Appledore book festival

I am very pleased with the wonderful piece of artwork handed to me yesterday at the Appledore Book Festival. Charlie, from the local primary school, had not only read one of my books but had been inspired to draw her favourite character – Bee. The picture is going up on the wall of my study.

It was lovely to be invited to be part of Appledore’s literary fest, and interesting to visit for the second time, the first being over forty years ago. All I can remember from the childhood trip was losing my crab line to an ocean liner. I’ll remember a lot more about my author visit, mainly the laughing, the boy who uncannily answered all the questions about my past correctly, the poor librarian with no voice, the penultimate scene in the story Years 4 and 5 made up with me in which Matthew and Ella (our characters) shared a spot of cooking with the rats in the sewer and came up with a delicious chocolate cake! Not what I would have thought of but that’s the joy of it all.

The afternoon was finished off with tea from a pot in a china cup at Polly’s house which has an amazing front door with five keyholes to mark all the locks from all the years. Polly is the school’s organiser who put me on the list of authors, so thank you, Polly.

Off to Hillcrest School today to be entertained (I hope) by Year 6. Hotwells Primary tomorrow. Wonder whether anyone will have anything Tribish for me . . . a sculpture of Copper Pie made from beef crisp packets, a charcoal of Fifty, from the embers of all the fires he’s started . . .

Mickey Bushell and the spirit of the Paralympics

You must have heard of the butcher ordered to remove the Olympic rings from his window display of chops and ribs. Well, I had a similar run-in with the powers of the Olympic brand. Two years ago I approached my literary agent with an idea for a non-fiction book about young Olympians. I managed to recruit now-household names like Sam Oldham, Bronze Medallist 2012 in Gymnastics, Zoe Smith, plucky weightlifter who smashed the British Record at 2012, and Monday night’s Paralympian hero, Mickey Bushell, Gold Medallist in the T53 100m. Unfortunately, despite the glee with which my proposal was received, six months later there was no way through the web of sponsors unless I removed the words Olympic, Olympian, 2012 etc. I even used six degrees of separation to collar Seb Coe, who in fairness passed my email to the appropriate licensing manager, but rules are rules. Boo hiss!

Anyway, my enthusiasm for the Olympics didn’t suffer and I was one of the lucky ones who got tickets for both the Olympics and Paralympics. So, Monday morning we got up at 5.30, sped to London, parked at my aunty’s, picked up my nephew and were in our seats at the Athletics Stadium by 10.06.

Before Mickey even wheeled onto the track I was welling up. It was a glorious day, the atmosphere (rightly much hyped) was convivial, even joyous, and we (five in all) were full of anticipation. He cruised to a win in the heat, so quick off the mark, so confident. We were on our feet from halfway, shrieking. When I say ‘we’ I mean the whole freaking (word borrowed from Scott Johnson of The Morning Stream) stand. Rows in front and behind congratulated each other (the Paralympic equivalent of ‘Peace be with you’ in church) as though we had somehow affected the result. The Discus competition was taking place to the left and the Long Jump in front of us. Every competitor got a roar as they approached their turn and a cheer if we calculated the distances to be worthy. We leant forwards to urge on rivals as they sprinted past, and stood for the anthems. The guided running for those with visual impairment was a feat of co-ordination and it was great to see that both partners received a medal. We shared Wine Gums. We shared commentary. All immensely heart-warming stuff.

The afternoon was boiling hot so we ate on the sloping grass of the riverbank before heading off to the Olympic Park to watch the big screen. Dressage, then ‘Darling of the Pool’ Ellie Simmonds. We watched her Medley with growing delight as everyone knew (from the commentary) that no matter how far behind she was as she turned into the last length she’d catch them with her freestyle. And she did. Absolutely fantastic. Widespread cheering from lawns and lawns of folk all sharing that moment.

My nephew headed off home to Rotherhithe and my mum arrived. A keen athlete, sprint and hurdles, she was at the 1948 Olympics, and in fact her relay pal, Jean Desforges (who later married Ron Pickering the commentator), ran in the 1952 Games. Mum has been fit all her life and can still run at the age of 87. I knew she was going to love the stadium and I was right. I’d filled her in on Mickey’s heat, and his story, so she was ready for the final. And so was Mickey. He streaked ahead. His final position was never in any doubt. If we shrieked earlier, this time, from Row 8, I reckon he could hear us. Bellowing, we were. I loved it. I wanted to run onto the track and tell him that he was a marvel, but I cried instead. And so did my mum.

Our attention was held for much of the rest of the evening by the high jumpers, grazing bars from a hop on their one leg. It was a great competition, punctuated by Victory Ceremonies, and more track racing. Mickey came back into the arena to receive his Gold Medal. The camera zoomed in on him and he didn’t blub, which would have been out of keeping with an athlete known as ‘The Beast’, he just looked cool and collected. I can’t imagine how his mum and dad and his family felt, because I have only a tenuous connection with him and I was overwhelmed. Thanks, Mickey. Great day!

I enjoyed my day at the Olympics too. We watched the semi-final women’s hockey between the Kiwis and the Netherlanders and a session on the track including a 100m with the Usain Bolt. The hockey was full of passion, lots of goals and a penalty session to decide the finalists. We were at the goal end so had excellent vision of the five attempts to score by each side. Thrilling stuff.

Both events went, as far as I could tell, swimmingly. Transport, food, loos, seats: all fine. However, the thing you can’t package or sell, or dictate, is the feeling of being there. And for me, the Paralympics was a bit like going to the Proms, and the Olympics was more like the Opera. On the way home from the Paralympics we chatted to strangers on the tube. Doesn’t that say something.

p.s. My neighbour’s son has Cerebral Palsy and uses a wheelchair. He is 8 years old and football mad. He went to watch the Dressage and was bowled over. He rides for therapy, but had never thought of it as a sport. Tick!


Swindon Festival of Literature’s family day on the farm

I knew it was going to be fabulous the minute I got out of my car. Cakes, barns, smiley people, sunshine, picnic tables, chickens and straw. Matt aka Mr Festival showed me round, a coffee found its way into my hand and happy chat took us up to 10.30am – time to entertain. But not before the local photographer snapped me with a few of the children from the audience. Must learn to smile to order.

So, we had a great group of parents and young ones filling the calving shed and off we went, creating the story of Lower Shaw Farm, our venue for the day. In my dustbin I’d chosen some farm-related objects so we had a tractor, a pig, the tardis  (clearly some unrelated), a duck, a robin and a cow. The story’s finale featured a stampeding herd, entirely appropriate given the beautifully decorated calving shed we were sitting, standing and wriggling in. All good stuff. I met a lovely lady called Angela James who wrote The Golden Moonbeam and her friend, Des, who invited me to appear on Swindon People Talking, which is very kind as I’m from Bristol. I’d liked to have stayed all day, but AS levels started on Monday and Chemistry needed my attention at home. There’s always next year . . .

sheet-bends and nice shells in North Devon

It was windy yesterday so it wasn’t long after we left Woolacombe en route for Putsborough that the idea of the five-mile round trip lost its appeal. Middle child started collecting rope, string and tape from the forage line and tying them together. I joined in, and by the time we reached the other end of the beach we were trailing an enormous rainbow rope. We were about ten minutes behind our friends and family because some bits and bobs needed unravelling before we could use them and some of the knots were a bit iffy. (We were using reef when we should have been sheet-bending evidently.) More importantly, we hadn’t noticed the chill because we were busy. Lunch was warm and comfortable. The spectre of the return trip wasn’t. However, we took a different route and climbed up the dunes to get some shelter from the wind, and there we found this shell. Collecting is clearly in the genes. I filled my pockets with all manner of stripes and shades, once inhabited by snails. They’re going to join my collection of framed elephant tusk shells found only on Barricane Beach (unless anyone tells me otherwise). My daughter says I should fashion them into a snail. I’ll play around and see what looks best. That’s a nice job given that I spent 7 hours in A&E yesterday with the string collector. No complaints, the NHS is fantastic. God Bless Bristol Children’s Hospital.

iPhone case inspired by Andy Goldsworthy

While I waited in the queue at the increasingly popular Putsborough beach cafe my daughter made a beautiful, albeit temporary, case for my iPhone. She could have been playing Temple Run or Angry Birds, but instead picked the grasses and weaved. Even the arrival of her sausage sandwich didn’t interrupt her task.

On the way back we scoured the forage line looking for . . . who knows what. We found a wetsuit glove and bird feeder. We finished off with a game of French Cricket and an ice cream. All the fun of the beach.

on tour with my tin (aka dustbin)

I’ve had a busy Spring. Since half-term I’ve visited Avon House, Norwood Green Junior, Oaklands Community, Otterton, Westbury Park, Holymead, Fairfield, St. Luke’s and George Mitchell schools. I’ve met hundreds of children and made up dozens of stories, each one different. I’ve had one school dinner, one attack of the giggles with a girl I nicknamed Chortle, one unexpected assembly and several parking issues. I’ve had a tour of a school eco-garden, read some Year 6 stories using diary entries to provide structure and called a Deputy Head ‘Big Man’ to the delight of his charges. I’ve driven too many miles to count, eating Hobnobs and listening to Radio 4, and been late once and early every other time. I’ve worn mauve, grey and denim dresses and a holey cardi in a very cold school hall.

Tomorrow, I’m off to Kingsbridge to celebrate Book Week. I’m meeting all the children in Key Stage 2 and we’re going to be noisy and creative and laugh, I hope. All I need to do is pack my dustbin. Chameleon is out of favour so I think it’s Yellow Duck’s turn.


I’m walking with . . . my chameleon

Forgive me Mr Brian Moses, but ever since I heard you read the iguana poem on my niece’s CD it’s been lurking. And this photo, sent by a teacher at Beech Grove Primary was asking for a title.

I’ve had a couple of weeks off, so am ready to once again release my menagerie from the Tribe dustbin to entertain children in Woodford Green, and Norwood Green over the next couple of days. The lovely Alison from The Village Bookshop has organised one of the visits, and the other is thanks to an old university friend who mentioned that she knew me and has been badgered ever since.

Chameleon needs a pal, so I’m off to choose – will it be Hippo, Dog or Dancing Cat?

150 boys, a bin and me

I don’t often pick up my dustbin and shake it but I was captured doing just that at Lanesborough School. An all boy audience made for a lively day running three workshops with Years 3, 4 and 5. We had great fun and everyone was nice, teachers and pupils. I wouldn’t want anyone to think my stomach rules my reviews but I have to mention that lunch was delicious, a meat pie with a salty sauce, new potatoes and broccoli followed by a bunch of grapes. After that I took up residence in the library and signed books, always a pleasure. Ravi, the fan of the Tribe books who suggested I be invited, arrived and I was delighted to give him a free copy of Monkey Bars and Rubber Ducks, signed to my best publicist! I was in very good company. The day before they’d been entertained by Philip Reeve.


my friends from St. Anne’s Park Primary

It was lovely to go back to St. Anne’s Park Primary and see the Year 4s that I worked with last year. It was as though we were old friends. I spent a whole morning working with 25 children on openings, dialogue and endings. All of the children, even those for whom it was tricky, summoned the courage to stand at the front and read their lines aloud. Each child developed their own story using one of the Tribe characters from my books. The only given was that the Triber had to go missing, the rest was up to them. I really enjoyed the morning as there was less frantic hurrying than there is in the usual TM Alexander storymaking workshops!

jottings of a writer and cyclist