Monday, 29 May 2017

A place to write - Hilary Hawkes

Something I’ve had cause to ponder recently is how important, for authors, is having a designated place to write?

Sir Walter Scott wrote Marmion, his best seller epic poem, whilst on horseback. D H Lawrence often wrote beneath the shade of a tree. Virginia Wolf and husband started a publishing business in their basement – and, apparently, she wrote down there in a storage room sitting in an armchair.

Agatha Christie plotted some of her novels whilst in the bath, eating apples.

L H Anderson, the US YA author, wrote in closets, on bleaches, in the car and at airports. Then she married a carpenter and he built her a  hand built cottage 
  “All writers should marry carpenters” she declared.

Too late. I never heard that piece of advice. It took me a while, probably decades, before I had a proper space for writing. I never learnt to ride so horseback was out and lingering to plot in the bath would have annoyed the rest of the family I’m sure. So for me places to write progressed from kitchen worktops, dining room tables, to  a desk squeezed into what the estate agent called the Dressing Room (actually a kind of cupboard with a window off of a bedroom). 

Then when my eldest son moved out into a place of his own I excitedly transformed his old small downstairs bedroom into my very own office and ‘writing room’.  This does sometimes have to transform back into a bedroom, but otherwise it’s pretty undisturbed, all mine and perfect.  

During the summer months, or even a warm spring and autumn, I carry everything I need out into our small conservatory so I can work and feel part of the outdoors at the same time.  Due to it being on the shady side of the house it never gets too hot and the light is wonderful.
I’m sure having your own undisturbed space makes a difference. 

But I wonder how much of a difference and whether other things matter more – like noise levels, distractions, mess or tidiness.  Are windows with views inspiring or just distracting? If I really had to get something written perhaps I could just write it anywhere – as long as I could plug in the laptop and there was wi fi too.

What about you? Where do you write and how important is having a designated space or room? And have you ever written in some unusual places?

Hilary Hawkes, writer and children's author. Website 

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Rewriting Myths - Clémentine Beauvais

I will be starting work soon on a commissioned book for a French publisher as part of a series of novels that rewrite Greek myths, Histoires Noires de la Mythologie (Dark stories from mythology).

Some examples below (there are dozens)

 They look great, don't they? Gotta love Icarus's fit bum.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. It's a pretty great series, one of those collections of books that are widely read in schools and primarily have an educational purpose, but nonetheless manage to be very literary and interesting.

The challenge with that book, as I'm discovering, is that it has to be quite long (90 000 characters) (I mean characters as in letters and punctuation, not 90 000 dramatis personae, though that's doubtlessly achievable with Greek mythology). And Greek myths aren't that long to tell - so you really need to spin them quite a bit.

The myth I chose is that of Io, which has always been a favourite of mine, and miraculously wasn't already taken.

The need to stretch it means that, essentially, you have to get into the heads of the characters very much, and be quite psychological about it all; give them distinctive voices, personalities, desires, and therefore probably break down their archetypal 'nature'. 

Of course, great writers who retell Greek mythology or other legends and myths do that all the time. But they don't have the constraint of keeping it school-focused. It still needs to be educational, a good 'parascolaire' product, as we say in French. We can't stray far from the 'accepted' versions of the myths, so that they stay in tune with the curriculum ('founding texts of world civilisations' is on the Year 7 programme).

And also, we can't only delve into pure psychology and internal monologue, because the readers probably don't really care very much about Zeus's midlife crisis. So things need to happen.

But it does give us space for interesting questions. What does it feel like to be a cow? What is it like to gallop freely through Mediterranean landscapes? Why would a young woman fall in love with a god?

More evidence, if it was ever needed, that commissioned work can be extremely satisfying and give birth to (hopefully) high-quality stuff. I'll keep you updated.


Clémentine Beauvais is a writer in French and English and a lecturer in Education at the University of York. Her published work in English includes the Sesame Seade mysteries (Hachette, 2013-2015), the Royal Babysitters series (Bloomsbury, 2015-2016), and Piglettes, a translation of her French YA novel Les petites reines (Pushkin Press, July 2017).

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Introducing Jack Fortune and the plant hunters: Sue Purkiss

At the end of September, I have a new book coming out. It's called Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, it's published by Alma Books, and it's about a boy and his uncle who go off plant hunting to the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century.

I say it's about plant hunting, and in a way it is. But it struck me when I re-read it recently that you could also say it's about conquering your fears. And you certainly needed to be able to do that if you were a plant hunter in those days - and in fact you still do, as we shall see later: because hunting for new plants meant heading off into remote and often inhospitable places, without the conveniences of good roads (or indeed any roads) or communications technology - and just dealing with whatever you happened to find. And you could find some pretty scary things: pirates, unfriendly locals, precipitous paths and swaying rope bridges, swamps, turbulent rivers, dense forests inhabited by leeches, snakes and animals which wanted to eat you - and so on.

Many of the plants we have in our gardens are not native to Britain - think of clematis, tulips, horse chestnuts, lilies, magnolias, orchids, jasmine. Of course, plants have been migrants for centuries; the Romans took favourite plants with them as their empire expanded, and later, monks in mediaeval monasteries were enthusiastic gardeners who swapped plants, as gardeners always do. But it was in the seventeenth century that plant hunting, in the sense of purposefully going off to explore new territories with the aim of finding new plants, really took off.

Looking back from where we are now, it's uncomfortably clear that plant hunting often went hand in hand with colonial expansion. So the Tradescants, for example, went to Canada and Virginia for plants because North America was being explored with a view to it being settled by the British and others from Western Europe. Sir Joseph Banks didn't set off with Captain Cook to explore the Great Southern Continent purely out of a Romantic desire for knowledge (though I'm sure that was a big part of his motivation); what Britain could get out of it was a big factor.

But the aspect of plant-hunting that really seized my imagination when I first began to read up on it some years ago (I read about the Tradescants in Philippa Gregory's hugely enjoyable Virgin Earth and Earthly Joys, and about the plant hunters generally in the excellent and very informative The Plant Hunters, by Toby Musgrave et al) was how insanely brave these people were: some of them didn't survive their adventures. I imagined a boy, an orphan; one of those children who's always getting into trouble because he's just got so much energy, and because he doesn't think ahead. My boy Jack wants to be an explorer, and can't believe his luck when his aunt, driven to distraction, declares that she can't manage him any longer, and it's the turn of her brother - who, in a move which is utterly uncharacteristic, has just decided to set off on a plant hunting expedition to the Himalayas.

Ton Hart Dyke
As I mentioned earlier, plant hunting can still be a dangerous activity. Tom Hart Dyke is a plant hunter whose family has lived for centuries in Lullingstone Castle in Kent. He was catapulted into the news when he and his friend, Tom Winder, were kidnapped while plant hunting in the Columbian jungle in 2000, and held for nine months. You can read here about their ordeal - and about how the experience led to him conceiving the idea of creating a 'World Garden', which he set about creating at Lullingstone on his return home.

So, Indiana Jones, eat your heart out - who needs to hunt for ancient archaeological artefacts when you can get your thrills chasing plants?  (Oops - just remembered a certain scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - not literally, Indie: not literally...)

And finally, a little hint as to what Jack and his uncle desperately want to find...

NB This post originally appeared on 'The History Girls'. Have put it here today because the person who normally posts on the 27th has been unavoidably detained. (Will let her out soon - honest.)

Friday, 26 May 2017

Ensorcelled is a Really Good Word by Eloise Williams

Being a writer for the younger reader I spend a lot of time trying to imagine life from the perspective of a child.

What would I think of this mushroom if I was six-years-old?

Bleurch. Slimy. Yucky. Ach-y-fi. Fingers down throat. Slugs. 


What would I have said to that teacher when I was thirteen?

Probably nothing because I was the shyest person in my class and I didn’t want to show myself up in front of Erin Jackson, who had never noticed I was alive anyway.  

That sort of thing.


I draw on my memory bank daily and revisit the best and worst memories of my young life.

Unfortunately, I can almost put myself back to teenage times.
I’m at the ‘pop and crisps’ disco where I feel jealous of Caroline’s spotted leggings and her stupendous success in life at actually having a boyfriend. I can feel the weight of my ungainly arms as they hang in odd directions while I sway to Depeche Mode and pretend to know the lyrics whilst hiding behind the lankest fringe in the history of hair.


I can be back with my nose pressed to the cold wet glass of even younger, Santa-spotting years. Taste the glitter of the stars beyond the condensation. Hear the strains of harp music in the background – on an old 78 not my mother playing – I know I’m Welsh but seriously?

I can believe in magic.

I remember when I was a foetus and….

Okay, that’s taking it a bit far, but you know what I mean.

And something happened to me this week that made me wonder if I have actually changed that much at all.


I mean, yes, physically I’ve changed quite a bit and lots of me has gone south or grown unusual hairs. But inside. Do I still have the belief in magic? Do adults generally believe in the magical?


The wonderful Tamsin at Kenilworth Books designed this window display for my new book ‘Gaslight’ and it did strange things to me.

It made me think ,‘It’s magical.’ She has created magic there. Right in front of me. I can feel it. Inside me. Reaching out to me.  

I didn’t think - wow, this is going to really sell my book – although I’ll admit that did come later.

I just thought. I want to be in that story. I want to be a part of that world.


All the years melted away and I was back to the child who had imagined themselves escaping through the back of a wardrobe. 

The feeling was the same. The fizzle of excitement. That nervous coldy-weirdy feeling all over my skin. Possibilities opened up in front of me and I could taste the shimmer and smell the greasepaint of the story.


So, in these times of sadness and uncertainty, I am moved beyond anything I can express in words (come on you’ve seen the struggle already with the ‘coldy-weirdy’ description) to find that I’m still the same at heart.

I can still be ensorcelled by story-telling, the magic of an artist creating a window display, the taste of a story about to be told.
And we all need to remember to be ensorcelled by the beautiful and the magical because we all had it in us and we all still have it.


And, anyway, ensorcelled is a really good word. 

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Exam Time: Season 7, starring Tracy Alexander

I work from home most of the time. And I am mostly alone. Except in exceptional circumstances such as . . . exam season. It is, to clarify, my seventh public exam season. During this period I take on extra roles including taxi driver, nutritionist, supply teacher and negotiator of virtual landmines. There have been moments when I’d have rather been sitting in an office, far from the hothouse of data cramming, but being around and available when your kids are stressed is, of course, one of the privileges of flexible working. And I embrace it.
Being truly seasoned, I have tips. They may not be useful, or practical, or wise.
(There are ten, because there are always ten for alliterative purposes.)

1 A dog is invaluable
Dogs do not give you helpful advice. Dogs do not whisper about your chances. Dogs do not read your predictions. Dogs do not care about your revision timetable. Dogs lick your face. Only dogs understand what teenagers are going through.
(Warning: Dogs are for life, not just for exams.)

2 Less is more
There is too much talking. Parents have done exams themselves. They know everything. They want to tell you. This is all white noise. Talk less.
(Unless you’re discussing meal-planning for the day after the last exam, when eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in bed in front of Netflix is obligatory. Then more is more and more and more . . .)
All the words you need:
I love you.
Do you want a lift?
Do you have a bottle of water?
Don’t forget to leave your phone outside the room.
I love you.

3 Actions
Actions speak louder, and more intelligibly, than words.
Deliver, wordlessly, a hot drink or a tasty treat, a hug, or a gift*

*A stress toy, chocolate, or the pig from Moana are all top gifts.
(A Revision Guide is less appealing, but preferable to the course text book thanks to its relative size.)

4 Food and drink
Stock up on an abundance of both, nutritious and not nutritious.
Sugar is bad because of that up and down thing, but sugar is good because it tastes nice and makes people happy.
Exam mornings require easy to swallow slop.
Water all students as though they’re hydrangeas. Adrenalin starves the body of water. Dehydrated brains don’t work as well.
(It’s important for the support worker to eat delicious treats, and make the most of the units the government allows us.)

5 Rest breaks
Rest breaks are intervals between revising. They may vary in length, from most of the day to half an hour. (Less than half an hour is punctuation.)
Call me old-fashioned, but a rest break should involve something other than a screen. See 6) Exercise.

6) Exercise
The dog is the perfect excuse to get the examinee out of the house. In the absence of a dog, walk to the take-away. Walk to the bakery and buy cakes. Walk to a friend’s house.
Use those apps everyone has that count your steps and make a random minimum target for exam season . . . however small.
Even better, run, play tennis, skateboard . . . swim in the sea . . .
(Don’t eat, sleep, revise.
Also don’t check your phone, eat, check your phone, sleep, check your phone, revise, check your phone.)

7) Positivity
Exams are not the beginning or the end of the world. They’re exams. Some people do better than others. Some people work harder than others. Some people are tall and some people aren’t. Some people can remember every box on the periodic table and some can’t, and some don’t want to. Where you end up in life is about way more than a few capital letters next to a few subject names on a sheet of paper. Chill!

8 Mess
Who cares?
Leave the past papers, the scribbled-on A4 pages, the text books and the revision guides where they are. Scoop up the chocolate wrappers, the discarded drinks and the tissues. Repeat.
Abandon all ideas of personal space for the duration. 

9 Being asked for academic help . . .
Do not use the voice.
(I don’t know what the voice is, but I know not to use it. Knowing and doing are two different things.)
Do not use the word obvious.

10 Results
What’s done is done. Rejoice regardless. They’re young, and, as the lovely Mrs Gillman who taught all three of my wee ones used to say, “You’re a long time grown”.

 Tracy Alexander

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Best Place By the Fire by Steve Gladwin


When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold their future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for  --- the Storyteller.

We have a friend who prides himself on giving us rubbish presents. He unashamedly gets hold of any old tat he can and wraps them up to look impressive, handing them to us with a big smile on his face like some grinning Lancastrian Santa. Then when we open them we find things like dog-eared old books of riddles and two year old chocolate. He even shows off about it. When a mutual friend saw the two huge parcels he was giving us a few days after Christmas and asked what they were, he said, ‘Oh it’s just a pile of old crap I want to get rid of.’

A couple of months ago however he redeemed himself totally by turning up with the best presents ever. Yes, he gave me not just the DVD but the book of my favourite TV series, The Storyteller, which was created and produced by Jim Henson and first appeared here on Channel 4 in 1987. The gift was particularly special because I used to have another version of the book which accompanied the series, but foolishly lent it to someone who said she’d give it back and of course never did.. And I’d only previously had a Region 1 copy of the DVD which won’t play.

The book itself is a thing of beauty and alone reminds me of why the series itself was so special. In place of the actual photos from the series and silhouettes which were in the version I lost, this version from Boxtree has a series of beautiful coloured recreations of many of the characters, situations and perils which bring back even more the whole wonderful experience of the series.

So what could possibly be so special about a warty, ugly storyteller in a faded patchwork cloak and his grumpy talking dog? Well just how long have you got?

Let’s start with the script, for this after all is the series which made me want to be a storyteller, and I confess that I still steal the odd jewel here and there to implant them in my tales because these rare gems. These glittering and shimmering stones poured from the pen of Anthony Minghella, and for me no-one has, or could do the art of storytelling a better service. Everywhere are lines which you simply couldn’t find the like of anywhere else.

Next there’s the creatures  - the misunderstood Griffin in The Luck Child, who likes a ‘scritch –scratch before his ‘snoozie woozie’, the trolls, father and daughter in The True Bride, the latter looking to me alarmingly like the Queen in a headscarf at Ascot, the wonderful red devils in ‘The Soldier and Death’ chain-smoking and playing cards, (at which they cheat incessantly, and above all the wonderful innocent beast in the adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast story in Hans my Hedgehog. And how could I forget the bug eyed Terrible Thing which lurks in the village pond with his siren daughters to lure unsuspecting travelers down, down and yet proves strangely susceptible to Fearnot’s violin playing in the story of the same name.

Talking of Fearnot brings me to my third reason. When Fearnot and Mr Mackay the crafty tinker who he employs to teach him how to shudder, rest in the village being terrorised by the Terrible Thing and his Sisters of the Deep, Fearnot dangles his feet into the village pond uncaring about the legend. But this isn’t the village pond, it’s the storyteller’s dog’s bowl, as the series - as it does so many times - shatters the fourth wall and simply doesn’t care. Things are seen from extraordinary angles and often with a dreamlike quality - rather as they were so wonderfully when Alfonso Cuaron was given his (regretfully) one go at the Harry Potter franchise in Prisoner of Azkaban. The house where poor Hans my hedgehog lives with the mother who dotes on him and the father who tries to love him but only ends up resenting him almost as much as the villagers who call him ‘Truffle Hog’, we first see on a dinner plate on the wall, and in The Soldier and Death, when the magical soldier first tries his skills at cheating death when his master the Tsar is about to die, the various priests and grey-beards are seen muttering, wagging their beards and shaking their sticks in small silhouettes.

'A music that started like hello and ended like goodbye'

Doing his own sad muttering with the magic glass which tells him whether the Tsar will die, (death stands at the head of the bed) or live, (at the foot) is Bob Peck as the grizzled veteran with no longer any war or cause to fight, who has to find a new one. Bob Peck is just one of a whole galaxy of stars who put as much into their portrayals as such a wonderful series deserves. In Sapsorrow you get French and Saunders as the ugly sisters and at one point Dawn French steps out of the story to shake her fist in the corner of the screen to shake her fist at the storyteller’s dog who is heckling her and her sister. There is Jane Horrocks as the resentful Anya, The True Bride, with Sean Bean completely oblivious to their love while he is under the spell of the trollop, (at the first sound of this word the dog blocks his ears up!), in The Three Ravens Jonathan Pryce as the grieving king is quite oblivious to the wicked wiles of Miranda Richardson’s witch, while his daughter Joely Richardson is all too aware of them, and in The Luck Child the veteran actor Robert Flemying gives a moving and haunting performance as the weary ferryman who is forced to make his ceaseless crossing carrying passengers to and from the Griffin’s island. And at no time does any of them give a single indication that they’re not taking their role as seriously as if they were playing Chekhov.

One of the great TV partnerships

Maybe none of this would work quite so well if the storyteller under the warts and make-up wasn’t John Hurt and the dog wasn’t portrayed and voiced by Brian Henson. It’s this partnership which is the real soul of The Storyteller, because while the storyteller tells the tale as it is, or has been told to him, the dog often provides the moral conscience, but does it in such an often jokey or sarcastic way that we miss the impact until we think about it, or because he rolls his eyes and sighs.

As for John Hurt’s performance, well I can do no better than Baz Greenland’s tribute to him in this role on Digital Spy, following the actor’s death.

John Hurt was simply captivating as the storyteller, playing off his animated muppet dog (voiced by Jim Henson's son Brian). He's almost unrecognisable under the make up, with his giant ears and nose, but it hinders his performance not one bit. With his ability to draw the audience in, he could make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up with a soft whisper of an enemy, or convey the boundless joy of a happy ending. There are many wonderful performances over the series - and from some well known faces like Sean Bean, Jennifer Saunders and Jonathan Pryce - but no one comes close to Hurt's. 

There was a second series called Greek Myths, in which Michael Gambon made more than a decent fist as a new storyteller stuck with his faithful dog, (yes, he gets around!) in the Minotaur's labyrinth to tell us the tales of Jason and Perseus, Daedalus and Orpheus, but there was only one John Hurt. When interviewed about the series itself, John Hurt says he was primarily attracted to it both by the wonderful script and the respectful attitude the programme took to traditional tale. The original idea and enthusiasm, it appears, came from a folklore course that Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa took at university and their mutual enthusiasm for doing something meaningful and honourable with multi-cultural storytelling.

Clearly in order to fulfill that sort of dream, you need experienced people at the helm and Jim Henson could hardly have done better with the likes of Duncan Kenworthy as producer, (and also of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually) and directors such as John Amiel (The Singing Detective) and Charles Sturridge, (Brideshead Revisited), as well as helming a couple himself which included possibly the best episode of all, The Soldier and Death.’

Which brings us rather inevitably to the sad fact of how many of the team behind or part of The Storyteller, are no longer with us. Sadly we lost the wonderful actor Bob Peck in 1999 and Jim Henson himself even further back in 1990, but in 2008 Anthony Minghella too took his glittering array of jewels to cast a light somewhere else, and more recently the storyteller himself, Sir John Hurt, has joined him. The old ferryman Robert Flemying also made that final crossing in 1995 and as the old saying goes, ‘we may not see their like again.’

Do yourself a favour and buy this now!

It is also unlikely that we will ever see anything like The Storyteller again because this was a series which broke so many rules without doing so in an obvious, flashy way that we were barely aware that it was doing it. It was profound and moving, gripping and at times terrifying. It had a wonderfully inventive score by Rachel Portman with a clarinet that wriggled as hard as any of the devils to be let out of their sack. Above all, it gave adults and children alike a reminder of the fund of treasures to be had in traditional tale and the means by which a truly gifted writer can rearrange tale type and motif to reinvent and clothe old bones with fresh new garments, grow new leaves on old trees and always leave them seeming fresh. The Storyteller has not aged in any way but feels timeless. It was conceived and created long before the explosion of CGI and virtual reality. If you haven’t got a copy or have even never seen it, I urge you to change that because you won’t regret it, and you will maybe find like I do discover that after viewing any episode, the world just seems that bit more right and fresh and above all magical because of it .  

The Storyteller by the way, won the Emmy for best children's TV programme in 1987, following that up with the BAFTA for the same in 1989. But we all know it was for adults as well. Now go out and buy it now!

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Future of Libraries, by Dan Metcalf

I'm a former librarian, so expect this post to have some bias to it...

There has been loads written on the future of libraries,  this one for instance is a great article , far more articulate than I could ever be, but it hit the nail on the head in its first few lines:

"Libraries are not about books. In fact, they were never about books"

True - Libraries are about people.

They are about the people that come in and support them, about the people that take out the latest PD James for the tenth time, about the people who come in to do their homework, and about the people who come in just for a chat.

They are about the library assistant, forever helpful and friendly (and ok, sometimes not, but we can learn from that too). They are about the librarian, shaping and arranging information so that everyone can find it with a minimum of effort. They are about the library managers, putting on events and readings, storytimes and rhymetimes week in, week out. All these people don't do it for the cash - there are no end of year bonuses here - they do it for the people who walk over that welcome mat at the beginning of every day.

"Libraries are not about books. In fact, they were never about books." This much is obvious. Before books, there were scrolls. Before scrolls, there were stone tablets. Before stone tablets, there were crusty old men and women with minds like attics, ready to tell you the exact piece of information you needed (in fact, I think this might be my perferred information method).

IF books go the way of the dodo or the VHS tape (I'm not saying they will, at least, not for a while), then so be it. If the next incarnation of the library is digital, then so be it. But I see a time when society has crumbled and all the library buildings have been turned into GAP stores, and everyone wanders about with their head up their iPad. Those people will stop and search for that little something that is missing in their lives. And I think that missing thing will be...a library.

A place to go. A place to think. A place to find hidden gems, to find that bit of info you needed, or that you didn't know that you need. A place to create, to stimulate and above all, to interact with people.

Because that's what a library is - a people-centred interaction space. In times gone by, that may have been a campfire around which the elders of the tribe told stories and offered advice to the youngest recruits. It may have been soothsayer's corner, where nutjobs professed about the future. But at some point in human history, it became easier to write these stories and information down, and store it in one place so that people could go there and connect with it. Every time you pick up a book, you are connecting with that author, just as much as when you look at a blog, download a podcast or buy an ebook. You connect with a person.

So what will happen to libraries? I hope that the governments will invest in them, and believe in them as social centres which are crucial to the development of civilisation. They should become something more than 'book places'. Perhaps 'Inspiration spaces'? Or 'maker spaces'? I actually would like, once the evil robot overlords have crushed us to a pulp, and the human race has pulled ourselves up from the ashes (stop me when I get too far fetched...), that one old man, his head full of a lifetime of stories and experience, will sit himself in the corner of a town and hang a sign around his neck which says, simply, 'Library - Ask Me Anything'.

Dan Metcalf is a writer of children fiction. His next book, Codebusters, is out in July and you can learn more about him at