For the Sheer Hell of It

So the bit on the telly went pretty well. As ever, it feels like you’ve walked into the middle of a busy kitchen and everyone else knows what’s cooking, and only have time to tell you just barely what you need to know to do your bit. Trying to say everything you want to get said in the three minutes or so, while talking to – slightly hyper-sounding – presenters who do this for a living is hard enough. Trying to do it without going blank, tripping over your words too often, being too long-winded or talking in a high-speed unintelligible babble, is quite the challenge.

Eoin Colfer had apparently been in too – though I didn’t bump into him – and did an interview on the run. I did get talking to Katie Taylor’s dad (and coach), who was there with one of her fans to argue the World Champion’s case for the Elev8 ‘GR8s’. Basically, they’ve picked a bunch of people from different categories to do an ‘Ireland’s Greatest’ kind of thing. Darren Shan is in there representing writers. But yesterday it was Katie’s turn, and she has a record of wins that’s second to none for someone her age. Pete Taylor and I were sitting together while we waited to go into the studio, and chatted for a while. He’s a sound guy, and Katie’s doing brilliant things for Irish boxing in general, and women’s boxing in particular. But I have to confess to hoping Shan takes the title for the books crowd.

When it comes to dreaming up children’s programming, half the shows seem to fall into the category of: ‘Why should we do it? Well, why the hell not?’

In honour of that ethic, here’s a few things I’ve come across recently:

When your job is etching microscopic circuits onto computer chips, I can imagine there comes a time when you might feel the need to go a little mad, and express yourself a bit. In the case of these tech-heads, that’s a really, really small bit.

I found an article showing images etched onto microchips by computer engineers who obviously feel that their creativity is being suppressed. They are, for the most part, done without the knowledge of the clients who commission the chips, and are unlikely to be seen because they’re microscopic. This image and the others featured in this article are magnified 200 to 500 times. So you’d have to be really looking to find them.

On a slightly larger scale, this library desk made of books is a brilliant idea, and one that would be pretty easy to copy (and probably just as easy to cock up in spectacular fashion). It was designed by architects, and can be found in Delft University of Technology, where it was built after a fire destroyed much of the original library.

Speaking of libraries, the last thing you’d expect to find in a school library is a jukebox, right? I mean, there supposed to be quiet places, aren’t they? Well, the JCSP  (Junior Cert Support Programme) Libraries tend to be set up in schools where an alternative approach is not just a nice thought, but bloody essential. I walked into Patrician College in Finglas recently to find music playing softly, chess and draughts sets on the tables, and a general chilled atmosphere. If it works, why the hell not?

And finally, a Croatian mate of mine sent me this link to a piece of video that shows a seriously different way of playing a tune. It’s an ad for a phone, but is such a lovely, simple idea and so brilliantly done (assuming it’s actually real) that I’m passing it on. Enjoy.

On the Box

I’m going to be appearing on Elev8, on RTE 2 at around midday on Monday (the show is airing earlier than normal because of Easter). It’s part of the promotion for the Drogheda Arts Festival. The Enchanted Exhibition, which started out in the Garter Lane Arts Centre in Waterford, has now moved to the arts centre in Drogheda, and is being launched at the same time as the festival there. I’ll be doing a session there too, at 10am on Saturday the 30th of April.

The exhibition features work from myself and four other illustrators: Niamh Sharkey, Adrienne Geoghan, Annie West and Bruce Ingman.

So far, it’s been shown in Waterford, Galway, Abbeyleix and Newbridge . . . and now it’s reached Drogheda. If you get the chance, you should go and check it out.

Obviously, it’s always great to get a spot on the telly, so I’m really looking forward to the show on Monday, but with only about three and a half minutes to talk, and no telling what questions will get thrown at me, the pressure’s on get the right stuff said!

Getting Stuck In

I got involved in a project recently, to make something of a run-down, overgrown spot in the town of Athboy, County Meath. Formerly the stables of Athboy House and known locally sometimes as ‘the Old Piggery’, the site comprised of a walled square with stone stable buildings  round a courtyard at one end. A small heritage garden sits between it and one of the main roads into the town. It’s close to the middle of town, and was set for development before the country’s finances went down the toilet, and took the building industry with them. The place was just sitting there looking neglected and ugly, so some of the people from the area decided to do something about it.

And I hate to admit it, but it was the suggestion of a television personality that got things rolling.

Back in January, Diarmuid Gavin showed up, held a public meeting on the site, and proposed that the town renovate the stables buildings, so that he could film it for his new show, flatteringly entitled ‘Dirty Old Towns?’. Right, ‘cos Athboy is such an apocalyptic wasteland. I don’t imagine the active Tidy Towns committee were very impressed at the choice of show title.

But I think there was some excitement at the beginning of Gavin’s talk, with people thinking that the programme would offer some kind of budget, or that Gavin himself might contribute some design expertise. A few incisive questions from some of the local businessmen quickly established that neither would be forthcoming – but that if the townspeople were willing to do all the work and donate all the materials necessary, the production company would film it and put it on the telly.

You’ve gotta love reality television. Certainly cheaper than paying for actors and sets and scriptwriters and stuff.

Anyway, people were still interested, but much of the excitement had been deflated. The programme was due to air in April – the first episode went out on Wednesday night – so most of the work would have to be completed by then. We looked around at the ruined, crumbling stone buildings, and knew it wasn’t to be. The place was a health and safety nightmare, fit only for stray animals and drunken teenagers (I believe there are at least three or four such hooligans in the area). Even so, some of the locals took the opportunity to spread the word and call a meeting to discuss just what could be done.

I had been involved for a few years with a group that fixed up walking trails in the Wicklow Mountains – this was before life as I knew it changed with the snip of an umbilical cord. I know the buzz of working as a volunteer to help build something that will benefit a community. And it is a buzz. For anyone who spends a lot of their work day at a computer or a drawing desk, getting outside and making stuff out of earth and wood and stone is just plain good for your soul.

And besides, Maedhbh and I are still renovating the house, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to pick up some new skills and meet some of the local guys in the trades.

So I went along to the first few meetings, to listen and contribute and basically just join in. Even before any work could start, there were legal and insurance issues to sort out, getting the owner’s permission to access the property (we weren’t drunken teenagers, after all), and laying out the plans.

We decided to steer clear of fixing up the stable buildings, on the grounds that it would cost an absolute bloody fortune, and nobody wanted to do the developer’s job for him. But the square in front, which was little more than a weedy field overlooked by the ivy-covered stone fronts of the buildings, could be turned into a market square.

After some discussion, a garden designer came up with a plan for the site, and once everyone knew what was happening, things just kind of took off from there. I have to say, I had my doubts about how much we could get done, and certainly didn’t think there’d be much worth putting on the telly by April, but I underestimated the people of Athboy.

It seems that, inspired by all the politicians, bankers and property moguls who made this country what it is today, the town of Athboy had decided to do some property developing of its own.

Some people did the fundraising bit, selling pancakes, hot-dogs or coffee. Sports and community clubs donated funds. Other people handled the thorny legal and insurance stuff. A load of builders turned up out of the blue and started work, and local builders’ providers, hardware suppliers and garden centres provided an fantastic amount of materials. I did one day of shovelling stuff and took photos of all the work as the days passed, amazed at people’s contributions. Local businesses provided tractors, diggers and a dump-truck. Lorries showed up, delivering loads of materials; gravel, rolls of grass, wood and pavers.

What had once been a field of weeds and brambles quickly became a level gravel surface, with paved areas, small sections of lawn and twenty newly-planted trees, as well as over a dozen small marquees available for market stalls. Doors and a massive gate were fitted to the external walls of the buildings; all the ivy was cleaned off, and some of the ironwork painted.

Diarmuid Gavin showed up with the film crew on Sunday a few weeks ago, to find a farmer’s market in full swing, featuring a trad band, a children’s play area, craftsmen making baskets and leather goods, a few different stalls laden in scones, cakes and breads,  a vegetable stall, as well as stalls selling hot-dogs, fudge, jewellery, herbal remedies, books and a few representing local clubs.

One builder I got talking to during the work, reckoned the project would have cost over fifteen grand if it had been done as a commercial job. The final bill came to about three grand, much of which had been covered by the fundraising even before the day of the market. I really think there’s an appetite for this kind of thing now. People don’t want to wallow in misery over our country’s woeful finances. There’s a lot of active people out there who want to make their towns and areas a better place to live. Not by building a load of shite quality apartment blocks fast –with no community spaces – and selling them for a king’s ransom, but by improving on what we already have. Building better, rather than more.

The farmers’ market has been taking place in the square every Sunday, and there’s a real buzz when you go there. I really enjoyed playing my small part in this project, and seeing what a community can do – and how fast they can do it – once they set their minds to it. I look forward to seeing what else can be done.

If you want to see more about it, ‘Dirty Old Towns?’ is on on Wednesday on RTE One at 8pm.

Just to wind up, here’s a very good (and nice and short) TED talk about becoming involved in local government, how rewarding it is, and the obstacles thrown in our way by the system that should be making it possible.

Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire 2011

I’m delighted to say to that ‘Voraces’, the French edition of ‘Ancient Appetites’, has been shortlisted in France for the ‘Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire 2011′. It’s in the category  ‘Roman jeunesse étranger’, (number six on the list of categories on the award’s site). I’m up against some pretty tough competition. Here’s the full list for the category:

The winner will be announced during the Etonnants Voyageurs Festival in Saint-Malo, which takes place between the 11th and 13th of June. I’m also delighted to say I’ll be there doing some events – and having a bit of a holiday – so I’ll get to hear the result live! ‘Coincidence?’ I hear you ask.

Alternative Approaches

This post is dedicated to various aspects of not doing things the normal way. I’m going to start with a recent article in the Meath Chronicle about a class in St Fintina’s Post Primary in Longwood, County Meath. Each of the first year students has been provided with a Fizzbook Spin tablet-style laptop. The school worked with The Educational Company of Ireland and Steljes to deliver this new approach, where the software for the textbooks was preloaded onto the laptops. There is a cost for the consoles – they’re paid for by a rental scheme over five years, – but the ebooks loaded onto them work out cheaper than normal textbooks. Students can even email their homework to their teachers.

Meanwhile, reports that the Google Settlement has been rejected by a court in the States. U.S. District Judge Denny Chin of New York ruled the settlement would: ‘give Google a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission’. This could work out just right in the long run. Google were (indeed, still are) trampling over copyright law with their library project, but at least they were leading the charge into digitization with some kind of strategy, which the publishing world as a whole is lacking. This way, we might have a major start towards a global, digitized library, without Google being able to maintain a bloody great monopoly over it.

My brother sent me this link, an article about a teacher getting fired for writing stories. Without knowing all the facts of the case (the story’s told mostly from the teacher’s side), I’m hesitant to make any judgement on it, but it sounds ludicrous that Leonora Rustamova (known to the kids as ‘Miss Rusty’) lost her job for finding an innovative way of getting resistant teenagers to read. I’ve worked with enough of these kinds of kids myself to know that the normal rules do not apply. You’ve got to take an alternative approach to reach teenagers – particularly boys – once they decide ‘I don’t/can’t read’. Basically Rustamova started writing chapters of a story for a group of lads that featured them as characters – and it worked. They ate up each chapter as she produced them – they waited in anticipation for the next one. Her husband used a self-publishing website to format the story, but when he put it up online, Rustamova went from pioneering literacy campaigner to educational pariah at the click of a key. Like I said, I don’t know all the facts, but it sounds like a massive overreaction to me, and a warning to any other teacher who might dare to use some initiative.

One of the terms that everybody’s spouting at the moment is ‘cloud-computing’. This is where you use online software and storage space to do your work, allowing you to access it anywhere you have web access. It’s the next big thing, and all the big name tech companies are trying to take the lead. But surprisingly, Amazon have beaten the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Google to the punch by producing an online music service, allowing you to store and organize your music online. I have a few issues with the whole cloud-computing thing – you reduce your privacy to near-zero and provide hackers with a potential goldmine – but there are clearly advantages too.

If you’re in a philosophical mood, here’s an article in the New York Review of Books, debating civil liberty issues on the internet. Is it really a massively influential tool for creating democracy, or does it divert attention away from the real means of achieving people power? It’s a good thought-provoking read.

And finally, on a lighter note, I watched proudly the other day, as my baby daughter – still awaiting her first tooth – seized a board-book out of my hands and began to chew it ravenously. Her mother, the librarian, was overcome with dismay at the damage caused. But for Dada it was a proud moment as his baby girl began her first active – if slightly slobbery – engagement with a book. You can never start too early.

Show-Jumping Cow

It’s always nice to see someone doing things differently. I can only imagine the  persistence, patience and downright bloody-mindedness it would take to teach a cow how to jump fences. But someone’s done it. This girl’s parents wouldn’t give her a horse, so she trained her cow, Luna, for show-jumping. And what it lacks in height, it makes up for in originality.

Milkshake anyone?

Embarrassing Yourself in Public

I’m reluctant to even post this, it’s become such a ridiculous situation, but I can’t help myself. Here’s what can happen when you respond to a review . . . and keep responding . . . and keep responding. To any other writers out there: just be glad it ain’t you.


I am reminded of that famous line from the trashy classic, ‘Robocop’: ‘You have twenty seconds to comply’. Except in this case, it’s: ‘You have twenty minutes to reply’. After that, you know that new email you’ve just received is getting knocked down the list in your inbox.

I went into business for myself just a few years before email became the norm. For anybody who’s popped up after that, I can tell you that since it started being used regularly in business, communication has sped up immensely. And the postal and courier industries have taken a real kicking. How many of you remember when we used to write letters? I don’t just mean forms, or invoices or postcards, but actual letters.

Don’t worry, I’m not getting all misty-eyed –  although I do miss receiving the odd, personal, hand-written letter. And writing them too . . . sitting down of an evening, taking time to compose your thoughts; the pleasure of using a good pen on quality paper. I was quite an accomplished letter-writer in my time, don’t you know.

Anyway, we can get things done far faster than we used to, but in a fine piece of irony, I seem to have less time as a result. Back in the nineties, emails, ISDN and broadband revolutionized the transport of artwork. You still had to send couriers out to deliver the big stuff – original artwork or just a file on a CD. But back when I was still working part-time as a commercial artist to fund my writing habit, I probably got as much writing done each day as I do now. Possibly more.

Part of this is down to me being established longer, having more contacts, and more people contacting me. But it’s also the nature of emailling.

When you get an email, you know the person has just sent it, and they know it has already arrived in your inbox. So any delay is down to you, not the means of delivery. Or even worse, you get that little pop-up telling you ‘The sender of this email wishes to be informed when you have read this message. Is this okay?’. No, it’s not okay –  sod off!

I pride myself on being professional – getting work done to the deadline, treating people with courtesy . . .  and responding as promptly as I can when somebody contacts me. But I have to get work done too.

People want to contact me, mostly because of my work. But sometimes I struggle to get work done, because I’m trying to stay in contact with people. The emails come in, and pile up, and each one represents a person waiting for a response. They know that email has arrived, and they’re pretty sure that I know. And I’m conscious that they know, and that they’re waiting. Except they might not be. They could have sent the email and then left their office, or turned off their computer, or gone to lunch.

I have to tell myself that they just have to wait until I’m ready. I close the email down, promise myself I’m only going to check it a couple of times a day, but there’s that one really important one I’m waiting for. I’ll just open it up, and if that one’s there, I’ll respond, otherwise . . . Shit, now there’s loads coming in. Oh, hang on, this one looks urgent . . . okay, this’ll only take a minute . . . Jesus, there’s a lot to do . . . what was I doing? Why can’t I think straight? Man, I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight until I get some of this stuff sorted out . . .

Twenty minutes later, I get back to work, having answered a few other impatient-looking little buggers in the inbox while I was there. But now I’m fully aware of the emails I still haven’t answered. I try to find that train of thought I’d left blinking in the cursor at the end of the last line I’d written in the story I’m working on, before I got distracted . . .

Hmm . . . trains. Maybe that’s what I should do: timetable my email access. Set it up to shut down at set periods of time. That would sort it. ‘Sorry mate, you missed your slot’. Get my discipline back, get back to writing for long stretches, undistracted, undisturbed. I need a handy piece of software to help me control this other handy piece of software. Yeah, a programme to help me manage my time better. That’s what I need. If I can just find the gizmo that will organize my contacts with the outside world better – give me more time to write. Would it be simpler if I got a Facebook account, and did everything through that?

Which reminds me – I haven’t posted a blog in a while. There’s a bunch of thoughts I’ve been meaning to write up. Must find some time for that today.