Wednesday, 29 March 2023

The Battle of Cable Street

I'm currently struggling with a (very) literary bestseller for adults, one so densely written - in language I've never heard anybody outside a novel use - that I'm having to set myself a fixed number of pages per day to get through it. (It's for my book club and I do always read the books we choose.) The topics it deals with are definitely contemporary - motherhood, marriage, school shootings - and definitely worth talking about. But it's the language that's defeating me, and making me almost resent the subjects it's considering.

Then I come to Tanya Landman's The Battle of Cable Street, which manages to tell a politically-engaged story about a real event in the past that has stacks of relevance for today, to tell it from the viewpoint of a child and, at the same time, to make it so readable. It's short: 109 pages. The language is crisp, vivid and accessible to all ages. I went through it in one sitting.

It starts as a sketch of life in the East End of London in the 1930s, with kids messing about and playing games. But then, when Sir Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirt followers in the BUF (British Union of Fascists) begin to make themselves heard, it gathers momentum, building in fear and tension until the battle of the title explodes in the streets, with anti-fascists taking on both the BUF and (a detail I hadn’t been aware of before) mounted police sent by the Home Office to protect the BUF!

It's a fierce and timely reminder that some struggles are never over. Or, as the narrator of the book puts it: ‘Once you defeat an evil like fascism, that should be the end of it. It took me years to realize that it’s like housework. No matter how often you clean up, the dirt just keeps on coming back.

If anybody were to ask me why children's books should be taken as seriously as literature for adults, I'd offer The Battle of Cable Street as Exhibit A.

Monday, 27 March 2023

From my Reading Pile by Claire Fayers

 Phew, this month has been hectic. Writing deadlines, school events, extra freelance admin work. I've barely had time to read and my book pile has been growing ever higher. But Easter is coming and I'm hoping to have some time to stop and read. Today, I thought I'd share a few of the books on my stack and their opening sentences.

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.

The Girl Who Broke the Sea, A. Connors

They say you'll never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

Where the River Takes Us, Lesley Parr

It's surprising how many people in a small town will believe there's a wild cat on the loose.

The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley, Sean Lusk

Leadenhall stinks this morning; of soot and shit and, inexplicably, of nutmeg.

Which one of these would you read based on those opening sentences? Do you have any other recommendations?

Sunday, 26 March 2023

The stones at Stanton Drew - by Sue Purkiss

I've been meaning for some time to visit Stanton Drew, where I'd heard there are stone circles. I'm interested in prehistory, and fascinated by all the discoveries that keep being made about early man - and I find these mysterious stones which are scattered across our landscape intriguing, and somehow meaningful in a way I can't quite grasp.

Stanton Drew is only half an hour's drive from where I live in Somerset. I'm on one side of the Mendips, and Stanton Drew is on the other side, in the Chew Valley - which is very beautiful, so it was a treat of a drive over there. 

Stanton Drew itself is an exceptionally pretty village, built of stone, clustered round its church, reached by a very narrow lane - which is perhaps why it's escaped lots of new building. I missed the circles at first and had to turn round and come back over a tiny bridge; if you visit (for the information of Scattered Authors: it's very close to Folly Farm), just head for the church and then follow the signs till you can't go any further. You'll find a small parking area among some houses; look behind you, and you'll see the path into the field where the stones are. The site is managed by English Heritage, but it's not remotely like their more famous site, Stonehenge, which, as you'll know, is a massive, very busy tourist attraction with a state-of-the-art tourist centre.

Stanton Drew isn't like that at all. There are a couple of information boards at the entrance, which is through an old, slightly battered-looking kissing gate. You look ahead: and there is a large meadow dotted with stones. It slopes slightly down towards the River Chew, and to the left, on the other side of the river, the ground rises up again, as you can see in the second picture. To the left, more fields, and the skeleton outline of a few trees. It was one of those days that alternates between bright sunshine and sudden downpours, with a sky full of dramatic clouds tinged with purple and grey.

There are three circles, estimated to have been constructed in about 2500BC - so within roughly the same period as Stonehenge. The largest one, according to English Heritage, is, at 113 metres across, one of the biggest in the British Isles. Some of its stones are missing, but many remain: some standing, some fallen. They are made of a stone called Dolomitic Conglomerate, which probably comes from just a few miles away, in the Mendips. It's a gnarled, heavily textured stone, colonised by lichens, with hollows filled by rainwater which gleams in the sunshine. 

Perhaps surprisingly, none of the circles have been excavated, but geophysics surveys show that in the large one there were once concentric circles of wooden posts, together with a ditch running round the outside. These circles took a lot of building: what drove the small communities that lived here to invest so much time and effort in creating them? Something to do with religion, surely: an attempt to make sense of life and death.

But legend has a different explanation. The story has it that long ago, on a Saturday night in summer, there was a wedding party in this meadow. Drink was, of course, taken: a fiddler played and the dancing grew wilder and wilder. However, at midnight the fiddler wiped his brow and said apologetically that that was it: it was Sunday now, and he must stop playing. The newly-marrieds and the guests cried shame, but the fiddler would not be swayed: he packed up his fiddle and off he went.

But all, it seemed, was not lost. For there, in the centre of the circle, another fiddler had suddenly appeared: a handsome stranger. With a grin, he declared that he would be more than happy to keep the festivities going, Sunday or no Sunday.

He played well. In fact he played so well that the music was irresistible. The dancing grew wilder and more frenzied; the dancers couldn't stop, until eventually, utterly exhausted, they fell to the ground, exhausted - and were turned to stone.

Then the stranger, still smiling, shed his handsome appearance - and revealed himself to be, in fact, the Devil.

Well, there was no sign of the Devil yesterday. Though the weather was wild, the scene was utterly peaceful. Quite magical, in fact. 

As I walked across to one of the smaller circles, I noticed a splash of crimson on one of the overturned stones. It was a single red rose. 

And when I reached the centre of the smaller circle - which appears to be more complete than the larger one - I saw little patches of white scattered among the grass. I thought at first they were some kind of flower, but as I looked more closely, I saw that they were rose petals: some red, but mostly white. Someone had been here before me. Someone who felt a special connection to this place. 

It's a feeling I can understand.

Incidentally, some of you may know that I am a huge fan of Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series of novels. For fellow fans - Stanton Drew features in the 11th novel of the series, 'The Stone Circle'. Elly mentions another legend: that it's impossible to count the number of stones - or that if you do succeed, you drop down dead. Just to be on the safe side, I decided not to try.


Friday, 24 March 2023

Manifesto, by Saviour Pirotta

Hi guys, it's been a scramble trying to think what I can post about this month. My father's passing last November threw my writing schedule well out of kilter and I'm still struggling to meet deadlines four months later.  So here's a little manifesto I wrote for myself at my father's bedside. It's a bit twee in places but as Norma Desmond said in Sunset Boulevard, "I wrote it with my heart'.

Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Call The Puffins! written by Cath Howe, illustrated by Ella Okstad, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Muffin the puffin is nervous about her first day on the island of Egg where she will be tested to see if she's fast and clever enough to train for the famous search and rescue team. She's nervous because she's worried that her turned up feet ends will stop her from being as good at it all as she wants to be.

She needn't have worried. Even though she does one part of the test more slowly than others, it was for a good reason. She'd stopped to check on a mystery egg to see if all was well with it. That actually proves her to have just the right instincts for the job.

And the job soon begins when a baby puffin is lost in a storm ... and it is Muffin and her very tall friend Tiny, who make the rescue, working together.

A charming story for those ready for their first chapter books. Nine short and active chapters, all enlivened by Ella Okstad's lovely illustrations. A story to develop empathy (Muffin and Tiny both worry about being different), an exciting and satisfying adventure, and the promise of more stories to come. Just right.   

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Using or not using words - by Anne Booth

 I think all of us know the feeling when words just aren't enough. As writers, words are essential for us, but we know that they will never exactly capture what we want to say. All we can do is our best. I think that is why I love writing picture book texts so much, as the illustrations can often add a whole new dimension to a story. 

Recently I have felt too full of words - overwhelmed by all the work I have to do, and beset by anxiety and self-criticism . However, I have recently been going to painting and life drawing classes at my local adult education centre and I can heartily recommend this for any writer 'worded out.' It was a great break from editing. I found it incredibly relaxing NOT using words, but looking very carefully at the models and trying to describe them using lines, or negative space, or tonal values. I am off to Norfolk this coming weekend for a course on painting from imagination with the lovely artist Nicola Slattery. I am really looking forward to it, as I have been on her weekends before and Nicola is one of the kindest, calmest kindest and most encouraging teachers you could meet, as well as a wonderful artist.  I am hoping that maybe I can paint from imagination and combine this with my own words one day. I would so love to both write AND illustrate my own picture books, although I know I am so lucky to have been teamed with the most brilliant illustrators and would never want to change that. Seeing what an artist does with my words is one of the most amazing experiences!

I can really recommend Nicola's courses. I absolutely loved her printing course too.  This weekend my husband and I are going to stay in a shepherd's hut on a farm near Nicola's studio, and my husband , who works as a  technician in a secondary school, is bringing books he is looking forward to reading all day, whilst I plan to spend two happy days using paints instead of words.

Monday, 20 March 2023

Daughters of Time Revisited by Joan Lennon

March is Women's History Month. 2014 doesn't exactly count as history, but with the publishing industry's obsession with the new and the debut, let's be contrary and revisit this rather gorgeous anthology from the History Girls that came out that year. Published by Templar and edited by Mary Hoffman, it includes stories for 9-12 year olds about exceptional women through history. Here's the line-up:

Queen Boudica: Tasca's Secret by Katherine Roberts

Aethelflaed: The Queen of the Mercians by Sue Purkiss

Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Queen's Treasure by Adele Geras

Julian of Norwich: All Shall Be Well by Katherine Langrish

Lady Jane Grey: Learn to Die by Mary Hoffman

Elizabeth Stuart: The Phoenix Bride by Dianne Hofmeyr

Aphra Behn: A Night at the Theatre by Marie-Louise Jensen

Mary Wollstonecraft: An Unimportant Woman by Penny Dolan

Mary Anning: Best After Storms by Joan Lennon

Mary Seacole: The Lad That Stands Before You by Catherine Johnson

Emily Davison: Return to Victoria by Celia Rees

Amy Johnson: The Colours of the Day by Anne Rooney

The Greenham Common Women: Please Can I Have a Life? by Leslie Wilson

And what does it say on the back cover blurb? I'm glad you asked ...

Be surprised, as you look afresh at the stories of some of history's most remarkable women, as imagined by the finest female authors of historical fiction for children.

Be enthralled, as you encounter both famous figures and lesser-known heroines from across the ages, from warrior queens to anti-nuclear activists.

But most of all... be inspired.

Available as an actual book from Waterstones, and also on Kindle.

Joan Lennon website

Joan Lennon Instagram