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Friday, 28 June 2013

Morris Dancing

One evening last week my husband and I drove out to The Bell at East Langton, a village pub in the Leicestershire countryside.

 It was warm (ish!) so we sat outside at one of the picnic tables with our son and a couple of friends. On either side of the path leading up from the road, bushes of lavender alternated with white roses whilst overhead swallows swooped. It was the perfect peaceful antidote to a busy week.

Then the Leicestershire Morris Dancers arrived to liven everyone up. They played music, waved handkerchiefs, banged their sticks and the bells on their legs tinkled away as they danced the Cotswold Morris which is usually performed in the summer. These guys claim to have danced in every village in the county and on a Wednesday throughout the summer they dance at  3 different locations during the evening. It's thirsty work and I bet they get through a lot of beer too!

Nobody knows when Morris dancing originated but it was around in Shakespeare's day. Although Morris dancing is thought of as a peculiarly English activity apparently there are 150 groups in the U.S. I remember Morris dancers on the village green in the place where I grew up, usually on May Day and we used to get them in the City too, not far from where I live now, outside the corner shop. Last week the Morrismen were raising money for LOROS which is a Leicester based charity comprising a hospice and day-care centre. So not only does the dancing keep the Morrismen fit and happy but it's all done in a good cause too. I really enjoyed watching them, all the more because it was a complete surprise.
Thank-you for reading. I hope that a nice surprise comes your way this week and sending good wishes to all of my followers in the U.S. for a very happy Fourth of July.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Grandma's Garden

When I was a little girl I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' house. My mother would drop me off on a Friday evening and sometimes I would be there until Monday, or Tuesday if it was the school holidays. Before she died my grandmother said that I was like her fourth child and, to me, she was like a second mother. Sometimes, being an only one like me, I felt that she understood me better than my own mother. I think of her often. A photograph of my grandparents on their wedding day hangs in my kitchen. It was taken on 1st  August 1931 and they both look so happy and they went on to have a long and happy marriage. It makes me smile every time I look at it.

This photograph was taken in the garden of the house where she lived before she was married and where she returned to live when war broke out in 1939. She spent the rest of her life there until she died in 1999. I think of her often, especially at this time of year because my garden is full of her flowers. My grandfather was a keen gardener but they had traditional roles, his area was the vegetable plot and my grandmother's domain was the flower borders. Some of the flowers in my garden actually came from these very borders, their roots teased up on hot sunny days as the two of us meandered around the Swithland slate paths admiring her handiwork. I planted these gifts in our first garden, taking pieces of them to our second house and to our third. When we move from here I will take parts of them with me again.

So here are some of the plants from Grandma's garden.

I adore these Icelandic poppies with their petals like tissue paper. They were some of her favourites too.

I cannot see a paeony without thinking of my grandmother, but they grew much better in her garden, with the benefit of a warming brick wall behind them, than they do in mine with its Westerly winds which are blowing a gale as I write.

She used to cut armfuls of lilac and bring it into the breakfast room, arranged casually in a large bowl and placed in the centre of the mahogany table. The scent of it transports me straight back to my childhood.

I don't know the name of this little fern-like plant with yellow flowers but it used to grow everywhere at Grandma's house, even in chinks in the wall. It's taken ages to get going here, literally years, but now, all of a sudden, it is spreading beautifully and brightening up those areas where not much else will grow.

These two roses weren't from Grandma's garden but she bought them both for us soon after we moved here and the tiny pink one has never had so many flowers as it has this year.


This is called London Pride and used to grow in a narrow border along the side of my grandmother's house. I can still see her kneeling and weeding as I ran across the lawn towards her.

The path to the big front door was staight and crazy-paved. On either side of it, in the narrow borders  there were frilly petalled pinks and mounds of soft, silver-leaved 'snow on the mountain'.

Finally, these centaurea which were probably some of the first plants she gave to me from her garden and which the bees love almost as much as I do.

My Grandma showed me so much patience, kindness and understanding. I miss her steady love, the lilt of her voice, the tenderness of her skin as I kissed her cheek and the taste of her Yorkshire pudding, which she baked in one huge tray, will never be surpassed. But, although she is no longer a tangible presence in my life, at this time of year especially, she is with me through her flowers in my garden.
Thank-you for reading. Have a good week and if you have any flowers which remind you of the special people in your life I would love to hear about them.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

A Week to Remember

I have had the most amazing week!

On Tuesday I headed for Retford in North-West Nottinghamshire for a visit to Retford Oaks School in order to talk about my book, Last Chance Angel, and to share my love of reading and writing with two groups of thirty students. We were in the library which is actually the ideal to be when you're talking about books! The students were brilliant and Christine, the librarian, talked about setting up a creative writing group. I do hope this happens as creative writing does seem to fall by the wayside in the U.K. at secondary school level. Unfortunately I don't have any photographs of this visit as, in the rush to get out of the house in the morning, I forgot my camera!

On Wednesday, I headed for Solihull in the West Midlands. The first school was St. Peter's R.C. School where I was met by Pat Tate and Phyllis Gaunt from the Federation of Children's Books. They introduced me to the lovely Penny, the librarian and I talked to about 120 students in the hall. I was looked after brilliantly by Ben who is an ex-student at the school and an expert on all things technical. All technophobes like me need someone like Ben around! After the talk I was interviewed for the school radio and signed some books. Here's a picture of me with Jack, Rhys and Molly.

After lunch it was off to Langley School, a specialist school for performing arts. At Langley it is 'cool' to achieve and the emphasis is on relationships as the key to success. I was met by Mr. Harrison, the head of English and again supported by many people including Kim the librarian. The students were delightful and incredibly enthusiastic about the book.

Finally, on Thursday it was off to Bablake School, Coventry for an event which was part of the Coventry Festival. I talked to about 250 students, from Bablake, their junior school and Finham Park School. A gale blew outside, the roof leaked, some of the children had to move seats and I was told the Powerpoint might have to be cut off but the students were a fantastic audience despite it all!
By the time this photograph was taken with librarians Julie and Lucy, the sun had re-emerged. The vagaries of an English summer!
I have met some absolutely lovely people this week and have been overwhelmed by their generosity and the reaction to the book. If you read the papers you get the impression that teenagers are disaffected or troublesome but the ones I've met have been charming and it is so encouraging to meet so many people who are absolutely passionate about books and reading and writing.
Thank-you for reading and, for all of the right reasons, I wish you a week to remember.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Reading for pleasure

Yesterday I went into a school in Nottinghamshire to promote my book, Last Chance Angel, and also to talk about my love of reading and writing. I was given an incredibly warm welcome and the students were delightful. The talk took place in the library, a bright airy space with motivational banners around the walls, newspapers, magazines, computers and approximately 10,000/12,000 books.

 I was in heaven! Yet when I asked the first group of 25 girls as to how many of them read for pleasure, only 6 hands were raised. In the second group it was closer to 50% but when I asked those girls who had not put their hands up, as to why they didn't read for pleasure, the common theme seemed to be that it was boring. I found this very sad as this particular school has two warm, approachable and dedicated librarians who are committed, through various enterprises, to instilling a love of books.

Recently I read an article in the Daily Telegraph about the importance of reading for pleasure. Research carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on education and reading found that future social mobility and hopefully, by definition, more pathways to a  successful and satisfying career and life in general, is more likely if, at the age of 15, young people read for pleasure. In the U.K. girls have a better attitude towards books and reading, than boys. Bearing in mind that many of the girls I met did not read for pleasure, I can only conclude that the figure for boys would have been lower and yet...

At break time, at this school, on this particular day of the week, there is a reading time in the library. All the students who were there reading for pleasure on the day I visited, were boys. Some were reading books, a couple were reading magazines but they were reading and they were enthusiastic and charming and talked extremely intelligently about the books they were reading.

So, how do we get more of our children reading for pleasure and thus give them a better chance in life of achieving their potential? I'm no expert, just a Mum of three now grown-up children, one of whom is dyslexic, so I do know of the difficulties some young people face when confronted with pages of text. There has been a lot of criticism of schools, the government, the national curriculum, the distraction of computer games etc. etc. But, to my mind, the problem begins a lot closer to home. In fact it begins at home. I was shocked to be told recently that some children do not know what nursery rhymes are. For my children some of their earliest and happiest memories are of us sitting on the sofa leafing through a book of nursery rhymes. This was one of our favourites and we still say it now sometimes when sitting around the table and a recalcitrant pea shoots off the plate!

I eat my peas with honey
I've done it all my life
It makes the peas taste funny
But it keeps them on the knife

My own grandmother was not a great reader but she knew lots of nursery rhymes and she remembered them for her whole life. She was 91 when she died and still able to recite Sing a Song of Sixpence or Humpty Dumpty, as my own small daughter listened entranced, curled up at her great-grandma's feet.

I know that I am preaching to the converted here, as all of you reading this blog are probably avid readers and lovers of books but we will also be parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends and maybe in some small way we can encourage the children we know to find that right book which will open them up to the joys of reading and to the restorative qualities of stillness, quietness and the ability to be absorbed in another world. For, as I said to the students in Nottingham on Thursday, I do believe that there is the right book out there for every child and I also believe that books can change lives for the better. We have a duty as adults to help those children find that right book, for their sakes and for the sake of Society as a whole.

Thank-you for reading and I hope the sun shines on your week.

If you would like to catch up with me on Facebook, I now have an author page at alexgutteridgeauthor

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Dreams do come true

When I was small I longed for three things, a brother or a sister, a horse and to overcome my shyness. As it turned out I couldn't have siblings or a pony to call my own and it took me more years than I could have imagined to learn how to cope with my extreme shyness. But, as a child, although I couldn't have any of these things in real life I could catch hold of what it felt like to have them when I picked up a book. In some books I could identify myself, in others the person I wanted to be.

You will realise why the above book was a particular favourite of mine. It is a little pocket Collins called First Pony by Jane Eliot whose real name is Patricia Leitch. I absolutely loved this book in which Sandy dreams of owning a pony of her own. I read it again and again and wrote my full name on the front cover, underlining it twice, as if by doing that it would ensure that no-one else dared to walk off with this book. This book was at the same time aspirational and comforting. If we are down the right book can lift us. If we are afraid it can empower us. If we are worried it can re-assure us. Books add richness and stillness to our lives and I believe that books can change lives. Both as a reader and as a writer, they have certainly changed mine.

This week I have been counting down the days until the publication of my latest book, Last Chance Angel. It is three years since I sent this manuscript to Templar and two years since I got the phone call to say they would like to take it, and me, on. It was a dream come true, but publishing is a slow business and although I am used to this and totally accept it, I think some people who asked about the book initially, have actually wondered whether it really was going to see the light of day after all. In the intervening time I have written a second book for Templar, due to be published in 2014 and am in the process of editing that. So I am involved with new characters and a different plot. But for the next month I will be visiting schools and re-visiting my relationship with Jess, the main character in Last Chance Angel. I love Jess. She has and always will have a special place in my heart. I grew to love Darren, the Angel of Death too although he's not the most cuddly of characters!  It's a nerve-wracking time in many I wait for any reactions to my creative enterprise but incredibly exciting too especially as this time around I have decided to have a launch party. I've never done this before but this time, with Templar's support, I've decided to go for it and this morning took delivery of this amazing cake.

It was made by a very talented lady called Justine who runs a company called Jus bakes and I am absolutely thrilled with it. This party is an opportunity for me to thank family and friends for all of their support, as well as to meet some new people in the book world as well.

So, to all of you writers out there, struggling with your plots, trying to breathe life into your characters, wiping away the tears as you get another rejection I urge you not to give up. It can take time, you can experience many highs and even more lows and a lot of people will think you are chasing rainbows. Many will not understand why you are doing it at all but you know the reasons and that is all that matters.

One of my dreams is about to come true. This week I hope some of yours will too and, as always, thank-you for taking the time to read my blog. If you've got a bit of extra time, I've also got a post on the Templar blog this week, talking about making your readers cry! Here's the link…