Monday, 4 January 2021

Kids TV in the time of Covid, a success story - Ciaran Murtagh

Being a writer, the logistics of how I do my job in times of Covid doesn't change that much. Sure I might drink more Coke Zero and stay in my shed longer than is healthy, but I still use my brain and my computer to try and find funny things for people to do. 

The same cannot be said for everyone else who helps make TV. While I don't have to do anything different,  they've had to reinvent their entire jobs. 

Given that some of the TV shows I contributed to over lockdown are starting to see the light of day, I wanted to give a shout out to those unsung, gunge splattered heroes of kids TV who have done everything Eastenders and Strictly managed to do only quicker, funnier and with about an eighth of the budget. 

First up -Crackerjack. There's a whole new series on the way and all of it was filmed back in October in a time of great uncertainty. The Christmas special aired on BBC One over, well Christmas, and you can still see it HERE

Not only was it filmed in Manchester, at a time when Manchester was facing flip flopping restrictions, it is a show that relies heavily on a full studio audience bellowing it's catchphrase repeatedly at the top of their voices - not very Covid compliant. There's also lots of slapstick and non Covid compliant gunge with kids battling against each other in a series of silly games. 

Almost everything had to change. 

The studio audience went and games were made socially distanced. The presenters Sam and Mark were put in one bubble, the sketch cast in another and all the kids on the show had to maintain social distance from each other while doing very silly things. The crew had to work differently too. The only time anyone got close to the kids they had to be in a full body suit costume - the frankly terrifying cabbage monster - but it was the only way they could make Double or Drop work. 

They got ten episodes made, the very least you can do is check it out! I bet you won't even spot the joins, which is testament to the work that went in to making it happen. Take a bow. 

Big Fat Like began a few weeks ago. This show was filmed on location and is a parody of the internet - no pressure then. 

It was filmed over the summer as areas went in and out of lockdown. To find a location that they could definitely use for the duration of the shoot took a number of tries and a lot of patience. The cast were in a bubble in the location house, and the production crew were kept outside in a van, filming the whole thing as if it were an Outside Broadcast. Sketch shows are notoriously difficult to get right at the best of times, to film one while the majority of the crew aren't even in the same building is a stroke of genius. To make it funny to boot - take a bow! Catch up HERE

Danny and Mick began filming on the 9th March. They then stopped filming pretty quickly afterwards and started again in the summer. They have just delivered two series worth - or nineteen episodes -  of top quality laugh out loud telly and it all starts on CBBC TODAY.  

Now if that isn't something to shout about I don't know what is. Filming on location in a leisure centre is hard enough. Continuing to film while it pops in and out of lockdown and customers are allowed in and out of the venue is insane! 

The cast had to isolate for two weeks before filming started and then they remained in cast and crew bubbles throughout as they shot all 19 episodes for the series in under three weeks during August and September. To have finished filming in September and have it all ready to go by the first week in January demands a medal. They won't get one so this'll have to do.  Please check it out. I genuinely love this show. In a parallel universe it's on BBC One every Saturday. In this one you can find it HERE

Those shows were all live action, which posed a certain set of challenges, Dave Spud is a cartoon and that posed a whole load of different ones. 

We started writing this one in January 2020 and the first episodes hit the screen right after Christmas. You know the long list of names you see at the end of a cartoon? They all worked on this show without ever being in the same room. Some of them weren't even in the same country. The voice talent often recorded their parts remotely, sometimes in makeshift home studios with direction being given over a video link. Once again, I have no idea how they did it, I just know they did. Dave Spud is a quintessentially British cartoon. If you haven't seen it please do have a look - Basement Jaxx did the theme tune. It is THAT good. 

That's a small selection of what's been coming through, but by no means everything I - and many others - have worked on. All have kept going with a cheery disposition despite massive and varying disruption, making television for children because it's what they do best. 

I hope you enjoy watching it when it comes out and if you do, this year, of all years, take the time to watch the credits - these guys deserve every single one. 

Sunday, 3 January 2021

My intriguing Christmas gift book. by Sharon Tregenza



by Brian Selznick

I was lucky enough to get this book as a Christmas gift. The friend who bought it for me had worked on the film version by Martin Scorsese (which she says is nowhere near as good as the book, by the way).

I've heard of it, as a Caldecott Medal winner, but know nothing about the story so I thought I'd give an overview of the actual book and then post a review next time.

Firstly, I love the heft - it's a big ol' brick of a book. Then when you look inside...

It's crammed full of stunning illustrations. Even the print pages have a black border which makes them look precious and special. It looks like a picture book/chapter book amalgam which is interesting in itself. 

If the substance is anywhere close to the style, I'm in for a massive treat. The blurb says...

With 284 pages of original drawings, and combining elements of picture book, graphic novel and film, Brian Selznick breaks open the novel form to create an entirely new reading experience. Here is a stunning cinematic tour de force from a boldly innovative storyteller, artist, and bookmaker.

I expect loads of you have already read it and possibly seen the film too. I'd be interested to hear what you think. Book? Film? Both?

Anyway, a lovely, lovely gift and I can't wait to dive in. 

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Adventures with languages. Part One; Welsh by Steve Way

Thinking about how our blogs are generally about how we use language, predominantly in our case to bring stories and situations to life, I thought it would be interesting to write about my experiences and musings about other languages.

My first girlfriend was Welsh and when it began to look as though our association was going to become serious, she decided that she would like me to learn her mother tongue. At the time, back in the early 80s, a series of books, a precursor to the [Difficult subject you want to learn about] – for dummies (who aren’t really dummies) range, called [So and so] made simple, such as Einstein made simple or Genetics made simple, seemed to be very popular. All of these tomes alleged to make the complex comprehensible and were of a reassuringly consistent length – or outer thickness at any rate. (I certainly never read the contents other than a few pages of the forthcoming example.) They were all just under an inch wide. The only exception was Welsh made simple, which was nearly two inches thick. Einstein eat your heart out.

Despite the daunting thickness of the tome I volunteered to master this apparently straightforward language. I sat outside her parents’ house on a sunny afternoon (it wasn’t raining!) and began wrestling with Welsh.

As luck would have it the first chapter taught how to say, 'I like coffee' or for the truly ambitious, 'I like tea'. Despite the wrestling match taking a couple of hours or so, with the Welsh language definitely winning, I did manage to absorb the knowledge, made simple in this beginning chapter – the only one I was ever to read. Just as my head had stopped spinning, by remarkably brilliantly timing, my girlfriend came out and asked if I might like a cup of tea.

Dramatically I slammed the book shut as though I had fully absorbed the contents of Welsh made simple and boldly declared, ‘Rwy’n hoffi te’. She nearly fainted.

I learned a few more words and phrases, such a ‘good morning’ (‘bore da’) etc but the only other sentence I acquired from my book was, ‘Rwy’n siarad Cymraeg’ i.e. ‘I speak Welsh’. It occurred to me that on its own this is a profoundly useless sentence to learn in virtual isolation from the main body of the language.

Imagine the scene.

An accident has occurred; several of us rush over to the injured party. The first to reach the victim looks up at us and declares, ‘I think he’s Welsh. I think he’s trying to tell us something… does anyone speak Welsh?’ Instinctively I cry out, ‘Rwy’s siarad Cymraeg!’ Everyone turns to me hopefully, even the injured party raises his head a little. I back off slightly… perhaps the only useful contributions I can make at this point is tell the victim that I like tea… and possibly, though not completely truthfully, that I also like coffee. Let’s hope the accident occurs in the morning or conversation will soon run dry…


A couple of times we visited the ancient welsh capital proudly bearing the name Machynlleth. I have a sneaky suspicion that the ancient warriors of Wales, so often at odds with the English, created this name in an act of genius. It’s pretty much as sword in the stone scenario. Unless you are truly Welsh – and even then, it’s not a guarantee – you definitely cannot pronounce that name.

Imagine another scene.

The English King’s tent on the border of Wales. Inside, the king and his generals are pouring over a map of Wales.

King: So where be the capital of this rebellious nation?

Norfolk: (Pointing) It be here my lord…

King: Situated where it be, it should be an easy target. What name have the revolting natives given the place?

Norfolk: I believe it be called ‘Mac on Leith’ M’Lord.

Northumberland: No, I was told it be ‘Mick un Luff’.

Essex: My noble lords ye both be in error, it be ‘Mick in Leaf’ I believe.

The king’s generals begin quarrelling.

King: Forget it we’ll invade Wrexham.

Norfolk: Be that not ‘Wrecks ‘em’ M’Lord?

King: Shut up and raise the army!


Happy New Year everyone!

Or as Google Translator would have it (I definitely wouldn’t know) Blwyddyn Newydd Hapus pawb!


Recent publication ‘I’m going to be a Computer Programmer (Careers in STEM)’ One of a series of books for children exploring careers in STEM subjects

ISBN 1910828904

Friday, 1 January 2021


Free Clipart Of A bell hourglass and happy new year banner 

It's the first of January 2021 and the beginning of a new year. Let's hope it will be better for many than the one that came before.

Right now, a post about New Year Resolutions or Inspirational Goals doesn't seem to fit my mood, so here - instead - is the Awfully Big Blog Adventure New Year Quiz instead. 

Appropriately, the twelve questions are about Beginnings found in well-known Children's Books. I wonder which ones you'll recognise?

Are you ready? Found a pen and a scrap of paper? Or shout them aloud over your mince pie, along with "Easy Peasy." And you don't need to fill in any deletions. Steady? Go! With no Googling either!

Wishing you Good Luck!  

And even more Good Luck and Better Times for the year ahead too.  

(nb Answers can be found below the second set of New Year Bells)

1. The Sun did not shine, it was too wet to play so we sat in the house on that cold, cold wet day.

2.  In a hole in the ground there lived a _____________


3. You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of  The Adventures of ______ __________ but that ain't no matter.

4. One sunny Sunday the caterpillar hatched out of a tiny egg.

5.  It was Mrs May who first told me about them.

6 . There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.

7.  "Where's Papa going with that ax?"

8.  Mrs _________'s Academy for  Witches stood at the top of a high mountain surrounded by pine forests.


9.  When ________ _______  was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever.

10. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.

11. It was a dark and blustery afternoon in Spring and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried out bed of the old North Sea.


12. The first place I can well remember was a large, pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it.


That's it! Well done, probably, and hooray!  

And every good wish for your year ahead.

(With Impressive Resolutions or Without.)

Penny Dolan






Free Clipart Of A bell hourglass and happy new year banner

Hello Again. Here's the Answers!

1 The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss

2 The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien

3 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

4 The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

5 The Borrowers by Mary Norton

6 The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

7 Charlotte's Web by E.B.White

8 The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

9 The Secret Garden by F. Hodgson Burnett

10 The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S.Lewis

11 Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

12 Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Friday, 25 December 2020

Extra, extra, read all about it!

 Many thanks to Dianne Hofmeyr, who bravely and boldly ventured forth into Tier 4 London to take these pictures for us of some of the Christmas window displays in some of the splendid independent bookshops in the city.

Let's hope it's not long before they can open their doors again, and welcome back their enthusiastic and book-loving customers to browse freely!

Happy Christmas!

These first two are of Daunt Books.

Nomad Books in Fulham.

Above and below, South Kensington Books - note Dianne's own latest book, Paris Cat, illustrated by Piet Grobler, at the top right.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Merry Christmas! - Sue Purkiss

This is the last post on ABBA for this year; we'll be back on 1st January.

A huge thank you to you, our readers, and to all our contributors, who have provided such a mix of entertaining and informative posts: I hope they've helped to lighten up this strange year. I think next year is probably going to have a pretty shaky start, but let's hope that it gets into the swing of things as spring brings hope and light back to us.

I'm going to leave you with some images of Christmas at the Bishop's Palace in Wells, near where I live. It's always a very special place, surrounded as it is by the most beautiful and peaceful gardens, and with, of course, the cathedral itself next door - if you haven't visited, and you get the chance, you really should come and see it.

But there was something particularly special about the decorations this year. The tables were set in the style of different periods from the cathedral's long history (800 years this year), and you really felt as if you were moving through time, in company with friendly ghosts. And the exhibition of trees made by local schools from recycled materials was wonderful, showing such creativity and imagination.

So there we are. See you next year!

A mediaeval setting.

I think this was 19th century, but it may have been 18th.

Some of the trees created by schoolchildren.

The cathedral itself, seen from the gardens. The stream at the front comes from one of the wells from which the city takes its name.

Saturday, 19 December 2020

Off with the Faeries again by Steve Gladwin

A reappraisal of Faerie Tale, by Raymond Feist

You know how it is? At a certain point in your life you read a book that later, you vaguely remember might have been an influence on your life and creativity? And so you choose to go back to it to see what all the fuss was about. Quite often, of course, it proves to be a damp squib, a shadow of what you remembered.

But there are those times when the sheer thrill of the first read comes back to you all over again. Not only is it all there as you remembered, but there's so much more - so much so that you want to tell everyone about it.

So here goes!

Imagine the dark woods. Imagine the creepy house with a history of bargains and secret cults. Imagine the company of the fey waiting at the top of Erl King Hill, and imagine that they are soon to leave, as their season once more comes to an end. The fair folk make rare appearances nowadays, maybe once or twice in a hundred years.

But there is a treasure buried on the land, one of gold coins so valuable that a few of them alone are worth a small fortune. How did they come here?

Deep within the cellars of the house is a secret room, which, when opened, reveals a safe full of seemingly indecipherable documents, some in languages so ancient they have almost been forgotten.

Despite the presence of two rival courts of faerie and the traditional opposition of the good queen and the evil king, all might have been well if the secret room had been left untouched by the new owners of the house.

--or if they had not destroyed an old pledge by digging up the hidden treasure.

But there is a spirit out in the forest who wants the treasure to be dug up, and who wants the old pact to be broken. To do that, he makes sure that the hidden key to the locked room – is found.


So far, so trope, you might say, and turn to something you like the sound of more. But then you’d be missing out on two things; an astoundingly good book - which just keeps on surprising and manipulating the form - and the fact that it is written by a hugely respected writer of fantasy fiction. This book, then, is a one-off, in more ways than one.

The simplicity of the title, Faerie Tale, belies the book’s depth and complexity, let alone the fact that it was written by renowned fantasy writer Raymond E. Feist, author of the classic ‘Rift War’ saga and much more besides. Feist wrote it in 1987 and he has never written anything else remotely like it since.

Sometimes writers take a leap into the dark and experiment with something new. Quite often, depending on how satisfying they might find the experience, or how well it might be received, they may never choose to leap in the same direction again!

But, for me at least, if you decided to write a one-off novel about faerie, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to better this. Here are a few reasons why.

A few nice gold doubloons 

*Faerie Tale is a genuinely scary novel, which treats its subject with great respect. It has believable characters caught in impossibly deadly situations, having no idea at first why this has happened and how it can be resolved.

*The location, especially the house, Erl King Hill itself, and the Troll Bridge, under which the terrifying ‘Bad Thing’ lurks, are powerful, eerie and evocative and in the case of the bridge, make you want to hurry your steps over it as possible.

*’Faerie Tale’ is based on already powerful old tales, which include the warring faeries of Shakespeare’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, the chilling tale of the Erl King himself, the border ballad of Thomas the Rhymer and the Norse tale of Wayland Smith. At no point does the author show any sign that he doesn’t know this material absolutely and has full control of it.            

Arthur Rackham's  'Titania Asleep', (but it's the fact that Puck is lurking in the background with the 'Love in Idleness' juice that really matters!) 

*Of the many similar books that I have read, Faerie Tale carries an almost constant creeping dread entirely in keeping with its subject and plot - a combination of foreboding, but also foreshadowing. The sense of foreboding initially grows over it like a shadow, one which which eats gradually at the characters, their grasp and understanding of what is reality. The second acts more like a future ghost haunting the reader with what might be to come.

*Faerie Tale is always asking questions of us as readers, as well as its characters. It is a novel which encourages questions, but especially on those subjects about which we know next to nothing - the morality and amorality of the faeries and their different factions, the reawakening of ancient enmities, the legacy of betrayals and corruption so old they are only just within the memory.

Richard Dadd - Fairy Feller's Masterstroke - Public Domain

*It also understands the world of faerie. I can’t pretend to have ever been there, although I’ve written about it plenty of times, but Raymond Feist does two rather incredible things in this book. First of all, he manages to bring together the once popular discredited flower faerie version of faerie, as seen most memorably in Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and combine it with something far more Brian Froud and Alan Lee, or – should you have had the chance of reading- Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Lords and Ladies. One minute it’s as if you’re diving full pelt into the famous mad English artist Richard Dadd’s Fairy Fellow’s Masterstroke, which – part English pastoral and part Hieronymous Bosch - has a very disturbing feel if you look at it for long. The next you’re deep in the gloom of the forest from which the great European fairy tale collections of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm originated. The fact that Raymond Feist manages to marry the two and make it work so well is a true testament to both his craft and knowledge, and makes you wonder how he did so, so well.

*Secondly however, there is the rather tricky problem with sex, and particularly with the amorality of the faeries. For me, the author’s true mastery of the faerie world is shown in two early uneasily and erotically charged sequences with the legendary figures of Puck and Wayland Smith and our screenwriter hero Phil Hasting’s daughter Gabrielle, either one of which could have turned into either rape or consensual sex, and neither of which do.

*But it’s the final extended sequence, when Phil’s two eight-year-old twins Sean and Patrick are the pivotal figures in a race against time as the more timid Sean attempts to save his brother Patrick from a fate worse than death, that Feist is truly able to unleash the wonders of faerie. The depictions of the contrasting Fairy courts of Queen and King are portrayed in a quite masterly fashion.


*Finally, there are the characters of Sean and Patrick themselves. There is an unwritten law in Middle Grade Fiction that the main actions must be both led and performed by the young characters. In contrast, in Young Adult fiction, the hero or heroine often acts more like a pseudo adult, than a middle grader on whom adult situations are suddenly forced.

For me, Sean and Patrick are both the best and the best-drawn characters in the book. Because they are twins, they feel things together, like when one is in danger etc. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s the twins who perform the pivotal actions that enable things to be resolved to some degree at least, and it’s clear the author is with them all the way, as he trusts them with a good chunk of the narrative, steering us regularly away from the complicated, often strident world of adults in peril, to the quieter, but often far more immediately horrific closed-in world of the boys, who know that things are wrong from the start.

It’s the boys and their journey which make the novel tick, but uniquely, this is done without us ever feeling as if we’ve been robbed of the adults, their feelings and problems, their burgeoning sexuality, rows and insecurities. If I was to take one thing from the novel that is different from the usual fare, it would be the characters of the boys, our twin narrators to the inconceivable. For all the worries which accumulate around the adults, and Gloria and Phil Hastings’ daughter Gabby in particular, it is the boys, and Sean, in particular, who lead us on this incredible journey into darkness and back out again.

So, as I've made abundantly clear, 'Faerie Tale' - should dark horror/fantasy be your thing, (and I have to say that nowadays it's very rarely mine), is not only well worth rediscovering thirty years later, but infinitely worth the read at any time.

Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist is published by HarperVoyager, (now with a brand new cover) and is also available on Kindle, You'll find copies in all the usual places. Enjoy.



Friday, 18 December 2020

A load of old baubles - by Lu Hersey

People have been celebrating the turn of the year at midwinter for thousands of years. Originally marking the winter solstice, people decorated their homes with evergreens and fir branches as a reminder of the coming spring. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia over the solstice period, with decorations to honour the god Saturn. With the coming of Christianity, the evergreens came to represent the promise of everlasting life with God. 

Christmas trees came much later, an idea thought up by either Estonians or Latvians (they're still arguing about who thought of it first). Either way, they first appeared in town squares thanks to the Brotherhood of Blackheads. I went down a google rabbit hole to find out more about the Brotherhood of Blackheads, so to save you a bit of time and effort, they were a group of Christian merchants (male, single) who banded together to put down an uprising by the indigenous pagan population of Estonia, who wanted to get rid of Christians and foreigners. The Brotherhood then started an annual Christmas celebration, dancing around the fir trees they put up in the centre of town.

The first indoor tree we know about was erected in in the guild house in Breman in Germany in 1570, and decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels and paper flowers. It possibly wasn't the very first indoor tree, but it's the first one someone took the trouble to make a note of in the town records.  

There are various legends as to why the people of Germany started bringing fir trees into their own homes. The most popular is that Martin Luther was gazing up at the stars sparkling through the trees one night, and thought of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. Luther brought a small tree indoors to tell the story to his children. 

Whatever the truth of this legend, indoor Christmas trees soon became popular throughout Germany, and were decorated with lighted candles (to represent stars), edible treats and roses made of paper or gold foil. A figure of the baby Jesus was placed on the top, later replaced with either a star, to represent the Star of Bethlehem, or an angel, who brought the news of the birth to the shepherds. Glass makers started making tree ornaments, and the Christmas tree bauble was born. 

Tinsel also started in Germany, originally made from beaten silver. The idea behind tinsel is connected to traditional folktales about the Christmas spider. All versions of this folktale centre on a poor family who can't afford to decorate their tree and leave it bare on Christmas Eve. Overnight a spider covers the tree in webs, and on Christmas morning the family awake to find the webs have miraculously turned to silver or gold. To this day, spider ornaments and silver webs for trees are popular in the Ukraine and over much of northern Europe, as they are considered lucky. 

Christmas trees were unknown in Britain until Queen Charlotte (the German wife of King George III) had one set up in Windsor Lodge in 1800. The idea caught on fast, and by Victoria's reign, anybody who was anybody had one in their home. All the first Christmas trees were decorated with lighted candles - which led to rather a lot of house fires. Fortunately someone invented strings of electric lights sometime in the early 20th century, and so these days few of us still run the risk of lighted candles. (Though I know one German family who do, and only put the tree up on Christmas Eve - and have to admit, candles look AMAZING)

Everyone has their own decorating preferences for Christmas trees. Some go for glittering white lights and themed baubles, which look tasteful and classy - and some don't. Our family always has coloured tree lights, for sentimental reasons - my grandmother loved coloured lights and she lived with us when I was a child. Every year, she'd repeat the story of how they reminded her of her honeymoon, which she and my grandfather spent visiting the Blackpool illuminations. Apparently they'd never seen anything so magical. (Of course it was a very long time ago, and neither of them had electricity at home back then). Anyway, our coloured Christmas tree lights remind me of her, and the warmth and love she brought into my life.

My mother aspired to white lights because she thought they were much more tasteful and had real class. But being a child of the war generation that wasted nothing, she could never bring herself to spend money on new white ones until the old ones broke. Unfortunately for her, my grandmother's coloured lights proved immortal (well, allowing for the odd blown bulb every year that my father painstakingly replaced - checking every single bulb until he found the faulty one) and somehow she never managed to achieve her white light goal. 

I often look wistfully at the beautiful white tree lights sparkling in other people's windows, and think of my mother. Perhaps one day I'll get some like the ones she aspired to and put them round the tree in memory of her - and that will tell a different story. And I will wish she could see them, along with the family she didn't live long enough to meet.

Our tree baubles are a hotchpotch, a family history of the last 30 years in bauble form. Some brought back from travels abroad, some given by friends, some chosen in shops, some handmade. Everyone has their personal favourites, and there's an annual squabble about which ones hang nearest the front (though this year, thanks to Covid, I got to dictate. But I missed the squabble. It's part of the tradition). 

If you have a Christmas tree, it probably tells your own story. But whether you do or not, I hope you have a peaceful and stress-free festive season, after what's been a very strange and difficult year for us all.

Lu Hersey 

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Dear Santa Booklist by Tracy Darnton

I love receiving new books for Christmas but I'm usually too busy with house guests to sit down and read them. But this year is panning out rather differently. One of the few upsides is that this is going to be a cosy Christmas with only my household and so, for the first time ever, I will be sitting on the sofa with a tin of Quality Street and a stack of books. I may or may not change out of my pyjamas.


So here’s my list to Santa of most wanted books to find in my sack on Christmas morning:


I follow Joanne Harris on Twitter and find her threads on writing and being an author very helpful. These have been collated into a just published book: Ten Things About Writing. I’m particularly looking forward to the chapter – Why am I doing this, again?


I am guilty of stacking up writing guides on the shelf which I dust but never open. One of the few I really like for its relatable simplicity is the screenwriting guide Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, famed for its beat sheet. Sadly it hasn’t made me a planner rather than a pantser, but I do like its sections on how to give your main character more oomph, and the Pope in the Pool trick to hide exposition and many other quirky revelations that will help your writing or at the very least change how you watch movies. So I’d like to see how this is applied to novel writing by author Jessica Brody in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.


My concentration for reading has suffered this year, what with one thing and another. So I need a must read which everyone has loved. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell seems to fit the bill and if it’s OK with you, Santa, I’d like the Waterstones special edition. It’s their book of the year, so that’s good enough for me.


I’d like to look at pictures. Preferably beautiful, unusual ones. So the Accidentally Wes Anderson book, please, which I’ve already bought for two other people and had a sneaky peak. Made for me, as it combines my interests in photography, Wes Andersen movies, travel and idiosyncratic places and architecture. Perfect.


In lockdown one I reread one of my all-time favourites – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. There was something very comforting in dark times in revisiting a book which I knew inside out from pre-Covid times. I have several copies already but as I’m a bit geeky about covers of my favourite books, I see there’s a new illustrated edition out in January which I’d love to coo over. Thank you.


So that’s my list. Which books are on your Christmas wish list?

Tracy Darnton is the author of YA thrillers The Rules and The Truth About Lies. Please feel free to mention them to Santa.

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Artists in their Landscape - My interview with Jackie Morris by Steve Gladwin

In the summer of 2007, I was completing a pilgrimage memorial walk by doing 49 miles of the coast path, following a route from areas new to me, beginning in Sandy Haven, and then walking to Marloes, Broadhaven, Solva, and ending up at St Justinian's. A short bus - of which there are conveniently many on the coast path, took me back to St David's and the part of Pembrokeshire we had known very well.

On my last day there, I went in search of something hare-connected, because Celia and I have a big connection with hares. I looked and looked - including in the cathedral shop - and found nothing suitable. After a sit-down and a snack, instinct took me back to the cathedral shop in case I'd missed anything. I don't know whether it had been hiding, but almost the first thing I saw was a book of poems for children illustrated by Jackie. The connection was welcome because we'd once or twice corresponded with Jackie and she'd sent us several things, including her story about the white raven of Ramsey island and pictures of king raven and a white egret. 

All that there was left for me to do was to open the book.

First of all, Jackie, thanks for agreeing to talk to readers of An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

I'm happy to do so.

We've decided to spread this interview over two months, which gives us plenty of facets of your work to explore. However, while we're going to go back to your early career in the second part, I'd like, if I may, to concentrate here on both the theme of landscape and how important it is to you, but also on your recent collaborations with Robert Macfarlane.

But let's start with landscape and the one in which you live. If you open your front or back door, whereabouts are you standing and what can you see?

A garden path snakes away through a disheveled space to an old ash tree, past an old rose that in summer scents the air. There's a fire basket hanging on a tripod. The tree is often peopled with birds, and always, somewhere, is a wren.

To one side the land stretches out towards the sea. To the other the fields lead up to  a rocky outcrop where I go for shelter from storms, (in the head) and also to sit and think.

At night the Milky Way stretches high overhead and birds migrate and bats fly. The light from Stumble Head lighthouse sweeps the sky and the quiet feels like a texture.

Thank you. That's a lovely comment about 'texture', I'd imagine this is an idyllic place to live and give birth to so much in. How important would you say that is - for an artist to have some kind of landscape on their doorstep? There is clearly such a thing as a landscape in which you feel settled; and hopefully one that's conducive to work.

There's always landscape. It might be city scape, town scape, or wild. I feel happier in wild. And even in cities it's what I seek.

So, let's return to your childhood. Can you describe where you were born and the places in which you walked. How important was this environment for your life as an artist?

I was born in Birmingham, grew up in Evesham, was drawn to the riverbank and bank voles and swans. As I was a child it was the only thing I knew and I made the best of it.

For the remainder of this part of our interview, Jackie, I want to concentrate on your on-going creative collaboration with Robert Macfarlane. There must presumably have been a point where you both became aware that familiar and beloved words were in danger of disappearing from the dictionary, and therefore from children's knowledge - a truly worrying state of affairs, which I could hardly believe when I first heard it. You decided to work together to do something about this. How did it come about?

The story of how The Lost Words came into being is a long one. It began with the realisation that a decision had been made by a children's dictionary to replace some very common natural words with new and more technological, possibly transient words, (at least this is how they justified their decision). What this highlighted was a lack of awareness of the wild world. A study in Cambridge showed that children knew the names of Pokemon characters, but not common wildlife. (It is a lesser known fact that Macfarlane knows more names of Pokemon characters than I!)

To address this I thought it might be an idea to take the 'refused' words and make a dictionary that honoured them. I wrote to Doctor Macfarlane with a request that were this to happen he might write an introduction. Our book grew and changed from this small seed. And over time we have become good friends. Our collaboration on the books is such that we email each other constantly, back and forth, constantly with ideas. Rob sends me words, I send him sketches. If I have concerns I will take photos, ask. If things are going well I photograph work in progress. And now and again we meet.

From your side of things, Jackie, how do you approach such a big project - although clearly from what you've said it's the growth and the back and forth between the two of you which matters in your collaboration with Robert Macfarlane. But presumably from your side there must be similarities and differences to other work and projects?

I approach all the work I do with the fiercest open- heartedness I can. At the moment my head is father-filled. What's hard is, being so immersed in a new book and having to go back and talk about a previous work that is maybe a year old. The Lost Spells is different. This time last year I was half way through. It was an astonishing amount of work to produce in a short and difficult time.

Now clearly The Lost Words was well-received, and it's clear to see why. For me it's just the sort of book I'd love to have found rummaging through the shelves at primary school. Tell us about the reaction of teachers and everyone else.

I can't really talk about this, other than to say the word 'overwhelming' seems inadequate. Children have produced the most amazing work inspired by the book. Teachers have given us astonishing feedback. And now children are learning the spells by heart.

I love seeing their drawings they do inspired by mine. And love to see and hear them finding their voices and learning about the wild with enthusiasm.

What about the decision to produce a CD next? How did that all come together? Did you have individual singers and musicians in mind, or a specific mix, and how easy was it to persuade them?

That's not how it happened. At the Winter Weekend in Hay, Caroline Slough of Folk by the Oak was in our audience. We began the event with a setting of the wren spell by Kerry Andrew. She is an amazing writer and musician. This seeded the idea with Caroline with a project with her, and Adam, her husband, approached our agents for the licence to work with our book. They curated this astonishing super group of folk musicians who wove together music that takes the message of The Lost Words deeper into the soul. I think some of the musicians, Karine Polwart and Julie Fowlis, had already approached  Rob about musical settings for the words. Kris Dreyer drew on the images to find music.

We've other music also, from Jamie Burton and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Wonderful choral pieces for young voices, (google Jamie and the Tanglewood festival).

There are beautiful audio books, downloads and CD versions with the spells being read by diverse voices and illustrated by the wonderful sound landscapes of Chris Watson.

And so, to your latest collaboration. the new book, The Lost Spells. The moment I opened it I immediately thought that what you had done was to create something a bit more manageable in size, but that you'd also played with the form - especially the poetry, with the wonderful added bonus at the back of the book.How did you go about re-inventing and re-visiting a success like The Lost Words? Was there a conscious feeling of wanting to do something both different and similar?

The same but different..... this one grew organically. Rob had been writing new spells and I had the idea of working them in to an exhibition with Rob writing on my paintings. Red Fox was commissioned for The Lost Words Prom at the Albert Hall.... that's when the spells transformed into the idea of a small, talismanic spell book that was easily portable. The size requires the spells to move through pages in a different way and the puzzle of the glossary came towards the end as I realised that I was treading through so many species and people might not know the names of them. So it became a curious poetic field guide.

Finally, Jackie, we've been avoiding any talk of all the changes we've had to cope with for most of this year. Has any of your recent work been informed or affected by Covid 19, or indeed by anything else? Do you have any new goals.

I have been asked this question several times but never given a true answer. This is because it is very difficult. In some senses Covid's restrictions have not affected me. I like to work alone, at home, in solitude, in peace. But in other ways it has.

My father died just before lock down. Days after he died I had to paint the cover if The Lost Spells. How to push past the grief barrier and paint? That is one of the hardest things I have done, but how the echoes of what was happening formed into the wings of an owl, and how owls in mythology are caught up with the space between this life and after, well, there's poetry as well as grief in that.

I've talked about this in public before. What I haven't talked about about was living through the suicide, in the same week, of a close family member, the grief and the turmoil that arose from that. It's something I want to talk about, when I can, as suicide and the chaos that ensues around it, the heartbreak, heart ache and inhumane bureaucracy, all need to be dragged into the light.

And later a good friend who I'd not been able to see because of  lockdown etc, died. Judy Dyble and I often talked, and our communications inspired each other's work and we tested out on each other. None of these deaths were covid related, but it impacted on how the rituals of mourning took place.

So, burying three close people during covid, that is hard. I hadn't really realised how life continues around death and now have a deeper understanding of the 'stop all the clocks' poem. There were times during those months when it was hard to breathe, let alone paint. But creativity is both my work and my sanctuary. All my work is always informed by my life. The two are tangled and entwined.

My main goal remains the same. To live as well as I can, to speak out against injustice, and to do no harm.

Thank you so much, Jackie. It occurs to me that this blog began with the subject of loss and ends with it. My experience was all about how I should celebrate and commemorate my wife Celia. Now people will be able to see and hear you describe below and eventually find their way to the other project which has come out of these difficult experiences. So, with grateful thanks to Unbound and you - I'm going to allow your own words to describe the ideas behind The Space Between.

The Space Between is a quiet creature of a book that grew from the silence of lockdown from a desire to play, to see what happens if you type with a typewriter onto gold transfer leaf.

Small, to fit in the hand with ease, or be carried in a bag or a pocket, it is a natural successor to The Unwinding. Here, words revert to their natural form, becoming images, ink on gold, in their islands of leaf. Each sheet is a breathing space. The image on the cover is the Japanese symbol – 間- Ma - roughly translated as ‘gap’, ‘breath’, ‘pause’, and essential to all forms of art - negative space made positive.

The book may settle into sections – Birds, Hares, Hiraeth, Land, Sea, Sky, Dreams – but some sheets will stand alone. Again, as in The Unwinding, these can be catalysts for dreaming, a focus of vision, a small prayer to the wild. Some connect like a trail of pebbles through a forest. Some might be short stories told in gold pages. Through others, I explore my grief for my father who died last year and left me his vintage typewriter. The act of using a typewriter also hones my writing. Each word earns its space (which is what all writing should be).

And here is the link to Unbound, where you can also see Jackie's beautiful and personal film about this unique book, and - should you wish - pledge in order to help the fledgling take flight in the wider sky.

If you wish to buy any of Jackie's books, her site, has information  about how to do so, as well as a fascinating biography page, information about future projects, and of course lots of her art work.

Finally, if you are one of the few people who haven't discovered the film about the making of The Lost Words CD, look no further. I'll guarantee you'll be singing this as you catch up with household chores.

This version is one of many, but the covers of this song alone are growing, and you can find most of the other spell songs too on youtube.

Next month I will be continuing my chat with Jackie, where we will be discussing a\ great deal more of her career, inspirations and enthusiasms, especially those of the animals.

And in February I'm pleased to announce that I will be interviewing one of the participants in The Lost Words CD, the Gaelic folk singer Julie Fowlis.

Until then, and with thanks for sharing a quite wonderful year of interviews with me, my thanks also to Jackie Marchant, Sue Purkiss, Kit Berry, Scott Telek, Elen Caldecott, John Dickinson, Hugh Lupton, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Jackie Morris, and anyone I've forgotten. Thanks all, and have a magical solstice, a merry Christmas and I look forward to seeing you in the new year.

Coming up next year.

Folk Singer Julie Fowlis on The Lost Words project, the landscape of home and singing in her native language.

Storyteller Nick Hennessey on the landscape of Finland and the Kalevala

Writer and folk-lore expert Katherine Langrish on the road that began with Narnia and led all the way to her new book.

Celtic expert and writer John Matthews discusses the Celtic landscape and its perils with me.

And at Beltane, a special between-the-worlds discussion on the figure of the magical Selkie and its many and varied inspirations, where I will be joined by writers, musicians, artists and storytellers who have a special connection with it.

And that's just the first four months! 

Steve Gladwin - Stories of Feeling and Being
Writer, Drama Practitioner, Storyteller and Blogger.
Creation and Story Enhancement/Screen writing.
Author of 'The Seven', 'Fragon Tales' and 'The Raven's Call'
01938 500728/01485007189/[email protected]/[email protected]