Showing posts with label tmalexander. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tmalexander. Show all posts

Monday, 24 April 2017

Why do you blog? by Tracy Alexander

It’s publicity.

I started blogging in 2009 to create some presence as a newly published author. I fashioned a website with the usual pages – about me, school visits, books, contact, and ‘the blog’. And so the ramblings began. It would appear that I was quite conscientious for a few months, posting regularly, finding visuals to entertain. Thereafter, random would be the word. And random described the content too – occasionally writerly, sometimes personal, anecdotes from the family, pics of birthday cakes, book and school events, holidays . . . whatever came to mind. It dawned on me some way down the line that I should have had a theme. Oh well, too late.

Hardly anyone ever looked at my website. I used to check the data but it was dispiriting and then I forgot how to do it. I never knew who I was writing for. Or who my (few) visitors were. My books were for ages 7-11 and I suspected my blog readers were teachers from schools I’d visited, librarians and my friends. My interest dwindled. The blog seemed pointless.

When my two YA novels arrived in their oh-so-happening jackets my enthusiasm for an online personality was renewed. I made a new site because, from a scan of the 27 pages that occupied, I decided I didn’t appear edgy enough to write thrillers. I had also been reincarnated so was born. But my heart wasn’t in it. It’s a largely empty embarrassment.

And now I only blog on ABBA. Being part of an interesting and lively multi-author channel with a loyal audience is great and I can see the point. (And it's a commitment.) Good.

And yet . . . all those posts from 2009 . . .

I haven’t been a diary writer since my early twenties. Decades exist only in my memory or through photographic evidence. But the eight years since I began writing are documented and, for me, compelling reading. In that way that authors show themselves in their work without meaning to, regardless of the topic my life is charted through my posts. Passing comments, dotted about to give flavour, assume a new significance as I look back. My children start off small, dependent, comic and then move out of focus. We see that I have no idea my dad is going to die.  The early forays into the public eye are fraught. The joy of being published morphs into a journey of highs and lows. The gaps speak too. Of months where writing seemed an indulgence life couldn’t afford. I would have forgotten the clay mummy ‘clummy’ without my blog. I would have forgotten Charlie’s picture of Bee - the girl in the Tribe gang - given to me at the Appledore Book Festival. Brian Moses, walking with his iguana, would also be lost to me. I would not be, as I write, reliving my role as narrator at the Babar concert – unable to read the music being played, desperate not to miss my cue.

I may not have furthered my career, but I’ve captured a period of my life where my children became adults and I became a writer.
Maybe all that time I was writing to myself . . .

Tracy Alexander

Friday, 24 February 2017

Transition by Tracy Alexander

The National Childbirth Trust group I joined for my pre-natal education wasn’t made in heaven. The woman of Amazonian height carrying twins had no sense of humour (and hardly any bump because her babies didn’t need to curl up). The neat and tidy controlling one was disquieting. (She went on to start an inflexible routine as soon as her wee baby was born that meant we all had to listen to plaintive mewing until the clock struck the appropriate hour. Very stressful.) The couple that looked about seventeen, but were in fact thirty, were as unintelligible as The Clangers. The pair who looked like each other were dull, dull, dull. The horse vet and his perky wife we liked! The other two I’ve completely forgotten. (I am self aware enough to know the feelings were probably mutual.)
So, not a great hit rate. It didn’t matter. We were there to tick the box called Learning How To Have A First Baby. Job done. Except I came away less equipped for labour than when I’d started.
            There are lots of aspects to fixate on when you’re pregnant. Your vastness. Your poor sleep. Your joy. Your due date. Your birth plan. Your vagina. Your baby. Its gender. Your indigestion. And your labour, of course. How painful is painful? How long will it be? Will you cope? Episiotomy or tear?
But what obsessed me was transition. The hinterland between dilation and pushing. The NCT teacher made the phase sound like an ever-darker tunnel. Like being enveloped by an endless bleakness. It was the door-less cell. It was locked in the basement with the floodwater rising. It was obstetric dystopia.
Thanks to the vividness of her description, I read the chapter on transition in my birthing book again and again to make sure I would recognise when I was in it. In transition you can lose hope, feel like you can’t do it, give up. My imagination filled in the rest. The baby would get stuck . . . I would be paralysed by overwhelming helplessness . . . the baby wouldn’t be all right. 
The fear escalated.
I schooled my husband so that if I didn’t realise what was happening, he might. If I became despairing he knew to, parrot-like, tell me that it was a phase. The sign of the positive change from preparing to give birth, to actually doing it. But would he recognise, in the middle of the worst protracted pain ever, that I was lost?
When it came to writing my birth plan, it was simple: to not disappear into the abyss that was transition.

The transition described by the NCT guru didn't materialise. Whether it was the skill of the midwives or the drugs (yes, drugs) or being pre-warned, I didn’t experience a wave of petrifying doubt. I moved on to the next phase, which is essentially trying to poo in public, and was rewarded with a baby.

But . . . walking the dog against the ferocious winds this morning, the much-read chapter reappeared, unbeckoned. Twenty years on. Minds are funny.

I’ve recently finished the nth draft of a novel that has taken twice as long as usual. At the moment some of my friends are reading it because that’s how I work. I like a sense check, and all feedback is useful if only to confirm that I’m sticking to my guns. Knowing there is no point tinkering with the document at this time is lovely.
But lovely didn’t describe my demeanour a few weeks ago, still in the thick of the novel. As I typed the end of the first draft, instead of satisfaction that I could now improve the story, I felt incapable. The screen was a mess of indulgent waffle. The immensity of trying to smooth the journey, unkink the plot, deepen the drama, and give my heroine her freedom was beyond me. So I didn’t even try. I walked the dog, cycled to Portishead, made chocolate brownies à la Nigel Slater. (very good chocolate browniesThere was no point wasting any more time on it. I was not a writer. I should get a job like I used to have, with other people, where there are desks and canteens inside buildings, and PAYE.
Transition can be the most emotionally challenging part of labour, despite being the shortest, when women are at their most vulnerable and susceptible to suggestions of intervention. I was most definitely in the feared transition phase.

Thankfully phases are exactly that. It passed. One day I sat back in front of the computer, less demoralised, and began to chip and shave and bolster and slash. Solutions to awkward conversations piped up, clunky links got oiled, my heroine began to feel herself. Transition was over, it was time to push the manuscript out into the hands of my volunteer editors.

In a few days I’ll have all their feedback and it will be time for the final edit before it goes to my agent. I’m excited, not debilitated. It’s the end of the birthing process, the delivery.
And if I’m ever in transition again, I’ll know that it’s all part of the process. A process which is as individual as giving birth.

In case you’re interested, the NCT group met up regularly that first year, and maybe a couple of times after that. But we didn’t have NCT anniversaries. We didn’t bond over anything outside the common ages of our children. We don’t know any of them now. However, the friends I made at the NHS equivalent, Parentcraft, are still my pals. Just the luck of the draw.

Tracy Alexander

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Dino-Boy Abroad

 So, my eldest child, aka Dino-Boy, trotted off to Canada back in December to work with wildlife, and in exchange reports came back via Skype on Sundays – his day off. Daily life seemed to be along the lines of: prepared the feeds, cleaned out the cages, mended a fence, went to town to fetch the donated food, ate stir-fry.

The content started to vary dramatically as, having learnt how to handle wild animals, Oscar was given responsibility for his first creature – a snow hare with a limp, AND allowed to go out on 'rescues' – what a word!
             The most dramatic was catching two skunks, stuck at the bottom of an eight-metre well. There’s a video of him dangling on a rope, more Mr Bean than Ethan Hunt, and being bitten and sprayed before he can grab the skunk. The scent was so strong that people turned and stared for a few weeks afterwards. 

Oscar and Meisce
When a beaver was spotted swimming in salt water in Vancouver, Oscar was given the job of detoxifying the very sick animal. They don’t name the newcomers – too distressing if they have to be euthanised. Happily, Oscar called him Meisce after he responded to the treatment. He’s now back in the wild. 
Check out the feet!

More animals arrived at the centre and more bites. I only found out that an angry raccoon had taken a lump out of my boy when someone else tagged him – hand wrapped in ice, on Facebook. I demanded a close-up – it didn’t look too bad.

This raccoon is back in the wild
This adorable cub will be released next year

Oscar was due home last weekend, but at the end of March he texted saying he thought he might stay – he’d been offered the chance to look after the 2013 bear cubs, about to wake up after the winter but needing care until their release in summer 2014. No brainer, as Kevin Bacon would say. No surprise either, that April saw me boarding a plane with my daughter, Honor, to go and visit him.
He was big.
The same size, but bigger.
We had an amazing holiday, spending days off with Oscar and the rest of the time doing tourist stuff, but the best part was seeing him at the wildlife rehabilitation centre. It wasn’t the fabulous animals, or even the lovely people he works with, as much as the sense that he was in his element, absolutely.
White Rock B.C.

Wandering one evening along the beach at White Rock with Oscar and Honor, a bald eagle flew over. Further along a blue heron lazily flapped a few times to move out of our path. Ten years earlier, there’d been a similar scene. That time we were in Tofino, on Vancouver Island, as part of a six-week escape prompted by my husband losing his job. Bald eagles were as common as pigeons, black bears were everywhere – one crossed the road as we were walking to the beach, whales were blowing, seals collapsed on rocks.

I wonder whether that once-in-a-lifetime trip, Oscar aged nine, tipped the scales, turning the little boy fascinated by dinosaurs into the one living the life in Canada, where wildlife is truly wild (and let’s face it, bigger).

And the raccoon bite, well . . . the photo he sent was of an entirely different finger with an old wound. This one swelled up like a pumpkin, leaked pus, was as shiny as Downton silver, and had to be sliced open by one of the supervisors.
'Didn’t want to worry you, Mum.'
Me, worry?
My son currently goes into the bear den, picks up the poop, feeds them and jangles about to keep them wary of humans. The bears are around a hundred pounds each. There are four of them. Who’s worrying?

Halo - turning blacker as she sheds her winter coat
Tracy Alexander

Friday, 7 March 2014

Mostly-closed Doors T. M. Alexander

My first post on this site, Sliding Doors, told the tale of how I started writing, thanks to a poster in a bookshop. So for my World Book Week post, I’m going to describe the journey from winning a short story competition to my name on the spine of a paperback. It’s in shorthand, because it took some years! Along the way I got into the habit of collecting ‘ticks’ , because the odds against me seemed so huge it was the only way I could stay motivated. ‘Crosses’, I tried to bury.

I started writing a ‘book’ almost as soon as I heard that I was a PWA. (Prize-Wining Author – my family’s idea of a joke.) The idea was easy to come by because like all experienced marketers I ran a brainstorming session, inviting my kids, then 10, 8 and 6. (Interestingly I didn’t make a conscious decision to write for children, that was taken for granted somehow.) Two sides of scribbled-on sheet of A4 later I began my summer 2005 project. And loved it. I wrote every morning from about 6 to maybe 11, and the kids watched non-stop telly. Brill. Then we ate our bodyweight in three-course breakfasts. As the word count grew so did my determination for it not to languish on slush piles. (I’d bought the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook by then so knew the jargon.) Keen to speed up the learning curve, I applied for a place on the University of Bristol Creative Writing Diploma.
I shared my enthusiasm with a stranger at a party. The wrong person as it turned out. She said, ‘I’m a librarian and my husband works at Waterstones, but I can’t get a children’s novel published so you’ve got no chance.’
I shared my enthusiasm with a published children’s author. She said, ‘everyone thinks they can write.’
I submitted my first assignment at Uni.
‘Unvarying in prose style. No sense of time or place and some format problems.’
Sometime around then the marvellous Show of Strength – a Bristol theatre company, announced a competition to write a monologue for a show of rolling performances. Wonderful idea. My monologue, It’s My Party’ was brought to life by Lynda Rooke (most recognised from Casualty).  I stood in the audience and as the piece drew to a close I noticed the grey-haired man next to me was crying.
Excellent, because more crosses were on the way.
I sent the first three chapters of my finished children’s book to an agent.
‘I love it, rush me the rest,’ she said.
I could see my future – hardback, paperback, film, Oscar ceremony . . .
            ‘It’s got everything – drama, pathos . . . Can you come and see me in London?’
            She wanted a few changes. I obliged.
            Time passed.
I let it – not wanting to be annoying.
Eventually I chased her.
She appeared to have forgotten about me, sending an email the essence of which was - ‘I didn’t like it that much after all.’
(In retrospect, approaching several agents at once might have been sensible, but I was terribly optimistic, so only contacted one at a time.)
The next response was something like, ‘it’s a ludicrous idea . . .’
The next.
‘Too like Percy Jackson.’ (It really wasn’t.)
Surely time for some good news? Yes!
Bruce Hunter at David Higham invited me for a cup of tea and agreed to represent me.
Now, it would all fall into place.
The book was rejected by everyone.
Umpteen crosses over ten months (he too sent things sequentially).
In summer 2007 I wrote another book, which my agent loved. Was this the one?
The book was rejected by everyone.
Umpteen crosses over eight months.
Cue Piccadilly Press, inviting me for a meeting.
I didn’t know what to wear. What do authors look like? Stupid thought.
They loved my book.
But didn’t want to publish it – too quiet.
Did I have any other ideas?
That morning (just in case) I’d had another brainstorm with the getting-older kids (12, 10 and 8). I regurgitated the rough idea of a gang of children called Tribe – who they were, what they did.
I was dispatched to write a short synopsis.
‘A paragraph will do,’ the publisher said.
Three paragraphs later (I didn’t want to under deliver), I had a contract.

This October my fifth book will hit the fresh air. It’s about how one small act changes everything that follows. We’re back to Sliding Doors.

T. M. Alexander

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Dino-boy by T. M. Alexander

My progress up the learning curve was slow to begin with.
‘What’s this?’ Oscar would ask, holding up another grey rubbery four-legged shape and I’d say, ‘Velociraptor?’
‘Torosaurus! What’s this?’

Oscar, like a lot of children, was crazy about dinosaurs. It’s a rich topic and led us to Charmouth, searching and finding dino poo as well as the usual belemnites and ammonites, to the Natural History Museum to see the skeletons, and to Cardiff to see the Woolly Mammoth – Oscar cried when it moved and we had to leave. Not the slightly bit interested in learning to read, it was the non-fiction dinosaur books that gave him the motivation and like all new readers with an interest he didn’t stop. When his Reception teacher, the lovely Mrs Wallis, tried to take a lesson on the subject, Oscar corrected her, and proceeded to give a short lecture. Any excuse and Oscar would slip into his dinosaur costume, and packing for holidays would mean careful negotiation about how many, what size and which one in the hand luggage. Everyone knew about his obsession, and most tried to avoid showing too much interest because he could go on . . . Except me. I didn’t know anything about dinos, but as my knowledge grew so did my fascination. Fast forward and I could name every model in Oscar’s crate. 
For others, it’s a phase, but Oscar’s passion never waned. He still has a shelf of books with large print and pictures, mostly by DK, as well as two crates containing all the models, life-like and not, and posters and fossils galore. On his bed, there’s a huge Aladar – star of Disney’s take on pre-history.
His interest widened as he got older to include the evolutionary journey from the creatures of that day to this, and wildlife became his thing.
As soon as he turned sixteen, Oscar filled out the form to become a volunteer at Bristol Zoo Gardens. He applied three times in six months but each time was unsuccessful. The zoo, understandably, gets every would-be vet, zoologist and plain animal-lover from the South West knocking on the door.
May 2012 came and in stepped Twitter, advertising a paid position as . . . wait for it . . . Dino-keeper. Oscar got straight on it. The excitement in the house was palpable. Was a dream about to come true? The role was to talk to the public about a series of animatronic models that the zoo had flown in from Texas for the summer. It was full time but Oscar was doing AS levels, so was, with a bit of license, available. He applied and was invited for an interview, where he had to give a three-minute presentation on one of the dinosaurs. Slam dunk! Oscar is blessed with an easy manner, the ability to get on with people and absolutely no nerves ever, his knowledge was undeniable, surely it was a done deal? He chose Baryonyx, and practised his spiel in front of us in full safari gear with a series of props secreted about his person including a fish, a giant tooth and a magnifying glass. Fabulous.
Interview day arrived. There were ten candidates, all the rest graduates of either Drama or Paleontology. Gulp. Oscar went first and said it went well. Nine others followed. The shortlist of seven was announced and the unlucky three sent home. Oscar wasn’t one of them. So far so good. The second element was an interview in which Oscar had to choose from a selection of artefacts and talk about it. He picked a skull and explained all the features that led him to, correctly, identify the animal.
Back home, Oscar waited for the call, and so did we.
            He didn’t get the post.
            He was so despondent, there was nothing we could say to lift his mood. The others were all much older and had more life experience, but that didn’t make it any better for Oscar. He'd missed the opportunity of a lifetime.
            It took a week for me to dare to share my idea with him.
            ‘Why don’t you write to them and ask if you could be a volunteer dino-ranger?’
            Having been rejected so many times already, I don’t think Oscar thought there was a chance, but he emailed and, relief all round, they said he could be a volunteer two days a week throughout the summer. He was overjoyed. The fact that it was unpaid was utterly irrelevant. It was a fantastic lesson in the idea that it’s not how often you get knocked down but how you get yourself back up.
            Oscar loved the job. On his second day the zoo got this email:
. . . we met a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable member of your team. I believe he was called Oscar and he was working in the fossil tent interacting with children of all ages whilst assisting them with the dig part of the exhibit. He was able to talk to a number of children at once and used his impressive knowledge to engage with them across the wide age span. He is an asset to your team. Please pass on our thanks as his involvement made the activity more enriching.
            All good.
But it wasn't over yet . . .
The whole family picked Oscar up from work one day as we were going to Oxford. He got in and said, ‘do you want the bad news or the good news?’
‘Bad news,’ I said.
‘I’m not going to be a volunteer dino-ranger any more.’
We waited.
‘I’m going to be a paid dino-ranger.’
            He ended up working at the zoo from May 2012 until Christmas Eve 2013 in a variety of roles, fitting A levels in between. His last four weeks were as the Reindeer Keeper, complete with Christmas jumper.

I was thinking about the turn of events when, last Saturday I had an anxious few hours wondering where Oscar was. 
Thanks to the experience gained at Bristol Zoo, he was offered an internship at a wildlife rehabilitation centre near Vancouver for four months. In the way that gap year students do these days he flew to Calgary so he could hook up with a few friends doing a ski season in Banff before starting work. He was due to leave on the overnight Greyhound at nine o’clock and travel on Highway 1 through the Rockies to be met at the other end by a volunteer from Critter Care, when the road was closed due to an avalanche warning.
            Writers’ imaginations aren’t always helpful.
            Oscar eventually arrived in Vancouver at five o’clock in the morning two days later. Everything was shut so he took a taxi to the only place he remembered from a trip there when he was nine years old – Stanley Park. (We saw beluga whales.) And rang me. He may know a lot about dinosaurs but there’s still some common sense that needs honing. Thanks to google, I found a Starbucks that was open at six o’clock. Five hours later he was picked up and is now, I’m pleased to say, at the centre. He’s allowed a shower every other day and his laundry day is Wednesday. We Skyped him last night and he looked fine. The dino-ranger is now keeper of bears, raccoons, opossums, coyote, beavers . . . 
It’s been a journey I feel very privileged to have witnessed.

T. M. Alexander
Author of the Tribe books

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Why were the royals weeping? by T. M. Alexander

Despair at the lack of spontaneity, creativity and inspiration in education thanks to the straitjacket it's forced to wear had no place last Thursday at the Deer Park Hotel (the only place I've ever encountered men in breeches that were neither hunting nor scrambling up a crag).

Deer Park Country Hotel
For the fifth year I was the judge of a children's short story competition run by the Honiton Writers Group. For the fifth year I was blown away by the inventiveness and enthusiasm of young minds, the eloquence and courage. The event is so happy and feel-good that it's not just the kids that go away beaming - everyone from the hotel staff to the grandparents have only praise for the initiative that has grown every year. And me, I bask in the positivity of it all.

This year there were 400 entires, from 5 to 15 years. The youngest winner was 6. Can a 6-year old write a story worth reading? Yes. Loretta's idea was about the Mona Lisa coming to life, leaning out of the frame and finding she had no bottom. I hope you're laughing. In the younger age groups humour is common, whereas by 12 the submissions are mostly bleak. (Think back to your teenage poetry - or was that just me?) Bucking the trend was Sarah, who wrote a touching story of a hat waiting to be bought. The hat's joy at finally leaving the shop was brilliantly conveyed. The desolation when the wearer returned it, unbearable. (Don't worry, she came back for it.)

My favourite line was by Harriet, aged 8, who started her story with 'why are the royals weeping?' That became my mantra for the evening, and I tweeted it. A close second was 'there was a large sign saying "Bowels"' - a perfectly appropriate statement given that Sophie's story was called 'Lost in the Body.' Harrison wrote an edge-of-the-seat drama that seemed bound to end in carnage but he was fooling with the reader as I found out when the terrifying event turned out to be a death slide at the local pool. He was also a winner in 2011 and hadn't looked back since, completely changing his attitude to putting pen to paper in all subjects. As we all know, a little encouragement can go a long way. While we tucked into the buffet, several of the children came to tell me their ideas for next year. I'm looking forward to reading about Lady Lalum already.

Winners in the 5-8 age group
I asked the winners for permission to use snippets of their work in this blog. 'Come and find me afterwards if you don't want me to,' I said. This lot in the photo waited until after the buffet to come up behind me en masse and shout 'we don't want you to!' I nearly fell for it.

I was on the M5 North when I heard the news that Nelson Mandela had died. Unlike Obama, protesting against anti-apartheid wasn't my first political act - I'd been to Greenham Common with my mum and sister carrying a WI-type basket of food including a Victoria sponge. It was however the cause that, thanks to my sister, was a big part of my coming of age. She became secretary of the Anti-apartheid group in Walthamstow and I went along whenever I could. We marched through a London estate where the pavements were full of National Front types and scary dogs, were there at the Free Mandela concert, learnt to sing the beautiful Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica - Lord Bless Africa, which always makes me cry, sold T-shirts, mugs and tea towels at every fair that would have us, and celebrated when he was freed as though we knew him in person. Memories of those years came back clear and bright - Cry Freedom, Joe Slovo, Winnie Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Trevor Huddlestone . . . as I drove, listening to Jacob Zuma on the World Service and then Radio 4's epitaph. 
I was pleased when I got home, red-eyed, to find my 16-year old still up and about. He was indignant at a post by one of his friends on Facebook, seconds after the news, dissing all the RIPs that would now appear. My son called him an unrepeatable word, which in the circumstances I approved of. The cynic took down his post shortly afterwards. The friends were reconciled, something 'Africa's greatest son' would have approved of.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

In praise of the 3rd Bristol Festival of Literature by T. M. Alexander

It wouldn’t be your first thought.
You’re running a literary festival ( with a twist and you want an event that will cut across the usual demographics, so you ask a children’s author to go for a country walk with a . . . brewer. Yes, only in Bristol.
Andy Hamilton makes alcohol from foraged plants, fruit and vegetables. Elder, mugwort, yarrow, blackcurrant, parsnip – you name it, he’s got the recipe. His book, called ‘Booze for Free’, shows you how. Me, I leap about. Having never met, we had a hasty telephone conversation a couple of days before the 2-hour Sunday afternoon event at Ashton Court – home of mountain bike trails, deer herds and dog walkers. My unhelpful mantra was ‘let’s see how it goes’. Andy, quite possibly, wanted to make a plan, but he’s not used to working with children (and I’m a bit plan-phobic). Having no clue whether we would get a dozen 4-year olds or a handful of starting-early silent teenagers dragged along by their beer-swilling dads, I wasn’t even making a punt on what we’d do. Look them in the eyes – then decide. The rough agreement was that Andy would guide the walk, making reference to interesting shaman-like things – ‘if you put elder under your pillow you’ll fall in love with the first person you see’, we’d encourage the kids to collect whatever they found en route, then split up for me to run a story-making session and him to share the moonshine.

Sunday dawned. Grey, rain forecast. I won’t share the amount of enthusiasm I felt – you can probably imagine. School events are a breeze compared to public ones, I find. Guaranteed audience with henchmen provided versus motley unsupervised crew in weekend mode, hmmmmm . . .
            Don’t moan, Tracy. It’s nice to be asked.
Walking boots, Goretex jacket, woolly hat. Big box full of woodland things like a fox mask, a singing robin, felt strawberries and a slingshot. (Tip: NEVER take a slingshot anywhere with children.)
            The audience arrived, in dribs and drabs. My first impression was that it wasn’t a bad turn out. Only two toddlers, several keen-looking boys, an earnest girl with very stylish parents (they were French!), a chatterbox, no lunatics. The crowd grew to forty, interested and hearty, no high heels, plenty of North Face.

I asked the kids to bring back anything they thought we could weave in to a story, ‘except poo.’ My idea of a joke.
            ‘Or a deer,’ added a blonde boy. Much better joke than mine.
            Off we tramped, in a long straggly line. Andy made us pick and eat weeds, insisting they were like rocket. Unbelievably the children did as he said. No tomato sauce, no bribing, no threats. I bowed to his greater powers.
We passed a fallen branch that looked like a dinosaur, found leaves that could have been lions’ teeth, mushrooms shaped like bones, and poisonous berries, red of course, that I had to confiscate for my sanity. The rain came down but we were in the thicket, so the walk went on. Andy had the adults right behind him, like the Pied Piper, whereas I brought up the rear, herding the wayward and sadly unable to hear the folklore he was sharing. An hour went by, and, much as the organic nature of it all was nice, it was time to get inside or there would be no story, and no quaffing.
            Twenty children followed me to an upper room in the stable block. I emptied my pockets full of mulch and tried to arrange our finds on a table as though they were precious. Time to tie it all together.
            Without the two unsupervised 3-year olds I might have stood a chance of coaxing some gems out of my enthusiastic tribe but it was a case of lowest common denominator. Luckily I don’t measure success by the quality of the output as much as by the decibels. Decibels were good. So was the stamping, attempts at howler monkeys and terrified screaming. (Still no parents came to check.)
            Amazingly, the older children stuck with me, despite the constant interruptions, and we fashioned a woodland tale, included all the objects in our display and had some laughs. In order to achieve this I spent the last ten minutes repeatedly sending the two toddlers for a run around the mostly windowed room with the magic words, ‘be goldfish.’ They role-played with gusto.
            So, two hours later we put our muddy boots back on and I returned the children to their woozy parents. Andy had done them proud by the smell of things. One of the dads helped me carry my gubbins to the car and off I went, home for late Sunday lunch. My only regret, not a sip of dandelion champagne or horseradish vodka graced my palate. My reward, free tickets to take my son to see Andy McNab. Crikey – with the life he’s had he’ll never need to make anything up . . .

p.s. I’ve deliberately omitted the sly hand, poisonous berry and slingshot incident.