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a green pepper and an ice pack at the Westbury Park WI

The WI has been part of my life since I was eight. We moved to a little village in Buckinghamshire and Mum joined the local group making many friends. Two of them, Bett and Dot, became my friends too. It might seem odd for a girl to have friends that are sixty years older than her but I liked them and that was that. After school I’d bomb to Bett’s flat, or Dot’s cottage, play cards or make a noise on Dot’s electric organ – I eventually learnt to play ‘Home on the Range’. I went to every WI fair, carol concert, sale, and plenty of committee meetings – because Mum became President and they were held in our house. Fast forward and my sister and I were in the audience when Mum performed in a dance spectacle with other WIers at the Albert Hall, and my wedding dress featured in a WI show of dresses through the ages – mine was the 90s. She’s been to Denman College more times than I can count, most recently to do Flamenco – not bad at 88! She’s currently Group Convenor, and many of the original friends aren’t here anymore but there’s a slew of new ones. When news got to me that there was a Westbury Park WI in the planning I was ready with my cheque book. So it was even more of a delight yesterday to be the February speaker, with my talk titled ‘From nought to published in 10 things’.

When I run children’s workshops I take a dustbin full of whatever takes my fancy and the audience choose which items to include in our story. I wasn’t sure the WI would be up for that but I can’t perform without my bin, apart from anything else I sit on it. So I found some items that could, at a stretch, mark ten steps on the journey from not-a-writer to my-name-on-the-spine and bunged them in. They were: a toy safe (I used to work in a bank), a Waitrose bag (I was carrying shopping when I first saw an ad for a writing group), a green pepper (my teacher was Louise Green!), tennis balls in a cannister (I heard the news that I’d won a short story competition on court), hand weights (my first novel was inspired by Hercules), a stethoscope (Lynda Rooke from Casualty performed one of my monologues), an ice pack (the cold-hearted agent that first rejected me), a white charger (as in horse, not iSomething – ridden by the agent that didn’t reject me), my Ilizarov frame (that I was wearing post-op when I heard from BBC Radio 4) and finally, my first book. I was a bit nervous but the smiley faces were encouraging so off we went, and an hour later we were spent. There was a lot of laughter and I had a red face so that’s a success according to my rather basic criteria.

Thank you, Joint Presidents and trustee sidekicks, for starting it all up. I hope to enjoy the WI for as long as my mum has.


Here she is.

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?

how did we end up singing monkey songs?

I’m really not sure how it came about. We were having a nice afternoon, quite noisy but productive, and suddenly we found ourselves in a situation with some angry monkeys, that is, our characters did.  The children from Years 5 and 6 at Sidcot had created bit-dipsy Cissy the Singer and clumsy-footballer Taylor but through some unfortunate events the protagonists ended up in a rainforest surrounded by a monkey mob. There was obviously only one thing for it, Cissy had to sing them to sleep. Now when we’re making up stories in my workshops I do like to take advantage of all opportunities so surely we needed someone to sing. I had a go. Poor. So I looked to the audience. Luckily there is no lack of confidence amongst the children of Sidcot. By the time we’d wrapped up the story three children had joined me at the front to attempt a version of the putting-angry-monkeys-to-sleep song. Here is the first to take up the challenge:-

She did a grand job. As did the other monkey warblers. It took some determination to get back on track after the singing, but I read an excerpt of Monkey Bars and Rubber Ducks and thankfully all was calm again. After a Q&A where we debated the use of ‘said’ as opposed to ‘remarked’ or ‘exclaimed’ there was book signing, and as can be seen from the pic, the book I’d read from was the most popular choice.

the house where Mum was an evacuee

It was still there. And not so different from my memory of it. We parked round the corner and wandered along to where a mum and three children were sitting on the pavement enjoying the October sun. They turned out to be the current occupants of the house that was home for my mum for the three years she spent as an evacuee. Another neighbour appeared and to Mum’s delight she remembered the family, Olive and Herbert Sands and their daughter, Elizabeth, who had taken my mum and her sister in. We were invited to see inside the much-changed house. My strongest memories were of the passageway between the houses and the long thin back gardens. Mum lived there from 1939 to 1942. We left Bluestone and drove round to the village green. The stream runs alongside. I could picture my sister and I playing there when we went to visit in 1970, by which time Aunty Olive and Uncle Herbert were quite old. In war time Olive had been strict, but by the time I met her she was as soft as putty. Leaving South Creake we turned right at the war memorial and headed for North Creake where Mum’s sister went to school. (Mum went to Fakenham). By one of those strange coincidences that pepper life, the school is now owned by my best friend from Buckingham, a couple of counties away. She runs the Norfolk Painting School with her husband, Martin Kinnear. Mum was enrolled on a  course there so spent three days learning from the master, eating food cooked by the lovely Lucy, Jane’s daughter, and chatting with the fellow artists. Being in Norfolk brought back many forgotten memories for Mum. Buildings, tellings off, visitors, schoolboys who followed her home – the strange girl with the wavy black hair and London accent. While Mum was painting, the children and I explored. Wells-Next-The-Sea, Holkham, Sheringham, Fakenham and then further afield to see long-lost Aunty Felicity in Marlingford. She has a lovely dog called Ferdy (Ferdinand!) who won the children over big time. I hadn’t seen her for twenty years. She’s more or less the same. Bit older. No less attractive. She’s originally from Australia and has a lovely Anglo-Antipodean accent with vestiges of the Fosters lingo that make her sound entirely of-the-moment. I gave her a copy of my first book and she looked suitably stunned that I had, in her absence, become an author. Evidently I had ‘naughty’ eyes as a child so might not have come to much. We’re home now, five hours after leaving Norfolk. Pity it’s so far.

off down memory lane with my mum, the evacuee

My mum (in the photo with my daughter) was evacuated in World War II to Norfolk, South Creake near Fakenham to be precise. She was separated from her younger sister when she got there and for a couple of weeks Mum shared a bed with another young girl, a stranger, but went to see her sister, Eve, as often as she could. Eve was with a lady called Olive, her husband, Herbert, and their only daughter, Elizabeth. They lived at 2 Bluestone. Mum was polite and obviously close to her sister and so her dream came true and Olive said she could join Eve, and leave the strange girl and the house where Mum didn’t get her fair share of the rations. There they lived for the next three years. Mum cycled seven miles to get to school. They were shooed up to bed every night before news of the war came on the radio. And Olive put Marmite in the gravy. Those are my memories of Mum’s stories. Mum didn’t see her Mum in all that time. My nan stayed in Farringdon Street with her husband who was a night watchman. London was bombed throughout, but they survived. Mum and Eve went home. My mum’s dad died in an accident some years later so Uncle Herbert, as he was then known , gave Mum away at her wedding.

Aunty Olive and Uncle Herbert were a rare but constant presence in our lives, visiting for a day or so every year, and telling tales of Mum at the dinner table. They were kind and laughed a lot, which was not how Mum remembered them, but they were mellowed by age and peace by that time. When I was about five and my sister was eight there was high excitement as we went to stay with them, on our own. We had gravy with Marmite, and collected seaweed on the beach which we then ate. There was a narrow passage by the side of the house through to the garden which was laid out like a vegetable patch from Beatrix Potter. That’s all I remember, apart from a letter I sent to Mum and Dad on green paper. I drew a girl with a bonnet and said I was having a nice time.

At some point they died, of course.

So, on Monday we are heading off to spend a few days in the vicinity. Mum is attending the famous Norfolk Painting School run by Jane and Martin Kinnear, and I will be roaming the country and coast with the children. Looking forward to pub lunches and wind-chapped faces. In between we’ll visit 2 Bluestone and the seaweed beach and Mum’s old school. I haven’t been there for over forty years. I so hope I remember it.

getting ready for 2011/2 school visits

Friday is my first school visit of the new school year. I’m going to Westbury Leigh in Wiltshire thanks to a contact I made on Twitter. How ‘2011’ is that? Usually all my paraphernalia is in a clump, but over the holidays it has wandered so I’ve been herding it back together. You see I take props. Lots. My favourites come to every school, and the others take turns depending on what mood I’m in. I am modelling my favourite here. Wigs are wonderful. They make the children laugh. And they make me laugh. They also change whoever wears them which can be quite interesting. I never make anyone wear one, there are always enough in the class desperate to have a turn. Another gem is my pair of night-vision goggles, borrowed from my son some years ago. I make sure the batteries are working, which is more than I ever did when he played with them. There’s usually a cuddly toy – I am the Generation Game generation. The monkey comes most, followed by the dog. Children always decide to make the monkey an evil character in our made-up story which is odd because he’s enormously cute. I’m not keen on the skull, but boys seem to like it so that gets put in my dustbin begrudgingly. I’m running two workshops on Friday so I’ll take a few extras to ensure both sessions are completely different. I’m looking forward to it. I laugh just as much as the children do. And afterwards I think a night out watching Colin Firth in Tinker, Tailor … might be in order.