Monday, 29 June 2009

Booktrust teenage prize

It is very hot and sweaty here in Cambridge. Or at least it is hot and sweaty by Cambridge standards. Victorian terrace houses are not made for such conditions and become insufferably airless very quickly. Adding a glass-roofed extension – as has been in done in this house – only exacerbates matters.

I am blaming the heat for my addled brain today. Every task I have set myself has proved too much for me and I would have achieved as much had I sat with my feet in the Cam all day. Except I would have been cooler. And happier.

On the upside, I heard from Ian Lamb, via Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury, that Tales of Terror from the Black Ship has been longlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize. We find out next month if it has made the shortlist. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

You brought them into the world. . .

We watched The Orphanage tonight. Here is the trailer, with the most ridiculous voice over you are ever likely to hear. It was a good film - though I'm not sure the story would bear too much analysis. There are so many horror movies in which children are the threat; so many in fact that it must surely point to some deep-seated fear of children.

The Innocents (based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James) has creepy children in it, as does Village of the Damned (based on the Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham). The 1970s M R James adaptation, Lost Hearts, absolutely freaked me out when I saw it, with its blue-skinned ghost children. The Omen revolves around the sinister boy/Antichrist. The Shining has a sympathetic child (who is creepily gifted) but also has scary twin girl ghosts. The Ring has that terrifying boggle-eyed girl ghost.

As well as The Orphanage recently, there has been Let the Right One In with its girl vampire and I saw a trailer for a what looked like a spectacularly awful horror movie actually called The Children. It had the unintentionally hilarious tag line (adopt gravelly voice): You brought them into the world. . . .Now they will take you out.


It is all of interest to me, of course, because I have been writing so many creepy stories with child protagonists. It is different though. These movies seem to tap into an adult fear of children not behaving as children should. The children in the Tales of Terror books are often reprehensible, but they are usually victims of creepiness, rather than creepy in their own right - at least at first.

It is harder to sell a story to a child on the basis that children are inherently creepy, for some reason.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Rocking in the free world

I watched the film of Atonement yesterday. I am still not quite sure what I make of Ian McEwan as a writer, but I certainly enjoyed the novel when I read it. But watching the movie, I found myself wondering a lot of the time what someone would make of it had they not read the book. I'm not sure it stands entirely on its own merits.

That said, the tracking shot of the chaotic scenes on Dunkirk beach was great. My father was at Dunkirk, so I am always interested in trying to visualise that event. Ian McEwan wasn't there of course and neither was the director, so authenticity is a moot point. It felt right, is the best you can say. The film as a whole just seemed a bit rushed though, somehow. It is nearly always the case that a novel has too much going on (if it's any good) to be easily translated into a movie.

Not that I would want to put anyone off who is thinking of making a movie out of one of mine.

I caught a bit of Neil Young's set on the BBC's Glastonbury coverage. Neil Young's stage persona always reminds me of an orangutan who has just found an electric guitar and can't quite decide whether to eat it or mate with it.

I don't mean that in a bad way, you understand.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Blame it on the boogie

The news outlets did not seem to know what to do with the Michael Jackson story. Should they stick to celebration? Should they question the manner of his death? Should they bring up the allegations that dogged his later life? A biographer on Radio 4 bizarrely actually described the controversy surrounding Jackson as 'boring'.

Jackson was my exact contemporary, which in itself seems very weird. When I was twelve it seemed exciting that there was this hugely talented kid, the same age as me - and so much cooler (well, everything is relative) than that other talented twelve year, old, Donny Osmond.

He provided part of the soundtrack to my college life, both with the Jacksons and solo. His music would be played at every disco and party and he was held in enormous affection I remember. It was infectiously happy music.The Jacksons were not exactly Funkadelic (you could do the Charleston to Blame It On The Boogie) but everyone seemed to genuinely like them, and Michael in particular.

By a spooky bit of prescience, I was showing my son the Thriller video on YouTube the other day - that and Beat It. I'm not quite sure what he made of it. I can remember staying up to watch the Thriller video. Everyone did. Jackson was already quite strange by then, though. He is arguably scarier as 'himself' than when he changes into the werewolf.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Carnegie winner

Burntwood School got it wrong. Bog Child has won the Carnegie Medal.

As I have already said, this is a beautifully written book. But I am sure Siobhan Dowd was going to write much better ones than this had she lived. She was a proper writer with lots more to say.

The Siobhan Dowd Trust has been set up to help disadvantaged children experience the joy of reading. And what an excellent cause that is.

Talking of Burntwood, when Taskeen Siddiqi took us to the station at the end of the day, I expressed the hope that Ofsted will show their appreciation for her work. Taskeen said that Ofsted are not interested in the work of the library. Can this really be true? I have been a governor at two schools and I ought to know, but it does seem extraordinary if they do not take an interest and just plain wrong if there are librarians like Taskeen working their socks off and not getting credit for it.

There is a hell of a lot of work involved in organising these events as well as Burntwood organised theirs, and many, many schools do nothing at all. If anybody from Ofsted happens across this blog, then maybe you can let us all know the reasoning behind this if it's true. What happened to raising standards in literacy?

I think that getting authors into schools, demystifying the business of writing and enthusing children about reading for pleasure is work that should be valued and applauded.

Librarians rock.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Carnegie (sort of) winner

There was a great sky over Cambridge today: a beautiful cobalt blue with Fra Angelico clumps of clouds here and there. I couldn't resist taking some photos.

I bumped into David Aaronovitch in Borders. He needed a bit of prompting to remember me, but we used to sit opposite each other a couple of days a week at the Independent when I was an illustrator and cartoonist there many years ago. David was in Cambridge to interview someone for the Times where he now works.

I forgot to mention that at the end of the day yesterday the students voted for their favourite book from the Carnegie Medal shortlist. The Knife of Never Letting Go came out on top (Bog Child came fourth). I must confess here that I haven't read Patrick Ness's book but the students here clearly liked it. The Carnegie Medal is announced tomorrow, so we'll see if the judges come to the same conclusion.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009


I spent the day at Burntwood School in Wandsworth, London. I was the guest of Taskeen Sadiqqi, the school librarian, who had organised a Carnegie Medal shadowing event. All three authors - Anthony McGowan, Mary Hooper, and myself, were all a bit late and so I had to leap out of a car, walk in through the side entrance to the hall and go straight into my talk to a room full of students from Burntwood and four other local schools - Elliot School, Graveney School, Battersea Park School, Streatham and Clapham High School. Thanks to Taskeen and to all the librarians and staff who looked after us so well and to the students for managing to stay alert and good-humoured on a very long and hot day.

I spoke about my writing career and about writing creepy stories in particular. The students asked lots of thoughtful questions, and the time whizzed by. Mary gave an interesting talk about the chance discoveries that can spark an idea for a novel. Anthony spoke in the afternoon about the notion of fact and fiction in writing, and how the line between them gets blurred.

Each of the authors chaired a discussion group of between ten and fifteen students about a particular novel on the Carnegie shortlist. These groups rotated half a dozen times. It was hard work, particularly as, not surprisingly, not all the students had managed to get through all of the books!

Yesterday I was wondering what today's teenagers would make of Bog Child - a book set in 1981 in Northern Ireland. I have to say my concerns turned out to be well-founded. Not many of the students I spoke to had any real grasp of the period. More than that - no one actually seemed to like it, or be excited by it. They understood the poignancy of a book centred around sacrifice being written by an author who was shortly to lose her battle with cancer, but it was not enough to make them love it. More than one mentioned too many plot strands and these themes not being tied up satisfactorily at the end. They had a point I think.

The setting (time and place) did seem to be an issue. I was three groups in before someone asked what the main character and his uncle are doing at the beginning. I said they were stealing peat. She had no idea what peat was, and neither did almost anyone else. No one knew that it was a fuel.

This is the problem of writing for children. You cannot assume any prior knowledge. The more you stray from the everyday experience of the reader (geographically and historically in this case) the more you run the risk of confusing them and alienating them.

Of course, this is not a reason for not trying to drag them to look at some world other than their own. Far from it. One great quality of reading is that magic carpet ride of being taken to another time, another place - another world. Or even just to walk around in someone else's shoes for a while.

But they are only going to go with you if the story is compelling enough. The more effort they have to make, the more compelling the story has to be. And the truth is, for all its many qualities, Bog Child just did not seem to grab them.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Bog child

I've been reading the late Siobhan Dowd's Bog Child in preparation for a Carnegie Medal shadowing event at Burntwood School in South London tomorrow. That's a great cover by the way, isn't it?

Bog Child is very good - very well written - though I do wonder at what the average fourteen year-old will make of it. It is one of the things I am looking forward to finding out tomorrow. The book is set on the border between the South and Ulster during the Troubles. I read a review on the US Amazon site that said US teenagers would not understand the background, but are British teenagers (outside of Northern Ireland of course) any more familiar with the Troubles or Bobby Sands?

It is 1981 and the brother of the main character, Fergus, is on hunger strike in the Maze. The story of Fergus and his struggles to come to terms with the political reality of Northern Ireland at that time and how it affects him and his his family is compelling, but I do wonder if the references will mean as much to the audience it is aimed at. It had a lot of resonance to me, because my generation (which included Dowd) grew up with the IRA and Northern Ireland as daily news items. I certainly know that my son would be mystified. But then that is the problem with all historical fiction for children - whether it is 1891 or 1981 - as I know all too well.

The politics of Ulster is not all that is happening in the novel of course - not by a long way. It starts with the discovery of a well-preserved Iron Age body in the peat - the bog child of the title. This turns out to be - well, I shouldn't really say too much more for fear of spoiling it for you. Suffice it to say that Fergus appears to have a strange connection with this 'Mel'. He also falls in love with the daughter of the archaeologist called in to investigate and forms an unlikely (possible a bit too unlikely?) friendship with a British soldier.

I'll let you know what the students at Burntwood have to say about it in due course.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Father's Day

Father's Day today and my son brought me a cup of tea in bed, followed by The Observer and even went a long way towards making me blueberry pancakes with maple syrup (and helped me do quite a lot of the eating).

Then I was taken to Audley End. I had never been there before. What an amazing house. It is Jacobean with corner turrets and gold weather vanes, and is stuffed full of the usual expensive but tasteless clash of styles and ornament that is the mark of the English stately home. It has some nice paintings, but they are hung so bizarrely - often twenty feet up in the air - that it is impossible to appreciate them as art. The grounds were amazing though, with gigantic trees (possibly planted by Capability Brown when he landscaped the place) and there were terrific clipped yews that bubbled up like a great green amoeba.

We had a picnic on the field overlooking the pond in the vast grounds, while every now and then a First or Second World War aircraft would growl past, very low, on its way to Duxford. There was something vaguely disturbing about being buzzed by a Messerschmidt.

Parts of Audley End was so very like the image I had in my mind's eye for Hawton Mere, the house in The Dead of Winter, that I would have taken lots of photos had I been allowed. The only place I could manage this was the working area of the house - the kitchen, dairy and so on. These rooms were fascinating and peopled by actors in costume, flitting among the visitors like ghosts.

After Audley End we went to Saffron Walden to visit the Fry Gallery. The Fry Gallery contains an archive of work connected with the brilliant artist, illustrator and designer, Edward Bawden and his circle. The catalogue is edited by Martin Salisbury from Anglia Ruskin here in Cambridge. Martin is a big fan of that period of English illustration (as am I) and very knowledgeable.

The gallery is very small and so some of the work is hung just as bizarrely as the paintings in Audley End; some of them so high that stepladders would be needed to see them properly. They have some nice things though. There was a particularly good Bawden painting done in Sicily (that I think I have in a book somewhere) and a big linocut of Liverpool Street Station.

Sadly, there is a room given over to exhibitions and the exhibition at the moment is John Bellany and contains some of the worst paintings I have seen in a long time. I have never been a fan of Bellany, but even by his standards these are eye-wateringly garish. What they are doing here, sitting like an old drunk in a clown's outfit, next to the tasteful restraint of Bawden and Ravilious, heaven only knows.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

My weird ways

I had the following conversation with my wife the other evening:
'I'll go and make a cup of tea,' I said.
'Don't touch the oven door whatever you do.' (she was making a Pavlova)
'Why would I touch the oven door?' I asked.
'I don't know,' she said. 'It's the sort of weird thing you would do.'
There are so many ways in which I thought I was weird. Now apparently I will have to add the weirdness of willfully tampering with oven doors.

Will Hill and Jane Bigger came round last night. Jane does archive research for TV and her job sounds fascinating. Other people's jobs often do. Will is off to Athens, for instance, as an external assessor at the art college there.

I had a long chat to Philippa, my agent, yesterday. We spoke at length about what I'm writing now and what I'm hoping to write. We also chatted about the possibility of an Italian deal on my some of my Random House books - Death and the Arrow, The White Rider, Redwulf's Curse and New World. More of that if and when it happens.

Friday, 19 June 2009

The dead of winter

One of the reasons I downloaded Windows Live Writer is because I was trying to copy and paste some large pieces of text into Blogger and it just did not like it.

After doing a little bit of Googling I found someone who was recommending Windows Live Writer as a solution. Blogger is full of all sorts of strange glitches, so it will be interesting to see if this makes life easier when it comes to writing and editing my posts.

I thought that I might share some of the work that I have been talking about on the blog but has not as yet been published. Here is the beginning of The Dead of Winter. As I have mentioned before, it is set in Victorian England and is the story of an orphaned boy who goes to stay with his strange guardian in a moated manor house in the flatlands of East Anglia during a cold and snowy Christmas. Just as they are approaching the house at night, the boy sees a woman loom out of the darkness towards the carriage. . .

We are still at the final edit stage, so this is not necessarily the exact version that will appear in print. It may even have the odd spelling mistake or grammatical error in it. It will be published in 2010 by Bloomsbury. Hopefully this won’t put you off buying it!



My name is Michael: Michael Vyner. I am going to tell you something of my life and of the strange events that have brought me to where I now sit, pen in hand, my heartbeat hastening at their recollection.

I hope that in the writing down of these things I will grow to understand my own story a little better and perhaps bring some comforting light to the still-dark, whispering recesses of my memory.

Horrors loom out of those shadows and my mind recoils at their approach. My God, I can still see that face – that terrible face. Those eyes! My hand clenches my pen with such fearful strength I fear it will snap under the strain. It will take every ounce of willpower I possess to tell this tale. But tell it I must.

I had known much hardship in my short life, but I had never before seen the horrible blackness of a soul purged of all that is good, shaped by resentment and hatred into something utterly vile and loveless. I had never known evil.

The story I am to recount may seem like the product of some fevered imagination. But the truth is the truth and all I can do is set it down as best I can, within the limits of my ability and ask that you read it with an open mind.

If after that, you turn away in disbelief, then I can do naught but smile and wish you well; and wish too, that I could so easily free myself of the terrifying spectres that haunt the events I am about to relate.

So come with me now. We will walk back through time and as the fog of the passing years rolls away, we will find ourselves among the chill and weathered headstones of a large and well stocked cemetery.

All about us are stone angels, granite obelisks and marble urns. A sleeping stone lion guards the grave of an old soldier, a praying angel that of a beloved child. Everywhere there are the inscriptions of remembrance; of love curdled into grief.

Grand tombs and mausoleums line a curving cobbled roadway, shaded beneath tall cypress trees. A hearse stands nearby, its black-plumed horses growing impatient. It is December and the air is as damp and cold as the graves beneath our feet. The morning mist is yet to clear. Fallen leaves litter the cobbles.

A blackbird sings gaily, oblivious to the macabre surroundings; the sound ringing round the silent cemetery, sharp and clear in the misty vagueness. Jackdaws fly overhead and seem to call back in answer. Some way off a new grave coldly gapes and the tiny group of mourners are walking away leaving a boy standing alone.

The boy has cried so much over the last few days that he thinks his tears must surely have dried up for ever. Yet as he stares down at that awful wooden box in its frightful pit, the tears come again.

There are few things sadder than a poorly attended funeral. When that funeral is in honour of a dear and beloved mother, then that sadness is all the more sharply felt and bitter-tasting.

As I am sure by now you have guessed; the lonesome boy by that open grave is none other than the narrator of this story.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Naturally Speaking

I had a very annoying day yesterday. I have been having problems with pain in my right hand, wrist and arm, especially when I'm using the mouse. I tried very hard to ignore it and just carry on writing, but it had become just too painful.

If I was working in an office, then obviously I could just take some time off and give my poor hand arrest, but I simply can't afford to do that.After some deliberation, I decided that I would give speech recognition software a try.

And so I bought and Dragon NaturallySpeaking version 10. I installed it on my laptop, but it refused to accept the microphone provided with the software.

It's my own fault really: I was bragging to Peter Kirkham about the reliability of my Dell computers in a conversation about Apple owners and their dogged belief that contrary all the evidence, Apple computers are perfect, and everything else is rubbish.

This argument of mine was undermined rather by the fact that I was forced to accept my laptop is faulty and a man from Dell is coming to pick it up today.

I then installed Dragon on my desktop and after training it to understand my voice, the software works pretty well. I have a written on this blog using Dragon and it has only made two or three errors. I make more than that when I type.

I'm not sure that it could ever be a complete replacement for typing. It does feel a little odd talking to yourself. Having said that, I think you will certainly work for me in the short term, writing longhand and dictating.

The voice training was fun. I had to read, President Kennedy's inaugural speech. It was quite difficult to keep reading it and not start doing some terrible Kennedy impersonation.

All in all, the software is pretty accurate, although amusingly, the first time I said ‘new paragraph’, it typed out ‘new Arab's ass’.

I have also written this using Windows Live Writer, a free download, which I hope is going to solve some of the problems I've been having with Blogger.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009


I went into the studio again today. There are the usual signs of John having been in but I was on my own for most of the day until Lynette popped in briefly. On the way in I nearly rode my bike over a sparrowhawk as it collected its prey in the gutter in Hope Street. Not much hope for the blackbird it was flying away with.

BBC Audio wants to do Tales of Terror from the Black Ship which is great. Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror was done very nicely. It is always fascinating to hear your work read by someone else.

And speaking of the Black Ship, I heard from Sarah that it is shortlisted for the Salford Children's Book Award and I'm invited up to the awards ceremony in January 2010. I'm already looking forward to it.

I've got a few school visits coming up. I'm at Burntwood School in south London next week where the librarian Taskeen Siddiqi has organised a shadowing event for the Carnegie Medal. The week after I am off to two schools - Oundle in Peterborough and Parkside here in Cambridge.

I went for a drink with Peter Kirkham. We talked about music mostly, which is a shared passion of ours and then we wandered up to the top of Castle Mound and watched the St John's firework display, which clearly cost several thousand pounds. It was a spectacular viewpoint looking out over Cambridge and the fireworks were great.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Poetry champ

We watched the BBC4's Book Quiz poetry special last night on catch-up. Helen Szirtes had told me at the wedding that her dad had done rather well and so he did. I was very pleased to see that I would have done pretty well myself had I been on the programme. I was on fire.

Having said that - it's a lot easier coming up with the answers sitting on the sofa than it is when you are frightened of looking like an idiot on TV. I was particularly impressed at George Szirtes' listing of Poet Laureates (in reverse order).

Monday, 15 June 2009

Small canvases

I went in to the studio for the first time in a while. I had been itching to do some painting ever since going to the Sickert exhibition, and so I got my paints out and had a play around with some very small canvases I bought a while back. I am painting in acrylics because I want to be able to layer colours quickly. Acrylics have many drawbacks, but I have used them for a long time and the ones I am using at the moment - Golden acrylics - are pretty good.

Working small is tricky. If you are not careful, you can end up getting tighter and tighter. The trick is to try and work the same way as you would if you were painting a large canvas. It is worth the effort I think. I love paintings that take up a whole wall, but actually I think I am often drawn to small works. I like that feeling of being pulled into something. Small paintings can be jewel like.

The other advantage for me is that I only have an A4 scanner so it means that I can scan the works directly and not force them through another process by photographing them. If I ever come up with anything I like, I'll post it up for you to have a look.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Norwich wedding

We were very honoured to attend the wedding of Helen Szirtes and Rich Horne yesterday in Norwich. There was a civil ceremony and then a reception in the evening in the medieval Dragon Hall down by the river.

Weirdly, one of the waitresses was someone we knew from Norfolk - Mandy who does fitness classes at Sedgeford gym, where I used to play tennis twice a week. I suffered a terrible wave of nostalgia. I miss that so much. I can't believe it's nearly three years since we left.

The wedding featured star turns by various members of Helen's family, including Helen herself playing piano in accompaniment to her uncle playing a Hungarian piece on the violin. Helen's father George Szirtes is of course a famous poet and wrote a very lovely poem for the occasion. There was also a rather moving reading of Your My Best Friend by Queen. Good luck to them both.

We had hours to kill between ceremony and reception and wandered around Norwich on a very hot and sunny day. What a lovely city Norwich is. We used to go there often when we lived in Norfolk. But the drive to Norwich from Cambridge is hideous and feels a lot longer than it is (especially at night, in the rain). Joad Raymond (who is at UEA) has to do it several times a week and I sympathise.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Gates and railings

Cambridge was very excitable today. Honorary degrees were being handed out to Bill and Melinda Gates and the Aga Khan among others. Drivers waited by limos with darkened windows. The town was absolutely packed. I peered through the railing along with everybody else, but saw no one I recognised.

I was supposed to go for a drink with Peter Kirkham tonight but we thought better of it. As well as handing out honorary degrees, the students get their results, so the pubs will no doubt be full of the cream of the education system getting hammered. We have postponed until next week.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Payne's Grey

It's been a while since I posted any of my New Statesman strips to the blog. So these are a few recent Payne's Grey.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

I wish I had a gown

It has been a social whirl for us in the last day or so - very unusually for us. Our friend Simon Davies popped in and stayed the night. Simon heads up the Graphics course at the University of Cumbria. He was picking up Susan Harvey's paintings (they are married) because she has another exhibition coming up. Our walls are going to look very bare indeed.

It was fantastic to see Simon but I didn't see him until I got back from my evening at Robinson College. Maggi Dawn who is Chaplain and a Fellow there invited Anne Cunningham and I (and others) to dine at top table. Maggi very sweetly said that we should wear a gown if we merited one. I didn't even wear a gown at my degree ceremony. I thought it was a bit silly. Gowns had nothing to do with an art degree. I wore a second-hand suit and a scowl.

I was painfully aware that my BA (Hons) Graphic Design/Illustration was the equivalent of a swimming certificate in this company. It looked fun wearing a gown though. I like all the Bela Lugosi swishing as you go round corners.

Over cheese and biscuits, we met Dr David Woodman who is an expert in things Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic and is also, I see from a quick Google, a bit of a star at real tennis and squash (Cambridge No.1, no less). What a great character for a novel - a real tennis-playing Indian Jones-ish expert in the Dark Ages.

Today we took Simon for a stroll around town, had a cup of coffee in Heffers and bought some bread from the market for bacon butties when we got back. No sooner had we said farewell to Simon than old friends Steve and Jodie Dimes arrived with their two sons. They had been to see the Graphics Degree Shows show at Anglia Ruskin. I must get over there myself and check out the illustration show.

Friday, 5 June 2009

How do I define myself?

I was having a drink with John and Malcolm the other week and made the mistake of saying that I thought that on some level I had always defined myself as a writer. John was very quick to point out that I had apparently said on an earlier occasion that I had always defined myself as an artist.

Note to self: must stop having conversations in which I come out with nonsense like 'define myself'

I suppose the truth is that I definitely saw and see myself as an artist. Drawing was the thing I got kudos for at school, from teachers and from other kids. If someone had asked me what I did, for years I would have said artist, or illustrator or cartoonist or some combination of those things. For years I struggled to decide whether I was an illustrator who painted, or a painter who illustrated. Honestly - I really did struggle with that. Artists can struggle with stuff like that for surprisingly long time.

The reason I said what I said about writing, is because I have always written. It was also something that was noticed at school and I started writing things in my own time. At college I wrote poetry and began two unfinished novels. When I left college I started writing short stories - or at least roughing them out. Some of those stories ended up in the Tales of Terror books. So I've always thought of myself as a writer. I just didn't have the nerve to tell many people about it. Am I a writer or an artist? I suppose I'm both.

The reason I was thinking about this is because I survived much of the unpleasantness of school by having drawing as my 'thing' - the thing that sets you apart, that buys you some respect. Other people could do maths, or dribble a football, play electric guitar, or whatever - I could draw and paint.

My son is much more of an all-rounder than I was (which is great for him) but though he does not necessarily see himself as an artist - he definitely is. As this lovely drawing that he brought back from school yesterday shows. I know lots of adults who couldn't draw as well as this. . .

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Pandora's Xbox

It is my son's birthday today. It seems utterly impossible that he is twelve years old. But he is.

He had a party last Friday - friends of his from school met up and went to the swimming pool and then we had a picnic and a kickaround after (or a rollaround for those who didn't like football). It was a good day with great weather and a really good bunch of kids.

We have steered clear of computer games for most of his life, but this was the first birthday he had ever really asked for anything (apart from new pencils or a book or whatever) and so an Xbox 360 has finally come to live with us. I remember telling one of my son's friends in art club that we didn't have a Wii or a PS2 or an Xbox or anything, and he gave me a look of utter disgust. If I had said that I fed my son nothing but gruel he would have been more forgiving.

One of the many issues that will come up with the Xbox is the issue of age-rating on games. There has been a lot of talk about age-banding on books and how it will put children off reading a book that is banded as being too old for them, or make a child feel foolish for reading something too young.

Age-rating seems to have another effect altogether. Basically it is ignored by most parents - on games as well as DVDs, but especially on games. An age-rating is an incitement to buy for the child. The bigger the age gap between child and age-rating, the more desirable the product. Primary school children regularly play games that are rated 15 or even 18 with the full knowledge of their parents, who clearly feel these guidelines are yet more intrusive nannying from the state, and not applicable to their child who is much too sophisticated to be affected etc etc etc.

And I've done it too. My son has watched 15 rated movies. He was given a list when he started secondary school of movies to watch when they were doing the Romans. One was Gladiator. Rated 15. He was 11. He was probably the only one of his friends who had not seen it. We are so mean.

When I was buying my son's Xbox there was a French teacher trying to buy Resident Evil (rated 18) and other games for her 12 year-old students. Good on HMV for refusing. 'But it's OK - their parents trust me,' she said. Well, that's OK then.

I blogged a little while ago about the loss of childhood by over-protection by state and parents, but there is another loss of childhood - that very precious bit of childhood before the onset of teens and troubles - by the continual pressure on children to grow up and out of it as quickly as possible. There is no good reason for children to be exposed to explicit simulated violence. We weren't as children.

It is just laziness on our behalf and a fear of being seen as uncool parents that allows it.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

John Hegley

There was a nice piece by John Hegley in the Education section of the Guardian today. In another life - I knew John Hegley (I know - I know everybody!) and saw him perform many times, both solo and with the fabulous Popticians. I even did a poster and leaflet for a lunchtime cabaret he organised at a pub in Islington.

John is a very funny and very clever man. It has been fascinating to see whom Fame has chosen from among the glut of 'alternative' comics and performers of the 1980s. Paul Merton (or Martin as he was then) for instance thoroughly deserves to be successful. He was such a funny stand-up. So quick-witted, with great (and very surreal) material. But there are others I can think of whose fame seems arbitrary when put next to those who remain fairly unknown.

John has a cult following, I think its fair to say. Those who know and love him, really do love him I think. And quite right too. He's a lovely man. We are fans of The Flight of the Conchords in our house, but whenever I hear lines like 'Your so beautiful, you could be a part-time model' from The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room) and 'Could somebody please, take these cutlerys, out of my knees' from Think About It, they sound like things John might have sung twenty years ago.

This great story sums John up, I think. He has an eye for weird detail, and most importantly, he knows how to write:

We arrive at breaktime. Pupils busy the playground. On the ground, I pass a toothbrush. Beside some discarded orange drinking straws. A blue and white toothbrush. Unusual. "There's a toothbrush," I say to Bjorn. Bjorn is the teacher who invited me. His teeth are clean.

In the hall, the children sit in their navy blue uniforms. White pencils and paper are being handed out, I sing about the school uniforms they're wearing: "You're all wearing lots of blue, so how come none of the teachers do?" Some of the children show me their teeth. We compose acrostics for the word LEAF. One is Lies Envy Arson Fun. I ask if anyone saw the playground toothbrush. Just one hand goes up.

"... beside some orange drinking straws?" I add. The hand goes down.

It was a different toothbrush.