Category Archives: Education

The long day

You can’t get into Charlotte Square before 9.30. I’d do well to remember that, and I could – and should – stay in bed for longer. But a witch can always read, so on Tuesday morning time was killed with Theresa Breslin’s Ghost Soldier.

Thanks to Theresa’s generosity I was able to be her husband for the morning. Not as nice a one as her regular Mr B, but I did my best. And I can confirm that while I was in the authors’ events prep area, I didn’t hear anything. At all.

Theresa Breslin, The School Librarian and Mary Hooper

Then I went along to Theresa’s school event with Mary Hooper, and afterwards in the bookshop I listened in amazement as Theresa asked a female fan (obviously in her upper teens) if she was the school librarian  – from one of the visiting schools. It was quite clear that she was a mature upper secondary school student. No. Apparently she was the head teacher. (The librarian was the greyhaired ponytailed gent next to her.)

Eating a sandwich very fast before my next event, I ended up letting four Swedes share my table. I didn’t share my Swedish-ness with them, however. I listened as they speculated on the nature of Charlotte Square. Apparently it’s a bookfair of some kind. ‘But where are the books?’ one of them asked. Quite. The book festival as a mere coffeeshop for tourists.

Ran into Keith Charters, who was clutching 60 copies of  David MacPhail’s Yeti On the Loose. Did some heavy hinting, which resulted in Keith handing over 59 copies to the bookshop. I mean, he had promised me one ages ago.

After school event no.2 I chatted a little with Linda Newbery, Tony Bradman and Paul Dowswell, getting my anthology signed by all three, each in the right places. Then went in search of Cathy MacPhail’s son David, and found him where I thought he’d be but not where Keith had said, along with his mother and a lovely baby. I’d been told he’d be a slightly taller version of his mum, which as Cathy drily pointed out wasn’t hard to achieve. I forgot to take a picture, but got my Yeti signed with an extra generous RAAAAAR! Then I admired the baby.

Wrote yesterday’s onsite blog post, before learning that Son and Dodo were coming over to entertain me, and to have coffee. It had got unexpectedly warm and sunny, and Son complained. We chatted, saw Ian Rankin arrive, noticed the longbearded gent from earlier years, and came to the conclusion that the scones which used to be of almost home made quality, were just dry and boring.

Son and Dodo went off to search for more Maisie books, and I had my Dyslexia event to go to. Glimpsed Nicola Morgan and Val McDermid (not together) and then it rained and got unexpectedly cold. I repaired to the yurt for a restorative sandwich and an even more restorative sip of cola to keep me awake, as well as find that cardigan I suddenly needed.

Arne Dahl

Anne Cassidy

Waited for Arne Dahl to turn up for his photocall, and did the best I could when he did, considering how dark and wet it was. He seemed bemused by the attention. While waiting for Arne’s event with John Harvey (whom I’d have snapped too, had I known who he was…) I walked over to the children’s bookshop and caught Anne Cassidy and Emma Haughton (who does not have long brown hair, after all) signing post-event.

Emma Haughton

And after a much longer day than someone my age should attempt, I limped along Princes Street for my late train home. Someone at Waverley told me to smile. He’s lucky I’m a peaceful sort of witch.

Was it Franz Ferdinand’s fault?

My second WWI event participants agreed that the war would have happened anyway. Things were tense in Europe.

School events are the best. The topics seem more interesting and the theatres are full, and the questions asked by young audiences are sometimes good, sometimes a little unexpected.

Theresa Breslin, The School Librarian and Mary Hooper

I successfully became 13 again for a whole morning listening first to Theresa Breslin and Mary Hooper discuss their WWI novels with chair Jane Sandell. Theresa’s Remembrance has been re-issued and Mary has a brand new novel out, Poppy. For added interest Theresa brought along a hand grenade. She claimed it is empty.

They both set the beginning of their books in 1915, because that’s when conscription forced ordinary men to join up, and Mary was quite taken by the idea of platoons made up by friends, football teams or factory workers. This meant that when things went badly, whole areas would be depleted of all its men.

The effect on women was that they had the opportunity to do what men usually did, and Theresa couldn’t resist returning to her story about the rich girl whose first task as a volunteer nurse was to fill a bucket with amputated limbs.

Theresa Breslin and Mary Hooper

Class boundaries disappeared to some extent, although at first it was only well off women who could volunteer, which is why Mary had to arrange some financial help for her Poppy, who was working class. Theresa agonised over whether to allow her WWI characters a happy ending, with a baby, when she realised that the baby would definitely end up being slaughtered in WWII.

It was Remembrance Day 1999 that inspired Theresa to write Remembrance. She could see that there were no books about the young of WWI. Mary remembers a real life story about a dog that jumped into the water after its master as he sailed off to war, which she felt was so poignant.

Paul Dowswell, Tony Bradman and Linda Newbery

There was barely any need for a break before Tony Bradman chatted to Linda Newbery and Paul Dowswell, two of the twelve contributors to the WWI anthology he edited.

Linda has written about the war before, and in her story Dandelions For Margo, she wanted to concentrate on the role of women, especially the Land Army. She read an extract about a German plane crashing near where her characters lived. (And she had a sweet explanation for the title of her story, which hinges on the similarities between a tortoise and a hand grenade…)

Paul wrote about the Unknown Soldier, and he talked about a photo of some soldiers taken in the morning before the battle of the Somme. He too mentioned the Pals Battalions, and described the outbreak of WWI as similar in euphoria to a football final.

They discussed some of their other books about war, and Tony became rather outspoken about Gove’s view of ‘noble sacrifices.’ He suspects there will be no OBE now. Both Linda and Paul advocated a trip to Flanders for anyone with an interest in WWI and described the vast fields of crosses, as well as tiny cemeteries with perhaps only twelve graves.

Tony said he’s particularly excited to be talking about this here in Scotland, a month before the referendum, and made comparisons with Ireland a hundred years ago. And as they all pointed out, it wasn’t only the British and the Irish who fought, but Indians, West Indians, and even the Chinese were forced to join in the war effort.

Paul Dowswell, Tony Bradman and Linda Newbery

Dragon Shield

There is so much you can do with a large museum. You can play with its exhibits and you can give them life and put them in books. If you do that, and I read it, I will feel both intelligent and knowledgeable, because I get to hobnob with historically important items.

Charlie Fletcher, Dragon Shield

Thank you, Charlie Fletcher, for making the statues of the British Museum come to life. Admittedly, real live people end up as statues in their place (but this is fiction and I fully expect them to be turned back to soft and warm human beings again, some time). You need to make sacrifices to make a good book.

And that’s what Dragon Shield is; a nice and snappy, exciting and fun children’s book. Admirably short too, and like so many books, the first of a trilogy.

Brother and sister Will and Jo are the only humans left moving when the rest of London – and the world, I assume –  turn to ‘stone.’ Why, and what has actually happened? (The answer is I don’t know yet. OK, we know why them, but not much more.)

It’s lovely getting to know so many of London’s statues. Who knew they had such personality? Next time I’m there I will speak to them. Not the dragons. They are not nice. But the Georges – of dragon fame – are charming.

You might think the plot sounds similar to that of The Sleeping Army by Francesca Simon, but that just goes to show how it’s possible to take the same museum and statues awakening and make a totally different story with those ingredients.

It’s great playing with history.

Zeki Loves Baby Club

How to sing an Irish baby song in Urdu.

I was a lazy mother. Taking Offspring to playgroup was intended to take a load off me, for a couple of hours. The other children were meant to entertain, and so were the adult playgroup leaders.

Anna McQuinn and Ruth Hearson, Zeki Loves Baby Club

Here, in Zeki Loves Baby Club, the lovely parents all join in and play and sing with their child. True, the presence of the other babies means Zeki enjoys his Wednesdays, but there is a lot of adult playing and singing.

It’s a very sweet book, with quite irresistible illustrations. It makes you want to go to this baby club, where children and adults alike have a great time, and the children doubtless grow up to become good people.

At the back of the book you get the words to all the songs, including Rolly Polly in Urdu.

Malteser

There was an empty box – previously – of Maltesers that I needed to dispose of recently. I realised as I stopped to consider the ex-contents that I couldn’t remember what Maltesers taste like.

Although I no longer eat any chocolate, I can usually dredge up enough memory of what I used to eat and like. And then I want to cry.

But Maltesers? No. I did come to them late in my chocolate eating life, but still.

To me they have literary connotations. I was at the English department at the University of Gothenburg, when two of my lecturers happened to meet mid-corridor. One of them offered the other a Malteser, and then felt he had to offer me one as well.

Wanting to show my appreciation and also how well read and generally well educated I was, I mentioned that I’d just read a novel where Maltesers featured heavily. (And I’m sorry, but I can’t remember which novel. Maybe Graham Greene?)

‘Yes,’ said lecturer no. two, naming the book. I was so pleased he knew what I was talking about. These days I don’t think you could expect someone else to have read, and remembered, the same book. There are too many books we might be reading.

So we enjoyed some literary chocolatey bonding before we went to our respective classrooms.

Just wish I could recall what they are like. I’m sure I liked them, but not so much I’d buy them for myself terribly frequently. Now, give me Anton Berg’s chocolate covered marzipan any day! (Obviously I mean, don’t!)

Theory of battle

We arrived in the run-up to the Battle of Bannockburn 700th celebrations, which kick off big time today. The Resident IT Consultant has understandably been more excited than me. He is the historian of us, and the native. But I thought I’d be reasonably OK with going along to the new visitors’ centre to experience the battle.

Maybe I’d have been less underwhelmed if I’d studied the website in detail before going. I didn’t look at it at all, because in general I’d expect anywhere like that to be possible to negotiate without an instruction manual.

It was complicated, as well as dark and confusing and it involved standing up at all times, which pales rather when you’ve signed up for nearly two hours of battle. (I know. It was worse back in 1314. I shouldn’t moan.) I don’t take in unexpected oral instructions very quickly, and I feel if a venue has to send you off into battle with a written booklet (there wasn’t one) they have missed out in the design of the whole place.

I suspect what it is, is a lack of theory of mind on their behalf. They know how it works, because they built it and/or work there. I’d be a lot better on a second visit, but at £11 a pop it’s not something people will do (unless a member of the Scottish – or English – National Trust), or can’t do if they are visiting from elsewhere.

You start off with 3D glasses which put you straight into the path of battle. We discovered we were in direct line between the arrows being fired and their goal. We had soldiers impaled by horrible weapons right next to us, and horses riding by an inch away. That was very instructive.

Next you can meet and chat to a dozen or so people involved in the battle, from both sides. Technically it veered between very easy to impossible to get your hand-waves hit the right spot. But like the first bit, it was quite interesting and helps you understand war of any kind.

Then came the ‘shows’ we had time booked tickets for. I’d assumed sitting down. I’d assumed slightly bigger venue. Finding it was tiny and standing up, and nowhere near interesting enough (to me) to remove the claustrophobia from being foremost on my mind, I spent five minutes picking up the courage to leave the room. As I’d suspected, the doors were not easy to open, and required the help of the person running the battle show, which rather removed any hoped for inconspicuousness on my part.

Once out, I didn’t mind ‘losing out’ or having to wait for my historian to stand through the whole thing. Although, the only choices for sitting down (I had over an hour to wait) was the wall by the car park or in the café. I tried both. Outside was cold, and inside I found out exactly how uncomfortable those trendy Tolix chairs can be.

When I had also witnessed other visitors being unable to identify the correct door to the toilets and overheard a member of staff saying they were badly signposted, I could only conclude someone has forgotten that first-time – and possibly once-only – visitors need clarity, and in more ways than one.

It’s like starting a new school. You know nothing to begin with, but learn by returning every day. You won’t be going to Bannockburn quite as frequently as that.

But, all in all, a lovely concept. I liked finding out what it might have been like standing in that field 700 years ago. I would have appreciated more information beforehand, but then so would the soldiers back in 1314, I imagine.

If you are not phobic, do go. But watch out for the arrows!

George and the Unbreakable Code

Civilisation as we know it does not necessarily take much to break down. Give people what they ‘want,’ like unlimited cash or free plane tickets, and all hell could break lose. Lucy Hawking is playing around with how the world works in her and dad Stephen’s fourth George book, George and the Unbreakable Code. And it is surprising how scary that is.

So is finding old allies having a ‘funny turn’ and ending up so unreliable that you need to use all your skills on solving problems without them. George and his best friend Annie’s relationship with super computer Cosmos suffers rather. What’s got into Cosmos?

And what about the robot who arrives on Annie’s doorstep looking just like her dad? Friend or foe? That’s apart from this ebot dad-look-alike behaving in embarrassing ways, like parents do.

Lucy and Stephen Hawking, George and the Unbreakable Code

With the world gone mad, and seemingly Cosmos as well, what do you need? Well, parents to depend on, maybe. But Annie’s dad Eric is needed elsewhere in this crisis, which leaves George’s family, and their self-sufficient life style. And the woman from Bletchley Park.

Needless to say, this book is as exciting as the other three, and you can’t wait to see how George and Annie will save the world. There is no question as to whether they will. We know our cool heroes, and Cosmos or no Cosmos, they have the brains and the courage.

This story touches on disability and on understanding how society works, as well as what is most important in life. As always there are essays written by Lucy’s friends in the academic world, including one by her father. They are roughly on my level, so should suit young readers well. And there are the usual ‘pretty pictures’ from space. (Me, I want to be like Annie in her spacesuit. Cool.)

Science fiction as it should be.