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Fire Mask Journal

Franzeska G Ewart's Blog

Franzeska G Ewart has written over 25 books, mainly for children. She writes for all ages.
Thursday 25 November 2010

Fire Mask is out on CD!

I got quite a surprise when my copy arrived this morning, and when I got around to listening to it I was delighted by the way it sounded.

The reader, David Thorpe, whose TV credits include The Brittas Empire, Peak Practice and Jonathan Creek, reads the story very well indeed. His voice actually reminded me of David Tennant in Single Father, which can't be bad!

The Audiobook is produced by Oakhill, and I think it looks really attractive.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Last night I stayed in Ayr overnight to attend the Reading Allowed Reading event at Su Casa Coffee House in Lorne Arcade.

It was a really good evening, featuring readings by Dave Manderson and Catherine Czerkawska, both of whom read excerpts from their latest work.

Sheila Templeton, Tracy Patrick, and Chris Dooks also read their poetry, and music was provided by Jim Gilbert of Wing and a Prayer.

And I was glad (amazed!!!) to finally find a B & B I liked - the Miller Guesthouse in Miller Road was just lovely, and very reasonably priced too.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

It's been weeks since I've written a weblog entry! My RLF residency has started, and I've been doing lots of shadow puppetry demonstrations to the BEd students.I've also been interviewing people in 'my' village of Lochwinnoch because I'm writing a play for the next Lochwinnoch Arts Festival.

I've also started an adult novel ... which will probably take me into the next decade, and which I'm keeping very quiet about!

But today I must record that I had lunch with a writer I very much admire and to whom, actually, I kind of owe my writing career.

Bernard MacLaverty came to the Cumbernauld Writing Group to speak about short story writing sometime in the late 1980's or early 1990's, when I had just joined and was tentataively trying my hand at being a writer. He read us one of his short stories - I don't remember which but it was about a father and son and their troubled relationship - and he and the story SO impressed me that I went home and wrote a short story of my own, which he then judged and gave first prize to.

It really was a turning-point for me, and since then I've always read and loved his work. Grace Notes was the last book of his I read, and I was completely awed by how well a man could write about a woman's depression.

Anyway, Bernard came to UWS today to talk to the Filmmaking and Screenwriting students about Bye-Child, the short film, based on a Seamus Heaney poem, which he wrote and directed. Over lunch in the canteen, I was able to tell him about my debt to him and, needless to say, he didn't remember me, or my story, or the Cumbernauld Writers Group!

The talk he gave, after we watched the film, was hugely interesting, surprising, and entertaining. And one of the things I particularly liked was looking at the meticulously-drawn and painted storyboards he did for the film.

Truly an unforgettable afternoon!

Sunday 5 September 2010

It's been a VERY exciting week! On Wednesday September 1 I celebrated my 60th birthday with a wonderful all-day party, and this week end I went to Galashiels to stay with my friend Katherine to see some of the studios in the annual Art Trail.

Katherine had given me a very special birthday present - a woodcut by Linda J Kinsman-Blake (pictured left). Entitled 'Back', it shows a seated nude from the back (obviously ...!).

Yesterday, Katherine took me to Linda's studio in Smailholm as part of the Art Trail, and ... yes, you've guessed - I decided to buy ANOTHER woodcut!

The plan is to paint my bedroom damask pink and hang the woodcuts in black frames ... I think it should look stunning.

I really love Linda's work. As well as woodcuts, she does beautifully delicate watercolours and stunningly seductive pottery. There may be a possibility next year of attending one of her pottery classes to learn how to make and decorate pieces, and I'm very tempted.

In the meantime, it's lovely to own two pieces by such a talented artist, and I'm sure they'll be very inspiring to wake up to!

Sunday 22 August 2010

I have a wonderful new studio! The room I've been using as an office/workroom/music room has had a radical makeover involving a wooden floor, an extra window (heaven!) and pale turquoise walls. The work finished yesterday, and today I celebrated by making rod puppets with Anne Philbrow and Lynne Gilmour, two students at UWS.

The puppets I demonstrated to them are known as 'soft sculpture' rod puppets. The technique involves stuffing the toe of an old stocking (preferably one without a huge ladder in it, as mine had!) with polyester stuffing and then sewing into it to make features.

I used to make these puppets a lot when I was working on Language Development projects, and I've always loved them. Based loosely on the Indonesian wayang golek, the method can give quite realistic faces - though the results aren't very predictable!

I think all three puppets are full of character. We decided Anne's was a Russian emigre, and Lynne's probably specialised in witchcraft and dodgy tarot readings.

I'm still not sure about mine though. She turned out more 'diffident' than I would have liked. I was really looking for something rather more outrageous ...

Wednesday 4 August 2010

This is Sally Webster - artist, quilter, knitter, felter and self-confessed grumpy shopkeeper.

I met Sally for the first time today at the wonderful, inspiring Once A Sheep in Gourock, where I was having a day off writing AND clearing-the-office, and learning the art of kntting borders to finish off the waistcoat I've made. This waistcoat is the first garment I have made for 3 decades, I have to say, unless you count the two pairs of socks (which I do of course, but this is a REAL garment)!

Sally, who has just finished the most beautiful, fine shawl which she made from wool she dyed herself, has a shop in Largs called Tiny Shiny Things, which has been described as 'A great little jewellery shop with lots to catch the eye ...'.

If Sally's earrings were anything to go by, my eyes are dying to be caught!!!

Tuesday 3 August 2010

August already!

I've spent July doing the final edits to There's a Hamster in my Pocket and writing a new book ... watch this space!

But as well as writing, I've been having a lot of work done in my house - wooden floors, new doors, fresh paintwork. The living room's done and now work starts on the office.

The firm that's been doing all the work is a wonderful Polish outfit called Allpro. It's run by Lukasz Tomczyk, who is from Raciborz in Poland.

Lucasz, who is currently studying for an ESOL qualification, has an MA in Political and Social Science with a specialism in Political Sciences and Journalism.

Last week I designed some little 'workers' for him to use on his website:

And in return he's going to fix me a shelf in my bathroom!!

But before all that, I need to get the office done.It's going to have a new wooden floor and the walls plastered a painted an ethereal duck-egg blue.

I can't wait to see it, and especially as I won't be here when they do it.

I'll be in Beverley, Yorkshire, at Recorder Summer School ...BRING IT ON!!!!

Thursday 24 June 2010

Today I went back to Newtongrange in Midlothian to do author talks in the library there.

It was lovely to go back to Newtongrange, because it was one of the main settings for Fire Mask and the children I talked to, from Newtongrange Primary, recognised a lot of the children's names who'd helped me write the book.

The talks were part of the launch of the library's summer activities programme and this year is has a 'Space' theme. So after I'd talked to the children about how I wrote Fire Mask, and discussed in particular the effect masks have on us, I got them to design their own 'space alien' masks.

The children, who were in Primaries 5 and 6, were a tremendous audience. They were really enthusiastic and asked brilliant questions. One I found particularly thought-provoking was: 'How many main characters can a story have?' I've never been asked that before, and it's an interesting one to think about.


In the end, as these photos show, most of the 'aliens' turned out to be very sympathetic characters indeed (just like their creators!). Hopefully one or two of the children will be inspired to use them as characters in a story.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

This evening I had a visit from Anne Philbrow and Lynne Gilmour (aka Haun' knittit' productions), who brought their stop-frame animation film Selkie Wife for me to see.

Anne and Lynne are both postgraduate students at UWS, doing the MA in Creative Media Practice part time. (Anne has a BA Hons in Philosophy and Lynne an MSc in Zoology).

Before embarking on the film, they studied the techniques of Lotte Reiniger and used silhouette figues made from black card which they animated and photographed many, many times.

I had seen bits of the film, but this was the first time I'd seen it all the way through, and it was a joy to see the results of so much dedication and hard work. It's such a sensitive film, and the use of colour and music is subtle and works really well.

It can be viewed on You Tube by clicking here. I can't wait to see the next Haun' knittit' production ... It sounds as though it's going to be WILD!!

Thursday 17 June 2010

After the Royal Literary Fund Summer Party in Toynbee Hall last night, I went to the Frances Lincoln offices to do the final edits of There's a Hamster in my Pocket.

This book, the second in the Yosser Farooq series, is the sequel to Sita, Snake-Queen of Speed. My editor is Emily Sharratt, and it was lovely to meet her and work through the manuscript together.

Like Sita, There's a Hamster in my Pocket is illustrated by Helen Bate.

Helen was born in Coventry in 1955 and originally qualified and worked as an Architect before retraining as an illustrator.

Whilst a degree student, she was joint winner of the Macmillan Prize for Children’s Illustration (2005) with an unpublished work ‘Alice and the Lost Dog’. Since graduating in 2005 she has worked on five books for Frances Lincoln Ltd including ‘ABC UK’ (2008) a critically acclaimed alphabet book of all things British.

I love Helen's cover for There's a Hamster in my Pocket and look forward to seeing the line illustrations!

Friday 4 June 2010

My blog entries have been a bit sparse lately, and one of the (many) reasons for this is the forthcoming concert.

On Sunday June 13 at 6.30 pm in St Bride's Episcopal Church, I'll be performing with the Scottish Recorder Orchestra as part of the West End Festival. In this concert I'm playing tenor recorder ... usually, I play treble, tenor AND bass!

We always give a concert in June, and have performed in Stirling, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Oban and Dortmund, Germany, but this concert is very different from the others.

We're joining with a choir - Cathures - this time, and I think we've got a very exciting programme planned ...

... which for us players means a lorra lorra practice!!


Tuesday 1 June 2010

I've just read a really beautiful little poetry pamphlet - How to Wire a Life for Love.

The poems are written by Liz Bassett and are, according to Jackie Kay, '... that rare thing, finely-tuned, precisely imagined ...'. She goes on to say that Bassett's poems '... go straight to the heart,' and they certainly do.

I came across the pamphlet because it is illustrated by one of my students at UWS, Angelica Kroeger. Angelica is a visual artist, illustrator, and photographer and has a background in theatre, working with lighting design, sound and projection.

For many years she collaborated with Giacomo Ravicchio and Meridiano Theatre in Copenhagen, which is known for its magic and visual style.

Angelica is also an excellent academic writer, and I think her illustrations have some of Meridiano's magic in them.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Today I visited a lovely gallery in Hexham and spoke to the owner.

The gallery's called Haslam's of Hallgate and is owned by artist Ben Haslam BA.

Here's Ben with one of his watercolours. As well as being an artist, Ben has patented a new method of paper stretching.

The gallery is well worth a visit - virtually, if not in person!

Thursday 29 April 2010

Today I did two 'literacy events' for Barrington Stoke at the Hexham Book Festival.

I was talking about the writing of Fire Mask, and my audiences were drawn from Years 7 and 8 of four different schools in and around Hexham - and consisted mainly of boys.

There was, unfortunately, a certain reluctance to talk, perhaps because of the mix of schools, so debate was not lively! However, when we began to design masks the children really came into their own and produced wonderful work.

Here, a boy from Hexham holds his creation while modelling one of my masks. In my introduction to the planning of Fire Mask, we had looked at 'typical' Hallowe'en-style masks and discussed the reactions they evoke.

Then we compared these reactions to those evoked by the white, neutral mask which appears in the book.

This boy's mask is obviously of the demonic/scarred variety, and I think it works very well!

This amazing orange mask really appealed to me too!

Perhaps it was just the limited choice of colours and the artist was actually looking for a red 'bloodbath' effect, but the oozing orange liquid, combined with coordinating manic eyes, and great leering pink mouth paints a suitably horrific picture.

I sense someone's about to be 'Tangoed'...

Of all the day's masks however, it was Isobel's strange, hypnotic image that appealled to me most.

Its subtlety of expression - especially the winsome mouth - owes much to my 'neutral' mask, and the odd-shaped pupils give it a look which is extremely haunting.

We had talked a lot about eyes being the only 'living' part of a mask, and I was pleased to see so many children taking that on board and coming up with interesting expressions in their eyes and eyebrows.

But for me, Isobel's has to be the Star Mask - and her artistic talent's definitely worth watching. An illustrator of the future, perhaps?

Sunday 25 April 2010

Another nice review of Fire Mask. This one is by Julia Eccleshare and it's in Lovereading4kids.

Julia has spent her working life to date within children's books as a critic, an editor, an author and a commentator. Apart from her current role as Editorial contributor and advisor to Lovereading4kids, she is the children's editor of the Guardian.

She describes Fire Mask as 'an incredibly readable thriller that packs a real punch despite it running only to 64 pages'. I can certainly live with that!

Thursday 15 April

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by Geraldine Brennan (former Books Editor of The Times Educational Supplement) about the Fire Mask project, and today Barrington Stoke sent me the article she wrote.

It's on page 3 of their Schools Update and I'm delighted wih it. Not all articles really say what you say, but this one does. I think it captures the spirit of the project well, and I'm sure it will grab teachers' attention.

Wednesday 14 April

Today I met Lottie Davis, felt-maker extraordinaire! She's pictured here with some fleeces which she hand-dyed.

Lottie lives in Beith, and she's a member of Fusion Fibres Felt Group which is a group of feltmakers/textile artist, working mainly in felt to create a wide range of items.

They meet in Howwood village hall on the 2nd Wednesday of the month, from 10-3pm, and they're a non-profit community group, seeking to promote the ancient art of feltmaking to a wider audience. Two of their members (one of whom was Lottie!) won prizes at last year's Royal Highland Show.

And having seen some examples of Lottie's work, I'm not surprised it's won prizes. These photos show a child's dress, and a banner, both made out of felt and silk. The banner was inspired by a tile Lottie saw in a close in Paisley.


I think they're fabulous, and look forward to seeing more of her work.

Friday 26 March

I got a review of Fire Mask today - on Nayu's Reading Corner which is a very interesting blog I hadn't heard of before.

Watch this space ...!

Sunday 21 March 2010

Today was a VERY special day! It was the day the GRUFFALO came to Lochwinnoch!

The show - which was packed full of stories and songs and even the occasional dance - starred, of course, Julia Donaldson and her husband Malcolm; but there were plenty of opportunities for locals to shine too.

There were adult parts like farmers and burglars and policemen, and a whole host of parts (animal, human, and even the Sun and the Wind!) for the children.

And there were also some very 'big' parts to be played: Here, Malcolm discusses the performance with Greg the Sound Man, and Julia rehearses the Gruffalo's moves with John Spiers, who everyone agreed made a brilliant Gruffalo. And Julia asks Zul Bhatia whether there's ever been a recorded Gruffalo sighting in Lochwinnoch before ...

After the show, Julia signed books for nearly an hour, and had a little chat with the children, before being wined and dined in the Brown Bull. (We left the Gruffalo is the car, though. We didn't want to upset the locals!)

Sunday 7 March 2010

I launched my latest book - Fire Mask at Books in the West in West Kilbride this afternoon.

I was ably assisted by my friend Moira Kinniburgh - Head Librarian at Kilbirnie Library - to whom the book is dedicated. Moira helped me with the writing of the book, and today she took photographs of the launch.

It was a good turn-out - particularly for a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon - and, though we did lose a few of the audience half-way through to the 'tree-planting' event, the audience couldn't have been more charming and attentive.

For most of the time I talked to them about the Fire Mask project, showing them the work of the children who helped and inspired me, and got them to model the masks that had been a particular inspiration.

I also talked about some of my other books, and the inspirations for them ...

... in this photo, it's the old 'dead-fly-coming--to-life' trick from 'Under the Spell of Bryony Bell'.

I'm glad to say it hasn't lost its charm!

At the end of my talk, I gave the older children the challenge of writing a seventh chapter for Fire Mask. I hope some of them will rise to it.

All in all, it was a lovely afternoon. I think it's a very brave endeavour, to open a book shop in the current climate - and I really wish Books in the West the very best, and hope they'll continue to thrive.

Saturday 27 February 2010

Today was the Glasgow Branch of the Society of Recorder Players' Pastoral Visit. Branches annually receive funding from the Society of Recorder Players to finance visits from a selected conductor, and this year we chose Sandra Foxall.

Sandra started playing the recorder at Teacher Training College, joined the SRP in 1971, and has been Musical Director and Treasurer of the Cleveland branch since 1979.

She took over the administration of the Recorder Summer School in 1988 and has been a tutor for many years. She was my tutor in 2004, when I first went to Summer School to learn to play the treble recorder. There were just two of us in the class, and we had a wonderful time.

It was obvious from the number of people who braved the weather on Saturday that Sandra was a very popular choice. Members had come from Edinburgh, Inverness, and the Borders, and there were about forty of us. We played from 11 am till 4 pm, with breaks for food, and it was a most enjoyable day.

Friday 26 February 2010

WORLD BOOK DAY is fast approaching - it's on March 4 - and with it the launch of a very exciting initiative.

Author Hotline - which has the backing of all 6 Children's Laureates - is the brainchild of children's author Antony Lishak.

After more than 15 years as a primary school teacher, Antony decided to swap the company of a room full of children for his PC and a vat full of coffee. For years he had taught during the day and written at night and, as his 40th year approached, he thought it was about time he left school! Ironically, he now spends practically as many days in schools as he did as a teacher - he manages to visit over 150 schools a year!

Here's what Antony says about the approaching launch:

The 4th March is almost here
Pop that bubbly, slurp some beer,
The Author Hotline birth draws near.
Excited? I'm just numb with fear…

Well .. I'm sure if it was my baby, would be too - but, as one of Author Hotline's line-up of authors, I'm just excited. Bring on the bubbly!

Friday 5 February 2010

Today I met Sally Clay - pianist, singer, and Musical Director of Sounds of Progress - who's agreed to help me in my research for my radio play.

I met Sally through the RNIB. I'd emailed them last week, explaining that before I wrote a radio play with two blind characters, I badly needed help, advice, and experience - my ignorance of every aspect of blindness being profound! I particularly wanted to speak to a blind musician (one of my main characters is a composer) to give me some understanding of the 'mechanics' of unsighted composing.

Half an hour later, an email reply arrived. The RNIB had contacted Sally and she'd given them permission to pass on her mobile number to me. Ten minutes later, and we were talking nineteen to the dozen!

After our phone call, I knew I'd be able to talk candidly to Sally, and I was right. We met in the Tron bar, just round the corner from Sounds of Progress, and we talked about everything - general issues of blindness of course (or, as Sally calls them, 'blindy crap') and more specific things relating to my characters' motivations and the way they might relate.

I asked questions like: 'What most annoys you about sighted peoples' attitude to you?' and 'If I were to describe something to you, what would be the best way for me to do it?' and the more Sally and I talked, the more my ideas about my characters (blind and sighted) changed and clarified. Now I feel much, much more confident to take the play on to the point where those characters have their first meeting. And, because Sally took me to her office and let me listen to her specially adapted computer, I now know how blind composers compose!

Sally's group 'Zass' has made a CD calledJoin the Dots (in celebration of Louis Braille). I love many of the tracks, and some of the lyrics have given me ideas for the play too.

She has another group - Blind Gurl and the Crips - and I'm hoping to go and see their show next month at the Tron. It's called Raspberry, and has been described as a 'juicily gothic piece of music theatre'.

The Herald said that Blind Gurl and the Crips' act would: " ...leave you feeling enlightened, humbled, moved, uplifted and, above all, royally entertained."

That just about sums up how Sally made me feel today.

Monday 1 February 2010

I went to see The Secret Commonwealth by Catherine Czerkawska today.

Catherine was Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at UWS Ayr before me, and I was very keen to see her latest work.

The Secret Commonwealth is a play with music, based around the story of Robert Kirk.

Kirk was minister of Aberfoyle in the 17th century. The seventh son of a seventh son, he had the gift of 'second sight' and, at a time when belief in witchcraft was extremely dangerous, he wrote 'The Secret Commonwealth', a supposedly factual account of the fairyland of the Celts.

The play tells Kirk's story, but it is also a meditation on the conflict between new and old beliefs in seventeenth century Scotland, the appeal of the natural world, and the pull of tradition when set against the dictates of a more austere belief system. It is, essentially, a play about a man torn between two cultures.

This was the first play in Oran Mor's 'A Play, A Pie and A Pint' new season, and the first time I'd been to one of these events, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The intimate theatre was ideal for the production, and the simple but beautiful lighting, along with the haunting Gaelic music, made for a really transcendent experience.

I'm filled with admiration for the playwright!

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Today I found - via the ultra-efficient Royal National Institute for the Blind - a blind composer who's willing to help me with my radio play. I'm delighted, and will do a feature on her after I've had lunch with her next week.

I have many, many questions I want to ask her, and I also want to see what 'my' composer would use to do his composing. We're meeting at the Tron and she says she'll bring her Braille machine ... watch this space!

And I'm Featured Author on the Read Raw website.

Friday 22 January 2010

I've just come back from Lanzarote, where I was researching a radio play.

The plot of the play. tentatively entitled 'The Seeing Eye', revolves around the developing relationship between a disillusioned woman in her middle years and a blind - but NOT disillusioned - musician. In it, I'm hoping to explore the nature of the creative process and the different ways creative people 'see' things.

Radio drama is a whole new world to me but, having just completed another (my 26th???) children's book and sent it off, I'm very excited by the prospect of embarking on something quite new.

The play's been bubbling away in my brain for the past couple of months, but as soon as my friend (who, as a musician and composer is a great source of inspiration and information) and I arrived at Costa Teguise, the ideas really began to explode - like Lanzarote's volcanoes! And on my last morning, alone on the 'playa', I really got down to some serious thinking. The little white blob at the water's edge is me!

In particular, I wanted to experience the sounds my characters would hear, and the textures they'd feel I wandered around all morning with my camera and my digital voice recorder, storing up information for later.

I'm quite nervous about starting, and I hope I'll be able to get to grips with a new genre, but of one thing I'm certain - there can surely be few better research locations than this beautiful island!

AND - I've just been told that my post at UWS is to be renewed for a second year - which was lovely news to come home to!

Wednesday 30 December

Life has been very busy in the last month - what with my Fellowship at UWS, not to mention the small matter of Christmas - so there's been a lamentable lack of blog entries. But today I discovered a little haven of calm in the shape of the wonderful Once A Sheep at 60 Kempock Street in Gourock.

The shop is the brainchild of Karen Cook, a freelance proofreader and avid knitter and crocheter.

The idea began to germinate about 4 years ago, when Karen and some of her friends were knitting together in a local cafe. As more and more people joined them, enjoying the experience of 'communal knitting', they began to imagine opening a specialist shop and, on November 21st this year, that dream became a reality.

Once A Sheep has all sorts of amazing wool and accessories, but it's much, much more than just a wool shop. It's a place where people can come and knit together, exchange ideas, sort out one another's problems, and just generally enjoy the company of other knitters while creating all sorts of garments.

And in my case, for 'garments' read 'socks'. STRIPY socks. Mad, mistake-full, cheap 'n cheerful, stripy socks!

Up to now, it's been an uphill struggle. I've been knitting my first pair for the past couple of months and - like many another virgin knitter - had come completely unstuck at the terrible Turning of the Heel. In fact, the first sock grew longer and longer and longer, so terrified was I to embark on this dangerous, arcane procedure!

Fortunately, help was at hand. My friend Eileen, who lives in Gourock, took me along to Once A Sheep on Monday, and right away Karen replaced my four very long and unwieldy DPN's (that's Knitspeak for 'Double Pointed Needles' ... there are, I am learning, HUNDREDS of acronyms and bizarre terms in Fibrespace) with a wood-and-nylon 'Magic Loop' so now I can knit unencumbered by a giant porcupine. She also sold me a lovely little set of sparkly Row Markers - handmade by Kimmie (seen in the photo knitting below the Christmas star)- which make everything much clearer. Knitting's much much more comfortable now!!!

There's other support out there too. The website Ravelry offers a bewildering array of services, from free-download patterns, to yarn exchange and - of course - the inevitable advice and support.


Like all artistic endeavours, knitting isn't all plain sailing. In the first photo, Karen tries to diagnose a 'knotty' problem Eileen's had with her wool. The wool had been wound, using a little mechanical wool-winder, into what's known as a 'cake' (like a ball flattened at both poles); but after a few rows of ribbing, Eileen noticed it was beginning to split and tangle.

Unfortunately, a flaw was eventually diagnosed in the hank, and poor Eileen had to 'frog' her nascent sock (to 'frog' one's knitting means to 'undo' it - think of the sound a frog makes ....? RIPPIT! RIPPIT! See what I mean about Knitspeak?).

The cake was deemed unuseable, so Karen gave Eileen a new hank and this time, to be on the safe side, they decided to make it into a ball using the good old-fashioned method!

In the end, there's no substitute for the 'hands-on' (or is it 'hands-IN'?) method!

The knitting group meets every Wednesday morning, and every Thursday evening, in Once A Sheep.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to go back for a while because of work commitments, but after today's meeting I feel much more confident in my ability to finish my VERY FIRST garment (my life is littered with pieces of unfinished knitting).

I've learnt a lot in a short space of time - eg the best way of joining wool when making stripes (NOT tying knots, as I'd been doing ...!) and, with a veritable cornucopia of online guides to Heel-Turning, including YouTube footage (pardon the pun!), surely I'll manage when the time comes?

And if I come unstuck, I now know several people who'll come to my aid!

Friday 28 November

Today I had a visit from Nikki Cameron, and her 12-week-old spaniel, Smudge. (I fell for Smudge in a Big Way!!)

Nikki has taught for more than 20 years and has recently completed the MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow University. She has had several short stories published, came 2nd in the inaugural Glasgow Student Short Story Competition judged by A L Kennedy, and is currently working on her first novel.

She runs an Expressive Writing website called The Pen Works, in which she offers guidance and support in both Expressive and Creative Writing.

I was unsure what exactly Expressive Writing was, and how it differs from Creative Writing. Nikki explained that Expressive Writing can help people deal with all sorts of emotional baggage - the habits, thoughts, behaviours that they've carried all their lives.

And, as a qualified hypnotherapist, Nikki is well-qualified to deal with 'emotional baggage'! She's been involved in helping people stop smoking, as this article in The Mind's Eye describes, and she also works as a Sleep Counsellor. She's currently offering help with dieting, using an Expressive Writing approach.

Nikki graduates on Monday - and it will be interesting to see what her next endeavour is. A definite 'space' to watch!

Sunday 15 November

Today Julia was guest on Desert Island Discs.

Courtesy of the fickle finger of fate, which is currently pointing accusingly at the fuel pump of my Fiat Panda, I was actually in Tesco's car park when it was aired, but I caught up with it on 'Listen Again' in the evening.

Julia's 'performance' was wonderful. Her accounts of first love with Malcolm blossoming in the streets of Paris were utterly joyful; the description of her father's illness and the frustrations it caused were poignant without being overly 'tragic'; and the true tragedies which were part and parcel of her eldest son Hamish's life and death were extremely moving, and will no doubt touch many whose lives have been similarly affected.

On a personal note (pun not intended!!!) I was delighted to hear her sing the praises of the recorder when she requested her last disc - Handel's Recorder Sonata in F. A great choice.

In true Donaldson style, Julia ended the programme with a nice spark of humour. Asked which 'luxury' she would like to take with her she replied coyly, 'Can I have a cat?' to which the answer, unsurprisingly, was 'No.' So she chose a piano ...

Wednesday 4 November

Here is the latest bulletin from the National Novel Writing month - or, at least, Claire Mackie's contribution to it!

Claire, UWS's Effective Learning tutor, is - you may remember - currently spending the month of November writing a novel, and so far - by dint of burning the midnight oil - she's well on target.

She's posting parts of the work on her page of the NaNo website and they're well worth reading - click here to see. (btw, she calls herself Kerianth, and her novel's title is The Removal Man.)

As for me - I've just completed proof-reading the illustrators' roughs for Fire Mask which will be out in January '10. Not long to wait! And I'm currently at Chapter 7 of the sequel to Sita, Snake-Queen of Speed (pub. 2007 Frances Lincoln). I'm not sure what the title will be, but at the moment it's The Curse of Samarkand.

So, lots of spaces to watch ...

Friday 23 October

The past weeks have been very busy, as I've been settling into my RLF post at UWS in Ayr.

There's been a lot to do in terms of gathering information about essay and dissertation writing, and generally getting my office organised. Now, having identified some good websites which the University recommends, I feel a bit more confident to advise students, and I've had some very good sessions.

The students I've seen so far have had problems ranging from general punctuation (the dreaded 'fused sentence' is particularly common - where the writer uses commas instead of full stops and/or conjunctions) to lack of confidence in an academic setting.

But it's been interesting. The errors may be a bit boring, but their context definitely isn't; and after a lifetime dealing with the language needs of the under-12's, it's a breath of fresh air to work with clients who know more than I do about their subjects. There's a real sense of achievement when I show them how to express their ideas more clearly!

The staff is interesting too. This is Claire Mackie, the Effective Learning tutor, whose post runs in parallel with mine.

The Effective Learning team, working within the Centre for Academic and Professional Development (CAPD) provides personal advice backed up by online resources to develop and enhance the academic skills students need.

I've been very grateful for Claire's advice and help in these early days. Being in her second year at UWS, she knows many of the students, and although there's a strict confidentiality clause for both of us, we can still very helpfully discuss aspects of our work without contravening it.

And Claire's got other interesting sides to her. She's very keen on Warhammer games, and she's an avid writer. In fact, next month she's going to attempt to write a novel as part of NaNoWriMo - That's National Novel Writing Month, which describes itself as a 'fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing.' Participants begin writing November 1, and the goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Now, given that Claire has a steady stream of students beating a path to her door all day, and also has two assignments of her own to hand in during November, I just don't know how she's going to do it!

I have, however, been given a sneak preview of her novel synopsis and believe me, it's HOT ... so, personally, I'm watching this space!!!!

Monday 5 October

This week end the Scottish Recorder Orchestra had its annual residential week end, with guest conductor Dietrich Schnabel, from Germany.

Dietrich, a conductor and composer whose music we often play (very enthusiastically!), is a great favourite with the orchestra and we loved having another opportunity to be under his baton.

This year the venue was a new one for us - the Police Training College at Tulliallan. Here are the two conductors, Eileen and Dietrich, looking approvingly at the rehearsal space, which was the best we've had yet.

It was a busy two days, with lots of new music to get to grips with. There was ample time for a bit of fun too, though - and Tulliallan Castle was an ideal place for an evening drink. We were also fascinated by the 'police-obilia', in particular the truncheon exhibition.

The similarity between truncheons and recorders was noted, and ribald comments like 'I arrest you in the name of the treble' abounded.

We were fascinated too by the crest on the outside of the building. The motto of the college is, BI GLIC - BI GLIC, which is the cry of the Oystercatcher which translates from Gaelic as 'Be Wise, Be Circumspect'.

Oystercatchers can be found throughout the grounds of the college. The College Crest depicts two Oystercatchers surrounding the crest of the Scottish Police Service which is in itself surrounded by two books to signify learning. The oystercatchers also tie in with the legend of St Bride, as symbols of caring.

Wednesday 16 September

I finished a remarkable book today - Dorothea Brande's 'Becoming a Writer', which is one of the recommended books for the Creative Writing course at UWS.

When it was lent to me, I must admit I was a bit dubious - in general I'm not very keen on this genre of book, and this one was published way back in the 1930's. In America ...

But as soon as I began to read, I changed my mind. I think it's a marvellous, timeless book and it's helped me overcome a longish period of writers' block.

I won't attempt to sum up its premises, because I think they have to be read in context, but suffice to say it comes as close to revealing the 'magic', the 'secrets' of writing as any book I've ever read.

It's very much to do with 'psychological' processes which can help stimulate the imagination, but there's also sound practical advice. I loved this quote from Ford Madox Ford's 'It was the Nightingale'. Talking about writing a novel, he says:

I must know - from personal observation, not reading, the shape of windows, the nature of doorknobs, the aspect of kitchens, the material of which dresses are made, the leather used in shoes, the method used in manuring fields, the nature of bus tickets. I shall never use any of these things in the book. But unless I know what sort of doorknob his fingers closed on how shall I - satisfactorily to myself - get my character out of doors?

I'd recommend the book not only to keen, aspiring writers, but also to jaded, professional ones. It certainly taught me a lot - incuding the reason why I like picking gravel out of my garden for hours on end. And why I should continue to do so!

Tuesday 15 September

Adrian Powter has just sent me a much cheerier, more alert photograph of me playing the tenor!

The reason for the laughter is because the piece - 'The Lone Ar-ranger' is packed full of musical jokes. It's by far the funniest piece I've ever played, and judging from the audience's reaction on the Youtube entry I included in my last blog posting, it's going to bring the house down!

As I mentioned, Adrian's up in Scotland working with Scottish Opera. He's playing the part of Taddeo in Rossini's 'The Italian Girl in Tangiers.

Adrian is a baritone, He was born in Cambridge and studied at the RNCM. He began his career at Glyndebourne and in 2000 created Philip in Harrison Birtwistle’s 'The Last Supper' at the Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin, a production, which was later presented by Glyndebourne Festival and Touring Operas.

He has appeared throughout the UK as well as in China, Germany, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, and Singapore singing with the Academy of Ancient Music, the Apollo Chamber Orchestra, the Darmstadt Hofkapelle, the English Symphony Orchestra, the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hallé, the London Sinfonietta, the London Soloists’ Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

When he visited the SRO on Sunday, he took well over 50 photos. Some of his close-up studies are particularly beautiful. Here's a selection:

The whole set can be viewed by clicking here.

Sunday 13 September

Today was the first meeting of the new season of the Scottish Recorder Orchestra, and we were fortunate to have a visit from opera singer Adrian Powter who, as well as currently performing the part of Taddeo in Scottish Opera's production of The Italian Girl in Algiers, is also a very good photographer, as can be seen below:

Here I am playing bass recorder for the very first time! I'm glad to see I don't look too worried, because I do still have quite a bit of bother with my bass clef. And when I've been playing from the bass clef and then transfer to an instrument with music written in the treble clef, I read some of the notes as bass notes.

This is the big problem of being a recorder player!

Next is our conductor, Eileen Silcocks studying one of the scores. We had three new pieces of music today - 'Elf' by Alan Davies - that's 'elf' as in the German for 'eleven'; 'Ecce Dominus veniet' by Hieronymus Praetorius (which is my bass piece); and 'The Lone Ar-ranger' by Philip R. Buttall, arranged for recorders by Steve Marshall.

This last piece is unbelievable - if you click on the title you'll see it on Youtube. How many pieces can you recognise?

And here is a shot of part of the bass section in action.

And finally, here I am again - supposedly playing tenor. I seem to have paused, however, to scratch my neck!

Wednesday 9 September

This afternoon I went to the University of the West of Scotland to meet with David Manderson, lecturer in Creative Writing and Screenwriting, and the member of staff with special responsibilities for the Royal Literary Fund fellow.

David holds qualifications from the Universities of St Andrews (MA English Language & Literature) and Glasgow (MLitt in Creative Writing), and in 2006 was awarded a PhD by the University of Strathclyde - the first doctorate gained in Scotland for a completed full-length novel.

He joined the lecturing staff of the University of the West of Scotland in November 2007. His new Modules in Creative Writing are integrated within the Film Making and Screenwriting programme and are designed to create a bank of ideas for each student, which can then be taken to any other writing form or another creative medium.

Outwith the university, he hosts and runs the "Reading Allowed" Tchai Ovna readings, evenings of words and music at the Tchai Ovna teahouse in Glasgow's West End. Details of this, and other events, can be found on David's blog .

David, like everyone I've met so far at UWS, has been extremely helpful, and it was good to spend time with him and meet a few other members of staff. We also looked at my office and found - to my extreme delight - that I've been given a brand new computer. As a laptop user, I can't wait to have a 'proper' computer again!

When I left the university I drove to the lovely little fishing village of Dunure, where I walked along the beach looking over to Arran, and then had a meal in the pub.

I'd really like to stay in Dunure when I'm at the university, but I'll have to see if I can get reasonably-priced accommodation.

Tuesday 8 September

Scholastic's Junior Education Plus article on the Fire Mask project arrived this morning!

As they promised, it's a double-page feature, full of photographs of the children, and I think it looks great.

They've also put up a sample chapter on the Junior Education Plus website.

Throughout the project I kept a journal, which included details of each session, and photographs, and the most inspirational artwork. I've put this up now, and it can be accessed by clicking 'Fire Mask Journal'.

I'm hoping lots of teachers will want to buy the book next March!

Monday 7 September

The last poster for the office!

This one - my favourite of Caliban's speeches in The Tempest - I knew would be hardest to do, and I'm not sure that I've managed it. However, it'll have to do.

I love the poignancy of this speech, and it always brings tears to me eyes when I hear it.

When I did an adaptation of The Tempest in for A & C Black in 2007, I chose to tell the story from the point of view of the other inhabitant of the isle - Ariel. Writing as an 'airy spirit' was a very challenging thing to do, particularly since the plotline, such as it is, is quite hard to get a grip on. It felt like doing an endless piece of English homework!

As I studied the play afresh after several decades, I was more than ever moved by Caliban's plight - ousted from his rightful ownership of the island he knew and understood, kept imprisoned and subjected to Prospero's tyrannical rule, abused physically and verbally - all because he followed his 'animal instincts'. Because, in a way, he just hadn't learned the humans' rules.

Friday 4 September

Another poster for the office. This one is my favourite poem by Elizabeth Bishop, who I've mentioned several times before in my blog.

I love this poem because I know just what she means! There are times when to listen, or particularly to play, music, is the only thing to do!

A composer friend and I are currently trying to obtain permission to set this poem to music. The red tape involved is daunting, however, and we're beginning to lose hope. It will be a great shame if it can't be done, because I feel sure it's something Bishop would have approved of! (she played the piano)

Here is a close-up of the poem, which is easier to read:

Thursday 3 September

I'm busy creating some posters to put up in my office at the University of the West of Scotland - it doesn't have a window, so I need there to be something inspirational on the walls! So I've chosen some of my favourite pieces of writing, and I've bought new pastel crayons and a tin of fixative spray ...

The first poster features the poem Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven by William Butler Yeats.

The Aedh poems were written for Maud Gonne, and were published in The Wind Among the Reeds in 1899. Aedh, one of four characters adopted by Yeats - he called them 'shadowy projections of his personality' - was the Celtic god of death. He was one of the Children of Lir, and Yeats described him as 'fire reflected in water'. I've tried to give an impression of this in the colours I've chosen.

'Aedh is the myrrh and frankincense that the imagination offers continually before all it loves,' he said.

I've always loved this poem. I love its simple, direct language and its rhythm - particularly the line: 'Of night, and light, and the half-light.'

And though I know the 'dreams' are Yeats' own longings for love, for me they've always been my artistic endeavours, trampled underfoot by those who don't appreciate them!

Sunday 30 August

Today there was a lovely event here in the village. Betty McKellar, our 'Bard of Lochwinnoch' did one of her 'Poetry Walks'.

The walk began in the graveyard of 'Auld Simon', the local name for the belltower which is all that remains of an old church, and ended up at the Brown Bull.

At various places along the way, Betty recited poems she'd written that were connected to these places. And, as the photos show, her little poetry notebook got wetter and wetter as the afternoon went on!




It was a wonderful way to learn more about the village's history, and to form new connections to places. I'll never walk past the houses at Newton of Barr, for example, without thinking of the two little girls who claimed to see a ghostly old lady float out of the walls in a 'tickle of grey' ...!

Wednesday 26 August

Today I went to Edinburgh to meet Anna Gibbons, the Children's Programme Manager of the Scottish Book Trust.

We met over coffee in the Book Festival's Book Tent in Charlotte Square, and it was lovely to be there and to talk to Anna about the Book Trust's Children's and Education programme.

There's all sorts going on - and particularly exciting is their online writer-in-residence. This year it's been Keith Gray, and it looks as though he, and the young writers he's inspiring, have had a great time!

Then it was on to another coffee date - this time with Julia Donaldson, who's staying in her Edinburgh flat for the duration of the festival.

It's always lovely to see Julia, and her sister Mary was there too, because she had roles in the stage productions of Julia's picture books. I was sorry not to have seen the latest shows - Tabby McTat and The Troll, but I was delighted to be given an unofficial peek at some of the wonderful puppets and props. First, from Tabby McTat ...


and then from The Troll ...


The Troll mask was so good, Mary and I both had to get in on the act ...


As well as seeing all the props and puppets, Julia also gave Mary and me a reading from the proofs of her very latest picture book, Cave Baby, which is illustrated by Emily Gravett and out next year. And is great!!! (btw Emily Gravett's website is well worth a visit!)

Friday 21 August

Day 4 of the 'Imitation Stained-Glass Project' ...

Well ... it's finished, and I quite like it (particularly when the sun shines through it and casts its reflection on the wall and floor) but applying the paint was anything but easy.

When I first tried, I was painting it on as though it was ordinary paint. The trouble was, however, that it then looked like paint! In order to make it look more like glass, I had to work in a more fluid way of applying it, almost dripping the paint on.

That would have been OK had I been working flat, on a panel. But working vertically meant the paint tended to 'pool', and then dribble down.

So - I think it's not at all bad for a first attempt; but let's just say I'm not giving up the day job ...

Thursday 20 August

Day 3 of the 'Imitation Stained-Glass Project' ...

The 'lead' outline is now in place, and it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be. The lead has a certain amount of 'give' so provided you don't try to bend it too much, you can coax it into curves.

I think it looks reasonably authentic too, because in real stained glass panels you can also see the points where the lead outlines overlap.

At this stage I'm really pleased with the window, and looking forward to getting the paints and finishing it.

Wednesday 19 August

Day 2 of the 'Imitation Stained-Glass Project' ...

All 30 template 'bits' are now in position, ready to ink in the guideline for the imitation lead tape.

Even this part wasn't as easy as one might think, particularly since Bit No 4 went missing and was only found after much searching - the cat, who found the process of cutting-out highly stimulating, having hidden it under the table.

The process was a little bit remeniscent of assembling IKEA furniture. There was the same feeling of foreboding - the creeping suspicion that something is bound to go terribly wrong; that the whole will somehow turn out to be less, rather than more, than the sum of its parts ...

Adam, encouraging as ever, says it's impossible; and I'm beginning to think he could be right.

I should perhaps have gone for a nice, easy, geometric design ...

Tuesday 18 August

I'm starting a 'stained glass' project ....

One summer, years ago, I worked with stained glass at the Glasgow School of Art.

At that time I was really influenced by the work of John K Clark, whose 'fish' panels in Cafe Gondolfi I absolutely love.

I'd also visited a southside synagogue where Clark had made a whole series of windows and then, with his work as inspiration (plus the fact I had just started keeping clownfish in a heated marine tank) I created my own panel.
I loved working in the glass studio. There was a huge variety of wonderful colours and textures of glass you could use, and I learned techniques such as painting and etching, which I used in my panel.

But real stained-glass making was hard, often frustrating work, and these days I don't have the time or the money to embark on anything that ambitious!

I do, however, want one of my bedroom windows to be stained glass, so I've decided to try a 'fake' one, using 'pretend' self-adhesive 'lead' tape and glass paints.

One of my friends has a house in the south side of Glasgow which was built in 1909, and has several beautiful little stained-glass windows.

I love the blue swallows, and since my bedroom is duck-egg blue, and swallows are such a feature of the Lochwinnoch summers, I've decided to try adapt the design for my little window.
I haven't a clue how to go about it really, but the first thing I've done is to copy as closely the original as closely as I can.

Having got the best possible outline, I've photocopied the design and then numbered the 'bits'.

There are 30 'bits' in all!

I've washed the window thoroughly, and next I'm going to stick the main template onto thicker paper, cut out the 30 bits, then blu-tak them onto the window. If I leave a space equal to the width of the 'lead' tape between the bits, I should eventually be able to stick the tape in the right place.

That's the theory ...

Thursday 13 August

Every picture tells a story! Here we are, in the Heckling Shed at Irvine, at break time - with just an hour left to lick Shadow Screams into shape.

Shadow Screams was a summer holiday project, and consequently most weeks one or other of the children was off, which made rehearsals a bit tricky.

At this point on Wednesday morning, things seemed to be going just a little bit pear-shaped. The children were happy enough, but I really needed that mug of tea!
While I calmed my nerves, Lisa Morton made a final check of the sound effects, which Gillian Gillespie had very expertly put together.

Our plan was to film the final rehearsal with the camera fixed to a tripod, then film again during the evening performance, this time with the camera handheld. Both films would then be put together for the final DVD.

Despite the earlier chaos, when our break was over and the camera was rolling, the children rose to the occasion and gave an almost flawless performance! And, later that day, the specially-invited audience was very impressed and, at times, very very afraid!

Here are some stills, taken by Lisa. They show, from left to right: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and To a Mouse:

So Shadow Screams is over - and what a brilliant project it was! I enjoyed every bit of it, from the initial planning (getting to read all those fabulous Poe stories again!), through the scriptwriting and puppet-making, to the actual business of working out how on earth to actually do it. The children were just great, and the support - as ever in North Ayrshire - was fantastic.

Finally then, courtesy of Gillian Gillespie's beautiful design skills, here's the cast list:

Well done everyone - you rocked!

Friday 7 August
Today I took 'The Bard of Lochwinnoch', Betty McKellar, to see Adam's Art of Japanese Tarot exhibition in the new Long Gallery in Kilbirnie Library.

Betty, who was born in Edinburgh, has lived the best part of her life near Lochwinnoch, in the beautiful Muirshiel Park where her late husband farmed. Her poetry about the local area runs to several volumes, and she regularly shares her talents with writers groups.

Those talents are more widely recognised, however. In 1999, Sally Beamish set one of Betty's poems, Cramasie Threid (Crimson Thread), to music; as did Gordon Rigby, Principal Timpanist with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Here are a couple of Betty's poems from Muirshiel, published 2008 by Grimalkin Press:


Summer twilight;
garden perfumed
as a boudoir heavy-scented with the sweet oils of amour
sky crepesculed
and the moon's face fallen to lop-sided Mona Lisa smile
suffusing the cream discs of the elder flower
to pale splotches of a misty white.

I am beguiled
to well-being
deep-breathing in the benisons of the night.

Then a flicker of black
darts like the touch of a hurt on the face of the moon
and is gone
but in my head
the quiverings of bats' wings
and whisperings ...


Yallow's a licht that braks through a smirrin o grey,
it's a sun ray
dancin wi' green

It's primroses spilt ower the heid o a bank
in a tmmlin glut
like poored oot cream.

Yallow's the fuzz on the back o a bumbee
bumlin in flooer rosettes,
it's a yorlin burd up amang poothery hazel catkins
singin its best.

It's daffodil ladies blawin their trumpets unner a tree.
It's a kiss frae the air
a smirkle in Averile's ee.

Thursday 6 August

Here's the invitation at last, designed by Nicola Dobbs ....

Wednesday 5 August

Meanwhile, back at the Heckling Shed ...

... Shadow Screams rehearsals continue, and a date and time for the performance is almost decided.

We had a couple of run-throughs, particularly of the final scene where Edgar Allan Poe - the 'Master of Horror' - is sent packing by Robert Burns' 'wee sleekit, cowrin' tim'rous beastie'. This was Julia Donaldson's suggestion, and it's proved the hardest to stage-manage, mainly because Jennifer and Abigail (aka Burns and Poe) have to do all their acting kneeling behind a smallish shadow screen which they usually have to share with shadow puppets. It doesn't leave a lot of space for dramatic movement, but they do a brilliant job!

When exhaustion began to set in, we had a break then made invitations. Here are Sabrina's and Nicola's 'works in progress':

Wednesday 29 July

Today, in Irvine, we had our first practice of Shadow Screams. This is the first shadow play I've ever done using 'real' actors alongside shadow puppets, and it's quite difficult for the children. They're up for it, though - and it's looking good! Here are a few images:

This is Robert Burns, having his first encounter with the shadows - 'Cutty Sark' is giving him a hard time!

And here's Auld Nick talking to Edgar Allan Poe - and discovering they've got quite a lot in common!
This is the ghost of the sinister House of Usher, just before it finally 'falls'.
Here, the prisoner in The Pit and the Pendulum is about to have a brainwave involving rats and rotten meat.
And finally, Robert Burns shares the last of his dram with his friend Mousie!

We have two more practice sessions before we present our play to a very 'select' audience - The Vennel having a capacity of 30, we're not advertising very far afield! And with a panoply of spooky sound effects, courtesy of Gillian, it should certainly prove a white-knuckle ride - not for the faint-hearted!

Tuesday 28 July

I met Fiona Shaw at the Royal Literary Fund party in Toynbee Hall earlier this year, and read her memoir Out of Me which I found disturbingly compulsive reading.

Tell It To The Bees is every bit as compulsive. Set in the 50's, it tells the story of two women's love for each other, at a time when such love was almost unimaginable. It tells the story of Charlie too, and it's Shaw's depiction of this little boy - knowing yet not quite understanding, ignorant yet wise, at the mercy of unpredictable adults yet still able to immerse himself in his own tiny worlds - that burrows deep within you.

Shaw wrote her doctoral thesis on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, and in Out of Me she writes:

Bishop wrote to defend herself from intolerable pain - the pain of surviving a childhood in which she felt 'always a sort of guest'.

Bishop constantly asked herself 'Where's home?' From the depths of her postnatal depression, Shaw asked the same question. And in Tell It To The Bees each of her characters, haunted by feelings of 'not-belonging', ask it too.

For Jean, the lonely, busy doctor, 'home' is a house that is far too large and has never really shaken away its previous (and somehow, in Jean's eyes, worthier) occupants. In one of her beautifully poetic descriptive passages Shaw highlights Jean's loneliness as she comes home to a house still filled with shadowy echoes of family life:

The silence gathered itself around her shoulders, warm and possessive, and she put a hand to it as you might to a cat that had settled there ...

For Lydia, as the 'family home' begins to disintegrate before her helpless eyes, books become the refuge, the safe place. And for her son Charlie - 'home' is wherever the fickle adults decree it will be. Happiness is never to be trusted. The shadow of the father always looms - longed-for and feared in equal measure. Like the bees Charlie confides in, life may be sweet - but there's always a sting in its tail.

Are some of Shaw's descriptions born of her love of Bishop? I wondered about these:

The sky lay low and grey on the town, pegged like a blanket to the hills in the west and dipping down in the east to meet the sea.

... a single fern pushing through the fallen leaves, its green so green it was like an interloper in this landscape.

The light was bleary so it seemed not so much that the day was dawning as that the night was, in some essential way, undone.

A bird flew across the pond. It looked like the spirit of something in the evening light, and it was a spirit that spoke in two voices ...

Whatever Shaw's inspiration was, it's produced an atmosphere that swings between clingingly oppressive small-mindedness and the boundless joy of curiosity, innocence and love. And characters whose ultimate happiness you find yourself desperately longing for.

Friday 24 July

I found an interesting article on on the internet today, entitled Edgar Allan Poe, Master of Horror, by Joanne Harris.

Originally broadcast on Radio 3, the piece appeared in the Telegraph in January this year, and in it Harris looks beyond the macabre and into Poe's subtle psychology, where she sees a man frightened to death by women, and frightened to death by death.

Poe, she suggests, writes his seemingly cold, macabre stories about women 'not from hatred, but from awe as well as from a basic need to keep under control a creative power superior to his own.'

Women and death are always linked in Poe's work. According to Harris, that's because he sees woman as 'the destroyer, the living incarnation of Death, the void personified.'

Surprisingly, in her re-readings of Poe (she first read him at about the same age as my group of children in Irvine, and was utterly terrified ...!) Harris is drawn less to the macabre and more to the sensitivity and wit. In particular, The Raven touches her with its 'genuine sense of loss and regret'. As an expression of 'the dreadful absurdity of an unknowable universe', she's struck by the modernity of its sentiments.

150 years after his death, Poe and his stories live on and, for Harris, he's not so much the Master of Horror as Scheherazade - eternally keeping Death at bay through his tales.

Illustration from 'To Helen' by Edmund Dulac, 1912

Wednesday 15 July

Day 2 of the Irvine Marymass project, and we're back in the Heckling Shed in Glasgow Vennel, where Shadow Screams, our shadow puppet enactment of 'Robert Burns-meets-Edgar Allan Poe' is beginning to take shape!

I couldn't ask for a better group of children. Sadly, because North Ayrshire Council has a ban on putting any photos of children, with or without parental permission, on the internet, I couldn't show the artists - so their work will have to speak for them:
First, here's Taylor at work on her very excellent raven - watched over by a 'real' stuffed one from the Edgar Allan Poe display case.

Having the raven actually there was a wonderful way to get the right proportions for the shadow puppet - we could really see how huge the claws of the puppet would have to be, and how long its beak and tail.

Our plan is to have Poe's raven attack Burns, while screeching 'Nevermore! Nevermore!' at the top of its voice.

By the looks of Taylor's masterpiece, the Bard's in for an all-out attack!
And here are Jennifer's magnificent rats - minus their tails, for which we are using 2 halves of a large elastic band.

The rats represent the hordes that come to the aid of the unfortunate hero of The Pit and the Pendulum, nibbling through his ropes in the very nick of time!

Her rats completed, Jennifer went on to devise a way to show the prisoner lying below the scythe-like pendulum. It was a challenging job, but she persevered, and on the second attempt she cracked it.

And finally, this is me pausing between mouthfuls of tea and slices of mango to wrestle with the not-inconsiderable problems of Auld Nick's bagpipes. Getting them to move convincingly had Lewis and me pretty well stumped for a while - but I think we managed it between us. The proof of the pudding will, however, be in the eating, and we'll see how he looks next week when we fit rods onto him, and make him do a bit of skirling!

Meanwhile, the House of Usher is looking malevolently terrific, and the ghost of the House of Usher has to be seen to be believed. Little wonder the House splits right down the middle!

Tuesday 14 July

I've just finished reading Nicola Morgan's wonderful teenage novel Deathwatch!

I'm not going to do a review - partly because Nicky's a friend, but mainly because Deathwatch has got so many good reviews anyway - check them out here!

So, just a personal response: I loved it, was really gripped by the plot and by Cat's personal conflicts, and - being a fervent entomolophile (I feel there should be a word for a human insect-lover, but this one's usually applied to plants that are pollinated by insects - never mind!) I was pleased that, at the very end, insects - which did get rather a bad press throughout the book - are most eloquently vindicated!

Thanks, Nicky, for another fabulous book!

And I just learned this morning that I'm going to be writing a sequel - to what will remain a secret for a while. Suffice to say, I am delighted but scared. Sequels are hard!!!!

Wednesday 8 July

The first day of the Burns/Poe project, aka SHADOW SCRE-E-E-E-EAMS!

The venue - the Glasgow Vennel Museum in Irvine - is perfect. Its library's crammed full of Burns' books and is located in the very heckling shed, complete with thatched roof, where Burns heckled. (The term'heckle' originates from the textile trade, where to 'heckle' was to tease or comb out flax or hemp fibres.) Gillian Gillespie, Supported Study Development Officer for North Ayrshire, also told us there's a ghost. Apparently, if a woman spends too long in the heckling-shed, all the hairpins in her hair are pulled out!

Outside the library is a glass case with a lovely display of Poe-obilia, including a stuffed raven - which came in very handy! And it was Poe's work that we concentrated on, because most of the children knew enough about Burns as they needed to - Jennifer even knew the first stanzas of Tam o'Shanter off by heart.

As I retold, in ghastly detail, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat, The Tell-tale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Raven, I was a bit worried that the children might not cope. These are, after all, classic tales of Gothic horror, and definitely not for the faint-hearted.

But, of course, they did. And we all came to the conclusion that Poe's a great writer and that his characters are, on the whole, thoroughly despicable! We particularly noticed how often they 'excuse' themselves from responsibility for their unimaginably gruesome acts of cruelty ('I had to kill the old man - he had a horrible way of looking at me', 'I had to gouge my cat's eye out - it was really getting on my nerves'. Aye, right!)

So here are some of the first sketches ...

Next week, we start to make the shadow images!

From Irvine, I made my way to Ayr for the final afternoon of the 10th International Conference of the European Affective Education Network - Creativity and Wellbeing. First on the agenda was a music recital by Tom Hay (clarinet) and Hazel Leitch (piano) - I missed some of the programme but really enjoyed Milhaud's Duo Concertant.

Then, in Sheila O'Shea's 'Folktale Magic and More' workshop, it seemed as though 'being-crawled-on-by-rodents' was the day's leitmotif! Having hotfooted away from The Pit and the Pendulum, with memories of rats chomping at meat-smeared ropes stil vivid in my mind, I found myself sitting on the floor on the Music Room, eyes shut, feeling various people's fingers run up and down my back as we re-enacted the Inuit folktale The Seal Oil Lamp!

This poignant folktale is perfect for exploring feelings - abandonment, sadness, boredom, confusion, fear, and Sheila's multidisciplinary approach allows people to explore these situations and emotions in a safe, non-threatening way. Conversely, the magical context and happy ending make it a story, finally, of triumph over insuperable odds.

Sheila O'Shea, from Columbia University, holds degrees in music from University College Cork and a Masters in Performance from Hunter College New York, with a Diploma in Advanced Music and Dance Education from the Orff Insititute in Salzburg, Austria. In Sheila's words, a folktale is the perfect medium for holistic learning because it:

explains the natural world,
imposes order on the chaos of life,
helps us come to terms with dreams and fears,
and fulfills our need to entertain one another

The conference was closed by Emeritus Professor Ron Best, from Roehampton University, and his keynote speech Puzzling about the Place of the Emotions in Moral Behaviour: Some implications for Education was as thought-provoking as it was entertaining.

Later, after a meeting (and book-exchange!) with Helena Korosec and Bogdana Borota from Slovenia, I sat on the rocks at Lendalfoot and let all the day's impressions - rodent and otherwise - set with the sun.

A very, very perfect end ...

Tuesday 7 July

Very into Edgar Allan Poe at the moment. Tomorrow I start a project with some children in Irvine, devising a shadow play for the Marymass Festival in August with a theme of Robert Burns meets Edgar Allan Poe!!!!

Burns and Poe were both born in January - Burns on 25 January 1759, Poe on 19 January 1809 - so, rather neatly, this year is Burn's 250th anniversary and Poe's 200th.

Not only did the men share a Zodiac sign, they both died at around the same age - Burns at 37 and Poe at 40. Both were born in poor circumstances, and both liked the odd drink. But while Burns lived in Scotland, and worked in the actual Heckling Shed in which we're performing our play, Poe only made a short visit - when he was six.

Anyway, in shadow theatre everything is possible, so my idea is to have Burns and Poe meeting in a shadowy Irvine tavern, and basically trying to out-scare one another.

Research has been fun. Of course - since it's a shadow play and this lends itself SO well to the medium - I started with The Raven and quickly discovered an amazing Poe website, There I learned, among other things, that Mallarme translated The Raven into French, and Manet illustrated it. I also got other poems and short stories, with helpful glossaries, and a whole gallery of images

I don't like reading on-screen though, so I've also got The Best Known Works of Edgar Allan Poe in One Volume which I'm dipping into. I particularly like The Masque of the Red Death and I'd love to do it in shadow theatre. There's a series of differently-coloured rooms in the castle where the masque ball takes place - furniture and fittings matching the stained glass of the windows which are illuminated by torches. However, in the red-lit room, the furniture is black, and when the red light falls on it it casts such an eerie light that none of the revellers dare go into it.

Finally, they notice a strange figure dressed as The Red Death (the plague presently killing off everyone not lucky enough to have friends at court!) and he makes straight for the red-and-black room ...and the rest, as they say, is history. Particularly for the revellers.

A couple of minutes ago I bought the edition of Poe's stories illustrated by Dorre from Amazon. Hoping it'll arrive in time to stimulate my young puppet-makers!

Sunday 5 July

I dropped in on the 10th International Conference of the European Affective Education Network (EAEN) at the University of the West of Scotland in Ayr today. The conference theme was Creativity and Emotional Wellbeing and one of the workshops was given by Alison F Bell, Textile Artist and part-time lecturer at UWS.

After explaining the rationale behind her silk installations, Alison showed us some examples of her work, based on a beach in Arran with which she has particularly strong resonances:

Then she invited us to create our own art works, using a memory of an important place in our lives.This is what I came up with - it's supposed to conjure up the beach at Loch Ryan where I spent most summer days during my childhood.The red things are strawberry ice lollies with ice-cream inside (we called them Strawberry Mivvies, for some obscure reason), which made the day completely perfect. My neighbour, just arrived from New York, had a similar sunny idea, and I helped her make the curly sunbeams!

Whatever the artistic merits of our creations, the exercise certainly had a high 'feel-good factor' - which, Alison assured us, was the Real Point. That done, we partook of a most excellent buffet, then went home well-pleased!

Sunday 28 June

On Friday Adam's The Art of Japanese Tarot exhibition opened in Kilbirnie Library, after its month in the Glasgow School of Art. Audrey Sutton, Head of North Ayrshire's Education Resource Service is seen here in conversation with Adam and curator Ronnie Heeps.

This was the inaugural exhibition for the Kilbirnie Library gallery, and it proved an excellent space for the tarot cards. And, thanks to the efforts of Head Librarian Moira Kinniburgh and her staff, the opening night was very well-attended indeed!

Saturday 27 June

Today I finished reading Out of Me by Fiona Shaw, pub. Virago 1997.

I met Fiona last week at the RLF Induction Day at Toynbee Hall, when she told me about her latest book, Tell it to the Bees, published this month by Tindal Street Press.

Out of Me is an apt title for a memoir whose writer explores, and - as much as one probably ever can - understands, her postnatal depression through the medium of writing. It's a brave search, through words, for understanding and self-awareness - a search often hampered by treatments whose side-effects were the obliteration of word and thought.

Although Shaw begins with remarkably clear accounts of depression - a condition that's notoriously almost impossible to describe - she goes on to search, with incredible candour, for the possible roots of her breakdown which was, she says, like a collision with an iceberg:

I knew from the start it was only the tip. Reaching deep into the opaque blue water of memory, I wanted to find a shape beneath, something of the vast mass underpinning that depression. At first with each plunge, my fingers, tapping in the words, seemed to touch a different random fragment. Gradually these resolved themselves into something solid, a single piece. It floats too deep for my blind fingers to brush it all, but I have, at least, found a body beneath my recent past ...

Shaw's search for the 'body beneath' was largely unassisted. Earlier, Christianity had offered a brief but eventually flimsy lifeline. In the acute stages of her depression, NHS psychiatrists failed to dive deep enough with her.Eventually, she entered into private consultation. But, overall, one gets the distinct impression that the bulk of her work was D.I.Y.

Depression never presents alone, and Shaw describes - candidly and remarkably clearly - the episodes of anorexia, bulemia, self-loathing and self-harm that heralded, and often accompanied, hers. Woven in and out are the writings of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, subject of Shaw's doctoral thesis, and it is probably Bishop's influence that informs her minutely-detailed descriptions of rooms, walls, and desks. Her ECT treatment is as minutely detailed.

During her recovery - and as a vital part of that recovery - Shaw began to research into other women's experiences of postnatal depression, finding at the heart of each account was

... the expression of something unbearable in the midst of it all, letting rip.

In the writings of Marjorie Kempe, the fourteenth-century mystic, she found someone who

... found a way to own their state of mind, and in their own words.

Kempe certainly did find words, and a way of being, that made sense of her condition - but not before she had made many other - mostly incoherent - noises. And, later in Shaw's journey, as she interviews a psychiatrist, she finds herself transfixed by the incessant, seemingly meaningless screams of a child and recollects 'past screams' she has read about or seen.

That scream - primal, incomprehensible, largely ineffective - is a metaphor for the lack of understanding of a condition that, for most sufferers, defies words. Without words, there can be no understanding. Fiona Shaw's courageous book has given depression words; and powerful ones at that.

Friday 26 June

I've just heard that Catherine Rayner has won the Kate Greenaway award! As you can see from her website, Catherine's a fabulous young illustrator - she draws mainly animals, and really captures their essence. I love her work. Her aunt and uncle live here in Lochwinnoch, and this week end they're lending me a cement mixer so I can mix mortar for my second garden pond .... watch this space!

Wednesday 24 June

Today was the award ceremony for the Barrington Stoke Fire Mask jacket design competition. It was held in the Tower House of the Scottish Mining Museum at Newtongrange, which was the ideal setting.

Some children and staff from five of the six schools came, and, as well as the overall winner, there was one 'Highly Commended' award for each school:

Rebecca Morgan's design was judged the overall winner. After unveiling the final cover design (judging from the gasps, the audience greatly approved!), I presented Rebecca with her prizes - a signed copy of 'Bima and the Water of Life' and a framed copy of the cover. The 'commended' children all received copies of Bima too, as well as mounted versions of their fabulous designs.

I also achieved a lifelong ambition - to have a cake with the cover on! Here is is, being cut by Rebecca:

And here I am with both versions of the book jacket, and the famous cake, looking incredibly pleased with myself!

Vicki Rutherford, my editor, and Linda Sinclair, Midlothian's Literacy Officer, were also there:

as was Gaynor Fry from Barrington Stoke, who kindly took all the photographs. It was good to see them all again. We all agreed it was amazing to think that this time last year Linda and I were just talking about the project, with no earthly idea what we would do or how it would go!

And now we wait till February 2010, when Fire Mask finally hits the bookshelves!

Thursday 17 June

I've just come back from three whirlwind days in London - and buzzing with excitement at all the people I've met!

First was Gillian Klein, who came to Euston to meet me off the train - a particularly generous gesture given that it was a beautiful afternoon and perfect for her daily swim at Hampstead!

Gillian has been a friend ever since Trentham Books published my Let the Shadows Speak in 1998, when she became my very first editor. She's been a great support - personally and professionally - ever since. It was lovely to sit and chat outside the British Library, with a welcome cup of Earl Grey tea and a gigantic muffin!

Gillian's classic work is Reading Into Racism (pub Routledge), which I still remember adding to my index when I was training to be a teacher at Jordanhill in 1978. In addition to the many books, Trentham publish four professional journals, mainly in the field of education and social policy, ensuring a continuing platform for radical reform and just educational policy.

Next day - Tuesday 16th July - was my Induction Day for the Royal Literary Fund. It was held in Toynbee Hall - just round the corner from my hotel in Brick Lane.

My mentor, Valerie Thornton, met me at the door and it was nice to see a 'kent face' among the crowd of slightly nervous new Fellows! David Swinburne was also there, and I'd met him a year ago when he came up to interview me. I hadn't met Steve Cook, the Fellowship and Education officer, though - so it was good to put a face to the name that's been regularly appearing on letters, cheques, and emails.

The afternoon was Extremely Comforting. All the fears I'd had were dispelled by the realisation that most of my fellow-Fellows had exactly the same concerns. And the mentors - all of whom are long-standing RLF Fellows themselves - dealt with our questions, and assured us over and over again of their support. They also spoke of their own, very varied, experiences, and it was obvious they had found their fellowship years richly rewarding.

The watchword was 'individuality'. Each Fellowship is unique, its Fellow bringing his/her own strengths to the post.I had already heard this, but it was an enormous relief to hear it repeated. And the level of support (other than the obvious financial) Fellows receive is wonderful - from mentors to online essay guides, with the 'trump card' being a stock of pens with the RLF website address, to be given out if all else fails.

I was pleased to meet one of my fellow 'mentees', Kapka Kassebova, who will be RLF Writing Fellow at Strathclyde University. I'm currently reading Kapka's memoir, Street Without a Name which was published in 2008 by Portobello, and highly praised by Jan Morris.

I hardly ever read memoirs or travel books, but I'm loving Kapka's. In particular, the account of her early childhood in Bulgaria, her experience of Chenobyl, and the terrible physical and mental suffering her family had to endure under the Communist regime, made that dreadful time come alive for me. The fact she can write with real humour is, I think, particularly admirable - as though she wants to make the unacceptable acceptable for her poor readers. As with everything literary, the devil is in the detail, and I was moved almost to tears by Kapka's account of tiny, everyday things like her mother's reaction to the spotless loos in Holland ...

A very courageous book,well worth reading!

Once the business of the day was over, it was time to party and get to know people. I was particularly delighted to meet Debjani Chatterjee, and her co-ordinator Catherine Samiei, from York St John University.

Debjani is a poet, and her poems The Parrot Fortune-Teller and Hungry Ghost really reminded me of my days teaching in Karachi, Pakistan. I hope we'll meet again!

Another writer whose work I'm looking forward to reading is Fiona Shaw, whose novel Tell it to the Bees has just come out this month with Tindal Street Press.

I was pleased that David Manderson, my co-ordinator at UWS, was able to fly down for the party too. I'll be seeing David again at the 10th International Conference of the European Affective Education Network (EAEN) that's taking place at UWS Ayr campus 5-8 July 2009. Its theme : Creativity and Emotional Wellbeing.

Next day (yesterday) I met my agent and we visited Frances Lincoln to meet one of their editors, Maurice Lyons. Maurice has just recently joined Frances Lincoln, and I'm hoping we'll be working together. Frances Lincoln published my Sita, Snake-Queen of Speed a couple of years ago, and Maurice may be looking for a sequel - so fingers crossed and watch this space!

After lunch at the Royal Academy and a look at the Summer Exhibition (the words 'sublime' and 'ridiculous' springing to mind in roughly equal measure ...), we set off for mint tea and a chat with Gill Evans and Emma Lidbury at Walker Books; and from there I went to Euston. I have to say that trailing a wheelie case on at least 5 different tube trains, with their inevitable escaltors, and up and down the steps at Vauxhall in a high wind, is not that great an experience - especially when said case had been rendered twice as heavy by the purchase of a truly fabulous wrap for £10 in Petticoat Lane.

On the other hand, now I'm wrapped up in it with the Scottish rain pounding against the window, I'm convinced it was well worth the bother. And it's reversible.

Monday 8 June

Here it is - the final Fire Mask cover! I think it is awesome!

Barrington Stoke has produced some brilliant covers, but I think this is one of the best!

Thursday 4 June

I went to a great book launch last night - Deathwatch by Nicola Morgan It was held in the Mary Erskine School in Edinburgh, because a team of pupils there have helped Nicky write the book. They were there, too, helping out with book sales and canapes!

The head teacher spoke first, then Nicky took the stage, explaining how Deathwatch was written, and reading a tantalising extract.

As well as celebrating another great teenage title, the launch was a great opportunity to meet up with writer friends I haven't seen for a whle.

I travelled there with Julia Donaldson. Julia and I get together as often as we can, but Julia always has a packed schedule of events so two train journeys were ideal for having really long chats (on the way back, we managed to get on the wrong train which took an hour and a half, so the chats were slightly extended!) Here's Julia, with Linda Strachan. Linda's latest book for teenagers - Spider - has just been shortlisted for an award.

Another writer I don't see enough of is Aline Templeton

Aline's detective stories are set in Galloway, where I come from. It's always good to talk to her, and last night made me realise that, what with moving house and all that that entails, I really haven't been taking the time to go to literary events. Must remedy that.

Joan Lingard was there too - and she's due to have a launch soon, so hopefully I'll make that one!

And in the meantime, I have Deathwatch to read. It's about a stalker, and a load of insects, including, apparently the Madagascan cockroach. Now - it's a little-known fact, and one that very rarely gets an airing - that when I studied Zoology at Glasgow University in 1976, my final-year thesis was entitled: 'Antennal Preening Behavious in Gromphadorhina portentosa' ... the Madagascan cockroach!

What goes around, as they say, comes around!

Monday 1 June

I've received the final artwork for the cover of Fire Mask!

It's fabulous, but when I checked back in my manuscript, it didn't really follow the description accurately (this description was written by one of the Midlothian schoolchildren).

Originally, the description of Josh's 'fire mask' ran like this: 
'I've had that mask for years. It's one of those rubbery ones, and it's pretty hideous. It's got sea-blue skin, bloodshot eyes, and fangs like the bloodstained horns of a bull.

When I pointed this out to Vicki Rutherford, my editor at Barrington Stoke, she explained that it had been drawn that way to be as much like the winning cover design as possible - and also the idea of 'bloodshot eyes' was deemed a bit too strong. That seemed fair enough, so I decided to suggest the text be changed and Vicki thought that was a good idea.

So now it will read: 
'I’ve had that mask for years. It’s one of those rubbery ones, and it’s pretty hideous. It’s got sea-blue skin, mad-looking eyes, and a mouthful of big horrible teeth.'

And hopefully that will keep EVERYBODY happy! :-)

Friday 29 May

I met my friend Val Thornton today, at Scotland Street School Museum, to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. Val's going to be my mentor when I'm in post as RLF Writing Fellow, so we'll have a professional relationship too.

Loved the exhibition! Although a few of the shots - like the monkey's head on the spit, and the tree frog and snake locked ineluctably together - were a bit gruesome ...

Thursday 28 May

Never, since my days of reading Agatha Christie books, have I had as big a shock as I had today! I just finished Anita Shreve's The Last Time They Met, and I still can't get over it!

Obviously, it's one of those books you must not know the ending of, so I won't say much. Suffice to say, I'm stunned by Shreve's genius. To have such an ambitious concept, then to be able to carry it off in the way Shreve does, is awe-inspiring. Here's what one reviewer - Mrs C - had to say about The Last Time They Met

I'm currently on a real 'Shreve' kick, actually. So far this year I've read The Sea Lady, A Wedding in December and Bodysurfing. At the end of last year, I was blown away by Light on Snow. But The Last Time They Met really is my ultimate Shreve so far!

Next title - Sea Glass...

Wednesday 27 May

This evening I went to the University of the West of Scotland's Showcase event at the CCA in Glasgow. On show was the creative work of the students of the School of Media, Language and Music based on the Ayr campus where I'll soon be working as Writing Fellow.

It was a brilliant evening! It began with a performance of the winning play - ....

Then there were a number of 'pitches' - a 'pitch' being an opportunity for a writer to impress a TV or film producer with their idea for a film, programme, or series. I found the ideas (all, I noticed, in the 'horror/fantasy' genre) fascinating, particularly since I'm working on a fantasy novel, and am also currently researching the 'changeling' idea.

The pitching session was followed by a screening of the best films made by the students - all sorts of genres, lots of blood and gore and film noir. Altogether an inspiring evening!

Saturday 23 May

Today Adam and I went to Kilbirnie Library to see how his Art of the Japanese Tarot exhibition is coming along. This will be the first exhibition to take place in the library's brand-new gallery, and Adam was very pleased with the way it looked.

The smaller space really suits the material, and although 8 of the exhibits have had to be omitted, there's enough there to give visitors an idea of the subject.

There will also be a small wall-mounted flat-screen TV showing Pat Smith's DVD shot at the Glasgow School of Art, which will give a flavour of the original exhibition.

Here we are with some of the exhibits - Adam, me, and Head Librarian Moira Kinniburgh:


The opening should be soon - watch this space!

Friday 22 May

I've been writing an article about the Fire Mask project, for Scholastic, this week. It will be a double-page spread in the September edition of Junior Education. Scholastic will also feature an excerpt from the book on their website.

I'm delighted with the publicity!

Monday 18 May

Vicki Rutherford, my editor at Barrington Stoke, has sent me the other prizewinners in the Fire Mask jacket design competition. These are the Highly Commended designs, and I think there's a lovely range of quite different ideas among them.

First in the list is Billy Adam's very sensitive and dramatic design. Billy's in Primary 5 of Lawfield Primary, and his design features a portrait of Josh's Dad in his hospital bed. Josh is the hero of Fire Mask and his Dad has come back from Iraq with his face badly burned and scarred from an accident with a mine.

This is Cameron Chisholm's powerful design:

It shows a lot of details that are important in the book, including Sandy's 'gold dollar' pendant, which nearly causes her death. Cameron is in Primary 5 at Lawfield Primary, and it was his mask design which I used as my inspiration for the 'fire mask'

David Halley, of Primary 7b, Newtongrange Primary produced this stunning design, showing Josh with his 'two masks'. I think David's cover is very well-designed, and beautifully drawn:

Holli Smith from Primary 7a, Mayfield Primary designed a very futuristic cover:

Rebecca Russell, Primary 7b, Newtongrange Primary, uses beautiful colour and calligraphy in this highly effective design:

And finally there's Samuel Grainger of Primary 7a of Newtongrange Primary, with his utterly haunting image of Josh:

Samuel also exploits the famous 'gold dollar' pendant in his design, and I think his colour scheme and overall design work extremely well.

All these children will receive a certificate, and signed copies of Bima and the Water of Life and Fire Mask.

Wednesday 13 May

Today I can announce the winner of the cover design for my latest Barrington Stoke title - Fire Mask!

This is a very unusual book for me. Firstly, it's a thriller, and I've never written a thriller before. Secondly, it was written with the help of over 200 schoolchildren in the Dalkeith area of Midlothian. And I certainly haven't done that before!

It was a wonderful experience from start to finish. In collaboration with Linda Sinclair, the Literacy Officer for the area, and working in 6 schools with children from P5 - P7, I discussed genre, theme, plot, characters, setting, motivations etc. And, week by week, the children provided me with everything I needed to write the book.

I was amazed at how well it went. Each visit built on the visit before, and there was a real sense of 'writing together'. The children's abilities obviously varied, but each school contributed something important.

In the six initial visits, the main characters were built up, and placed in the chosen setting (a Museum of Mining, based heavily on the nearby Scottish Mining Museum). With the two vital story elements - characters and setting - firmly in our minds, a plot could hardly help but follow; and follow it did. When I visited my schools for a second time, I had the book written. And since it fell neatly into six chapters, each school was given a chapter to edit. As far as possible, they edited the chapter they had had most input into.

These editing sessions were extremely lively and interesting. Of particular interest to me were the children's comments on my dialogue and use of language in general. Using the interactive whiteboard, we worked pretty much like 'real' authors and editors do, and hopefully this gave my co-authors-turned-editors a feel for how the process really works.

I enjoyed the sessions enormously, and the children were, in the main (and with notable exceptions ...!) very flattering in their response to my treatment of their ideas. There were times, however, when I did find having 25+ editors a bit daunting! On these editing sessions, I also set a Jacket Design competition - the winning design would be incorporated into Fire Mask's cover. I took along some of my own cover material, and told the children a bit about the pleasures and pitfalls of working with illustrators and designers. With reference to my covers, we discussed what makes a good cover, and indeed why a cover has to be good in the first place.

I left the children with their illustrators' briefs, and as the entries arived I selected the final 25. Barrington Stoke chose the actual winner, and here it is - the winning cover design - drawn, in wonderfully vibrant oil pastels, by Rebecca Morgan of Mayfield Primary ....

And today I was sent the first sketch by Dylan Gibson, the illustrator.

It will have the same colours as Rebecca's design, and I can't wait to see it when it's finished. Barrington Stoke have a reputation for great covers - and I reckon this one takes the biscuit!

As her prize, Rebecca will receive a framed and signed print of the finished jacket, a certificate, and signed copies of both my Barrington Stoke books - Bima and the Water of Life and Fire Mask (when it comes out in Feb 2010). Sunday 10 May

The Scottish Recorder Orchestra met today in Stirling for our monthly rehearsal. Except we didn't meet last month, so it was hard work - particularly as we're performing at the Scottish Recorder Festival in Aberdeen on June 6. No pressure!!!

The orchestra is led by Eileen Silcocks

Eileen studied recorder in the Netherlands with Ku Ebbinge, Ricardo Kanji, Frans Bruggen and Wim ten Have. Later, in Iceland, she was principal cellist of the North Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. Now she lives in Gourock and performs with the Baroque group, Banquet of Musick, and the recorder ensemble Flauti Animati Scotica.

Eileen taught me almost all I know about recorder playing, and through her lessons I've also developed a greater appreciation of music in general than I ever thought I could. Nowadays, her teaching commitments take her far and wide and, sadly, we don't manage to fit in many recorder lessons - but we do manage the occasional one.

Eileen's also a computer expert (a Linux cluster specialist,whatever that is!) and she's been giving me advice on my website. There may shortly be some changes!

After today's rehearsal, we drove to Gourock and ate fish and chips/pizza on the beach. It was a stunning evening, with blue sky and grey clouds and a metallic sea. A perfect end to a lovely day!

Saturday 9 May

Today Adam and I went to Kilbirnie Library to see the exhibition space where his exhibition The Art of Japanese Tarot will soon open - it's due to be taken down from the Art School on Monday.

As we arrived Tony Bonning, the poet, writer and storyteller, had just finished a performance.

A fellow Gallovidian, Tony's main 'obsession' is to inspire children through music, creative writing and storytelling into not wasting their young years; to show that the writers, pop stars, and scientists of the future can be them. A man after my own heart - and a brilliant storyteller!

Over tea and buns provided by Moira, he and Adam quickly discovered a mutual love of the Incredible String Band - they both knew Robin Williamson and had followed the band for years. So it wasn't till about an hour later that Tony and I realised we had worked together in Kirkcudbright, writing song lyrics with Alison Burns! Another example of the seven degrees of separation that Tony had been talking about!

Then - inevitably - the stories began to flow. This was Moira's, which I particularly liked:

A wee girl's beloved cat dies, and she's devastated. In an attempt to comfort her, her mum says, "Don't you worry - God's got your cat now." The wee girl thinks about it. Then, frowning, she says, "Whit does God want wi' a deid cat?"

Two hours - and a lot of stories - later, we loaded Tony's sword and banner into his car, said our goodbyes, then finally got round to looking at the exhibition space. A great way to spend an afternoon!

Wednesday 6 May

Today I'm able to announce my appointment as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow.

From September 2009 I'll be based in the University of the West of Scotland, at their Ayr campus.

The Royal Literary Fund was set up in 1790 by the Rev David Williams, and its idea was to 'relieve authors in distress'.The Fund received royal patronage in 1842, and has helped writers such as Coleridge, Joseph Conrad, D H Lawrence, James Joyce, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Mervyn Peake. So I am in excellent company!

I'm particularly happy to be benefiting from the RLF because a large part of its money comes from the estate of A A Milne, and the Winnie the Pooh books were amomg the first books I remember as a child. I loved them then, but it was when I returned to them as an adult that I realised how truly wonderful they are.

Next month I'll be going to London for an Induction Day, followed by a party where I'll meet my fellow-Fellows!

Tuesday 5 May

This is the first blog entry for a while - I've been busy writing and then going on a short (wet!) break to Otter Ferry in Argyll. It was lovely to be there, despite the weather, but unfortunately our plans to sketch were scuppered by the interminable rain.

Today I did an author visit to Hopefield Primary in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian and was delighted to meet Linda Sinclair there. Linda is Literacy Officer for the area, and she helped organise my latest project for Barrington Stoke when I wrote a thriller - Fire Mask - with the help of 200 Midlothian schoolchildren!

The Primary 1 children were really sweet and designed some lovely earrings. Here are a few of the most stunning ones:

The first pair is by Abby and features 'footballs and lovehearts'. The second pair is by Rebecca and its theme is 'loveheart and flowers'; and the third pair, by Lucy, is title-less, but so magnificent it doesn't need one!

Although these three examples happen to be designed by girls, I'm happy to say that boys are every bit as enthusiastic. Quite a number choose to design earrings for their fathers too - so my initial fears that A Heart for Ruby was going to be too 'girly' prove unfounded!

Friday 17 April

Today my partner's exhibition - The Art of Japanese Tarot - opened at The Glasgow School of Art. The exhibition is curated by Ronnie Heeps who also curated Adam's 2007 exhibition in the Embassy Gallery in Edinburgh.

Adam McLean is best known for his work on the symbolism of Alchemy, and runs the largest website dedicated to the subject. In recent years, however, he has amassed an impressive collection of tarot decks. He has wanted to exhibit them for a while but, despite their obvious artistic merit, no gallery has taken them seriously. Now, in the year when the Glasgow School of Art is celebrating its Japanese connections, he has the opportunity to show some of the Japanese tarot cards and place them in a wider historical context.

When the exhibition ends on May 9, some of the exhibits will be transported to Kilbirnie Library, where they will form the first exhibition in their brand new gallery. Meanwhile, the exhibits can be viewed on Adam's website, and a DVD of the exhibition by Pat Smith of Lochwinnoch will soon be available. One way or the other, the exhibition's well worth a visit. It may prove quite surprising!

Sunday 12 April EASTER SUNDAY

And here is the finished wall. Note the Guardian Dragon, bottom left, to scare off unwelcome visitors.

I decided not to be insulted when a neighbour presented me with a trailing plant which, he assured me, would soon 'cascade over and hide the dodgy brickwork'. Dodgy brickwork????? Whatever can he mean?

Saturday 11 April EASTER SATURDAY

I've been very busy these past two weeks - writing a book! But today I took a break and began laying the foundations for a wall in my garden.

It's quite therapeutic, exercises a different part of the brain I think. I am, however, probably better at writing books than building walls!

Monday 30 March

The Lochwinnoch Arts Festival is over - and it was absolutely great!There's so much talent, especially musical talent, in this village!
My part of the festival - the In the Shadow of the Birds show - was on Saturday 28 in Our Lady of Fatima church hall, and it was a sell-out! I was really pleased with the children's performance - they did exceptionally well.
Here are some of my favourite images:


Wednesday March 25

This morning I went to Lochwinnoch Primary to have my last rehearsal with Primary 5 before the In the Shadow of the Birds show on Saturday.
It went well, and some of the images are really stunning - here are the shadows of a kingfisher, an owl and a hawk:


Tuesday March 24

This morning I went to Kilbirnie Library to take part in a little celebration. The picture books I'd helped make with the Homework Club were being presented to a local Nursery School.
Gillian Gillespie, who is the Supported Study Development Officer at Greenwood Teachers' Centre, had organised it - Gillian's in charge of Homework Clubs in North Ayrshire.
Dr Audrey Sutton also attended, and it was lovely to see her again - and discuss possible future projects ...
I gave a little demonstration of shadow puppets, which the Nursery children really liked. Then three of the authors read their picture book - Smok the Dragon's Friends and Enemies - and presented signed copies to the Nursery teachers. That was a BIG thrill for them, because they used to be their Nursery teachers about seven years ago!

Moira Kinniburgh, Head Librarian at Kilbirnie, had mounted a beautiful photographic display:

Afterwards, we had biscuits and lashings of juice, and the children sang Ye Cannae Shove Yer Grannie Off a Bus. The perfect end to a lovely, heartwarming morning!

Friday March 20

Very exciting news today - scary, but exciting. I've been invited to join the Merchant Sinfonia. That's an orchestra composed of players from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and amateurs like me. The professionals mentor the amateurs over a 10-week period. So I'll get guidance from a professional flautist and get to play with a 'real' orchestra!

Just hope I can hit the high notes - which I find a bit difficult!

Wednesday March 18

Just back from the Isle of Arran, to do a book talk in Whiting Bay Primary. It being March, it could have been pretty wild but in fact I was incredibly lucky, because the weather was absolutely beautiful.It was so beautiful, I decided to stay over and see some of the island.

The children in Whiting Bay Primary were really interesting. I started by giving a talk on A Heart for Ruby to a class of P1,2 and 3's. They had some brilliant ideas for earrings!!!!


After, I gave a talk on The Publishing Process to P4 and 5. That was great fun!

Wednesday March 11

Today I went to Lochwinnoch Primary with Claire Robertson who plays a huge variety of African instruments, which she demonstrated to the children. Hopefully, we'll incorporate the various sounds into our poetry performances.

This is Claire playing an African harp.

Wednesday March 4<br>
Lovely surprise today - a 'thank you' card from Primary 1, St Serf's Primary in Tullibody.
I visited them in February with A Heart for Ruby - a 'pre-launch' author talk - and they were fantastic. They designed a fabulous selection of earrings for Auntie Pooja, and here are Erin, Wiktoria, and Owen's.


Great, aren't they!

Tuesday March 3

I've been living in the village of Lochwinnoch for just over a year, and I've been keen to get involved in village life, and with the Lochwinnoch Arts Festival my chance finally came.
I was delighted to be asked to run one of the children's events - the Poetry Competition, and - surprise, surprise! - I decided to use shadow puppets!
I've used shadow images to stimulate and illustrate poetry in the past, and when I heard that the theme of this years Arts Festival was 'Birds' I was keen to try it again.
Lochwinnoch is fortunate enough to have its very own bard in Betty McKellar and, having read many of her poems, I was very keen to meet her. I was thrilled when she agreed to be one of the competition judges.
Today I went for my first visit to Lochwinnoch Primary, along with a local crafts expert and silversmith, Katharine Billany. We met our class - Primary 5 - and I introduced them to shadow theatre and explained that next week they'll be making shadow puppets of a chosen 'bird of Lochwinnoch'.The children were brilliant, and very enthusiastic, and have agreed to make drawings of their chosen bird before our next visit.
I should just point out that if the children had had their way, we would have had penguins, flamingoes, toucans, and parrots. I had no idea the area boasted such exotica!!
I'm hoping that the children's shadow screens will be photographed and displayed after the Festival. I think they'll look lovely. For backgrounds, we'll use plants that grow in the local area. This is the example I made - a goldfinch on a teasel.

Friday February 27

I had a great treat today! Julia Donaldson took me to Buchlyvie Primary to meet Jessica Langford and see shadow puppet adaptations of Julia's Room on the Broom and The Snail and the Whale she had done with the children.
Jessica is an animator. Her animated film The Gift (2005) was made using sand.
But Jessica is also as crazy as I am about shadow theatre, and has spent time in Bali, studying with a dalang. It was fascinating to listen to her experiences and see some of her Javanese shadow puppets.
It was also very interesting to see the kind of shadow puppets she makes with children, and the set-up she uses. Her puppets are very similar to mine, but her screen is made of fabric, whereas I prefer a clear plastic one, lined with architects' tracing paper.
Both shows were delightful and Jessica had trained the puppeteers well. It was SO nice to be on the 'other side' of the shadow screen for once!

Tuesday February 17

Today I launched my new book - A Heart for Ruby (pub. Walker Books). Ruby's dedicated to the children of St Winning's Primary School in Kilwinning, because two years ago I did an author talk to Primary 4, and I asked them to help me with the book.
I wanted them to design earrings, and parties to match, and they came up with some lovely ideas which their teacher, Paula Hegarty, bound into a little book.
In fact, the 'party' idea got dropped during the editorial process, but I still used the children's ideas because when I do author talks on Ruby, I get the children to design earrings.
I especially liked the 'star' earrings, and the 'gingerbread men' earrings - and, as you can see, they look stunning on Auntie Pooja.

These are the two earring designers, now in Primary 6.

When the children got back to school,
they and their teacher put up a lovely wall display.

A Heart for Ruby is my first Walker Book, and it's lovely to be published by them. They've made it one of their 'Valentine Treats'.
I've also been pleased that Ruby got picked by the Scottish Book Trust as one of its 'Books of the Month' and had a nice review on the Write Away website
Next stop for Ruby and her ever-growing earring collection - Whiting Bay Primary, Isle of Arran.