Book, cake and me

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Mud, Mud Glorious Mud!

“Mud, mud, glorious mud. There’s nothing quite like it for stirring the blood…” This was the rousing chorus of the song my head teacher used to play at lunchtimes in my primary school.  Happy days…back to the mud.  I can’t tell you how sad I get when I hear some parents says to their children, “don’t touch the soil it’s dirty, yuck” this is when their little toddler is eagerly exploring a healthy bed of quality compost and soil at the Children’s Centre where I work.  Now, I know gardening may not be for everyone, but when your children have an opportunity to get their hands dirty and literally get in touch with nature, they should be encouraged.  I could write plenty about the educational benefits of playing in a soil bed and more about the social personal benefits.  Over the top you may think, but having a look at the earth, discovering a worm and wondering what that worm’s place in the world is, or seeing how a plant grows and needs nurturing keeps a person grounded, literally.  They may not get all this as a toddler but it is the beginning of developing respect for nature and practically speaking gaining an understanding of where fruit and vegetables come from.
             I remember looking at my empty allotment plot when I started to grow vegetables and it really made me think about how much land and work is needed to produce enough food for a household, village, town, city and country.  I saw my plot multiplying before me.  Then consider the resources to hand, water being your most important.  If you are trying to grow things you really appreciate rain when others may grumble because you see how important it is, you appreciate how much farmers rely on a good downpour, never mind washing the car or keeping a cultivated lawn.   This line of thinking takes me to the reason I stopped eating meat when I moved to Newcastle from my country village.  I could not see the link between the packaged meat in the supermarket and the life of the animal that died to feed me.  I am not debating the merits of vegetarianism, but I used to help my dad skin and gut rabbits when I was a child and even had a biology lesson thrown in; I could identify the chambers of the heart and all.  The disconnect I felt later as a teenager in a city when looking at a chicken carcass in a foam tray covered in cling film, was powerful and I haven’t eaten meat for twenty years now. 
So, we can’t all live the good life, though I love the idea of it, but we can make a connection with the natural world and appreciate our place in it, even if that is with a small soil bed filled with good clean compost.  It doesn’t mean your children will be vegetarian, just for the record.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Picture This ...

Our first reading of a story is visual.  We start when we are babies and toddlers with board books, bold colourful pictures, maybe the word to match the image or the images to communicate on their own.   A lot of time is spent in early years and primary education developing visual literacy, until a child finds, as they get older those images recede and the focus is on the words of stories.  Illustrators can tell a story in visual language, from the children’s picture book to the graphic novel for adults, as compelling and rewarding as any written novel. 
Start with the very young and the 1969 picture book Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins.   The child following the story will not only follow the plot by hearing the words read aloud, but will follow the pictures which provide humour and irony, as the fox is thwarted in his attempts to get Rosie the hen who is apparently unaware of the fox.   Humour in children’s books is so important and if you ‘get the joke’ then you understand that language works on different levels.
Then you have picture books that help children deal with emotion and fill the space that sometimes words cannot fill, but are better expressed visually.  One excellent example of this is Michael Rosen’s The Sad Book illustrated by Quentin Blake.  The words are simple and effective and Rosen skilfully communicates how it feels to be sad like when “Sometimes sad is very big.  It’s everywhere. All over me” and especially the immense and overwhelming sadness when he thinks about his son Eddie who died.  What Quentin Blake does in his illustration of the book is bring an immediacy to the feelings that the words are describing with his unique style which may appear simplistic, but is actually a stroke and a shade exactly as he needs it. 
Modern Illustrators can help bring a classic to a new generation of readers, like the recent 2010 edition of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, written in 1945,  this publication has been illustrated by Lauren Child.  Child’s quirky, slightly wonky and playful illustrations suit Lindgren’s text perfectly as Pippi is fun, freckled and fearless.  What a great way to get a new generation into a wonderfully written book for middle years readers. 
Shaun Tan is one outstanding illustrator who creates a visual narrative with The Arrival that will fascinate a teenage reader.  The Arrival follows a man and his family who leave their home to escape a terror, which is unspecific, just a visual hint at what they are fleeing.  They arrive in a new country and the illustrations follow the man and his family in setting up a new life in what is a strange land.  The images he creates in The Arrival are imagined but bear resemblance to things that the reader will connect with.  He does not need to use words at all.
There are so many great graphic novels out there for older teenagers and adults providing escapism and also ones that deal very much with reality. There are a few graphic novels that tell about experiences of war, like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  Satrapi illustrates using a bold black and white comic strip and well placed humour in recalling her childhood experiences growing up in Iran, revolution, Austria in the 80’s and student life in a changed Iran on her return.   Considering the range of stories graphic novels and picture books can tell, these books can only enrich our reading experiences.  Have a look in your local comic book store, the sellers are usually very knowledgeable, see what they have, there may be a wonderful array of DC comics and there will also be a lot more on the shelves to suit a wide range of tastes. 

Saturday, 9 April 2011

This book right... it is about a spy and he is cold so he wants to come in...

The Spy who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre was the book I gave away free for World Book Night.  I actually chose Northern Lights by Philip Pullman as my first title but they had given all of those out to givers so I got my second choice.  What a good choice anyway!  I gave this book to punters in my local on the Friday and Saturday and it was so easy.  I just promised them a great read and said it was a free book.  Quite a few men, in particular, had already read it and agreed that it was a fine spy novel and took a copy to read again and I am hoping that readers new to the book do read it and enjoy reading  it as much as I have.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is not a typical spy story, there are few gadgets and being a spy is presented as a bleak, isolating and cold job. ‘The Cold’, can mean so many things – The Cold War, the cold of post war Europe and the cold of human kind after such brutality.  However, the cold is something  even deeper, it is something that chills the bones of Leamas and it kills him.  It would appear, that the cold is indeed the secret service but more specifically Control, who is detached, unemotional, professional and who is the secret service elite.  They use Leamas for their own means and the Cold War is fought with a philosophy of ‘the end justifying the means.’  I read the novel suspecting that Alec does know what is happening underneath the bluff and double bluff and is aware of his ‘end’.  I think what motivates Alec is the opportunity to take the Mundt down until he realises that Mundt has used him to take Fielder down  and ‘kill the Jew’.  Alec tries to treat Liz kindly throughout and believes they will her let her go in the end and he is prepared to die to ensure she does.  The end is brutal and proves the coldness of the world of espionage, it is not a British coldness or even a German coldness, it is the coldness of the Circus.   In saving Liz and sacrificing himself Leamas proves himself to be warm and human.

The character of Leamas is fascinating to the reader we admire him and his intelligence although the rest of world does not appear to do so.    He was active in the war and had seen the liberation of the concentration camps and been in Berlin in the 50s.  The man Leamas, was not cut out for a normal desk job and in his time in the grey and bleak post war London out of the service in the cold, he moves like a shadow amongst the ordinary citizens with Liz Gold appearing to be the only one who shows him any warmth during this period. 
Liz Gold is naive, but intelligent although she allows herself to be drawn in to East Germany and the plot without realising the immense danger she is in.  Liz is in danger for so many reasons; she knows too much even if she doesn’t realise how much she knows, she is Jewish, making her a target for Mundt regardless and she is warm and human. 

And indeed the Service is an omnipresent all seeing organisation that as Carre describes makes the reader wonder if the British Service (his) is even colder than their enemies,

 ‘They would expect him to be afraid; for his Service pursued traitors as the eye of God followed Cain across the desert.’ 

Carre’s writing is so well crafted and loaded with meaning the book has exceptional pace no word is wasted.     

Did you get a book given to you on World Book Night?  Have you had a book passed on to you that was originally a World Book Night title?  I hope that the books given have been read and will passed on to share great stories, poetry and writers.  Check out their site at

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Gig Review - UNKLE 1ST April at Brixton Academy

When Unkle invited us warmly into ‘a world of pure imagination’ with the help of Gene Wilder, I was in there along with the rest of the crowd.  We were taken visually into the galaxies and stars of the universe and the sound of Unkle’s diverse and eclectic mix of styles and collaborations that always work.  The crowd enjoyed Ian Brown’s laconic vocals on Be There, along with Josh Homme on Restless a thumping psychedelic  soul tune.

The music moved from intuitive ‘reaching for the lazers’ dance, back down into the beautiful murky, gothic, grimy and stellar tunes that followed.  The crunchy guitar rock sounds and bass travelled along the floor and resonated within the sonically swelled chests of the Brixton crowd.  The visuals again, inviting the mind into a sort of moving liquid Warshak test. 

The Duke Spirit supported, and rocked the crowd with two guitars, a bass and drummer that did get wicked (sorry), and Leila Moss’ vocals are deep and perfect for the sound of this cracking rock band that paved the way for Unkle’s performance.  Leila also sang on stage with Unkle later  – her voice difficult to define somewhere between rock angel and Scandinavian saga.  

Unkle pick up threads from so many areas of music and still maintain an Unkle persona, they collaborate with artists like Nick Cave and give the audience something so clear and generous in spirit that we appreciate the blending and disregard for boundaries.  I was especially appreciative at the end of the set for a trip back into Psyence Fiction and Lonely Souls was well received by a crowd where many were clearly as fond of Unkle now as they ever were.   


I wrote this review trying to get some free gig tickets on the Brixton Academy Facebook page and misread 300 as being 300 words, but actually it was 300 characters!  So I have cut my entry on their page to a mere 300 characters and thought I shouldn't just leave the rest of my words hanging, so here they are as a full gig review.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Why I Love Libraries

The library is an exhilarating place! 

Really it is.  The library is full of risk takers.  You take more risks in a library in your book choices because they are free to loan and you can pick up a few titles and not worry about the expense.  I wouldn’t take the same type of risk in a bookshop.  When I spend money on a book I agonise over my choice, whereas in a library I will read a new author more readily just because it looks intriguing. 
I discovered many great books in the library, and it is a pleasing thought that other people have picked up the book before and after me.  Children benefit from libraries enormously and my heart warms when I see they still shelve the Asterix books I loved as a child.   It took a long time to build up the Asterix collection I still proudly own; it required a lot of pocket money.  I am actually still missing ‘Asterix and the Great Divide’ and ‘Asterix and Son’, but at least I have read them both in the library.   Just look at how many children’s books are written as a series – Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Diary of a Wimpy Kid all very good but expensive when you add it up; in the library they are free.
There are so many other authors and topics I have taken the risk with in the library (ooh er);   Buddhism, new recipes, knitting patterns (fail – I lost count of my stitches)...  I love the library – it is a place of daring. 

The library is good for your health!

This is mainly because nothing bad can happen to you in a library.  I have thought of three possible scenarios where someone could get injured:

1.  A book is hurled by an angry, frustrated reader because the plot is so maddening.  The thrown book may well hit someone on the head causing, in the very least, distress. 

2.  In a rush to get home and read your borrowed books you crash into the barrier before the lock has been released and do some damage to yourself, especially men.

3.  You crick your back in reaching down to get a book on a lower or even higher shelf.

A library is also good for the health of the community. It is a safe haven for children who just want peace and quiet and do want to get on with some work.  If you live in a home that is madcap and noisy then a library is a great bolt hole for anyone.  Adults can also find sanctuary in a quiet library even just to read the newspaper.

It is egalitarian.  

You don’t need to go to Eton or Oxbridge to access learning in a library.  Anyone can use their local library.
I was always told by my mum that ‘if you can read you can teach yourself anything.’ That is something I now hold true.  Many times I have gone into a library just wanting to find out more about a subject for my own interest or research.  A library gives children independence and access to world beyond.  My father’s working class roots did not exclude books; they were always borrowed from the library and provided adventures that inspired a lad from Liverpool to end up in the same places his heroes had gone and learn the languages of the communities he found himself in.  The library was just the beginning of his travels.

Libraries love you!

You are not alone.  Libraries provide resources beyond the purely practical, it sends the message that the state cares about your mind and the quality of your life, your intellectual pursuits and your enjoyment in reading books.
I do believe that there are some things that we need to share and that just because something does not make money does not mean it is not valuable.  Libraries should be invested in and people should be encouraged to use them so we can share knowledge and stories and news.  We can and do all this virtually; this is a blog after all, but no one is editing me. Books that make it to print are edited and have to provide accurate, sourced information if they are non-fiction.  We still and will always need some things to be tangible and libraries and books are. 

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Vampire Lestat - Paris to Havana ...

Occasionally you may be lucky enough to read novels in the places where they are set.  The Vampire Lestat is set for a large part of the story in Paris which is where I happened to be when reading it.
On reading The Vampire Lestat, my thoughts settle in my mind like the thick snowflakes falling in front of the Notre Dame, and they settle on the idea of an exquisite, noble eighteenth century Frenchman and a fatally seductive vampire.  In Anne Rice’s novel, Lestat walks through the dark streets of Paris like a tortured angel, once a mortal but now thirsty for mortal blood.  Anne Rice recreates Paris on the tipping point of revolution exceptionally well.  As a Frenchman born into a world that whispered, shouted and then executed revolutionary ideas, Lestat is a rebel mortal and in turn becomes a rebel vampire.  He shuns the devil and wants to be good, but his idea of good is in accomplishment rather than in deed.  He says himself that he wants to be good at being a vampire.  The gloriously dark scene where Lestat takes two victims, a mother and child in the dark recesses of the gothic Notre Dame cathedral, shows how this vampire is free from the superstitions of the old world.  Lestat, like the new ideas rising in France and Europe, believes in a secular society and is in what can only be described as despair when Christianity as he experiences it, provides no comfort.  Lestat’s questions begin as a mortal and are only increased as an immortal vampire.  He searches for the truth about his vampire kin and travels to Egypt and eventually New Orleans in the New World. 
     Anne Rice does not simply present vampires to shock and horrify us, but presents the vampire aesthetic which is beautiful, rich and sensuous alongside chilling deaths drained of blood and the idea of the Savage Garden, indiscriminate and cruel yet at the same time gloriously beautiful.  Lestat does discover other vampires in the underworld of Paris and Les Innocents and he is disgusted by their primitive and superstitious ways ruled over by the Vampire Armand, not searching for answers or experiencing life’s beauties and riches.  The Vampire Armand nearly destroyed by a revolt of his coven, is forced to change and use Lestat’s aesthetic to create the Theatre of the Vampires, where art and vampires conceal each other.   Lestat loves the mortal fragility of his friend Nicki, Nicki accepts the mortal world and accepts death as part of life much more easily than Lestat who seeks something greater than life with the promise of death.  The vampire Nicki is destroyed by his own abhorrence at what he has become and the moral implications of what he must do to survive.  Lestat, by contrast, embraces his vampire world because it is so enchanting and bestows upon him an experience of life that is beyond the constraints of the human world.  It also feeds his ego and makes him super human and beyond the mundane.
      Lestat’s journey moves on to find the vampire Marius who, it could be said, is his vampire grandfather.   Marius’ story takes the vampire legend back into Europe’s history, into the times of the Celts and the rule of the Romans and another world forced to change.  The Celtic tribe feed the vampire as a ritual for the Gods and weave the vampire into their own spiritual ideas.   Again the vampire uses ritual and spectacle, aesthetic, to survive and the twin ideas of good and evil in the mortal world.    Marius is guardian to two ancient Egyptian vampires again at once horrifying and beautiful and with the story of Osiris Lestat discovers Gods and vampire legend interwoven and related in some mysterious way.  Lestat finds out more about his vampire heritage, but seeks more answers.  He wants to know whether an understanding of what created the vampire can be of value to the mortal world.  Lestat understands that the ultimate questions about existence and God and the nature of good and evil are not his vampire questions, but his mortal questions.  It is what he felt when he fought the wolves as a young man in rural France, a sense of closeness to the divine.  The Savage Garden is not just where the vampire exists, but where humans exist too; Eden after the fall.  The mortal world holds all that is evil and good, ugly and beautiful, but essentially it is wild and untamed because man sins and I suppose Anne Rice being a Christian would say because man turns away from God.  I do not read The Vampire Lestat as a Christian but as a Humanist, so find Lestat’s search for answers intriguing, but without Christian meaning for me personally.  I find the search is part of the answer, ongoing and never fully realised, and that Lestat’s existential journey is something that is easy to identify with.
      It is fitting that Rice takes Lestat to what was considered a new world (er, there were people living there already), a secular, egalitarian and importantly modern world.  Lestat is modern in eighteenth century France and modern in twentieth century America.  He craves new ideas, sensations and experiences as much as he craves mortal blood.  It is also fitting that Lestat becomes a rock star in twentieth century America, this again is the aesthetic and works well, except I do find it a little clumsy at the end, maybe it is too much of a cliché; vampire and rock and roll.    I understand it is a novel about vampires which established many contemporary ideas about vampires in their more twenty first century manifestations, so it is only a cliché to me out of context.
     All in all I did enjoy The Vampire Lestat and especially where Rice has set the story in Paris; the seduction of eighteenth century France is difficult to resist despite its horrors and I see Lestat as a tragically beautiful, romantic Byronesque character searching for the meaning of his existence and in turn human existence.  I think reading the novel in a snowy Paris in the St Germain area may have helped, so with that in mind I am looking for sponsors so that I can read ‘Our Man in Havana’ by Graham Greene to gain the full reading experience.   Anyone?

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Readers of the World Unite

As a child I enjoyed many pursuits, wondering in fields looking for places to make dens, swinging from ropes like a monkey in barns (dangerous), lying on the sunny part of my landing floor reading a good book ... all very healthy pursuits.  Then I moved away from my country village to Newcastle and had a whole street of other children to play with.  This is where my love of clubs outside of the Brownies began, nature club, micro machines club, bike club the list goes on.  If only I had a laminator for all those membership cards...
So as an adult I am proud to be a member of a reading group.  One, I suppose you could say, I facilitate.   A reading group is a rewarding group for many reasons, there are no laminated membership cards in our group...yet, but it is a great way to widen your reading choices, find new authors and genres you may not have chosen yourself.  It is a point of discussion and you get to know your friends even better or indeed make new good friends. 
You can start your own reading group too, here’s how:
Promise cake and drink.
Ask your friends and get them to suggest people that they know who may be interested.  See how many members you can potentially have.  I would say six or seven is ideal and to be honest it is rare that you have a meeting where every member is there, so if you can drop one or two each meeting and still have a good discussion, you will be fine. Excuse my harsh use of the verb ‘drop’ here, but you get the idea.
Invite friends and selected friends, friends.  I did this by email in which I suggested dates for our first meeting so we can ‘get to know each other’ and discuss how reading group would work practically.  I hosted the first meeting at my home. People will offer to bring drink and if you say you are making a cake or cakes others may offer alternative choice of cake and nibbles too.
There must not be a leader but you must have a facilitator.  This is someone who can steer your happy reading group boat.  The facilitator will make sure they relate dates, times, venues, book choices and comments regarding meetings as well initiate any discussion about how reading group is run.     Making a group of contacts in your email contacts is the easiest way to do this.
Have your first proper meeting! 
I would say, relax about the first ten minutes as people turn up pour drinks, eat cake and natter.  If your group is like mine we all know each other quite well now and about ten minutes in, when you have had a general catch up, the facilitator needs to jump in and get the book discussion started or you may lose it all together.  I have found myself discussing sock quality, cake quality and even man quality within that adequate ten minute slot, after that we move on to solutions for world peace, deep philosophical questions are explored and the future of the science fiction genre.  So bring the book in and let the discussion begin.  We have no format for this; no talking stick, no timed slots in which to put across your point of view, no presentations, graphs and no scales by which to judge the books.  We are a group that does not like to be bound by anything and discussion follows on fluidly from one member to the next and yes, we can go off on interesting tangents but will summarise and evaluate the book in our own organic way.   In fact we are a group that does not like to feel like we have to do much work really.
Be cool.  Not everyone will read the book for many reasons and there have been some books that have been quite a challenge on many levels, which brings me to advice about making changes if you need to.   However, your group may find itself wanting more parameters to maximise discussion and participation.  We used to take it in turns to choose the book and this was good in many ways as it meant you chose a book and no one could argue thereby widening other members’ reading experience.  We have, however, changed this as we felt it was becoming too stressful with all that power and responsibility, Peter Parker can attest to that.  We spent time in one meeting coming up with themes and making a list.  We have started our thematic reading with vampire novels and our title choices are now pulled out of a hat.  So members have shared responsibility and have to find titles within the theme to write down and put in the hat or we just decide all together in our meeting depending how people feel.
Once you have decided how your group will work you need to arrange the next meeting as soon as possible, either in the meeting or by email the next week.  Four weeks is generally enough time though you may give an extra week for Christmas or holidays.  We did play around with longer times so that more people could finish the books, but it loses momentum and becomes a bit stagnant.  So I would recommend monthly meetings and we have ours at members’ homes and sometimes a nice pub is good for discussion.  We may even meet in a local park in the summer, let the teenagers join in so long as they share their White Lightening and fags.  Do kids these days still drink White Lightening? 
The future is an open book and a clean page with reading group.  I have a vision where Isleworth reading groups unite, we have a convention or jamboree.  We could even invite international groups and meet in a hotel conference room with a buffet... the possibilities for swapping cake recipes are endless.
Readers of the World Unite!
Do you already have a reading group?  Do you have a laminator?  Join in the discussions on these pages.  Next title is ‘The Vampire Lestat’ by Anne Rice I will post my comment in a few weeks. Please if you have read it make a comment too, this blog is intended to reach out to a wider reading community.