The Hay Festival 2018

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Before the crowds and the sun arrived. Hours later children were climbing all over the famous letters.

This weekend I fulfilled a long-held ambition and visited the Hay Festival. First established in 1988, this foremost of literary events is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and has spawned a number of copycat events worldwide – including in Mexico, Spain, Denmark and India. Bill Clinton famously referred to Hay as ‘the Woodstock of the Mind’. I’ve been meaning to go for years, but it never seems to have been the right time. This year, circumstances were in my favour and I realised, only last week, that I could actually go! Hay-on-Wye, is in Powys mid-Wales, and although it was a long trip I decided to drive there and back in a day (mainly on country roads through beautiful Welsh and English villages incidentally). It was the most amazing and stimulating day and I’m already blocking out my diary for next year – I’m staying in one of those yurts!

Ruta

My day started with a talk from the wonderful American-Lithuanian YA author Ruta Sepetys, who was discussing her latest book Salt to the Sea. It’s a book about the sinking of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945, by a Soviet torpedo, with the loss of 9,000 lives, mostly Lithuanian refugees, who were trying to escape the advancing Red Army. I can’t wait to read it, so look out for my review.

2018-05-27-13-53-56.jpgI then saw Rupert Everett (with whom I fell in love years ago after his appearances in films Another Country and Dance with a Stranger in the mid-1980s) in conversation with Alan Yentob. Everett has just completed his film about Oscar Wilde, a passion project which it has taken over ten years to bring to fruition. There was a BBC4 Imagine documentary about it a couple of weeks ago.

 

In the afternoon, I watched Cambridge academic Terri Apter give a talk about her new book Passing Judgement: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life which made me reflect on how I interact with my children, my partner and others around me, and how my responses to praise/blame may have been shaped by my early life experience. Fascinating stuff.

ElifShafakFinally, my last event of the day was hearing Turkish author Elif Shafak speaking about her new book The Forty Rules of Love. I reviewed her novel The Bastard of Istanbul on this blog a few months ago. I wasn’t made about it, but hearing her speak, I must say, was inspiring. She is a remarkable woman of deep learning, great sensitivity, multilingual and came across as a very nice person to boot. Stunning talk.

I lingered for some time, even when I knew I ought to be heading home to make sure my teenager had got out of bed. Though there was heavy rain and thunderstorms in the morning, the sun blazed all afternoon. It is a magnificent setting, the town, which I did not get to explore, is delightful, and there are so many events to choose from, many of them free. The Haydays festival within a festival, aimed at children and young people, offers a packed schedule for the little ones. There is a marvellous on-site bookshop, Oxfam bookshop, food outlets and a few retail stalls. But this is primarily a festival to make you think, not make you spend, and I heartily recommend it.

Next year’s festival takes place 23 May – 2 June. You can also subscribe to the Hay Player for £10 which enables you to watch or listen to the archive of thousands of events from Hay over the years.

Have you been to the Hay Festival? What were your impressions?

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Book Review: “Three Things About Elsie” by Joanna Cannon

I was fortunate to be given a signed copy of Joanna Cannon’s second book by friends for my birthday back in January. (Her first book, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, is on the list of books I want to read, but I haven’t managed it yet.) My book club picked this for our most recent read, and we all loved it! It’s the best thing I’ve read in ages, the most human, the most touching and the most interesting and unusual plot. It’s beautifully written, the dialogue and characters are authentic and wholly recognisable and it’s an engaging and compelling read.

three things about else imgThe central character of the novel is Florence Claybourne, elderly resident at the Cherry Tree sheltered housing development. Each of the residents has their own apartment, but the block is warden-controlled by Miss Bissell and Miss Ambrose, and there is a Day Room where communal activities are held. Some of the residents are frailer than others and there is the sense that this is the feeder facility for the local residential care home, Greenbank. The eponymous Elsie is Florence’s best friend, that’s the first ‘thing’ about Elsie; they have known each other since they were at school. The second ‘thing’ is that Elsie ‘always knows what to say to make me feel better’; Elsie always sounds a note of calm and reassurance whenever Florence becomes tense or upset, as she does frequently when the events of the novel unfold. Elsie and Florence are constant companions.

In the opening chapter of the novel, entitled ‘4.48pm’ we meet Florence lying on the floor in her apartment. She has had a fall and finds she is unable to reach her emergency cord, wondering who will find her and when. Florence’s abandonment on the floor proceeds almost in real time (at the end of the novel it is 11.12pm and she has still not been discovered, don’t worry that’s not a spoiler!) and whilst she is lying there she has flashbacks about recent events at Cherry Tree and the connection with her past life and her relationship with Elsie. It is through these flashbacks that the story of the novel unfolds. It’s a clever structure and works very well.

Life at Cherry Tree was predictable and dull until the arrival of a new resident. Florence immediately recognises him as a figure from her and Elsie’s past, a former boyfriend of Elsie’s sister Beryl, who appears to have had an abusive relationship with her and was somehow connected with Beryl’s mysterious death, though nothing was ever proved. Florence is convinced this new resident is Beryl’s former lover, Ronnie Butler, but unfortunately, this resident is called Gabriel Price and Ronnie’s body was allegedly found in the canal a little after Beryl’s death. Florence manages to convince Elsie and another friend and fellow resident, Jack, that Gabriel is Ronnie and has some sinister intent in seeking them out after all these years. Certain odd things start happening, such as items in Florence’s flat being moved, the sudden appearance in her kitchen of a cupboard full of Battenburg cakes, and a fire averted in Florence’s flat after an iron was left on while she was out. These events set Florence up against Miss Ambrose, Cherry Tree’s manager, who has been charmed by the amiable and charismatic Mr Price, and who already finds Florence rebellious and truculent, and now feels she may be declining into dementia. She puts Florence ‘on probation’, warning her that if her behaviour continues in this vein she will have no choice but to send her to the dreaded Greenbank.

The rest of the novel is about Florence, Jack and Elsie’s quest to uncover the truth about Gabriel Price and his involvement with Elsie’s family, and particularly the circumstances of Beryl’s death. It is at times laugh out loud, as the intrepid trio grapple with the challenges of old age, but it is always poignant. It is a moving and sobering tale about how often elderly people in our society are lonely and disempowered, shuffled off to care homes to await the end of their lives, and not always with respect.

“’How can you talk to somebody when even their eyes aren’t listening.’”

Florence and her friends reflect on the futility of possessions as you approach the end of life, and the greater importance of love and relationships. It is not just in old age that this happens, however; some of the employees at Cherry Tree lead equally unsatisfying lives without meaningful human connection.

As the book progresses, the Ronnie Butler/Gabriel Price mystery unfolds and we learn more about Florence and Elsie and Jack, about Handy Simon, Cherry Tree’s resident maintenance man, Miss Ambrose, and the events of their earlier lives. There is a stunning denouement at the end, when we find out the third thing about Elsie, which I absolutely did not see coming! The book is wonderful as an observation of old age, and that alone would have been enough, but coupled with a sophisticated and brilliantly worked plot it is a tour de force, truly a novel for our time.

There are some really powerful and moving observations in this book, beautifully expressed in some wonderful passages – I wish I could quote them all. So, unusually, I’ll end with some extracts that I hope will give you a flavour of the novel.

I recommend this book highly.

Florence reflects on the death of a fellow Cherry Tree resident:

“The skip was filled with her life – Brenda’s, or Barbara’s, or perhaps Betty’s. There were ornaments she had loved and paintings she had chosen. Books she’d read, or would never finish; photographs that had smashed from their frames as they’d hit against the metal. Photographs she had dusted and cared for, of people who were clearly no longer here to claim themselves from the debris. It was so quickly disposed of, so easily dismantled. A small existence, disappeared. There was nothing left to say she’d ever been there.”

“When your days are small, routine is the only scaffolding that holds you together.”

Florence reflects on the changes to the high street:

“’And every other shop is a hairdressers. I never realised people had so much hair.’”

Florence on the swift passage of time:

“’You always think “one day”, don’t you, and then you realise you’ve reached the point when you’ve run out of them.’”

“It’s only when you get old that you realise whichever direction you choose to face, you find yourself confronted with a landscape filled up with loss.”

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What’s new in the children’s library

read-2841722_1920I am a passionate supporter of public libraries, it’s where my reading journey started as child and I have never lost my fascination with them. With so much pressure on local council budgets, our libraries are under constant threat of closure. Many have already succumbed. Those that have survived have had to innovate, and this is great to see, becoming information and community hubs, putting on more and more events even becoming tourist information centres as well, but for me, their role as first-line guardians of our reading lives is foremost.

I love going into my local library and just browsing the shelves; I almost never leave without borrowing another book. I have stacks of library books around the house and I confess I sometimes lose track of what’s due back when. Thankfully for me, Trafford libraries recently abolished library fines (well done Trafford!) – whilst I have always paid my dues, I wouldn’t say ‘happily’ but always with a sense of ‘it’s a fair cop’, a few hefty fines, inadvertently accrued, can certainly dull one’s borrowing appetite. And when you are a busy parent, it is inevitable that you are going to miss renewal dates from time to time. Sometimes, I have paid fines which have equalled the price of a book! There are online renewals of course, so there is really no defence, but….the dropping of fines is great news and takes the shame out of library borrowing.

Children’s libraries are great and even if the most up to date titles are not on the shelf when you visit you can usually go online to reserve them when they are returned or from another branch. What’s not to love? A library card costs nothing (my children all got theirs virtually from birth, not least because baby books can be repetitive so the more variety the better) and if you are on a budget, offer a much more economical way of feeding your kids’ reading habits, fines or not. A library visit is also a cheap half day out during school holidays, especially combined with a walk there and back and an ice cream thrown in (though not in the library of course!)

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Here’s some kids books I picked up from my local library last week, all newly published, and picked out from the ‘What’s New’ section of Trafford Libraries website and reserved online:

Hamish and the Baby Boom by Danny Wallace

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

Could not have been easier. I’ll look forward to reading and reviewing these over the coming weeks, so look out for my thoughts and recommendations.

Support your local library by taking your kids along this half term.

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Half-term literary activities for kids

As another half-term holiday approaches, parents up and down the land will be seeking-out activities to do with their children. Hopefully, the weather will be good, which, when mine were younger, meant picnics in the park, walks in woodlands or county cycle rides. As they get a bit older, these are not always as exciting as they once were and it is often the case that parents have to provide at least one ‘centrepiece’ activity, something that is a bit more special. You could do worse than provide a literary slant to such an outing, so here are a few suggestions:

Hill Top, Cumbria

hill TopFormer home of Beatrix Potter, now in the care of the National Trust. A must for lovers of Peter Rabbit, which may now have added resonance after the release of the film earlier this year.

Haydays Festival, Hay-on-Wye

The annual Herefordshire literary festival runs from 24 May to 3 June and there is as always a packed programme for children and adults alike, with forest schools and crafts, as well as the to-be-expected author talks. Tickets can be booked here.

Edinburgh International Children’s Festival

At the other end of the UK, there will be lots of fun and performance in Edinburgh between 26 May-3 June. See the full programme here.

Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books, Newcastle upon Tyne

seven-storiesI was living in Newcastle when this place opened and I’m thrilled to see its thriving. They have a fantastic programme of events. Take a look here.

 

 

 

roald-dahl-museum

 

Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, Great Missenden, Bucks.

I haven’t met a child who doesn’t love Roald Dahl and so a visit here would be a huge treat. It’s the former home of the author, where he lived for 36 years and they have a running programme of events. Full details here.

 

Harry Potter experience, Warner Bros Studios, near Watford

At the pricier end of the spectrum and tickets need to be booked in advance, so it’s likely to be busy at half term, but a treat for die-hard fans of the young wizard. Details here.

Alternatively, you could visit Alnwick Castle, where much of the action was filmed, or Kings Cross station, and stand at platform nine and three quarters!

 

shakespeare's birthplaceStratford upon Avon

For year 9s and upwards, attention will be turning to GCSEs. A Shakespeare text is compulsory on the English literature syllabus, so a visit to Stratford, the Bard’s birthplace and home, will give some context. You could even take in a play. Details of all the relevant places are here.

I hope that whets your appetites.

I would love to hear your suggestions, particularly any events that may be a bit cheaper!

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Audiobooks can be a great way to access books if you’re time-poor

I know so many people who love reading, but find it hard to find the time to do so – when you have a family, work and find yourself under pressure to provide taxi services, help with homework, cook interesting and nutritious meals, check emails….the list goes on. Reading often drops off the list. And how many of you do your reading at bedtime and find you fall asleep before you’ve even finished a chapter?

It’s a common problem. I am a great believer in two things, however. First, if you want your kids to read they have to see you doing it too – so you’re actually being a good parent by finding time to read. Second, reading can be a wonderful way of escaping all the chores and pressures of life, so you will benefit from even 10-15 minutes here and there.

glass-2557577_1920I’m a big fan of audiobooks as a way of passing otherwise dead time in a more constructive way  – for me it’s car journeys, or whilst exercising. It might also be while you’re waiting for swimming lessons to finish or at the supermarket. You have to choose your titles carefully though, because it’s not just about what you listen to, but the narrator is really key to the enjoyment. For example, audiobooks I have enjoyed have been Holding, narrated brilliantly by the author Graham Norton, Frankenstein, narrated by Derek Jacobi and 1984, narrated by Andrew Wincott (Adam from The Archers). Their reading styles enhanced my enjoyment. A title I enjoyed less because of the narration was The Girl on the Train, where I felt the male voices were not done well.

the story of a new nameI have recently finished listening to The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, Book Two in her Neapolitan Novels series. I have listened to and reviewed here, Book One, My Brilliant Friend, and the narration by American actor Hilary Huber is sublime. The Story of a New Name continues where Book One left off, with Lila marrying the grocery-store owner Stefano Caracci. Lila acquires a new social standing and some material wealth, but it is a loveless affair, and the marriage soon deteriorates into violence and enmity.

Lila’s childhood friend Elena, chooses a different path; she continues her education and though at first she barely scrapes through with adequate grades, she eventually graduates and is accepted at the university in Pisa. While Lila’s life is coming apart (despite her many talents, her beauty and her magnetic appeal), Elena’s eventually triumphant academic trajectory comes as a surprise to many as her abilities and potential were not thought to be as great (especially by herself).

This book has the same wonderful setting, 1960s Naples, the same cast of fascinating characters, mostly sinister and flawed, and develops the themes of friendship, and its many complex facets, jealousy, family feuds, conflict, love, hatred and the position of women in society.

The book is long (over eighteen hours worth of listening, or nearly 500 pages in paperback), but it is epic in scale and epic in achievement. On my audiobook app you can select a faster reading speed; I tried listening at 1.25 speed, but I went back to standard speed, because Hilary Huber’s American drawl is a treat for the ears and brilliantly suited to the story.

I would highly recommend this audiobook – the cast of characters is complicated and sometimes I forgot who was who, especially when shortened or ‘pet’ names are used in the dialogue. I found it helpful to look up a cast of characters online so I could keep track. There are two more books in the series – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. I will certainly stick with the series and get both of these – even though it might take another year to get through listening to them!

Does the narration style affect your enjoyment of an audiobook?

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Kids book review: “A Whisper of Horses” by Zillah Bethel

If you have children aged 10-12 years, I can heartily recommend this book. It’s marvellous; dark in parts (but don’t kids love that?!), but ultimately full of hope and showing that you can achieve the near-impossible if you dare to believe.

a whisper of horses imgThe novel is set in Lahn Dan, you’ll recognise the pun, but the place described in the book will be unfamiliar; it is practically a separate city-state within England, encircled by the ‘Emm Twenty-Five Wall’ that none of the inhabitants dare cross (told that there is only a deserted wilderness on the other side anyway). This is a time after ‘the Gases’ (a reference to climate change), the ‘Tems’  has deteriorated to a muddy flat and only the rich are able to live in the ‘crystal towers’  that afford them some natural light and allow them to live above the pollution layer. In a nod to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World there is a strict hierarchy in the society: at the bottom are the Pbs, who do most of the work, then slightly higher up are the Cus, the professional classes, but true power lies only with the Aus. Give the child a prize who spots that these are chemical symbols and what this says about the social order! Lahn Dan is run by ‘the Minister’ a distant and slightly mythical figure, not unlike Big Brother, whose orders are carried out by Mordecai and his Secret Police. It all has echoes of 1984.

The main character is Serendipity Goudge a 12 year-old girl who lives alone with her mother. They are Pbs and do agricultural work. They live in a ‘pod’ and have very few possessions, though Serendipity cherishes a small wooden horse her mother once gave her; she is fascinated by the creatures but they are said to be extinct and nobody has ever seen one in the flesh. Serendipity’s mother dies, leaving her nothing of any value except a locket. Hidden inside the locket is a small map indicating a route out of Lahn Dan, through the Emm Twenty-Five Wall to ‘Whales’ via the ‘HH Bridge’  to a place where there might be horses. Strictly speaking, Serendipity, as an orphan, should be taken into care, but Professor Nimbus, her ‘storyteller’ (the children get a very limited education), takes her under his wing as his apprentice. It quickly becomes apparent that this situation is not sustainable and that Serendipity’s life is in danger. She decides that she will try to escape Lahn Dan, initially with the help of the Professor, who confesses that he, along with a small group of others, is a secret agitator for change.

By chance, they meet up with Tab, and his funny little dog Mouse. Tab is part of a band of Smugglers with a camp on the other side of the Wall. Tab is like something out of Oliver Twist, a street-wise orphan who helps Serendipity escape the city. They reach his community’s encampment, but it becomes clear that Tab may also be in danger and so he decides to accompany Serendipity on her search for horses in Whales.

The rest of the book is about their quest to fulfil a dream, but, though they don’t realise it at the time, they are also looking for a better life, outside the corrupt, polluted, decrepit city of Lahn Dan. En route they come across things they have never seen before – green fields, rain, a train, fresh food. It is a story about love and friendship – initially, Serendipity and Tab do not trust each other, but they soon come to realise that their fates are entwined and that they are better as a team. The people they meet along the way  help and encourage them on their journey. The novel also has great suspense; once the authorities realise that there has been an escape, they pursue Serendipity, and nearly catch her several times.

Spoiler alert!

Serendipity reaches her goal in the most magical and unexpected way, not immediately, but many years after she has settled happily in Whales, in a brief and beautiful moment that made me cry! 

This is a fabulous book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading – kids and adults alike will enjoy spotting all the references, the links to current concerns in its themes (the importance of community, climate change, the social and economic separation of London from other regions of the country). The pace is perfect for the 9-12 age group, the characters are well-rounded, credible and fun, and I loved all the nods to other books – this would be a great introduction to titles they might come across later in life.

Highly recommended.

[My copy of this book was very kindly sent to me by the author after I posted a review of her other novel The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare which I also enjoyed and recommend.]

What sort of books do your kids like reading?

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Science writing: “Catching Breath: the making and unmaking of tuberculosis” by Kathryn Lougheed

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been working on my first book for just under a year now. It’s a long process! I finished my first draft just before Easter, but even though it was gratifying to reach that milestone, to be able to type “The End” I was aware that, in many ways it was just that – a milestone, not the end. It was the end of the beginning.

In the last few weeks of writing I had begun to build up a list of gaps, things I still needed to research, passages or chapters that I knew would not read the way I wanted and tweaks that may be necessary with the structure. I conducted my first full read through a couple of weeks ago and found it reassuring that I was indeed right – there were gaps, bits that did not flow and the non-linear structure I was so excited about, well, perhaps that did not work as well as I thought. I wasn’t down about it though. I have a long list of tasks again, but feel generally positive.

Emily Bronte, John Keats and George Orwell are among the many artists who died young from TB, giving the disease a ‘romantic’ image

An area where I felt I needed more information was in understanding tuberculosis (TB). This disease was rife in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The numbers are astonishing: in England and Wales about four million people are thought to have died from TB between 1851 and 1910. TB-related deaths began to fall from this point onwards but were still shocking: in 1913, there were 36,500 deaths from TB in England and Wales (reaching a peak of 46,200 in 1918, at the time of the European Spanish ‘flu pandemic). By 2013, there were just 280, down from a rate of almost 100 per 100,000 population in 1913, to 0.5 per 100,000 a century later. (Source: Office for National Statistics)

The decline in the mortality rate for the disease can be put down to a number of factors: mainly improved living conditions and sanitation, but also better understanding of the disease (it was once thought to be hereditary, not contagious), the discovery of an effective antibiotic treatment in the late 1940s and, latterly, a nationwide vaccination programme (remember the BCG?). The virtual eradication of the disease in this country is a cause for celebration, but, worldwide, it remains a devastating killer: 1.4 million people a year die from TB.

Catching Breath imgOne of the books I consulted as part of my research into understanding more about the disease, its symptoms and its effects, was published very recently, in 2017. It’s called Catching Breath: the making and unmaking of tuberculosis by Kathryn Lougheed. The author is a former scientific researcher and is now a journalist and science writer. The book is excellent. It is fantastically well-written, even funny in parts (the author has an interesting sense of humour – her Twitter handle is @ilovebacteria!). She is out to make some serious points, however, about this, one of the oldest diseases known to humanity, which has so successfully mutated, crossed species and diversified and which just keeps on winning. Her main argument is that TB remains a disease of poverty and inequality. Globally, it affects the weakest – the young, the old, the poor or those who are already sick.  She argues that, although it is a complex disease, if there was sufficient political will, many more lives could be saved. If there was as much resource and international effort put into tackling TB as there has been, say, to addressing AIDS, there would have been far greater success to date. In 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced its ‘End TB strategy‘, which set a goal to reduce worldwide deaths from the disease by 95% by 2035, although it would seem that nothing short of a heroic research effort will be required to meet this.

If you are at all interested in the politics of health and disease, inequality between the developed and the developing world, and about humanity’s ongoing battles with diseases old and new, this is a fascinating and engaging read. I had intended merely to dip into the bits that interested me for my own research, but I have ended up reading the whole book. In Kathryn Lougheed, science’s loss is the publishing world’s gain. I hope this book gets nominated for some non-fiction or science-writing prizes.

Have you read any good science or non-fiction books recently?

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