On Sunday, bubbling pans on the hob, we had the kitchen windows open to let out the steam. A soft rain fell outside, the gentle putter of the falling drops punctuating by the occasional ding of a larger drop hitting the ladder hung up on the wall. Across the dusk, the song of a blackbird filled the kitchen, like a soloist with the rain as its orchestra. As one, we all paused, and listened, entranced. A blackbird’s song is my favourite but even so, this was something special. I think perhaps, somewhere deep down, I had felt that spring might be silent this year – that the devestation wrought by the pandemic had somehow wiped all life from the earth.
On early morning bike rides this week, the river has been full of birdsong, and small mammals skittering across my path in the thin, pre-dawn light. Writing up my notes in the car one morning at work, a blue-tit flew down and perched on my wing mirror, pecking at his reflection. What a treat! I think, like many people, I have found the familiar signs of spring, a welcome mood-booster. Who can be down when faced with a daffodil or a daft blue-tit? At the hospital, they are winding down the first phase of staff covid vaccinations as most people have received theirs. In a little while they will ramp up again for the second phase, but it signals what has been achieved in the last couple of months. I listen to the dissections of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown on the radio, and really feel, maybe, this time, we might finally be on the home straight of getting back to some sort of normality.
Counting down… it’s four weeks to the publication of The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle. The clip above is from my publisher’s YouTube channel – me reading an extract from the book to whet your whistles. Isn’t it funny seeing yourself back like that? Who knew I pulled such faces when I read aloud!
I read Kathleen Jamie’s book of essays, Surfacing, over January. As you would expect from Jamie, it’s a beautiful selection. She explores the life transitions going on in her own family against the background of an archaeological dig in Alaska, and another in Orkney. The parallels between the modern Yup’ik way of life, the 500 year-old buried Yup’ik village, and the Neolithic houses at Westray made for fascinating reading. I thought her unpicking of modern attitudes to the finds at the digs were particularly thought-provoking. I grew up near to an Iron Age hill fort, and spent many hours playing there, and I know I was ambivalent about it as a child. The fort was known as a “castle” locally, but to me it always seemed diminished; the steep earthen embankments overgrown with trees, a pathetic attempt at my idea of a castle. Where was the moat and drawbridge, the towers, the ramparts?
Funnily enough, my childhood attitude resembles current Orcadian attitudes to the Westray dig, which Jamie recounts in her book. The people she spoke to around Westray were far more interested in their Viking heritage than the peaceful homesteading of their Neolithic ancestors. Here in Devon, the Romans arrived not long after AD 43 and stayed until AD411. The indigenous Dumnonii are believed to have come to a peaceful agreement with the Romans, allowing them to continue their way of life largely undisturbed in the deep wooded valleys of Devon, which gave the tribe their name (‘deep valley dweller’). It’s perhaps easy to see the allure of the invaders: charismatic, muscle-bound soldiers full of adventurous tales, who made local farm-steading culture seem bland by comparison. I wonder how much we continue to be constrained by attitudes that perhaps first permeated local society all that time ago, meanwhile, thinking ourselves so enlightened. By contrast, the Yup’ik seem keen to reclaim the traditional way of life followed by their ancestors, unearthed during the dig, and nearly obliterated by Christian missionaries and alcohol. It’s a way of life, Jamie notes, which is likely to stand them in much better stead for coming climate change disruption than the ideology and lifestyle imposed by the missionaries.
Back in Devon, the Iron Age hill forts built from earth and timber in the 1st – 2nd century BC were still in use by the Dumnonii when the Anglo Saxons arrived in the 9th century. The Dumnonii engaged in guerilla warfare, sweeping down on Saxon villages from high places like Cadbury Hill Fort, not far from us. They were so effective that the layout of the village of Thorverton is built round a central square called the Bury where flocks could be quickly corralled should the Dumnonii be on the rampage. But the Dumnonii weren’t effective enough, ultimately pushed up on to Dartmoor and across the Tamar into Cornwall by the Saxons. We visited Cadbury Hill Fort the other weekend. Snow speckled the sky. The ground, hard as concrete. Icy mists shrouded the valley bottoms. It was easy to imagine the Dumnonii warriors, sweeping down on the village, a ghostly spectacle with their lime-washed hair, and woad-decorated skin.
The weekend just gone we climbed up through snowdrop-carpeted woods in search of the remains of a hill fort at Hunter’s Tor on Dartmoor. We’ve explored a few of the Dartmoor hill forts before. Cranbrook is particularly impressive, wide and expansive, with commanding views. Wooston hill fort was excavated fairly recently, and you can read about the findings of the dig here. Generally small, and multivallate (several ditches), this type of hill fort is only found in the Welsh Marches outside of the South West. It was cold but bright when we scrambled up to the top of Hunter’s Tor. From the ridge top there, it was possible to see for miles and miles in a full 360. It would have been a great spot for a fort, but sadly we could find little evidence of it now. I stood, surveying the horizon, wondering what the Dumnonii might have been able to tell us about living seasonally and sustainably in this land – the traditional treasure-trove akin to that slowly surfacing in Alaska seems so deeply submerged here, both in landscape and our minds, that I think it must be lost to us forever. Still, standing on the tor, it is amazing that the memory of these people and the folk memory of these ‘castles’ has persisted over four centuries at all, their ghosts still a tangible presence in the landscape. Perhaps not so far from the surface then.
Six weeks today, my middle-grade children’s novel, The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, will be hitting bookshop shelves. I’m both excited, and very nervous. The excited part of me made this book trailer!
For those of you who read my blog regularly, I’m afraid things are going to get a bit focussed on Avery Buckle over the next few months. I hope that will be okay, and that you’ll enjoy my bookish posts as much as my normal ones.
Well, what I really want to know is, what are you doing about seeds this year? My favourite little Welsh seed company has been overwhelmed by orders, and due to social distancing in the seed packing sheds, can’t take any more orders until February. The local garden centre where I normally get my seed potatoes from, has closed it’s doors indefinitely, because they feel it is the right thing to do, to reduce the spread of Covid. I can’t bear to undermine their honourable decision by going somewhere else. Especially as the next nearest option is a garden centre who suddenly started stocking all sorts of non-gardening ‘essentials’ to stay open through the first lockdown, and whose staff always look so sad, and I don’t think know one end of a plant from another. I’ve had a pear tree on order from an online company since last august, delayed by staffing difficulties, although promised to arrive before the end of the planting season.
I think I may go back to Sarah Raven for my seeds. We had vouchers for Christmas and I splashed out, with a little help from Little Owl, on new dahlias for the allotment from her. Sarah is very reliable. But what about the spuds? My Dad scoffs at chitting any year, and this year more than ever. He’s planted fields of potatoes in his life, none of them chitted, and they all did fine. He says, hold hard (classic Dadism), and they’ll come to no harm going straight into the ground. Of course, that relies on my garden centre re-opening at some point before March. Oh the conundrums! What it has convinced me of, and I think many others are thinking the same, is the need to save more of my own seed. I had saved a few things this year, but my cornflowers were non-existent, and my broad beans were a disaster. Right, Sarah Raven it is… and this year, I’ll save more seed!
On Friday I was called into school. Wren had put something up her nose. The way Wren told it, her teacher had clocked her across the classroom mid-deed. Hats off to Miss L, I’m not sure I’d have noticed a patient doing something similar in a crowded hospital bay. Probably it’s a teacher superpower. I wouldn’t be surprised – they seem to have many. Anyhow, unable to see where the foreign object was, exactly, up Wren’s nose, but pretty certain it hadn’t come back out, Miss L gave me a call.
It was Mr E, the wonderful, and very worn-out looking Head who brought Wren out to me in the playground. Most of us can only hazard a guess at how awful last week was for head teachers, re-jigging their schools for a new lockdown last minute. He shook his head at me with a jaded laugh, “Just when I thought my week couldn’t get any more bizarre, Wren is brought to my office!”
Fortunately the combined might of a pen-torch, and a particularly vicious pair of tweezers from my nursing bag proved effective in removing the object from Wren’s nasal passages, so a trip to A&E was avoided. What came out looked like the bottom end of a blunted screw. I have no idea what it actually was. When we asked her about it, Wren just grinned smugly, and wouldn’t tell us a thing, so we are none the wiser. I hope your lockdown is going as swimmingly as ours so far!
I hope you had a good Christmas and New Year despite the clouds of Covid hanging over all of us. Being in Tier 2 we were able to see some family on Christmas Day. It was a very odd feeling, waving goodbye to them in the evening, none of us knowing when we will get together like that again. Big Dreamer booked tickets for Treasure Island at a local theatre, and took the children on one of the days I was working. The show was a humourous and bawdy take on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel which terrified me as a child. Our kids thought the show was hilarious and loved every minute. The one eyebrow-raising moment came from Captain Birds-Eye mincing a captive pirate for fishfingers. Big Dreamer wondered if Wren would ever eat fishfingers again, but after a brief moment of alarm she seemed to get over it, and for the other two, I think it will only make fishfingers more appealing! Seated in bubbles Big Dreamer said it was actually a more pleasurable theatre experience: less distractions from other people’s coughing, rustling sweet packets, and wriggling children (unfortunately he still had to put up with his own), so perhaps, one good thing about all this social distancing malarkey.
Anyhoo, onto my traditional annual round-up of picture books we have borrowed, bought, or been bought, and LOVED!
Last Stop on Market Streetby Matt De La Pena and Christian Robinson has been around for a little while now, and has a real classic quality to it. Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town to help at the city’s soup kitchen. As little children so often do, CJ asks difficult questions about the differences he spots in the people around him, and the places they pass. Each question is met with an encouraging answer by his grandma, who helps him spot the beauty in the world around him. The illustrations are bright and cheerful, and the loving tone of CJ’s grandma really does bring a lump to your throat.
Too Much Stuff by Emily Gravett is a follow up to Tidy, which we adored last year. Set in the same wood as Pete the Badger’s story, this book centres around Meg and Ash, two magpies. With chicks on the way, Meg and Ash can’t resist collecting all sorts of odds and ends for their new family, but it soon gets out of hand! This is such a charming story, with a light touch anti-consumption message. Emily Gravett’s illustrations are full of loads of fun details my lot love to spot.
The Perfect Shelter was written by my fabulous friend, Clare Helen Welsh, and is illustrated by Asa Gilland. I have raved about Clare’s picture books on this blog before, and this is another wonderful one. Clare is able to deal with difficult topics in such a lyrical and sensitive way. This time she explores a serious childhood illness within a family. The background to the writing of this book is very personal to Clare so I’d highly recommend reading this interview with her about it here. I think this will be such an important book for many families living through the reality of the situation she describes. To get the most out of it for my children, I found it useful to read this book together in a quiet space where we could talk the topic through and explore what the implications of the story might be for how we treat people.
Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen is another picture book that has been around for a while but this year was the year it seemed to capture Wren’s imagination. Annabelle finds a box in the snow filled with colourful yarn so she starts knitting jumpers for everyone. Annabelle’s knitting brings joy and happiness to all those around her, and incredibly the yarn never seems to run out. But the magical knitting soon attracts the attention of a sinister Arch-duke who wants the yarn all for himself.
My Friend Earth by Patricia MacLachlan and Francesca Sanna is more a beautiful illustrated poem about the wonder of planet Earth than a story exactly. The words are thoughtful and lyrical, but the real treat of this book is the illustrations. The stunning, flowing imagery has little cut-outs giving you sneak peeks through to the next pages, and attracting your eye to details that draw you through the story. Too delicate for very small children, but Wren at four has been the perfect age for it.
We read Alison Murray’sPrincess Penelope and the Runaway Kitten endlessly so Alison’s book, Dino Duckling, has been on our hit-list for a while. This is a quirky take on the old Ugly Duckling fable. One of the eggs in a brood of ducklings is a dinosaur. Mother Duckling is determined to appreciate the differences in her family but the real test of their bond will come when the ducks start to fly south for the winter. All about love and the strength of family, this is such a heart-warming tale.
Finch will be seven this spring and his relationship with picture books is on the wan (cue me bursting into floods of tears!). Obsessive About Octopuses by Owen Davey has been one of his favourites this year. Highly illustrated non-fiction titles like this one and Yuval Zommer’s books, are working as a great bridge for Finch into older books. Full of fantastic facts, and sumptuously designed illustrations, he has spent hours pouring over this book.
Last by not least, How Billy Hippo Learned his Colours, words by Vivian French and illustrations by me! I couldn’t leave it out could I? Billy Hippo is trying to find the perfect present in the perfect colour for his dad’s birthday. The problem is, he doesn’t know red from green, or blue from pink! Probably best suited for little children, I’m just a bit proud of it 🙂
My last bit of news for this blog is also book-related. On Christmas Eve my advance copy of The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle landed on the doormat. It was such a wonderful moment, I can’t tell you. My story, in real physical form! I had to sit down for quite a while. Here’s the gist of it for any of you who might know a 9-12 year old (or anyone else really!) who likes this sort of thing:
Avery Buckle has always been different: part-girl, part-cat, and entirely confused about where she really belongs. But it turns out her tail isn’t her biggest secret…
Plunged into an extraordinary world of witches, enchanted libraries and fantastical creatures, Avery discovers only she can stop a dark force from being unleashed.
But with a powerful enemy on her tail, can Avery save the magical world AND find out who she really is?
I may have mentioned this once or twice (!), but anyway… it’s out on March 18th and is available to pre-order now from all good bookshops. Here are a few I can heartily recommend (and they do online/over-the-phone shopping and can arrange delivery too!):
On Sunday morning I trundled out on my rounds, listening to Sunday Worship on Radio 4. The service came from St David’s in Pembrokeshire. After all the bad news of recent days it was comforting to hear Welsh words spoken, memories of so many trips to Wales, and St David’s, flooding my mind’s eye. I even understood something! “Pob Bendith” – “Every blessing”.
Lunchtime carols at the cathedral are cancelled this year, likewise the twinkling light display at the local National Trust property we like to visit. We attended a family nativity service via Zoom. Looking back at last year, and how it had felt such a mad rush of over-consumption getting to Christmas, I can’t help wonder if it’s all bad. Yet it felt really Christmassy listening to the choir in the car, the low winter sun reflecting in my wing mirrors, so I do hope the lunchtime carols will be back next year. Sometimes I wonder if it is more about being spectacularly organised for Christmas, knowing in advance the events and activities that we want to prioritise, those that will add to the sense of the season, rather than reactively agreeing to every invitation for Christmas drinks here, and ‘pop in for a mince pie’ there.
As Sunday drew on, I drove through narrow lanes, more like streams than roads after the heavy rainfall. Patients wished me Merry Christmas from cosy kitchens where support stockings steamed over old stoves, and garden birds flocked around well-filled bird feeders. Up, out, of the city the sky was bright blue, and I thought to myself, we are nearly there, nearly at the turning of the year when I will begin to put together my seed orders, and spot the first spring bulbs popping up. On Monday morning I received an email from my manager. Wearily filling in a Clinical Incident form last thing on Sunday for a patient who had developed a pressure ulcer, I had only populated the form with my own details! She was reassured to know the skin on my bottom was indeed intact.
I hope your plans for Christmas are not too disrupted by the government’s announcements, and that you will be able to feel the festive spirit despite restrictions. As always at this time of year, my thanks goes out to all of you who follow this blog, and keep up with my news and ramblings. I am hugely honoured by your support, and patience! Have a wonderful Christmas, and peaceful New Year. I will be back in January. Pob Bendith.
This year, instead of sending Christmas cards, we are giving a donation to Devon-based charity ARC. ARC is a homelessness and addiction charity. Big Dreamer is a trustee for them so we can say, hand on heart, with insider knowledge, this charity is a lean machine, ferociously passionate about transforming lives. You can find out more about their work via their website: https://arcinspire.co.uk.
We are delighted to share with you the shortlist for the #KelpiesPrize for Writing and Illustration 2020! Congratulations to @squintywitch, @ae_daly, Fiona McKeracher, @burke_finola, Evonne Summers, Leanne Goodall, Abi Pate and Sandra Simons! Full details: http://ow.ly/bhJi30rxoJw