April has been such a dry month this year. I’d been panicking about sowing my seeds too early at the allotment after the temperature dropped, and then decided I’d maybe done right, glad my sowings had at least got a bit of moisture to start them off. I’ve also gone ‘no dig’ with my spuds, which has raised eyebrows. My plot-neighbours have decided the opposite and are going for deeper trenches this year. Half the fun is chewing it all over, as long as you don’t mind that the apocalyptic commentary on whatever approach you’re taking usually comes after you’ve already committed!
Fortunately I don’t grow sweetcorn, which has been the source of the greatest chewing-over between plot-holders this season. You see, there is a canny badger on the site who is partial to the golden crop. In a bid to outwit our striped friend, one gentleman is planting his sweetcorn inside a fruit cage. I overhead his pal scoffing at that, this badger can almost certainly pick locks! Well, in that case, he’d consider installing lasers. Immediately I had visions of the badger, clad in spy gear, dropping down on a wire from the nearest tree, glint in his eye.
I had a wonderful author visit to Seaton Primary School this month, running a session for KS2 (years 3-6, in case you were wondering), followed by a creative writing workshop for Year 5. The children were fabulously imaginative and engaged. I’m super-grateful to Jenny at the independent bookshop, Owl and Pyramid, for setting this up. Since things have opened up post-pandemic, it really has been very special to get out there and meet readers. I’m gaining confidence with each visit and it’s been heartening to get some great feedback from teachers… instructive and inspiring which supports their work in the classroom. I’ll take that.
My first lot of notes arrived from my editor for the new book this month too, so I’ve had my head deep in thoughts about re-writes. This first stage of the editing process usually pays close attention to the structure of the book, making sure the pace is working, prodding characters into life, identifying plot-holes and those saggy bits that lack enough tension to drive the story forward. It doesn’t matter how lovely the editor, most writers seem to agree there’s a heart-sink moment when you get these notes. My brain screams, I can’t do it, there’s been some terrible mistake, someone mis-took me for writer, I have no ideas left at allllll! This panic has a name: Cognitive Dissonance. It’s where your neurons scramble for ideas to try and resolve the crisis of contradiction, searching every dusty recess of your cranium for something that might help, anything in fact, and slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, finds glitter amongst the dust. Then you’re away, freshly fired up to make this book the best you possibly can. That is, until the next round of notes arrive…
The other week a bird woke me with its clear song while the day was still dark. Our bedroom double-glazing is badly fitted so we are usually woken by raucous seagulls or the revving engines of the early-shift workers heading off, but not that morning. As I snuggled down for another five minutes (fatal!), I remember thinking, hurrah, that’s Spring then!
Since then, we’ve had blue tits exploring the second bird box on the end of the house. They tap away at the entrance with their beaks, and then tap from the inside, as if checking it’s solid enough. I hope they decide to stay! Our lawn has turned into a sea of celandines and primroses. We even had our first daisy. I’ve been working hard to encourage other plants than just grass to grow, and it seems to be working. Lots of early nectar for pollinators!
Though I’ve had a fair few soakings on my bike this month, the last couple of weeks have been heavenly, with some really spectacular blue skies. Entirely appropriate then that the house should be full of Christmas tunes! The kids performed their Covid-cancelled, school productions last week, bedecked in tinsel and festive jumpers. I have to be honest, my heart wasn’t in it, not with tulip bulbs bursting forth.
I handed in final illustrations for a project with The Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution (SCCR) this month. These images will be part of a new campaign exploring the biology of decision-making. It’s a great project and it was great to work with them again. For those of you who don’t know, I’ve illustrated for SCCR since its inception, so it was lovely to be asked to be a panellist with Dr Sara Watkin, discussing our work with SCCR, as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival this coming May. The event will be online, so anyone can attend. It’s free, but ticketed. You register via the following link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/293049227127
I also have some very exciting book news I can share a little bit of now. I have a children’s novel coming out in February next year! It’s a new story with a new publisher. I can’t wait to tell you more about it!
I’ve landed in a heap at this weekend, and I’ve so much to tell you. I’ve been sitting here, Wren at my side, trying to craft it all into some sort of narrative but February has passed in a blur and I think I may only manage vignettes, like glimpses through train carriage windows. Wren is singing away as she colours rainbows over a misprinted 2021 diary I brought home from work. My brain feels a bit like her drawings, a frenzied riot of every shade in the rainbow.
Maybe I should start with a funny story…
“I have never seen that jumper in my life,” protested Middler, near the beginning of the month.
His poker face is incredible.
I raised an eyebrow.
“What? You’re telling me you’ve never seen the muddy school jumper in your size, with your name sewn into it, shoved in to the back of the wardrobe?”
He shrugs, grins and makes a run for it.
Storm Dudley rocked up, followed by Storm Eunice, followed by Storm Franklyn, which was all rather testing for my waterproof mascara on the bike to work. I hope you all survived. One morning, making a dash for it between squally gusts, Atlantic seasalt pebble-dashing my cheeks and my glasses, I glimpsed a lone swan, standing drearily on one foot in the churning grey waters deluging the river meadows. That was the day Russia invaded Ukraine. As the news rolled in, I felt a lot like that poor bird, uselessly standing on one leg, wondering what on earth to do with the deluge of grey news from a world seemingly determined to forget anything we ever learned through two world wars.
We picked up the shards of five panes of greenhouse glass at the allotment after the storms had passed. Our back fence had blown down at home. Beneath the splintered wood, primroses twinkled in dark hollows. Daffodils in a tub we brought from Scotland, trumpeted golden glory, just as they have faithfully done every year since Little Owl pushed the bulbs into the compost with five year-old fingers. I cycled precariously to work with a pot of tulip bulbs balanced on the handlebars to brighten up the view from our office window. Sometimes the incongruence of the world seems unbearable. War and spring flowers. But it would be so much worse if the flowers didn’t bloom.
On my phone I have a recording I made last February, of dawn out on the estuary. I rode out to the mouth of the river and in the dim lilac of a new day, listened to the wading birds calling to each other, the stars reflected in the millpond-still water. It’s a haunting sound and I love it. Deep inside, the language of wild things speaks to my heart in words I can only fathom wordlessly. Apple seeds I put in the fridge over winter to germinate are sprouting. They will be Wildings, of course. Most apples are from grafted trees, which produce a more reliable crop. I had been inspired to germinate these seeds by an old tale from the 1600s, of a tree up on the hill, going out of Exeter. It was famous for producing the best cider apples and it was a Wilding apple tree. So, who knows what my Wildings might become. Though I find infinite solace in wild things, I have no trite nature-related answers about the state of the world. I read an article by the social scientist, Chris Smaje, in the most recent edition of Land magazine, and couldn’t help think that we as a species need to work out why these ‘big men’, whether it’s Putin or Trump, continue to emerge from our group dynamics to wield such oppressive power. How is the world still reckoning with these archetypes that feel as though they’ve marched freshly out of the Roman Empire?
Over half term I took the children on one of our favourite school holiday trips – a cup of tea and a rummage through the shelves of the ‘big’ library in town. I stood outside the toilet in the library, studiously avoiding looking at the elderly gentleman waiting next to me. I was sure he didn’t approve. Little Owl and Wren were in the toilet together and all that could be heard was them singing the Bee Gees classic, “Ah-ah-ah-ah, Staying Alive!” over the sound of the hand drier. He looked a very ‘proper’ man and I was certain he wouldn’t have let his children carry on like this in his time. Mums everywhere can regale you with stories of older people who like to dispense their wisdom about your parenting fails just when you’re feeling at your most vulnerable. I couldn’t decide whether to brace myself for the comment I was sure was about to come, or to rap on the door and tell them to hurry up. It was then that I noticed his knees bend, and to my astonishment he started bopping up and down, singing along with them under his breath, “Ah, ah, ah, ah, staying alive!” He caught my eye and winked.
Out of the blue, I was asked to do two very lovely things for World Book Day – a school visit and a library workshop. After struggling more than a little with the awkwardness of self-promotion as a debut author last year, it was so nice to be asked. And if anyone reading this is wondering about asking, please do. Whatever, your circumstances, as long as I can get the day off and you can cover my expenses, my answer will probably be ‘yes’. So, on the day before World Book Day, I did three author events in a row, each to three classes from year 6, then year 5, and finally, year 4. Apart from a couple of things I will tweak next time, they went really well, and I absolutely loved the imaginative ideas bursting out of these wonderful children. I was able to partner with a local independent bookshop for booksales, which was an added bonus.
Then, on actual World Book Day, I ran a Riddles Workshop at our local library. Exeter is home to a very special 10thcentury book called, funnily enough, the Exeter Book. It lives in the library at Exeter Cathedral, and is the largest and oldest volume of Anglo Saxon writings in the world. It contains a number of riddles. I talked about this with the children and we had a go at writing our own riddles on authentic (wink) 10th century parchment. It was another fun event, full of brilliant, bouncing children.
In other news, I’m working on an illustration commission, there is top-secret book news to come, work continues apace, and my fingers are itching for seed sowings in March! But for now, I think I will colour rainbows with Wren.
Around this time of year my Instagram feed fills with pictures of chitting potatoes from like-minded grow-your-own-ers. I love it! So here’s mine, and my treasure trove, box of seeds. I had a go at collecting quite a few of my own seeds this year so we’ll see how that works out (she says, somewhat nervously). Now and again, especially on a particularly grey afternoon, I like to lift this box to my ear and give it a shake to hear the seeds whisper that very special word… Spring!
Time. It’s a slippery thing. There have been seasons of my life where I’ve had too much of it, waiting for it to pass, knowing that each ticking second is a second’s worth of healing, or a countdown to freedom. In other seasons, it has vanished in the blink of an eye, too fast and too fleeting for me to even register it was ever there.
This week, Big Dreamer and I were given the gift of time passing at the pace of our heart beats. My wonderful mother-in-law minded the bairns and kept the home fires burning, while we spent six days in a holiday cottage, deep in a wooded Devon combe. And this week, I felt like my soul caught up with my body. This year marks a big birthday for us both, and though it isn’t really any more significant than any other birthday, we felt the need to take a moment, mark time. We’d both felt the sands shifting beneath our feet and needed to take stock.
And things have been shifting for a while. Wren, our smallest child started school, taking to it more like a duck than her namesake. Little Owl, no longer very little, started ‘big school’. A surprise job saw me moving on from my beloved District Nursing, and taking on a full-time, employed role – one, I’m loving. My award-winning children’s novel finally made it onto bookshop shelves, an event I’m unsure whether to chalk up as a beginning or and end. And Big Dreamer and I, have other dreams we want to pursue, dreams and hopes that slipped in under the door like the rays of sun on the dawn of the first day of Spring, unexpectedly bright, and unexpectedly right.
If I could give myself one gift for the years after this birthday, it would be the gift of everything in its proper time: to not have to rush the children into their school clothes and out of the door each morning; to not resent the minutes spent making packed lunches because I’m so desperate for bed; to savour writing my shopping list (I know that sounds ridiculous but aren’t well-stocked shop shelves a miracle to savour?); to daydream over my morning coffee, appreciating the unfolding of the seasons outside the window; to give our dreams time to grow.
But the truth is, that would turn my days into weeks, my months into years, which reflects another truth – I am doing too much. In the last couple of years, my friend has given up having a diary. She says it has made her more “zen”. She realised she was micro-managing. I’d love to do the same, but I know I can’t at the moment, because it would expose me – there are too many spinning plates, too many balls in the air. Without a list for this and a note of that, it all comes crashing down. I know, I know, what’s the worst that could happen? What exactly am I afraid of? But the alternative is not the way I want to live. I don’t want to spend my time lurching from one near-miss to the next, most of the time saved by other’s preparedness or convenience food. But, and it’s a big one, I also want to live everyday at the pace of my own heartbeat, not just special breaks.
So, we have taken stock this week and one of the difficult things I have decided is, to only write a blog post once a month. I don’t know if that will matter to anyone at all, but for me, it’s a hard thing to say because this blog has been a weekly practice that has nourished my writing, both good and bad (sorry about that!). This blog is just over ten years old, and as we explore new things, it seems the right time to step back a little. My plan is to post something around the first of each month. I hope you faithful readers will continue to stay with me. Here’s to 2022 – a year of exploring new things and starting to live at heartbeat pace.
January often sees me turning reflective, seeking out essayists like Kathleen Jamie and Alistair McIntosh, to give me the words and images to navigate the dark winter days. Old folk songs sing of the ‘ghosts’ that visit us at this time of year, and for me that’s a very apt description – the ghosts of paths not taken, the pang of loss, the bittersweetness of time passing and my children growing (no matter how well spent or wonderful), and the finger-tip touch of my hopes for the coming year. The old songs advise us to entertain these ‘ghosts’ – today we might call that allowing ourselves time to ‘process’.
These are words from John O’Donohue’s book, Blessings, which my sister bought me, and this January has given me words for the dark days. The idea of these blessings is rooted in old Gaelic prayer traditions, captured in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica – blessings spoken over the routines of the day, from Grace at mealtimes through to milking the cow or taking a journey. These prayers were also often called ‘charms’, revealing the awkwardness of language in trying to capture the nuance of the human spirit. Words like ‘charm’ bring out Fundamentalists in a rash, and attracted the fire and brimstone of Presbyterianism back in the day, but these prayers are a practice we now understand to be deeply contemplative.
More recently, echoes of this spiritual practice are also to be found in the beautiful book Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris, which was re-imagined by traditional musicians in Spell Songs, reconnecting the written text with its oral, spoken roots. Here is a link to one of the songs, The Lost Words – Blessing.
As a busy, working mum, I recognise in these blessings or charms, an imaginative response to exactly what John O’Donohue describes – the rushing and fast travelling of modern life. These prayers were, and are, the tools of ordinary folks to anchor themselves, rocks dropped on ropes to the stormy depths, so as to keep noticing the “small miracles” amidst the waves and currents of the daily grind, and to keep themselves “slow and free” in a rapidly industrialising world.
And so I have begun to collect my own blessings, short strings of words, inspired by my daily routine – getting up in the morning, putting on my clothes. When I speak a blessing over the quick evening tea I’m serving up, asking for the food to nourish my children, I slow down, and the task becomes a “small miracle”. The words make me take notice. In our consumerist society, which both despises, and erases, the work and the worker, my little blessings ground and dignify my work to provide for my family and my community. Now there’s a thought for dark days.
We spent a truly magical Christmas, and I hope you did too. We even found snow up in the Yorkshire Dales, which was nearly better than all the presents. Back at home, the water meadows beside the river were flooded. A heron paddled the path along which I usually cycle to work. One of the very special things about my new job is being being able to cycle to work, all the more special in the stillness between Christmas and New Year.
We celebrated ‘midnight’ at 7pm on New Year’s Eve, in the company of friends with small children – the clocks around the house moved forward by five hours (tee hee!). It was perfect, and we probably enjoyed it more for the earlier hour! As we walked home in the dark, Finch yawned and commented, “I’d better get to bed quickly as there’s not many hours left until morning.”
Now we are back to the usual flurry of school and work, marked by the ‘bringing out of the hyacinths’ from the shed to cheer us through January. Their jewel-like flowers and powerful scent always feel very apt for the coming of the Magi at Epiphany. As is now tradition, this time of year also marks my round up of our favourite picture books from the last year, bought, borrowed or given…
The Day Fin Flooded the World by Adam Stower is a hilarious story about a forgetful boy called Fin, who leaves the tap on after remembering to brush his teeth. Fun illustrations with loads of details to spot.
Saturday by Oge Mora is a picture book that makes me cry, in a good way. It is the story of a little girl and her hardworking mum. The only day Mum gets off in the week is a Saturday. It’s a really special day, which they both look forward to, filled with special things they will do together. But the day doesn’t go to plan – everything goes wrong, from missing the bus, to forgetting the tickets to the puppet show. It’s a story many mums will be able to identify with. You set aside precious one-on-one time with your child, and make every effort to make it as special as you can, but all your best laid plans go awry and the world feels as though it’s determined to remind you how far you fall short of being the sort of mum your kids deserve. Just before Christmas we had a day like this, and when we got in the door, Wren went and found this book, plonking it in my lap. Oge Mora’s beautiful book is here to remind us that these days are still precious days, because you are spending time together, and that’s the most important thing of all.
The Catchpoles, a pair of literary agents who describe themselves as having one working leg between them, are tireless campaigners in raising awareness about representation of disabled people in children’s literature. I have learnt so much from them and continue to do so. What Happened To You? is James Catchpole‘s picture book about a boy with one leg, much like James himself. This little boy doesn’t want to continuously answer questions about his ‘other’ leg, he just wants to play a game of pirates. This book is a story to help us all understand that a person’s health is no business but their own, so how about we mind our own, and just get on with playing awesome swashbuckling adventures?
Weirdo by Zadie Smith, Nick Laird, and Magenta Fox, is about a guinea pig called Maud who loves judo. When Maud is given to a little girl called Kit for Kit’s birthday, Kit’s existing pets don’t give Maud a chance, labelling her a ‘weirdo’. But before Maud can find acceptance in her new home, she has to learn to accept herself. It’s a tale about fitting in and standing out. Great message and super sweet illustrations.
Don’t Get Your Tutu In A Twist by Jenny Moore and Barbara Bakos is a funny romp about the animals’ rehearsals for Miss Gorilla’s dance show. With a sloth who won’t stay awake and a crocodile who gets his leotard in a loop, what could possibly go wrong? Great rhythmic writing so a fab one to read aloud.
Many of you regular readers know what a fan I am of Clare Helen Welsh – her books regularly feature as some of our favourites. This year she has had a few new releases but the one we loved best was Time To Move South For The Winter, a non-fiction tale illustrated by Jenny Lovlie, which follows a tiny term from the Arctic to the Antarctic on her annual migration. It’s a really beautiful story with stunning illustrations, peppered with interesting facts which are explored further at the back of the book.
Margaret’s Unicorn by Briony May Smith is a gorgeous story about a girl who moves house and finds a baby unicorn. Briony is a phenomenal illustrator, whose wonderful use of colour and light elevates any book she’s involved with to classic status. It’s a longer picture book, in the vein of stories like The Mousehole Cat, which incomprehensibly, seem to have dropped out of favour at the moment, but suit children like Wren (5-7 age bracket) who aren’t ready (and who’d blame them!) to leave behind colour for the black and white of chapter books.
I love Autumn but I do find Halloween a tricky festival. Though we did do some celebrating this year, because The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle is particularly suited to the season, there are aspects of it that are problematic – y’know, like frightening the life out of little children, xenophobic and misogynistic tropes, etc, etc. The Little Ghost Who Was A Quilt by Riel Nason and Byron Eggenschwiler however, is a very sweet book, and ideal for children who find the whole Halloween thing just plain weird and scary. I don’t want to give too much away, but the little ghost in this book is different to the other ghosts. Let’s just say, scaring is not high on its priorities list.
The Night Walk by Marie Dorleans captured my kids imaginations this year. It’s a deceptively simple concept, immaculately pulled off. The world is transformed in the darkness when a family go on a walk through the night to see the sun rise. A very special book.
What are Little Girls Made Of by Jeanne Willis and Isabelle Follath is a retelling of classic nursery rhymes with a modern slant, and it’s really, REALLY good. Little Miss Muffet loves spiders, Jill saves the day when Jack crashes his scooter, and there’s even a quick lesson on consent in Georgie Peorgie. Absolutely brilliant. I internally cheer whenever I read it.
So there we go, that’s our round-up for this year! It goes without saying, huge thanks to the fabulous book reviewers and booksellers who have pointed us in the direction of some of these reading treasures. Here’s to a 2022 filled with many more wonderful books!
We returned to a brief bit of routine this week after our spot of Covid isolation and before the festive holidays start. I remained negative throughout, and thankfully, none of us are worse the wear, though we have emerged into a slightly disorientating maelstrom of omicron variants and Christmas hubbub. It was the last day of term for Wren and Finch today so we headed up into town to see the Christmas lights and visit the Christmas market.
Exeter always has an avenue of charity Christmas trees. They are donated by local growers and decorated by local charity groups. I was delighted to find the Exeter and District branch of the MS Society in amongst them…
In amongst the other Christmas trees I found these words…
There was something very powerful about seeing those words hung on these trees that represent some of the most vulnerable people in Exeter. In amongst the bright lights and the shopping frenzy, these two words rang out like perfectly pitched little bells. Home and Community. Two such important things that many people do not have.
This is my final post before Christmas, so this year, as well as thanking you for your continued and generous support (thank you!), I would also like to wish for you a warm home and a loving community. To you and yours, peace and joy. See you in the new year!
Now the whole household has tested positive for Covid, except me… and though I’d like to put my good health down to a particularly strong and superior constitution, I think my Covid booster in October may be the key contributing factor. In the mean time, I’ll be the one nipping out to get the milk when we run out, homeschooling, ‘working’ from home, and trying to stop three housebound children from climbing the walls. See you on the other side!