So I found my first subject

So I’m currently down in Cambridge, working on the #a14stories project, and I spent much of yesterday outside. The grounds at Madingley Hall are free to enter to the public, and the gardens are beautiful. There’s influence here from Capability Brown, but also from something rather distinctly English; topiary hedges, and striped lawns.

I wanted to spend some time outside in paticular because true writing, for me, doesn’t always come from staying inside and being locked up in a room. That’s where the words come from, don’t get me wrong, but the story, that comes from experience. From watching, waiting, listening and talking to people. It’s about finding that headspace where stories can happen and then, later, remembering that and punching out the words when it’s just you and the computer, that’s the work.

One of the things that I’m starting to come across in this project is the impact of the road upon the immediate, local landscape. It’s one of the first things that people tell me when I mention the project. They tell me that the redevelopment and works have gone on for so long that, in a way, they don’t ever think that it’s going to be finished. I’m not here to promote the redevelopments nor to take a side, so it’s important for me to listen and try to understand these perspectives.

And so I went to the trees.

I started to map the treeline.

Capture.JPG

And after a while, I found my first subject to write about…

Capture.JPG

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Listening to the wind

I’m writing this with the windows open; a rare thing in England, even during the Summer, but it’s one of those nights where you can’t not do such a thing. It’s cold, don’t get me wrong, but in a way that’s perfect. I don’t want to be warm. I don’t really want to be inside, and in a second I won’t be. But for now, I have to tell you this : it’s my first night at Madingley Hall, as the A14 Writer in Residence

Birds! A shadowy wheel of them, one of those huge dark swarms that black out the sky, swallowing the blue with their wings –

(Oh, I wish I could write quicker to catch this, I wish words could fall from me quick as breath, because the birds have already gone, they’re distant, and the world has stilled again.)

Madingley has air like glass, clean and clear and sharp. It breaks, sometimes, and refracts, letting something through before sealing up again.

I am going to write here. I am going to hear stories from people.

My favourite one today has been from a gentleman who drives 400m along the A14 every day before turning off. I rather love the idea of being so familiar with one, tiny, precise piece of landscape.

My own story has been fifteen minutes of mild panic when the junction my satnav wanted to take me down was a junction no more. A friend has told me about a murder mystery game she had which was set at Madingley Hall (trust me, I’m going to find out more about this). And as I sit here, staring out of the window. I know I’m going to go for a walk in the grounds tomorrow and figure out the connections between this place and the villages behind it and the shifting, sinuous line of the A14 that lurks beyond the line of the trees.

Tell me your A14 stories? Memories? (Murder Mystery Games?)

I’m going to be a Writer In Residence at the University of Cambridge

I’m trying to be coy but I rather think that title has given it away a tad. So without further ado, I have some rather exciting news to share.

I’m going to be working with the University of Cambridge for six weeks this Autumn, as the A14 Writer In Residence. 

I’m going to be based for three days a week at Madingley Hall, near Cambridge, where I’ll get the fantastic opportunity to work with users of the A14 and help them develop their creative writing, alongside developing my own writing in response to the area. During the residency, the wonderful team at the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education will also be leading several creative writing courses and pop up events. We will also be launching an anthology of all of the best work written during the residency, including a special piece by me.

What all of this means is that if you’ve ever driven the A14, or connected with the landscape around it, we want to hear your story. 

(We really, really do.)

I’m going to share as much as I can with you throughout this process, whether that’s writing, interviews, or behind the scenes information,  because that’s incredibly important to me and also, because, one day you, or your kids, are going to see an advert for a wonderful opportunity and wonder if you can or even should apply. (Here’s the thing. You should. The world needs your voice. I want to hear what you’ve got to say.)

I’m also going to talk a lot about children’s books. 😉

So now’s the time to let me know if you’re in the area, or have connections to the area? Are you a business owner? Do you fancy getting you and your employees on board? Are you a parent? Would you like to get your children involved? Do you commute – work – live anywhere near the A14? Do you work with children in the area? Have you always wanted to write but never known where to begin?

Are you none of the above but know somebody who is?

Please let us know! You can make contact with ICE and myself on Twitter, leave a comment on this post (please let me know if you’d like it to stay private and I won’t publish it), and we’d love to hear from you!

Now, let’s get going .. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

The legitimacy of critique : or, who am I?

(This is today’s post – a long read touching on criticism, the internet, and also distant reading. There’s a bit of theory, but I hope it’s worth the effort. If you’d like to read other longer posts in this series, here’s the archive of long reads.)

I have a friend who’s researching narrative autobiography, and every now and then, when we’re out, it’s fun to talk about the great self-questioning nature of her research. Of course all postgraduate research is self-questioning and often far too much so. The question of one’s mental health during research is something I’ve covered elsewhere, but I want to talk here about the legitimacy of critique. Or, to be more specific, the legitimacy of critics.

I’m reaching the end point of my research and am working on making it a springboard into something else. This requires talking to a lot of people, and pitching a lot of ideas, but I’m doing it with the realisation that I am a new person now. Research – this period of frantic question, determined typing, and ferocious passion – has changed me. It’s made me more confident (more argumentative, as my family will point out) and it’s led me towards questioning everything in my sector of children’s literature. I am moving into better and greater things but I will do that reflexively. I don’t leave readers behind. You, and the people I work with, the people I share texts with, all of you will come with me for the ride because literacy – power – doesn’t work when it’s in the singular. This is a collective effort, a collective strength, and the ability to question – to realise – to challenge – and to understand – is vital.

This has never been a blog for me, and my children’s books, it’s a blog for us.

Continue reading

Bad Book Article Bingo

Here’s a little something to turn to when you read that next badly written article about children’s and young adult literature. Cross them off when you find them mentioned!

Vampires Computer Games I blame the parents
Youtube Twilight CLASSICS
I blame the children Television I blame education
“When I was young…” I blame the authors NOBODY READS THE CLASSICS
I blame modern life Hollywood I blame everything

How famous were the Famous Five?

My thanks to Nikesh Shukla for the tweet that unknowingly prompted this pleasant and super nerdly distraction from my thesis …

  • The Famous Five are Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog. humans and dog. For the purposes of this post, we’ll discount Timmy (as much as it pains me) and thus work with individuals.
  • With their respectively privileged circumstances, let’s say everyone has a fairly high life expectancy where they all hit seventy eight or so and thus meet approximately 80,000 people each.
  • (There are other numbers around, but this is based on each of them interacting with 3 new people a day. Which is a big and ambitious number, but I imagine, something that socially thrusting and somewhat irritating Blytonian characters are more than capable of. “Here’s your paper Miss.” “DID I TELL YOU ABOUT THAT TIME ON KIRRIN ISLAND?”)
  • 80,000 people x 4 gobby souls =  320,000 individuals met in total. 
  • The books were published between 1942 and 1962.
  • UK’s population in 1942 = 48 million (ish)
  • UK’s population in 1962 = 55 million (ish)
  • So let’s, roughly, say an average population of 52 million (yes, roughly, I know, shut up, this is the most maths I’ve done in years…).
  • And that through their life the Famous Five meet approximately 320,000 people
  • We can therefore conclude that the Famous Five are Famous for almost 1% of the population of the UK.
  • So not very famous.
  • Ta-dah.

 

(Thank you to the lovely @yayeahyeah for helping me check my maths! I am no mathematician … can you tell?!)

‘Roads’ in children’s books

As I’m sure you’ll know, I have a particular interest in the representation of landscape in children’s books. Landscape tells you everything, and yet it’s often one of the more forgotten elements when people talk about a book. Consider the difference between the two sentences below.

The cat sat on the mat in a field.

The cat sat on the mat in the ocean.

Two entirely, viscerally different scenarios and all of that comes from adding a little bit of context. Location. Landscape. Setting.

I’ve been thinking about roads at the moment, and in particular stories where roads form a key point of the narrative. I don’t want books where roads appear in the background or as a vague element in the illustration, I want them to be centralised within the text. Characters, if you will, in their own right.

So this post is essentially to ask for some help! Do you know of any children’s books – picture book through to YA – that might fit the bill? If you do, please let me know in a comment below and I’ll collate the results into a reading list . Thank you!