Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Remembering Phyllis - by Sue Purkiss

 At the weekend, I heard that an old friend, Phyllis Goddard, had died. She was 97. I first knew Phyllis over twenty years ago, when she and I joined a new book group set up by Harry Mottram. Phyllis was the secretary, and in her quiet way, she was formidably well organised and ran the book group like clockwork. I eventually dropped out, and I think some time after so did she - but she made contact again in 2010 when I set up a writing class in Cheddar. In the first year, she wasn't able to come, because the venue wasn't suitable for someone unsteady on her feet, as she then was - but when we moved in 2011, she joined us, and came along until a few years ago when failing mobility and eyesight meant she was no longer comfortable leaving her bungalow.

This is the only picture I have of Phyllis - she's at the front, looking characteristically jolly. It's from seven years ago.

Phyllis was born in London, south of the river, and she wrote often about her childhood - her home, her family, her first job, trips to the seaside. She would chuckle as she related her stories, and we listened, fascinated. She also wrote - very movingly - about her memories of the war and its aftermath, and about her teaching and her move with her husband to Somerset, I think when they retired.

She was always very supportive of everyone else, and very encouraging. She would often say at the end of a session, with an air of great contentment: 'Well, haven't we had a wonderful time! All those marvellous stories!' We missed her very much when she was no longer able to come, but sometimes we went to her, and she was always welcoming and delighted to see us. She insisted that she was perfectly happy, and very fortunate. She was always busy, knitting little teddy bears for friends and for charity, looking back over over her writings - her son, Martin, had some of her work beautifully printed for her -  seeing her family and friends, enjoying her small, beautifully kept garden from the French windows.

When Martin got in touch to tell me that she had died, he said this, which was lovely

'...(When) in recent weeks, Mum's loss of short-term memory made other conversations difficult, Chris (Phyllis's daughter) hit upon the idea of reading extracts from Mum's 'life story' as memory-jogging starting-points. For the most part they were not directly related to your classes, but you were certainly responsible for encouraging Mum to take up her pen. You might like to know that, towards the end when her sight was poor and COVID restrictions ruled out most other distractions, hearing what she had written was one of the very last things she was able to enjoy.'

And I think that's the message I want to pass on: for Phyllis, writing was something she came to love, an end in itself: a great pleasure, and a way of revisiting a long life, well-lived. She didn't aspire to publication - though I did produce an anthology of the class's writing and some of her stories appeared in that. Here is one of them. I remember when she first read it out. We sat and listened, hushed, as she took us to London in 1940, when a young girl hurried home across a scarlet Thames as London burned in the Blitz...

A Day To Remember 

Sunday the 7th September, 1940. The day had begun well. I was up early in order to catch the coach from Liverpool Street Station to Bedford, and I was really looking forward to meeting up with my soldier fiancé, who was stationed there.

            The day went quickly, and we had to run in order for me to catch the six o’clock coach that would take me back to London.

            Two hours later I was hurrying down into the underground station. As usual, the platforms were crowded with families seeking shelter from the air raids. Wide white lines were painted along the edges of the platforms to indicate where passengers were to walk when bedding was being used. My train came in quickly. I glanced at my watch. In about an hour, I thought, I would be home and it might still be light.

            I was very surprised when at the Bank Station we were all ordered off the train. The reason given was that during air raids, trains do not run under the Thames. I wasn’t particularly worried. I knew London well. There were always buses and trains that went my way. I continued along to the exit with the other passengers.

            But imagine my surprise and horror when, as I left the station, a blast of hot air nearly blew me off my feet.

            I grabbed the arm of the man walking next to me. Folk around were shouting and helping each other to stay on their feet. The man and I clung to each other, finding it hard to breathe with the hot wind blowing in our faces.

            “Are you going across the bridge, too?” he shouted. How glad I was that I could yell back “Yes”, knowing I would have him with me.

            In a few minutes we reached the approach to London Bridge and couldn’t believe our eyes. To the left of us everything appeared to be a seething, heaving mass of red and gold. Flames leapt up and out of wharves and buildings, and the Thames looked like a river of blood. The only sounds to be heard were the loud ‘plops’ as the fronts of buildings fell into the river, sending up sky-high fountains of water, coloured crimson by the reflection from the flames. The heat and wind together were almost unbearable.

            We made it to the other side of the bridge, the man and the eighteen year old girl – clinging to each other for support.

            We hardly spoke. I never asked his name or he mine. We stopped to get our breath back and he asked where I was heading for. He wanted to get to the Elephant and Castle and I, to Stockwell. I still hoped a tram or a bus would come along. We stayed together until the road junction, and said goodbye. He wished me luck, and I walked on alone.

Phyllis Goddard

So long, Phyllis. It was a privilege to know you.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Mind Map Your Story (or anything else) - Heather Dyer

Allowing your ideas to branch organically promotes divergent thinking; the mind thinks ‘wider’ that it might do if you were making a list or writing in a linear way. This can give rise to new and unexpected connections. 

There are all sorts of ways to use mind maps:
  • Taking notes in a lecture or from a weblog or podcast, or book
  • Exploring an event, process or a concept – for example, ‘moving house’, ‘sand dune erosion’, or ‘haiku’.
  • Structuring a piece of writing or coming up with ideas to write about. 
  • Performance. For example, if assessing a teacher, you could write down the areas for assessment beforehand – or the performance categories red, green and amber (for improvement) – before branching off each one according to your observations. 
  • Designing a presentation. You could even show the mind map as a PowerPoint slide, to introduce the presentation or sum up at the end.
  • Explore a character, chapter or storyline. 

How to do it?
  1. Write one central word (or better still, draw a single image representing it) in the middle of the page. Then branch out, writing one associated word along each branch.
  2. Draw a thick line for the first words that come off the central image, and thinner lines for more remote tributaries.
  3. Branch again and again; the only limit is the number of associations you can make.
  4. Tony Buzan recommends using colour, but I’ve never bothered.
  5. Importantly, allocate only one word to each branch – even if you want to write a phrase.
    For example, I recently drew a mind map to explore potential income streams. One of my branches was ‘school visits’. But breaking this into two words on two branches, allowed more connections to arise. As I drew a separate line for ‘school’, universities and home-schooling groups suddenly occurred to me. Then, as I drew the line for ‘visit’ I realized I could offer virtual visits as well as real visits.

Other ideas:
  • If your mind map is getting too crowded, one of the branches could start a separate mind map of its own, thereby drilling deeper and expanding further.
  • Mind mapping can be done as a way to collaborate. It can be useful to do individual mind maps first, collaborate to create a combined map, then separate again and reflect further.
  • Try prioritizing quantity over quality. Choose your central word or image, then write at least five words branching from it. Write another five from each of these five. Try another five, if you can. How far can you go?
  • When you’ve finished your mind map, try connecting random pairs of words and seeing if any new connections arise.

Heather Dyer teaches Writing for Children for the Open College of the Arts, and provides writing and publishing advice through The Literary Consultancy, The Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. If you’re ready for feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at 

For further information, see Heather's blog at Writing for Children: Creative Inspiration for Children's Authors.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Truth and Children's Literature by Anne Booth

 Recently on Twitter, I asked this question:

Anne Booth  @Bridgeanne ·Sep 14

Can people recommend children's books, from picture book upwards, which deal specifically with the truth - including but not only - fake news - but the idea of some things being true and beautiful and good, and others not. @Booktrust  

I asked this because I am personally very interested in the idea of Truth anyway, but also I have recently become very concerned about all the fake news and the contradictory and confusing reports we see in the media. It's so hard, at times to tell what is true and what is not. I watched this amazing documentary on Netflix called 'The Social Dilemma', which I really recommend as a thought-provoking thing to watch — here is a preview and a link to an article about the documentary itself. 

It seems, whatever we think of the documentary, that this world we adults have made is certainly a very complicated world for children to grow up in. So what can children's books do to help children think about and recognise what is true and what is not, what is truly good and what we are being manipulated into thinking is good? 

I had so many brilliant answers to my Twitter question. My own children, aged from 20-24, who were with me during lockdown, have all gone back to university or work, so I am sorry that I don't have my experts to help me work out how to copy them all in a thread here, but if you go to my @Bridgeanne account and find this tweet above from Sep 14th, you will see so many interesting answers, and I have copied and pasted a selection here!

Replying to @Bridgeane and @Booktrust

The Middler by @KirstyApplebaum is an atmospheric, "quietly menacing"(!) book,
which looks at how everything you have ever known and believed about the world
can be turned on its head.

I have started reading it and am really enjoying it. 

Replying to @Bridgeanne
Hi Anne! Or @AnnaMcKerrow suggests: 

Splat the Fake Fact - Adam Frost/Gemma Correll
Scoop McLaren: Detective Editor - Helen Castles

Politics for Beginners - Alex Frith/Rosie Hore/Louie Stowell
The Truth According to Arthur - Tim Hopgood/David Tazzyman
What Lexie Did - Emma Sheva 

I have already ordered and read the next one, 'Sticky Beak', and think it is a brilliant look at advertising! 

Replying to @Bridgeanne and @Booktrust
What about persuasion and the power of advertising - everything isn’t always as it seems? 

Sneaky Beak by Tracey Corderoy & illustrated by Tony Neal Sneaky Beak is an absolute joy to read! Its bright colours, larger than life.

Rashmi Sirdeshpande is away editing @RashmiWriting 

I got news! GOOD NEWS: WHY THE WORLD IS NOT AS BAD AS YOU THINK (illustrated by @mrahayes) is out on 10th June 2021. A hopeful book (9+), covering some of the biggest issues of our time from fake news and the climate crisis to politics and inequality. 

One very interesting tweet by Dr Ann Alston @AnnAlston17    proposed a theory that ALL Children's literature is the search for a truth. 

What do you think? Do you have any recommendations?

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Writing a Novel is Like ... by Joan Lennon

Theo Jansen Strandbeest 
(wiki commons)

There comes a stage in writing a novel when you need to revisit the whole thing, starting at the beginning and working your way right through to the end, looking for inconsistencies, contradictions, lumps, bumps and loose threads.  Novels are complicated beasts full of interwoven filaments that can easily break or tangle or just trail off randomly.  It doesn't take much to make something that complex not run smoothly.  Grind to a halt.  Maybe even fall flat on its face ...

Jansen said of his beasts: "I make skeletons that are able to walk on the wind. Over time, these skeletons have become increasingly better at surviving the elements such as storms and water and eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives."

Which is what we hope for our novels too, right?

Joan Lennon Instagram

Saturday, 19 September 2020

What's in a blog?

I usually trip headfirst into adventures, but before joining this Awfully Big one, I thought I should probably prepare. What exactly was I getting myself into? I mean, I know what a blog is, but what exactly is a blog? It sounds sticky.

Blogging history began in the 1980s with basic webpages that acted to log website activity and encourage user feedback. The term ‘weblog’ was first used in 1997 during the shift towards more journal-like usage of these webpages. One year later, Open Diary was launched providing space for regular personal updates to be shared and with a function inviting readers’ comments on content; the year after that the shortened term ‘blog’ was coined.

So, should I treat my ABBA blogpost as a monthly diary entry? Are blogs like diaries? Not according to sociologist José van Dijck who argues for important distinctions to be made. Diaries are private spaces; online journals, by design, are public and invite an audience, the presence of which will affect what, why and how things are recorded.

The physical performance of diary-writing, says van Dijck, produces a ‘material, “authentic” artefact, inscribed in time and on paper’. Digital memories, conversely, are revisable, unreliable, ‘mediated’. This reminds me of philosopher Jacques Derrida’s work, in which handwriting embodies meaning and emotion: that is, pen and paper produce different modes of thought from typewriters (and, we can assume, from laptops and tablets).

Blogs quite quickly became politicised, used as virtual megaphones and digital homing pigeons in political campaigns and crises around the world. Youth activist Malala Yousafzai anonymously blogged for the BBC; her journal-like entries provided an escape route for voices trapped in Taliban-controlled areas of Pakistan.

Though blogs can function as overtly political spaces, most don’t. According to an important piece (and when I say important piece, I mean cartoon) in The New Yorker, blogs can be broken down by function, as follows:

©Roz Chast, The New York Times

[Purely in order to fit into this pie chart, I should say that my debut novel Tiger Skin Rug is out with Cranachan Publishing and available online and from all good book shops, and my next book, Talking History, is coauthored with Joan Lennon and out with Templar next year.]

As well as being political and promotional platforms, blogs are also heavily monetised, being prime advertising spaces in what one study calls the ‘attention economy’. And the blogosphere is a crowded market these days, accommodating photologs, microblogs (social media-like beasts) and vlogs. Back in the Year 2000, there were around 30 blog sites on the Internet. Now there are around 500 million.

Apart from book blogs (which, along with indie bookshops, make the world go round), the blogs I’m drawn to are the ones that read a bit like essays. (Can you tell?) I was a fresh-faced first year at university when I got hooked on the essay form. Not writing the things - reading them. I love a good essay and access them mostly online, sometimes on blogsites. According to one technology historian, however, the blog version of an essay is not quite an essay, taking a more ‘informal, conversational, sometimes even off-color tone’. Some are so ‘off-color’ that digital do-gooders have devised a Code of Conduct for Bloggers.

That such a code exists supports the position taken by my favourite of the articles I came across. In ‘Chaos Theory as a Lens for Interpreting Blogging’, readers are assured that in the ‘apparent random and complex phenomenon’ of the blogosphere, there is, in fact, a sense of order. People within the sphere, the article explains, know what they are doing. Based on the evidence immediately before you, you may well beg to differ.

So, all this prepping leads me to conclude that a blog is not exactly a log, diary or essay. It’s not always political and only sometimes (not in my case) an income stream. I know what a blog post isn’t; I’m still not entirely sure what it is. And yet, I’ve managed to come to the end of my first one on this adventure.




 and social media @joanhaigbooks