Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Yay! I won an award!

May 5, 2017

Oh God, is he boasting about that award? You’d think he’d won the Nobel Prize.

No, not the Nobel Prize, but the Awesome Book Award, voted for by children in 46 schools across England’s southeast, and I couldn’t be happier that Time Travelling With A Hamster won.

Apart from anything else, it was a fun evening.  Each of the five nominees (me, Horatio Clare, M.G Leonard, Katherine Woodfine and Martyn Ford) were given seven minutes to address the packed hall.  It meant that each of us did the best bit from our usual presentations, and it worked brilliantly.  And Lauren Child (below), who presented the award, was mordantly hilarious about the hard work that is writing.

It’s easy to be cynical about book awards.  They’re often dismissed as either blunt marketing tools, or meaningless baubles to buff the egos of insecure writers, but here’s the thing: I don’t care.

A marketing tool, blunt or otherwise, is a means of selling books and if they are my books, then hurrah!  And as a confessed insecure writer, I’m happy for my ego to be buffed occasionally.

I don’t think, however, that the Awesome Book Award is either.  It’s one of a handful of awards that are voted for by the children.  There’s no obvious commercial benefit to the award’s hosts (Cranleigh School in Surrey).

Its aim is simply to foster a love of reading in young people, to encourage them to read widely, critically and enthusiastically – and who could complain about that?

Certainly not me, and I’d say that even if I hadn’t won!

Leo Baxendale, and how I nearly became a cartoonist

April 27, 2017

When I do school visits, the Q&A often includes the question: “If you had not been a writer, what would you have been”

The answer, usually, is “a cartoonist”.  (More accurately, I suppose, a cartoonist is what I would have liked to have been, rather than what I would  have been.)  The inspiration for this is Leo Baxendale, the Beano comic artist who died this week, aged 86.

baxI possess a modest talent at drawing.  Had I pursued it, practised it, honed it, I daresay I could have made more of that talent than I ended up with, but I didn’t.

I got Baxendale’s joyously illustrated memoir, A Very Funny Business when I was about 16.  It’s a great book, crammed with stories about his time with the Scottish publisher, D C Thomson, and very generous assessments of his fellow-cartoonists.  At about the same time, I conceived and drew a series of short (3-4 panels) cartoon strips demonstrating simple magic tricks.  I sent samples to the editors of local newspapers around the country and quite a few accepted them for £2 or £3 each.  It was a small syndication business, and good pocket money in 1980.  I though – briefly – that I could make a living from it.

M drawing style was (and is), however, stiff and forced compared with the brilliantly daft freedom of Leo Baxendale’s pen.  It was he who came up with The Bash Street Kids as well as Little Plum, The Three Bears and loads of others.

bearsBaxendale had already moved on from The Beano by the time I was born, but I still knew his work from the old board-covered annuals at home.  He also drew for two comics that I enjoyed as a child: Whizzer & Chips, and Shiver & Shake.  Of course, I had no idea who he was but I remember two of his strips especially: Grimly Fiendish and Sweeney Toddler.  The latter, in particular, had a dark streak that was characteristic of Baxendale’s middle period.

The Beano doesn’t really exist any more.  They bring out a Christmas annual, I think, and there’s a website, natch.  But it doesn’t compare to the comic’s heyday in the 50s and 60s when Baxendale and a small army of other comic artists would be producing multiple pages of incredibly detailed cartoon strips every week.

There is one publication, still, where very funny drawings combine with very funny scripts, and that’s Viz.  Entirely unsuitable for children, of course, but Viz is a knowing pastiche of golden-era comics like The Beano and The Dandy and occasionally the drawings are as good as Leo Baxendale’s.

World Book Day and the nicest school I have ever visited

March 5, 2017

 

I have now done two World Book Days as an author, and I always think back to the ones when my own two children (now 14)  would dress up for school as a favourite book character.

We did, among others,

  • Angelina Ballerina (a fairly easy costume, that one, largely achieved with face-paint and a tutu),
  • Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden (pyjamas and a large grandfather clock made of cardboard),
  • a Mallory Towers schoolgirl (easy if you can borrow a grey pinafore dress),
  • Karlsson from Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson On The Roof (involving a box with a moving propellor strapped to the back and a willingness to explain to everyone who Karlsson was and why the books are brilliant)
  • Scamper the dog from The Secret Seven (an existing teddy-bear costume with a collar saying “Scamper”)
  • John Thornton, the gold prospector in Jack London’s The Call Of The Wild (checked shirt, stick-on beard, bag of “gold”)

 Above left: Tom’s Midnight Garden – a book.  Above right: “The Vicar Dibley” – not a book               

I was – and remain – privately scornful of those who dress up as film or cartoon characters.  I’m not keen on Superman costumes, either. Do comics count?  I don’t think so.  And I retain an especial sniff of disapproval for the teacher who turned up dressed as Dawn French from the Vicar Of Dibley.  This is not, and has never been, a book.  It’s a television sitcom, and surely the WHOLE POINT of World Book Day is celebrating and promoting BOOKS over other forms of storytelling.  The clue is in the title.  Sheesh.

Anyway, there I was last week, surrounded by ten year-olds in their costumes and I was the guest author for the day!

Tower Hamlets is one of London’s very poorest – and most ethnically diverse – areas, where children of a white, English heritage must be a pretty small minority.  It includes much of the old “traditional” east end of Pearly Kings and jellied eels and the Kray Twins, right next to the shiny towers of money in Canary Wharf.

Hanging onto the edge of the Isle of Dogs is Cubbit Town, its primary school set among low-rise social housing and boarded-up pubs.  It turned out to be probably the nicest school I have ever visited.

Two prefects had been assigned to greet me.  They called me “sir” and shook my hand, and showed me around the school and delivered me to the first classroom, where the year 6 children (10-11 years old) were lively, funny, engaged, polite and a complete joy.

And so it went on for the remaining sessions.  They listened, they contributed, they asked interesting questions.

Many of them, I found out later, had not had the best start in life.  Broken families, homelessness, addiction, learning disabilities, language differences and more – some of these kids were quite significantly disadvantaged.  And yet here they were: happily engaging with the whole idea of learning, guided by hard-working and caring school staff.

I was moved, and struck by the profound wish that, when these children move out of this school next year and onto secondary education, they do not lose the lively spark that made my World Book Day such a joy.

 

“Blue Peter” and me

December 5, 2016

From the age of about six to twelve, one thing marked the passing days as surely as swimming with Dad on Saturday, church on Sunday, scouts on Friday, and that was – every Monday and Thursday on BBC-1 at 5.00pm – Blue Peter.

vjp

Even the Blue Peter year had its own internal calendar: the lighting of the candles on the advent crown (made of old coat hangers and tinsel, natch), the warnings about pets on Guy Fawkes Night, and especially the Blue Peter “Special Expeditions”.

Every summer, Val, John and Pete (for I was lucky enough to be a child during the glory days of these iconic BP presenters) would go somewhere so exotic that we had barely heard of it.  The resulting films would be shown in the autumn.

Ceylon was one (right): It was not yet “Sri Lanka”.  Another was Bangkok, yet to acquire itsceylon current racy/sleazy reputation.

(As a kid, I imagined the whole production team having a two-month jolly holiday.  In truth they probably went for a single exhausting week.)

Anyway, it was their trip to Bangkok which earned me a coveted Blue Peter badge.  I had spotted in the Guinness Book Of World Records that the official place-name for Bangkok was incredibly long, indeed the longest in the world.

Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit

Instead of copying and pasting from Wikipedia (like I have just done) I wrote it all out by hand in a letter to Blue Peter.

My reward, a few weeks later, was to be watching the show, when Valerie Singleton announced,

“We have received a letter from a viewer called Ross Welford…”

The rest of her sentence I didn’t quite catch because I was yelling to everyone in the house to come and watch.

It got better.  Peter Purves then walked to the far side of the studio and began unrolling a long strip of vinyl  across the studio with the place-name printed on it, while he and John Noakes tried to pronounce it.

The next day I was famous at school. And for several weeks later.  In fact, only last year, someone mentioned it to me: “Do you remember when you were on Blue Peter?”  As if I could forget!

blue_peter_logo_2011

Forty-odd years later, and last week, my name was read out on Blue Peter again, and again it was for writing something.  A book this time.

Time Travelling With A Hamster  is on the shortlist for the Blue Peter Book Award, so I found myself once more on the sofa waiting for Blue Peter to start.

It’s a bit different.  The theme music is just about recognisable as the old tune, and the presenters are exhaustingly energetic, but some things don’t change: the first item was about the London to Brighton vintage car rally, which BP must have done at least three or four times when was a kid.  Best of all, they still have the advent crown!

If I win, I get to go on the show.  Apparently  – and very unusually – every single episode since 1964 has been archived, so they might be able to dig up that item on Bangkok’s place name from some time in 1974.  I might even get a Blue Peter badge.

(Is it greedy to have two, do you think?)

 

Accent mystery solved!

November 21, 2016

In my last post,  I queried the accent given to the late Duke of Windsor by the actor Alex Jennings in the Netflix series “The Crown.’

A reader, Mr RT of New York, emailed an explanation for the apparent failure of the actor to reproduce faithfully the “received pronunciation” of the time, and to pronounce words such as “ask” and “after” with a short, northern”a”.

It is not, it turns out, a northern “a”, but an American one, and the actor was being scrupulously accurate.

Edward VIII, as we all know, gave up the crown in order to marry a divorcee, Mrs Wallis Simpson, an American.

It was noted at the time that he had adopted some aspects of American English.

Sir Henry “Chips” Channon, an MP during the abdication crisis of 1936, wrote in his famous diaries (Chips, The Diaries Of Sir Henry Channon, 1967):

…”Edward the beautiful boy-king, with his gaity and honesty, his American accent and nervous twitching, his flair and glamour, was part of history.”

Listen to him in the interview in the clip above.  It is a long, long way from being an “American accent” to my ear, although seventy years ago it may have sounded so.

There are, however, a number of distinctive pronunciations.

He says “subdued” with an American accent (“sub-dood” rather than “sub-dyood”);  “decades” is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable rather than the first; “commands” definitely has the short “a”.

Yet “after” is still “ah-fter”,  and “nephew” is the (now more-or-less unheard) “nevv-ew”.

(I don’t know what to make of his pronunciation of “windows” when he says “throw open the wind-uhs” of a stuffy court.  Or his distinct pronunciation of “retrospect” as “ree-trospect”.)

So that’s that mystery pretty much solved.  If you are still interested, listen to how Wallis Simpson speaks in this video clip.

For quite long passages, her American accent is barely audible.  She has the long, RP “a” for a start – the “a” that her husband seemed to be abandoning.  She was quite high society, was Wallis.  Accordingly, her speech was closer to British English than most of her compatriots.

I imagine that, by their deaths (his in 1972, hers in 1986) their accents may have met somewhere in the middle.

 

“Hamster” and the Geordie accent

October 14, 2016

 

No – obviously, hamsters don’t have a Geordie accent.  It just made a good headline.

But seeing as Time Traveling With  A Hamster (note the absent extra “L”) was released in the US last week, I thought it would be helpful for the American readers to get an idea of how they speak in the book.

Don’t worry: it’s not written in dialect.  It’s perfectly comprehensible as it is, with only a few hints at the accent in the text.  But if you do know what the Geordie accent sounds like, you might enjoy the book even more!

hqdefaultOnly one Geordie word was changed for the US edition, and that was “ha’way”.  Ha’way, or “howay” is heard everywhere in the northeast of England, and means simply “come on”.  All the ha’ways in the US book were replaced with “come on”.

It’s a very distinctive accent, and – among Brits at least – famously difficult to imitate.  Poor attempts at Geordie accents usually end up as a cross between a Welsh accent and Anglo-Pakistani: there’s an -up-and-down quality to it that is shared by the others.

Non-Brits often have trouble understanding Geordie.  It’s said that the singer Cheryl Cole was dropped from the US edition of The X-Factor because audiences had trouble with her accent.

Turns out there are loads of guides to speaking Geordie on YouTube.  Here is one of the better ones. (Check out her part two as well: it starts with a perfect rendition of the “eee” favoured by Al’s mum in the book!)

(And why “Geordie”?  It’s a regional nickname for people called “George”, in a similar way that Scots can be called “Jocks” or Irish “Paddies”.)

Book number 2: thank God for that!

October 12, 2016

I’ll be honest – there were times when I thought, fleetingly, that perhaps I was destined to write only one book.  That Time Travelling With A Hamster would have its brief moment in the limelight and then gracefully move along the bookshelf to make room for books by other, more prolific and successful authors.

invisible-coverI would tell myself that Harper Lee  wrote only one book, To Kill A Mockingbird.  (Then I’d remember Go Set A Watchman  and feel a little sad.)

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind was also a one-off, written in 1936, that still sells 75,000 copies a year.

(Incidentally, Mockingbird and GWTW both one-offs, both set in the US deep south, both won the Pullitzer Prize.)

Anyway, the doubts were necessarily momentary as I had a contract to fulfill with HarperCollins and – in hindsight – the problem was not that I couldn’t think of a story to write, but that the initial, enthusiastic reception to Hamster had somewhat intimidated me.  And if I felt that with the modest success of Hamster imagine what poor Harper Lee felt when her first ever book won the world’s most-coveted literary prize and was set by exam boards the world over.

Anyway, it’s done and I’m thrilled with it.  I say “done”: it’s in the final editing stage, where metaphors are unmixed, characterisations sharpened with a word here and there, plot holes that have survived so far are identified and filled in (or disguised), and the copy-editor says things like, “she can’t put it in her jeans pocket because you said five pages ago that she was wearing a skirt.”  I owe an awed debt to my brilliant editors.

The cover, once again, is by the wonderful Tom Clohosy Cole.  It really matches Hamster.

In fact, it looks just like a collection of books by an author should look.  Which means I’d better get cracking on book three…

What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible is available to pre-order from Amazon.  It will be published on December 29.

 

 

 

 

 

The Encounter: time-travelling magic

June 14, 2016

1438630284encounter_02

I’ve written before about my, shall we say, complicated relationship with the theatre.  I take the approach once described by Sir Michael Parkinson: “I have never sat in a theatre without wishing I were in a cinema instead.”

Except…sometimes.  This was one of the sometimes.  Tempted by a friend who promised that it would appeal to my love of magic and illusion, I saw The Encounter, a one-man show with  Simon McBurney, produced by Theatre Complicite.  It was on at the Oxford Playhouse and is now touring France, a nice change for football fans tired of the Euros.  It’ll be back in the UK soon, I’m sure: it’s terrific.

This is how the programme describes it:

Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu.

In 1969 Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, found himself lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that was to change his life, bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus. 

Simon McBurney traces McIntyre’s journey into the depths of the Amazon rainforest, incorporating innovative technology into his solo performance to build a shifting world of sound.

It’s this “shifting world of sound: that provides the illusion aspect of the evening.  Audience members are asked to wear headphones and McBurney uses multiple tricks and devices to create a truly three-dimensional picture of McIntyre’s extraordinary  – and true – Amazonian adventure.

When he encounters the more-or-less undiscovered Mayruna tribe in the depths of the jungle, McIntyre realises to his astonishment that at least one of the tribe – an elder he nicknames “Barnacle” – is communicating with him telepathically – the so-called “Amazon Beaming” that is the title of the book on which the play is based.  Subsequent research reveals that this “beaming” has been a long-standing, if little-understood, mystery.

TTWAHThere was another aspect of the drama, however, that caught my imagination, and that was the Mayruna’s concept of time.  In my research for Time Travelling With A Hamster, it became clear to me that our “Western” perception of linear time was not the only one.  Other cultures viewed time as more fluid, and often “circular”.  In the legends of Australian aborigines, this is called Dreamtime; ancient Hindu texts refer to a “wheel of time”.  The Mayruna, too, regard time as cyclical.  In The Encounter, the Mayruna are attempting, in effect to “time travel” back to pre-Columbian times to escape the encroaching modern world.

McBurney is superb in this show, which is bare theatre at its best.  The set is non-existent: a desk, some sound equipment, that’s it.  It’s a bit like watching a radio play, except it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good on the radio.

 

“Let’s talk about adverbs,” he said, swiftly

April 21, 2016

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned Stephen King’s splendid book On Writing, and referenced his personal ban – which I think he’d like extended – on adverbs.

“The adverb is not your friend” he said, adding, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.”  Loudly, no doubt.

swiftI’ve since discovered (because I have never been aware of it) that my own writing does include adverbs.  Not that many, I don’t think, but too many to please Stephen King (for whom I have, lest it be doubted, the utmost respect).

King’s dislike of adverbs comes down to his dislike of sloppy writing; he thinks there is nearly always a better way of indicating how an action is being carried out, which is all that adverbs do.
But I’m not sure, now, that King isn’t overreacting somewhat.  Earlier today, I wrote, “He waved his fist limply.”  Realising I had transgressed the King’s Law, I reconsidered the sentence and realised that “limply” was exactly how the character had waved his fist and that the adverb would stand.  There are others that I found.  None offended me.

To further illustrate his point, King makes reference to the favourite old game of creating “Tom Swifties”, named after the adventure books by Victor Appleton.  Appleton was probably over-fond  of using adverbs to describe how someone said something, apparently terrified of using the word “said” on its own.

“Come here,” said Tom, gruffly.

That sort of thing.  It has given rise to endless joke variations.  There’s about a million on the web, but I’ll give you a handful of my favourites.

“It’s pretty windy today,” said Tom, breezily.

“I think someone’s turned the heating up,” said Tom, hotly.

“My bicycle wheel has broken,” Tom spoke out.

“I might as well be dead,” Tom croaked.

“I’ll have a martini,” said Tom, drily.

Years ago I lived in Sydney, Australia and the Sydney Morning Herald asked readers for suggestions.  I was thrilled when mine was printed.  Obviously I still remember it and relish the opportunity to boast about it at every chance:

“There’s just no atmosphere up here,” said Major Tom with an explanatory air.

 

 

 

A gem on every page

April 4, 2016

Fifteen years ago I was holiday with my then-girlfriend (now wife) in Zahara de los Atunes in southern Spain.  Three things are especially memorable.  Mrs W told me she was pregnant; Islamist psychos flew aeroplanes into the Twin Towers in New York (the horror of which we watched unfold on a television in a village bar); and I read Stephen King’s “On Writing”.

kingThe copy that I read then has long been lost.  Perhaps I threw it out: I remember finding its presence a little intimidating. There is so much good advice and encouragement included in it that it seemed to be reproaching me for not following it.  How could I have read this book yet still be slogging away as a producer of largely crap TV, instead of actually, you know, writing?

Then someone last week tweeted me one of its countless bon mots.  Perhaps it was:

Fiction is the truth within the lie.  Or

Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the reader’s.

I can’t remember.  Stephen King quotes are pretty common on Twitter.  Anyway, I bought it again and stayed up till 1.00 a.m. last night, rediscovering the wisdom and fun in its pages.  I laughed at this one:

We are writers; we don’t ask one another where we get our ideas from.  We know we don’t know.

Not only is it true (however unsatisfying, “I don’t know,” is the only answer to the question “Where do your ideas come from?”) it revealed something to me that had till now only been on the edge of my realisation.

And that is: I am a writer.  The way that I smiled in recognition at that quote means that I am a member of a club that includes Stephen King!  A lowly, just-published, starting-out, probationary member perhaps, but still…

Whether or not you like Stephen King books (and I think everyone should read at least one or two just so that you know something of one of the world’s most popular novelists) he’s pretty illustrious company.

He’s bossy too.

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. 

I have  just picked up Time Travelling With A Hamster and opened it at random.  One one double page I found two adverbs, “expectantly”and”warily”.

Sorry, Stephen!