Story Spark at the Ark

On Saturday, I was in the Ark in Temple Bar for Story Spark. The Ark is Ireland’s only theatre set up especially for children. I was doing a ‘talk’ with Joe O’Brien for kids aged 6 to 9 years old – though it ended up with both of us doing more arsing around than any serious talking.

Joe suffered a mishap before he went on, as he fell asleep down in the green room (that’s what they call the room where performers in the theatre wait to go on stage). While he was asleep, his imagination got out of his head and scampered upstairs to interfere with my very serious and educational talk. I was getting the kids to help me design a character who was ‘mad, and a little bit bad’ – the title of the talk. Joe’s imagination (who looked a lot like Joe, but wearing silly clothes and weird paint on his face) caused some degree of chaos until he was caught by security and returned to Joe’s sleeping skull.

Our character was finished amid the confusion, made up of a fat head, a fatter body, bushy eyebrows, ‘swollen eyes’, Wolverine claws, and a ballerina’s feet. He was called Twinkle-toes.

Joe managed to make it on for the end of the session to talk about his Alfie Green books and to apologize for his imagination’s poor behaviour. And he denied the scandalous claim that the bizarre character the kids had designed looked anything like his mother-in-law.

As part of the promotion for the Story Spark events, Sarah Webb and I were interviewed last week by Ireland AM on TV3 – you can see that piece of video on the TV3 site.

An Unwitting Subject

One of the most enjoyable parts of visiting schools is seeing the pupils take ideas and images from my books and do their own thing with them. I will often show up at a school to discover a whole wall covered in fantastic artwork, with young artists displaying their own interpretations of characters and events from my stories. That gives me a real buzz.

Due to the weather and Christmas, my events have been less frequent. Last week Sarah Webb and I were filmed by TV3 for Ireland AM in the Ark in Temple Bar. That was to promote our events there for the excellent Story Spark series. Our interviews were aired on Wednesday morning, along with some rowdy input from a bunch of spirited readers.

On Friday, I was in St Kevin’s College in Crumlin, and was delighted to see the students there had plastered the walls with their own interpretations of ‘The Goblin of Tara’. Something I hadn’t come across before was a few different portraits of yours truly, based on one of my PR photos – including the one above, that was presented to me by a young man named Daniel. It was very flattering and just a little weird to see these well painted, re-imagined versions of my face looking back at me.

I have seen reworkings of the cartoon I have on the biog page of my site before, but this was the first time I’d seen realistic images of my mug done by students. And really good ones at that. Definitely feels a bit weird. Well done to all the young artists who turned out such excellent work based on ‘Goblin’ too, it’s always cool to see people engaging with the stories.

Another new experience occurred when I visited the Royal School in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone. I had a couple of really good sessions with the students there, but it was when I was shown one of the recent reading comprehension exam papers that I had my eyes opened. It was a CEA Exam, Higher Tier Paper, for the General Certificate of Secondary Education in Northern Ireland, and it was using an excerpt from ‘Small-Minded Giants’. The exam had taken place in November, and this was the first time I’d heard about the excerpt being used.

I’ve since heard that the government (be it Irish, Northern Irish, or British) can use pieces from books in exams without advance permission from the author – in case we should go and tell everybody it was going to feature in the exam. And I can understand this. And I’m happy for my books to be used in schools – though I’m a little wary of being ‘studied’. In fact, it’s flattering to have your writing held up as an example to young readers, and I’m grateful for being chosen.

What got me about this particular case was that the piece had been heavily edited, changing not just words and phrases, but taking out chunks of text and changing context. I’d have edited it myself for them, if they’d asked.

Apart from the issue of somebody messing with my writing, it’s the conflict in principles I find odd. I’m all for using recognizable, mainstream fiction in an educational environment; it moves reading away from being just an academic exercise – vital, if you’re going to engage reluctant readers. But what’s the point, if you’re then going to edit it to conform to educational conventions? Surely that’s why you got away from academic texts in the first place?

If you want to involve mainstream writers in the educational system, come and ask us to get involved. We all want to see more young people engaging with books, and many of us are happy to help out the system. But changing our work without our permission? That’s just rude.

Out Cold

We’ve just come out of the cold snap, but I’ve heard reports on the radio that we could be heading right into another one this week. Some would say the weather we’ve just had is the the last thing we needed after all the crap that’s happened to our economy over the last year, and the crap that’s still to come.

But I’m of the view that it was the politically incorrect slap in the face for the panicking passenger on a sinking ship. And it came along just when we needed it most. Last year showed just how hopelessly unprepared we were for this kind of weather, so we did a (slightly) better job this time round. We’ve just been hit with the most snow I’ve possibly seen in my lifetime, and the lowest temperatures on record, and I’ve been intent on getting the best out of it.

Having finally got the house in order – sort of – and had a couple more events cancelled, I had got back to doing some writing. And I’m really behind on the various projects I’ve got on at the moment. I can’t complain about the time spent on the Armouron books – there’ll be two more out next year, and another two from Richard Dungworth – it was a fun job and a valuable experience. But it knocked my other books back a bit (more about those later) and the house and the new baby knocked them right back. And I can hardly complain about those either, can I? All in all, life’s been good – unproductive on the work front, but good.

Then the weather closed the country down, and we had three cabin-feverish kids bouncing around the house for two weeks, complete with stomach bugs, no television, no door to my studio and a choice of giant heating bills or chilly rooms just when Maedhbh and I are more strapped for cash than we’ve been since we got married. Not very conducive to getting much writing done. But the cold snap did mean the countryside looked absolutely beautiful, complete with frosted trees whiter than I’ve ever seen in Ireland, and thick blankets of snow on the ground. The roads in our area were hopelessly icy, but you could get around if you took your time, and didn’t come across too many eejits. You were better off staying put if you could, meaning a bit of chill-out time (pardon the pun) and whole days spent with the kids – not that relaxing, but a proper pleasure nonetheless. By going with it, adopting a slower pace, things worked out okay.

Petrol-head and broadcaster Anton Savage made the point – a little too glibly – on Today FM that it was ‘just snow’. Tell that to the people who couldn’t get out to get food, or couldn’t afford the fuel to heat their homes. Perhaps they’ll get ‘just hypothermia’. But in a way he was right to make fun of all the people who were turning it into a drama. We’re not prepared for this type of weather: we don’t put snow tyres on our cars when winter approaches. We don’t clear the stuff from our paths, we expect the council to do it for us (in other countries, the law holds you responsible for the stretch of path in front of your home). We don’t have stores of food put away, or even have proper clothes or shoes for this kind of winter. We don’t have snow-ploughs or sleds, skis or snow-shoes. But we can still be sensible about it.

In a world where the role of men is becoming muddier and unclear, this is a good time to prove we can still do the stuff our dads and grandads did when this kind of thing descended on them. We can make sure the cars keep running, and dig them out of the snow. We can clear blocked paths and blocked drains and keep the fires lit and fix stuff that’s broken, rather than waiting for a repairman who might not be able to come out, or doing yet another trip to the shops to buy more new stuff. We can help our neighbours out. We can look after our families, like we’re supposed to.

I’m grateful for this weather, for reminding us all what’s important. Because there’s been an awful lot of crap thrown at us over the last couple of years, and amid all the panic induced by the financial world, it’s been easy to just freeze up. It’s too easy to forget about getting on with living in the real world.

I’ve avoided paying too much attention to the economic misery on the radio and television. I’ve been too busy, and I’ve decided that the parts of it that affect me I’m just going to have to deal with anyway. There’s too much to get on with as it is, without spending my days cursing complacent, corrupt and incompetent politicians or greedy idiot bankers, or all that other shite. The weather has provided the media with a flurry of meteorological metaphors for our economic woes, but it’s reminded me that it’s the practical needs that I should be focusing on.

This country is down, but far from being out, but even that’s not my first concern. Time to get stuck back into my work, and keep doing what I’ve always done to get this far. I don’t know how to deal with a recession, it’s too big a concept. But continuing to turn out books – to make a living and look after my family? That’s something I can manage. And as for the weather? Well, after all, snow is just snow.

The Best-Laid Travel Plans . . .

The snow started falling while my family and I were in Wexford for Wexworlds Sci-Fi and Fantasy Festival.

My events have been winding down as we head for Christmas, but since my last update, I had done an interview with Alan Stanford at 4FM and a visit to Gonzaga College in Ranelagh. Wexworlds was my last festival of the year, and probably the one I was most looking forward to, and the whole family came with me for a slightly intense weekend away.

The white stuff began to come down on Friday night, and by Saturday morning, we looked out of our hotel room window at roofs covered in snow. Despite its effect on the turn-out – a few guests couldn’t make it, and there were just fewer people in town – the festival went ahead and most people seemed to have a fine time. From talks on mythology to Lego workshops, crackpot experiments to offbeat cabaret, there was loads going on, and slippery roads and freezing temperatures did nothing to spoil the mood.

Particular favourites of mine were Kate Thompson’s talk at the library, catching up on all must-read sci-fi stuff I hadn’t read (ie. most of it) at the talk chaired by Maura McHugh, and the spirited session I had with the pupils of Wexford VEC. But perhaps the best part was all the stuff going on in between – mixing with all the other writers and artists, visiting the bizarre bazaar, and always the interesting conversations and weird little happenings going on.

The picture here shows Emma J. King doing explosive things with Coke bottles. Maedhbh and our football/sci-fi fan were present, but I had baby-minding duties. I did get out for the electricity experiments, which were great craic/crackle. Thanks to James Bacon and the other festival organizers for photos 2 and 3.

The buzzing Wexworlds spirit may have got us home safely through the snow on Monday, but things soon ground to a halt. In what should have been a sci-fi overload, my stepson and I were due to go to the ‘War of the Worlds’ concert in Dublin. We headed out that evening, but conditions grew steadily worse as we headed up the motorway. In the end, it was the thoughts of getting stuck in a log-jammed Dublin at night, or caught on one of the icy back-roads we have to take on the way home, that made me turn around. ‘Gutted’, I think is the word. I’ve loved Jeff Wayne’s weird but cool mix of music and storytelling since I was a kid, so this was going to be a big night for me, and I had hoped to create another fan along the way, but it wasn’t to be.

On Wednesday, the Christmas dinner for the staff and board of Children’s Books Ireland (I’m on the board) was called off because Dublin was snowed in, and by this time, I was more or less resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to make it to London the following morning for the Random House Christmas Party. I might have got over, but the weather was worse the following night, and I might not have made it back for another day, which would have left Maedhbh alone at home with the kids in the worst weather we’ve had on record. I was sorry to miss the party, but given the choice between flying to London and back for a day, or staying at home in the snow with my wife and kids, and there really isn’t any competition.

I’d like to say I’ve been using this time at home to get some work done, but there’s been other stuff to deal with, and two kids with cabin fever and stomach bugs (and one who pukes all the time anyway, but in the most charming fashion). So it hasn’t been the most productive time. I just wish we’d thought to buy our Christmas cards ahead of time, or had more presents to wrap! The snow and crappy roads have kept us at home for most of the time, but after the mental goings-on of the last few months, a few days at home with the family has been just what I needed.

Now if only we had a few internal doors, or curtains. Or any kind of television aerial.