Category Archives: Education

Going to Mars

Am I the only one to think of Douglas Adams when reading about the people who made it on to the list of travellers to Mars? I didn’t even know you could apply (not that I would have done so), let alone did I imagine people would sign up for it, seeing as it’s not exactly NASA.

Is it insanity? Or are they so grounded in reality that they realise it will never happen, so they might as well cause a stir? Does it sound good in interviews and on CVs? I ask, because Daughter was flabbergasted to find that someone she met in an interview round was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. And reading about them, the ratio of astrophysicists does seem remarkably high.

If I interviewed someone like that, would I think it showed admirable ambition, or would I feel that I mustn’t waste a position on someone that crazy who would get themselves killed in ten years’ time? Or, at least, not come back.

Then I discovered that Sheldon Cooper had applied. Not that that is a recommendation or a sign of mature thinking, but still.

Back to Douglas Adams, though, and the crashlanded batch of hairdressers and telephone sanitisers who had ‘gone ahead.’ Is this not the same thing? Almost.

‘Extraordinary tellers of stories’

Daniel Hahn had trouble getting his tongue round the above words, but as he said, it might have been worth the wait. It was.

The witch travelled yesterday. Remind me not to do that again. Ever. There was a major IT hitch on almost all fronts on arrival in London, but if you are reading this, then it ‘solved itself.’ You know, sort of putting petrol in your mobile phone kind of thing.

OK, so you’re at Waterstones piccalilli (I thought Anne Rooney was being funny, but it seems she just suffered predictive texting) and you’re there to hear Penelope Lively and Philip Pullman tell Daniel Hahn anything he asks. Who – apart from your good self – will be in the audience? Anne Rooney was there, and so was Celia Rees, without whom I wouldn’t have known this was even on. Thank you! And then there was the lady in the row in front of me (i.e. second from the back), Judith Kerr. That’s what I call class.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

(And before I forget, please let me mention how friendly and helpful the organisers were. They were friendly and helpful. I was trying to do really weird things with tickets and then it turned out to be dead easy, and they were pleased that my friend was Anne Rooney.)

I very nearly sat down on the chairs where Penelope and Philip went to sit before going ‘on stage’ so it was lucky I didn’t. I’ve not seen Philip for almost three years. I’d hazard a guess that he hasn’t seen his barber since then either. Very cool.

In his introduction Daniel Hahn reflected that when he grows up he will become Penelope Lively. I think this was based on the fact that all three of them either are or have been something great in the Society of Authors. And he listed their books, making a wild guess that if we wanted to buy any, then Waterstones probably had them somewhere in their shop.

Philip Pullman, Penelope Lively and Daniel Hahn

Penelope seems to be proof that home education works, since that’s what she got as a child in Egypt. She read a lot. By WWII, Arthur Ransome’s books had arrived in Cairo, and all those lakes and all that rain seemed like fantasy. Later on she was sent to boarding school, where punishment for bad behaviour was an hour’s reading in the library. Both she and Philip are of the opinion that the kind of reading you do as a child is something you’ll never get back.

Philip learned how big the world is on his many trips round the globe by boat. He read the Just So stories, Noddy and comics (they were allowed in Australia, apparently), and he read Moomin in Battersea library. He needs the rythm of words, and when he’s writing he can’t tolerate music. Penelope agreed about rythm, and often reads her writing out loud to see if it works.

Penelope Lively

Her writing career came from her obsessive reading. She writes less these days, but always writes something. Philip compared the early days when he worked as a teacher all day, and still was able to write at night. Now he manages his three pages per day, but that’s it. (And no, no one asked about the Book of Dust.)

While Penelope generally knows what is going to happen in a book, Philip writes ‘in the dark’ and is quite opposed to planning. Daniel wanted to know if they are optimists, despite last week’s [political] results, and they are. Both agreed that stories are a human necessity and always will be. Both prefer paper books, and Philip pointed out it’s so difficult to dry your Kindle if you drop it in the bath, with thousands of books on it.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

Philip reckons that the good thing about the very large publishing companies we have today, is that their sheer size means there is room for smaller publishers in the holes between them. And that’s good.

Philip Pullman

Book festivals and book groups are new concepts for authors, and Philip likened author events to a roadshow, but without the possibility of filling large arenas or selling any merchandising. Although Daniel tried to suggest we could buy some HDM hats afterwards…

A book that really affected them when they were young, was a version of Robin Hood where Robin dies, for Philip, and Nicholas Nickleby for Penelope. The reason Philip introduced daemons in HDM was to make it easier to write; it was his version of Raymond Chandler’s idea of introducing a man with a gun whenever necessary.

Diversity is obviously important; it’s what you seek in books. Both to find yourself in the book, as well as learning about others. Neither of them writes a last page or chapter to use as a goal for their writing. Penelope might have an important scene, whereas Philip writes in the order you read, and he knows when he gets to the end.

He is superstitious and prefers to write at his own table, with all his ‘lucky’ things around him, although he has written in many different places too. Except in a concert hall. Penelope can write anywhere and often has done, including in airports. She quite likes to write in the garden.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

Daniel Hahn

And on that note Daniel brought things to a close, which meant that the audience got wine and an opportunity to chat with the two Ps and to have books signed. And Daniel also had his book there (which I should have thought of!) to be bought and signed.

Before returning to my temporary home to face my IT woes, I had a nice chat with Celia Rees, thanking her for her part in this evening, and saying how this is the way we like our events.

Silver Skin

The first thing I had to do after finishing Joan Lennon’s Silver Skin, was to look up Skara Brae. Like her character Rab, I learned a bit about it at school, even though it is Scottish history. Like Rab, I listened and didn’t understand and never bothered to stop and think, or to try and learn more. Now I am wondering how I can fit in a trip to Orkney, and if I can possibly avoid being seasick.

The difference between me and Rab is that he comes from a long time in the future. Earth is crowded and no one has much space, but they do have technology. And Rab and his built-in Com decide to travel to Orkney in the past – they already sort of live on Orkney, but in a tower stack high above the ground – to 1850 to be precise.

Naturally something goes wrong, and what was meant to be two hours in 1850 becomes a very long time in Stone Age Skara Brae, with Rab’s travelling silver skin and his Com being damaged on impact, when he falls out of the sky.

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin

Now, I apologise for my historical shortcomings, but I read this book not quite sure when the Stone Age was, apart from quite a long time ago. It was only as I looked up Skara Brae that I realised it was that long ago. 4000 years, give or take. Slightly different from 1850.

Rab is injured and taken into the home of Cait, who herself is an outsider, having been rescued and brought up by Old Woman Voy. Once he has healed, all Rab can think of is returning home, but only after he has collected as much information about this odd place as possible, so he can show off.

But you know, silver skins are hard to repair, and he falls in love with Cait, and…

We learn much about how life back then could have been. It’s so very interesting, while in no way making this novel anything but a fabulous read. I raced through it; both wanting to know what everyday Skara Brae was like, and what would happen to Rab and Cait.

Many thanks to Joan for educating an ignorant witch.

The EIBF schools programme

Do any of you feel like a school at all? I’m asking because the Edinburgh International Book Festival schools programme was released this week, and it’s what Kirkland Ciccone and others were rushing to Edinburgh for on Friday evening, after the Yay! YA+.

The organisers invited (I’m only guessing here) a group of authors, some of whom are part of this year’s programme, to come and meet the teachers and librarians who might be persuaded to book a session for their young charges in August. And as I keep saying every year; it’s the schools events you really want to go to. Except you can’t, unless you’re local enough to travel and can surround yourself with suitably aged children.

But you can treat the programme as a sort of guide as to who could potentially be in the ‘real’ programme, which won’t be released until the 10th of June, and you are forewarned. Or you might be disappointed when you find that your favourite someone is only doing schools this year. But at least they will be there, and you could get a signed book.

Francesca Simon

I’m already excited by the list of great names, even if Kirkland is also on it. I’m no school, though, so won’t be there. 😉 But perhaps this year will be the year when I catch a glimpse of Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve. Or Tim Bowler, David Almond or Ali Sparkes. The list is – almost – endless. I’ve already made a wish list for myself of people to look out for, or whose temporary husband I could be. Perhaps.

Yay! YA+

Cumbernauld Theatre

Yesterday saw the long awaited birth of Kirkland Ciccone’s first ever Scottish YA book festival Yay! YA+, and I really appreciate his thoughtfulness in arranging it for the day on which I celebrated my first year in Scotland. Kirkie had lined up ten teen authors, 200 teens and one tardis-like venue in the shape of the Cumbernauld Theatre. In Cumbernauld. He also arranged for the lovely people of Scotia Books to come and sell books, and between you and me, they not only had the good taste to like my sense of humour, but their mobile shop was the best I’ve seen.

Scotia Books

Once we were all in, Kirkland explained how some authors would ‘be taken out’ and split up into tiny pieces. Yeah. I don’t think he meant that literally. He wanted to say that six of the authors would be ensconced in their own little rooms (=bars and subterranean dressing rooms), where smaller groups of the audience would come to hear them read from their books, or talk about their writing, or anything else they might want to do. Ten times. Eek!

Kirkland Ciccone

Cathy MacPhail

Meanwhile, Cathy MacPhail, Theresa Breslin and Barry Hutchison stayed in the main theatre and each had 25 minutes in which to charm the half of the audience left behind, which they did with real style. Twice. Multi award-winner Cathy started by sharing the trailer to her film Another Me, based on a nightmare she once had. She can see a story in anything (perhaps because she’s from Greenock, where you know everyone), and Cathy is surprised she writes such scary books, when she really is such a nice person.

Theresa Breslin

Theresa brought her gasmask, which looked quite uncomfortable to wear, and some shrapnel from WWI. She reminisced about travelling to America a month after September 11th, and hearing he same words then, that soldiers used a 90 years earlier to describe why they went to war. Some things never change. She read a tense bit from Remembrance, before telling us how good it is to write YA for teens, as they will read everything, with no set ideas of what a book has to be.

Barry Hutchison

Last but not least, Barry Hutchison talked about his fears, so it was back to his perennially entertaining tales of ‘Death and Squirrels’ and his childhood concern whether the dead squirrel was ‘proper dead’ or might come back and attack the young Barry. I can listen to his tale of weeing in the kitchen sink as many times as he will tell it. Or about his friend Derek. Barry read from The 13th Horseman, which must have made half the children want to buy a copy.

Roy Gill and Lari Don

There was lunch – with cupcakes and fruit – and signings and even some time for hanging out. Keith Charters turned up, and admitted to a life-long ignorance of sharpies. That’s not why he came, but, still. I contemplated stealing Kirkie’s sharpies-filled lunchbox, but didn’t.

Keith Charters

After the eating I aligned myself with half the group from Cumbernauld Academy for my rounds of the nether regions of the theatre, and they were both lovely and polite as well as interested in books. Although, I joined them after their session with Linda Strachan – in the bar – which unfortunately meant I actually missed Linda’s seven minute show, as I was sitting out the empty slot with Alex Nye (one school was missing). And you’ll think I have something against Linda, since she is the only one who does not appear in any of my – frankly substandard – photos (photographer had better things to do…).

Alex Nye

Anyway, Alex spoke about her cool books, Chill and Shiver, featuring snow and ghosts, before we went to join Matt Cartney who not only sat in a warm bar, but who had been to the Sahara. Admittedly, he had been to Hardangervidda as well. His Danny Lansing Adventures (Matt loves adventures!) are set in sand, and snow, and wherever else Matt might find inspiration.

Matt Cartney

Lari Don read from Mind Blind, which was her first non-fantasy, for older readers. She had been troubled by not being able to solve problems with magic. Lari is very good with school children. We then found Roy Gill in one of the dressing rooms, and the poor man was only allowed five minutes with us, so raced like crazy through his werewolves and a reading from his latest book.

Kirkland Ciccone

We finished in another dressing room where Victoria Campbell had brought her Viking weapons. Just imagine, small basement room full of young teenagers and some – possibly not totally lethal – weapons. She dressed one volunteer in a spiky helmet but didn’t let go of either the Dane Axe or the sword. Victoria asked what the best thing so far had been, and my group reckoned it was the selfies! Apparently some of her Viking interest comes from a short period living in Sweden (good taste). Before we left her, there was an almighty scream from – I would guess – Roy’s dressing room.

Victoria Campbell with Viking

Ever the optimist, Kirkie had scheduled a panel session at the end (a full 20 minutes!), chaired by Keith. Unsurprisingly, the authors had different opinions on nearly everything. But the questions were good. Very good. This was one fine audience.

KIrkland Ciccone tweets

Theresa brought out a gift for Kirkie, which might have been a chocolate boot. And while the panel wound things up, he and some of the others hastily got ready to run off to Edinburgh, where they had an(other) event to go to. All good things come in twos.

Theresa Breslin gives Kirkland Ciccone the chocolate boot at Yay! YA+

The very lovely Barry Hutchison offered to remove me from the premises, on his way home to Fort William, which meant I was able to actually leave Cumbernauld – something that had worried me considerably earlier in the week. He set me down outside the newsagent’s after some nice conversation, and a secret.

My verdict of the day is that if we can only get Kirkland to speak less loudly in places, this worked really quite well. Might let him repeat it, if he can find more dark corners in which to stash Scotland’s finest.

(I found the photo below on facebook, and because it has Linda Strachan in it, I decided to borrow the picture, a little.)

Linda Strachan, Lari Don, Roy Gill, Alex Nye and Kirkland Ciccone

Good Colours

Aino-Maija Metsola’s Colours may well be the most perfect ‘educational’ boardbook in existence.

Let me make a confession here. I have a thing about colours. I like to load glasses and mugs and similar into the dishwasher in a pleasing way, colour-wise. Same with hanging the washing. If I can, I will put things that look good next to each other. Likewise wardrobe contents. And so on.

Aino-Maija Metsola, Colours

So it stands to reason that a book about colour, which has a double page for each colour is very near perfect. If things are to be orange, they are all orange together. The yellows are the pages before the oranges. Each double page also has one ‘wrong’ colour which doesn’t belong, for the young reader to find the odd one out.

I don’t mind this so much, as the cuckoos in the nest are fairly small and in no way ruin the beautiful arrangement of reds or blues or purples. And there are flaps to lift, which is always fun.

Aino-Maija is Finnish, with a Marimekko past, which explains the colour sorting. I don’t usually hang on to boardbooks once I’ve ‘read’ them, but this time I’m tempted. Orderly colours are really very soothing.

The importance of culture

I couldn’t help noticing that The Importance of Being Earnest was on again at the weekend. Earnest has a special significance to me. He proved that my English was better than I thought.

This was while living with the G family and attending the University of Sussex for a year, back at the beginning of time. In our second term Oscar Wilde’s drama would be one of our set books, and when it was on at the university’s Gardner Arts Centre, during our first term, we were advised to go and see it. I probably would have anyway.

But I suspected I wouldn’t understand all of it; either not catch what they were saying, or not actually know all the words. I suppose I could have taken the executive decision to read the play before, but that idea didn’t seem to occur to me.

Mr G, when he heard of my plans, said ‘a handbag?’ in a funny sort of voice, the relevance of which escaped me. (I got it afterwards.) Personally I was pretty impressed that a university would have its own theatre on the premises, as it were.

Anyway, we went, we saw, we enjoyed. What’s more, I reckoned I could understand every word. (If I were to read the play now it could be I’d find a difficult word or two, but at least it seemed plain as daylight at the time.) I think in a way that’s when I stopped thinking of myself as a foreigner handicapped by limited vocabulary. These days I know there’s a lot I don’t know, but I don’t fret. In fact, there is more I don’t catch, or understand, when watching NCIS: Los Angeles, than that time with dear Earnest.

Since then I’ve been to lots more plays, and I’ve seen several more versions of what I consider ‘my drama debut.’ The famous film with Edith Evans’s handbag quote, and probably also this one that was just on television with Colin Firth, as well as other stage productions.

At least we had no problem knowing about the trains to Worthing, what with it being more or less next door to us in Brighton.

(PDF time travel back to 1977.)