A Grand Goodbye

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The dog’s best ‘hard stare’.

 

Last week, I went to a memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, held to celebrate the life of the great children’s author, Michael Bond. Most famously, Michael was the author of ‘A Bear called Paddington’, but this book was only one of his many publications, during a career spanning many decades. Many of his other books do, of course, feature Paddington, but he also created lots of other characters, some for children and some for adults.

I love St Paul’s Cathedral anyway, but on this occasion the setting was even more special, as it features in the new Paddington film, ‘Paddington 2’, in addition to which, it will also be the setting for the last Paddington picture book that Michael wrote, ‘Paddington at St Paul’s’, which is due to come out in 2018.

I got there early, and asking the doorman on the side door which way I should go, was told, ‘You need the posh doors, round the front.’ It seemed fitting that such a spectacular location, including use of the ‘posh doors’, had been set aside that day, to celebrate Michael’s life and achievements.

When I got inside, I was sat almost right under the dome, next to the statue of Nelson. I could feel a real sense of community and like-mindedness amongst the assembled crowd; some were family members, some were celebrities who had known Michael or who had featured in the Paddington films, and many, like me, were just children’s book fans for whom Paddington was a special character; almost a real person, who had instilled so much humour and adventure into our younger selves. But for everyone present, Paddington had been a big part of our lives.

Several members of the family spoke, escorted to the front one by one, by the fabulously-dressed but terrifyingly-formal, cathedral Wandsmen. Michael’s daughter spoke movingly about how her father was always writing ideas for characters down in notebooks, and three of his grandchildren – grown-up now, but really brave, just the same, in front of such a crowd – read out excerpts from some of his books. His publisher and agent talked about how Paddington had always remained a big part of the author’s life. Apparently, when asked about Paddington, Michael had once said, ‘He isn’t me, but I wouldn’t mind being him!’ He had also sometimes tackled tricky business decisions, by asking, ‘Well, what would Paddington, do?’ Hearing this, it occurred to me that you couldn’t go far wrong in life, when following the advice of a bear with such a keen eye for a bargain, as Mrs Bird used to say, as well as a strong sense of right and wrong!

The sermon referred to Paddington’s status as an immigrant, and an illegal immigrant at that, and spoke about how the Paddington books promoted inclusion. Finally, three actors from the latest Paddington film, read out some of the tributes that the family had received from members of the public. Many of these echoed my own feelings, and reminded me something that had happened to me when I was about five years old. My mum had been reading me a chapter from a Paddington book for a bedtime story. When she’d finished, she’d left the room, and I’d sat in bed holding the book and stared fixedly at the cover, desperately wishing that I could read, so that I could get on to the next chapter. Looking around the cathedral, I could see that some groups of school children had been invited, and I hoped that they too might have had a similar experience.

When I can out of the cathedral (through the ‘posh doors’, of course), an amazing sight met my eyes. Standing at the top of the steps I was looking down into a sea of cameras and photographers, all gathered at the bottom, and ready to take pictures of the celebrity guests as they left the service. It felt right that the press should be there too, to record the event for posterity. As I walked back to the station, clutching my Order of Service, I felt aware that although Michael’s life had been important nationally, it had also been significant for me personally, and for many others who had grown up thinking of Paddington as a friend.

When I got home, the dog wanted to know if Paddington liked animals, and I was able to reassure him that although nothing was said about dogs, the publisher had mentioned that Michael had been a life-long fan of guinea-pigs, and allowed his guinea-pig pets to roam freely about his house. The dog seemed to find this acceptable and he nodded solemnly. In many ways he is a very traditional dog, and there is much about him that reminds me of Paddington, not least of all his hard stare; which he always uses if you promise to save him a piece of toast and then forget – as I often do.

So, goodbye to Michael Bond, but hopefully not goodbye to Paddington. With his strong values and community spirit, I hope that the books will live on, for many generations to come.

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Non-human friends

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Sometimes I think about what a huge privilege it is, to have a non-human person as a friend. You may be worried that I’m about to start prattling on about an alien abduction experience (although, believe me, if such a thing happened, I’d tell you all about it!), but no, that’s not it. The non-human friend in question is the dog. During my life I’ve had many friends who were non-human; a couple of them being dogs, but most of them cats. We don’t have a cat currently as my husband is allergic to them, but whenever I did have a cat, it always amazed me what a big personality could be packed into such a small frame. A lot of people think that cats are too independent to be proper friends with humans, and think that they only use us to get what they need. I don’t think this is the case at all, and I expect most people who have ever sat in a companionable silence with a cat, would agree with me. Dogs however, or most dogs that I have known, do seem to be less independent, but this doesn’t make them better friends with humans; just different ones. Critics of dogs might say that they don’t think for themselves, and just blindly follow their owner’s directions. This is definitely not correct – certainly in my experience, as my own dog almost never follows my directions. My current dog is the most sarcastic (and often cynical), person in the house, which he makes clear by his many finely-tuned huffs and snorts, in answer to any comments made to him. As mentioned in previous blogs, he also has a very highly developed sense of humour, with a strong leaning towards slap-stick. But, for me, his quirky personality makes him all the more interesting, and valuable, as a friend. I’m not his ‘best one’ (that honour falls to my husband), but when I’m writing, the dog is remarkably tolerant when I read aloud to him, and his views on the story arc, character development and plot, not to mention grammar, are always very clear and insightful. Which is why, in my second book, there will be a dog. This book is currently at the final editing stage, but I can tell you that it will include a female Tibetan Terrier called Fizz; a puppy, acquired by the main character, Hannah, shortly after the story opens. I’m also working on a new book at the moment – with completely new characters and a very different plot. This one will probably be for slightly older children, but it too will feature a dog; this time a black Labrador called Shadow. In addition to this, I’m also working on a non-fiction book for adults; a hand-written World War Two diary, which I’m transcribing and preparing for publication. This was written on the home front in Loughton, London, by a Home Guard member in 1944 – of course he was also a dog lover, and he acquired a dog called Mick during the course of the diary.

So, with the extensive editorial input I receive from my very cool and stylish dog friend, I think it’s likely that most, if not all, of my future stories will feature main characters that also have non-human friends – and rightly so.

By the way, for anyone who read my last blog post, the dog’s answer to the question, ‘2 x 2 = ?’, is… wait for it… ‘many’.

Story ideas – where do they come from?

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A long time ago, when I first started thinking about ideas for a children’s book, I knew that I wanted to set my first story in a nursing home. I’d worked for years as a Social Worker in an older people’s team, which had involved visiting many different nursing homes, and I’d also visited my own relations in nursing homes, so I felt that I knew a fair bit about the setting. I liked the idea of a friendship developing between a girl and a very old lady; people separated by an entire generation, but with plenty of common interests, upon which they could build a friendship. It was obvious what the old lady would be doing there – she would be living in the nursing home – but what about the girl? I decided that her mum would be the matron who was in charge of the nursing home, so she would live in a flat on the top floor. As an only child without siblings to play with, she would get to know the old people, and form friendships with them.

I also knew that I’d like the book to involve some type of magic; but what type? I toyed with the idea of a magic tree, out in the nursing home’s garden, or should the old lady be a witch of some kind? But when I tried to put these ideas down on paper, it didn’t seem right. I put the story away in a drawer and left it alone for a while.

Years later, I was watching a TV programme about the Romans. The presenter was wearing a gold pendant in the shape of a crescent moon, and she mentioned in passing that it was a genuine, Roman pendant, two thousand year old, that she had bought in an antique shop. This amazed me; until this point in my life, I had always assumed that such things were so rare and so outrageously expensive that they were all kept under lock and key, in museums or in private collections belonging to the very rich. I had a chat with the dog about it, and he also found it hard to believe that normal people could possibly buy something that was two thousand years old. In fairness to him though, he was hampered by the fact that he can only count up to two.

The next day, I started googling ‘Roman pendants’, and found that although gold ones were indeed pretty pricy (I think TV presenters probably get a decent wage), silver and bronze ones were not only available for sale, but were quite affordable. After a bit more research into which outlets could be relied upon to sell genuine items, I found a pendant I could afford, and bought it. When it arrived, I held it carefully in my hand. It was amazing to think that I was holding something so old! I put it on a chain so that I could wear it, and started wondering about what the original owner had been like. Had it been a gift? What had happened when she’d lost it? Had she been upset? If she was young at the time, had she got into trouble? Had she searched for it? Had she bought a new one to replace it?

I wished I knew more about her. Although there was no way for me to find out any more, I felt that in some way the pendant was a connection between us, even though we were separated by almost two thousand years. If only I could use the pendant as a way of contacting her, how amazing that would be!

Suddenly, it occurred to me that here was the magic I needed for my story. The mysterious old lady would own an ancient Roman object that would allow my main character to contact a person from the distant past; maybe even a girl of her own age. The story all started to fall into place in my brain, and I talked it through with the dog, who agreed that it sounded like a good plan.

Okay, I had my story; I was ready to start writing it down…

Post script – although it is true that the dog is only able to count to two, he was able to give his own answer to the question in the picture. Can you guess what it was? If you think you know, post it in the comments. I’ll tell you his answer, in my next blog post in two weeks’ time.

It was a dark and stormy night…

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There I was, sat on the living room floor at three o’clock in the morning, wrapped in a blanket and reading a story to the shivering and quaking dog who sat huddled beside me. Outside, and safely barricaded out by the thick curtains, the lightening flashed and the thunder roared. It was, indeed, a dark and stormy night.

Our dog hates thunder just as much as he hates fireworks. When he was a puppy, I read somewhere that dogs pick up a fear of such things from the reactions of the people around them, so I was always very careful to completely ignore any such loud noises, hoping that, that way, he wouldn’t learn to be afraid. That worked about as well as my plan to train him to load and unload the washing machine. But does he react immediately when he hears a roll of thunder or the crack of a firework? Oh, no. He needs thinking time first, to process the sound he’s heard and decide what to do about it.

There he is, tucked up in his bed and sleeping soundly, when the first crash of thunder smites his ears – he opens one eye. What was that? The second crash – he lifts his chin from his blanket. Right, this scary noise has now happened more than once. It could happen again, and if so, will it come into his bedroom (or the kitchen, as some people sometimes call it), and try to fight him? The third crash – he sits up. This is getting serious. What to do? The fourth crash – he jumps to his feet. This noisy invisible enemy isn’t giving up easily – what if it comes in and tries to eat his dog food? It’s time to shout for reinforcements. It’s usually about two minutes after the first clap of thunder, when he makes his announcement that he does not intend to fight the monster alone.

So there I was, sat on the floor, reading to the dog when I should have been asleep in bed. As I listened to the thunder, it occurred to me that the phrase, ‘a dark and stormy night’, which is now famously thought of as a bad novel opening, is actually pretty great. How many people don’t sit up and take notice when someone starts a story with this line? I did a bit of googling, and learnt from a website called phrases.org.uk, that it was first used by a Victorian writer by the name of Sir Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote in a very melodramatic style. This phrase has since turned into a bit of a laughing stock, but you know what? I like it, and I like Sir Edward for writing it. It plunges you straight into the heart of the story. When I read it, straight away I’m wondering whether the hero/heroine is all safe and cosy inside a gothic mansion, listening to the storm through the rattling window panes while wearing a fleecy dressing gown and drinking a mug of cocoa. But I have a nagging doubt that they might not be – they could be scared and alone in the middle of a desolate moorland, in imminent danger of being either struck by lightning or blown into a storm-swollen river and washed away, never to be seen again… I’m just going to have to read on, to find out.

I started to wonder if any other writers had since used this phrase to start their novels. According to Wikipedia it has been used again since, not only as a novel opening, but also as a writing contest and even as the title of a board game. Is it hackneyed? Maybe. Do I like it anyway? Yes. Although, thinking about it, it’s probably not the best thing to read aloud, when I’m trying to take the dog’s mind off the storm that’s raging outside…

‘i’ before ‘e’

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One of my hobbies is collecting old books; the older the better, and I have a few eighteenth and nineteenth century books, with a couple of seventeenth century books amongst them. One thing I’ve noticed about old books is that there’s very little regard paid to spelling, and the older the book, the truer this seems to be.

I’ve read, via the wonders of Wikipedia, that that in the sixteenth century Shakespeare spelt his own name in several different ways throughout his life, and that, over the years since then, other people have spelt it in even more different ways, until the spelling of his name finally became more fixed in the last hundred years or so. The same seems to apply to most words in written English.

What I like about old books and manuscripts, apart from the fact that it feels like you are touching and reading an actual piece of history, is that as far as spelling went, the writers just didn’t care. They happily spelt words in different ways, even on the same page. It was of no concern to them, or to their readers come to that, how the words were spelt, as long as everyone could tell what word it was supposed to be and get the general meaning of the sentence.

I find this carefree lack of concern about spelling really refreshing, and most likely this is because I was so shockingly bad at spelling at school. I’d wait apprehensively at my desk as the marked spelling tests and essays were handed out, covered in red ink, and often with the terrifying comment, ‘See me’, emblazoned across the top corner. Did it really matter if I’d got my ‘i’s and ‘e’s the wrong way round? Was putting only one ‘t’ instead of two, such a terrible crime? Was there ever a time when the word I was aiming for wasn’t obvious to the teacher? Probably not.

The dog can’t spell, and does it bother him? Not at all! Whether it says ‘dog fude’ or ‘dog fud’, or even ‘dog food’, on the packets in the kitchen cupboard, doesn’t bother him at all. He’s happy, so long as we can read it well enough to understand what the contents are when we’re shopping. And he’ll stay happy, so long as the contents of the packets get put into his bowl at breakfast time and tea time (he definitely can tell the time, by the way, and in fact, takes time-keeping very seriously, but that’s another story, for a different day).

So I have a lot of liking for those long-gone authors who were so happy-go-lucky about what letters should go where, even when it came to their own names. Well done them for not caring about it, and what a shame for those of us in these modern times, who have to get it right. Still, it could be worse – at least these days we have spell-check to do some of the work for us!

What If…

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So, my book is now out! There are quite a few pre-orders on Amazon, I’ve spoken to all the book shops that are within a few miles of where I live, and I’ve contacted local libraries. What’s more, I’ve got a box of books waiting in my cupboard, ready to take to primary schools in September. The publisher has contacted long lists of people and organisations as well, so as far as the marketing goes, it’s all good! Will they all sell? Who knows, we’ll just have to wait and see.

But the next thing coming up will be the stage where people who have bought the book, start to give me feedback. What will they think? Will they like it? And if they don’t, will they tell me the truth? And if they tell me the truth, will I like what they’ve got to say?! Hmm!

Worrying about what people will or won’t say about the book when they’ve read it (assuming they buy it in the first place!), makes me think how much many of us worry about things, over which we have no control. I like to think of myself as an optimist, but I still spend a good amount of time worrying, probably like most other people. A lot of us are constantly thinking about what could go wrong in the future, rather than focusing on what could go right, or even trying to relax and not think about the future at all.

As I mentioned in my last post, the dog always looks on the bright side, and it would never occur to him to think that something might not go well. But, more than that, not only does he not think about bad things happening in the future, he doesn’t really think about the future at all – he lives entirely in the moment, enjoying what he’s doing at the time, with complete concentration and with no thought to tomorrow. If he’s enjoying chewing a bone, that is enough for him, and he will just get on with enjoying it. When he’s had enough of it, he’ll move on to something else and put all his concentration into the new activity – even if the new activity involves stealing clothes out of the laundry basket, and tearing them into tiny pieces in a quiet corner of the kitchen.

I know that being human beings with complex lives, we do need to think about and plan for the future. However, as far as I can, I will certainly try to be more like the dog – at the moment, my book is published and much of the marketing work has been done – I’ll just enjoy the moment!

Once Upon a (more grown-up) Time…

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In my last blog, I wrote about my favourite children’s books, and I had a great response with plenty of people letting me know which their own favourite children’s books were. It’s really nice to hear about books that I’ve either forgotten about or never heard of, and then go and have a look at them.

Now I’ve moved on to books for grown-ups (not that grown-ups shouldn’t read children’s books as well, of course; they definitely should!). The dog asked whether any of the books I’ve chosen feature either food or dogs, and I was able to reassure him that the second book features both! Here goes with the first one…

‘Something Fresh’ by P. G. Wodehouse (first published in the UK by Methuen and Co, 1915) – this was one of the first ‘grown-up’ books that I read, and is the first of the Wodehouse books in the Blandings Castle Saga. It features the castle and its occupants; Lord Emsworth, his family and friends and of course his beloved pig, The Empress of Blandings. I’d never heard of P. G. Wodehouse until one evening in the 1980s when I was helping my dad to paint a bedroom, and we had the radio on in the background. A dramatization of one of the Blandings stories was on Radio 4 at the time, and it was so hilarious that the next day I went straight off to the library to see what Wodehouse books they had. Ever since then, if I need cheering up at a time when the dog isn’t available, I turn to a Wodehouse book.

‘Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)’ by Jerome K. Jerome (first published by J. W. Arrowsmith in 1889) – the most complete book I’ve ever read, having a little sad bit and comments on society as well as being really funny nearly all the way through, and certainly the only book I’ve had to put down for a full five minutes while I laughed properly, before I was fit to carry on reading. This was at the bit where they try to open a tin of pineapple – if you haven’t read this book, it’s worth reading it just for this section alone. Incidentally, the dog has asked me to point out that Montmorency (the dog in the book), is one of the best characters – he may be right.

‘Walden’ by Henry David Thoreau (first published by Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1854) – I first came across this book when I was living in New York in the early 1990s. I’d never heard of the book or the author, but for a while it seemed that every time I went into a bookshop (which was quite often!), it was the first book that I noticed on the shelves. After it had caught my eye about three times, I bought a copy, and it was a life-changer. It’s the story of the author’s experience of trying to live a simple, almost-self-sufficient life, living in a small, wooden house in the woods. Reading this book in my mid-twenties didn’t make me want to become self-sufficient, but it did change my sense of what’s important in life.

‘The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold’ by Evelyn Waugh (first published by Chapman and Hall, 1957) – I’d never heard of this book until a friend gave me a copy as a birthday present. It was the first Evelyn Waugh book I’d read, and it’s a fascinating and partly-autobiographical account of a time when Waugh suffered from hallucinations, brought on by some medication he’d been taking. The book tells the story of a man who starts to hear voices while on a sea voyage. As it’s written very much from the main character’s point of view, it’s hard to tell, at least until the end of the book, which voices are real and which aren’t. This book made me realise how incredibly skilled authors like Waugh are, at weaving a convincing story from the main character’s perspective.

The sharp-eyed reader might have noticed that I had more favourite children’s books in my last blog, than I have favourite grown-up books in this one. What can I say? Children’s books must be the best books – and a furry friend, who’s been waiting (almost) patiently for his walk, has just reminded me that this is especially the case if the books in question feature dogs!

Please, please tell me if you have a favourite grown-up book that isn’t on this list, and I’d also love to hear if any of my favourites are also yours.

Next time I’ll talk about my experience of what it’s like trying to write, while the house is full of builders!