Friday, 9 April 2021

Goldilocks and the three chairs (Anne Rooney)

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin...

Once upon a time there was a little blonde woman who wrote books. Everyday she went to the University Library and wrote her books. Then one evening, the Library sent her an email saying it would be closed in the morning and for the forseeable future. No, she could not take her things out of her locker or cross the threshhold for any other reason. We've all been in this story, one way or another, for more than a year now. The stuff is still in the locker, but this is about a different bit of furniture.

The week before the library closed, the finance director of one of my publishers cancelled all commissioning. Another cancelled two books I was writing for them. Otheres went AWOL silently. This meant not going to the Library wasn't a particularly big  problem. I spent the summer gardening, moping and writing a few bits for which commissions did still come through, including You Wouldn't Want to be in a Virus Pandemic. The minor backache I'd had for a while slowly cleared up to be replaced by a few gardening aches and strains.


Then, around October, bits of work trickled in. Some was immediately cancelled again with the November lockdown, but I was working about half-time and it was still warm so I was doing it in the sunroom, a light, airy, but cold-in-winter room where I have my best desk and office chair, a fine Herman Miller specimen because when you work from home (as I did for years before settling in the University Library) you know money spent on a good chair is well spent. But you forget.

The weather got colder and the sunroom was too cold to work in without turning the heating up to planet- and finance-destroying levels, so I moved upstairs to a desk and chair abandoned by a long-moved-out daughter.  With the early spring, work came back properly. Publishers came out of hibernation, blinked in the strange light of the new world, and went on a commissioning binge, presumably realising they had nothing to sell after all that cancelling. I started to get hip pains, just in one hip. At first I thought it was another gardening injury, or at least a tree-felling injury as I'd been climbing in one tree to cut bits of a neighbouring tree blown down in a storm. Through March, the hip got worse rather than better. I feared I'd become old and would be needing a hip replacement. Perhaps I shouldn't have cut my walking down over the winter. But, well, it was cold. And pandemicky still. Maybe I should age gracefully and buy a patterned stick. Maybe if the shops ever opened...

Then it was Easter. I wanted to go on holiday, but that's not allowed. Part of my house is usually let to a lodger and he'd moved out two days before. This would do: a home from home. I moved in (that is, walked through the connecting door) and started working on a small desk and old office chair. After a few days I had shoulder pains, but the hip was slightly better. The internet connection was dodgy this far from the router, though, so I moved to a folding chair at the dining table. Then I had childcare duties for a few days and stopped working. 

Suddenly, the pieces fell into place. Chairs. Or at least, chair-and-desk combos. The chairs at the University Library had given me backache. The chair in the bedroom hurt my hip. The chair in the annexe hurt my shoulder (wrong height for the desk — it had been adjusted by my tall lodger and got jammed at its new height). The dining table hurt everything.  But the Herman Miller chair is Just Right. As the weather gets warmer, I'll move back to the sunroom. Problem solved, I hope, for now. And if we're still doing this next winter I'll move the chair upstairs.

The moral is if you're working from home and have new aches and pains, look at where you're working. I would have noticed if this had followed straight after Library closed, but because I didn't have any work then it didn't materialise until much later. There's a good reason that employers who have people working at home are supposed to check the safety and suitability of their equipment. Those of us who employ ourselves shouldn't neglect it. Do an audit of your body and your workspace. A few months of aches and pains is a nuisance, but if it goes on for too long, perhaps we could do permanent damage. So don't settle in the chair that is too big, too soft or too small — look for the one that's Just Right.

 Anne Rooney


Thursday, 8 April 2021

The elephant in the Zoom by Keren David

 I’m at the planning stage of a few new books, and I’m coming up against a problem.  Yes. That problem. The pandemic.

For those of us who write contemporary fiction, it’s a real issue. Do we mention it? Do we pretend it never happened? Do we jump from life in 2019 to life in an imagined 2022, with a big blurry don't-mention-the-virus gap in between?

I really don’t know. And it is bothering me, because it is hard to imagine myself into the head of my characters without thinking how they would have reacted to a year of home-schooling, the possibility of older adults dying, and all the other important things that arise from everything that has happened.

If this was a war – surely we’d be including it in our books?  How can we ignore things like Zoom and home-schooling and masks in the classroom? For those of us who write YA all those cancelled exams change the whole architecture of the teenage years. 

I don’t know the answer to any of this. But as I work on my outlines, as I put my stories together, I’m thinking -  is this then, or now, or sometime in the future?  Are all my books going to be forever 2019?  What  do I do about the elephant in the Zoom? 

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Bean soup, by Dawn Finch

I won’t lie – it’s been a difficult year. I know that has been the same for everyone but when your career vanishes and you haven’t seen your folks since 2019 and you can’t see your child… it’s hard not to take things personally. I went into the Pandemic as a writer and library worker and am coming out the other side as a food writer and owner of a food social enterprise. When my income disappeared I had to find a way to make a new living, and had to do this. I've seen lots of people struggling over the last year and in my role as CWIG Chair there have been lots of conversations about how to adapt, and about grants and financial support. I have many times tried to answer heartbreaking emails from people who feel that nothing will ever be the same again.

I am lucky, and I know that, and at times I’ve felt very guilty for that. I’ve often felt as if I’m not entitled to moan about the other stuff - the loss, the loneliness, the separation, the cold acceptance of a a career in ruins. I had the skills a local food project needed and was given a chance to take up a new career and to start over from scratch. Not something I'd ever pictured doing again (especially not in my 50s) but needs must etc.. There have been many times when I’ve felt I shouldn’t be sharing things about my new little business because of the ongoing struggles of others. This has been a year when we’ve all looked at the lives of others and felt we should be feeling as if our problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

We're all a bit Rick these days...

But our problems are a hill of beans, and that hill of beans is something that we all have to deal with in our own way. I had to take that hill of beans and make cassoulet (…literally…) but we all had to tackle our hills of beans in our own ways and it’s absolutely fine to feel as if we struggle with the climb. The ability of others to clamber over hills far bigger than ours does not diminish our struggle.

In that closing scene in Casablanca, when Rick says that to Ilsa, they both know he’s lying. They both know that this hill of beans is agony and that their suffering is very real. In this sacrifice, as he lets her go for the greater good, he isn’t diminishing their personal loss but accepting it.

I’m going to allow myself to slowly tackle the hill of beans. We have lived this moment in history and we are adapting to life with Covid. This new landscape is different, but not ruined. I’m not as bad off as some people, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that for me everything has changed. I know I'm not alone and that's important too. To move forward we need to plant those beans in this new land and see what grows.

The sun is coming over the hill, and there’s always bean soup.

Dawn Finch is a poet, food writer, allotmenteer and cook. As well as being current chair of the Society of Author's Children's Writers and Illustrators Group (CWIG), Dawn is the owner of Neep&Okra in Huntly, Aberdeenshire.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Of Gardens and Time Travel by Paul May

I recently re-read Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, the winner of the 1958 Carnegie Medal. It was a surprising experience in many ways, because this was not quite the book I thought I remembered. When I'd finished it, I was inspired to return to the greatest of all children's books about gardens, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1911. Just think - Tom's Midnight Garden was published 63 years ago, and The Secret Garden a mere 47 years before that. Time does indeed seem to play strange tricks as we grow older. Philippa Pearce writes a great deal about Time, but that's not what gives her book its power to move the reader, for this is a book about loss and longing, about memory and grief, about the way the world changes throughout a long lifetime.

I never read this book as a child, and first discovered it when I was in my twenties, at an age when one lives in the present and the future rather than in the past. And though my grandmother, then in her nineties, told me that she could sit happily for hours remembering the tiniest details of events and places from her childhood, I never imagined then that there would come a point when I, like her, would discover that there was more life behind me than there was ahead of me. And so, when I read Tom's Midnight Garden a few weeks ago, I saw that it's not a book about a little boy travelling in time, but rather, it's about an old lady remembering and dreaming of the past.

My grandmother on the left, with a few of her buddies.

If you haven't read Tom's Midnight Garden and you're planning to, you might want to stop here. The book is essentially a mystery. We want to know, as does Tom Long, what this garden is that he visits every night as the grandfather clock in the hall strikes thirteen. How can the garden be there in the middle of the night and not there in the morning? And how is it that no time seems to pass while he is there?  And what time is it, exactly, in this garden, for it seems to be in the past: but what past?  When Tom finally sees the words 'Time no longer' which had been hidden on the face of the grandfather clock, his thoughts begin to take a new shape:

'Tom thought again: Time no longer—the angel on the grandfather clock had sworn it. But if Time is ever to end, that means that, here and now, Time itself is only a temporary thing. It can be dispensed with perhaps; or, rather, it can be dodged. Tom himself might be able to dodge behind Time's back and have the Past—that is, Hatty's Present and the garden—here, now and for ever. To manage that, of course, he must understand the workings of Time.'

Given that Tom appears to be a boy of no more than about 9 years of age this seems a surprising meditation. But then, I have to say that I'm unconvinced by Tom as a character, and I didn't really like him very much. He's a slightly rude and grumpy small boy at the start and he doesn't really improve with acquaintance. His brother, Peter, is in quarantine with measles, and Tom is  upset about being sent away to an uncle and aunt who live in a flat with no garden, when he should have been spending the holidays playing with his brother in his own (not very interesting) garden at home. This is a book full of complexity; full of metaphors and symbols, and some have seen Tom as a kind of 'everyboy'. I can see all of this, and I do agree with all those commentators who believe this is one of the greatest children's books of all, but I still find Tom hard to like, and I don't think he really changes significantly throughout the book, whereas Hatty changes in almost every way, moving from orphaned infant to lonely old woman asleep with her teeth in a jar beside the bed.

It may be that we can see the whole book as Tom gradually being brought to understand that old Mrs Bartholomew, and by extension all old people, were children once. I certainly felt that the overriding feeling of the story was a passionate regret for the loss of childhood, but it is Mrs Bartholomew's loss that is the most deeply felt, and it is her childhood that is so vividly realised and symbolised in the garden. Tom's own suburban garden by contrast is duller than dull ; 'Town gardens are small, as a rule, and the Longs' garden was no exception to the rule; there was a vegetable plot and a grass plot and one flower-bed and a rough patch by the back fence.'

I suppose I see Tom as a bit like that garden, and a bit like the rest of the suburbanised, built-over modern world that Philippa Pearce describes. Dull and miserable. A world where the river that once ran beside meadows had 'back-garden strips on one side and an asphalt path on the other.' Aunt Gwen asks a fisherman if he's caught any fish.

'There aren't any fish,' the man replied sourly. He stood by a notice that said: 'WARNING. The Council takes no responsibility for persons bathing, wading or paddling. These waters have been certified as unsuitable for such purposes, owing to pollution.'

Illustration by Susan Einzig

So, whose midnight garden is it? I agree with Maria Nikolajeva, who says this: 'In the old Mrs Bartholomew's account of the events we suddenly see the whole story from another perspective. It is not only (and maybe not primarily) the story of a young boy who is tempted to exchange time for eternity. It is the tragic story of an old woman who knows from experience that time is irreversible. So, a feminist critic might inquire, why is it Tom's midnight garden?

Puffin cover by Shirley Hughes

For me at least, Tom's Midnight Garden is a book to admire, but The Secret Garden is a book to love. The central character, Mary Lennox, is about as unattractive a character as you can imagine at the start of the book, but she has reason to be. Compared to her, Tom Long has little to complain about. Virtually ignored by her mother and father in India, Mary is then dramatically orphaned and shipped home to England where she's sent to her uncle's vast and almost empty house on the Yorkshire moors. There is not a scrap of nostalgia here. As the secret garden is brought back to life, so are the children, Mary and Colin - Colin who actually thinks he is bound to die because he's overheard adults saying so. I've complained about the lack of character development in Tom's Midnight Garden, and The Secret Garden couldn't be a greater contrast. Mary, Colin, and Colin's dad, are all utterly changed by the things that happen. Only Dickon, who must surely be some kind of incarnated minor god, stays the same. It's a very realistic book, despite its somewhat fantastic plot, and what's most real about it are its descriptions of plants and gardening. Read this and you might never need to watch Gardener's World again.

I was planning to write more, but I'm busy reading a biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett and I think she deserves a post all to herself.  I also have an allotment to dig and tomato plants to pot up, so I'd better go. 

Maria Nikolajeva's piece; 'Midnight Gardens, Magic Wells', can be found in Children's Literature, Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, published by the Open University in 2009.

Paul May's website is here.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

"A Tribute to Beverly Cleary" by Sharon Tregenza

Beverly Bunn Cleary (1916-2021)

This is a short tribute to Beverly Cleary who died last week aged 104. She was a much loved author of 42 books for children that are now being enjoyed by a third generation of readers.

At a time when "worthy" was the keynote for children's literature, Cleary added fun and championed the non-perfect child. Her most famous character, Ramona, has a life full of misunderstandings and embarrassments that Cleary deftly made endearing.

Ramona the Pest

Judy Blume, a dedicated Cleary fan, said that there was "both gentle humour and laugh out loud humour" in her books.

I've written a blog on Cleary in the past but on her death wanted to again acknowledge one of the grand dames of children's literature.


Friday, 2 April 2021

Steve Ways by Steve Way (Well one of them anyway.)

 Reaction to my ambition to become a writer went through an interesting evolution from some of my family and friends. To begin with, as I was never good at spelling, many told me that I couldn’t possibly be a writer for that reason. (It didn’t hold back severely dyslexic writers such as Ben Elton of course – but I wasn’t to discover that until later.) Oddly enough when I got my first book published these same were amongst the most vociferous in assuring me that they ‘knew you could do it!’ The third stage came when, as I gained more confidence and ambition, and I began promoting myself a little, keen to the projects I was working on. It soon became clear that this was not appreciated by these particular people, as though I had indecorously broken an unspoken rule of etiquette and was getting ahead of myself. Eventually I avoided the subject of my writing altogether when in their company, essentially papering over this portion of my life, lest I caused further offence.

Not unnaturally I think, under the circumstances, I felt a sense of sadness mixed with resentment. I don’t know about you, but I find it awkward to promote myself at the best of times and this certainly didn’t help.

Another unexpected consequence of putting myself out in the public domain as much as I dared was to discover that my name wasn’t as unique as I’d thought. I realise Steve is a commonly used contraction of Stephen (and its various permutations such as Steven.*) However, previous to this, I had thought that my surname of Way was fairly rare and obscure. I was used to people when writing down my surname, to be ready to add extra letters, caught out by the three-letter word. At a school I visited as an author a teacher kept introducing me as Steve Wade, using the much more common surname, no matter how many times I tried mentioning it was Way. She even did it again when I revisited the school a year later!

I couldn’t have been more mistaken. It soon became apparent there’s a hidden army of Steve Way’s out there, many of them well known and successful in their various fields of endeavour.

There’s Steve Way the successful cartoonist, Steve Way the marathon runner who’s represented Great Britain, Steve Way the wheel-chair bound comedian and there’s even at least two other Steve Ways who have had books published. No doubt there are several more notable Steve Way’s that I’ve missed out of the list. I can’t help wondering if the other Steve Ways out there know about the rest of we Steve Ways. In my case particularly whether the other authors find it amusing or a nuisance that there are several of us with the same penname in print.

Oddly enough it seems possible that the first two Steve Way’s in the list above and I participated in the 2001 London marathon. I was informed about this afterwards by a friend who checked if I’d finished online. Apparently out of the three of us I puffed in first. Possibly however it was one of the first marathons heavily smoking Steve Way entered, where he gained the ambition to stop smoking and train competitively. It was probably the last time I would ever outrun my namesake. (I note however that I did once represent GB in a marathon – as the New York Times reported the following day to my surprise and delight, as they list all the competitors. It turned out I proudly came 3041st for GB – or thereabouts. Oddly enough this was never reported in any of the British newspapers.)

Even more weirdly I was contacted recently by someone who had come across my web-site ( – not .com as one of the other Steve Ways had already nabbed that ending!) He claimed to have met me at the offices of Punch magazine several years before. Despite the fact that there are several photographs of me on the site, he clearly thought I was Steve Way the cartoonist. Perhaps not only do we share the same name, maybe we’re also doppelgängers! Now we’re into Dr Who territory. Maybe there really is a cloned army of us out there amongst you waiting for a command or signal from our evil creator. Exterminate… exterminate…


*Despite this I haven’t been able to teach any of our French neighbours – we live in France – to say Steve. They all call me Stee-fen. My Spanish friends, who I teach English, have made further progress but call me Eh-Steve, with the Spanish vowel sound before an S – as in ‘Eh-Spania’ – that they find understandably difficult to avoid adding. Even more oddly though when they send me emails, they address me as Esteve!

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

THE RULE OF SIX? by Penny Dolan

The first of April, and the Easter Weekend is nearly here. Yet, despite the media jubilation, the barbecue & picnic pull-out recipes or the "jolly fun in the garden" ads showing on screens everywhere, it won't be the big Reunion weekend here. My family are all too far away for us to be together - again, one could say - looking back to 2020. However, I've got over it, as you do, and I know there are lots of people in the same or harder situations.
So this April, I've made my own Rule of Six. Six things to look forward to.
The First: Choose! 
Dream Author Coaching with Sophie Hannah | Home
Over the last year and a bit, Sophie Hannah, poet, novelist and writer, has run Dream Author, a long online course,. that helps writers look after their thoughts, their dreams and themselves. I now have a course mantra is stuck on the screen of my desktop to remind me that my habit of procrastination can be side-stepped. Now, when I am moithering about in a state of tension over some TO DO task - managing to not do it and getting into an angsty state about it needing to be done - I glance at the message and it helps:
"CHOOSE to DO it - or CHOOSE NOT to do it." Works for far more than writing!
The Second: Remember. to re-read some of the books I love.
From Spare Oom to War Drobe | Free Delivery @ 
I am waiting for the 29th April, when a rather special book will appear. Not one of mine, but  a book by  author Katherine Langrish,. It has a slightly odd title: From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in  Narnia with my Nine Year Old Self, and describes how, from the age of nine, she was fascinated by the Chronicles of Narnia, half-imagining she inhabited that realm herself. How does she understand that fantasy now? (Katherine also writes the beautiful, well-informed blog - Seven Miles if Steel Thistles - which you can find in the left hand column of this post. ) There will also be an interview with Katherine on  Awfully Big Blog Adventure very soon.
The Third: Give yourself  time away from the keyboard.
 In April, I'll be starting  "Free Range Writer" Jenny Alexander's online Creative Journalling Course. I  know what  fun Jen's collage workshops can be, so I am really looking forward to the five evenings. I have a plain-paged A4 book, a range of old magazines, two fat gluesticks and a significant quantity of coloured pens here and waiting on my workroom table.
The Fourth: Even introverts need people.
Conversation Clipart | Clipart Panda - Free Clipart Images
I'm lucky, because during all the lockdowns, I've been in my comfortable home, with a husband working away in his own room as I work in mine. We are both, in our way, amiable introverts - or so I like to think. 
However, I've noticed that, as the lockdowns have gone on and on, it has been easier and easier to imagine the talk and words in my head than to actually talk to real people - especially new faces! 
So thank heaven for Zoom, which has kept me in touch with so many different groups of people: a reading group, a local photographic group, a (new to me) fairly serious academic writers network, the usefully chatty and friendly SAS writers group, a group of long-time "writing + gardening + more" friends and those friends who don't fit any of those categories. And of course, thank heaven for the precious screen times with my family.
The Fifth: Discover More Art, Enjoy More Art
In my other, non-zooming reading group, each month we explore a book in a different genres, ended up with this "Books About Art" title in March. The book run through various art movements, from Egyptian art through to Brit Art, demonstrated in cat form, An easy-to-read art book, probably ideal for an upper KS2 /KS3 classoom or library, but one that reminded me to spend  more time looking at paintings, art and images I love - not just the joyous offerings on Twitter or the pleasure of Grayson Perry and his laugh. 

A History of Art in 21 Cats by Nia Gould, Hardcover ...
And the Sixth Rule?
Haven't decided!
Alternatively, whatever you'd like it to be . . . 

When it comes, or how it comes, enjoy your Spring Festival.

White Cherry Blossom Tree · Free Stock Photo

Penny Dolan