Wednesday, 2 December 2009

A Writing 101 Production - Part 2 Author Platforms (Facebook)

Yes, well all right. I know it's been longer than I said it would but I have WORK to do. You know. Writing. The thing that's supposed to be my job. And this author platform thing is tricky. Takes time and energy (did I already say that?).

So about that technological spider's web you said you were building....

Ah. That. I seem to remember mentioning that I'd talk more about Facebook and Twitter. Only my own personal experience, mind. If you want a step-by-step how-to guide then this is probably not the place for you.


I joined long ages ago, mostly to keep in touch with far flung friends and family. It's a great timewaster, is Facebook, if you let it be. So I have RULES. They're not set in stone and unbreakable (that would be boring, and I'm an anarchic kind of person who doesn't take kindly to them generally). Perhaps I should call them guidelines.

- When I'm working, I'm working. Writers (and I am happy to be included in this generalisation and to stand by it if challenged), are Adepts of the Art of Procrastination if they let themselves be. However, built into my working day are what I call Facebook breaks. This means a cup of tea, a stretch (very important if you sit at a desk all day as I do), and 15 minutes or so of checking what's going on out there in the world beyond the walls. This is not procrastination, whatever Some People might say.

- There's no doubt that bits of Facebook consist of a morass of utter pap like Farmville (just don't ask, ok) and whatever other timewaster some geek has come up with today. However, there is also some worthwhile stuff to share in--children's literature groups, book groups, interesting pages for almost whatever you can think of to do with reading and writing, links to articles and other blogs etc. And it's a good place to connect with other authors too. Through Facebook, I now have a great support network of other children's authors, who prop me up with lovely sympathy/advice when my status report says something like 'Plot hooks tearing my brain apart in 40 different directions. Need chocolate.'

- It's also a good place to let people know about your blog posts (this one will go up in my status tonight)--and to get your author name and website spread more widely. My Facebook friends are a diverse lot--reviewers, other authors, booksellers, illustrators, librarians, publicists, film scouts etc etc. Facebook helps me get myself out there. Sometimes I'll comment on pages of interest, like Visual Bookshelf or Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. And I've joined things like the Facebook Poets and Writers Registry and Publishing Talk. One tip for commenting is always to leave your blog or website address by your signature. Forinstance, I might sign myself Lucy@ Always use the full http:// version of any link.
- If you are a campaigner, Facebook is an ideal forum for that. I started the Campaign for the Book Official Facebook Page in response to Alan Gibbons' brilliant drive to save our libraries from closure. It now has 772 members. A good many of them now know who I am, and what I write. I've even had school and library visit requests from some of them, which is brilliant. It's an unquantifiable benefit to my author platform, but it is definitely a benefit. I also use an application called Twibbon to (you're going to love this) 'pimp my profile'. All that means is that I can choose a charity or campaign logo (currently Help for Heroes and BBC Bullyproof in my case) and add a tiny version to my profile picture. It's a good way to show support for a favourite cause. (There are also some very silly ones if you are that way inclined. I'm not.)

- Last but not least come PRIVACY SETTINGS. It never ceases to amaze me how many people don't bother with these. It is UNBELIEVABLY IMPORTANT. For a start, don't put the year of your birth up. That's a no-no. And do bother to go and set all your options on the privacy buttons in your settings to 'only friends'. That way you are much less likely to be spammed or phished or have any other internet horror plaguing you. I have a rule (and this IS a rule not a guideline) about friend requests too. If someone I don't know from Adam, and with whom I have no friends in common, sends me a request, I will send them a message politely enquiring how I know them. At least I will if they don't have a name like 'Pornobits O' Stripper', which is a good hint to hit the 'Ignore' button. Very often I get no reply. If I do, and they are in the industry, then fine, I'll probably say yes. Otherwise I will gently direct them to my fan page. If I do befriend someone (known in FB world as 'friending') and they cross my line in the sand, then I will 'defriend' (yep, another new word!) and block them so they can't even see me. Life is too short to mess about with idiots, and I have made a few mistakes in the early days. In other words, mess with me on Facebook, and I will BITE. *polishes gleaming set of fangs*

I like Facebook. Many people don't understand this, and don't get it. That's fine by me. But I am a nosy and curious person. I like having mad discussions about hairy/non-hairy werewolf chests or philosophical discussions about the existence of crocodiles (just a sample from today). I like knowing what other authors are doing and writing (or not writing). I like chatting about books and sharing interesting articles. I sit in my little room all day, alone and writing, which is my happily-made choice. But Facebook gives me a line out to the outside world, and that's essential for my sanity.

Er...and Twitter? What about Twitter?

Look, I've gone on long enough. Blog break is over. There's a novel needing some more tweaking before I have to cook supper and let the puppies out for a wee (good, patient writer's dogs that they are). My Twitter wisdom will have to be a treat for next time. And I haven't even mentioned Googlewave yet....

Part 3 will appear for your delectation very shortly. Well, fairly shortly. Ish.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

A Writing 101 Production - Part 1 An Overview of Author Platforms

This blog is about many things--whatever takes my fancy. So there's a good deal of variety in my posts--as in my life. But lately there's been nagging.
'You're a writer,' say the naggers (you know who you are), 'so tell us about writing. What does it feel like when you're in the middle of a novel/thinking of something new/stuck/rejected/dejected etc etc?'
Er, normal. That's how it feels to me. It's my life. It's what I do. And there are lots of really good people out there (Stroppy Author and Crabbit Old Bat, to name only 2) blogging about the process of writing, giving sage advice. Why me?
'Well,' they whine, 'everyone's different. Every writer has a different approach to their work. You might say that one thing which helps someone to finish their masterpiece. Go on--they'll hang on your every word.'
Oh well. All right then. Flattery works. I suppose I can drag myself away from the current project for long enough to say something that might be useful to someone...and it never hurts to build the author platform a little higher.

'So what's an author platform, then?'
Sigh. Well--it's not talking about the writing process exactly, but still.
In a nutshell, an author platform is about
It's about embracing all those new and scary technologies and using them in an entirely shameless way to publicise yourself and your books. It's about being
PRO-ACTIVE. (Thanks @BubbleCow)

So how did it all happen? In the old days, I used to write in pencil, in longhand. My brain fed the words down my arm, and they appeared on the paper. It all took a Very Long Time. Then I got a computer and forced my brain to send the words down to ten reasonably fast typing fingers. But there was no email, so everything got sent off in the Royal Mail to publishers and (when I got one, finally) my lovely agent. That all took a Very Long Time too. I used to sit in my little garret, staring at the walls, writing a bit, staring at the walls, writing a bit. There was the occasional phone call from an editor. There was the occasional letter. But that was it. I knew no other authors locally. I felt very lonely and isolated. Fast forward a few years....
The age of the internet arrived. I got an email address. Communication got faster (but publishers were still slow to respond!). Did I have an author platform yet? I did not. But I started one (in a very small way) when I was asked to do my very first school visit. (That's a whole other topic). Then I got a
Things started to move up a gear. I got fanmail. I got more school and library visit requests than I knew what to do with. I joined the Society of Authors (Children's Writers and Illustrators Group). I went to conferences. I joined the SAS (no, not the balaclaved hard men, the Scattered Authors' Society), which meant that I actuallymet some other authors who lived near me. I joined Facebook, got my alter ego, Atticus the Storyteller, to set up a fan group for me. I took on the Facebook page for the Campaign for the Book (contact with lots of wonderful librarians). I started to blog for An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

See what's happening here? I'm getting myself out there. Slowly but surely, I'm constructing a technological spider's web which reaches into lots of different areas. My author platform is growing higher and more noticeable. And then I started this very blog, the one you're reading...and I joined Twitter.
But that, dear readers, is a story for another day. Part 2 Coming Soon, as they say in the cinema.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Remembrance Day

I don't have anyone out there. Not now. The last time I did was during the Falklands War. I can still see those thin blue airmail letters coming through the door--closely written and hard to read, saying difficult stuff that might otherwise have been left unspoken. Tying off loose ends and putting things in order. Preparing me for the death that might come when that long sea voyage ended and the fighting started on Mount Tumbledown. I still have them. The soldier who wrote them survived and is one of my oldest friends.

So I remember that, and I feel a jolt of sickness and sadness every time another death is announced on the radio or tv. They are all so young. It's such a waste of lives hardly begun. Some are no older than my son. I do not understand war. I would like us all to live in peace and understanding. But I know enough of human nature to see that it is sometimes a necessary thing to stand and fight for what you believe in. It was necessary and right to stop Hitler. And whatever I think of the rights or wrongs of this particular war, I still believe it is right to remember and honour the fallen of both past and present, not just on Remembrance Sunday and the 11th November--but every day. We forget our dead too easily--and the wounded (in both mind and body) left behind are treated disgracefully by this Government. That is why I support Help for Heroes. For me, doing nothing is not an option. And I wear my poppy with pride and grief.

Remembrance 2009 @ 11

In that silence, I had a vision
of all the war torn dead turned to dust and ashes;
lying scattered over all the lands
that held their fragile bones.
Long dead, long ago some were, and some most recent.
Innocent and guilty, heroes and war criminals,
enemy essence mingled with friendly fire,
subsumed into earth and made whole again
without regard to race or creed or colour.
Watching, I saw the dust rise up
in a silver cloud that covered the sun’s face.
And as the people stood silent, remembering grief
and the priceless cost of war,
it drifted down, sparkle upon sparkle,
bright upon bright, prayer upon prayer,
peace bound upon us, dropping slow
into the statutory two minutes of poppy-clad hope.
Then the shuffle of pew-bound feet
and the angry chatter of belfry jackdaws
urged the cloud upwards into swirling chaos spikes,
sharp pinning its urgent message
to the four winds of God, for those to see who can.
The expectation of peace in our time fragmented and died
before the Vicar had shaken hands with the last of us.

'Remembrance 2009' copyright Lucy Coats 2009

Monday, 28 September 2009

Being in a Gangster Hip-Hop Movie

It couldn't have been a more English scene. Hampshire. Summer. Pouring rain. A cancelled family-and-friends cricket match, and everyone milling around a smallish house in that very British slightly damp, politely-aggrieved-with-the-weather way which talks about anything and everything else but the fact that you want The Bloody Sun To Shine so you can have the planned picnic. Oh yes. And it was Wimbledon Men's Final day. Of course it was.

So what I was not expecting in the least, as we were Just Making The Best Of It, was for my little cousin (who has now, 20 years later, just about got over being passed over as a bridesmaid for her younger sister) to say, quite casually: 'I'm making a hip-hop film in Birmingham. About gangs. I need extras for the chicken takeaway scene. Wanna come and be one?' Acting, let me tell you now, has never been my forte. I prefer to observe rather than be observed, and putting myself under the microscope of a stage has always seemed like a nightmare-come-true (the sort where I am wearing no clothes in public). But the Gazelle Girl is a keen actress, and anyway, I'd never been on a filmset, and it's a writer's moral duty to experience Life (with a capital L) in all its manifestations, just in case it is needed in some future project.

So, in October last year, we set off for Birmingham at an ungodly hour of the morning into the unknown territory of someone else's plot. We got lost of course. You always do, in Birmingham. But eventually we drove into a supermarket carpark filled with trailers and buses and whatnot (whatnot, thank God, included a catering van--I'd had no breakfast). The little cousin was efficiency personified, rushing around with a clipboard, organising people, and had little time to talk. Impressive, if a little scary in someone whose nappies you have changed. The Gazelle Girl, as a minor, had the shared use of a comfortable trailer stocked with unsuitable junk food and a napping couch. This was lucky, as she'd been to a party the night before and had had precisely 2 hours sleep. Grumpy was not the word, but the sniff of film fame (even as an anonymous extra) was just about enough to drag her out of bed. Having parked her, I grabbed a plate of delicious cholesterol-inducing eggs and bacon for camouflage and mingled with the crowd. There was a frazzled filmperson looking at her watch. I sneaked up behind her for a listen. Ah. The 'bling' hadn't arrived. Apparently for this film, the main character needed large amounts of bling--with real diamonds which had to be insured and guarded. Then, tyres screeching, the 'filmstars' arrived in a quick swagger of tilted baseball caps and banter and fizzing energy and whirled into 'wardrobe'. Little cousin had told me that these guys were the real deal--the film researchers had gone to Birmingham to get some insider knowledge, and had been so impressed by what they had seen that they decided to use the people they had talked to instead of trained actors. As far as I could see, it was a great call.

Then we were off, crammed into mini-buses, to the location. Lights! Camera! Action! Yep. They really do say that. What I hadn't realised was how long it was all going to take to make one 5 minute scene--and how fascinated I would be by the whole technical process. Briefly, the synopsis of 1 Day--The Movie reads like this. Angel is released from prison, and he wants to reclaim the £500k which his mate Flash was keeping safe for him. Now. Today. And Flash doesn't have it. So Flash has to race against the clock as he tries to cut a deal to get the money together while being pursued by a rival gang, the police, his 3 irate babymothers--and his granny. 'Our' scene was set in Angel's favourite chicken takeaway joint--just what he fancies on his return to life 'outside'.

So how did it pan out? We were arranged at the tables--just a bunch of ordinary punters having a sit down and a cuppa. But we needed props for the scene (where Flash sings 'Hate Me Hate You'). And the props for us extras (all that long day) would be a plate each of cold, congealed, unnaturally red-dyed deep fried chicken bits. Yum. A meal never eaten and best forgotten--except that the Gazelle Girl, a healthy eater at the best of times, never WILL forget it (I think it features in her nightmares).

First they filmed it from one end. Then they filmed it from the other end. There were several versions of this due to passing cars, buses, sirens, airplanes. Then they filmed it from above, and below, and outside. Every take necessitated fiddling about, moving lights, building scaffolding for cameras, testing, shouting at people to get out of shot, making sure the clapperboard was there, doing the close up bits, each separately, switching on the's a fine and precise art, this film-making. Sometime in the later afternoon, after we'd gone back to the carpark and had lunch in an old double decker bus revamped as a restaurant, I became aware of a problem as filming resumed in the takeaway. No one said anything. I don't think any of the other extras noticed. But 'Flash' and his co-actors were becoming increasingly edgy between takes and shooting angry sideways looks out of the windows at the petrol station over the road. There were cars parked there. Black, pimp-my-ride cars full of scary-looking staring guys with a uniform 'look' who just sat there and watched. I wondered quite seriously at that point if we were going to be sprayed with bullets. And we could have been. I learned afterwards that a rival gang had come to check out what was happening. It brought home to me that although we were making a film--a film with hip-hop songs in it--there was a more serious social undertone here--an undertone of the reality of what happens daily to young people here on Britain's streets. In the end, two huge security guards placed themselves in the entrance--and the cars drove off.

I talked to 'Flash' and 'Angel' and 'Evil' and their mates through the day. Nice guys who live lives very different from mine. Was I scared of them because they are part of gang culture? No. I wasn't. I liked them very much. And for me that was the best thing to come out of being involved, even in a small way, in the film. Often--more often than not-- we demonise and judge and label what we don't know, what is different from our own experience, because the unknown frightens us. This film is going to be quite controversial--let there be no doubt about that. It's already been compared to Boyz in The Hood and some will say it glamourises guns and gang culture--others that it reflects real street life as it is now for young black people. Bishop Derek Webley MBE, a long time anti-gun campaigner says, 'The film raises some real issues that should cause us to think and give some deep consideration as to what we are going to do about it," and you can find out more about the ongoing debate on those issues here. Or you can go and see the film when it comes out on 6th November and make your own mind up. For me--and the Gazelle Girl--it was an experience we wouldn't have missed for anything.

PS: If you're looking for me in the takeaway scene, I'm the no-makeup, tired-looking one in red and the Gazelle Girl is the pale and exhausted teenager beside me. Blink, and you'll miss us.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Why Countdown for Another Author's Book?

Yes. I have a countdown for Eoin Colfer's new book, And Another Thing on my blog (look to right of page). It has absolutely nothing to do with my own writing, Not a thing. So why would I do this? Well, the truth (the whole truth and nothing but the interplanetary truth) is, I've been a Douglas Adams/Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy fan for what seems like most of my life. That may not make much sense in the current context until you know that the wonderful Eoin, (pronounced Owen if you didn't know that already), was commissioned by Penguin Books some time ago to write Part 6 of 3 ie the next Hitchhiker's Guide book, which arrives in a solar system near you in October. Personally, having read the half which arrived on my doorstep via the Vogon Postal Service (Punishment for Mail Tampering:Disintegration), I can't wait for the next installment. It's brilliant--no word to use lightly, but it is. Eoin has captured the madness and the mayhem of the original books without compromising his own inimitable style. I've been an avid reader of Eoin's Artemis Fowl books since their first appearance, and so, for this new venture, though I'm sure he doesn't need it, I'd like to show my support by putting up a widget thingy for him. And anyway, it means that I can get away with writing stuff like: 'Brain the size of a planet, and all I do is mess about with a blog,' along with 'Don't Panic, Froods--and keep your towel handy in case of Vogons'.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Turning of New Leaves

Sometimes Facebook will throw up unexpected responses to things. A few days ago I was tidying (starting to tidy) my desk and surrounds, which have been--well let us say 'impeded'--by piles of detritus for a long while now. (Yes--I know the theory of Feng Shui and the blocked mind/creativity echoing the 'blocked' surroundings, and agree with it. That's why I started tidying.) I announced this development, and asked, in a throwaway line, 'Is this the sound of a new leaf turning?'. I wasn't really expecting replies--but I got them anyway, ranging from the mildly impertinent (yes, you know who you are) to the frankly existential. So, lovely Bookwitch and Stroppy Author I shall endeavour to answer the questions you asked me--it's an intellectual exercise of sorts, I suppose.

Firstly, asked the Witch, what kind of leaf is a new leaf as far as a tidying author is concerned? Is it the leaf of a tree (perhaps the kind of tree George Berkeley was thinking of for his theory of Subjective Idealism)? Or is it the paper leaf of a book? The former has always been in my mind's eye when thinking of the turning over of new leaves. If you've ever spent time watching and being with trees (as I have, often), it is clear that tree leaves both new and old are sensitive to circumstance of season, wind and weather. The willows I can see from my desk become more silver than grey when rain threatens. It's because the humidity in the air causes them to show their undersides more--to turn, in effect--and show a different face to the world. And of course, right now, at the beginning of autumn, the once new leaves are turning in another way, putting on a last brilliant burst of colour before they fall, making way for a new crop of green to turn up in the spring.

But as an author, I think that in this case I must abandon the tree leaves in their growing form and turn to the leaves which are made from their dead carcasses--the paper leaves my work is printed and written on. There is almost nothing so satisfying as a clean page, in my opinion. Nor anything so scary. To open a new notebook and start the notes for a fresh project is both pleasure and pain--the former because the start of a new book, the brimming over of ideas, the excitement is always a good place to be in, the latter because you know just how far there is to go before the last word is written. But before that even happens, for me at least, I have to have a tidy space around me--a metaphorical, yet satisfyingly physical new leaf turning-over (and placing into files) before the real work of writing starts. So, Witch, I hope that answers your question.

As for the Stroppy Author's question--that's much more complicated. She wanted to know what exactly IS the sound of a new leaf turning, and asked whether, perhaps, it was silent. Well, that's a much more philosophical kind of query--one I am perhaps not entirely qualified to answer. But I shall do my best.

The RHS at Hadlow Carr has just held an exhibition of what trees sound like from the inside. The rising sap, the wind in the branches, the roots moving through the earth. No, then, trees are in no way silent, and neither are their leaves, even on a still day. The smallest and slowest leaf turning on the calmest of days will still cause a small shift in the air for those with ears to hear. So no silence there.

The turning of page leaves can be quiet, certainly (unless you are that annoying thing, a serial page riffler and rustler)--but not silent, even in the hushed environs of a library. Even the sound of the newest of new clean pages has a small physical sound when turned over.

But what of those metaphorical new leaves I was talking about in my original status update? What do they sound like? For me, at the end of a bout of righteous tidying, they sound like bright trumpets summoning me to a feast of words, like a rushing, satisfying outpouring torrent of ideas, like the delicate, fragile bell-note of creation itself.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Keeping Silent

This post was first published on my blog at Red Room, where last week's blog topic was on the subject of 'Repentance'. It's one of their 'featured blogs' this week (for which I won an excellent sounding book--Diana Joseph's I'm Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing but True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother and Friend to Man & Dog) , so I thought my SCS readers might like to read my 'confession' too.

I'm wearing it now. My mother's aquamarine engagement ring. She gave it to me when my daughter was born, just as she gave me, on my son's birth, the amethyst ring my father presented her with on the occasion of my own. But you see, it's not really her engagement ring. It's the replacement. And what she doesn't know is the story behind that. How could she? I've never told her. And I never will. She doesn't use the internet now--at 84 she finds that speaking to people is more fun than emailing, and who could blame her for that. So she won't see it here. But for the first time I'm going to tell you what happened--go through the catharsis of confession and repentance.

I am five years old. The jewelbox stands open on the dressing table after last night's party. Shiny, exciting-looking, pretty baubles lie scattered and reflected in the Wellington mirror. I know that story already--how my cousin had become a duchess, long ago, and how this mirror had been hers. Its triple frame is topped by a pair of gilt carved eagles--some sign of a battle plunder history I do not yet understand. The ring catches my eye, and I stretch out a hand for it and put it on. It hangs on my small fat finger, the large stone heavy, unbalanced--slipping round to the palm side, where I clutch it firmly. It feels solid and grownup there, as if it belongs.

The day is full of sunny promise. Outside waits the new blue birthday swing, with the trapeze bar fitted above the swingseat, ready for acrobatic adventures. I have been to the circus the week before, and been entranced by the glittering costumes flying through the air. Today I too will be an acrobat, and now I even have my own glittering jewel to catch the light as I practise. It is hard to wriggle my little legs over the bar. Hard to find the courage to let go and hang there upside down. I can feel the blood rushing to my head, and down my arms to the tips of my fingers--little fat fingers which don't notice their shining cargo slipping off and falling into the grass. The magpie is chackering in its nest in the yew tree, calling to its mate. 'Treasure! Treasure!'

I never confessed. Never. Not then, in the face of all the eventual panicked grown-up searching (although I did creep furtively back to the swing and look for what I had stolen). Not when my father (who could ill afford it), bought a new ring, as near to the old one as he could find. Not when my father died and my mother and I were talking about anything and everything. Not even when the ring arrived in the maternity ward, in a pretty box with a loving message.

I just couldn't and just can't tell her. I was a child then, and I repent my careless child's action. But telling my mother now, after all these years, would cause more hurt to her than unburdening myself of the truth would to me. So I shall keep silent and see the burden of that silence as the price I must pay for my childhood 'crime'.

But the worst thing of all is this. I had the replacement ring valued for insurance purposes a little while ago. It's not an aquamarine at all. It's just pretty coloured glass. My father REALLY couldn't afford to replace the original. So, I'm sorry, Dad. I guess you had a burden of silence to bear too. At least, for both of us, it's a silence of love and protection. And I don't repent at all about that.

Friday, 11 September 2009

An Amazing Abecedenarian Alphabet - A's Part 2

The second part of my interesting A's is now here. And Chambers Online (who have an excellent wordy blog at ) and I are having nice conversations on Twitter, where they are following me, which is flattering. I hope you enjoy these delightful A's. There will be more eccentric offerings to come soon.

alcatras(n); name for large water birds including pelican, gannet, albatross, frigate-bird [Sp. Alcatraz]. So Alcatraz really translates as Pelican Prison?

alexia (n); loss of power to read. Not something I want to encounter - ever. Writer's/book lover's worst nightmare.

alforja (n):saddle-bag, baboon's cheek pouch [Sp]. Interesting lexical leap from one to the other. Now how shall I use it in current book?

allenarly (adv); solely, only (obsolete except in Scots law). But I want to revive it. "I allenarly had a wee glass, orfisher, honest. Hic!"

alnage (n); measurement by the ell: inspection of cloth [O.Fr aulne, ell]. A most English word. Should like to announce 'I am an aulnager,' and see what happens.

altrices (; birds whose young are hatched very immature & have to be fed in nest by parents. Won't be using in a picture book text, though! Don’t think ‘The altrices were being fed worms by the mummy bird’ would pass the editorial red pen.

alure n.(obs); a walk behind battlements.'Guinevere’s allure was obvious to Lancelot as he gazed down at her from Camelot's alure,' perhaps.

alveary n.; either an early dictionary of English, French, Greek & Latin, or a beehive. Take your pick. Prefer the ‘dictionary’ meaning myself—but then I am a confirmed lexiphile.

alvine adj.; of the belly. Has possilities...I ate too much, have been a swine and now I have a pain alvine. It’s hard to be poetic in tweets.

arnica n.; useful homeopathic remedy for bruising/shock Arnica Montana 200c Take every 15 mins (I put this in when I fell down the stairs—I know it’s out of alphabetical order).

amadou n,; tinder made from tree-growing fungi, also used as styptic. Useful to know next time you are in a forest & need to stop bleeding. Very Ray Mears sort of information.

ambages;windings, roundabout ways, delays. My writing is full of ambages--and they usually take me to interesting intellectual places.

ambivert n.; one neither introvert nor extrovert. Indicates a serial fence-sitter, wine-in-the middle-of-the-glass type person to me. Agree?

ames-ace ns.; lowest possible dice throw of double one, ill-luck, worthlessness. Now I understand all those refs in Georgette Heyer novels to this word.

amentum n.; catkin. But I shan't be raving on about the beauty of the pollen-dusted amentums next spring. Will stick to catkin, if you please.

amissible adj; liable to be lost. This applies to almost anything Daughter owns. Or Son, come to that. We are a family full of amissibility.

ammophilous adj; sand-loving. I am decidedly NOT ammophilous, hating the very thought of sand in summer sandwiches or anywhere. Blearghhh!

amort adj; spiritless, dejected. Much how I feel about going on a school supplies shopping trip to Milton Keynes, the Great Wen of Buckinghamshire.

amphigory n; nonsense-verse. My Twittered witter is internet litter, but don't think I'm bitter-I ain't no Ruth Pitter (a poet much fitter).

analects; collected literary fragments. What I have in my 'bottom drawer' of assorted book ideas, just-started novels, and related items.

analphabetic adj; ignorant of the alphabet, illiterate. I trust this does not describe me, as I am Alphabet Dictionary woman extraordinaire.

anamnesis n; the recalling to memory of things past. Very Proustian. A la recherche du temps perdu. Something I find hard to do short term, which is a little worrying at my age.

ancon, n; a breed of sheep with very short legs. Apparently. According to Chambers 20th Century. But do I believe them? (Of course I do! They are founts of ineffable arcane knowledge on all things ovine. Or so they tell me.)

anfractuous adj; winding, involved, circuitous. Like a shaggy dog story. Or the convoluted periods of, say, Dr Samuel Johnson.

angekkok n; Inuit sorcerer or shaman. Perfect and sumptuous word for a fantasy author—I shall use it at the first opportunity. (Chambers 20th Century Dictionary says 'Eskimo' but I prefer Inuit myself. They need to amend this—actually they probably have. After all, I am working from the last millenium’s version).

annicut n; dam (from the Tamil). Now I need to know how this became so much a part of Eng Lang that it got into the dictionary. How shall I find this out?

anoesis n; sensation or emotion not accompanied by understanding of it. Never quite get the ins and outs of pins-and-needles sensation myself.

anonyma (obs) n; showy woman of easy morals. Almost anyone in Heat mag, then? Great word—let’s bring it back at once. I want to see it in a newspaper article about, say, a Manhattan socialite madam.

ansate adj; having a handle. This morning's tea mug is ansate. Hmmn. Not sure it quite works, used like that.

Monday, 31 August 2009

A Sequel by Someone Else?

There's a sequel by someone else to one of your favourite children's books. It's sitting there on the shelf, calling to you with a siren whisper. "Now you can find out WHAT HAPPENED NEXT. C'mon, you KNOW you want to." But do you? Do you really? Just published is Hilary McKay's answer to Frances Hodgson Burnett's 'A Little Princess', called 'Wishing For Tomorrow'. I've ordered it, but deep in my heart I know I probably shouldn't have done. Sara Crewe's story was one of the great loves of my childhood, its riches to rags to riches story somehow deeply satisfying to my soul. It was, I felt, what a really good story should be. It has sat in my head, complete and entire since I first read it. I may. fleetingly, have wondered how Sara Crewe's life evolved after her rescue by the Indian Gentleman, but hey, my imagination could provide the details of that. So why do I want to read a book by someone else, written 104 years after the publication of the original? Because I am like the Elephant's Child--full of "'satiable curtiosity". And because now that I know it's out there, I can't resist it. If I'm horrified and disappointed, it will be my own fault, after all. I have not read any reviews (deliberately), since I'd like to make my own mind up without any prejudice.

Also coming this autumn is Eoin Colfer's sequel to Douglas Adams' 'Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy' series, entitled 'And Another Thing'. I am the lucky possessor of a Limited Edition Proof (42 of 238) of the first half of the book. It arrived (naturally) by the Vogon Postal Service (Punishment for mail tampering: Disintegration) and has a helpful and friendly rainbow-hued DON'T PANIC! on the front cover. I yield to no one in my admiration of Eoin as a writer of children's books (have loved Artemis Fowl since his first appearance), but I did approach this offering with trepidation. 'Hitchhiker's', its insane landscape, and quotes from it have been part of my life since the first radio-broadcasts. I have lost count of the times I have muttered 'Brain the size of a planet, and all I am asked to do is....". I am delighted to report that Eoin (once again) does not disappoint. He has captured Adams's voice and madness perfectly (at least in this first half), and I look forward to reading the whole thing on 12th October.

So have I ever been disappointed? Yes. Most certainly. Many times. To pick out a couple at random: I've hated every sequel to Pride and Prejudice I've ever read--even Emma Tennant couldn't make me love her version of 'Pemberley'. I couldn't love Geraldine McCaughrean's 'Peter Pan in Scarlet' either--though it was a well-written book. There are very often extremely good reasons why an author doesn't write a sequel to a much loved work. Robin McKinley (one of my very favourite fantasy authors) is always being pestered (and I do use the word advisedly) for sequels to her Damar books and others. She says that while it is always theoretically possible that one will arrive from what she calls 'The Story Council', she has to write what she is given--it's not something that a writer can force. I know that were I ever to be in the same position, by the unpteenth complaining and plaintive request I would positively not WANT to write another word on the subject. However, if in 104 years someone wants to write a sequel to something of mine, then I say good luck to them. But I'm quite glad I won't be around to read it.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Manners Makyth Man--Or Do They?

There is an excellent US site for those interested in all things to do with writing which I joined a while ago. It's called Red Room if you want to hop over and take a look. Since they don't have a feed puller for blogs, I take the trouble to cut and paste some of the posts I write here into my blog page there. It gets me more readers, and I like the site. For this blog, however, it's the other way round. Red Room has instituted a weekly 'blog subject' which they ask their bloggers to write about. All the blogs are then collected into a compendium, and the best are chosen as features--with the prize of a book on that week's subject to the winning author. There are no constraints on how you can approach the subject--whatever comes to mind. The only rule is that you must put the subject into the 'tags'. This week's subject was 'bad manners', which is why I've written the piece below. It has already been published on my Red Room page in a slightly amended form, but since my readers here are all different (at least, I think you are!), I'm putting it here too. I hope you enjoy it--and would love to have your own examples of the worst bad manners you've encountered.

The first written code of manners could be said to be found in the 10 Commandments. Leaving aside the religious exhortations, it is basic politeness not to covet your neighbour's wife, or ox (Ferrari) or ass/donkey (VW Golf) or any of his material possessions (mud hut on beach/Georgian Rectory/penthouse flat/Armani suit/collection of cigarette cards etc etc). Adultery with the neighbour's (or anyone else's) wife is pretty low on the manners front--and as for murder, well there's not many ruder acts than killing someone. Stealing, perjury, and being dishonourable to your aged parents are not looked on as good either, even in modern times. This set of basic taboos is common to all mankind, and if we break them, we are punished by society in one way or another, although, as society has changed and we have become more 'civilised', the punishments are less and less rigorous for some of the offences, which not so many years ago would have seen a perpetrator ostracised or even executed.

Knowing the various different codes of behaviour which apply in our particular societies--ie how to behave with 'good manners' and not bad--is an important skill which enables us to exist peacefully with our fellow humans. As William of Wykeham once said, "Manners Makyth Man". In earlier times, children had manners strictly drilled into them--my own grandmother was very much of the 'seen and not heard' school. I'm glad for my own children's sake that that one has changed. My other grandmother informed me that leaving a little food on the side of the plate 'for Mr Manners' was a polite thing to do. As a very young child, I used to imagine Mr Manners as a sort of spindly hobgoblin (or house elf), who lived under the table and didn't get much to eat. I had nightmares about his thin, bony fingers on the end of an even thinner, bonier arm reaching out and up from the darkness at my feet to take his due from my plate. No wonder Gran told my mother I was a fussy eater!

The manners of everyday life have changed rapidly over the last twenty years here in England--and all over the world. Men still (just) open doors for ladies, offer seats, walk on the outside of the pavement. But where, before, this simple politeness was accepted as just that from a woman's point of view, now it may be perceived as sexist behaviour, and not manners at all, and may be extremely unwelcome, not to say bad mannered. In my own childhood, I would never have thought of contradicting or arguing with my parents. It would have been seen as the height of rudeness. Now my own children think nothing of having a different opinion about something--and expressing it. It's now normal behaviour (even though a snarly teenage bout of surliness still gets stamped on pretty quickly!). Whatever else has changed, though, we Brits have one unbreakable rule of good manners. We queue. And if someone bad mannerdly barges in front of us, we get jolly cross.

But there is another sphere of manners altogether, which is totally new to those of us born in the '60's and even the '70's. The Internet and cyberspace are a minefield metamorphosing at warp speed where manners and etiquette are concerned--especially the social networks. Is it rude to ignore a 'Friend Request' on Facebook? Will someone think it's bad manners if I delete or block them (will they even know or care)? What is the etiquette about commenting? And on Twitter, how many #hashtags should go in a tweet? Do I have to follow everyone who follows me, or can I just follow the ones who interest me? Can I jump into someone else's tweet exchange? Do we even need manners on the web? All this stuff is evolving so fast it's impossible to know what's right and what's wrong--you just have to do your best, lurk, watch what everyone else is doing, copy that (if they're doing it, it must be ok, mustn't it?).

If in doubt, there's one rule of manners which pretty much covers every situation, whether at home, abroad or on the fluid world of the web. 'Do as you would be done by'. And so we're back to the Bible again--New Testament this time.

PS. Since we're on manners here, let me just say thanks awfully for reading this. It's frightfully kind of you. Cheerio.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Blyton and the Perils of Reputation

Helena Bonham-Carter is to play Enid Blyton in a new BBC4 series this autumn. I'm sure it will be fascinating (for some) to find out what a bad mother she was to her two girls, and other salacious details about her life, and to relate those things to the literary merit or otherwise of her books.
I don't like this trend. Increasingly, it seems to me, in the light of recent revelations, that there have to be more and clearer distinctions between the writer judged as person/character in their own life drama (and it seems often not a very nice person/character if you have been reading lately about William Golding et al), and the writer judged as/by their work. It is easy for latter day critics and biographers to ferret about in the recent past, through letters and newspaper clippings and other media and make a retrospective moral judgement along the lines of 's/he was immoral/cruel/alcoholic/druggy/an abusive parent (take your pick and add more), so therefore the work that is left behind is somehow compromised, because it is now seen through that particularly harsh lens of hindsight.'

In general, books which carry on being printed and read through many generations stand or fall on whether they are good and readable, and whether they have something durable to say, some perpetual and long-lasting universal insight to give into the human condition--not on whether their author was or was not a monster in their personal life--though scandal, of course, always has and always will sell copies in the short term. On its publication, sales of Byron's Don Juan, forinstance, were helped immeasurably by the whispers about the poet's unconventional love life as well as by the fact that it contained insults about the Foreign Secretary of the day and mocked the revered Lake poets. It lasted for a good long while on the reputation of its raffish author (of course, it helped that he died youngish and far from home), but is now probably studied only in 19th century English literature courses. Jane Austen, on the other hand, writing Pride and Prejudice at roughly the same period, and not a bit scandalous in her habits, has lasted, giving pleasure to each generation which recognises in her stories something true and enduring which sets off chimes and echoes within their own lives and experiences, ( including my own daughter (15) in the current one).

But back to Enid Blyton, where I started. No one could call her books great literature. She never pretended they were. As a child I read her avidly--liking The Secret Seven least and Malory Towers best, with The Magic Faraway Tree, The Wishing Chair and The Famous Five et al. following close behind. My parents, to give them credit, didn't care what I read, as long as I read. But many of my friends were forbidden to read Blyton, on the grounds that it was somehow unsuitable pap which would rot their brains. And this was long before any of the 'truth' about her as a person was known. I remember, very clearly, feeling slightly ashamed of longing to get my hands on the next adventure from the library. In restrospect I had been subtly and unwittingly tarred by a sort of middle-class all pervasive literary judgementalism which even now I still hate for its snobbery and disapproving pretentiousness. Something of the same judgmentalism has grown up around JK Rowling and Harry Potter too--fuelled by the rather dog-in-the-manger view that something so popular with children should have more literary merit, perhaps?

The fact is that both Rowling and Blyton write a good story, a riproaring yarn, a page turner, and millions of children recognise that and care not a bit for their carping elders and betters. Again, both Rowling and Blyton turn children into readers, and for that they should be forgiven much (in a literary way--as I said above, the personal shouldn't come into it at all).

It was therefore good to see Melanie McDonagh in the Daily Telegraph coming out and recognising Blyton's part in getting children to read, calling her 'a genius among children's writers'. Melanie was, however, very careful to make the distinction that she was not 'a writer of genius: you don't mention her in the same breath as Tolkien or Kenneth Grahame.' I think that's a fair assessment. Tolkien and Grahame will probably still be around in a hundred years. Will Blyton? I don't know. But taking a small straw poll of friends with children of the right age this weekend, I think she will be around for a while whether her reputation is irreparably tarnished by the BBC documentary or not. The children round here are still as happy to escape into the tattered pages of their parents' illicit copies as mine were when I handed them over 10 years ago. And it doesn't seem to matter a bit that the world of George, Anne, Dick, Julian and Timmy the dog has long disappeared into some rosy '50's hinterland of history. Perhaps that's the attraction. No latter day pervs and stalkers to worry about, like there are in the papers and on TV. And it's certainly better and healthier comfort food for the 10 year-old brain than a quick and violent game of Auto Theft IV.

Monday, 24 August 2009

An Amazing Abecedenarian Alphabet - A's Part 1

The First of my Amazing A's: Abecedarian (adj): pertaining to the ABC; rudimentary; arranged like an acrostic; (n) a learner/teacher of ABC; member of Anabaptist sect which rejects learning.

aberdevine (n): a twitcher's name for the siskin, which is a yellowish-green finch (Ety. uncertain). 'How divine to spot an aberdevine, dahling!' Can't wait to throw that one into a conversation...

aboulia (n): loss of willpower, inability to make decisions. [Gr. a-, priv., boulë, will]. What a useful word for a procrastinating author. To editor: "Due to a bad bout of aboulia, I will be slightly late in delivering my novel. Do hope you will understand. Yours etc..."

abraxas (n). a mystic word, or gem engraved with mystical half-human/animal figure, used as a charm. [said to have been coined by the 2nd-cent Gnostic Basilides to express 365 by addition of the numerical values of the Greek letters]. Strangely, this is also the name of my local cookery equipment shop. Or is that simply a cover for a new mystical sect involving ritual bowing to pots and pans while dressed as a goat?

accipitrine (adj). pertaining to hawks. I wonder what word pertains to doves. If I knew, I could make a fascinating political sentence involving the two.

acronychal (adj): at nightfall (of the rising and setting of stars). [Gr. akron, point; nychos, -eos, night). A good word, but harder to fit into a sentence than you might think...

ad aperturam libri (Lat); as the book opens. Cheating a bit, on the A alphabet front, but a useful Latin phrase for a writer, I feel.

adminicle (n): anything that aids or supports. I could do with an adminicle, which I envision as being a small personage somewhat like a house elf, but of a more secretarial nature.

adversaria; a commonplace book. See title.

aeolipyle (n); a hollow ball turned by the tangential escape of steam. A useful object, and addition to vocabulary, I am sure. But where would you use it? [L. Aeolus, god of winds, pila, ball; Gr. Aiolou pylai, Gates of Aeolus)
affy (v, obs); to trust, to confide, to assure. ‘I affy that I defy you,’ in short.

agathodaimon (Gr. n);one's good genius, the one that gives you tremendous ideas for your novel at 3am. Not the one that says you're crap.

aggri, aggry (adj.); a word applied to ancient West African glass beads. So now you know what that one is, lovely Twitterers.

agraffe (n); a hooked clasp [from Old High German chrapfo, hook]. As in 'I hang my coat (which has an agraffe) from a chrapfo on the wall'.

agryze (adj); terrify, horrify, disfigure.Well, if it was good enough for Spenser (Faerie Queen), it's good enough for me.[OE agrasan=dread]

akinesia (n); the lack, loss or impairment of the power of voluntary movement [path]. Anyone else's teenagers suffer from this? Mine do!

alalagmos, n, [Gr]; a war cry. Perhaps shall use an alalagmos when I next have to deal with recalcitrant traffic wardens!

Albigensian (adj); of bloody c13th crusade which stamped out Catharist sect. Book blog on 800th anniversary at

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Twittering the Dictionary

I am a writer. Words are my trade. These two facts are self-evident. But I am also a hoarder, a ferreter-out, a collector of the strange, exotic, ancient and arcane--at least as far as vocabulary is concerned. Every time I use a dictionary for its everyday purpose of checking a spelling or meaning, I get sidetracked by the many magnificent verbal treasures to be found on any one spread. The two most useful presents I have ever received have been dictionaries--one, a blue-and-gold leather bound edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary was an unusual wedding present which still lives in its original slipcase, smelling of twenty years of knowledge searching, the gold-leaf on the very tips of its delicate pages worn silver with thumbing. The other, a Chambers 20th Century, I was given as a leaving gift when I departed my life as an editor with Orchard Books. It sits to the left of my computer and is entirely invaluable to my writing life.

I love to know about and explore the sources of words--are they from High German, or Latin, or Greek? Might they be from another language altogether (like Amharic or Ashanti), and somehow, somewhere have slipped into English usage by the route of trade or fleeting fashion or simple lexical stealing? I love the moment where the meaning of a word suddenly makes sense when I see it broken down into its component parts--it's there in plain sight but I never thought of it in that way before.

There are many quiet pleasures to be had from brief browsings of a dictionary, but one thing I have never done is to read an entire one from cover to cover--until now. It all started with Twitter really. After all, what does Twitter really do apart from tell the world what Stephen Fry had for breakfast? Or what t-shirt Neil Gaiman wore last night? Or many other less interesting (I don't like to use the word boring) daily ephemera. I realise that in our celebrity-obsessed world these are things which many people like to know about. However, I wanted to try something different. Something which would be (perhaps) both educational and interesting not only for my Twitter followers, but also for me. What could I do?

The answer was sitting right under my elbow. Starting at A, I would work my way through the entire dictionary, tweeting the interesting words and definitions I found in 140 characters. Originally I planned to do this over 24 weeks (combining w and x and y and z), but I now know it's going to take a lot longer than that. Two weeks in, I have reached al-, and there's still a long way to go (60 pages) before I reach B, and I don't want to rush it. After all, I do have other (and bigger) writing projects to get on with.

Not everyone is on Twitter (or indeed any other social network), so I've decided to do a weekly roundup of interesting words here on the blog too. I'll be starting with the 'A's so far' on Monday. Have fun reading them. I hope you find a word or two that you like, (and maybe you'll even come up with some more of your own favourites that you think I should have put in). Let me know! All suggestions welcome.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Beginning Again - Part Three (The Writing Retreat)

Writers are scattered, solitary creatures by nature, holing up all over the country (and beyond) to do their job of wrangling words in small, cramped sheds and offices, sitting in lonely state at cafe tables, or huddling against the radiators in hushed libraries. Don't feel sorry for us. We like it like that. But sometimes, just sometimes, the urge for the company of our own kind comes upon us, and that is where the Scattered Authors' Society (0r the Other SAS) comes in. On occasional 'treat days' a few of us might gather for a convivial lunch in diverse parts of the country; sometimes we communicate on a web forum, spraying urgent questions (such as the memorable 'how do I get the fox poo smell off my dog) and more obviously literary chat into the aether; and once a year as many of us as can get there gather for four whole days in an ancient manor house tucked away in a hidden part of Oxfordshire and go 'on retreat' together.

I say 'on retreat', but this is perhaps misleading. Obviously my fellow members would have to kill me with a slow series of pencil stabs if I divulged too much of what really goes on, but I can say that there is a quiz (literary and brain-taxing questions on children's books), plus several useful workshops (as well as that all important solitary writing time if inspiration strikes). It is about one of those workshops that I am going to write now, because it was brilliant, and it is a fun way of accessing creativity if you are stuck on a book (or indeed in your life). The workshop was devised by the wonderful Katherine Roberts, whose book I Am The Great Horse (winner of the Branford Boase Award), I am currently reading with great pleasure.

You will need:
A quiet room with a large table.
A (preferably wide) selection of old colour magazines.
Large sheets of sugar paper (different colours if you like).
A glue stick.
A timer.

Katherine is quite strict about the timings of this--so I will be too. For the first 2 minutes, you ponder the question you want to ask. Personally, I needed to know more about the lead character in the new novel I have just started. Then, for exactly the next seven minutes, you put everything out of your head except for the magazines, out of which you tear those things (words, pictures, numbers--whatever) which catch your roving eye. Tear, as opposed to cut. This is important. Don't think about it, don't be cerebral, just tear away and put your chosen images into a pile. When the time is up, you must then spend 20 minutes arranging the images on your large sheet of paper (mine was dark pink, as it happened, just because it 'felt' right) and glueing them on. Just do it--don't obsess about what goes where. This is accessing the instinctive part of your brain, remember, not the 'rational' bit which says 'oh, but that looks so MESSY/WRONG/NOT AS GOOD AS MY NEIGHBOUR'S'. Or whatever.

It's good to do this in a group (though it's fine to do it on your own too), since in a group you get feedback and other people may see things you hadn't noticed about your creation, and ask you questions which you hadn't thought of. For me, doing this exercise sparked all sorts of things in my brain--I knew a lot of surprising things about my new character almost immediately, and was at once enthused to write them down and ask more. My fellow authors saw a strand that I hadn't connected with--and I even got my character's name. What struck me most though, was the fact that from the SAME pile of magazines, 20 odd people got really amazingly diverse pictures and answers--though obviously our questions were different. With some of those whose writing I knew, I am sure I could have picked out their 'works of art' correctly--the writing 'signature' perhaps carries over into other media. It was altogether an excellent hour, which I wouldn't have missed at any price and a wonderful four days which took me out of myself at a time of great sadness (see previous post). I shall definitely be present again next year (if I haven't been buried in a barrel for letting out too many SAS secrets).

I'm off to the wilds of Italy now for a couple of weeks--so the next post will probably be about pasta. Watch out for it!

Monday, 27 July 2009

Beginning Again - Part Two (A Writer's Dog--In Memoriam)

It is a fact that dogs (if you are a dog-lover and owner) worm themselves into your heart and your affections with ease. I have been around dogs all my life--labradors, spaniels, dandie dinmonts), but none of them have ever been 'mine', they have always been shared. Or at least that was the case till last April, when Sophy the Teckel Goddess entered my world.

I had always wanted a Teckel (and for those in ignorance of what a teckel is, it is a very large wire-haired dachshund, bred to hunt boar and deer). So it was with delight (and some trepidation) that I picked up a small and hairy puppy person from Hay-on-Wye. Naturally, I wanted a dog with literary connections. After all she was going to be the Writer's Dog. And indeed she was. She soon learned that the Little Red Bed under my desk was an excellent place for napping and chewing toes. Teaching her not to chew the computer cables was a more difficult task.

But what she loved most of all was to watch the starlings and the sparrows and the swallows, and to chase them round the garden, barking in a sort of joyous shriek of ecstasy which became the background soundtrack to my writing life. She was also, as all hounds are, an escape artist of enormous skill and cunning, and it was this that killed her in the end. Tunnelling under the carefully nailed on and pegged down wire while chasing an especially elusive bird she fell into deep water and drowned before we could rescue her. She was only seven months old, and it is the silence that is hardest to bear.

I tell you about her not to elicit sympathy (please don't), but because by writing about her, she lives on in the writing. The memories of her are, for me, a precious short legacy of happiness which I will never lose. The writer's mind is a treasure chest in which can be found many things, sorrow and grief as well as joy and laughter. I am glad that this is so.

A friend kindly sent me the following poem. I think perhaps it will have a resonance for anyone who has suffered a loss--of any kind. It was no good telling me not to weep, though.

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn's rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there, I did not die.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Beginning Again - Part One (Campaigning for the Book)

Illness, a major sadness and a busy schedule have meant that I have been absent for longer than I intended from the blog. Apologies to all who have, perhaps, missed me and my odd ragbag postings. Now I have many things to write about, and not much time before I am off again--this time to Italy, where I hope to find inspiration for a new novel (as well as enough sunshine to see me through an impending dark winter).

So...first, last month's 'Campaign for the Book Conference', which took place at King Edward's School in Birmingham. From little acorns do great oaks grow. Alan Gibbons set up the Campaign less than a year ago, and it is entirely due to his passion and energy for libraries both school and public that the Campaign is now becoming a forceful pressure group for political change. I got involved by offering to set up a CFTB page on Facebook and get the Campaign information out into the world that way, (thereby coming into contact with lovely librarians from all over the UK, some of whom attended on the day). I was delighted to meet those who could, and also to meet (at long last) the Great Bookwitch, whose blog on literary matters I follow avidly.

The talking at the conference was wide-ranging and well-argued, covering a number of key subjects such as safeguarding against cuts, how best to support School Library Services, stories about what is 'happening on the ground', seizing the opportunities to widen library use and much more . The Hall was crowded with people who care about books and reading. Even the politicians seemed to think that libraries are A Good Thing. And of course they are, which is why the threatened closures in Swindon and the Wirral, and the sacking of librarians is such a disgrace. Did you know that that, in the UK, every prison has a statutory duty to provide a library for its inmates? This, of course, is right and necessary. What is disgraceful is that the same statutory provision does not apply to our UK schools. That's right. You read correctly. No school in the UK HAS to have a library (though many do). Alan has now started a petition to remedy this. Sign it, please, if you would like to and you haven't done so already and pass the word on. The closing date is 11 December 2009, and at present there are 3380 signatures.

But I have a more immediate question for you. Why SHOULD it be necessary to campaign and petition for something so fundamental. This is shocking to many.

Our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, says that 'Reading is probably one of the best anti-poverty, anti-deprivation, anti-crime, anti-vandalism policies you can think of.' Apart from the fact that reading is not a 'policy', I agree with him. It is therefore all the more surprising to me to find that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls has already (apparently) rejected the arguments for statutory libraries months before the extent of support for the petition has been gauged. saying that: ‘the provision of a school library is not a statutory requirement, and there are no current plans to alter this and change the legislation.’

I leave you with quotes from two 11 year-old readers, one in the UK, one from the Lebanon.

"The pen has imagination, the sword can only kill.' from a library user in Southwark.

"Writing is a medicine for the soul.' from a library user in Beirut, Lebanon.

I am not, in general, a political person, but it is for children such as these, and the many more whose only hope of access to the power of reading and the imagination is through libraries that I shall go on Campaigning for the Book. As Alan said in his message to our politicians and policy makers at the end of the Conference, 'I'm in it for the long haul, to make them listen, to make them understand.'

Friday, 10 July 2009

Birthday! Cake! Prizes--Join the ABBA Birthday Blogparty Over At the Other Place Today!


Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Metros and Haiku

I came across the WildInk blog a couple of days ago, and very much liked the new haikus I found there. Haiku is one of my favourite forms of poetry. To condense so much feeling and atmosphere into so few words is an art--and a difficult one. I have never managed to write one to my own complete satisfaction, but I shall keep trying. It is an art worth working at.
As a student I remember marvelling over Ezra Pound's In a Station of the Metro from "Contemporania," Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 2.1 (April 1913), which I make no apology for repeating here in case there are those who do not know it:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

With a boyfriend in Paris at that time, I spent a lot of hours riding the Metro and mouthing the station names of Denfert-Rochereau, Chatelet-Les Halles, Pyramides, Arts et Metiers, Sevres-Babylone (a poem in themselves, and so much more romantic than Marylebone, Ealing, Euston or Lewisham). I understood Pound's words exactly from my own experience, and even now they conjure up the frantic, crowded platform jostling, the harsh braying note of the closing doors and the slightly sweet smell of sewers and smoke from a million damp Gauloise cigarette butts which would say 'Paris' to my senses even if I were blindfolded.

Years after Paris, I made a trip to Japan, the true home of haiku. Riding the Tokyo Metro was a different experience entirely, and yet just as evocative in its way. Coming in from Narita airport I remember eating sushi from my first bento box and marvelling at brown-grey jagged hills covered in pine trees and moss, exactly like a Hokusai print--and that was before I'd even seen Mount Fuji.

In Japan I felt tall for the first time--but also alien, standing out like a sore thumb above the massed commuters on the platform, trying to read signs in a language I had no hope of understanding. Somehow, though, I trusted myself to one of the seemingly familiar coloured lines on the map and arrived where I was meant to be--a place where a friend had told me I would find a taste of the 'real' Tokyo, far from the blazing multi-coloured neon signs of Shibuya and the clicking cameras whirring outside the Imperial Palace. In Shinjuku I got lost deliberately--the best way to discover unexpected wonders. There was the tiny shop with a window full of wooden shoes, which I entered down three rickety steps to find a tiny grey-haired woman bowing to me. I bowed back politely, and suddenly the lack of language was no longer a barrier. With mime and hand gesture and more bowing, we communicated perfectly, and I left with three exquisite pairs of shoes, destined for the (then) small feet of the Gazelle Girl, her brother and my god-daughter, all wrapped in patterned paper with a little string to carry them by. I wandered deserted shrines with small offerings of food and flowers before them, and then found myself in a busy market where I was, once again, alien--the alien window shopper amongst a sea of hurrying, haggling housewives buying live chickens, leafy vegetable, roots large and small and rice from great hoppers as tall as the eaves.

There were many more metro trips along the coloured lines of Chiyoda, Marounouchi, Yurakucho, Asakusa and Oedo, but the final one took me to the peaceful woods of the Emperor Meiji's garden--tribute to his beloved Empress wife. Here's what I wrote about it. Not a haiku, but I like to think it has some of the idiophones which characterise other Japanese poetry.

In Emperor Meiji's garden

black bright carp


their slow drumbeat

on waterlily ripples.

The Empress Shoken sleeps

and nesting crows


requiems of flight

above the weeping trees.

copyright Lucy Coats 1998

Monday, 8 June 2009

Remembering Remarkable Trees - Part 3 - Reading Trees

Ingredients for the perfect reading tree:
1 climbable tree;
1 cushion;
1 comfortable fork with branch footstool and trunk backrest;
1 unputdownable book;
enough green leaves to hide under.

These days I prefer a slung hammock, but when I was (shall we say more agile?) climbing trees with a book was my perfect escape from weeding the strawberry beds, or lugging bales of straw and slopping buckets of water over countless fields, or any other undesirable job my parents could dream up for an idle, book-loving child.

My first climbing choice of inside the laurel clump made a springy green cave smelling of rich, rotting evergreen humus and was not terribly satisfactory as a perch, being rather unstable and drippy when it rained as well as dark and bad for the eyes. The Victoria plum tree was good in the spring and autumn but not in the summer when the wasps attacked the ripening plums and anything else in reach. It was also, latterly, near the bonfire, which meant that I read with smarting, smoke-filled eyes when the wind was in the wrong direction. The right hand of the twin chestnuts on the boundary had a wide horizontal and almost flat branch which was great for reading and also for lying and spying on the house (and on the next-door neighbours in their thatched cottage), hiding me from sight entirely. But when new neighbours moved in, less short-sighted and tolerant than old Mr and Mrs Smith, Complaints Were Made, and I was banned from climbing it on pain of dire punishment. A nosy child (I confess I did have a pair of binoculars on occasion) was not welcome, despite my protestations of innocence and the waving of books as proof.

It was the old cherry in the part of the garden where nobody went, just by the dogs' graves, which was best. That was where I stashed my rope ladder, and found a perfect snug fork just at the right angle for leaning against. It was there that I devoured R.M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island as well as Swiss Family Robinson, (the latter being especially suitable for treetop reading) among many others. The lullaby of the creaking branches, the wind, the rustle of pointed leaves, the occasional adventurous woodpigeon or little brown bird landing above my head, these were the sounds that informed my early reading life. Hammocks are good, but trees are the real thing. Climb one tomorrow plus book and see for yourself (if you are still able and lithe enough to do so). I wish I could.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Remembering Remarkable Trees - Part 2 - Beeches

Beeches are the quintessential Hampshire tree, and, if I am honest, my favourite. Spring for me is epitomised by the sight of that first mild sunshine of April shining through the new tender leaves of beech, slightly indented at the edges and still with the fur of their birth upon them. I love the smoothness of their greeny silver trunks, and the way their roots buckle and rear out of the earth in a glorious, chaotic muddle of growth. These are the dryad trees, elegant formed and whispering secrets in the wind. If you put your nose to a beech tree it has a particular smell to it of clean sap and green lichen dust with a hint of sharp mossy wildness, and if you break open the mast in autumn you will find the three-sided nuts in their fawn-velvet beds just waiting to be cracked open and plundered for the sweetness inside.

My father's job took him to the woods and hedgerows every day, and I spent many hundreds of hours sitting in different Hampshire woods, listening to the soporific cooing of woodpigeons and watching the branches and leaves of beeches against the sky. There was one particular clump I was very fond of. It lay beside the narrow chalk-dusted road to school, a perfectly round grove on top of a small hill, and I loved to visit it. It was, for me a magical place--a tree cathedral where I felt at one with nature and the world, though I didn't put it like that at the time, of course.

Then the motorway came. The little chalk-dusted road was blocked for months, and we went round the longer way while the diggers and blasters and tarmackers did their work. I wasn't allowed to go near because of the danger of being squashed by a JCB. And then, one day it was open again. I cried and cried. My beech clump had been sliced in half for a new road, wide and shiny and black. It looked so sad, so bereft of its brothers and sisters. It was my first consciousness that Man ruled the planet, and Nature took second place to convenience--and there was nothing I could do about it. The half beech clump is still there--I have driven past it thousands of times on the way up that convenient motorway to London. I feel a pang for its violation every time.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Remembering Remarkable Trees - Part 1 - Elms

Sometimes serendipity brings a book into my life which opens the door to memory. Such a book lately has been Roger Deakin's Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees, which I discovered, quite by chance, in an Oxford bookshop on my mother's 84th birthday. Roger was a remarkable man--among other things a founder of Common Ground (which links nature and the environment with culture)--whom the Guardian described as belonging 'to that tradition of topographical and literary writers who had one foot in the library and the other in distant fields'. His tree memories and journeyings set off a blaze of arboreal remembrance in my own mind, taking me back to my childhood.

Neither of my children has ever seen a mature elm tree (ulmus procera) in its full canopied glory, and yet elms were, for me, the backdrop to my growing up. Out of my bedroom window I could see a whole row of them at the bottom of the strawberry fields, and my bedtime lullaby was the cawing of the parliament of rooks who lived their busy, noisy lives in the high branches. The single elm which towered above all others stood in the fields to the left of the house. It was unimaginably tall to a child's eyes, and so it became The Greenwood Tree, perfect for playing games of Robin Hood and Maid Marian under. I remember quite clearly the delight of building a forbidden fire in its shade, and cooking illicit and stolen sausages on sticks for my group of Merrie Men aged about 7. Nothing has ever tasted better than those burnt and bark-flecked objects, held in our scorched fingers and washed down with lemonade mead.

But then the beetles flew in, burrowing under the bark and leaving spiral messages of doom where they ate and laid their eggs. Dutch Elm Disease destroyed all the trees in Hampshire in the 1960's, and I remember the shock of coming home from school and seeing the corpses of my beloved elm friends lying prone on the ground, waiting for the chainsaws to bite them into firewood. Now all I could see from my bedroom window was horizon--a poor substitute--and the rooks were homeless and silent. The Greenwood Tree was so huge that the thickest part of the trunk was left where it fell, and became at once a dragon to climb on, a robber's castle, a lookout post. Eventually, the bark fell off, and the inner wood became smooth and shiny and perfect for sliding down. It also developed a hollow inside, filled with a layer of wood dust and insects which smelt of decay. In those days I had a good friend in the village who was a bit of a tearaway. This is what happened when we played together on that old elm stump.... It's called Not Fair.

He stole the matches.
Nicked them off Mum's tray,
Last Tuesday morning, early,
When he came round to play.

I built a house.
A window and a door.
The open sky my ceiling
And wildweed for my floor.

He built a fire
In our old hollow tree.
Fuelled its hungry flames with grass.
I didn't see.

Evening wisps of subtle smoke,
Fire's tearing fangs.
Big red engines. Bells ringing.

Scolded. Banished. Punished. Weeping.
Turn the bedroom key.
Angry Mum. Crosser Dad.
Why did they blame me?
copyright Lucy Coats 1991 First published in Casting a Spell (Orchard Books)

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The Writer Returns Via A Pizza Oven

First of all apologies to all my patient readers (especially Anne R and Frankie Anon). It's been a long while (and for many reasons which I may or may not write about later) since I wrote my last proper posting here. But I'm back and delighted to be blogging again. The sun is shining and the trees are green, the birds are singing, and the Wanton Toast Eater has nearly finished building his pizza oven. Ah. Maybe I didn't tell you about that.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far far away......
Well, nearly. Early last year the Wanton Toast Eater's best mate, Dr Grumpy, watched rather too much Jamie Oliver At Home. The result, some time later was first builders, then rubble, and finally an elegant hole in a brick wall with a chimney poking out of the top. The first Orchard pizza oven had arrived in Northamptonshire. Not to be outdone, and being somewhat under employed at that moment, the Wanton Toast Eater decided he wanted one too. But to save loads of money, he would Build It Himself (very credit crunch zeitgest, he reckoned).

It is amazing how busy and happy a man can be when he's building a project which (he hopes) will eventually outdo his mate's pride and joy (not that the WTO is at all competitive, you understand.). First there's the Planning and Design stage (lots of drawings and little lego models and measuring and re-measuring). Then there's the Breaking Ground, which involves picks and shovels and cursing recalcitrant roots. Next comes the Hiring of the Concrete Mixer, and the Laying of the Holy Slab. It was at this point in November that the Wanton Toast Eater's back went phut which was a shame, since he was getting on so well.

Fast forward to February. The WTO's back was up and running again, and out he went like a busy spring bee with the trailer to purchase breeze blocks, sand, lime, a mortar trowel and other sundry necessities. But inconveniently for the project (though fortunately for the family finances) the period of underemployment had now come to an end. The project was now strictly weekends only, and what weekends they were for the WTO! Up with the lark and mixing mortar in the older and more rust-ridden of the two barrows (recipe courtesy of the internet); scouring the garden and eBay for old bricks, (more cursing as they failed to break in the right place when he hit them); learning bricklaying skills on the job including how to brush out the mortar (he failed to do this on the first few and was chastised when Dr Grumpy came to inspect); borrowing a terrifying cutting wheel for the breeze blocks which dusted the garden with grey for a whole week till the rain came; constructing an arch with plywood and hope and much finger crossing.

Everything and anything else was put aside, and finally, by Easter, the base was ready. It looked big enough for a family of small hobbits to move into (but we trust they won't since the door is not round). A date was set for the nice helpful oven people to come and put the actual cooking apparatus in place (see above). Was this the end? Might we eat pizza? Oh no.

Next came the Rendering Of The Dome. Now, in case you should be confused, render is NOT in any way the same as mortar. It requires a quite different sort of sand, for a start. It also has to be worked with very quickly. Suffice to say there was more cursing and a lot of splatting as the first lot fell off, rather like a series of large cowpats. But perseverence (and a little judicious remixing of the recipe) triumphed, and I am pleased to report that we are all smoothed out and Nearly There (see picture below). All that now needs to happen is the resolution of the arguments over Choosing Of the Paint Colour (he favours Mediterranean Pink, I favour a more discreet Stone), the painting itself (two coats at least), and the all-important first few delicate firings to coax the oven into life and 'prove' it.

Then, and only then can we have the wood-fired pizzas we have all been waiting so long for. Dr Grumpy will, naturally, be the first guest to taste them. But the Wanton Toast Eater won't be gloating. Of course not. You don't do that sort of thing to your best mate. Do you?
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