Friday, 31 December 2010

Another year over. . .

And so we are coming to the end of 2010. It has been a good year for me in many ways. I have seen the publication of another book - The Dead of Winter - and have delivered the next one - Mister Creecher. All three Tales of Terror books are out in paperback and I have written extra stories for the reissues in March. I also had a set of three reading scheme books published by OUP. I have made a return to historical fiction with Blood Oath and delivered my part of the World Book Day flipbook.

I have had the honour of being included on the Booktrust's Booked Up list for this year's Year 7 children and was also part of the Summer Reading Challenge run by the Reading Agency. I also attended a healthy smattering of events, including the Summer Reading Challenge launch at the House of Commons, my first visit to the Cheltenham Literary Festival and a fascinating weekend at the Halifax Ghost Story Festival. Meeting Lawrence Gordon Clark in Halifax was a high point of the year.

I have won awards as well - a Vlag & Wimpel for Pimento's Dutch translation of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship, and the Dracula Society's Creatures of the Night Award for Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. I had very enjoyable trips to Dublin and Amsterdam.

I even exhibited some painting for the first time in many years - first at the Eastern Open in King's Lynn, and then at the Cambridge Open Studios with my studio mate John Clark. I also got back into illustration in a small way, doing the covers for both and The Dead of Winter and Mister Creecher.

But though it has been a fruitful year for me, professionally, the year has been overshadowed by the financial crisis and by the resulting threats to many of the people and organisations that promote children's literature and reading for pleasure in this country, whether it be the librarian in the local library or school, or a charity like Booktrust whose work is now under threat.

It's going to be a tough year and teachers, librarians, parents, writers, publishers - we are all going to have to work together to protect the cultural life of young people in this country.

Monday, 27 December 2010

A tuneless whistle.

I have said many times that I would love to see a return of the BBC's Ghost Story for Christmas strand. But they do say that you should be careful what you wish for. . .

Not only did the BBC show a ghost story on Christmas Eve, they showed an adaptation of M R James - Whistle and I'll Come to You. Starring the wonderful John Hurt! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, sadly, many things. First and foremost they decided to 'improve' on the original. There is absolutely nothing wrong with freely adapting a story - Lawrence Gordon Clark was hardly pedantic in his 1970s adaptations - but if you are going to change it, you had better make sure that those changes are worthwhile.

This film was very poor and an absolute waste of the undoubted talents of John Hurt. It had no sense of place - it seemed to have been shot in several contradictory locations. The East Anglian setting of the original had been swapped - for no apparent reason - for the south coast. The sky would be blue one moment and overcast the next. Wind whistled in our ears but did not move a hair on John Hurt's head or trouble the millpond ocean. And the title was made meaningless by an absence of a whistle (replaced - again with dizzying randomness - with a ring).

We were asked to believe that a huge hotel had only one occupant and only one member of staff (did the budget not run to more extras?). And nothing in the film compared with either Lawrence Gordon Clark's A Warning to the Curious (whose beach chase scene was appropriated to far less effect) or to Jonathan Miller's 1960s adaptation with its nightmarish vision on the shingle strand and the thing made of sheets that torments Michael Hordern at the end.

And why was the thoroughly decent John Hurt being tormented anyway? I know that there is not always a watertight logic to ghost stories, but I could not see why he was haunted. He did not seem to be in any state of denial about his wife's condition.

A major disappointment.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Snow at last

Much of the UK has been living with impressive amounts of snow (for this country anyway) but Cambridge has had none at all.

Until now.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Blood oath

I haven't really said very much about the book about Roman Britain I have been writing. It is for Pearson Education and is called Blood Oath. It is set in 180AD on and around Hadrian's Wall.

The book was written to a brief, in that a request came through my agent from Ben Hulme-Cross at Pearson to write a book designed for teenagers with low reading abilities for a series called Heroes. They wanted books that would excite and engage fifteen year old boys, written in a clear and concise style that they would be able to access.

To be fair, they probably came to me with horror in mind, but I saw an opportunity to return to historical fiction. I had been interested in writing something set on Hadrian's Wall ever since we walked the Wall a couple of years ago.

My interest in Roman Britain is deeper than that though. I lived in Newcastle from the age of nine to when I left for college aged eighteen. We walked the Wall on a day trip from my junior school and, that visit, combined with a love of Rosemary Sutcliff, sparked an enthusiasm that has never diminished.

My own son is also obsessed with the Romans. He had a computer game about them, he played with models of them, has a fine collection of books about them and his interest played a big part in his taking Latin as an after school club. He also read Eagle of the Ninth recently and we are both looking forward to the movie next year.

The plot of Blood Oath is one of revenge essentially. A boy - Raven - from a village north of the Wall sees his father killed in a raid by another tribe and swears revenge. He and his mother take refuge in a garrison town next to a fort on the Wall where she too is killed, by robbers. Raven joins the Roman Army and eventually comes face to face with the man who killed his father. It is very violent and fast-paced.

The nature of the project means that the book had to be short - only 25000 words - with short chapters (each of about 1000 words). It was quite an epic to fit into that space, but that was half the fun of it.

More about Blood Oath later. . .

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Frost at midday

These are a few sample photos of a wonderful frost we had in Cambridge. It was astonishingly cold despite the sunshine. Tiny shards of frost were breaking off from the trees and floating down, sparkling like glitter. The frost was so thick on the twigs and branches that it looked like cherry blossom in April. Absolutely magical.

I have been writing about winter a lot recently. The Dead of Winter is - unsurprisingly - set in a very cold winter, and Mister Creecher begins on a very frosty New Year's Eve. It is always good to step out and remind yourself of the real sensation of being that cold, otherwise you start to fall back on a store of reported scenes. The truth is always more complex and surprising. Like those frost covered cobwebs and the willow wands turned to thorn bushes.

Oh - and if you are wondering what that is third from bottom - it's a wasps nest in a small tree in our local park.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Reanimated goldfinch

We have a tiny garden here in Cambridge - two strides and you have reached the back fence - but we are very lucky to back onto a very large garden indeed, with lots of very mature trees. We are quite near a large park and we are also not that far from open countryside. Consequently we have an astonishing amount of bird life coming to our feeders.

We get chaffinches and dunnocks, blackbirds and robins. We have a mob of unruly starlings that descend on the place a few times every day. A magpie drops in every now and then. Long-tailed tits come through, tumbling and cheeping. We get blue tits, great tits and pretty little coal tits with their striped heads. We get collared doves and wood pigeons. Early in the year we had a black cap take up residence, chasing every other bird away for weeks. Wrens flit through the shrubs and hunt among the ivy leaves. Red wings have been feeding in a bury bush in our neighbour's garden all winter and carrion crows and jackdaws croak and hop along the roof ridges and chimney pots. We even occasionally get a visit from a greater spotted woodpecker.

But our most common bird, by far, is the goldfinch - a bird that rarely came to our feeders in Norfolk despite (or maybe because) our having an acre of garden. Every day, a charm of goldfinches comes to our feeders. Unlike the tits, who take a seed and dash off, the goldfinches sit quietly and elegantly peck away.

Until, that is, a sparrowhawk swoops by, and then even they will lose their cool. The goldfinch above crashed into a window in its panic and lay unconscious on the freezing pavement. My son picked it up and held it, keeping it warm (while he himself shivered with cold), until it came round. Just as we were thinking that it must be damaged in some way, it flitted away into a nearby tree.

This is the second bird my son has revived this year. A siskin did the same thing when we holidayed in Wales (for the same reason).

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Tales from the treehouse

I went to London today to be filmed reading the first section of The Teacher's Tales of Terror for the World Book Day website.

The studio was south of the river near The Globe theatre. That area around Southwark Cathedral and London Bridge is fascinating. I used to work for the FT as an illustrator and they have offices there.

It was bitterly cold. There was an icy wind blowing in from the river and the whole world seemed set out in various shades of cool grey. It was snowing by the time I arrived at the studios.

When I did the filming for Booked Up, the studio was baking hot. Even with doors wide open, everyone was drenched with sweat instantly. This studio was mercifully cool and they had built a wonderful tree house set. I was following Philip Reeve and we were both to have a nighttime setting with candles. It was very nicely done actually and a much more enjoyable experience than the Booked Up filming.

Rather than doing a blurb for the book, we were doing a ten minuted reading - which as an author feels much more natural, I have to say - and is surely more fun for the viewer. It all went pretty well, and then I answered a few questions from children who had already been filmed and would be edited in later.

Afterwards I had a chat to the producer - Nicola Fenn. I had mentioned that I used to write historical fiction and she said she was interested in seeing anything I'd written as historical fiction was a particular enthusiasm. I shall be sending her a copy of Death and the Arrow, a book I am still very proud of.

I'll let you know if anything comes of it.