Monday, 19 October 2009


Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship – Blows Against The Empire

I have to mention Spotify because I think it might be a glimpse of the future. Suddenly I can listen to almost anything I want to on demand. This last week I've listened to Merle Travis, John Prine, Emily Smith, Paul Kantner, Rosanne Cash, Miguel Poveda, Tomatito, Gerardo Nunez and Marcelo Mercadante. Oh yes, and Neutral Milk Hotel. The artists get some cash, though not a lot by the sound of it. Still - preferable to being downloaded for free. I guess it's a bit like being played on the radio. I can imagine a future where we don't need to own stacks of cds and videos any more, but can just download the stuff as we want it onto some portable device.

Anyway, a remark by Stuart, who's been cutting my hair for about 20 years now, has been bugging me for a while. He's a DJ in his spare time and has an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music. He was recommending Tusk by Fleetwood Mac. He said listening to it made him feel 'clean and optimistic'. It doesn't make me feel that way, although there are a lot of good tracks on there. But I was seriously puzzled by the reviewers who have said that Midlake's Trials of Van Occupanther reminded them of Fleetwood Mac. Stuart agreed with this, but I still can't see it. On the other hand I think that Midlake and to a lesser degree Neutral Milk Hotel owe a lot to Paul Kantner's early Jefferson Starship albums. I had almost forgotten Blows Against the Empire until Spotify let me listen to it again this week. All that sixties optimism is just starting to go wrong and Kantner and Slick are planning a journey across the galaxy. Probably best listened to in conjunction with a reading of The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test!

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Lest we forget...

I was idly looking through some of the slides I've been scanning and I came across this! I guess it was 1996. Bonfire night was approaching and I had a sudden inspiration for the Guy. I know that many people can no longer remember John Major. Some are too young, some are beginning to lose their marbles, and some never really knew who he was in the first place. Well, folks, this is what a Conservative Prime Minister looks like - and I assure you, it is a very good likeness. You really don't want David Cameron to be Prime Minister, do you?

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Orford Ness

I've been intending to visit Orford Ness for years. Orford is one of my favourite places on the Suffolk coast. It has a fine castle and a planned Norman town with the original street plan, even though it is now only a village. And from the quay you can take a ferry to the Ness where secret experiments were carried out for years on radar and ballistics and on the atom bomb. Yet for some reason I never managed to visit the Ness until yesterday, when Kate and I took the National Trust ferry and spent the afternoon wandering around what must be one of the eeriest and most beautiful places in Britain.
Various buildings dot the shingle banks, many of them having once been put to uses that remain unknown. Others have been restored to provide viewing platforms and information. The strangest place of all was Laboratory Number 1 where research was carried out on the bomb. The walls are coated in green mould and peeling paint and the rusting roof members creak in the wind. Half of the floor is taken up with a tank of black water.
Waders, gulls and harriers fly over the site and on top of the Bomb Ballistics building the railings vibrate in the wind and make a strange howling sound.
There are more photos here.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Authors visiting schools

Chris Priestley raises issues in his blog about the new Independent Safeguarding Scheme and its application to children's authors visiting schools. As he says, we discussed it during a very enjoyable lunch, and I've been thinking about it since.

Everyone else who works in schools has to be checked, so why should authors be immune? Are they different in some mysterious way from other humans? We all know that most abuse of children takes place in the home and that therefore all the vast apparatus of CRB checking which already goes on is only going to stop a small proportion of this abuse, but I think we've accepted that such procedures are really the only way of preventing a repeat of an event like the Soham murders.

I know that writers are seldom alone with children on school visits. I know the chances of anything bad happening are small. But I think we should remember the case of William Mayne, one of the greatest children's writers of the twentieth century who thought it was OK to have his young fans to stay and romp naked with them in his garden. I'm surprised that no one seems to have mentioned him in this latest furore. I'm sure nothing untoward happened during school visits, and I know he had no record then which would have shown up on the new vetting - but he does now.

Like Philip Pullman, I am concerned at the steady increase in the monitoring of every aspect of our lives - the loyalty cards, the nunberplate recognition cameras, the databases - but I think that on this one authors should accept that they should put up with a little inconvenience for the sake of the children. If you think school visits are valuable and important, then keep visiting those children, because it's for them that we do all this writing and visiting and talking. Why make them pay the price of our indignation?

Anthony Browne puts it well in this piece from the Guardian, and if you didn't know about William Mayne there's another piece in the Guardian here. I've posted thoughts on school visits before, so take a look. We're off to France tomorrow for a relaxing week of sunshine, wine, gardens and sea.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Poetic babel

I noticed that the new Japanese edition of Green Fingers had attracted a five star review on Amazon,jp. (That's how sad authors are! Well, this one anyway.) So I translated it with Babelfish and out came this bizarre poetry. I think they understood what I was trying to do, and I was impressed that they noticed, as no other reviewer has done, that there are oblique references to 'The Secret Garden' of Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Among 5.0 five stars the garden which revives it brings, the story “of miracle”, 2009/7/2 By The free person east - you look at the review entirely Being delicate, the cover of the color tone which settles. The cutting picture which is used in you taste and are deep is. Thing “of the person who are skillful “the green finger” of title, according to the postscript of the translator to raise the plant,” it seems. If you mention “the garden”, “Hanazono of Burnett secret” and so on is famous, but the contents that your this story are the same the children and the old person recover the smiling face by the fact that “the garden” is loved. Simply, today there being just a work as expected, with ordinary means it does not go. The child who suffers from study obstacle. Sorrow of the old person who loses the destination. The parents and the heart which face to the catastrophe trouble of the children who can hurt…. The kind of part which even pathology of today's society is said being portrayed, rather harsh development continues. As for main characters elementary school student rank? Girl Kate, that younger brother microphone, and young younger sister [emiri]. Grandfather Walter of [ruizu] and [ruizu] of the friend of Kate's parents and Kate… with the place where you say. In the wind that, is conclusion of the “happy end”, “the garden which is lost” revives from interchange of the children and Walter, is released even from the suffering of each one, but as the word that “it changes “everyone… it cannot go backward the person””, displayed, “as for future thing you do not understand”, that you say, also circumstances of the children who keep accepting “actuality” keep being drawn,…. As a child book when “the conventional” story is expected, perhaps, surface saddle [u] one you are, but the spectacle of the garden which little by little displays the form and the smiling face of the children are attractive. Kate's age not to be written, because it is left to the imagination of the person who is read, remembering the familiar children, it is good reading, probably will be. It touched the everyday earth, the grass flower while passing the time of the [ru] with love, it was similar to old person Walter, the beautiful garden where the girl Kate's who keeps becoming the “green finger” story, it revived brings, importance of the thing which stands up with the foot of the self without escaping from harsh actuality through “miracle”, is made to realize. In very the children who are devoted to study and the game the story which would like to have reading. Of course, even in the adult who finishes to become tired with work and play recommendation.

A very short bicycle tour

I drove down to Wales last Thursday, left my car at my sister's house and biked off over the Black Mountains towards Hay-on-Wye. It was a lovely afternoon and I biked up narrow, tree-lined lanes by a river past Llantony Priory to the top of the Gospel Pass, where an elderly couple in a small white Romahome van offered me a hot drink.

Then I set off down a glorious descent in the evening sunlight, thinking about camping and cooking supper. I was most of the way down when I came round a bend and hit the special bike-dumping substance which had been laid in my path. The usual slow-motion effect followed as I decided I'd have to go into the hedge. I bounced off the hedge and hit the road with the bike on top of me. Anmazingly, no damage had occurred to the bike. I had a nose-bleed and various bumps and cuts on my leg, but I could stand up, and even ride the bike. So I rode to a campsite and the following day I carried on cycling towards Builth Wells.

At first I was feeling quite pleased with myself. My leg hurt every time I turned the pedals, but it was working. By the time I reached my destination it was becoming ever harder to move. By the time I'd eaten lunch (I recommend the cottage pie at the Strand Cafe!) I'd concluded that my cycle tour was over, and I had to phone my sister for rescue.

I think I am fated never to cycle up the Elan valley, which was my intention. I had to cancel a similar mission once before.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Shoals of Herring

I wouldn't want anyone to think that I'm perpetually gloomy. And good things still happen in the world of education. Here's an animated movie made by a bunch of eight-year -olds. They love singing sea songs, so we sang them in the middle of Lowestoft last Saturday. We drew a big crowd and had a lot of fun.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

What's the big hurry?

When I started teaching back in 1986 the world of the English primary school was on the point of huge changes. I had qualified as a teacher in 1977 as a member of one of the first groups to be able to take a Postgraduate Certificate in Education for primary teaching. This had previously been reserved for secondary teachers and was introduced as part of a drive to get more graduates into primary schools and raise the status of the profession and the quality of teaching. I trained with an interesting and talented bunch, and the course had its interesting aspects, too. We discussed child development and theories of education. We read Rousseau's 'Emile For Today' and John Holt's 'Why Children Fail' and Ivan Illich's 'Deschooling Society'. We read Piaget and his disciples and critics. We even learned to teach. But by the time I qualified there were almost no jobs, as we were informed by someone who came to the college to tell us about getting a job. So I started making jewellery instead, as people did back in the mythical seventies.

Ten years later I was drawn back to teaching and when I started applying for jobs my friend, Mike Ingham, recommended that I read the Plowden Report. He said it with a twinkle in his eye, and then said, echoing the ancient Chinese curse, that it was 'an interesting time' to be entering primary education.

He couldn't have been more right. By 1988 we had the Education Reform Act which introduced the National Curriculum. The politicians said they'd tell us what to teach, but not how to teach it. We had to wait for New Labour to tell us how to teach - fifteen minutes of word level work, fifteen minutes of sentence level, twenty minutes of activities and then a plenary session - that was the Literacy Hour. And the result of that was that children did less reading and writing and talking than they had done before, and instead of getting to know their children teachers spent hours puzzling over phonemes and graphemes and connectives and feeling stupid for not understanding. There was so little time left for writing that six-year-olds were planning a story on Monday, writing the opening paragraph on Tuesday, the middle on Wednesday and the ending on Thursday, by which time both they and their teachers had totally lost interest.

The introduction of guided reading where groups of children read the same book at the same time led to the arrival a great many second- and third-rate texts produced in an enormous hurry to fit with the Literacy Strategy. These books came complete with teachers' books which gave (and still give) a step-by-step guide to talking to the children about the text in question. I won't quote them. They are astoundingly banal.

I would like to have a large sign erected at the entrance of every primary school. It would read: WHAT'S THE BIG HURRY? Children should start school later, and their experience should be utterly different to what it is now. Mary Jane Drummond give some indication of what things might be like in: Professional Amnesia: a suitable case for treatment in the journal Forum. Here's a quote to whet your appetite:

"(Susan Isaacs) (in The Children We Teach 1932) identifies the three kinds of spontaneous activity that characterise the lives of young children.

• The love of movement and of perfecting bodily skills
• The delight in make-believe and the expression of the world within
• The interest in actual things and events, the discovery of the world without

It is worth emphasising Isaacs’ use of the word ‘spontaneous’ here: she is not listing three kinds of activities that teachers should plan for, nor three kinds of learning intentions, or three sets of early learning goals. She is synthesising her evidence of what real children actually do in the world, the activities that well up from their physical and intellectual energy, and from their deep desire to understand, which is, according to Isaacs, ‘a veritable passion’ (1932, p. 113). We may also note that these activities, these three kinds of learning by doing, are comprehensive in their scope. Everything is here: the physicality of children; their interest in the world without and everything and everyone in it; and the parallel universes of the children’s imagination, the world within. Isaacs’ little list demonstrates that children’s spontaneous activities qualify them as
experts in curriculum design; they spontaneously and holistically do ‘coverage’ of their own accord – no sticks or carrots needed."

It's not just me!

Well look at this! No, not the author pursued by cows across a Swiss meadow. I mean this rare case of anecdotal evidence being backed up by research. It seems that teachers really don't read children's books. This article is from The Bookseller in 2008. I doubt whether much has changed since then. I've always been puzzled by the media representation of teachers as radicals and revolutionaries. It's certainly not the case in Primary schools. A lot of the teachers I know go to bed at 9.30. I don't think they have the energy to revolt.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

More about reading

The desire to look like a reader or a person of culture without having to read or think is not a new one. Flann O'Brien had a novel take on it in the column that he wrote for the Irish Times as Myles na gCopaleen. This book, The Best of Myles, must be one of the funniest ever written. Anyway, Myles invented the Irish Writers, Actors, Artists, Musicians Association (WAAMA) which offered a Book Handling Service. If you want an impressive library that doesn't look brand-new and unread, the service provides for dog-earing and marginal annotations at various levels of sophistication. WAAMA also offered a ventriloquists' escort service:

'A lot of the letters we receive are from well-off people who have no books. Nevertheless, they want to be thought educated. Can we help them, they ask?

Of course. Let nobody think only book-owners can be smart. The Myles na gCopaleen Escort Service is the answer.

Why be a dumb dud? Do your friends shun you? Do people cross the road when they see you approaching? Do they run up the steps of strange houses, pretend they live there and force their way into the hall while you are passing by? If that is the sort of person you are, you must avail yourself today of this new service. Otherwise, you might as well be dead.'

After applying...

'You are instructed to be in attendance at the foyer of the Gate Theatre that evening, and to look out for a tall, distiguished-looking gentleman of military bearing attired in immaculate evening dress. You go. You meet him. He advances towards you smiling, ignoring all the other handsome baggages that litter the place. In an instant his moustaches are brushing your lips.
'I trust I have not kept you waiting, Lady Charlotte,' he says pleasantly. What a delightfully low, manly voice!

'Not at all, Count,' you answer, your voice being the tinkle of silver bells. 'And what a night for Ibsen. One is in the mood, somehow. Yet a translation can never be quite the same. Do you remember that Stockholm...long ago?

The fact of the matter is, of course, that you have taken good care to say nothing. Your only worry throughout the evening is to shut up and keep shut up completely. The trained escort answers his own manly questions in a voice far pleasanter than your own unfeminine quack, and gives answers that will astonish the people behind for their brilliance and sparkle.'

Tuesday, 30 June 2009


I always enjoy planting leeks. Mysteriously, one buys leek plants by the score, although Bartrums of Beccles seemed to lack confidence that the modern gardener would understand the word. They advertised their plants as coming 'about 20 in a bundle'.

When I first started growing vegetables in a garden in Yorkshire a long time ago I had a great book called The Vegetable Garden Displayed which was full of photographs of men in hats digging enormous trenches and growing enormous crops of vegetables in black and white gardens. I followed all the instructions meticulously and grew plenty of enormous vegetables. My other favourite vegetable gardening book is Grow Your Own Fruit and Vegetables by Lawrence D Hills. How come I have mysteriously lost both these books? At least I can still plant leeks because I can still remember how to make a hole, drop the leek in and fill the hole carefully with water. Very satisfying!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Dunwich reversed

I went for a bike ride yesterday and took a look at the new outer harbour which they're building in Great Yarmouth. Yarmouth has a long spit of land which runs south from the tourist area to the harbour mouth, squeezed between the river and the sea, covered with warehouses and storage yards, many of them run-down or apparently derelict. There was once a caravan site here; a place where it was hard to imagine anyone would have ever wanted to stay.

Between the road and the sea was a narrow strip of wasteland and a beach that few people walked on, but now it's all changed. You can see the process here. It is strange to see the coastline extending into the sea on a shore that elswhere is being eaten rapidly by the waves. These cranes are supposed to start unloading containers later in the summer, although a male Cassandra with a face burnt almost black by the sun and a couple of diamond earrings told me, as we stood on the Haven bridge watching young men fishing the river for sea bass as the tide swirled out through the arches, that the outer harbour was a white elephant and the roads were in the wrong places and the trucks were only going to be allowed to move at night.

He was the first of two gloomy men who engaged me in conversation yesterday. The second was in Yarmouth railway station. He approached me and moaned about the fact that he'd looked up a ticket on the web then come to the station to buy it, but it was cheaper on the web. He was outraged. He couldn't understand it. The same ticket, but two different prices. 'Things are often cheaper online,' I said mildly. He responded by telling me about all the great bargains he'd picked up online - like a Wii for his grandson - but he kept coming back to the ticket. I suggested he might buy it on line, but that was no good. There was a wrong that needed righting. Eventually I edged away and escaped.

I suspect people kept talking to me because I was wearing an old flat cap belonging to Elli's dad. It must have made me look approachable, though why that would be I can't imagine, since Peter Elliott was renowned as one of the rudest, meanest pub landlords in Suffolk. And proud of it, too.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Green Fingers

This is a nice thing to see in the email on a Monday morning!

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Alison Uttley and renegade sheep

Almost by accident I found this little gem about Alison Uttley via a link on Chris Priestley's blog. When I was a child I don't think it ever occurred to me that it was possible to actually meet the authors of the books about the Famous Five or the Swallows and Amazons or William Brown. Anyway, as far as I was concerned the authors of those books had merely set down accounts of events that had actually happened.

I didn't even want my friends to read the same books as me. I was a jealous, possessive reader. If someone else shared my experience it would be diluted. I lived with the characters, imagined myself somehow there beside them. How could there possibly be room in the books for another reader? I don't know how common an experience this is, but I do know that children often ask me when I've finished telling a story if it's true. I simply tell them that I heard it from someone so that they can carry on believing, if they want to.

And then when I have to be an author in front of a group of children the whole process of fiction tends to get anatomised like a kippered herring. Where do you get your ideas? Is it hard to make up stories? How long does it take? What hours do you work? A novel is exposed as an artefact. It's like telling them that Father Christmas isn't real and, as we all know, they find that out soon enough by themselves. Children may even be aware that this loss of innocence is about to happen. I came across a fine instance of this in an article by Hugh Crago in Signal 94 reviewing David Rudd's book Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children's Literature (Macmillan 2000). He describes how his daughter, aged 10, 'urged me to read faster on our way though The Magic Faraway Tree(which she had heard before) because if I was too slow, she might grow out of the book before we reached the end.'

So, on the whole I think I'm not in favour of introducing young children to authors (in person!), and if they do happen to meet them I rather hope they behave like Alison Uttley. I was never quite able to get over my dislike of analysing fiction when I found myself studying English Literature at university. I suspect myself of incurable shallowness. I like a good story. If I'm carried away, that's great. If not, I probably won't finish the book.

And so to the sheep. The meadow behind our house seems to hold a mischievous spirit which teaches animals how to escape. In the past we had many exciting expeditions chasing bullocks around the cornfields. Now we have sheep. The farmer has changed, and he even uses proper sheep netting, unlike Murray, our previous neighbour who preferred to rely on a ramshackle mixture of old ironmongery and baler twine. But the fancy sheep netting couldn't contain the renegade sheep, so the farmer resorted to... baler twine. Perhaps it's like the coloured threads beloved by the heroines of Celtic legend. If so it's lost its magic. No sooner are they herded back into the field than they escape again.

I think they may be tunneling.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Collective nouns

My favourite collective noun has always been a 'charm' of goldfinches, so it's very nice to have a charm in the field outside my window. There seem to be about a dozen of them, flitting to and fro all day long, and occasionally resting for a moment on the topmost leaves of the winter-flowering viburnum. The list of collective nouns in the back of my primary school English textbook used to fascinate me, and I tried to become expert at remembering them. I loved all those lists - homonyms and synonyms and the rest of them, though I could never quite remember which was which!

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Between mountain and sea

They wound me and bless me
with strange gifts

The salt of absence
The honey of memory

I wonder how many people these days feel the resonance of the words wound and bless that occur at the climax of this deceptively simple poem? (the full text is a couple of posts back) There was a time when almost everyone would have recognized that the words, used in conjunction, have a religious significance. I cannot hear them without thinking of the images of Jesus that haunted my Catholic childhood, one hand raised in blessing, the other indicating a chest apparently split by a gaping wound which reveals a beating heart within, and which echoes that other wound, the one in Jesus's side which Thomas felt obliged to test by inserting his fingers.

Strangely though, I stopped believing in God when I was seven years old, about the time when I made my first confession and God took no punitive action when I failed to admit all my sins. I then proceeded to take my first communion with my soul still stained. I say strangely because I find it hard to imagine myself as a seven-year-old taking that decision about the nature of the universe, and yet I know for sure that I did. And I subsequently continued my career as an altar-boy, both at the local church and in the convent behind our house where I served Mass every morning for several years, absorbing incense and Latin in equal quantities, but the sky never did fall on my head.

Monday, 18 May 2009


Well, I was going to fit these photographs tastefully into the post about Norman MacCaig, but I couldn't make them go where I wanted them, so here they are in a new place. The first picture was taken in April. I stumbled into this ruined village by accident - it wasn't marked on the map. The other two were on a misty August afternoon. It was a very rainy week and I was lucky to be able to see anything at all. I don't suppose you'll ever see a crowd on the top of this hill, like the one we met on top of Snowdon this Easter, as you have to walk several miles before you can start climbing.

Norman McCaig

I've been meaning to write about Norman MacCaig for a while, and as the BBC is having a poetry season this seems like a good moment.

MacCaig is second from the left on the book cover. Worlds was edited by Geoffrey Summerfield who also produced the excellent Voices series, of which more in another post. The book contains interviews with seven poets: Charles Causley, Thom Gunn, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Norman MacCaig, Adrian Mitchell and Edwin Morgan. It also has photo essays on each poet by Fay Godwin, Larry Herman and Peter Abramowitsch.

I first came across Norman MacCaig in the late 1980s when I heard him being interviewed on the radio. He also read some poems about frogs. I went out and bought his Collected Poems and read it from beginning to end - not a thing I usually do with poetry books.
For the last twenty years I've had a poem of his pinned to my wall:

Between mountain and sea

Honey and salt - land smell and sea smell,
as in the long ago, as in forever.

The days pick me up and carry me off,
half-child, half prisoner,

on their journey that I'll share
for a while.

They wound me and they bless me
with strange gifts:

the salt of absence,
the honey of memory.

MacCaig spent a lot of time in Sutherland, in north-west Scotland, and had a special relationship with the strangely-shaped mountain, Suilven, that rises from the watery moors behind Lochinver. I recommend that you go and climb the mountain from Inverkirkaig, where you'll see the moving monument which the Friends of Norman MacCaig have erected at the start of the path. You'll also have a wonderful day out, if the midges aren't biting and the weather is fine.

Norman MacCaig died in 1996. The Poems of Norman MacCaig edited by his son Ewen comes with a CD of him reading his poems. For a very different outdoor poem also linked to this BBC stuff visit Chris Priestley's blog. It's all connected, you know!

I finished a book today. Well, I say finished - I wrote the final chapter and now all I have to do is rewrite it a few times. It's not a very long book and it's taken me a ridiculously long time to write. My new plan is to write a long book very quickly!

Monday, 11 May 2009

More Trees

I looked out of my window today and saw a poem in action.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Philip Larkin

I don't know whether it's just because leaf rhymes with grief, but this isn't the only poem which connects trees and mortality. There's Spring and Fall, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and New Hampshire by T S Eliot. Feel free to let me know of others!

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


This group of ash trees stands beyond the meadow at the end of my garden. The earliest photograph was taken in the mid-1980s when there were six trees. I think the gales of 1987 took the tree on the right away, and in the last few years another tree has been steadily leaning into its neighbour. In the snowy picture you can just make out the roof of a barn between the two trees on the left. That, too, was damaged in 1987 and subsequently demolished.

The ash trees make my garden what it is because of the way they frame the northern landscape with those arches between their trunks. Everyone who walks through the hedge into the back garden exclaims at the view, but it's the trees that turn a straight horizon into a series of windows and draw your eye to the narrow band below the horizon where you can see distant marshes, windmills, churches and villages. You can even see wind turbines flashing in the sunlight a dozen miles away on the coast.

I like to think that I live on a hill. Even if it's only 30 metres above sea level I have the comfort of knowing that there's no higher land between me and the North Pole!

Friday, 13 March 2009

A word or two about banjos...

pulps from the bothy features a banjo-playing Jerry Garcia today. As it's Red Nose Day here's a banjo joke.

A band has arrived early for a gig so they lock up the cars and go in search of a drink, but on the way to the pub the banjo player suddenly stops. 'Hell!' he says, 'I left my banjo in the back of the car where anyone can see it. I'll have to go back and cover it up.' The rest of the band sigh, but they walk back to the car with him. When they turn the corner they see that the rear window has been smashed. The banjoist breaks into a run. When the others catch up they find him staring into the car in astonishment. There is now an extra banjo lying on the back seat!

There are similar jokes about other instruments, especially bagpipes. I like this one. Q: Why do bagpipers walk when they play? A: To get away from the noise.

But back to banjos. All those jokes are really very unfair. A friend of mine once pointed out to me that a banjo player can always draw a crowd, and most of the banjoists I've met have been friendly, helpful people. As an example I give you Mikel Iverson from Utah who has provided, absolutely free, a wonderful online archive of tablature for the clawhammer banjo. If you want to know what clawhammer banjo sounds like then visit his website, because he has also made beautifully clear little recordings of all the tunes he has transcribed. It's better than most of the books you can buy on the subject.

The picture shows a far younger version of myself with an old 'Broadcaster' banjo which was covered in tasteful yellow pearlite. This is from the late eighties when The Moles were at their peak!

I have to mention also that Class 1C at the school where I work made a great little movie about Anansi. They had already composed and performed the music to go with the story and their teacher helped them to create the animation. You can see it online here.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009


This photograph shows the great Scottish storyteller, Duncan Williamson on a visit to the small Norfolk school where I was teaching in 1992. Here's a quote from Hugh Lupton about him:

It was Duncan who told me that when you tell a story, or sing a song, the person you heard it from is standing behind you. When that person spoke, he, in turn, had a teller behind him, and so on, back and back and back. I love this idea, the story has to speak to its own time, but the teller has also to be true to the chain of voices that inform him or her.

You can read more from Hugh Lupton about storytelling here. I was lucky enough to spend a whole day with Duncan, listening to him telling the children story after story, interspersed with songs and tunes on the harmonica, and I often tell stories that he told that day, hearing his voice in my head. He had a very special way of beginning a story so that you were aware that it was part of that chain of voices. Here's an example from The King and the Lamp from Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children.

Now, I want to tell you a good story, and I hope you're going to like it. The story is one my daddy used to tell me when I was wee, because I was very fond of a story and I used to say to him, "Tell us some stories Daddy!" See, when we were carrying on and being wild, Daddy used to say, "Come on and I'll tell you a story!" So you be quiet and listen. And some day when you're big and have wee babies, you can tell them the same story I'm telling you!"

No one can resist that invitation - "Come on and I'll tell you a story." Children who are angry, fed-up, bored or even out of control go quiet. They want to know what happened. Somehow, by telling a story you give it weight, because it's coming directly from you. There's a kind of mystery about where the story comes from, which is the mystery of memory, a direct expression of ourselves like singing or dancing, and I think that's what children (and adults) respond to.

Duncan Williamson died in 2007. You can read about his life here.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Book Corner

I thought I'd follow Chris Priestley's example and post a small corner of one of my bookshelves in honour of World Book Day. Most of the children at the school where I teach dressed up last Friday. They were supposed to be characters from books, but usually these days they're characters from the book of the film, or maybe from the book of the film of the book. It's all very confusing. I did notice that Harry Potter seems to have faded from the scene. The big favourites were Ben10, (looks like the book hasn't appeared yet for that one!), Snow White, Batman, Spiderman, Captain Hook (along with various pirates from the Caribbean), and police officers - which is fair enough when you think how much crime fiction we consume.

So: my bookshelf. It's almost a little history of my childhood reading. I loved the Sam Pig stories for a long time. They evoke a vanished rural England which was still just about alive when I was a child. When I read them now I can still recapture the vividness of the experience of reading them for the first time, especially the story of Sam Pig and the Hurdy-Gurdy Man. Brock the Badger mends the broken hurdy-gurdy so that it has the music of the woods in it. He says, 'if I can mend broken whistles and broken hearts, I can surely mend a broken hurdy-gurdy.' I had no idea what a hurdy-gurdy was and I didn't see one until I was about 20 years old, but I knew I wanted to be a hurdy-gurdy man!

The Bunkle books and the 'Fred and I' adventures of which Tuesday Adventure is the only one I own, came a bit later than Sam Pig, and unlike Sam Pig they came from the library. Almost all the books I read as a child came from the library. Bunkle was written by M. Pardoe. I've just discovered that the Scottish publisher Fidra Books is republishing her books. There's a biography and more information here. Bunkle is a precocious boy whose father is a spy. The plots of the books are improbable, but the stories are brought to life by the descriptions of family life. The children are realistically rude to each other and there are plenty of devious German spies. Like the Sam Pig books, they were printed during World War Two on thin yellow paper. One of them was a Christmas present to someone called Dick in 1944. It seems strange to think that ordinary childhood was still going on. Tuesday Adventure is part of a series by the poet, John Pudney,who wrote 'Johnny Head-in-Air', probably the most famous poem to come out of WW2. The 'Fred and I' books involve two boys and their Uncle George who is fighting the Cold War from a place called Fort X. I couldn't get enough of them. There was one for each day of the week and then one for each season. I'd read them again if I could get hold of them, but they are very rare.

Jacobs' English Fairy Tales is one of the great collections of folk tales. You can hear the voice of the original storyteller in every one. They were first published in 1890 and still sound fresh today. If I had my way every primary school teacher would be required to tell stories to children every day. It used to be a much more usual thing - the teacher telling stories (and I don't mean reading them) and there are plenty of anthologies like the Lucia Turnbull one designed for the purpose. They're worth seeking out in secondhand bookshops. Elizabeth Clarke produced several.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Mike Ingham 1949 - 2009

Mike died on 22nd of February. For ten years between 1980 and 1990 I played with him in a band called The Moles, along with Derek Guy and Henry Holzer. It started out as a ceilidh band. We met on Friday evenings at Henry's house to rehearse and chat, and played gigs maybe once a month, but more frequently in the summertime. In the early years I didn't have a car and Mike would pick me up every Friday in his Morris Traveller. Ellie and Emily always looked forward to his arrival and it usually took at least half an hour's conversation before we were ready to leave.

Mike was a terrific guitarist. He grew up listening to his dad playing all the standards on the guitar, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of those old songs. Sweet Lorraine was a favourite of his dad's. He was brilliant at working out the chords, too, and also at faking it when he wasn't too sure. We called that improvising until Mike came up with a better word - impoverishing! Sitting on a stage for hours while country dancers leaped around in village halls all over Norfolk we had plenty of time to figure out the most interesting ways to play the three chords we needed for the dance tunes. And as time went by we worked out songs with even more chords and sometimes vocals and then played and sang to anyone who would listen. When we weren't playing we chatted. We talked about everything, but mostly about education.

I had trained as a teacher years before, but never taught. Mike convinced me that in spite of the ever-increasing stranglehold of the bureaucrats and politicians on education it was still possible to be a creative and exciting teacher. We had endless conversations about education, and they all focused on the amazing things that children did. Eventually I started to wonder why I was missing out on such an interesting life and I found myself a job. Without his influence I'm fairly sure I would never have done that.

When Mike stopped being a headteacher and became an inspector and adviser I was surprised because I knew how much he loved working in a school community, and how great he was with children. When he was head of Crowfoot Primary in Beccles he taught music whenever he could. He kept all the instrument in boxes (he loved musical instrument cases!) and I watched him teaching a class one day. He had made a box labelled "silence", and whenever silence was needed, a small boy opened the box. It was brilliant.

But it wasn't just that he was great with kids (I work with a young teacher now who was a pupil of Mike's and the shows he wrote and produced are her most vivid memories of primary school). He was great with grownups, too. Someone who taught in that same school told me the other day that Mike used to wait in the school entrance on a Friday night and say goodbye to every member of staff as they left. Not a lot of people do that.

And that's why he was so good at the job he chose to do. He influenced me, and he influenced very many other people, and through them thousands of children. That was clear from the amazing number of people at his funeral. He was a good, kind man who made a big difference to people's lives. I miss him very much.


The main part of my teaching job these days is teaching music, and the most important part of that job is teaching singing. I've always sung songs with children, ever since the time when I was a playgroup supervisor in Emily's playgroup, and when I was a class teacher I'd always have my guitar with me so that every day was punctuated by songs. However, I've never been that confident about my singing voice, and until recently I'd never had any training either in singing, or in teaching it.

So, after a couple of years of encouraging singing in my school I had children who loved singing, had a great sense of rhythm and were really musical, and I realized I needed to know how to take them to another level. I also figured out that while I was sitting playing the guitar I couldn't help them to sing. I needed to conduct them. The result of all that is that when I saw a conducting course advertised in Great Yarmouth with James Davey I thought it was just the thing. And it was. But it was very hard work, in just the same way that the mountain course I described in an earlier post was.

I had never even done that basic time-beating thing that conductors do - a bit like making the sign of the cross, only not. So suddenly finding myself standing in front of twenty-four fellow students trying to conduct them was incredibly daunting and confusing and pretty stressful too. But you do learn fast like that. And if I learned nothing else I learned that what you do when you stand in front of a group of singers really does directly affect what they do - how you stand, your expression, how you move - it's all incredibly important. It may seem obvious, but the difference between sitting playing a guitar while people sing and conducting their performance
couldn't be greater. When I went for a run this morning I found myself beating time and singing Jubilate Deo. I'm hoping that's not a serious problem.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Inspiring teachers

Professor Kay Davies was on Desert Island Discs last week and she was asked about teachers who inspired her. She described a chemistry teacher who loved golf and would help her students set up their experiments and then pop off for a couple of hours to play a round. This gave the students plenty of time to talk and work things out for themselves. It's hard to imagine a teacher getting away with that kind of thing today.

I'm always interested to hear stories like this. The teachers who change people's lives very often seem to be the eccentrics. I had a French teacher for two years who taught me more French than I learnt in the rest of my school career and let us use the French cupboard to listen to albums by Love and Captain Beefheart. I also had a teacher at primary school, Sister Marion, who let me and my friend spend three days designing and painting a very large imaginary bird. I can still picture the bird, fifty years later!

And thinking about this I'm reminded of Sybil Marshall whose book An Experiment in Education gives a description of the wonderful possibilities of primary education. One of the reasons I love this so much is that my mother taught for a year or so in a small primary school in the fens which must have been quite similar to Sybil Marshall's. The headteacher, who had been there for as long as anyone could remember, had a canning machine in the school, and when it was time for the soft fruit harvest everything stopped until the canning operation was over!

Thursday, 19 February 2009


I forgot to mention the lost glove incident! I was in a bit of a daze when I got on the train last Friday morning at Haddiscoe station, which must be one of the remotest stations in East Anglia. I was wearing the hand-knitted gloves that Kate gave me for Christmas. Obviously this was a bad idea, because when I got off the train in Norwich I left the gloves behind.

I bought a paper on the platform, then realised what I'd done and ran back to the train, which had become a Yarmouth train and was about to leave. I jumped on and searched the seats. The gloves had gone, though there was a pair of thin black gloves on one of the seats. I asked the guard, but she hadn't seen them. It was a bad start to the trip.

I pinned my hopes on Lost Property, but they didn't turn up there either. When I called in on Tuesday the custodian was outraged that they hadn't been handed in. I'm hoping to spot them on the streets of Lowestoft. What I do then will depend on who's wearing them!

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

A weekend in the snow

We didn't have enough snow here in Norfolk, so I thought I'd go and find some. Well, actually I planned the weekend some time ago because people kept telling me that if I loved the Scottish hills in summer I'd love them even more in winter. So I booked a course called Weekend Winter Skills at Glenmore Lodge near Aviemore. There were six of us in the group, and our excellent instructor, James Woodhouse. There are more photos on my web gallery.

It's always refreshing to escape from your comfort zone and great, if like me you're a teacher, to suddenly find yourself a not especially bright pupil for a while. The combination of pieces of hard-to-take-in technical information about navigation and avalanches with walking uphill though deep snow into a corrie was great. It didn't take me long to realise that I am a fairly bad navigator, which should make me more careful in the future.

We did plenty of rolling downhill in the snow and making hilarious and occasionally brilliant attempts to arrest our falls with ice axes, and on the second day, after climbing onto a ridge and off it again, with fabulous views of the Cairngorms, we dug holes in the snow in order to convince ourselves that it was far better to get home safely than to have to dig a snowhole to survive.

And while we were doing all this the ski-centre car park below was filled with the kind of chaos you normally only see at an overcrowded beach on a hot summer's day, all played out in brown slush. I didn't take a photograph - you wouldn't have liked it. On Monday morning the bus down to Aviemore was running half an hour late because of all the traffic up at the ski-centre. The bus driver reckoned the tourist people would rather not have the skiers anyway - they'd rather the coach parties rolled up, got on the railway and whizzed to the top, spent some money and went away again. The skiers just get in the way. They certainly do when half the population of Scotland and the north of England all turn up on the same weekend!

Tuesday, 20 January 2009


Every Christmas I feel as if I've struggled to the top of an unforgiving hill on my bike and I'm about to start freewheeling down the other side. I go to the US Navy website (See Links on right) and I download sunrise and sunset tables for the year so that I can cheer myself up by seeing how much lighter it's going to be day by day. It happens slowly at first - hardly any change until the beginning of January, but then an extra minute morning and evening, and by the middle of February five whole minutes every day! No matter how grey and dismal the weather becomes in January and February I can reassure myself that Spring really is on the way.
The landscape remains stubbornly monochrome, and even the green on the fields of winter wheat and barley is only a greenish tinge on the brown, but under the apple trees the spikes of daffodils and bluebells are poking through the grass.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Shank's Pony

I've always found my best ideas while walking or riding my bike, and yet I've never really felt comfortable about going for a long walk on a day when I'm meant to be writing. It just doesn't feel like work, even though I know I get more done in an hour sitting on my bike or tramping around the edges of ploughed fields than I do in five hours sitting in front of the computer screen. I'm experimenting this year, and it seems to be true that the more I walk the better I write. It may just be coincidence, but I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Some years ago I was given this wonderful book by Morris Marples which introduced me to, among others, 'the Odcombian Leg-stretcher' Thomas Coryate who in 1608 walked from Somerset to Venice and back. And walking twenty miles and back to visit a friend meant nothing to Wordsworth and Coleridge! Get hold of the book if you can - it's a great read.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Green Fingers

I heard last week that there's to be a Japanese edition of this book. I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with it, and curious to know if they'll make the setting Japanese. For the UK edition Sian Bailey made very beautiful black and white drawings of plants and of some places very close to where I live. The Winter picture shows a farmhouse in a place called Bulls Green.

I see that OUP are producing a new reading scheme targeting boys. It's called Project X. Getting boys to read is the Holy Grail of children's publishing - or one of them, if you can have more than one. Just imagine all those boys rushing to bookshops to spend their pocket money on books. My first book was about football. Publishers believed that football stories would engage boys, but one perceptive reviewer pointed out that boys who played football were too busy playing to read about it, and boys who didn't play weren't interested. There are plenty of exceptions to this, but there's also a good deal of truth in it, and I guess that's why I didn't achieve overnight fame!

The OUP scheme plans to draw in boys partly by using digital illustration to simulate the world of computer games. I can't help thinking that boys who play computer games will be too busy playing to read books that look like games but don't actually move, and boys who don't...

So, what's my solution to the problem of boys' reading? First of all, don't even start to teach children, especially boys, to read until they're at least 7 years old. In the meantime, tell them loads of stories and read to them. But there's no point going on, is there? Because our entire state education system assumes we start teaching children to read when they're 4.