Category Archives: Random musings

Coffee Angels

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AlfieI don’t have time for this. I have 80,000 words to find by 1 January, across a smorgasbord of penguins, teenagers and bath-shy monkeys. And there’s Christmas to factor in, and weekends, and the Strictly Come Dancing finals. There’s a cake to ice too. But the coffee angel has spoken.

Today is the Older One’s birthday. He’s eleven. A day of joy and food, balloons and Sellotape that goes wrong and ends up attaching the cat to the kitchen work surface. A day of songs, and fights over the (new) Wii controller, of badly wrapped parcels and a merry start of 5.52am.

We wondered if he’d make it through day one. And days two and three. Even when he opened his dewy blue eyes at the close of day three, we wondered. The Chinese doctor who came up that long corridor at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital to tell me “He gon be fine, he very clever, his eyes follow me round room” – what did she know? Brain scans. Mental and physical lesions. Fits. Tubes. ICU pumps emitting mysterious belches. I shuffled like an old lady up and down that corridor, DVT stockings turning as grey as shrouds, to dab his lips with milk, straighten his incongruous hat and puzzle over how he came to be here, 8 pounds 3 ounces of bonny pink baby, among the tiny premature scraps of wrinkled red flesh in their Pyrex boxes all weighing roughly the same as an egg. We had gone off the track. We were lumbering down an unmarked cliffside, all pointy scree and jagged teeth and screaming.

coffee angelBack in my room, I watched Foyle’s War in silent seclusion from the real mothers, the ones stuffing first-time nipples into animated mouths and wondering what would happen next. My boobs were like rocks. My eyes were like cheese graters.

That first night I dreamed of angels. Four golden beings, one at each corner of his cot, wings folded in close to their backs. Eight feet tall, they extended shining arms over his body, hands touching at the crossroads above his heart. Keeping him on the Earth and not letting him leave. They stayed all night.

He’s still here.

I can’t wash the coffee angel up.

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Wolf Hats and Noodly Boobs

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Thank you Chuck Wendig for reminding me how much fun I had last year doing a blog about the bizarre search terms people key into their computers which bring them to phraseandfable. You may recall that deep sea racing mullet and the mysterious spelling glove. It’s time for a few more.

wolf hat Wolf Hats and Noodly Boobs

In the natural order of things, these items presumably go together. I’m off to Sainsburys, do I have everything? Wolf hat, check. Noodly boobs, gotcha. Yay, I’m off to the supermarket in my wolf hat and noodly boobs, everybody sing! The wolf hat has furry earflaps and maybe some beading on the chin strap to get that Native American vibe. The noodly boobs are an add-on, an afterthought, perhaps they even jingle shortly before you douse them in chilli sauce and slurp.

Ponsonable Poams

Hot patooties, that poam’s ponsonable. It’s got ponsons coursing through it, pulsing with promise in iambic pentameter. Poams should be groaned in the gloaming, coated in foal foam for maximum ponsonability. Don’t you find?

squirrel

Not quite the look I wanted

Squirrel in a Sarong

This South East Asian rodent may be shy, but it instinctively knows its way around several metres of batik. It says ‘nuts’ to man-made fibres because they chafe. Here it comes now, sashaying shamelessly down the beach at Phuket, flicking its tail in such a way that its tiny, brightly coloured garment sways and swings behind it. Go forth and hula, small skirted creature.

And stay off my droll yankee or I’ll shoot you and turn your bottom half into a napkin.

Paperclip Chainmail

I’m off down the Hundred Years War, love. You seen my chainmail?

100yrswar

The one in paperclip chainmail’s MINE

Think I washed it.

You washed my chainmail? How am I supposed to charge down the enemy now?

We’ll use these paperclips the tax collector left behind last time he came collecting our tithes. Link them up and voila: Henry V’s your uncle.

Don’t go using French words at me.

You look great. Dead macho. Just promise you’ll move around a lot. They mow you down when you’re stationery.

The Definition of Beauty

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I’m going out on a limb here, writing again so soon after my thoughts regarding Malorie Blackman and her new role as Children’s Laureate. But a tweet from the British Museum in celebration of its 260th birthday today – ‘What’s your favourite piece from the British Museum collection?’ – got me thinking about two remarkable objects in its possession which I first discovered over twenty years ago.

I dug out a picture. Glory! They are just as perfect as I remembered when I first studied them on Professor Hutton’s Pagan Religions of the British Isles course at Bristol University 1990-1991. Colour, detail. Breathtaking from every angle. And so SMALL. Created without machines, magnifying glasses, modern tools. I defy modern jewellers to do better.

sutton hoo pyramids

 

 

Historians think they were decorative pommels attached to leather thongs, which in turn were attached to the sword found in the great 6th century Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk. There isn’t much of the sword left. It looks like a stretched, flattened cat-food tin that’s been left in the rain for fifteen hundred years. The sword doesn’t thrill me at all. But the decorations. Oh boy, the decorations.

Who made them? Did they use magic?

There’s a story right there.

 

Children’s Laureate: the Challenge

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_67955667_malorie-blackman-photoMalorie Blackman is the new Children’s Laureate 2013-2015. A triumphant choice. Here’s what I would like to see her do.

  • Introduce a primetime weekly TV show where people discuss children’s books with wit and humour while armed with large bags of Tangfastics. I will happily go on that show. Tangfastics fuel a tremendous urge for dialogue within me, plus a desire to climb trees and surf down Firgrove Hill on an ironing board. Haribo might like to sponsor this show.
  • Talking of ironing boards, let’s encourage people to act out famous scenes from children’s books like Alex Rider’s ironing board stunt in Point Blanc and post them up on social media with links to bookshops. (I am happy to volunteer. Price, one box of Tangfastics.)
  • Have a different celebrity a month commit to carrying a children’s book with them wherever they go, so children can see a book as an awesome accessory considerably less painful than a belly ring.
  • Ensure that national newspapers dedicate a quarter of their book review space to children’s books, as an accurate reflection of the 1 in 4 books sold today being children’s titles. (Thank you, outgoing Laureate Julia Donaldson for raising this.)
  • Start a guerrilla library movement. Set up libraries in unlikely places. Overnight. WITH NO WARNING. Make them mysterious, not municipal.
  • UnknownEncourage adults to hold children’s book clubs. Not children’s book-clubs, but CHILDREN’S-BOOK CLUBS. Instead of talking endlessly about Fifty Shades of Boring, grown-ups can read and discuss, for example, funny cancer, the perils of floating, parallel worlds and the role of dragons in society. They can then make informed choices for their children, passing on those books which have caused genuine tears / laughter / bladder-control issues instead of blind-buying titles they have vaguely heard of or maybe read themselves in Upper Fourth in 1953.
  • Enshrine library lessons in schools.
  • Make sure every primary school child has a library card.

What? The library card one’s already in hand? Hot damn, I knew she was a good choice.

Library Love

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booksI had a tremendous time on National Libraries Day at Fleet Library last weekend, reading to a lovely audience about the odd assortment of animals and characters in my book KOALA CRAZY: specifically scary girl Cazza (“OK in a strangely terrifying way, with her death motif badges, regular detentions and insanely illegal school shoes”), dappy Taya (“If my plans to be an actress stroke fashion designer stroke singer don’t work out, perhaps I’ll be a teacher or a politician or some other kind of person who talks a lot and impresses people because I’m pretty good at it”), Taya’s sci-fi obsessed, spiky twin sister Tori (“K9  as robot dog – fine and actually pretty funny. 2thi as human person – not fine and about as funny as measles. Spelling stuff in stupid ways is just really annoying”) and confused kangaroo Caramel, who has no quotes because she’s a kangaroo and can’t talk. The atmosphere was relaxed, the room was airy, the children were attentive, the parents didn’t fidget too much, and everyone wanted to know what happened next because–

chapter 3 ended on a cliffhanger. *sly smile*

Ah, la Lumley

Ah, la Lumley

I also got to share a paragraph about it with Joanna Lumley in the Bookseller.  Ha!

All of which makes me doubly sad that a well-known author like Terry Deary should attack libraries and the important community work that they do.

Possibly he was saying it for effect. I understand that he enjoys taking a combative stance on things, which doubtless serves him well in his taekwondo classes, knife-throwing target practice and Special Forces training, but isn’t much help to these precious, endangered public spaces with their free reading material, free WiFi, cheap coffee, computer desks, e-book lending, knowledgable staff, toddler music sessions, rainproof roofs, blessed silence (except, admittedly, during said toddler sessions) and warm all-ages-welcome human environment. Humanity needs just as much investment as fibre-optic technologies, pork bellies and wind farms. More actually.

I have a Kindle and I see the value of e-books. I also spend an inordinate amount of time on my computer. But I try not to forget that we are still people in need of comfort, communication, kinship and communal spaces where these needs can be met. There is nothing sentimental about that, nor about the PLR money hard-pressed authors earn from library lending, not to mention the important publicity following library appearances like my own last weekend.

Perhaps Mr Deary will give away his PLR earnings this year. Perhaps he’s been stealthily doing so for years?

library_signing

Camels and Bowler Hats

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The latest tragedy in Pakistan makes me very sad. Sadness doesn’t fit very well with me, so I shall endeavour to cheer myself – and you – with a rather different vision of the place as it was just over eighty years ago.

My grandfather was a journalist and intrepid airman who flew to India in 1932 with a chap called Neville Stack, on one of the earliest flights to make the distance. One of their many refuelling stops was at Gwadar on the coast of Balochistan, of which Quetta is the provincial capital. Here’s what he said about the place.

 images-1Baluchistan, on the edge of the desert, is the abode of quiet, friendly, peaceful people. There is a telephone at the block house which is all that is to be found at the aerodrome. It was possible to telephone to the village for both fuel supplies and food.
 
By 7pm two camels richly laden with choice viands and cool wine arrived for us. The riders astride them habited in Baluchi flowing robes looked very solemn and not a little droll in bowler hats of antique period. These they raised gravely to us in western salute. Then without speaking they descended, barracked the camels, laid out tables and chairs they had brought, spotless tablecloth and table napery, laid a first-class meal, waited on us with perfect manners, and when it was all over packed everything away back on the camels and tendered the bill as if we had been at Quaglino’s. Mounting their camels and with another grave doffing of bowlers in parting salutation they rode silently and mysteriously away.
 
We were alone with the desert. I had seen much of deserts and had slept beneath desert stars and desert moons for three or four years of the War. I am always fascinated by the prospect. 
 
My grandfather William Courtenay, second from left

My grandfather William Courtenay, third from left

It was still unbearably hot even in the cool of evening. We all managed to bathe in the plentiful supply of water brought out to us, and remained smoking and yarning till far into the night with our shirts hanging outside our shorts, Eastern fashion, for coolness. Stack regaled us with songs on his ukelele, and the situation was rather incongruous as the pale moon cast her light on the scene below and music from the ukelele to the strains of the ‘Persian Kitten’ floated over the desert.

 After midnight we turned in to enjoy delightful sleep on the hard desert beneath the wings of the monoplane which protected us from the heavy dew of the night. The desert can lull you beautifully to sleep.

 

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I don’t presume to understand the difficulties modern Pakistan has faced to get where it is today. 1932 was a colonial aeon ago, I know. But humour me on this sad day. Close your eyes and smell the desert winds and picture the bowler hats and send positive thoughts to a land in mourning.

Ticketgate

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NOOOOOOO!

I just hugged a traffic warden. I KNOW! I hugged a box office manager too. I’m now far too overwhelmed to do the sensible stuff I had lined up for this morning: practising my new picture book text for a recording session over the phone (I KNOW x 2!) in anticipation of an important Acquisitions meeting tomorrow, and making lentil soup. Heck, no! I had to tell you all about Ticketgate instead. At once.

We’ve all done it. Reached the parking machine to find there’s no change in our purses. Rushed into the nearest shop / cafe / bus shelter and asked for cash-back / begged for 20p on bended knees from strangers. Glanced up amid all this desperate activity to see a neon-coloured traffic warden has materialised from nowhere and is writing your number plate down.

No! No, no, no! Handbag clanging at your side, hurdling talents heretofore undiscovered, you clear the railings in between the parking lanes and rush at the traffic warden wearing your most distraught face. Sorry, ma’am. Ticket’s written. Nothing you can do but appeal to the Parking Office.

“Please officer, there’s been a mistake…”

I’m legendary in Kensington for once bursting into tears on a Terminator-like warden in aviator specs. He tore my ticket up on the spot. This NEVER happens in Kensington. But today’s traffic warden, though perfectly kind and patient, was showing no signs of melting in the face of my tragic disarray.

Cue the orchestral swell. Like a vision burned upon the clouds, the aforementioned box office manager appears. He has a parking permit for me. He hands it over on the understanding that I make a donation to the arts centre next time I’m passing. By jingo, I will! In fact I will go nowhere else, ever, for any form of entertainment or general purchase, be it theatre, cinema, hand-knitted tea cosies, second hand books, Rock Choir auditions or speciality coffee. He has me for life.

In that moment, I actually loved the box office manager. Hence the hug. The traffic warden got the fallout from this upsurge of emotion. Not quite sure what he made of it, but there you go.

AND… relax. Oh, and wish me luck with my appeal.

It’s the small kindnesses that make all the difference to a person’s day. Remember this and pass it on, grasshoppers. Also buy ALL your Christmas presents from the Farnham Maltings this year. They have some sensational stuff.

Farnham Maltings:
my one-stop shop for ever more