In my column for the March 2021 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I was talking all about books – no surprises there, except for the announcement of a new free book resource in the village which I launched on World Book Day, with Councillor John Turner representing Hawkesbury Parish Council. Drum-roll please for “Books on the Bus“…
Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, thought books were conversation killers: monologues that denied readers the chance to engage in discussion. Despite being credited now as one of the founders of Western philosophy, Socrates never wrote a single book. We only know his thoughts through books by Plato and others.
Socrates’ preferred method of exchanging ideas was to hold a conversation while strolling around the walls of Athens. If he were alive today, during lockdown he’d have to resort to Zoom.
In our Zoom-crazy age, in which we expect every public speaker on screen to have a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf behind him, Socrates’ backdrop would be book-free. He’d probably prefer to display a statue of an owl, symbol of Athena, goddess of wisdom, and of his beloved city of Athens, and maybe a Grecian urn or two.
Books by the Yard
But if media pressure persuaded him to join the bookshelf brigade, I know of the perfect solution to fill his bookshelves at one fell swoop: a call to Books by the Yard, a service offered by my favourite second-hand bookshop, The Bookbarn. Based near Wells, The Bookbarn not only sells pre-loved and vintage books individually to callers (though closed to visitors just now due to the pandemic), it also offers a shelf-filling service. Until now, it’s been mainly the preserve of stage set designers and themed pubs and hotels seeking an instant bookish look.
Despite the closure of theatres and hospitality venues during lockdown, their Books by the Yard business has been soaring lately. The reason? Zoom backdrop envy.
Books on the Bus
If you’re hankering after a new read, there’s no need to travel to The Bookbarn – although once we’re allowed out to play again, it’ll be one of the first places I head for. From Thursday 4th March, for World Book Day, there’ll be a new Books on the Bus box in the bus shelter opposite Hawkesbury Stores. I’ll be keeping the box stocked with books for all ages to give bus passengers something to keep them entertained while waiting for their bus and on their journey.
You don’t need a bus ticket to borrow from Books on the Bus. As for the Little Free Library on my front wall, you’re welcome to help yourself in passing. Return or keep the books you borrow, as you wish. Donations of more books in good condition will always be appreciated.
Thanks to Hawkesbury Parish Council for providing the plastic box to kick the scheme off, and to the kind donors around the parish who have given me more than enough books to fill the Books on the Bus box initially.
Even so, I don’t think Socrates need worry. There’s no danger that books will ever put a stop to conversation in Hawkesbury.
IN OTHER NEWS
Writing Workshop (19th April) If you’re interested in writing, you might like to attend an online event I’m doing on Monday 19th April, I’ll be answering FAQs about writing as part of the Wrexham Carnival of Words. This is just one session of an action-packed festival behind held online because of Covid. You can find out more about the whole programme here: www.wrexhamcarnivalofwords.com)
Collected Columns in Book Form
If you’d like to read the archive of my columns for the Hawkesbury Parish News, you might like to know that they’re also available in book form in two volumes. Here are the buying links for the paperbacks and the ebooks:
In this last of my series about favourite school stories, which I launched to celebrate the publication of my own school series for grown-ups, Staffroom at St Bride’s, I’m delighted to welcome thriller writerAlison Morton to talk about her choice: the Jennings series by Antony Buckeridge. These hilarious books were my personal favourite when I was growing up, although they seemed dated even then.
Set in a traditional English boys’ boarding school, and written by a former prep school teacher, the series revolves around the spirited, well-intentioned Jennings and his cautious best friend Darbishire. What I liked most about it was the humour, and it came as no surprise to me to learn recently that one of Buckeridge’s writing heroes was P G Wodehouse. (One of mine, too!)
I especially adored the language, peppered with posh schoolboy slang that I’d never come across in real life – a “wizard wheeze” for a good idea, and so on. (More on that in a moment from Alison.) But I could never use those terms in conversation, as only fellow Jennings fans might understand them. Which is why I was especially pleased to hear that Alison Morton was on the same wavelength.
Over to Alison now to tell us more…
Please give title, author and a brief description of the book.
Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge.
It’s (John Christopher Timothy) Jennings’s first term at Linbury Court prep school. He befriends clever, but socially inept vicar’s son Darbishire, foxes into town in disguise, accidentally kicks the Archbeako (headmaster) on the kneecap while practising his football-skills, displays too much (or not enough) initiative during fire practice, and has a hair-raising incident with a poisonous spider. The expression ‘getting into scrapes’ must have been invented for Jennings, but he has such a genuine sense of honour it’s hard to be cross with him!
How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what age have you reread it?
Ha! I think I was eleven, as I remember borrowing it from the library in my new school when I was in the Lower Thirds (equivalent of Year 7 today). I re-read it recently, and let’s say it’s several decades on from when I was first enthralled by Jennings and Darbishire.
How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?
I was surprised to find myself still chuckling. Either author Anthony Buckeridge was a very clever man or I still have an infantile sense of humour. Actually, I probably laugh at different places today. And although Jennings is impetuous and sees the world in a very specific way, I still find him endearing and, in his own way, logical. I probably don’t find him as exciting as eleven-year-old me did as I have done more exciting things during my own life!
What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?
The humour (and there is plenty of it) rests on misunderstandings resulting from Jennings’s literal-mindedness and impetuosity. In the earliest novels in the series there are some Latin puns; these were often omitted from later reprints which is a pity, but times changed from the 1950s and few children now learn Latin. Comradeship, behaving fairly and a desire to ‘do the right thing’, even though the school staff might not agree with the boys’ view of what that right thing was, runs through the books.
The earlier novels including Jennings Goes to School present an idealised version of small town, middle-class English life in the 1950s and mid-1960s which is the period I went to school in Tunbridge Wells, so a lot of the environment was what I considered ‘normal’.
But for me, who loved playing with words, spoke passable French and was learning Latin, the coolest thing (although we didn’t say cool then) was the invented language.
Post-war slang ‘wizard’ generally meant ‘good’ or ‘very good’. ‘Ozard’ that the boys use derives from ‘Wizard of Oz’ and was used to describe anything the boys disliked or dreaded.
It was also used to describe the anger of Mr Wilkins, Jennings’ form master, which could be ‘ozard’. ‘Ozard squared’ and occasionally ‘ozard cubed’ implied the direst of occurrences!
I have to confess that we still use ‘bish’ in our family to describe a mistake and will often ‘square’ or ‘cube’ something that’s very unfortunate.
Which character did you identify with?
It has to be Jennings, but I do sympathise with Darbishire on occasion. As an adult, I can sympathise with ‘Old Wilkie’ being completely unsuitable in temperament to deal with a class of bright, lively little demons.
How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?
Even though it was written about boys, this and the other Jennings stories were set in a children’s world where exciting things happened. I was extremely fortunate to be brought up by a mother who was determined to treat her son and daughter equally and my father agreed. I couldn’t see why girls and boys shouldn’t have the same adventures.
Jennings’ world was one I could escape to when my school had been particularly insistent on me behaving like a young lady rather than just a child.
How did it affect your writing?
Hm, interesting question. Perhaps it gave me a wish to read books only with snappy dialogue and a succinct style and plenty of action. And as we write what we would like to read, I hope I have passed this partiality onto the readers of my Roma Nova series.
In that equally imaginary world, my first heroine Aurelia’s child is home-schooled in the 1960s with a tutor although she did attend a private girls’ school in London when Aurelia was posted there. In her early days, Carina, my second heroine, and still Karen went to the local state school in rural America. Her children in Roma Nova went to school in the 2010s after initial nursery education at home.
What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?
A Church of England primary school which actually had an unofficial admissions policy. My mother, a teacher herself, had sussed this out and revealed this to me years later. It had an 80% pass rate of the 11 Plus (the national school exam that determined what kind of senior school you went to) and highest entry into grammar school in the area. Talk about hothouse! We didn’t know anything about that – it was just school.
I went on to one of the local grammar schools – Tunbridge Wells County Grammar School for Girls (as it was called then.) Famous alumnae include comedian Jo Brand and tennis player Virginia Wade. It was at TWCGS that thanks to Latin classes I discovered the rude poetry of Catullus, a book of which I actually gave to Carina, the heroine of Inceptio, my first Roma Nova novel!
Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?
Oh no, Jennings was definitely my private world!
Would it still resonate with young readers today?
I think so. Anthony Buckeridge was still writing the stories in 1994, although he changed some of the content with the times while keeping the basic concept intact. The themes of interacting with others in your group, acting equitably, trying to make your way through the bewildering business of school and growing-up are universal even though expressed differently today. My son went to a local prep school for a while in the 1990s before transferring to grammar school, and there were definitely some resemblances to Jennings’ Linbury Court!
It was a (surprising) pleasure to re-read Jennings and thank you, Debbie, for nudging me to rediscover that world.
Thank you, Alison, for sharing your passion for the Jennings school stories. I hope our shared enthusiasm will encourage more 21st century readers to discover his joyous world.
About Alison Morton
After tearing round Europe clambering over Roman ruins, serving six years in uniform and collecting an MA in History on the way, Alison settled down to write the award-winning Roma Nova alternative history thriller series of nine books. Her first psychological thriller, Double Identity, will be published on 7th January 2021 and is now available to pre-order here.
Introduction to Alison’s Roma Nova series, via the first series, Inceptio:
“It’s about blood, survival and money. Mostly yours.”
New Yorker Karen Brown is running for her life. She makes a snap decision to flee to Roma Nova – her dead mother’s homeland, and last remnant of the Roman Empire in the 21st century. But can Karen tough it out in such an alien culture? And with a crazy killer determined to terminate her?
That’s all from my Favourite School Stories series for 2020. Next year, I’ll be introducing a new monthly guest post series to my blog: Travels with my Books, exploring books set in other countries and times.
In this week’s post, I’m sharing news of a great cause that I’ve recently discovered called Read With Me.
Whether or not you have children of your own, I’m sure you’ll agree that anything that helps children to become competent and enthusiastic readers can only be a good thing. That’s why I really enjoyed my three years spent working for national children’s reading charity Read for Good.
While Read for Good does a great job at a national level by running sponsored Readathons in schools, Read With Mecurrently operates solely within Gloucestershire and sends adult volunteers into schools to hear children read one-to-one. This individual attention and social interaction makes a vast difference to children’s progress, especially to those who get little or no support at home.
More About Read With Me
Read With Me was founded by Linda Cohen of Wotton-under-Edge, just a few miles from where I live. As Linda explains on Read With Me’s website, children need to be able to communicate and to read. Without those basic skills their life opportunities are reduced and they face a bleak future. The inability to read will impact on not only their outcomes but those of their children.
Teachers and head teachers agree that the ability to read is the key to all learning.
Children who are unable to read properly by the age of 7 never catch up. In the UK, 1 in 5 children leave primary school unable to read. These children do less well at school, have dramatically reduced employment choices and earning opportunities, and a greater chance of going to prison. The UK has the worst literacy rates in the developed world.
In addition to attending school every day, ideally each child should have 15 minutes of one-to-one time when they can be heard to read by an adult and have verbal and social interaction. But with large class sizes and busy timetables, it’s nigh impossible for teachers to provide this.
Read With Me has therefore developed a unique programme where local employers give employees half an hour twice a week to hear two children read in their schools.
“It’s amazing how something so simple can be utterly transforming,” says Linda.
Linda started by rolling out Read With Me’s service in Gloucester, because it’s an area with a huge need. She will be extending the service across Gloucestershire, but Read With Me will also support anyone outside the area who wanted to set up something similar, even if it was only for their local school.
“We want to create a blueprint which everyone can use,” says Linda.
Outside of term time, Linda also organises The Not So Secret Book Club, offering some fabulous free opportunities for children to meet to read in Gloucester parks, providing free books so necessary when many children don’t have any books of their own at home. They offer a huge selection, from simple board books to teen fiction. They also have craft materials available and inspiration for simple creative projects, and story sessions too.
Why Read With Me is Fundraising Now
Although volunteers donate their time to Read With Me for free, the organisation needs to coveressential running costs. One of the ways Linda planned to raise funds this autumn was by selling Christmas cards, and three local shops had kindly agreed to stock them: Fish Out of Water, The Cotswold Book Room, and The Subscription Rooms in Stroud. Unfortunately, lockdown has temporarily put a stop to that.
In the meantime, young volunteers have set up an online shop to sell the cards, so below I’m sharing more details in case you’d like to support this great cause by placing an order.
About Read With Me’s Christmas Cards
Designer and illustrator Molly Bult created three designs in mixed media of gouache paint and digital collage using scanned materials, which have been printed on quality board with a choice of brown kraft or festive red envelopes. They are sold in packs of 9 for £3.99 each, or £10 for 3.
The Christmas cards are one of two festive initiatives to raise funds for Read With Me. There is also an online shop of stocking-filler toys, generously donated by the new proprietors of The Cotswold Book Room.
Volunteer to read with children in school If you’re in Gloucestershire, you can become a Read With Me volunteer, donating just two hours a week to go into a school to hear children read.
Donate books Donations of books for children of all ages, from board books to young adult novels are always welcome.
Donate craft materials Craft materials and activity books are really useful at Read With Me’s Not So Secret Book Clubs.
Help out at the Not So Secret Book Clubs Subject to restrictions, these will next be running on 22nd and 23rd December – announcements will be made on Read With Me’s website, Facebook page and on all the community websites.
Help sort books Volunteers are needed to help sort donated books to be sent to schools either to bolster their libraries or to provide children who have no reading material at home a selection of their own books.
Share fundraising ideas Linda would love to hear from anyone with creative fundraising ideas to boost Read With Me’s funds.
Read on if you’d like to find out more about Read With Me via my informal interview with Linda and about the Christmas card designer Molly Bult, who has sent me her bio for anyone interested in her other design work.
Interview with Linda Cohen
It’s great to be able to sell Christmas cards and stocking filler toys online, but how do fundraise at other times of year?
We are a start-up, so fundraising is in the early stages. We’ve been established as a social enterprise, so the aim is to be relatively self-sufficient, but we’ve received some wonderful help from Gloucestershire Community Foundation. We’ve held a number of virtual events, including the Wotton 10k in which our supporters took part across the world, some even in Hong Kong – a combination of elite runners and some more sedate walkers who punctuated the walk with tea and cake stops.
What will the proceeds from the sales of Christmas cards and toys be used for?
The proceeds from the cards, like all the other money we raise, goes towards the shoestring running costs of delivering our service.
It only costs £50 a year to deliver twice-weekly sessions to each child, but we need to be able to support 500 more places immediately after Christmas.
You mentioned the three shops kindly stocking your cards, and the amazing contribution of stock by The Cotswold Book Room. Are there any particular local businesses that you’d like to mention as key supporters of the scheme?
Gloucester Services have been amazing. All their profits go back in to the community, so make that a destination stop for petrol! I’ve also set up reading schemes with partner schools for some of my PR clients.
What would Read with Me like from Santa this year?
I think Santa must have been operating throughout the year as we’ve already been the recipients of astonishing generosity from a number of the organisations and individuals, from teenagers to the retired.
The greatest gift would be the ability for our fantastic volunteers to all feel able to go back in to school safely and get on with their work.
However there is nothing to match the gift of a child’s face lighting up when they make a breakthrough or one of our littlest readers rushing to tell you that they’ve started reading at home.
Meet Molly Bult
Read With Me’s Christmas card designer Molly Bult shares her bio.
“Hi! I’m Molly, Manchester based illustrator and print designer behind Molly Emilia Rose. Coming from a printed textiles background, my designs are led by my passion for colour, texture and pattern. I love to create mixed media artwork, marrying both digital and analog techniques.
“Growing up in the South Wales countryside, my love of art and nature has grown hand in hand. My work is inspired by the biophilic connection we share with nature, a celebration of the abundance and variety of life and colour in the natural world.
“More recently, I have become fascinated with people, human interaction and relationships which you can see has fed into my portfolio of work – often with elements of humour thrown in!”
Thank you for reading this post – I hope it inspires you to help this excellent cause if you can, or to emulate its success in your neighbourhood. Please don’t hesitate to contact Linda for more information.
Ah, the joy of browsing through secondhand books! – one of the few things I missed about not having a summer holiday this year. Wherever we go, we always end up in vintage bookshops. They’re my main source of holiday souvenirs and more besides.
Last August in Norfolk, the proprietor of The Old Station Bookshop in Wells-next-the-Sea introduced himself to us as Harry Potter’s potter. Some years before, a film company’s properties scout had spotted the bookseller’s side-line in ceramics, nestled between the books. A few days later an order arrived, presumably delivered by owl, for two sets of matching pots in different sizes – one small version for Harry Potter and chums, the other scaled up for Hagrid the giant.
The film scout had clearly adhered to
my golden rule of second-hand bookshop shopping: never look for anything in particular.
On no account take a shopping list because you won’t find what you’re looking for. Instead, browse the shelves with an open mind, and let the books find you.
The best second-hand books leap out at me with extraordinary timing. A vintage copy of Where No Mains Flow, Rebecca Warren’s witty memoir of restoring an old cottage, kept my sense of humour intact as we did up our own place.
Just after I’d joined a VE Day 75 committee, the first book I saw at the Bookbarn near Wells was a slim hardback of The White Cliffs, Alice Duer Miller’s novel in verse written in 1940. (Yes, it predates the Vera Lynn song.) I’d never heard of it, but in its heyday it sold a million copies and was even credited with bringing the Americans into the Second World War.
Just after my sixtieth birthday in January, I decided to reread Graham Greene. On my next visit to a secondhand bookshop, I picked up A Burnt-out Case. Wondering when it was published, I opened the book at the copyright page: 1960, same vintage as me. Suddenly I felt very old.
For the Love of Covers
Then there are the books I’ve acquired simply for the sake of their covers. Naturally, it was during Storm Ciara that a vintage hardback of Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon leapt out at me, its cover so atmospheric that you can practically hear the wind roar.
Best of all are the curiosities bought as talking points. Who could resist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes printed entirely in Pitman shorthand? Now all I need to be able to read it is an old copy of Teach Yourself Pitman Shorthand. But I’d better not go searching, or I’ll never find one.
Sneak Preview of Developments in Wendlebury Barrow
Such is my love of secondhand books that in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, I’m planning to make Hector Munro to start a vintage section in Hector’s House, the bookshop at the heart of this series. He already has a large private collection of what he refers to as his “curiosities”, and these occasionally play a part in my stories, such as a festive short story that I wrote last year – you can read it here for free if you can bear to think about Christmas just yet!
His curiosities collection also gets a mention in my new book, The Clutch of Eggs, the next in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads series, which will be out in October – more news of that to follow shortly. (You can join my Readers’ Club mailing list here if you want me to notify you of the publication date.)
Then in the eighth book in the Sophie Sayers series, one of his “curiosities” will be at the heart of a mystery that takes Sophie and Hector from Wendlebury Barrow to the Scottish Highlands. But first I must write the seventh – Murder Lost and Found, my November project, for the first draft, anyway!
Every day last week I had the pleasure of spending some time at Westonbirt School, talking to English classes in Years 7, 8 and 9 (11-14 year olds), sharing insights into an author’s life and writing advice that I wish I’d been given at their age.
On the Thursday, for World Book Day, I returned in the evening to co-judge the school’s annual inter-house reading competition, alongside the award-winning poet Shirley Wright and two sixth-form pupils. We judged the pupils’ readings were on four criteria: clarity, confidence, choice of passage and overall performance. The overall standard was really high, and, in the stunning setting of the school’s Grade 1 listed library, being a judge was a very enjoyable experience.
Congratulations to all those pupils who performed, and to the English department, so ably led by Miss Sheehan, for staging such a streamlined and impressive evening of entertainment.
But before the readings began, I had to give a small performance of my own: a brief motivational speech to all those taking part. In case you’re interested, here’s the transcript.
My Address to the Readers
People often assume that being a professional writer is a lonely business, spent in isolation. But as I’ve been explaining in these classes, the writer’s life is all about collaboration. It’s team work. Editors, proof-readers and cover designers help turn my manuscripts into books, before the books are sent out into the world.
Reaching readers is by far the most important stage in any book’s journey, because a book’s success stands or falls by what its readers make of it. Every reader interprets the writer’s intention in their own way. Furthermore, the same reader, reading the same book at different times in their life, may find it a completely different experience. Books you love now may leave you cold when you get to my age. On the other hand, in later life you may find you love books that you struggled to enjoy at school.
Those who read books aloud to entertain others add another layer of interest to a writer’s words.
In the audiobook publishing world, these people are called voice artists. Good voice artists add value and interest to a book and inject it with their own personality. They also make the process look easy. But even when you know a text really well, reading it aloud is hard work, as I know from my own experience. At the launch of my first novel, performing an extract from Best Murder in Show, instead of reading about “Rex’s elegant girlfriend”, I managed to call her “Rex’s elephant girlfriend”. That’s quite a different thing and an error I’ll never forget. (Click here to witness my gaffe!)
Using your voice to engage an audience is a valuable life-skill in any setting. If you apply the skills demonstrated in this competition in other settings, such as the classroom, the boardroom or in government, you can change lives and may even change the world.
Last Friday, in the rain and the mud in Bristol, Greta Thunberg spoke for just four minutes. Her immaculate delivery of her succinct and perfectly polished script moved not only the tens of thousands on College Green, my own daughter among them – but, thanks to the internet, her voice resonated around the world, mobilising millions to support her cause – including you, here, at Westonbirt School, as you watched her speech streamed live in the Great Hall. (Watch her speech on Youtube here.)
Those of you who are reading to us tonight may be reading words written by someone else, but in years to come, when you use the power of the spoken of word to deliver your own messages, we may find ourselves as mesmerised by you as we were by Greta.
You have already proven your exceptional skills by being chosen to represent your houses in school-wide heats. No matter who wins this competition tonight, your houses should be proud of you all and you should be proud of yourselves.
Now let the stories begin.
The Story Behind the Story
My time spent working at Westonbirt School (1997-2010) was the inspiration for my new St Bride’s School series, which begins with Secrets at St Bride’s. However, the situation, the plot and the characters are completely made up!
To read the first chapter for free and to find out more about this jolly romp of a novel, click here.