Ian Whybrow

…coming soon…

April 6th 2015 Travelling Pullman-class and Gee-class

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On one of our recent trips between Harrow and Herefordshire, Ann and I stopped off at Ledbury for lunch. Always a pleasure to take a stroll along the familiar lively high street there and pop into a deli or a bric a brac shop. We climbed the few steps into The Horseshoe, a fine old black-and-white pub with its own wood-fired pizza oven and found ourselves, that Monday noonish, not among a scattering of drinkers but among a chattering crowd of crafts-people, knitting away, sewing, quilting.

While we were waiting for our order, we flicked through the Telegraph off the rack and had a chat about what been listening to in the car – Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, a free gift on Audible. We’d both enjoyed the Oxford scenes and admired the telling and the production (Pullman is a superb narrator) and the variety of characters but had grown impatient with the punch ups between the witches and the bears. We agreed that as always with a fantasy, if anything can happen, it will, so it begins to stretch out like French knitting. And we had both got a bit bogged down looking for parallels in the allegory. Who ARE these bears? what IS this blinkin dust? how does this all relate to Paradise Lost? what would a ten year-old get out of this? All the usual stuff. It didn’t stop me being curious enough to want to go on with the rest of the trilogy having downloaded it – but Ann put her foot down. She’d had enough.

A chap on a table nearby who was working on an elaborate tapestry (of an orchid, it turned out, with the canvas pattered like a close-up of an Ordnance Survey map by some computerised process and requiring thousands of stitches – a year’s work at least) segued into the conversation with the graceful ease of somebody who enjoys a chat with strangers – and enthused about the book. He also recommended “The Mysteries of Glass” by Sue Gee. He had spent many years in Oxford as a parson and had recently gone with a book group walking where it’s set – up on to Rushock Hill, along the lane from Bullock’s Mill and to the church at Lyonshall – all of which Ann and I have known for twenty years or more – so I got hold of the book and have enjoyed enormously. Familiarity with the topography – and being taken on an imaginary journey along the high street of Kington in 1860 – are not the only things to enjoy in this powerful book, far from it. It’s remarkably sensuous book, full of bird-sound and animal-calls and the tensions of misty woods; sensitive to the trials of a young curate eager to emulate his dedicated father but stumbling among the pitfalls of jealousy and spite and cruelty and self-disgust because of his yearning for the troubled young wife of a the dry-as-dust vicar who has fallen seriously ill. This book deals with yearning and hypocrisy and wavering faith as Trollope did, but unconstrained by the conventions of his age.

Two serious books asking the big questions. So far I prefer being led to them along paths I’ve trodden myself and in familiar human company rather than in the company of daemons. I feel the imagined numbing cold of an English winter even in the mid-19th century more painfully than I do the Northern snows of Pulman’s metaphysical fiction. Still, I will bone up on Mr P’s dust.

March 29th, 2015. Considering Cats

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Considered Christopher Smart’s cat Jeffrey for about five hours yesterday afternoon and evening; him, Benjamin Britten, The Little Organ Mass by Haydn  and Rutter’s Magnifi …cat. That’s two cats, then; three if you count a cat…echism.

The occasion was the Spring concert for the Harrow Choral at our local Arts Centre. A final rehearsal with the orchestra is always an exhausting business – but absorbing. Getting to hear the pieces we’ve been rehearsing for so long slotting in with orchestra and soloists: that’s always a treat.

Have to admit that for months during rehearsals I hated Britten’s treatment of the Christopher Smart fragment from Jubilate Agno. However, having got to grips with Britten’s mad syncopations and rushing phrases – and thrilled to the celebration of the soprano soloist’s interpretation of how a cat can worship in his own way – turning seven times or simply being still – I have come to love it.

I confess to having been stuck with the stubborn thought that the music simply got in the way of the poetry. I’ve never met a poem before that hasn’t suffered at the hands of a composer. I also sensed wrongly that Britten was patronising Smart, even taking the mickey out of a poor, mad inmate of an asylum. But as the piece unfolded and revealed itself in its full orchestral glory; and with a beautiful, soaring palpable sense of the individuals in the choir coming together at last to feel the music, we discovered, I think, how Britten’s music does illuminate the poetry of Smart, runs with it, laughs with it, reveals the composer’s wonder at the unexpected truth and beauty of mad thoughts and perceptions.

From now on, I shall be considerin’ a few more things a bit more closely.

But today, I are mostly considerin hooverin.

March 27th 2015 Of Meerkats and Men

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I’d forgotten that yesterday was publication-day for a new picture book. “That Naughty Meerkat” it’s called and it follows on from a series of children’s novels beginning with “Meerkat Madness”. Furry-chested, yes; but not exactly hairy-chested titles. Still, I remember that years ago my first picture book that I had entitled “This Little Baby” was launched as “Quacky Quack-Quack!” and how tortured I was at the time about having to explain myself at parties. “A writer, eh? So what IS your latest book…?”

Ah well, the consolation is that mums, aunties, grannies and elder sisters like ducks and meerkats – and they’re the ones who buy books for small children. And what a treat to find a presentation-box of Tattinger thrust into my hand by a man in a van as a good-luck gift from Harper Collins!

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To the RAF Club in Piccadilly in the evening – and you can’t get more hairy chested than that. It was for the launch of a marvellous book called Six Weeks of a Blenheim Summer – the autobiographical memoire of , Alastair Panton’s experiences as a young reconnaissance pilot-officer, during the Battle of France in 1940 and as a prisoner of war. It had been hidden away for years since it was a record of a defeat: 1000 planes were lost; Panton was shot down four times in four months; the Lancastria – a troopship – was sunk and all 4000 men killed. These were terrible losses (the latter, the most complete disaster of the war, perhaps) and went unreported for fear of demoralizing the nation. The shameful truth is that they are still unknown to most of us. Thank goodness, then for Victoria Panton Bacon, his granddaughter, who wrote a scholarly foreword for it and found a publisher for it, so determined was she that this lost piece of history should see the light of day.

Apart from Victoria who spoke very movingly, among other distinguished speakers and supporters of the book were  a minister of the crown, several high-ranking RAF officers – including an incredibly vivacious 91 year-old survivor of the Long March who was just about to tell me the details of a happy diversion via a brothel when he was button-holed by another admirer – was Louis de Bernieres. In his speech he described the debacle of the Battle of France as Part II of WW1, where Hitler did what the Kaiser wanted to do – which was to push through to the coast – and in only 11 days. This was achieved largely because the Fuehrer’s generals were wise enough to ignore his direct orders and equally because, although the French tanks were superior to the Germans’, the latter were fitted with radios. In other words, they had the advantage that they could summon an air-strike in ten minutes.

I was fascinated by this and had a little chat with L de B. It’s a measure of his generosity that he asked me what I did. I went all Quacky-Quack-Quack, of course, feeling a bit of a sub-species in the presence of the real thing. At which point he whipped out his notebook and got me to write a little message to his children who, he assured me, were great Harry and the Bucketful fans when they were younger. Incidentally, he expressed (naturally) an admiration for Joanna Lumley who was among the well-wishers and busily engaged elsewhere in the ballroom. Fired up now, and summoning hitherto suppressed reserves of testosterone, I extricated her and steered her in his direction. It was the least I could do.

March 26 2015 Books and Chocolate T-Rexes

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To Kingsway Jr in Watford to rally the reading troops yesterday morning. Another initiative from Sheryl at the outstanding Chorley Wood bookshop to whom I’m most grateful for creating a buzz about books, mine among them.

Off at a gallop from thence to take two of my grandchildren to see Sam Mendes’ musical production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. I have to say I don’t quite get Willy Wonka – played by the great Alex Jennings in a way that reminds you of Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady” – not only in the way he delivers the songs but in his menace and cynicism. He appears to despatch Veruka, Augustus and the other child-horrors for being pains-in the neck and then to reward Charlie for his imagination… rather than being an all-round decent little chap. A factory full of chocs for having an imagination? Hmm.

Shrewd operator that Dahl, the way he encourage children to adore him when he clearly can’t stand ‘em . And well played the Dahl machine for pumping out the product. The entire theatre is devoted to product placement. Chocolate and Charlie have become inexorably mingled.

Am working on a close association between dinosaurs and buckets. Maybe chocolate buckets …

Anyway – nice to see that Lindt is making chocolate T-rexes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 19th, 2015. On Kings, Ely and the Parlous State of our Cathedrals

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To Kings Ely Acremont yesterday – a pre-prep with bags of life and charm. Proper coffee as soon as you stepped through the door; that sort of thing. And your own box of Jaffacakes.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the large number of nursery children who turned up for the first session and although I’ve coped before with 3 year-olds many times before, a proper gaggles of them is a bit of an unknown quantity. You have to get used to being suddenly engaged in a earnest and confidential conversation across a crowded hall and in mid-flow, about the relative fierceness of certain dinosaurs, what somebody’s brother once did and how many books somebody else has got at home, accompanied by a short threnody on the noises lamented characters used to make. Keeps you on your toes, though.

Took a trip to the cathedral during my early lunch break- partly to walk off a generous roast that I shared with five jolly dinner ladies who rhapsodized about watching Harry on telly with their infants.

It was nippy outside, the fog that drifted over the fen beyond Cambridge having been huffed away by a biting easterly. I reckoned I had half an hour to get round – admire the miraculous octagon again, check out the biggest Lady Chapel in the country, that sort of thing. Not much warmer inside, though. A smile and a welcome from two shivering ladies in sashes who regretted the dear old standard issue gowns that used to keep the chill off. “Through that little gateway,that’s the way.”

“Hello! That’ll be £8.00, sir.”

I abandoned all pride and demanded a concession.

“Really?Are you sure?”

Flattery would normally have done the trick, but as Handcock might have spluttered… “Six quid? I could get meself a chantry for that!”

One is moved to verse.

 

Desperate Measures

Six pound, the concession, sir.

Forget about the chantry.

Just have a squizz at the octagon

And a nice cuppa tea in the pantry.

March 16th 2015. A Little Touch of Harry (and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs) in the night…

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More request-letters from small fans today – tis the season – and this time unusually challenging.

A class teacher from Penarth was doing a pilot project based on the study of picture books with her Year5/6ers. Then a letter turned up from a Literacy Specialist within the Central South Consortium declaring that there would be action taken on the school if the children continued to read these unsuitable texts.

I ars kew! Action against an initiative to look at what picture books are for, how they work? Le chat, as they say in Wales, etait parmi les pigeons.

Anyway, I sent a couple of girls who wrote to me a supportive email explaining a little about my thinking when it came to writing some of the texts they like:

Dear Edie and Jessica

I’m very sorry to be so late in replying to your beautifully written and interesting letters. This is a busy time for children’s authors and I’ve just dug you out from the bottom of a pile in my in-tray.

I entirely agree with you both that it’s a very interesting idea for older children to make a study of picture books. When I write one, I try to bear in mind that there’s an adult or older person reading it with the 2/3/4/5 year-old – so I have to try to engage both readers.

Edie mentions Harry and the Snow King. Ask a youngster where the snowpeople come from and they’ll tell you – “From the sky!” or “The Snowking sent them.” The important thing to them is the magic. An older person, however, can work out that Mr Oakley being a farmer as well as a friend of the family, sympathises with a little boy who doesn’t understand where his snowman has gone. He tells the boy not to give up hope – having looked up at the clouds and guessed – with his farmer’s experienced eye – that more snow is on the way. A slightly younger person may suspect that Sam put the snow people in the yard – but they will have overlooked the conflict between the children. So the story is about hope and its rewards – and about the kindness of understanding fellow humans; and it provides plenty of things to talk about.

Similarly, a 5 year-old won’t appreciate that Harry and the Robots is partly a story about death. Nan is hospitalised and may not recover but is given a new lease of life by her grandchild’s faith in the robots he builds in order to blast her cough. For little children, the story is about robots that come to life and are commanded by a small boy; about the good feelings that controlling things bring. For older people, the story is about the power of love and belief and the possibility of new life (resurrection, even). I was considering having Nan die in the book but the publishers insisted that Nan should be around for more books – so I had the robot “die” and then get restored to life.

I’m a firm believer in sharing books – in books providing opportunities for conversation. 80% of parents – according to Professor Winston – never have a conversation with their children about things that matter. A book that opens a door (maybe not while the story’s being read but later perhaps) to a conversation about matters of life and death, one that provides a chance to deal with loss or the potential loss of a grandparent, say; surely that deserves some attention.

About “Splash”. Here the story is (for a youngster) about mucking around in a swimming pool with a gang of fun-loving dino-chums and Nan; about the joy of swimming. However, it’s also about self-consciousness and about two people helping each other overcome fears and anxieties. Like my mother, Nan fears that she’s too old and ugly to be seen in a swimming costume. However, she sees how nervous Harry is about the water (having been knocked over by a wave) and realises that he needs help to get his confidence back. To that end, she sets aside her worries and buys a costume. (Incidentally, a small child won’t notice that Harry’s scared; only that the dinosaurs are nervous. The dinos help Harry and the child-reader cope by allowing their anxieties to be put on others.)

 

There’s plenty more to say, of course and I hope other correspondents will. I’m just dis custard of Middlesex.

March 15th, 2015. Nice Turns of Phrase & a Glimmer of Hope for Picture Books

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At 94, my mother-in-law can be Shakespearean. “That wind is naughty,” she says. Her arthritic fingers are often dismissed as equally worthless – as are the last twinges of the shingles that got its talons into her back in September. Naughty, naughty.

“’tis a naughty night to swim in,” the Fool warns Lear as he starts to strip off his clothes. And there it is: “naughty” stripped to its origins. Like a zero; worth nothing; of no account at all.

I love that sort of discovery – which reminds me: must order up Robert Macfarlane’s latest – Landmarks. So it was a treat to have presented to me a phrase that I simply could not unpick but that was used unselfconsciously in an email I received recently from Andy Davidson, a Year 2 teacher at the British School in Jakarta, asking me if I would like to read some of the letters his class have written about Harry.

He was generous to a fault about the books, providing not only a thoughtful summary of some of the things his children got out of them – but a defence of picture books threatened by modern technology, so I’ll quote him.

“Attached are a selection of (mixed ability) letters to you.

We have had a wonderful time unpacking your books – looking for familiar happenings and words regularly used. Definitely and Endosaurus are used with abandon by my Snakes now. They love the conflict between Sam and Harry – and loved it when Nan got involved in putting Sam’s gas at a peep in the Splash book. Next week we will be attempting to write a story using Harry. Thank you so much once again for providing the wonderful stories as a catalyst. My Snakes’ letters are pretty good too…

 

Third Culture (Techie) children can still be charmed by a good old fashioned picture book!”

 

Now there’s an encouragement. And naturally, I had to ask him what he meant by “putting Sam’s gas at a peep.

Here’s his answer

 

“My mother used this phrase a lot.

PEEP: A tiny light or flame, the lowest level at which a gas flame can be at without going out, hence the phrase PUT SOMEONE’S GAS AT A PEEP to cut someone down to size, to put someone in their place, to take someone down a peg.”

 

My correspondents want to know what happened to Harry’s dad. If only I could take up their invitation to drop by and read them one of my books. If I could afford the fare I’d be off like a gos from an austringer’s glove.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mar 11th 2015. A Small Blow for Higher Literacy Rates. www.literacytrust.org.uk

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The big green Cyclone van turned up at 8.40 this morning. Took away my old man. Felt like it, anyway. Twenty-five years-worth of foreign editions in a dozen boxes. I know it was vanity that kept them on my shelves and they’ll do better to be read than sit there reminding me of the absurdity of clinging to them like Silas Marner.

“You are only one of many and of poor account if any,” saith the poet. Stevie Smith, that is. To argue with myself that they might be worth a few bob – or of value to my grandchildren (who will probably be living in largely book-free homes) was crazy. And it was painfully easy to get the boxes from Waitrose. Nuff said. I have trusted the books to the National Literacy Trust. In case anyone else is teetering on the brink in this regard, here are the details.

Jason Vit: Literacy Hubs Manager 020 7820 6273

jason.vit@literacytrust.org.uk

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March 8th 2015. De-cluttering my bookshelves and other evacuations

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                 “Now I am chesty, chilled, confin’d,

Clogged up by saucy bouts and smears… “

                                                                 (Macbeth [ Nastikoff version])

The insidious little creatures that began to moss my bronchus on Friday 13th February have never really been away. Sometimes they take cover for a short while but encouraged by my regular outings to various schools, and clearly irritated by my incessant chatter, they revenge themselves by morphing to green slimy things with fish-hook feet. And now my darling is rendered horizontal by their cousins who have invaded and occupied her nasal passages. The tissues that she has stuffed up her nostrils to thwart their flow puff like poached eggs, like ectoplasm. She is reading Donna Tartt for comfort and I have turned to “H is for Hawk”. I love it. It is so steeped in Shakespeare and particularly in the madness of Hamlet; so tender towards the unhinged TH White and towards the thankless, savage otherness of a goshawk – that one cannot but feel privileged, like Conrad’s Marlowe when he meets Mistah Kurtz, to have peeped over the edge and seen proper horror without actually having to descend personally to the lower depths.

Away man-flu and woman-flu! Apart from that we’re fine.

Well, nearly; because I’m feeling very torn about parting with my foreign editions. Being bunged up and de-cluttering are clearly inter-related in some Freudian way and I am determined to stop hoarding the books and put them to work. I am going to give them to the people from the Literacy Trust who, working in the poorest wards of Bradford, Middlesbrough and Peterborough, aim to break the cycle of inter-generational low literacy by encouraging parents and children – on the cusp of coping with English as their second language – to enjoy reading together.

I have torn my books kicking and screaming from the shelves, noted what language each one speaks, stamped them all with a little library stamp that I’ve never used before and signed them – as an earnest of my devotion to them. Now they’re piled up in the hall waiting for boxes, almost ready to fly free.

 

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The hard thing now is actually to go out and get the boxes…

March 4th, 2015. Witnesses

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March 4th, 2015. Witnesses

 

Up betimes and off to Woodford – a testing trek by mini-cab and tube across practically the whole of North London. The children of Woodford Green Prep were entirely cheery and encouragingly attentive even when cramped together on hard floors in small spaces and made it all worthwhile.

Only when I reached the iron gate of the school did I have a faint sense of deja -vu – a feeling that quickly evaporated as I was led through unfamiliar labyrinthine corridors to the library.

At the end of the day, someone produced a couple of photographs of myself – looking just as raggy-haired and haggard as I felt today – doing my stuff in 2009. I had – and have – no memory of that first visit. Unnerving.

As long as I don’t turn into a weird old geezer like the fellow I saw last Sunday in the otherwise deserted market square of Sudbury in Suffolk. It was sunny but there was a cold wind blowing and there he was, sitting quietly on a bench wearing no coat or sweater, just an open jacket and shirt. I felt compelled to ask him whether he wasn’t cold, at which point he stood up and talked as if we were well known to each other and in the middle of a conversation.

I was spooked.This came out.

 

Witnesses

No other soul in Sudbury that Sunday;

Only a man who I thought old

(so white his silky beard) benched by himself.

He wore no coat though it was bitter cold.

I asked him was he warm enough.

He stood, his eyes behind blue glasses steady,

And spoke as if we were good friends already.

“That’s where she died,” he said.

He looked toward the buildings, tall behind me.

Two thoughts crossed my mind. Who? Had she jumped, then?

“Jehovah’s Witness, see? He wouldn’t have her in the house.

He threw her out. She drowned herself in the river over there.

He shouldn’a bin so harsh on her but then

They’re terrible, them witnesses.”

I nodded, muttered Terrible and hurried on -

A witnesses now myself, though an unwilling one.