Category Archives: Education

Work Experience

In the end I imagine it was only chair Jane Sandell and me who had read Andy Mulligan’s new novel Liquidator.* And that’s because it’s not out yet, but they did make an exception at the book festival and keen fans could buy a very early copy there on Sunday afternoon.

Andy Mulligan, Liquidator

I was relieved to hear that Jane had had to read the book in one sitting, as I’d had the same feeling myself and wanted to know I wasn’t wrong. (Not that I usually am, obviously, and as you know, Andy writes Very Good Books.)

It’s all about work experience when you’re at secondary school, and how things can go a little wrong. Andy reckons he was lucky to be made redundant in the 1980s, which meant he ended up travelling to India to work, and then to train as a teacher, before starting to write. The man harvests his characters in the schools where he works or has worked. With the right children in the right school you have a lot of fun.

He grew up in south London, had Enid Blyton values, went to a boys’ grammar school, and so on. His father wanted a ‘real boy’ but thanks to a great teacher who encouraged him, Andy always sat in his room writing stories.

Jane reminded us of his shot to fame as the author of the book that was kicked off the Blue Peter book award shortlist for p 65. That little spat gave him more publicity than winning the award would have done.

In case people in the audience didn’t know what work experience is, Andy explained it. I suspect we have all done it, in some form or other, but these days it’s harder than ever to get something worthwhile to do. As a teacher he always hopes that his pupils will come back having been allowed to land the plane or wield the scalpel in the operating theatre, being inspired in what they could do when they are older.

Liquidator took Andy two and a half years to write, and he said his lovely publisher David Fickling was very critical at times, and told Andy to ‘make him cry,’ meaning he hadn’t yet. What Andy wanted to achieve was real jeopardy for his characters, not the Blyton style risk that ten-year-olds want.

Ribblestrop is a mishmash of several schools (which for obvious reasons can’t be named); ones with troubled pupils, and because of them, troubled teachers too.

Andy Mulligan

Asked how he knew what a rubbish dump in the Philippines was like, he explained he’d taken his public school pupils on a school trip to one, so that they would know and understand life better. And he’s very shocked that pupils don’t ever read newspapers these days.

Andy writes books covering lots of genres, but can’t see himself writing fantasy, so had to say no to the child who suggested he put a nice dragon into Trash. You’re allowed to stretch reality and you can break a few rules. But no dragons.

The next book has already reached the first draft stage, and is about a dog that wants to be a cat. (Someone in the audience said she has one like that.) He sees himself only as a children’s books author, and has never dabbled with adult books. Andy is comfortable where he is, and especially so with age group 11 to 16.

*Patience! There will be a review here soon.

Bookwitch bites #130

At times this summer it has felt as though everyone has died. I know that’s not true, but over a few weeks, many people left us. One such person whom I’ve not mentioned earlier, was Helena Forsås-Scott. She was Honorary Professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

I only met her a couple of times, but we had enough in common that it was nice to speak to her. She was a filosofie magister from Gothenburg, and so am I. She also had a PhD from the University of Aberdeen, which I don’t. But you know, the similarities were there. Helena attended the Nordic conference in February, and she was most friendly and supportive of Son in his work at the department.

Moving slightly south of the Scottish border, Newcastle’s Seven Stories has just re-opened. When I was there a few years ago, I felt everything was perfect, but it seems you can improve on perfection, which is what they have achieved with their recent overhaul. Some of the things they have to offer are Painting with Rainbows – A Michael Foreman Exhibition, Rhyme Around the World, A Bear Called Paddington, and a new Harry Potter installation in the Attic. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Who knew spoons were so important? I didn’t, and I speak as one who uses them every day. Explorer and education advocate Justin Miles travelled in Kenya, and he found that if school children could use a spoon to eat their food, instead of their fingers, it’s possible to stay healthier, save on days lost from school, and hopefully prevent spreading disease further.

QED Publishing have just agreed to donate at least one spoon to ‘Educate The World’ for every copy of Justin’s Ultimate Explorer Guide for Kids sold. You can support the cause by donating or raising awareness for the #SpoonAppeal.

In our rich western world we worry about other things, like how untidy our children’s rooms are. Here is a clip of Nicola Morgan talking about the way teenagers function, and showing photos of one teenager’s very messy bedroom. There might even be a spoon or two lying about in there. Nothing to do with me though… Or very little.

Enough research? The right research?

Complaining is such a satisfying thing to do. Sometimes, anyway. I caught the tail end of something Lucy Coats said on Facebook, and which I feel entitled to mention here as she tweeted it at TES, making it public. Lucy was dissatisfied with their list of recommended books for children.

Keeping in mind my own moan a few months ago, on a similar topic, I read all the comments, feeling quite enraged. Then I read what school librarian and children’s author Dawn Finch said about it on her blog, including her own list of suitable books. Many great books, and I couldn’t agree more.

Finally (yes I know, I should have started there) I had a look at the offending list the TES had put together. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared, especially considering the list had been compiled by asking teachers. I suppose the TES could hardly go around asking accountants for their recommendations, so the question I have is why ask teachers?

Why not the school librarians, while they are still not totally extinct? Is it that teachers are supposed to know more? Or was it to see how little they are aware of books?

The thing is, as I’ve said on other occasions, by asking fewer experts and more people in general, you end up with the same general lists, because that’s the kind of knowledge we have on things we don’t specialise in.

As I said, the list was nowhere near as bad as it might have been. But if the purpose of the listmaking was to guide adults guide children, then they should have asked the librarians.

One of the first things I was involved with at Offspring’s secondary school library, was the voting for favourite books. Admittedly it was probably mostly the keen readers who responded. But it was illuminating for me, who thought I knew it all. Among boys, the two books that stood out were the Guinness Book of Records, and Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called ‘It’ and both surprised me. Had it not been for the school library, I’d have assumed the winner would be one of the well known novels for children. If not Harry Potter, then one of the others that we adults ‘have all heard of.’

The memorial service

They didn’t go in for children’s books so much in the 1930s and 40s. That will be why the Grandmother, when she learned to read all those years ago, read Dickens and Scott for fun by the age of eight. And that’s why Daughter did a reading of the end of The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott at her Grandmother’s memorial service on Wednesday.

It was quite a nice service, if I do say so myself. We persuaded Son to be our MC, and he introduced the Resident IT Consultant’s eulogy, which was fairly amusing in places. The Grandmother had once been too young to sign the Official Secrets Act (while having cause to do so). And she used a cardboard box for the Resident IT Consultant to sleep in.

Odd sleeping habits must have run in the family, as her sister reminisced about the three or four years the two of them slept in the understairs cupboard, like some early Harry Potters.

At the crematorium before the memorial Son had the pleasure of hearing ‘Paul Temple’ reading William Penn, and this piece was repeated by Daughter in the next session.

We’re not exactly in the habit of organising this kind of thing, but we knew what we wanted. It was the knowing where to get hold of the right people that was hard. (Many thanks to the Scottish children’s author who didn’t object to questions about suitable musicians.)

In the end we were lucky, as Paul Temple introduced us to a 16-year-old local girl who played Schubert and Stradella on the cello, before charming everyone by singing Mononoke Hime – in Japanese – a cappella. Even an old witch can shed a tear over such perfection.

Initially we’d asked a local church if we could use it as our venue, but we were found too God-less, which meant that we actually ended up somewhere quite perfect in its place. Cowane’s Hospital was just right; the right size, nice and old, beautiful acoustics, situated next to the castle, and generally feeling like our kind of place.

Stirling Highland Hotel

Afterwards we wandered downhill a little – literally – for afternoon tea at the Stirling Highland Hotel, where I normally go to hear about gruesome murders during Bloody Scotland. It couldn’t have been nicer. And no funeral tea is complete without a quick trip upstairs to the Old High School Telescope. The Resident IT Consultant helped paint it, decades ago.

The graduate (2)

Graduation St Andrews

Four years ago I wished for a pause in this graduation business, and I’d be an ungrateful parent to grumble now. Anyway, the second Offspring graduated yesterday and we went along to enjoy some typical British June weather and a bit of gown and town.

Four years ago I had a photographer taking photos. This time I had myself, and the results are not quite in the same ballpark. But at least I can show you a whirlwind being applauded by none other than Dr Vinton G Cerf, Vice President of Google. And she is my whirlwind. So there.

Graduation St Andrews - Vinton G Cerf and whirlwind

Some other subject will get Neil Gaiman this week, as their Honorary Doctor of something or other. But in fairness, on any average day in the life of the Bookwitch, I Google much more than I Gaiman, so I think it was appropriate that St Andrews made one more Honorary Doctor of Dr Cerf. Besides, thinking about his accomplishments, they are actually pretty admirable. He had been a bit disconcerted when told about the capping and hooding that would happen, but discovered it was all quite innocent.

Graduation St Andrews - Professor Aaron Quigley

And both the Professors of Computer Science who spoke did so briefly and interestingly, for which I thank them. The Principal and Vice-Chancellor (they are one and the same) Professor Louise Richardson did all of the capping, processing in the region of 200-300 new Bachelors, Masters and Doctors. The Dean of Science, Professor Alan Dearle, heroically spoke nearly every name correctly, and managed most of the titles for the theses as well (and some of them were outlandishly long and complicated).

The St Salvator’s Chapel Choir sang rather nicely, both before and after the ceremony.

Graduation St Andrews

Once we were done, we trooped into the Quad for some mingling and photo opportunities and lots of hugging. When it was time to go into the Garden Party the Resident IT Consultant gallantly sacrificed himself and let the ladies use the three allotted tickets. So he never saw the dainty Buckingham Palace style cakes. (Just as well, really.)

Met Birdie’s mother, who sported a very trendy Berså brooch, but I was too polite to mention I have the full dinner set… And as I said, we sat out in the cold, enjoying our little cakes, wondering why our warm clothes were in the car, but blessing the fact that it didn’t rain as forecast.

It was also good to finally meet the ‘teachers’ and more of Daughter’s classmates, since at this stage it is the kind of thing you don’t do much. Very good of the department to offer a light lunch beforehand. I’d be more than happy to return for more tropical cake another year.

A special witchy thanks to Dr Bruce Sinclair. Not so much for the cake, as for [only] doing his job so well and really making a difference.

A little learning never hurt anyone

Bon jour!

I have come to the realisation that I may have to learn French. After all these years.

This paltry blog post and my language musings come to you courtesy of 36 hours in Geneva and very little sleep. I was requested by Daughter to accompany her there, when she went to do a little recce, as it seems she might spend the next few years there. And reccing is better done in company.

I recced a little extra while she met with important people out near the French border. The kind of place where your mobile phone believes it is in France. I got to go and look at the nice parks where you can sit in the shade of the trees, staring out across the waters of the lake. Where you can maybe have some ice cream while doing so.

In which case it helps to know if you want that ice cream in a hmm or a hmm. By default I ended up with a cone, as it seemed clear(-ish) I didn’t want the ‘other thing.’ It’s interesting being like an immigrant again, but in a situation where you don’t speak the language.

It is of course possible to speak Swedish. You can say adjö and trottoar and toalett and you’ll be quite right. But I might want to learn to string those very useful words together, to make sentences. To make sense.

This post was brought to you by Hot in Geneva.

Merci.

Hanging out with Shakespeare

Just as I did with Dickens, I have now got to know William Shakespeare a bit better. It’s a funny thing with Shakespeare; we all of us ‘know’ him so well, except we don’t necessarily. We go and see his plays, maybe read a sonnet, and perhaps visit Stratford or The Globe.

As with Dickens my introduction comes via Brita Granström and Mick Manning, who do this so well. Mick, I assume, reads up on the person, and Brita then gets going on illustrating that person’s life. With Shakespeare I imagine it will have been harder, because we don’t actually know all that much.

Part of William Shakespeare, Scenes from the life of the world’s greatest writer, is supposition. Someone has to make an educated guess as to what Will did or where he went and how things happened. But this is good guesswork.

Mick Manning and Brita Granström, William Shakespeare

Having seen what Will’s childhood might have been like, and his siblings, and hearing about him – possibly – carving his initials on his school desk, makes him come alive. Learning what he learned at school makes it easier to see where his plays came from.

And speaking of plays, they are here in this book. Not all of them, but many of his best known dramas, complete with summaries of what happens in them, with illustrations.

These books by Brita and Mick are better than any other way I can think of to learn about people. They may be famous, but not so much that we can’t learn more about them. Give me the illustrated childhood of anyone and I’ll feel as if we are old friends.