more than 'book places'. Perhaps 'Inspiration spaces'? Or 'maker spaces'? I actually would like, once the evil robot overlords have crushed us to a pulp, and the human race has pulled ourselves up from the ashes (stop me when I get too far fetched...), that one old man, his head full of a lifetime of stories and experience, will sit himself in the corner of a town and hang a sign around his neck which says, simply, 'Library - Ask Me Anything'.

Dan Metcalf is a writer of children fiction. His next book, Codebusters, is out in July and you can learn more about him at

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Politics and Children's Books by Anne Booth

Children’s Books and Politics

My first book - 'Girl with a White Dog'. 

By the time my next blog post comes up we will have another government. And, earlier than the General Election, this will have happened too:

I have bought a ticket for this, and I hope to be able to attend and listen to and maybe join in the discussion, but am not 100% sure as my elderly dad isn’t very well.

The debating questions seem to me to be really well chosen.

‘Should we provide readers with the tools to learn about the world around them, their role as citizens and their right to speak up?  Or should children's fiction be about escapism and entertainment?  How can authors combine the two and what is our responsibility to reflect current events in our fiction?’

The answers to these all involve a basic shared understanding of the term ‘child’ and the unique relationship to, and responsibility for, their reader which a children’s writer has. It has changed over time, something which I loved learning about for my M.A. in Children’s Literature back in 1993-95. In early children’s books, authors for children felt it was their primary responsibility to communicate what they regarded as essential spiritual truths to children, in as effective a way as possible. Pictures and narrative were put at the service of this, and children could be frightened into goodness. As time went on, and our perception of shared spiritual certainties changed, along with the status of the child and the commercial standing of the book, the emphasis became more on entertainment rather than improvement or the saving of a child’s soul, yet at the same time the religious or political biases of any children’s author will always, consciously or unconsciously, effect the story they tell. 

For a really interesting summary read this:

I remember being recommended on the MA course  the book  by Jacqueline Rose  ‘The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction’  - I am sure I read some if not all of it - as I remember being surprised by the complexities of the whole aspect of adults writing for children.

I was amused, when looking up the book for this post, to see the title of this piece

I must re- read the original and get hold of the article commenting on it. 


All I know is that I loved children’s books when I was a child and never stopped loving them - that I read them for entertainment and comfort - and I write them, to a certain extent, for the entertainment and comfort of the child  who is still within me, but I also write them, as an adult, for the children I love - remembering my own, my friend’s children, and also those children I meet. 

I want children in bad situations to be comforted and entertained by my books, to be inspired and enthused. I want to write about things they like -  fairies and friends and dogs and magic snow globes.

And some children do like politics. They are interested in it, as I know from amazing questions I get when I go to schools to talk about ‘Girl with a White Dog’. They ask about immigration, anti-Semitism, and even Donald Trump. So I wasn't surprised by this : 

And as politics does ‘bug’ some children and does affect the children I love - I also want to write about it. I want to help them understand politics and politicians - because what politics is and what politicians do affects their lives and, when they are 18, they will be able to vote and need to know what they are doing.  Politicians close libraries, politicians turn away child refugees, politicians affect the housing they live in, the standard of the food they eat, their families' prospects and health. Politicians condemn some children in our country to be child carers - and children need to know this - and if politicians and the media are not telling them, then I feel that maybe I, as a story teller, can be one of those who plug the gap.  Politics affects the air they breathe, the environment they live in, the world they inhabit and the animals and birds and plants they depend on. Politics is definitely not just for adults.

But I don't want to become a propagandist. I don't want to forget that the story is the most important thing. My contribution can be, I hope, partly to help them to understand how stories work. I want them to experience and understand the power of storytellers - and to be storytellers themselves. I want them, experienced in story, to be able to recognise what is behind the stories they are being told, by politicians and others in the media who have political agendas. Children can be told terrible stories by adults - stories which make evil ideologies normal, as I found when I looked at Nazi children’s books at the Wiener library for my book ‘Girl with a White Dog’. 

There are so many recently published and wonderful books which are great stories and deal with politics today - I really want to read the new books about refugees by Gill Lewis and Elizabeth Laird, for example, but there are many many others, and I don't want to start listing them for fear I leave anyone out. Off the top of my head I can think of recent books by Miriam Halahmy, Sita Brachmachari, Francesca Sanna. Then there are historical books which help children understand political realities today - many written by people who write for this blog.

 I was so proud that my own 'Girl with a White Dog' was shortlisted for 'The Little Rebels Award' back in 2015 and am looking forward to reading the shortlisted ones for this year.

So - I am looking forward to Tuesday and hope I can get there - but even if I don't, I will keep thinking about this question. I want the story to be the most important thing in my books, and I don't want to write propaganda, but I also want the stories I tell to be consistent with the person I am - and the person I am does not exist in a political (or spiritual - but that's another story)  vacuum, and neither do the children I write for.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Rubbing Out Erasers - Joan Lennon

There are plenty of things* that irritate the socks off me when I go into schools to run creative writing workshops, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that!  But the object of my ire today is small and soft and, to all appearances, benign.  Also evil.

Yes, I'm talking about erasers.  They are a bane, and I ban them.

In the UK, primary school pupils use pencils, a fact which has irritations of its own.  When I first started doing workshops in primary schools, I would get the children all enthused and ready to write - straining at the leash - set them off, and then have to wait while 3/4 of the class decided to sharpen their pencil using one of 2 functioning sharpeners on offer.  And then, when they did finally get writing, it would be write a word, write another word, write a third word, and then spend 5 minutes rubbing the second word out.  Completely out.  Utterly obliterated.  So rubbed out that resurrection of any sort or variety was impossible.  That word was dead and gone.

Now I try to head this off at the pass.  Before they begin.  "Never rub anything out," I say.  "If you think a word or a sentence isn't right, just draw a line through it and move on.  Keep going.  You never know - you might look back and decide that that word was perfect after all."  So no erasers.  No rubbing out.

It's a hard thing to learn, when reaching for the rubber is your default editing tool.  But I have no mercy.  If I hear that irritating shuckashuckashuckashucka sound, I pounce like a harpy avenging angel pouncey thing.

Of course I'm willing to admit that an eraser is a clever little invention, and that it has its uses.  Lots of uses.  

Just keep it away from my workshops!  

If there are other rubber revilers out there, please know that you are not alone.  And one day, maybe, we shall prevail.

* for example, tables, about which I rant here

(images from Wikicommons)

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Silver Skin.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Notebook Nirvana - Lu Hersey

Practically any writing class – or creative writing handbook –  is going to tell you to make it your number one priority to always have a notebook with you. At all times. You never know when inspiration will strike (though having consulted with many fellow writers, that might be very inconveniently when you’re in the shower, or running for the bus….but you get the idea). Notebooks are, apparently, essential.
It’s true that almost all writers are obsessed with them. Many of us are total stationery nerds, spending happy hours staring at notebook cover designs and covetously feeling the paper inside. (texture is important. It might be a different kind of texture preference for each writer, but it’s important!)
Some writers change their notebook each year. Others have a different notebook for each book they write. Some prefer lined paper to keep it neat, and some, like me, choose plain pages so they can scribble and doodle and make a big mess. (David Almond is a fan of the plain page, so I’m in good company there.)
I was in the Henge shop at Avebury a while back with two writer friends – and it turned out they’d both bought the same notebook the year before. I felt a bit left out. And yes, I later ordered one in the same design. Here it is…

As it happens, this notebook didn’t work for me. The cover is wonderful, but the pages are lined. It’s hard to ignore lines, but I find it even harder to keep within sadly, it’s still only part used.
A lot of writers go for the Moleskine - Hemingway’s favourite. It’s true it has handy pockets for tickets and memorabilia, all held in place with a strong elasticated band round the outside. You can choose your favourite size and colour (mostly red or black), and whether you want lined pages or not. Or a mix. They look great when shelved next to each other in a uniform collection. (shelving is another thing with writers, by the way. You can’t have enough bookshelves. Ever.) So all in all, the Moleskine sounds perfect, right?
For many writers, yes – but it’s the very ‘specialness’ of these (they’re quite expensive) that makes me too scared to write anything in them. It’s okay if you’re like William Blake and can keep the same notebook for twenty years by writing things very small, and being fastidious. But that’s not me.
Anyway, it got to a point where notebook experimentation meant I had so many notebooks, I didn’t know which one I was meant to be using for what. This confusion of notebooks meant I rarely wrote anything in any of them. Not having time to find the right one, I ended up almost always using my laptop.
Meanwhile my room was littered with notebooks. One for recording dreams, one each for all my different book ideas, and separate notebooks for personal experience. Many of them are not even half full - some even less.
The tip of my notebook iceberg

Then something wonderful happened. Paul Magrs, novel writer and creative workshop leader, was asking for readers to give him feedback on a new creative writing handbook he’d written. I seized the opportunity, and offered to be a read The Novel Within You. (Hopefully this will be published very soon as it’s EXCELLENT!  A wonderful mix of funny anecdotes, autobiography and extremely useful tips and ideas).
Anyway, one thing Paul recommends, which really stood out for me, is the idea of a  universal notebook. Write, draw, do what you like – but all in the SAME notebook – and make it cheap and practical so you’re not afraid to use it.
Brilliant! Even before I’d finished reading the book, I found my ideal notebook in Wilkinsons. It’s cheap. It has a plastic cover, so I don’t have to worry about spilling stuff on it. It has a nice strong band to hold it together, so I can keep a pen tucked inside -  and it adapts well to the interior of my bag (it takes a hardy notebook to withstand this nightmare environment). Not only that, the pages are plain and just the right texture.
Notebook heaven.

I now write everything in one notebook, which is always with me. I don’t have to be self-conscious about it, as no one will see it. To do lists, shopping lists, book ideas, whole chapters, blog ideas, notes from the evening course I’m doing – everything! And I fill them (repeat – FILL THEM!) at regular intervals.
So if you’re suffering from fear of messing up your writing journal, take a leaf out of my notebook (sorry). Go for cheap and cheerful, and just don’t worry about what you write in it. It’s yours, no one else will see it, and you can write/scribble/draw whatever you like...

Lu Hersey
twitter: @LuWrites
Author page: Lu Hersey
Blog: Lu Writes
Current book: Deep Water