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That was the week that was: early May 14

We’re into May. It’s a strange time of year in school circles – feels like pretty much every week has a different pattern.

Occasional days here; school productions there (not yet for Junior Reader, but the school got to watch the final year classes going through their paces).

Junior Reader has become interested in birds – so it was off to look at ospreys on the Monday holiday. More accurately, you look at a TV screen, with cameras trained on the nest, but the ospreys are also on a webcam, so maybe we can see what the chicks are up to next week.

The lambs have stopped their jumping in the fields, and are growing a bit more sedate. Pink blossom starts to come down, covering cars parked beneath the trees.

We tread petals into the pavements as we walk – a mixture of pink and slush, because it is usually rain that brings the petals down.

Cold and warm, cold and warm. The trees and flowers know it’s spring; the temperatures keep going up and down. We dance the late spring coats and gloves dance a little longer. (And rescue the missing child’s glove.)

It’s a time for losing things this week – glasses, glasses case – and, thankfully, finding them again. (And apologising to others who have also been looking for them on our behalf.)

School is looking at non-fiction: so homework includes a sheet where you pull information from different places in a reference book. And a reading book which has penpal correspondence between the UK and the US.

I find myself wondering whether people will keep writing letters or not, in the future. Won’t they just find it all out from Skype – or someone’s online account?

The search for a tent is finally over. Junior Reader proudly lugs it home. It’s really for back garden type activities, at least to start with. (I recommend a sleeping mat too. Thankfully they come in RED, which goes with the red sleeping bag. These things are important.)

We do a bit of DIY, and get down some of the reference books Junior Reader doesn’t normally get to see. Off to Pompeii, a quick survey of classic cars, and the very old British Empire style atlas that is delicate, but fascinating.

Dan and Junior Reader are spending more time on games now. Another go at Cluedo, and some other shorter board games. (I am permitted to nurse a heavy cold and emerge more at mealtimes.)

Junior Reader crafts a card handprint. It’s for the bedroom door, so that you are ‘scanned’ before entering. (I think it’s more of the ongoing spy fascination.)

That’s the idea, except it’s a bit low down for the adults to use. Dan pretends that the voltage is too high when using it for the first time, and we ask Junior Reader to turn it down.

There is also a sudden flurry of homemade cardboard scrolls, with little red circles on the outside, when they’re rolled up, to look like a seal. The most recent one says:

‘My dear people, I am sorry to tell you that we are at war again. From Looey [sic] the 14th, King of France.’

Oh yes, and we finished watching Dogtanian episodes (on DVD) too. Could you tell?

Lit Kid: boldly going

If I’ve written about books I associate with my mother, it’s only fair to look at my father’s influence too. And I have, already, quite a bit.

The Hobbit. My Friend Mr Leakey. Riki Tiki Tavi. These are just a few.

My dad wasn’t always around at story reading time. There were several years where he travelled for work – maybe fortunately for me, after the stage when I had learned to read for myself.

But before that stage, he did read aloud to me in the evenings – and he must have done so well, because I have so many of the phrasings still in my head.

I am still fairly sure that the choice of The Phantom Tolbooth came from him. And maybe also Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, remembered by me particularly because of bits of the print being in red, and others in green.

It has taken me longer to learn that my father passed on some of the reading experiences he had been given himself – such as retrieving the book from a different place every night, as he did with Mr Leakey.

Another of these was to introduce me to science fiction, as his father had done for him, by starting me on John Wyndham’s The Crysalids.

He didn’t go wrong with either experience.

Sometimes, we can walk a path with someone, and our memory becomes all about that shared time together. But sometimes, we start the journey together, then one of us walks on, now knowing which way to go.

My father read The Hobbit to me. Later, when he was in his travelling phase, I took his copies of The Lord of the Rings, and soldiered on myself.

I skipped bits, I admit it. I was less into the battles. I wanted to know what was happening to the ring, and to Frodo and Sam.

Now at a later stage, I can show more interest in the characters of the other companions of the ring. I understand more of why they fight – and let’s face it, Peter Jackson’s films have done much to help demonstrate the impact of each of those characters.

But even so, as with The Hobbit, the quests are impossible without the quiet strength and perseverance of ‘the little people’, even as the bigger ones struggle with destiny and enmity between peoples and other things I didn’t really grasp at 9.

Similarly, my father pointed me to other classic reads that I have gone on to recommend to others. Not all of these are necessarily ‘kid’ lit – but both would surely fit with what is now known as young adult fiction.

One was the Dune series, by Frank Herbert; another, the Dragon series by Anne McCaffrey.

Dune has had a higher focus by dint of some adaptations. I’m not much of a fan of the 1984 film (though Sting is intriguingly cast in it), but the mini series was very well done, and faithful to the books.

Again, at whatever stage I read Dune, I certainly didn’t get it all. I didn’t read oil crisis into it (the books hinge on the availability of ‘spice’ as a similar must-have for trade, travel and more), and I’m sure there was more that the author intended.

But it was one of those early books to convey clearly what life could be like in a very different environment – one where water is so precious that your body water does not belong to you after you die, but is returned to the tribe.

That may sound gruesome, but it’s not meant to be. There is a fine combination of expressing the essentials – what has to be done to survive – and the choices and alliances that can be dared at higher levels of society.

Whatever your feelings about science fiction, read Dune (the first in the series) and the next few books, if only for some of the best modern Greek tragedy I’ve come across.

The Dragon books are also part of a very long series, and as you might expect, the earlier ones are better. If you like the ‘whole alternative world’ approach of the likes of The Hobbit, and fancy a few more dragons in your story, it’s a good place to begin.

Again, I was impressed by the ability to conjure up a whole world, intact, seeing the forces depending on each other, as well as the way they suggest opportunity, even for the unlikeliest of characters.


But perhaps one of my enduring reading legacies from my father is an appreciation of a good short story. Science fiction is often seen to be about overblown space opera sized novels, but it doesn’t have to be.

Part of my own writing this spring is delving into this area. I have been fortunate enough to read some really good science fiction short stories.

I may not be anywhere near them yet, but I think I can follow a good example – or at least set off in the right direction.

Friday phrases: whiffling through the tulgey wood

Back to some silliness. This time, it’s Lewis Carroll’s turn.

There is plenty of silliness in Carroll – much to choose from. But what I want to include today is The Jabberwocky, his strange and wonderful poem that has even merited its own Monty Python tribute.

It is one thing to learn a poem. But the greater fun comes with the opportunity to recite it, preferably with some kind of audience to hand (even one will do).

The Jabberwocky is one I can reach for if needed. One of the great delights, when reading it aloud, is the natural crescendo through this verse (below) towards ‘burbled’.

That a terrible monster exists, we can accept. That it needs a brave knight to vanquish it – agreed. But that the terrible monster will burble, on approach, completely undercuts the fear and dread factor. It’s one of the reasons why I love it as a poem.

Many moons ago, when studying The Annotated Alice at school, I came to learn the Anglo-Saxon background to the poem – and you can too, if you want.

But in many ways, I prefer to leave behind the author’s initial intentions in writing the piece, and abandon my ears to the clash of sounds and images that Carroll conjures up.


The Jabberwocky

“…And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!”

Lewis Carroll

[You can read the whole poem at the link above.]

Plotting, plotting

I feel like I should be stirring a cauldron at this point. Or meeting with others in some dark building with one naked bulb overhead.

Two different forces are at work just now. One is following the words, a bit like the children following the Pied Piper. (I’m hoping for one of the friendly versions of the story where the children get to come back afterwards.)

You don’t know where you are going, but the tune is irresistible, and so you follow it, even through gaps in rocks, and away from what you know.

The other force is structure. That sounds like a contradiction when I write it – one thing moving, the other stable. But structure in story can still shift – in fact, it often does, in the way of good detective stories.

You are given a structure that makes sense of what you know so far. Then you drop a nail into the machine of the story, and suddenly it starts moving things in a different way.

Some of this shift is coming from writing a few chapters and being unsure where to go next. You can follow the trail, but you may doubt the way ahead. So sometimes you look back at where you’ve come from, hoping for some patterns, some idea of where you go next.

I am finding myself thinking about structure in stories quite a bit just now. It might be in story arcs in an ongoing TV series. It might be spotting narrative patterns in books, switching back and forth between now, recent past, distant past, and so on.

I am reminded that you need both. J K Rowling famously had the character of Harry Potter wander into her head – but she also spent much time working out the universe in which he operated, what was possible, what wasn’t.

We read and write and watch stories partly because we are hoping for structure. We want things to make sense, one way or another, even if they follow a crazy path to get there.

I visited Coventry Cathedral one time. When you walk in the door, towards the altar, the windows fan back behind you. There is light, but you don’t see out of them.

But when you turn and look back the way you come, you see the windows clearly. The angle of them means that now you can see what is on them. You can read the story.

The explanation for the way the building was built has often come back to me. Sometimes the story only makes sense after the event.

Right now, I have two separate stories building. I have followed my nose for both of them so far. Now I am finding myself looking back at what I have written, trying to sense the patterns.

Where are the gaps? Where are the bits that ring true most? Is my storyline consistent? How old is this character when they do a certain thing?

Once you pass through the chink in the rock, following your story, you come across foothills. There are many of them. You are unsure how many, which way you’ve come, which way you are going.

Little by little, you map them. You put signal flares on top of some, to light your way. You stand at the top and light the torch, and see a new valley that you haven’t yet explored.

And so you move into the valley, hoping to pick up the sound of the piper’s tune once more.

Lit Kid: what’s in a name?

Junior Reader and I are nearing the end of our latest Atticus book. It’s been a lot of fun, in various ways, including recurring poo jokes, double crossings and much more.

But I have to say that I really sat up and took notice when one character was revealed to have an alter ego, going by the name of Edna Whelk.

Edna is a comedy name at the best of times. Think Edna Mode from The Incredibles (we frequently do here), Evil Edna from Willo the Wisp…great potential for scariness and (usually unintentional) humour combined.

Whelk is a great comedy word too, similar to spam perhaps in its impact: relatively undervalued (and now somewhat obscure) food, single syllable. (I’m sure lard could be used in a somewhat similar way.)

But Edna plus Whelk: genius.

I’m sure one of the reasons I like Manfred the Baddie is his name. Manfred isn’t a particularly well known name – I tend to think Manfred Mann, which doesn’t feel that scary – and less obvious for a villain.

(Manfred isn’t an out and out villain, and maybe the name helps us guess this too. But I shall refrain from further description – maybe one for my heroes and villains mini series.)

If you are thinking of names for not yet proven heroes, Hiccup seems a great choice. (And of course it is, in Cressida Cowell’s hands.)

It conjures up nervousness, a certain inability to control one’s body. Embarrassment. Add coming of age, being the son of the chief, and you can see why it works.

Combine with Horrendous and Haddock, plus the all-important ‘III’ (to show there have been others before him), and you have it all: history, expectations of intimidating others, a nod to the seafaring life.

It all adds up to ‘Viking’ – but not the Viking we, or his tribe, initially expect him to be.

There are plenty more wonderful character names out there: Geronimo Stilton, Paddington, Violet Elizabeth Bott. Particularly in books with comedic elements, the right names can set up part of the joke for you right away.

But meanwhile, if I want anyone to defend me against a scary cat, and a woman with poisoned hairpins, I’m calling Edna Whelk right away.