Talking Books on why we should all want ‘Little Creative Days’ for our children

What are seasons but children’s soft dreams, and
Sunrise, their opening eyes?
Seeing at a glance
The days and years open…waiting,
Fringed with softness, or
Laced with abandon…

(From Children’s Eyes and Children’s Toys by Elysabeth Faslund)

The incredible Pojo

The incredible Pojo

This is SO late going up but I thought it important to make sure you got the opportunity to listen to my Talking Books show on 10Radio.org from February 14th. It wasn’t a ‘Valentine’s Day’ themed show – I have featured poetry and prose that expresses our romantic yearnings on past shows – but it was one that should be of interest to anyone with children, or who is involved with children’s education. I started this post with an excerpt from a poem that sums up for me how important it is to see the world through a child’s eyes and to give them the tools to make the most of a time when their imagination should be allowed to fly.

Tonya Meers kindly came in to the studio to talk about the business she has established with her sister, Natasha Dennis. Little Creative Days started with the provision of craft kits for children, but when Tonya decided she would like to write children’s stories the sisters decided to combine the two. Between them I think they have come up with something that can really bring out the creative side of all children and perhaps inspire them to be the writers, dramatists, artists and even theatre impresarios (well let’s think big!) of the future. Working with and in schools they have developed kits that work across the curriculum; Pojo and the Chest of Dreams for example can support work in geography and Pojo Saves the Rainforest uses puppets to tell children about the impact of deforestation.

This isn’t a sponsored post, or a review of the products Tonya and Natasha offer but it is something of a plug for anything that fires a child’s imagination and after this show you will be in little doubt that Tonya’s stories, and the opportunities the kits offer to children as part of their primary school education, are exactly the sort of thing to engage children across ages and abilities.

When my children were much younger they both had issues with certain aspects of their school day. My son would daydream and lose concentration; my daughter is dyslexic and found phonics a real challenge. They both found an outlet in performance – my son in drama and my daughter in sport – and finding a way to express their true selves, away from the challenge of tests and league tables proved invaluable.

Creative storytelling uses ‘creative group activities to bring stories alive’ and in our interview Tonya describes how puppet making for example can  enable all children to explore a story and become engaged with the story and its message. The drama activities can build confidence and offer children a way to express themselves in their own stories. Do take a listen; I am sure you will be as inspired as I was by Tonya’s enthusiasm and by the Little Creative Days ethos.

Find out more by going to the Little Creative Days website at www.littlecreativedays.co.uk

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Books, Family, Parenting, Radio Show, Reading, Talking Books, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain’: how war trauma casts a shadow across a century

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegI know that some readers of my blog (and thanks for that!) already know that throughout 2013 I was writing a book called Shell Shocked Britain commissioned by Pen & Sword History. We are now in the final edit stage, with proof-reading to come before it is finally published in October of this year, marking both the Centenary of the start of the First World War but also the month in which World Mental Health Day falls.

The publisher has given a sub-title to the book –  ‘The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health‘. I cannot argue, as it is exactly what the book is about.

I was thrilled when I was commissioned to write Shell Shocked; not simply because I got my first ever advance and felt truly ‘professional’ as a writer, but because I would have the opportunity to take the Great War and offer up an alternative view of the bloodshed and horror. There have been, and will be, many television programmes, books and academic papers released this year and rightly so, but my book examines the wider, emotional implications of the war, not just for the shell shocked troops but for the civilian population and for the nation as a whole in the inter-war period and takes a fresh look at why we may engage emotionally with WW1 over and above other conflicts. Jeremy Paxman addressed some of the same issues in his recent four-part documentary Britain’s Great War, but in a superficial, and dare I say it of the great man, rather bombastic way. Those he interviewed  must have been shocked at questions such as that asked of a relative of a conscientious objector – ‘If I suggested he was just awkward…?’ I hope I have been a little more sensitive, whilst remaining objective and accepting of realities.

Myths about the war abound and by the end of this first year of commemorative events there is a danger that arguments by politicians and media opinion will sully what should be a sombre time of reflection.  Dan Snow published a wonderful list called ‘Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War One debunked that highlights how far we have strayed from what may be called ‘a truth’ about that war. It is important we recognise what was universal about WW1 as well as what was unique and for me, having just ‘completed’ Shell Shocked Britain it was a relief to see him write

By setting it apart as uniquely awful we are blinding ourselves to the reality of not just WW1 but war in general. We are also in danger of belittling the experience of soldiers and civilians caught up in countless other appalling conflicts throughout history and the present day.

Having read widely and having spoken to those who have had a role in the modern-day Armed Forces as well as the Army of the 1940s and 1950s, it seems to me that the response to the horrors of armed combat are as difficult to comprehend today as they were for those first soldiers faced with mechanised and trench warfare. As civilians we simply cannot understand the bonds between men and women in war zones; we can’t imagine what it is like to see one’s friends blown to pieces before our eyes, or sit to eat our meals with the numbers around the table dwindling as injuries and fatalities increase. We see the names but we don’t know the people, or understand what took them to that front line in the first place.

netley-shell-shock-1917Combat stress and PTSD  are the descendants  of  shell shock. Many (though not all), of the responses to the trauma of battle are the same now as they were then – anxiety and depression, anger expressed as aggressive and impulsively dangerous behaviour, alcohol and other substance misuse and nightmares and flashbacks. Currently the national charity Combat Stress is helping 5,000 veterans deal with their symptoms. By the end of the Great War some 80,000 men had been diagnosed with shell shock but there were thousands more affected, to some extent by the trauma of war.

In addition, they came home to a nation where almost everyone knew a bereaved family, even if they had been lucky to welcome their own sons home. Many felt guilty; many were themselves scarred by anxiety as they waited for the dreaded telegram, ran for cover as Zeppelins or Gotha aircraft flew over their homes bringing death behind the Front Line, or welcomed young men home only to find them taken from them by Spanish Influenza, or later manifestations of shell shock that drove them to suicide. Relationships had changed in a fundamental way and many found it hard to adapt. It can be argued (as well as challenged of course) that there was a sense of collective trauma, as the prelapsarian world of the Edwardian era was shattered

But as Dan Snow rightly points out, many young men actually found the war offered them a way out of grinding poverty and unemployment and offered them opportunities to enjoy freedoms denied to them at home. Now, we still find young men and women signing up to find a career, to gain respect and take themselves away from a damaging home situation. These young people live 100 years apart but (despite the caveat that we cannot attach 21st century mores to 20th century lives), they are not so different.

And this is what I wanted to express something of in Shell Shocked Britain; that we are a world apart now, as the last veterans pass on and the numbers who lived through that time dwindle, but we are in many ways the same people. We talk of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and the stoical way many veterans dealt with their experiences, but for many this was not simply the British way. There were simply no words to express the experience to a world that seemed desperate to get on with living.  And it is still that way today for veteran and civilian alike – the trauma has no words and if unaffected it is hard to comprehend.

However, failing to deal with the issues the war raised stored up health problems that reverberate even today. Work has been undertaken by psychologists that shows how far the memory of war can cause mental health issues not only in first generation, but second and third generations of a family. A grandchild may remember an angry grandparent, perhaps reliant on alcohol, aggressive and unkind. Or there were men in the family, like my great uncle Alfred Hardiman, whose acts changed the lives of sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces. Some of them are alive today. Ask them.

If all the work over the next four years of commemoration is to mean anything, we must try to understand, and I hope Shell Shocked Britain may help, just a little bit.

Posted in Book, Books, Family History, History, Mental health, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

In which Talking Books is ‘Blessed by Magpies’, and poet Paul Tobin

blessed by magpiesIt has taken me a little while to post up my last Talking Books show. There are no excuses other than a few pressing deadlines and much time taken up with experimentation with a new way to manage my time…..

Anyway, the show on 31st January was a terrific one. I was joined by poet and author Paul Tobin who shared his love of the written, and spoken, word with me. Paul grew up in Widnes in the 60′s and has lived in Somerset for over thirty years. His poetry draws from his childhood in the north and he reads aloud with an intensity that picks you up and takes you into the world he is describing. He read two of his poems on the show – do listen and let me know what you think. We talked of many things but not least the impact of reading poetry aloud, the importance of revision and the poet’s ability to distil an experience and make it real for others.

Paul is frequently found reading from his work at festivals and is a member of the Juncture 25 group of writers and although he was quick to correct me – he would not describe himself as a performance poet by any means – if you see his name on the bill do join the audience if you can. Another member of the Juncture 25 group. Paul Mortimer, was on my show last year and remembering the other Paul’s poems I can sense a certain comradeship in their work.

Paul Tobin’s most recent book of poetry is called Blessed by Magpies, a bird with whom he feels a spiritual connection. He has given me a copy, which I shall enjoy reading. But I read his blog before the radio show and one poem on there struck me – I hope Paul doesn’t mind my copying it here..

In the pub with my mate Jon
In the pub with my mate Jon,
Drinking red wine and soda.
Overhearing the biased tones
Of three armchair soldiers,
Discuss the merits of each
Gun, bomb and plane.
Laughing at the enemy,
Mispronouncing every name.
My drink seems blood,
Bubbles burst and ripple,
There is no talk of brotherhood,
Only of the dead and crippled
 

Do go to his blog -magpiebridge.blogspot.co.uk to find more fascinating stories and images – he peppers his writing with intriguing photography. He has also written a steampunk novel, The Jowler, which is available from Amazon. Paul also drew the winner of the competition Martine Lillycrop set last week – the answer to which was Bladerunner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick. He also set a question of his own, but really it is a matter of names in the hat so to enter, just comment below with your own favourite contemporary poem…. The winner will be drawn on my show on the 28th February and the winner will receive a signed copy of Blessed by Magpies.

And listen to the show on the link below. I think you will enjoy it.

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Books, Poetry, Radio Show, Reading, Talking Books, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Editing as the ‘last act’ of writing: Louise Bogan on taking words to heart

editingPoetry, for me, offers an opportunity to live within another’s thoughts as if they were my own. On this blog I have, from time to time, shared a poem that I have come across as I sit at my PC attempting to work at my own writing. Procrastination has led me along paths to poems I might never have experienced if it wasn’t for that moment of ennui – and the internet, of course.

I have no idea what took me to Louise Bogan last night. A visit to one of my favourite sites, the Poetry Archive, always offers a new poem or poet to explore alongside a recording of the poet reading their own work. It is a strange experience sometimes as not all poets read in a way one might expect and the musical tones conjured up in the mind are rarely replicated in the often scratchy audio. But it is still a website of the very best kind – one that takes you on an adventure in words and lives.

Anyway, tonight one poem spoke to me, stuck as I am in my chair in front of the computer editing my book Shell Shocked Britain before it goes into the proof reading stage (when I will visit the Poetry Archive even more regularly I suspect). I have read the three stanzas through a few times, and although I haven’t yet grasped the full meaning (if I ever do) the poem struck me as appropriate to my mood.

My book is written, yet not complete. As I read and re-read the words I have written over the past year the familiarity is such that the work becomes comfortable, yet tedious. The first excitement of the work is over and whilst I can now recognise it as good enough, at the same time the power of the words I know almost by heart is fading. I know that to ensure it is really successful (in the sense that it is as I intended it to be) I have to look at it again and really see it. Having pulled it apart, discarded, re-written and re-built I am, at last beginning to understand it as a whole – a physical book that will, I hope, be read for the first time, fresh, by as many people as can be convinced to buy it.

This poem, with its strange and contrasting images of beauty and decay, of fear and darkness and of journey’s end reflects my current mood. A scythe hangs, harmlessly now, in the apple trees, as the cursor sweeps across the document in front of me and as I sit, as leaden as the statues in Bogan’s garden, watching the book take shape. The words ‘shake and bleed’ before my eyes and it is beginning to feel like ‘a voyage done’. But it is a voyage during which I have fallen even more deeply in love with writing and at times have had to come to terms with some truths about my self as I go on to start a new commission and involve myself in a new subject.

Song for the Last Act

Louise Bogan

Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd’s crook.
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music’s cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat’s too swift. The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

I will read more about this poem, but it seems to me that it has at its heart the story of a love affair – an unsettled and difficult one, perhaps coming to its natural end. The poet is troubled and darkness is never far away; beauty is brief and images and words ink-black.

lbogan

Louise Bogan

Lousie Bogan was an American poet, born in 1897. In the 1930s she suffered her first serious depressive illness and was then vulnerable to depression until the end of her life, in 1970. She was reclusive and disliked confessional and overtly political poetry but was admired as both poet and critic of other’s work. I want to learn much more about her now and read more of her poetry. Poetry can do that – inspire you to a little more detective work and a whole realm of new experiences.

So as I continue with my edits, then undertake the first, second and maybe third proof-read of a book I know so intimately,  I will recall Louis Bogan’s words

Now that I have your face by heart, I look. Now that I have your voice by heart, I read. Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

This may be the beginning of the ‘Last Act’ in the writing of Shell Shocked Britain, but it marks the beginning of a whole new performance as I begin on fresh pages for the next book….

Posted in Book, Books, Poetry, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Reading, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tie a yellow ribbon round your own Barnaby…

yellow dogFirst things first – apologies for the pun, but when I made the joke (paraphrasing the Tony Orlando & Dawn song circa 1973) to the nurse at our Vets she thought it was rather good. In fact we discussed how our lovely black lab/collie cross Barnaby (AKA Barney, AKA Mr B) could be a promotional tool for the Yellow Dog UK scheme.

Yellow Dog UK is part of an international scheme to ensure that the public become aware that ‘some dogs need space’. How many times do we hear that someone has been injured by a dog that is ‘usually very friendly’, ‘a poppet at home’ or who has ‘never bitten anyone before’? I think we forget that dogs are pack animals, with some instincts that are still wild and who can, if circumstances allow, cause serious injury to others. We may love them, but not everyone does. Some dogs have been rescued, with backgrounds unknown. Others have had a lifetime of abuse until someone intervened to give them a better life.  Some are still in training, or in season (it isn’t only humans who have hormones) which can affect their behaviour or make it unpredictable. Some are old and arthritic and have become the proverbial ‘grumpy old’ dog.

Barnaby

Barnaby

Barnaby was diagnosed with arthritis and a bad back at the age of just three. He is a wonderful dog and great company for me as someone who works from home. He is gentle and loving, if a teeny bit chaotic – but as I have been told many a time, the same can be said of the home he lives in. On his home patch he is wonderful. Once you have been welcomed into Chez Grogan you will be overcome with love, licks and numerous toys and chewy things. However, the pain he has suffered with his back and the arthritis kept at bay with supplements has resulted in a suspicion of strangers – human and canine – that sometimes (and it is seemingly random) results in a display of aggression quite unlike his ‘real’ self. He barks and bares his teeth, his hackles rise and as a large black dog, looks like the Hound of the Baskervilles. Scary, but there is something in him that wants to protect himself, and us as his family (or pack).

Some might say such a dog should be put down. But that isn’t necessary if the owner of such a dog is responsible and takes proper precautions. If Barnaby hurt a child I would never forgive myself and we would have to take expert advice on whether he could be kept safely.  But if I ensure he is walked where it is safe and other walkers, dog owners and the public know that he ‘needs his space’ all is well. That is where the Yellow Dog Project comes in. Their website explains that the project means that:

 when you see a dog with a YELLOW ribbon, bandanna or similar on the leash or on the dog, this is a dog which needs some space. Please, do not approach this dog or its people with your dog. They are indicating that their dog cannot be close to other dogs. How close is too close? Only the dog or his people know, so maintain distance and give them time to move out of your way.

Barnaby will be wearing his bandanna with pride. He is a good dog who is trained, performs lovely tricks and looks after the Grogan clan to the best of his ability. Life has given him a bit of a battle to fight – he is young to have such pain and it isn’t fair. With caution, and the help of schemes such as the Yellow Ribbon, we can make sure he has a happy life without intimidating other dogs, or their human companions, needlessly.

Take a look at the website for the Yellow Ribbon. It is a great scheme and more people need to know about it to make sure everyone recognises that a dog in yellow is a dog who wants to be left alone. Remember – it is not often the dog’s fault. We have a responsibility too.

Posted in Charities, Family, Parenting, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Science fiction? Or is that cyberpunk? – Talking Books talks the future with Martine Lillycrop

220px-Brown,r_time_macine60Competition alert!!! At the end of this email you will have the opportunity to win books! (Hope that grabs you and keeps you reading!)

I have never been afraid to admit that science fiction has never been my ‘thing’. I never really understood the appeal of predicting a future of gadgets and gizmos or space travel to other planets populated by furry tribbles and The War of The Worlds courtesy of Jeff Wayne (and Justin Hayward) and 1960 film version of H.G Wells The Time Machine  - complete with Eloi and Morlocks – was, I thought , the extent of my knowledge of the genre.

How wrong I turned out to be. Even before last Friday’s edition of  my Talking Books show on 10Radio I been put right by friends on Facebook and twitter. What about The Day of the Triffids? Surely you have read John Wyndham? Indeed I have (albeit many years ago). What about Douglas Adams? I had always assumed that was humour. And then there is the blurring of the lines with fantasy – how about Neil Gaiman?

Instead of being a genre purely devoted to scientific imaginings it turns out to be far more mysterious and varied than I imagine. Yes there is Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke and perhaps I find too much gadgetry a turn off, but after Friday’s show I can no longer assume that there is nothing in the genre to interest me.

I am certainly going to read some of Martine Lillycrop‘s work – starting with her latest book High Tide in the City, which one reader describes as ‘Butt-kicking noir science fiction. This is Raymond Chandler and Bladerunner rolled into one. Superb cyberpunk detective thriller’.

Martine was my studio guest last week, and if you listen on the link above you will hear her bravely working with a host who had professed total ignorance of the book shelves upon which her works sit. We had a really interesting chat about what inspires her, how she works and who she found inspiring as a writer and she read from the very beginning of High Tide. But we also talked of why most of the famous names in the genre are male (with me getting on to a bit of a sticky stereotyping wicket) and how much work has to go into science fiction as the our real world leaps forward, technologically speaking, ahead of even the sparkiest imagination. We may not be driving hover cars, but with Google developing strange contact lenses that can read the health of your eyes, it is surely only a matter of time before we are all born with a bar code on our bottoms.

Do listen to the show; I really enjoyed it and have to thank Martine for providing the very first competition prize for the show. I have three of her books - High Tide in the City, Blightspawn and Under Verdant Skies -  to give away if you can answer what is, I am promised, a question that science fiction buffs will be able to answer (I hadn’t a clue).

Name the author who created the character Richard Deckard and the book and film in which he appears…

OK? Now I have never run a competition on my blog before and as this is not a ruse to get more people to flock to my blog to flog stuff given away by PR firms I am not requiring you to ‘like’ things or tweet stuff (although it would be great if you did.) To enter just comment on this blog and just to make sure you don’t take the easy option and just copy the entry above yours I would like you to tell me what gadget you would like a science fiction to write into your life story. I will pull entries out of the hat anyway but will be sure that whoever wins the books gets their gadget at least mentioned on this site.

So get those entries in! Martine has had some really good reviews and I think we need a few more female writers on the list for Talking Books talks Sci Fi in 3014…..

Find out more about Martine and her work on her website  - www.martinelillycrop.wordpress.com

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Comic-book Keats – a new way to prevent the ‘end of poetry’?

labelledame11I may be coming late to the work of Julian Peters. It is possible his illustrative work has been bringing young people to poetry for some time without me realising it. However, there may be some others out there, like myself, who have not yet come across an artist who, in my opinion, has found a way to ‘re-package’ the poetry of the 19th and 20th century in a way that might just convince  the cynical that there is life in poetry yet.

Julian Peters is based in Montreal and has translated a number of familiar poems into comic-book recreations so striking that they have been widely exhibited. However, even though I am a member of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, I missed Peters’ inclusion in the 2012 exhibition ‘Illustrating Keats’ at the House in Rome. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is wonderful, with a young man  (looking, purposely I am sure, rather Keatsian) recounting his seduction by the beautiful woman – ‘La belle dame’ – who casts her chilling spell over him, as she has done many another ‘pale knight’. See the whole piece here on Peters’ website.

couverture1On that site you will also find his other work, which includes Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe,  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot and a terrific manga-style presentation of  When You Are Old by W B Yeats.

I read an article recently in The Skinny, in which Bruce Sterling & Jon Lebkowsky discussed the apparent ‘death of poetry’.  Bruce Sterling said:

“If you’d asked John Keats if there was any ‘truth’ in the journalism of his day, Keats would have said no, that all the newspapers were organs of party faction, and that the ‘truth,’ and also the beauty, was in poetry. Our own society doesn’t have ‘Poetry.’ Poetry is already gone. We don’t miss it any more than those un-novelled societies miss novels.”

That statement feels like a punch in the stomach to me. I disagree so forcefully that I could shake Sterling (although in the article he is really expressing his views on the future of the mass-media and there is at least some recognition that poetry is older, and more ‘needed’ than journalism as it is practised at the moment). There is much to be enjoyed and gained from reading poetry, even if poets are no longer the Byronic celebrity super-heroes of the 19th century.

I really enjoyed browsing Julian Peters’ website and seeing some of my favourite poems in a new light. The comic strip versions are utterly different from the Pre-Raphaelite representations of Keats’ work but they are striking nonetheless. What do you think?

Posted in Art, Books, Keats, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments