Posted in Writing

For the Love of Books: Sharing the Joy of Reading at Westonbirt School

This post includes the text of the speech I gave at a local secondary school about the importance of reading

photo of winners with Debbie and a housemistress
The winning readers of Westonbirt School’s Inter-house Reading Competition, flanked by Housemistress Sally Gould (left) and me (right)

Although I spent thirteen years (a figure which still astonishes me seven years on) working at Westonbirt School, the pleasure of visiting the stunning Grade I listed house and grounds never wears off, and I am still in contact with many of the staff and girls (past and present) as a member of their alumni organisation, the Westonbirt Association, for which I publish their annual news magazine.

Competitive Spirit

I was therefore swift to accept an invitation from the school’s excellent Librarian Mrs Bomford and Head of English Mr Mew to visit one evening in January to judge the school’s Inter-house Reading Competition. In any school, rivalry between houses can be a great spur to achievement, and in the case of a school like Westonbirt where so many pupils are boarders, house spirit is usually especially strong.

That’s certainly true of Westonbirt School.

The Role of the Judge

My duties were straightforward and enjoyable, though I must say it is a weighty responsibility of judging between which house and which girls gave the best performance, reading from their chosen piece of poetry or prose.

I was intrigued to hear their choices, which ranged from set exam pieces to popular children’s books, and from timeless poetry classics – Kipling’s “If“, Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to up-to-the-minute authors and books that had not yet entered my radar. I am kicking myself that I didn’t think at the time to congratulate the poetry readers for choosing poems written so long ago but still so relevant in 2017. (Indeed, the girl who read Ozymandias inspired me to write this short story a few days later.)

For privacy reasons, I won’t name any of the participants here, but suffice to say, as I told them, they were all winners for being avid readers and sharing their love of books, though I did ultimately have to single out one house and two competitors for awards. They were also competing from very different backgrounds, and with different natural levels of ability. For some, reading before a crowd came naturally – they were clearly born performers – and others had to conquer stage fright and other challenges such as having to read in their second or third langauge.

I was impressed not only by the plucky readers, but also by the audience of fellow pupils who listened, rapt, to their friends read, at the end of a long day, on a cold dark night. Their good manners may be a testament to the standards of the school, but their unbroken attention was surely down to the excellence of each individual’s performance.

All in all, it was a wonderful way for me to spend the evening, and I’m delighted, with the school’s permission, to share a photo of the winners at the top of this page, and the text of my speech below.

 

My Speech at Westonbirt School’s Inter-House Reading Competition

Thank you, Mrs Bomford, for inviting me to come and judge the Inter-House Reading competition tonight. What a wonderful way to spend a chilly January evening, listening to you share aloud some of your favourite books.

There are lots of great settings for reading books – in a hammock in the garden, curled up under the duvet with a torch, in the home-made den I made when I was a child out of an old dog kennel – it was a big dog – but there can’t be many settings to beat the wonderful library of Westonbirt School, built by a man who loved and valued books and reading. Surely if Robert Holford is up there somewhere listening now, he ought to be feeling very pleased.

I too love reading, and though my little cottage down the road is nowhere near as grand as this, my life revolves around books. I write them, I review them, I help other authors publish and sell their books, and I talk about them at events and on the radio.

I’ve written three collections of short stories, some non-fiction books, and now I’m writing mystery novels, the first of which, called Best Murder in Show, will be published in April.

I’ll be launching it at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on 22nd April – the festival that I founded to share my love of books and reading with the local community. We’ll have lots of authors there, holding events and readings and workshops, and if you’d like to come and join the fun, I’d love to see you there.

But why do I love reading so much and why is it so important?

There are lots of reasons, many of which I only really became aware of when I went to work for the children’s reading charity, Readathon.

Firstly, there is lots of research that tells us that people who read books are more successful in every aspect of their lives – not just academically or at work, but in their relationships with other people and how happy and contented they are.

I expect some of you have heard of George RR Martin, who wrote the Game of Thrones. What he says about reading is:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

That’s because reading allows you to travel to places you’d never be able to go (including made-up ones – I bet I’m not the only one in this room to have reached to the back of an old wardrobe, hoping to find Narnia!)  It allows you to meet people you’d never encounter in real life and to be in situations that would otherwise be outside of your experience. It enables you to pack so much more into your years than if you didn’t read at all.

Reading helps you find answers to questions, not just to facts that you need to look up for your prep, but to answers about problems in your life.

Reading allows you to escape from your worries and to switch off by entering a whole different world. Books are like comfort blankets, and I bet you all have your old favourites that you like to go back to when you’re feeling down.

Sometimes the comfort to be found in a good book can be especially valuable, for example for refugees in camps waiting to move on to their new lives and homes, for people who are ill in hospital, bored, anxious, and maybe in constant pain. The Readathon charity I mentioned, for which I’m an ambassador, takes free books into children in hospital exactly for that reason: even when you’re poorly, life seems better with a book.

And even if you’re hale and hearty, but your life is feeling a bit dull, an exciting adventure story or a brilliant travel book can be just the thing to help your imagination take flight.

You may be thinking, “It’s all very well for her to bang on about how we should be reading for all these reasons, but how do we find the time, when we’ve got prep and assessments and matches and parties to fit in?”

I would say to you that you should make the time – and once you start, you won’t want to stop.

If even Barack Obama could find time to read for an hour every night while he was president, I think you can too.  In fact, he said books were the one thing that helped him survive his eight years in the White House.

He said “At a time when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify …is more important than ever.”

As Obama says, books bring people together too, and the act of sharing a story aloud, as you girls are about to do tonight, is one of the oldest forms of social bonding in history. Even before reading had been invented, and before people knew how to write things down, people loved to share stories aloud, and storytellers who could entertain their community by reciting stories aloud were held in the highest regard.

Of course in those days they had no choice but to do everything from memory, but even until a couple of generations ago, learning stories and poems off by heart was commonplace, because printed books were very expensive, before the paperback was invented early last century. My grandmother, who was born in 1900, used to do recitations as her party piece, and her daughter, my aunt, who is 80, recites poems silently in her head to entertain herself when she’s travelling.

You’re the first generation to grow up with all the advantages of modern technology for reading all around you. You’ve got not only affordable printed books but ebooks that you can read on your phones and tablets when you have an idle moment (or in bed after lights out! – you don’t so much need a torch these days). You’ve got audio books that you can listen to. You can write your own stories and print them out on your computer to share with your friends or post them on apps or blogs. The possibilities are growing all the time.

But for now, as seems so fitting in this splendid traditional library, I’m really looking forward to hearing you all sharing your favourite stories aloud, just as early civilisations will have done thousands of years ago. Thanks to all of you who have worked hard to prepare this treat for us.

I’m sure it’s going to be a difficult competition to judge, but to my mind, as readers, you’re all winners, and I hope you will enjoy the many adventures and the great wisdom that reading can bring you for many, many years to come.  

 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Youthful Treasures

My Young By Name column for the February issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of February 2017 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser
I’m glad to have caused Ian Carmichael, who played Lord Peter Wimsey on telly, to appear on the cover of the February “Tetbury Advertiser” (bottom right inset pic)

With 2016 behind us, and with it, we hope, the relentless string of premature deaths of national and international treasures, I was startled to spot on social media today what struck me as a desperate headline:

See Cliff Richard live through 2017!

Good heavens, I thought, are people now so paranoid that they’re publicly rooting for the survival of their favourite celebrity? Could such an appeal really enhance one’s chances of escaping the Grim Reaper until 2018?

I can think of more constructive tactics to keep a person feeling young and full of life, and I’m happy to share them here.

 Age is Relative

First, hang out with old people. By old people, I mean anyone who is at least twenty years older than yourself (because we’re all in our prime, aren’t we?) Accompanying my eighty-year-old aunt to my 100-year-old cousin’s funeral not only reassured me of my family’s strong genes but made me feel positively youthful.

Secondly, marry someone older than you. My husband will reach his three score and ten a year before I have to start to wonder whether, in Paul McCartney’s immortal words, whether he’ll still need me when I’m 64. (Which echoes point #1 – hang out with Paul McCartney.)

Thirdly, if you plan to change your name when you marry, pick a spouse whose moniker offers subliminal powers of rejuvenation. Theoretically I’m now forever Young, at least till the next time around. Just joking, Gordon, honest – but any Mr Old who has me in his sights should give up now. (My fictional idol Lord Peter Wimsey got crossed off my theoretical “marry” list when I discovered one of his middle names was De’Ath. What were his fictional parents thinking?)

 All in the Mind

Cover of notebook with slogan "Careful or you'll end up in my next novel"
A favourite birthday gift from a friend who knows me well…

Finally, if you’re a writer, on the same principle that you can put someone in a novel and kill them, you can assume a younger persona and, in your head at least, spend quite a lot of your life pretending you’re them. I’m currently writing a series of novels, the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries (yes, the name’s a tribute to the late great Dorothy L Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey), in which the eponymous heroine is 25. The stories are narrated in her voice, and I’m rather enjoying being 25 again. Naturally her love interest is 32. (The first book, Best Murder in Show, will be launched in April.)

Cover of Best Murder in Show by Debbie Young
Click the image to read the opening of the first in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, to be published in April

By the same token, do you think Ian McEwan, who in his latest novel Nutshell has made the central character a foetus, has a secret whim to rewind his own age? Whatever next – a novel starring the glint in the milkman’s eye?

From one extreme to the other, back to Sir Cliff: I now realise that the slogan I saw was not an appeal to spare Britain’s answer to Elvis, but an advert for the singer’s new year concert tour, with “live” to rhyme not with “give” but with “hive.

All the same, I bet his promoters have got their fingers crossed…

 

Posted in Writing

The Emperor’s New Wall – A Topical Short Story

A short story about a great big wall
(too tempting a target for me to resist)

aerial shot of the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China by PDell via http://www.morguefile.com

“Sir, the next team of architects is ready for you now.”

“Okay, send ’em in, send ’em in. They’d better be better than the last guys. They were all like ‘ooh, low impact, ooh, low emissions’.” He shook his hands in the air for emphasis. “Like that’s an issue. It’s a wall, for Chrissake, a wall has to have impact or it’s not going to keep out the criminals. Do they think I’m dumb?”

Assuming the question to be rhetorical, the aide stood back to show two suited men into the Oval Office, the shorter one holding his hands out in front of him, bent at the elbows like a robot’s. They gave a well-rehearsed bow to the president, who immediately brightened. He liked them already. Still he slammed his hands down of the table like a spoiled child demanding his dinner. “So, what have you guys got to show me?”

The previous contenders had hefted copious models, mockups and materials onto the shining oval table. “Didn’t you forget something?” He looked around the room.

The taller man smiled deferentially and turned to his colleague. “Simon, let’s show the Commander-in-Chief the first brick, if you will.”

Simon took a step closer to his colleague and turned towards him. “Here you go, Mark.” Mark reached with both hands to the space in front of Simon’s chest. He appeared to lift a heavy rectangle of air from above his outstretched arms and set it down carefully on the desk.

“What, are you joshing me? I don’t see nothing.” The president stared incredulously at the empty table.

Mark raised his index finger. “Ah, you are one jump ahead of me, sir. I see you’ve already spotted the unique selling point of our bid: the use of camouflaged bricks. You see, sir, like a chameleon, these special bricks, which we are making available exclusively for your use, take on the exact appearance of whatever they are set against. Yet they’re still as strong as steel.  American steel, of course.”

He removed another, then another, from Simon’s arms. Simon staggered slightly, as if relieved by the reduction in weight of his load. Mark stacked them neatly beside each other. “You see, sir, you can’t even see the join.”

The president bent down and peered across the table, his eye on a level with the bricks. “No, you’re right, I can’t. Yet they’re made of all-American steel, you say?”

Mark shook his head. “Not exactly, but of a substance as strong as American steel.”

“We’ll call it American steel,” murmured the President, as if making a mental note-to-self.

“Another great feature is that they don’t need welding or cementing into place. The material reacts naturally in American sunshine. Twenty-four hours in place along the Mexican border, and they’ll meld into place and form an unshakable bond. There’s not a bulldozer or a bomb that could destroy your wall, Mr President.”

The president raised his own index finger. These guys sure were talking his language. “They’re US made?”

Mark nodded. “Of course, sir. And it’ll be the American sun that melds them.”

The president’s thumb touched his index finger to form an O. “Let us be very clear, my friends, we cannot have Mexican sunshine involved in the building of our wall.” He reached a hand gingerly towards the row of invisible bricks, then quickly drew it back. “Excuse me for not testing it myself, but I’m a germ phobic. I don’t know where those bricks have been. But I can see for myself the thing works. And you told me it works, so it must do.”

Mark and Simon exchanged glances. “Oh, one more thing, sir,” put in Mark. “As you’ll be first to appreciate, the camouflage feature has aesthetic advantages.”

“As that what?”

“Its good looks, sir. I know you value good looks.”

The president’s mouth twitched at one corner. “Yes, I am drawn to good looks. Beauty is like a magnet to me.”

Mark nodded approvingly. “What I mean is, sir, a wall made of these bricks will not spoil the view for Americans. That’s good news for all Americans, of course, but especially good for those Americans whose communities and homes that the wall will pass through, as it will have to do on considerable stretches of the border.”

“Nor will it spoil the beautiful mountains scenery for Americans, sir,” added Simon.

“Ah yes, the beautiful mountains, great American mountains, great great mountains. But what if people try to get past it?”

“Bam! No entry here, sir!” Mark mimed recoiling from a wall, hands defensively before his chest.

“So, where’s the catch, guys? Is it the cost?”

“Ah, the cost.” Mark looked down as if to consider. “Well, it’s a lengthy production process, as you will understand, and our miners will be on overtime to deliver enough raw materials to manufacture the billions of bricks required for such a long wall.”

“Glad you’re boosting the American mining industry too. A fantastic, fantastic industry. Under me, it’s doing just great.”

“Yes, sir. So you’ll be looking at just a hundred thousand dollars per mile.” Mark held his finger and thumb in an O as he named the figure, in a gesture he’d planned not only to echo the president’s body language, but also to subliminally suggest both excellence and zero cost.

The president nodded slowly, not speaking while he tried to work out the total budget required for 2,000 miles at $100K in his head. He gave up. The cost was immaterial anyway, as the Mexicans had said they would foot the bill, hadn’t they? Suddenly he scowled, holding up his index finger to pause the negotiations. He didn’t get where he was today by not knowing how to strike a great, great deal. Bigly.

“Hold on guys, I’ve seen a big problem here.”

Without looking at each other Mark and Simon held their breath. “Sir?”

The president jabbed the air. “Nobody will be able to see this wall from space. It’s important that you can see this great American wall from space. And it has to look bigger and better than China’s wall. The great Wall of Trump is going to be the biggest and the longest and the best wall in the world. I want all those guys up in space to know that too.”

Mark and Simon exhaled, smiling. Mark was quick to put the president’s mind at rest. “But sir, you don’t have to worry on that score. It’s an urban myth that you can see the Great Wall of China from space. You really can’t. And of course, with our exclusive camouflage bricks, Mr President, no one will see the Great Wall of Trump from space either.”

The president’s white-toothed smile put in its first appearance of the day. “Just testing, guys. I mean, Putin is a fantastic, fantastic guy, and that Great Wall he built to keep the Chinese out of Russia is doing great for him, but I want him to be truly amazed when he sees what I’ve done with ours. I want the Great Wall of Trump to go down in history as the most astonishing act of any American president.” He waggled his index finger. “Any American president. Ever.”

Mark and Simon exchanged glances. “Oh, it will sir, we assure you it will.”

TWO MORE POSTS TRIGGERED BY TRUMP

All the President’s Clothes: A Timely New Short Story

Trumpymandias – Poems to Console and Inspire Us in the Age of Donald Trump

Posted in Reading

Trumpymandias – Two Poems to Console and Inspire Us in the Age of President Trump

A post inspired by the reading event I attended at Westonbirt School last week

Last Thursday I spent a very pleasant evening at Westonbirt School judging the Inter-House Reading Competition, a pleasant and friendly contest between the pupils of this private boarding and day school for girls, just down the road from where I live. Cosy in the elegant bubble that is the beautiful library of this Grade I listed former stately home, I was glad to escape for a little while from the frightening madness that is our current political scene.

Twenty competitors, representing their houses, had to choose and prepare a text for reading, and there was a pleasing mix of old favourites such as Roald Dahl’s Matilda and JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit nestling among many novels that were entirely new to me.

Just two of them preferred to read a poem, and it was only this afternoon, back in the rainy, real world, that I realised I’d missed a trick. Although I thought to point out to them the value of books and reading as comfort blankets in times of stress, I should have congratulated those two girls for choosing poems that are particularly fortifying and reassuring in our present political climate:

  • Rudyard Kipling’s If, first published in 1895, always a powerful reminder to stand up for what you believe
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, first published 1818, on the transient nature of power

They are in any case two of my favourite poems in any case, but I think it’s especially pertinent now to reread and digest them.

I would particularly like Donald Trump to read Ozymandias, but:

  • (a) he has stated that he never reads books, so the likelihood of him plunging into poetry seems unlikely
  • (b) the title alone has more syllables than he is comfortable with in a single word (a fact not unrelated to point (a) above)

There can’t be many people unfamiliar with If, but you can read it here on the Poetry Foundation site.

I think Ozymandias is probably less well-known, so I make no apology for reproducing it below, as well as sharing the excellent reading of it that I found on YouTube at the top of this post.

Ozymandias
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley
I only hope that we see the wreck of our modern day Ozymandias without the reduction of the world as we know it to “lone and level sands”.
Posted in Writing

All the President’s Clothes – A Timely New Short Story

Although George Orwell is one of my writing heroes, I generally avoid politics in my own stories. I’m not naturally a political campaigner, I don’t enjoy political debate, and I seldom watch the news on television or read a newspaper. However, this morning a strange thing happened: as I sat down for my allocated morning writing hour, intending to write the next chapter of my work-in-progress novel (Murder in the Manger, #3 in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series that will be launched in April), I found a different story taking shape on the page…

 

All the President’s Clothes

As his wife emerged from the dressing room, a shimmering olive green coatdress over her arm, his commanding voice boomed across the silk sheets on their emperor-size bed. “Blue, you have to wear blue today, dear.”

She held the garment up against her body, gazing at just one of the many mirrors that covered the walls and ceiling. “But, darling, my colourist told me that this shade is my best.” Her long, slender fingers fluttered over her well-sculpted cheekbones, already glimmering with highlighter. “And not a week ago you told me you hate blue. Red is the colour of your party.”

“To hell with the party, sweetheart. I’m in charge now. And your damn advisor also told me that as blue’s the opposite of orange, it’s the obvious complementary colour for me. Whatever the hell that means. Still, I never met a compliment I didn’t like.” He hauled himself into a sitting position against sumptuous pillows and pointed his index finger in the air. “And it’s my big day today, honey, not yours. It’s a big, big day. There will be more people looking at me than ever before at an inauguration, and, you know, whatever I wear, they’re gonna love what they see. Bigly.”

He swung his naked legs out of the bed. The thickly carpeted floor embraced his bare feet as he strolled to the centre of the room. He stopped at the precise spot where he’d calculated he could get the most views of himself – reflections of reflections of reflections. He struck what he deemed a presidential pose, brow serious, jutting jaw. This was his intended image when they added him to Mount Rushmore.

Satisfied, he ambled to the gold-plated shower room, emerging damp and fluffy-haired just as his wife was slipping something under the bed. He took a seat at her dressing table and, as he did every morning, allowed her to marshall his hair into service with the aid of the supermodel’s best friend, a giant can of Elnett hairspray. To her surprise, the minute she set the can back down, he immediately made for the door to the hall. “Okay, let’s go, let’s go.”

She stepped back, her hand over her mouth. She’d adopted this gesture to to help her consider what to say before speaking, so as not to upset him. If she did it enough, she figured, maybe he’d start to do it too. “Honey, I know you’re keen to go out there and take office, but I think you may have forgotten something.”

He glanced down at his shower-fresh  body, then raised his index finger. “Don’t trouble your silly head, honey. Listen, leave the thinking to the big guy. Just smile and wave and look beautiful. It’s what you’re there for, just like Jackie O.” His finger met his thumb to make an O. “A beautiful, beautiful girl, great class, great style. And what a fantastic life she had, didn’t she? Thanks to her great, great husband, a fantastic guy.” His hand was on the door handle now.

“But honey -” she gulped – “you aren’t wearing any clothes. You are naked as the day God made you.”

“Yes, and what a great, great job the guy did, huh?” Then as he realised she might actually be criticising him, his face turned a few shades redder. “But listen to me, dear. I have millions of followers out there waiting to see me pass by – no, billions, more than any other president. And they think I am the best dressed president in history. That I have the best clothes in history. And damn it, I have plenty of clothes. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. They’re just fake news guys, fake news, that’s all they are. Just watch me now.”

He flung open the bedroom door, strode out onto the landing, and leaned over the banister to address his assembled family and staff duly waiting in the rose-tinted marble lobby below.

“So, people, how is your new commander-in-chief looking today? Are we ready to kick ass?” He flung out his arms in the manner of an ancient Roman emperor acknowledging the crowd’s cheers in the Colosseum, just before he settles down to enjoy a day of gladiatorial bloodshed.

“Just beautiful, sir, just beautiful.”

“And my outfit?”

“It’s the best, sir. A truly great, great outfit.”

He turned smiling, to his wife, who still lingered in the bedroom, despite having been ready to leave for hours. “What did I tell ya? You should know by now just to listen to me.” That pointing finger again.

Not waiting for her reply, he strutted down the vast curving staircase, feeling like the leading man in a Busby Berkeley musical. He reckoned he could have taught that Fred Astaire a thing or two.

Back in their bedroom, his wife sighed and sat down on her side of the bed, cautiously so as not to crease her outfit, to avoid repercussions later. Slowly she reached down to retrieve the secret basket that had been keeping her sane the last few turbulent days. From it she retrieved two chunky steel knitting needles and a ball of thick pink yarn. These cute little hats seemed to be all the rage, so she’d thought she’d better make herself one. After all, hadn’t he told her that the First Lady’s prime duty was to be a fashion icon?

Beginning to work the final row to calm her nerves, she wondered for the first time whether the recent rise in demand for knitting needles might revive the national steel industry. He hadn’t yet worked out how else to do it, so she should remember to share the good news with him later. He was sure to be pleased. She just had time to cast off and sew up the sides before the procession of bulletproof cars would arrive to whisk them on their way.

She didn’t dare try the finished hat on just now, for fear of spoiling her coiffure. She just rolled it up and tucked it in her clutchbag to take along on the ride. After all, her husband might be glad of it later. When realising the error of his ways, he might be desperate for something to keep himself warm.

pink yarn and knitting needles

This story is dedicated to Aaren Purcell and Karen Lotter, who first brought the pussyhat project (www.pussyhatproject.com) to my attention, and to everyone who has made one, worn one, marched in one, or admires the women who did so.  

And hats off to the Pantone Color Institute for their thoughtful classification work, described by Diana Budds here: What Pantone colour is Donald Trump?

© Debbie Young 2017