Archive for the ‘Young people’ Category

Tuesday Poem: Birmingham

Monday, August 15th, 2011

I think most Tuesday Poets know the outstanding body of work of the English Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Most readers around the world will also have heard about the recent riots in England. But perhaps not everyone will know of the dignified courage of the community leader Tariq Jahan in Birmingham, whose beloved son Haroon and his two young friends, Shezad and Abdul, were murdered by a hit and run driver during the troubles in their city.

Carol Ann Duffy wrote this to honour their memory. As Mark Antony said in Julius Caesar, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”

by Carol Ann Duffy

for Tariq Jahan

After the evening prayers at the mosque,
came the looters in masks,
and you three stood,
beloved in your neighbourhood,
brave, bright brothers,
to be who you were –
a hafiz is one who has memorised
the entire Koran;
a devout man –
then the man in the speeding car
who purposefully mounted the kerb …

I think we should all kneel
on that English street,
where he widowed your pregnant wife, Shazad,
tossed your soul into the air, Abdul,
and brought your father, Haroon, to his knees,
his face masked in only your blood
on the rolling news
where nobody’s children riot and burn.

For more Tuesday poems go to the main hub site, where there is a lead poem posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members, in the sidebar.

Manners and happiness

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

While thinking about the new theme of my blog I started trying to compile a list of essential good manners because I think, no, I know, that manners are central to happiness. It’s not only that manners soothe (or maybe smooth) the turning of the wheels of social endeavour, although they do precisely that. It’s also that both the exercise and the experience of good manners makes you feel so good.  It’s a simple but effective route to happiness.

So here are my first thoughts, some gleaned from other people; some my own. More will follow in due course.

  • ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are essential ingredients in any conversation. That’s any converation.
  • Able young people should give up their seats on public transport for older, less mobile people.
  • If someone pushes past you in a queue, give them enough space to fall flat on their face, or pinch them hard on the bottom while whistling innocently and looking the other way.
  • If you’re invited to a meal at someone’s house it’s good manners to comment positively on the food, and to call or email or write the next day to thank them.
  • Speak about people as if they’re there — ask yourself when gossiping, would I like to be spoken about this way? And if you must gossip – and most of us must – follow the Terence de Vere White golden rule: only gossip about someone to another person who knows them as well – or as little – as you do.
  • Try to be kind, even when you don’t want to have to bother.
  • Be grateful – for life, for moments of happiness, for health.

Some things to miss about Italy now I’m not there

Friday, September 24th, 2010
  • The smell of dry pine needles when you walk on them. We twice visited a little Umbrian town called Asciano because of its small but wonderful collection of Sienese art, and both times we walked across a carpet of dry pine needles crossing a park. The scent takes me back to childhood because my sisters and I spent hours playing on a hill at the back of my grandparents’ house that was thick with dried pine needles. It’s a very Proustian memory smell which in this case carries a heavy tang of spicy heat, and the springy underfoot crunch is also delightful. The photo is of Sant’Agata, the church in Asciano where the pictures used to be, and where I first saw them more than 20 years ago, although now they’re housed in a glorious new museum.

  • Two-sided billboards. I’ve always been amused by the absurdity of driving along country roads in Italy and being faced with a large billboard advertising a restaurant or hotel in the opposite direction to the one in which you’re travelling – oftentimes it’s in the town you’ve just left. I’ve spent idle hours wondering how it was that someone actually paid for such a mad installation. Did the owners ever check to see if their ad was in the right place, facing the right way? But on this trip we noticed that the billboards are now mostly double-sided, so at least some potential customers are captured on their way past. Phew. The Italian domestic economy is saved for another day. I don’t have a photo of one of these billboards, I’m sorry to say.
  • The views. This applies particularly – though not exclusively – to the Tuscan and Umbrian towns and countryside, and you have to ask yourself how they do it. How is it that absolutely every view is beautiful, even in the towns? As in “every prospect pleases and only man is vile” (Reginald Heber, since you’ll probably want to know, from the From Greenland’s icy mountains hymn) except that in Umbria and Tuscany the young men are so often strikingly beautiful as well, as though they’ve stepped straight from a fresco. Not vile at all. I would hazard a guess that Bishop Heber never visited Italy. This is a view in Narni, just to make one tiny point among many.

  • Tomatoes. Yes, I know I go on about these a fair bit, but the wonderful thing about Italian tomatoes is the fierce summer heat that ensures they aren’t even slightly watery. They’re deliciously juicy, but when you cut one open, watery juice doesn’t run everywhere. Because there isn’t any watery juice, that’s why not. So the flavour is more intense. Ipso facto and QED, and I rest my case.

  • The Sienese storage buildings that you see at the side of minor roads throughout the region. I used to think they belonged to the electricity workers but I’ve been told (on reasonably good authority) that isn’t true. (AMM.NE simply stands for ‘Amministrazione’ so that doesn’t get you any further into solving the mystery.) I don’t know who uses them, I’ve never seen anyone hanging around or opening or shutting the doors, but the buildings are impossibly sweet – the paint colours are perfect; the size meets every aesthetic criterion; even the finer points of the spacing and alignment of type in the signage is beautiful. Italy, you win the style prize again.

  • Oh, and the figs. You knew I was going to talk about the figs again, didn’t you? The organic farm where we stay has three purple fig trees, two green fig trees and one white fig tree, and the fruit on all of those comes to perfect ripeness in the month of September when we stay there. (No coincidence, I assure you.) D.H. Lawrence wrote a rather predictably rude poem about ‘the honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside’ and reminded his readers that ‘ripe figs won’t keep, won’t keep in any clime’. But they keep in our food memories, David Herbert: they keep there, safe and cherished, from year to year. Photos help.

The Author Hotline

Monday, February 1st, 2010

I’ve just joined a new web resource called THE AUTHOR HOTLINE, which is a new website that will be launching to UK schools on 4th March, World Book Day. It’s intended to be a nifty children-friendly resource that schools will be able to use whenever they want, and it’s also a welcome new way for authors, illustrators and poets to publicize their work.
Anthony Lishak – the writer whose good idea this is – has had a great response from children’s writers and illustrators and so far there are about 200 profiles in place. The site
has teamed up with World Book Day (which will feature the site on their website) and they’ll jointly organize a quiz/competition to all schools from 4th – 31st March, which will run on the site.

I was delighted to be asked to join and I really enjoyed answering the questions that are posed as part of the authors’ profiles. Do have a look at the site – I’d love you to check out my profile, or just browse around from the home page. This is a very encouraging new development for us all, and I’m very happy to support it.

Happy World Book Day, Hackney!

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

wbd_logo_09_wwwnbt_rgb1Thursday 5th March – that’s this week! – is World Book Day, but only if you’re in Hackney, or other parts of Britain and Ireland. The rest of the world celebrates World Book Day on 23rd April, which is Shakespeare’s birthday. I don’t know why we do it differently in Britain, but we do lots of things differently in Britain, so I guess this is another proud exception!

I know Hackney pretty well, although I live a bus ride away in Camden. But my favourite bookshop is in Hackney, lots of my friends live there, and I often go to shows at the famous Hackney Empire Theatre. And this coming Thursday I’m going to be performing in Hackney myself, because Victoria Park Books have organised a World Book Day event at the Hackney Museum and Library. It starts at 4.30 pm and goes on to about 6.30 pm.

I’ll be speaking with two other authors, Keith Mansfield and Gaby Halberstam, and we’ll all have to talk fast because we haven’t got much time! I’ll mostly concentrate on my latest book, “Everything I Know About You”, but I hope to say something about my other books, too. (And when I’ve finished, I’ll probably be ready to go on that radio program, ‘Just A Minute’.) Other authors will be there too, doing their thing – Guy Bass, Will Gatti, Carolyn Hink, David Lucas and Kevin Waldron. We’d all love to meet you and talk about books, and our books will be on sale, as well, so we can sign copies for you if you like.

The full address is Hackney Museum & Library, 1 Reading Lane, London E1 1GQ. (That’s just off Mare Street, opposite the Hackney Empire.) It looks like this:


We hope to see you there!

Turn the page

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008


When we were kids, my mother bought my sisters and me two ‘talking books’. They were large format, beautifully illustrated books of pictures related to particular stories. The only words were the ones spoken on the LP record tucked into an envelope at the back of the book. You put the record on and looked at the first picture in the book, and when that part of the story had finished the actor’s voice told you to turn the page to the next picture. 

One of the stories was Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’. I don’t remember the other one at all, and I suspect that it bored me, and that I ignored it after a couple of sessions. But ‘The Happy Prince’ entranced me for hours at a time. I’d put the record on and listen to whomever it was telling the story (a man with an old-fashioned and highly modulated actor’s voice: could it have been Basil Rathbone?) turning the page every time I was told to, completely engaged in the story which is satisfyingly – and achingly – sad, with a triumphantly resolved ending. I can still recite almost all the (abridged) story off by heart, even now, and hear the narrator’s voice in my head, and picture those brightly coloured illustrations. 

High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold. For eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword hilt…

And I was reminded of all this by catching a quote from the late, great New Zealand writer, Janet Frame, at the weekend. Clearly, her family also invested in talking books, and years later she wrote this poem about it. Like Wilde’s story, it’s also achingly sad. 


In the children’s record of the Happy Prince,

before each gold flake is peeled from the Prince’s body,

the voice orders, Turn the Page, Turn the Page,

supposing that children do not know when to turn,

and may live at one line for many years,

sliding and bouncing boisterously along the words,

breaking the closed letters for a warm place to sleep.

Turn the Page, Turn the Page.

By the time the Happy Prince has lost his eyes,

and his melted heart is given to the poor,

and his body taken from the market-place and burned,

there is no need to order, Turn the Page,

for the children have grown up, and know when to turn,

and knowing when, will never again know where.




The lion and the mouse

Monday, August 11th, 2008

I’ve just caught up with a recent New Yorker article about my favourite children’s book – ‘Stuart Little’ by E.B. White. Apparently, it took EB White more than seven years to write the book, although the article suggests he’d been working towards writing it for most his life. (“He’d had a pet mouse as a child; he thought he looked a little mousy himself. In 1909, when he was nine, he won a prize for a poem about a mouse.” And sometime in the 1920s, White fell asleep on a train and “dreamed of a small character who had the features of a mouse, was nicely dressed, courageous, and questing.” White started writing about his ‘mouse-child’ soon after that, and named him Stuart – but he didn’t get down to it seriously for ages. The book wasn’t finished until 1945 and first published later that year.)

As you’ll know if you’ve read this excellent book, Stuart Little is a mouse who’s born to the Little family in America. The book is the story of his development into a kind of Don Quixote character, and it ends in a unusually abrupt and unresolved way. The article cites this as a possibly distressing characteristic, although as someone who’s read both this book and EB White’s later and more famous ‘Charlotte’s Web’ to many children, I’d say that the latter is the more obviously distressing. (I’m not saying that the distress is inappropriate in ‘Charlotte’s Web’: I think quite the opposite, in fact. But it’s certainly there.)

“Stuart Little’ was banned (banned!! that wonderful mouse!!) in some American libraries for a time because the powerful children’s librarian at the New York Public Library took against it – perhaps because of its unresolved ending (which I find curiously satisfying) or because of Stuart’s unconventional arrival as a child in a human household (but more of that later). Or maybe she had no taste for true genius.

But here’s my point – well, three of them, actually. Number One: It’s perfectly OK to leave children in doubt about how a story might end. My own favourite books are often those where you know the story goes on after the book ends, but you’re not sure exactly how it’ll develop – and there’s no reason on earth that books for young people shouldn’t do that, too.

Number Two: I finally understand why I love books about quests! It’s undoubtedly because, when I was ten years old, I read a book where a courageous mouse sets off on a quest, believing against the odds that he was heading in the right direction to find his heart’s desire. And that set a benchmark for my future reading.

Number Three: The fuss about Stuart, as a mouse, being born to the human Little family strikes me as weirdly incongruous. Where will you stop, if you once start looking for simple reality in a story based on imaginative fantasy? The article says that in the original editions, Stuart was ‘born’ to the Little family, but in later ones EB White made a tiny change. “Mrs Frederick C. Little’s second son is no longer born. He arrives.” I am delighted and proud to say that my battered old copy – bought for me in New Zealand towards the end of the 1950s – is one of the ‘born’ originals.

Ignore the recent film. Read the book: it’s still proudly in print after 63 years.

Here’s the link to the article:




Thinking about childhood

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

Two wonderful quotations about childhood have been tugging at my mind in the past couple of weeks. They’ve been important to me for a long time, although I’ve no idea why they’re both running through my head right now. Anyway, I want to share them.

The first is from Abraham Lincoln – born almost two hundred years ago, so you have to forgive or ignore or just plain old tolerate his use of the male pronoun throughout. Listen to this:-

A child is a person who is going to carry on what you have started. He is going to sit where you are sitting, and when you are gone, attend to those things which you think are important.

You may adopt all the policies you please, but how they are carried out depends on him. He will assume control of your cities, states and nations. He is going to move in and take over your schools, churches, universities and corporations. 

The fate of humanity lies in his hands.

 It reminds me of that great Ewan MacColl song about young people, with the line: “We are the writing on your wall”. I must try to track the rest of it down – I don’t even remember the title, but as far as I can recall, the lyrics are terrific.

And the other quote is from Graham Greene: it’s become an important key in my writing. This is it.

There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

 Real food for thought.