My blog

Sunday 21 February 2021

The first lockdown was all about birdsong and banana bread, according to one newspaper article this week in the usual desire to label and alliterate.

There have been numerous permutations on our collective experience since then but, now that we are coming full circle, it's been wonderful to feel the sun on our faces and see delicate snowdrops bobbing in the breeze. We may not be baking as much in this lockdown, but I'm sure we're all delighting once more in hearing the birds singing. Spring is on its way, and we can dare to hope for the future once more.

The restorative power of nature has been documented extensively, and is widely acknowledged in our recent difficult and unusual times.

Appropriately, on Tuesday we're marking 200 years since the death of the great Romantic poet John Keats, the author of 'Ode to a Nightingale' which inspired the poet Ruth Padel recently:

"Sleepless in lockdown, I heard a robin belting out its song in the middle of the night and thought of Keats," she said. "A beautiful song and a little spark of hope. A perfect example of where poetry can take us, why we need it."

She is one of three poets who have been commissioned by The Poetry Society to acknowledge Keats' work in some new writing. There is a free event on Tuesday, details are here. But another more surprising figure involved in the celebrations is Bob Geldof who will lead an immersive video tour of the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. Find out more here or listen to the recent Radio 4 programme here.

Meanwhile, the nature writer Richard Mabey celebrated his 80th birthday yesterday, and I've chosen his fascinating memoir 'Nature Cure' as my recommended title this week. In it he talks of his move to East Anglia, his depression, and his inspiration from the life and work of that wonderful pastoral poet John Clare as well as beautiful observations of wildlife and fauna. You can read an appreciation of his work, by Tim Dee here or read my interview with Richard here.

One of the latest generation of nature writers, Melissa Harrison has spoken about how a passion and appreciation for the natural world is the best motivation for individuals playing their part in influencing climate change and environmental issues. And the lead character in the children's title I've recommended this week, illustrates this beautifully. 'The Last Bear' is the most moving and magical account of a threatened polar bear and encourages us all to think about our individual responsibility in being part of the problem and also being part of the solution, taking action before it's too late.

No polar conditions here any more, of course, and another indication of spring soon being upon us is the launch of this year's programme of author talks from the UEA this week. They are taking place online most Wednesday evenings until May, and there's  a £5 fee to hear some extraordinary speakers. This week the award-winning author Tsitsi Dangarembga will be talking about the success of her 2020 Booker Prize shortlisted novel 'This Mournable Body'. Read more about the programme here.

Finally, don't forget that tomorrow evening we'll be joining together on Zoom to talk about 'The Girl with the Louding Voice'. Everyone is welcome to log on to these virtual discussions. Just reply to this email and I'll send you the details. And if you call by Browsers Bookshop in Woodbridge on Tuesday morning, you'll be able to pick up the title we'll be talking about in our March meeting.

Sunday 14 February 2021

This weekend we've reached another landmark for our strange times.

We're halfway through February already and it's the start of a homeschooling half term holiday. It's Valentine's Day of course (though the media has struggled to put a positive spin on that) and, yes... ITV's 'The Masked Singer' competition has reached its conclusion.

I confess I've not been watching it but understand it's been one of those programmes which has helped people get through the week. And I was amazed to see how a teacher in the north-west has responded, bringing fun and ingenuity with a booky theme.

Teachers in the school have been filmed reading the blurb of a book while using filters for their voice and head. Take a look here. At the same school, a teacher has also devised a reading website for her pupils modelled on the Netflix page, here. Meanwhile in Wales, a school attached free books on their fence for pupils to pick up and enjoy during the half term break. The books were parcelled up in goody bags with a bookmark, hot chocolate and teabag for the parents, see here. Clever, inventive ideas like this really do bring smiles, excitement and interest when things are feeling a bit flat at the moment. 

Some mishaps in video calls have also caused amusement again. This time in the US a lawyer who accidentally activated a filter appeared as a cat here, and a congressman appeared upside down here.

Hopefully we'll all be able to negotiate the technology for our Zoom Book Group monthly meeting and even without cats or goats, we'll still find it an enjoyable way to spend an evening. This time we're discussing 'The Girl with the Louding Voice' on Monday 22 February. If you'd like to join in, please reply to this email and I'll send you the details about logging in - it's very straightforward, honest!

Sunday 7 February 2021

While we're grateful for the various means by which we can keep in touch through technology these days, I think we've all experienced the feeling of being rather 'Zoomed out'. So it was interesting to see a number of stories about video calls in the media this week.

There was the chaotic and tumultuous Cheshire parish council meeting, of course. Not comfortable viewing for lots of reasons, but I did enjoy the creativity displayed in one of the obligatory social media spin offs: 'Handforth Parish Council - the Musical'!

And there was the story about the farmer who hires out her goats for video calls. Dot McCarthy in Lancashire said she was looking for something which might lift people's spirits during this time. So she created resumés of her goats and suggested that people might like to invite them on to conference calls as a surprise guest to amuse the other attendees. She had no idea it would prove so popular. You can find out more here, and perhaps make your own booking, here?!

But I was also fascinated to see numerous items on how books and bookshelves have been appearing on video calls in this time.

There's a Twitter feed called Bookcase Credibiity which describes its intent as 'What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you'. Whether in television interviews, meetings with colleagues or public presentations, people have had to style their rooms ahead of delivering their message.

In the early days of lockdown, you might see washing hanging on radiators and ironing boards propped in corners of rooms, and it was widely reported about people having empty shelves, or 'inappropriate' titles displayed behind them, but now some people are so much more savvy that they are contacting book suppliers to 'curate' their bookshelves for them so that they might appear more erudite to their viewing audience.

The sad thing about this is that it seems people aren't choosing books they'd like to read necessarily. Instead book businesses have been asked to supply literary tomes, travel guides and even books according to the colours of their spines! The BBC in reporting this item here also made it known that they were making empty sets from tv shows like Doctor Who, Strictly and Eastenders available as backdrops for video calls!

I hope you're not short of reading material, but if you're looking for ideas for your next book - or would like to try the book group on Zoom?! - please scroll down or take a look at my website...

Sunday 31 January 2021

The release of the film 'The Dig' on Netflix this weekend has been a delight. Whether or not you've read the book by John Preston on which it is based, or are famiiar with the story of the unearthing of this extraordinary Anglo-Saxon treasure in a field above the river Deben in Suffolk, it offers beautiful scenery, excellent casting and a powerful message.

The excavation of this important find, on the eve of the Second World War, was achieved by a Suffolk-born, self-taught archaeologist, Basil Brown, played magnificently in the film by Ralph Fiennes, who you can see interviewed by Simon Mayo about the role here.

Basil had little formal education, leaving school at 12, but he continued to read widely and to attend evening classes while working on the land. He learnt Latin, French and German and his studies led to him writing a book about astrological charts and being well regarded in archaeological circles.

Basil was engaged by Edith Pretty to excavate the burial mounds on her land at Sutton Hoo. She, too, had a passion for archaeology but had been unable to take up a place offered her at university.

The legacy of these two quiet but determined individuals is immense. And in these days when everything is turned upside down it's perhaps a timely reminder that, while school and university studies are currently disrupted, all need not be lost.

Certainly we can do all we can to cultivate and encourage a desire for knowledge in the young people we know, and to support their teachers however possible. And we have huge riches in the books and internet resources available today.

It's been great to see the creativity of authors and illustrators reaching out to children on social media, Zoom and websites, for example. They've offered tips on writing and drawing, as well as maths and history lessons too. Frank Cottrell-Boyce has been running creative writing sessions and readings throughout lockdown.

Young people have risen to the challenge too. This week a 14-year-old in Cheltenham was featured in the 'Guardian' for reading bedtime stories on Zoom. He started doing it as respite for his neighbours who had young twins and were battling Covid, but now he offers his service to any family each night at 7pm. Read more here

Sunday 24 January 2021

There was something rather soothing and reassuring about the inauguration of President Joe Biden last week, don't you think? It was as if we'd all been holding our breath but then felt able to release a huge sigh of relief.

Much is expected of him, of course. But after such chaos and confusion, anger, violence, sorrow and uncertainty, his quiet dignity brought a sense of calm and a renewed hope for the future.

So many, throughout the world, are seeking a sound, strong and wise leader and the hope is that Biden will be able to bring compassion, empathy and experience to this formidable post in these most difficult times.

He has certainly inspired nations with a spirit of change and new life evident in the installation of Kamala Harris as the first female Vice President, and the first Asian American and the first African American to be Vice President.

And in selecting Amanda Gorman to deliver the Presidential Inaugural poem.

This young woman is America's first National Youth Poet Laureate. She's just 22 but her stunning presence and assured delivery gave weight to beautiful, inspiring and rousing words which have stirred the global community.

Raised by a single mother, Amanda had a speech impediment as a child, but found that poetry unlocked her voice. Naturally it was a schoolteacher who introduced her to poetry. Something to ponder there, too

Amanda was inspired by the poet Maya Angelou, whose autobiography 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' was acknowledged in the design of the ring Amanda was wearing on the day.

She learned how to deliver her words with conviction through musical theatre, memorising the lyrics of a song from 'Hamilton'. This influence can be heard in her poem, too. The creator of 'Hamilton', Lin-Manuel Miranda sent his congratulations and encouragement to Amanda after the inauguration, saying:

"The right words in the right order can change the world...Keep changing the world, one word at the time."

Amanda Gorman's poem, 'The Hill We Climb' will be released as a hardback book this spring. Penguin Books plans to print 150,000 copies in its first run. This is an extraordinary number, warranted 'due to overwhelming demand'.

How wonderful that so many people have been moved by these words. And when so many of our creative industries have been stripped back in these difficult times, the value of film, theatre and literature to be highlighted in this way, contributing to our sense of wellbeing and purpose, has been inspiring and uplifting. It does indeed bring hope.