Conference concentrated

Having just arrived home from the annual SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, I thought I’d break my almost pathological blog silence with a post-conference piece. Unfortunately writing and flying commitments are currently syphoning off almost all my free time, so I am left with a one hour window whilst sitting on a flight between Edinburgh and London to share my thoughts. 

A distilled 60 minutes means I’m going to distill my thoughts…. and so, in no particular (read: undrafted, unorganised, probably unreadable) order, things I learned/discovered/didn’t expect to learn or discover from my weekend in Winchester….

*SCBWI conferences are great.

*It’s always worth getting up early to make the keynote sessions. And to take Instagram worthy photos of early morning cemeteries.

*Alex T Smith partly based his wonderful comic dog creation, Claude, on Larry Grayson. The joy of knowing this could keep me happy forever.

*When you’re dressed as your favourite cartoon dog at the Saturday night conference party, people are more likely to talk to you. Or pull your tail. Or both.

*A children’s writers and illustrators conference isn’t the best place to try and keep a top secret publishing deal to yourself. These people can smell good news a mile off.

*The lunch queue is as good a place as any to chat to award winning YA writers and whisper that you’re joining the same publisher as them. (See what I mean…just couldn’t help myself).

*There’s always time to discuss the calamity of Brexit…even 1.30am after a bucket of wine.  Especially at 1.30am after a bucket of wine.

*Marauding drunks are as noisy at 1.30am in well-heeled Hampshire as they are anywhere. (The last two points are not entirely unconnected).

*British provincial hotels are every bit as disappointing as they always were. A selection of tea bags, a creased city guide, and a wall-mounted fan heater, do not a luxury hotel experience make.

*Writers are the best people on earth to rely on for: support, words of wisdom, congratulation, consolation, encouragement, sharing a joke, advice….helping you attach a dog tail…anything.

*Friends made at conference are for life, not just for conference.

*There’s always time, even at a writer’s conference, to discuss vegetarian haggis recipes.

*You can never have enough conference badges and pens.

And now my top 5 things I learned from Scbwicon17:

1. Never travel without my pillow. A breeze block in linen is not a substitute, are you hearing me Mercure hotels?

2. Children’s writers and illustrators are the best people. 

3. A day without tea and cake, is a day not worth living.

4. Get in the queue early for tea and cake.

5. Finding the funny and giving kids something to laugh at is more important now than ever. It’s also what I love to do more than almost anything.

That’s it. One hour of flying combined with an hour writing. I don’t call myself the flyingscribbler for nothing.

A Single Man learns a Universal Truth.

I don’t think I’m alone in trying to absent myself from the grim reality that is Article 50, and Britain’s entry on the desolate road to Brexit. To stay tuned in all day to social media at the moment is to punish myself constantly. Every news update twists the thumb screw tighter; each check on Facebook allows the torturer to put another turn on the rack. How many times a day do i need to be reminded that we’re now on a one-way journey to isolation, leaving in our wake decades of progress, peace and mutual understanding?

Last night, aware that on the eve of Article 50 being triggered, this calamitous leap into the void would be all over the news and social media like bullet holes on a shooting range target, I quarantined myself with several pots of tea and a book. Now, reading is not an unfamiliar or unusual habit for a writer, but spending an entire evening reading still feels like a luxury. With so many other projects and tasks jostling for attention, taking four hours out of the schedule is decadence itself. I didn’t even choose a children’s book, which could justifiably be classed as research.

No, my drug of choice in my quest for Brexit coverage amnesia was my go-to, literary comfort blanket: Christopher Isherwood, and last night I settled down to read A Single Man. wp-1490788442115.jpeg

Being a stream of consciousness novel, with a serious, somewhat heavy-going theme, it was guaranteed to transport me far away from this small island and the worries, fear and despair that come these days from living here. I settled down to be transported far away to California, where I could lose myself in the worries, fears and despair of someone else.

A Single Man is not intended to uplift the spirit; it doesn’t entertain; there are few smiles, and those that appear tend to be wry and ironic. The novella is melancholic and pessimistic. But it is also beautifully written prose, well-observed, and unashamed to wear its gay subject matter right there on its tee-shirt sleeve. It is an important book. It speaks the truth. It is life, loss, love and lust. It is a story for all time.

And there lay my problem: reading Isherwood last night reminded me that great writing transcends the here and now; or rather, it transcends the there and then of when it was written, offering universal truths that speak to us across the years, to the here and now. It holds up a mirror to that here and now, and in its reflection we see the there and then.

The opening paragraphs of A Single Man brought this home to me:

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognised I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home.

But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until – later or sooner – perhaps – no, not perhaps – quite certainly: it will come.

Fear tweaks the vagus nerve. A sickish shrinking from what waits, somewhere out there, dead ahead.”

My instant reaction to these opening words was: really? Am I not to have even five minutes shielded from the sickish shrinking from what waits out there? I almost put the book down; it was supposed to take me away from my concerns and the sinking, sickish feeling Brexit is giving me. But I didn’t. I carried on reading until the last page.

I’m glad I finished the book; I’m glad I stuck with George as he faced the day ahead. His experience on one single day, as one single human, is about as unsingular as it can be. It is the experience we all face, every single day: we can’t avoid the inevitability of time passing, nor of events happening, so we prepare ourselves for the onslaught of life, or death, and get on with it.

It is the universal experience of being human. Brexit or no Brexit; Trump or no Trump. The day must be faced.

I even forced myself to listen to the news this morning. Article 50 can’t be avoided; it must be faced. I don’t have to like it. I’m never going to like it. But life, with its loss, its love, and its lust, is still there too.

With A Single Man, Isherwood speaks through the decades. His human experience is no different to mine. We all live, lust and love. And we all suffer loss. I’m losing my European identity right now; and I’ve lost more than that in the past.

Isherwood, I think, is saying: “Yes, I know. Shit happens.”

The End of Knowledge


Kinghorn Library, Fife. R.I.P.

My local council announced the closure of sixteen libraries this week. Sixteen. Sixteen out of 45. That’s a lot of libraries. A lot of books. A lot of learning. A lot of possibilities. All gone. Vanished. Evaporated.

Fife Council is under pressure, like all councils in the UK. They need to make difficult decisions about which front line services to make cuts to in order to balance the books with the budgets allocated to them. Make no mistake: these are decisions forced onto local councils by central government. In austerity Britain, Eton-educated politicians sign the orders to cut budgets, leaving local councillors to weild the knife, and local communities to mop up the blood spilled.

Can you tell I’m angry?


When bombs, paid for by a government commited to ‘austerity’, fall on far-away communities, destroying what little they have left of public services, then you know the end of days has arrived. I shan’t even bother to work out how many libraries could be kept open for each bomb that falls on Syria, (or how many nurses employed, free school meals provided, care home beds offered…).

The Council talks of “tough decisions” and the need for “sustainable” services which are “suited to customer need”. And there lies the truth of the matter: library users are no longer seen as readers or learners or folk with a hunger for knowledge; we are  customers. The language is important: by turning a library user into an unwitting player in a commercial transaction, those holding the purse strings can legitamise these difficult commercial decisions. Not enough customers for your service? No problem. Remove the service. Budget balanced. Bombs purchased. Let’s all go home.

The fact that public services were never supposed to make money seems lost.

It comes down to how we measure wealth. And in this age, wealth is measured solely in ownership of property. The value of learning, knowledge, reading, talking, singing, painting, laughing, keeping warm by a library radiator, interacting with people…the value of all these things has been reduced, made less imporatnt; it’s been forgotten.

I shouldn’t need to illustrate how important local libraries are to a community, but personal testimony seems to connect people to an issue, so here’s mine…(More testimony today in the Guardian from Fife writers Val McDirmid and Ian Rankin).

As soon as I was reading, my Saturday mornings where spent in two places. We always went swimming at the local, council-run swimming pool; followed by a visit to the library next door. I can still remember the thrill – and mild panic –  of deciding which four books would be exchanged for my four pink children’s tokens. Four was never enough, so this was a decision of monumental, and weekly, importance.

Then, having moved to another county, I discovered the delight that is Romsey Library.wp-1449831832789.jpeg This is the sort of place the Victorian philanthropists had in mind when they decided to share their wealth with less fortunate people and give the gift of learning through their generosity. What a privilege for a child to have this resource a short bike ride away. wp-1449831841319.jpeg In the socially democratic years of post-war Britain, the State took on the role of providing health and education when it still understood the benefits that universal learning (and health care) could bring to a nation.

It wasn’t long before I could swap my pink tokens for mustard-coloured adult ones. I think there was a transition period when I was allowed both; ah, the agonies I must have gone through. Especially when the pink tokens must have been revoked, effectively banning me from borrowing anything from the children’s library. The horror!

How to get round this tricky dilemma?

Get a saturday job in the library of course! I think I’ve never felt the same satisfaction from paid employment as I did back then, pushing my wooden trolly around, replacing borrowed books on shelves. I’d sneak the occasional five minutes (no-one was watching if I hid in the reference section, apart from the homeless man who spent his days snoozing at the table there) to read a page or two from whatever had been returned.

The library for me was a place of learning and a vital resource for someone from a single-parent family. There was no money to buy books. There was often no money to buy decent food. Like our health service, libraries do not discriminate: rich people can borrow as many books as the poor. That is the point. It is, or was, about knowledge for all. Without my local library I would not be writing now. I would not have made it to university. I would not have discovered the joy of flicking through an encyclopaedia for the hell of it.

I would not be me.

I don’t blame Fife council for their decision to close the libraries; with their hands tied very firmly behind their backs by the rope of austerity, what choice did they have? The blame lies squarely with those in Westminster who willingly allow the axe to fall on public services. This is nothing less than an ideology-driven programme to shrink the state, and with it shrink the hopes, opportunities and dreams of communities everywhere.

It is, for many, the end of knowledge.


Stickybeak’s Lexicon…..ergodic panoptic salmagundi!

I haven’t opened the vault of Stickybeak’s Lexicon for some time, so here is a triple offering to restore the balance.

I’m currently reading  Lemprière’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk. This author performs some of the most audacious vocabular gymnastics I have ever seen, worthy of a gold medal at any writing Olympics. The novel ties together three historical events: the emergence of the East India Company at the start of the 17th century; the siege and eventual burning of La Rochelle under the direction of Cardinal Richelieu; and the publication of  John Lemprière’s dictionary of classical mythology. I have taken to reading this mighty book with a dictionary close to hand; I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve been reaching for it frequently. I’ve worked out that Lawrence Norfolk was in his late twenties when he wrote this novel. I’ve no idea where or how someone that age can have grasped hold of quite so many words; he probably didn’t go to my school. But I’m glad he made the effort because otherwise I wouldn’t have picked up this trio of beauties.

ergodic panoptic salmagundi.’ That’s how they appear on the page; one after the other, in a single, amazing sentence: ‘and now, from this perspective at least, the whole ergodic panoptic salmagundi appears blindingly, abundantly clear’. Or not so clear. For a moment I thought the book’s language had changed; that, or my babel fish had jumped out of my eye. I reached for the dictionary (kindle version: so much lighter to balance on your knee) and started work.

Ergodic. This word is obscure enough to appear neither in my Oxford Encyclopedic Hardback nor my Chambers Concise. But it does crop up in my Kindle Oxford Dictionary of English.

ergodic. adj. (Mathematics) relating to or denoting systems or processes with the property that, given sufficient time, they include or impinge on all points in a given space and can be represented statistically by a reasonably large selection of points.

So far, so good. I think.

Panoptic. This one clearly has something to do with ‘all things’ or ‘everything’. The ‘pan’ bit kind of gives it away.

panoptic. adj. showing or seeing the whole at one view: a panoptic aerial view. From the Greek panoptos ‘seen by all’.

It was from looking up this word that I realised I knew it already because I had read about the panopticon, which historically was a circular prison with cells arranged around a central well, from which prisoners could at all times be observed. And believe it or not, it was only yesterday when I first encountered the word. I was reading a children’s novel, Phantom of Blood Alley by Paul Stewart; one of his Barnaby Grimes series of books about a Victorian era teenage sleuth.  In it, a society Lady is imprisoned in a panoptican (sic), which, according to Barnaby, is a ‘prison, built to a revolutionary design based on the beliefs of Jeremy Hobholt’. It was ‘octagonal in shape, three stories in height and with a central viewing platform from which the warders could observe the inmates’. According to my research (Wikipedia. I’m short on time, okay?) the panopticon was actually designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham. Surname aside, I’d say Paul Stewart’s description was spot on. Here’s a handy diagram to help you visualise:

Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.

And here’s a photo of an actual panoptic prison:

Panopticon (google images)

Isn’t it strange? You don’t see a word for over forty years, and then it comes along twice in two days in two completely different book forms. The fact that it was in a book on both occasions proves further that if you want to learn, read.

Finally there is salmagundi. This one had me stumped, although now I think about it, it seems a bit more obvious.

salmagundi  n. 1 a dish of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, onions and seasoning.

2 a general mixture; a miscellaneous collection.

The origin of this word is french, although don’t you think it could equally be one of those Indian words for a foodstuff consumed by Raj-era colonials?

Those kind people at google images have provided this delicious image to aid our understanding:

Salamagundi. Looks more like a Chef’s Salad to me.

This one looks more like what I had in mind. Much more exotic!

And so there you have it. An ergodic panoptic salmagundi. Or, to put it another way, an all-encompassing, missing nothing, covering all bases, mixture. But why say it that way when you can delight and educate your reader with a veritable salmagundi of words.

Do you see what I did there?

One Dollar Wonders

One Dollar Wonders

As regular visitors to this blog will know, I am lucky enough to fly around the world and often have the opportunity to visit some of the globe’s iconic sights. As thrilling as this can be, I find that I increasingly seek out lesser-known experiences; those which rarely make it into the front pages of your travel guides, if at all. Perhaps it is a growing aversion to crowds and the frustrations which they bring; perhaps (and this threatens to make me sound like the ultimate travel snob) I am simply after a more ‘authentic’ experience, one which I am unlikely to find shuffling round a world-famous gallery with thousands of other dazed and confused visitors.

Recent memories which I know will stay with me for a long time haven’t involved a tourist attraction or an ‘important’ painting; they aren’t snapshot images which I can call on in a personal slide show, but rather everyday experiences which linger because they have involved something which happened to me or which was totally unexpected. Recently, in Hong Kong, I first slurped my noodles inexpertly over a complete stranger in a local noodle bar (we laughed, I think), then followed this experience with watching frogs being relieved of their heads by a cleaver-wielding stall holder in a Kowloon wet market. A headless frog, it turns out, maintains an impressive ability to keep jumping, if with somewhat less accuracy. I’ll happily remember both of these events over queuing for two hours to ‘ride’ to the top of any number of the world’s tallest buildings.

More prosaic, although no less memorable, was my visit last week to a shop in Long Beach, California. Not for me a morning spent at the city’s most famous attraction, The Queen Mary; it looks wonderful enough from a mile away, majestically glowing in the sunshine. No, I have found a place which promises to bring infinitely more pleasure to the reader or book-lover in us all. I give you the One Dollar Bookstore.

Just one section of the dollar bookstore, Longbeach, CA

The Long Beach branch (part of a bargain book empire of four stores, two of which have been renamed ‘Piccolo’s’ after the owner Piccolo Lewis, which seems a shame when the original appeared to do the job with sublime simplicity) has recently moved into a defunct Border’s store and uses every last inch of the vast space; shelf upon shelf of books, stretching far away into the distance. That is, shelf upon shelf of books which all, either read just once or read over and over, cost just one dollar. For lovers of recycling or those of an anti-capitalist bent, this is pure bibliophilic serendipity.

The blurb on the store’s website suggests that the owner is of a philanthropic nature, keen to bring affordable reading to the masses. To point out that libraries have been doing this for some time would be churlish and misses the point: owning a book, even just a single book, is something special. A good book, one you have loved reading, is a treasure to hang on to, and, for me at least, is priceless. But if that book only cost a dollar, its value seems to increase. The thrill of discovering a gem of a book, or of finding that missing volume from an author’s now out-of-print oeuvre (and with the right jacket design too – the book collectors aesthetic holly grail) is a thrill to savour and one which stays with me for far longer than that crowded ascent to the top of the Empire State.

My haul of treasure last week was mostly classics because that section alone took an hour to delve into, but just look at what I for nine dollars.

That’s months of reading which I will remember for years to come and I still had change from a ten dollar note.

Who knows if I’ll go back to Long Beach again, but the one thing I’ll remember from this city by the sea is its fabulous cathedral to bargain reading. Long after this recession has ended, after bargain stores like this have moved on after the rents have once again increased, I will still have the pleasure of taking one of those books down from the shelf and re-living the thrills I discovered in Long Beach. Travel, it would seem, really can broaden the mind.

Proust or bust: one down, five to go.

For anyone (and in this I do not include readers under the age of, let’s say, sixteen) who thinks ploughing their way through seven volumes of Harry Potter is the literary equivalent of running a marathon, I’m afraid I am the bearer of unsettling tidings: it is not; it is a mere sixty metre dash. Having turned the final page of volume one of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, and, more importantly, absorbed most of its complex emotional, philosophical and descriptive ideas, I feel that I can confidently say that finishing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with a view to going on to read the other six in the series bears no comparison to the Herculean task I am now anticipating of completing all six of Proust’s masterpiece.

This is not to deny the pleasure I had in reading all of Harry Potter. Twice.

J K Rowling tells a great story, with involved plot lines reaching far beyond the scope of the books themselves. Her characters are brilliantly drawn and she knows the value of a good hook. Reading them, I never felt lost; I was always aware of what was happening and of its importance to the story, whilst never losing sight of what had already happened and of its importance to the story. I imagine juggling the different threads of her plot and dropping the balls: I’m confident that I would be able to pick them up and begin juggling again without having lost the, er, plot.

I did not experience this degree of confidence whilst reading Swann’s Way. This was more akin to starting out on a river journey, hoping the current will take you from source to sea by the easiest route possible, only to find that you enter eddy after eddy, spilling over tricky weirs and becoming lost along uncharted tributaries whilst every so often discovering that you’ve somehow paddled back upstream, but a different stream to the one you were on, with little hope of remembering the way back. To say I felt I needed my wits about me reading Proust is an understatement. Next time I’m making notes.

Notwithstanding the concentration required to read and follow the novel, it has been a positive experience.

I revelled in Proust’s detail: here is a writer who doesn’t stop until he is sure that you understand exactly what his characters are feeling. If this means going off on a descriptive five page tangent (those tributaries are legion) containing the most intricate and well-observed details possible, then so be it.

I marvelled at his use of language: even in translation Proust’s writing is masterful. Despite the long passages of description I never felt that he wastes words; he just uses as many as he sees fit to get across an idea and is unapologetic about it.

Finally, I relished just having the opportunity to read something so entirely different from anything else I’ve read before. It’s wonderful that it exists at all; would anything similar even make it to a publisher today? Perhaps in France. If Proust were alive today he’d still be invited onto French prime time TV to discuss his ideas. In this country he’d certainly be invited on to prime time TV, but only to compete in a celebrity baking competition, (and no prizes for guessing what Marcel would be baking. Did someone say Madeleine?).

I’m now taking a break from Proust before embarking on volume two, and am using Trollope to recharge my reading batteries. There’s nothing like a dose of Trollope’s mid-Victorian scheming to remind you how much fun reading can be; and after Proust, even Trollope whips along like a racy airport paperback.



Proust or Bust – A different sort of page-turner.

Time: there never seems to be enough of it to do the things I want to do. I think I mentioned in my last posting about reading Proust that I only seem to be able to appreciate his writing when I can commit myself to at least two hours of uninterrupted reading in the day time. I need to settle into the rhythm of his writing which often involves retracing my steps to pick up the thread of an idea. Naturally, in my busy life, these opportunities are few and far between and my lamentable attention to this blog is evidence of using those precious opportunities to catch up on volume one .

I assume that time was something Proust enjoyed in bountiful abundance; to craft a work of this magnitude, so replete with ideas and emotion, would surely require a lifestyle akin to that of a cave-dwelling hermit, (which I know he was in essence towards the end of his life, holed up in semi-darkness against all manner of threats to his delicate health).

I can’t lay claim to such time and I’m already feeling nervous about the mammoth task ahead of me if I am to complete even just one reading of the entire work. I’ve just looked up the second volume, Within a Budding Grove, and it come in at over six hundred pages. I’m not doing that again because it gave me literary palpitations. Why didn’t someone take me aside in my twenties and say, “Right you, read Proust now. All of it. Then do it again every decade until you die.”? Because, novice as I am at reading Proust, I am already aware that I will want to read it all again. I know that I’m missing something on every page; that there is so much more going on than I can possibly understand in one reading.

Take the section “Swann in Love”. This ‘chapter’ (can we call it that? It comes in at 235 pages with no breaks between paragraphs) describes in wonderful detail Swann’s descent into love with Odette. Nothing else. Just that. Proust clearly decided that he wanted his reader to understand totally Swann’s motivations, the nuances of his every feeling, each complex emotion and convoluted thought process. Having reached the end of the section I think I do, but there must be so much that I failed to pick up on. The problem is, if I keep re-reading whole sections of this length, I will never reach the end of Swann’s Way, let alone progress through the entire oeuvre.

Proust, I assume, did not have one eye on the best-seller lists of his day. This is no ‘leave-them-hanging-on’ page-turner. But it is, for me at least, a page-turner of another order; I can’t wait to discover down which allegorical alleyway Proust is going to take me next. It is proving to be an inspirational read; I just wish I had started this odyssey earlier in life when there was so much more time.