Thursday, 27 September 2012


People, I have gone. But fret not: I have reappeared here, with a new permanent blog, where everything frabjous will happen. Please come and join me there. There be parties and cake. Well, not cake, because I prefer chocolate, but chocolate.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Patience, my friends, patience a while

My move to a new blogging home is taking a little longer than Andrew Brown (Design4Writers) and I had hoped, due to the unforeseen oddities of the set-up of my main website. I'm soon going to be asking Andrew to do a whole redesign of that - he didn't do the existing one, sadly - but meanwhile he's trying to get some of the oddities smoothed out before the blog goes live. And when it does go live, it won't be as sparkly and pretty as we'd like. (Well, OK, it's only me that wants sparkly and pretty; Andrew wants sensible and well-designed. Men - kuh!)

What we're aiming for is a blog seamlessly embedded in my main website, which will be better for SEO - yawn - and will be better adapted to my redesigned career as a retired advice-giver and a newly energised writer and speaker. Hooripity-yay!

It will still be purple. And it will still have chocolate. Obvs.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Moving again!

I'm moving! And I hope you'll come with me. No, not move in with me - I couldn't take all the extra washing - I mean come to my new blog home. Soon. (The decorators are in at the moment.)

I know, I know, I've been messing you around horribly with all this constant flux. But we will soon settle down together into a comfortable co-existence and, if I explain, all will become clear.

As you know, I started Crabbit At Home as a place to kick off my shoes and talk about more varied and more personal things than my Help! I Need a Publisher! blog allowed.

Then, as you also know, I very recently stopped blogging there, after tidying everything up so that all the lovely free info remains for anyone who wants it, along with links to the pretty books which convey that info so much more organisedly.

But when I did that, I said I had a plan. Because, as you also also know, I'm redirecting my career back towards being a children's writer. But I still want to carry on blogging. Just try to stop me!

And Crabbit At Home just doesn't have the right ring for my life as a children's and YA writer. Since there is to be no more crabbit, Crabbit At Home becomes redundant.

So, my wonderful tech expert / new website manager / cover designer / personage extraordinaire, Andrew Brown of Brown Media and Design4Writers, is working to integrate a NEW blog into my main website. (Blog coming soon!) Andrew didn't design that website and there are some complications caused by how it was built, so it's not a simple matter. I'm going to be asking Andrew to do a major redesign, probably next year, but meanwhile the blog will be there and I'll be able to do everything I want with it.

I can also run screaming to him at any opportunity. I have built that into our agreement. (Andrew, did you not read the small print? Silly man. *capers*)

At my new blog - which has a special name, a name which you will not know until you arrive there because it's currently a secret - you will find all the same sorts of things I have been blogging about here, same voice, same person. One blog, one place, one life. Tbh, I can't guarantee that there won't be a residual crabbit flavour occasionally.

How will you know when this house-move is taking place? Because I will tell you and because we will have a PARTY. Of course! Some things do not change.

Wonder if anyone can guess the name of my new blog? It's a single word. A word that's very important to me.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Parenting Teenagers - my talk today

Today I'm in Lancashire, doing a talk on the teenage brain for professionals as part of the Lancashire Children's and Young People's Trust. Before I catch the train, I thought I'd quickly put some tips up here, as I won't have time to go through them today. The main part of my talk is NOT parenting tips, because I am NOT some kind of older Supernanny, but the programme does say that one of the outcomes will be a better understanding about how to parent teenagers. I don't much like seeming to think I'm some kind of expert parent (ask my daughters about that) but I know it tends to be what people want. What I mostly want to talk about is how fascinating the brain is.

These tips won't make the fullest sense if you weren't there to hear me talk about what's going on in the brain during adolescence, but you know you can always read Blame My Brain for that...

Some tips for being a parent to teenagers

1. Understand some of the reasons for adolescent behaviour – this removes a sense of blame. (Lots of explanations in Blame My Brain.)

2. We have to learn to be parent of a teenager after being the parent of child. The parent of a child has a mission to protect. The parent of a teenager has to go against her/his own nature and resist that paramount desire to protect. The teenager needs to push against that in order to attain the evolutionary goal of both sides: independence.

3. Boundaries – if we set boundaries, they know we care (even though they may not show it!); they also like something to fight against. So, set your boundaries carefully and be prepared to be a bit flexible. A negotiated boundary is stronger than a rigid autocratic one.

4. Choose your moment to have a conversation - do you like being interrupted when you're relaxing or engrossed in something. Negotiate when the conversation will take place, if necessary.

5. Modelling good behaviour - we learn partly by imitation. As your teenager watches you managing to control your emotion, his own brain is preparing to imitate that. And vice versa...

6. Choose the battles to fight - do untidy bedrooms matter? On the other hand, some battles over less emotional/critical issues are safer grounds and may be satisfying to the teenager.

7. Sleep – operate sleep hygiene rules (certain activities to be avoided or encouraged during hour before desired sleep time); set bedtimes. (Interesting research suggests this may help a lot).

8. We are less responsible than we think. We can get all this right and still our teenager may struggle. Don't beat yourself up.

9. Put ourselves in their shoes – recognise how we bristle if given advice/criticism. So, treat your teenager more as an adult than as a child in how you talk to them. This takes a long time for parents to learn to do!

I'll have more details later but just now I must rush to my train...

Do comment!

Monday, 10 September 2012

Tears in the morning

You'll think I've gone a bit mad if I tell you that entering my garden office (The Crabbit Hutch) this morning made me cry. It was caused by two things. Well, three but let me tell you the first two first. Astrantia Masterwort and Stimulus Generalisation.

Let me explain.

Back in May, you may remember that I was lucky enough to acquire my amazing garden office. From day one, it revolutionised my working life. (I'll talk about that in more detail one day soon.)

In June, I went to visit a friend called Jane, at her home in Edinburgh. Jane was very unwell, but she and her husband and my husband had a lovely afternoon discussing lots of things, some of which were about her illness and some of which weren't. We stayed much longer than we'd planned, because a) we were all having a nice time and b) Jane and Ian were adamant that we were not outstaying our welcome.

Astrantia Masterwort from the garden
I took with me some flowers from our garden, which included some which we didn't know the name for. They grow outside my Crabbit Hutch, and I can see them as I sit at my desk. We discussed why it is that Jane and I were usually able to remember the names of plants when we'd heard them once, and our husbands usually couldn't. Jane was a highly experienced clinical psychologist and I'm interested in the brain, so there was lots to discuss here.

Another thing we discussed was how my new office had instantly changed my whole working life. Jane said, "Ah, that's Stimulus Generalisation," and she explained some more and suddenly everything made sense, in deep and clever ways that I've come to understand more and more. In very short, it describes how our brains link the cues around us to our behaviour and if we want to change our behaviour we need to change the cues around us. There's much more to it than that, but that's the essence.

The day after that lovely afternoon, Jane emailed. She'd identified the flowers. Astrantia Masterwort. Neither of us would forget the name.

So, why the tears when I entered my Crabbit Hutch today? And why the tears as I type this?

Jane died at the weekend. We knew she was going to and we knew it would be soon. I hadn't seen her since that afternoon, though we had emailed quite a lot, until she wasn't able to. She had been quite incredibly brave. I got the news while I was at the York Festival of Writing for the whole weekend and, because I had to do a load of really exhausting events and one-to-one sessions, I couldn't process this information. I guess I blocked it. That makes me feel bad.

When I walked into my office for the first time this morning, a new manifestation of Stimulus Generalisation kicked in because a part of how I understand how my Crabbit Hutch works for me is linked to Jane. So I cried. As I look out of the window, the Astrantia Masterwort are still flowering. And I'm just really, really sad.

(I've disabled comments, because I don't want everyone to feel they have to say something. I hope you understand.)

Friday, 7 September 2012

Blame My Brain - new cover coming!

I love the new cover that Walker Books have designed for the new edition of Blame My Brain, which will be relaunched in May next year, with an updated paperback version and an ebook version. I'll be doing events to support it. And I may have some special news, soon, too!

What do you think of the cover?

I also have another book about the brain, Know Your Brain, aimed at anyone from 9+/families, showing you how to look after and respect your brain. It features references to my dog... Great idea for a present for an enquiring 9+ child.

I'll see some of you in York today, at the York Festival of Writing. I'll be the one looked exhausted.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Of mice and a man and woman

(Warning: although there is no flash photography, there are scenes which may be disturbing to some.)

Normally, I use poison. (I did warn you.) But yesterday, Mr M and I managed to catch a mouse humanely (if having a large plastic box thrown on top of you and a larger piece of cardboard slipped smoothly under your bottom while you leap around like a giant flea counts as humane, which apparently it does to vermin-lovers.)

We managed to do this by a combination of speed, teamwork, planning, tupperware and enormous bravery, along with a determination to show this mouse exactly who should be afraid of whom.

I then carried it gently and almost lovingly up the garden while marvelling at it pretty eyes and how high it was managing to jump inside its box. Also its fatness and roundness and possibly pregnantness.)

I carried it a very long way up the garden, which is a very long garden. And I let it go amongst some shrubs that seemed to me to be either very good mouse habitat or else a very good place for it to meet a "natural" (and apparently therefore humane) death. (In fact, more likely a feline one, or else a freezing one.)

Mr M and I congratulated ourselves on a job well and humanely done.

An hour later, Mr M called me to the French windows, where we watched the mouse watch us. I think it was saying, "Well, that was nice, as far as it goes, but I'm back now." It practically knocked on the door, I tell you. Then it vanished. Last seen heading towards a tiny crack in the wall.

Last night, Mr M and I were woken by the home-coming party. What a scampering and popping of tiny champagne corks there was in the hall! I am absolutely convinced that while that mouse was outside, it was rounding up a whole load of garden mice and inviting them back to its (our) place for a hooley. Possibly, judging by that mouse's round belly, even to celebrate the imminent birth of a load more mice. How many mice can one (or, to be fair, presumably two) mice produce in a year? Don't answer that.

Next time, I swear, it's poison.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Today I...

1. Spoke to an audience of 150ish teachers who  displayed varying degrees of interest (but mostly, it has to be said, interest) in my talk about reading, reading for pleasure, teenagers, brains and more about the brain.

2. Managed, mostly, to block the fact that one man in the audience was shaking his head most of the time.

3. Sold a book. And gave away masses of posters, postcards and info about dyslexia. Hooray!

4. Went to M&S on the way home and bought some scrummy ingredients for dinner, but then got a text from Mr M to say his train wouldn't get in till 9.30. And he'd have eaten. Never mind - there's always tomorrow.

5. Re-read and attempted to process an email from my agent yesterday, re a publishing decision which surprised me, and not in a bad way.

6. And took a phone call which included the word "television".

Well, Mr M may not be back, but I'm, frankly, celebrating.


Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Name that character!

Ideas, please! I need a good name for a character in a children's book. An lady in her early 70s, aristocratic by origin, eccentric, mysterious, elegant. A name which resonates and is striking, but not too comic. Not a villain, though she is somewhat scary and aloof. Not cuddly. Emotionally somewhat fragile or fractured, though she's built a strong shell around herself.

The only other thing you might need to know about her is that her life was saved by a horse when she was a child, and she's horse-obsessed, so it's possible that she might have taken a horse-related middle name upon herself as an adult.

Ideas, please, in comments below!

If I use your suggestion, I'll credit you... If the book is ever published.

Monday, 27 August 2012

New term, new school, new girl, new books, new readers

Doesn't September always feel like the start of something? Dates back to when we were all at school and September meant new pencil cases and shoes and jotters. It's all full of hope and resolutions and a little bit of fear.

As many of you know, I'm about to start a new direction, too, stopping my writing-advice blog and books and emails and consultancy and all the other ways I found myself offering help to fellow writers. (The advice is still there, and so are my books for writers.)

And as many of you know this is not because I've had enough of it: it's because I want to get back to the real writing. For children. Focusing on story, on readers, on gorgeous books with exciting covers, and all the face-to-face, heart-to-heart, eyes-wide excitement that goes with children as readers. And I can't do the blogging and the writing, or not as much writing as I want.

I also want to put on record my commitment to supporting libraries and librarians, physical bookshops and enthusiastic booksellers. I want to be part of that again. I have had some decent success with self-publishing but my heart is more in writing than publishing and I want to publish less and write more. Publishers can help me do that. (If I can get another contract, of course - and that depends on my writing a book they think readers will want. I'm prepared to take that chance.)

So, am I writing more teenage fiction? No! Well, I'll never say never, but it's not what I'm doing right now. You may think we're none of us getting younger but in my writing I am. *swallows cod-liver oil* Back to the age group that Chicken Friend was for. Chicken Friend did really well and, although out of print, is still my most borrowed book from libraries. I often asked my former editor if she'd like me to do more along those lines but she always seemed not to hear the question, as she wanted me to do more teenage stuff. But now, I'm returning to that wonderful, enthusiastic age group with a vigour. Maybe someone else will like my new ideas for that age group.

So, I've written a new novel for 8-10s and have a load more ideas in the pipeline, including a highly commercial high-concept series. My agent wants me to hurry up and get on with these ideas.

So I will!

Watch this space.

Friday, 17 August 2012

If you want to bamboozle me, now's a good time

If anyone wants to deceive, bamboozle or mug me, any time over the next five days I'm going to be a push-over. I probably won't even see you coming. My head is going to be dizzied by debate, confusticated by conversations, and buzzing with b...b...b... ideas. It is the much-heralded (and in my case somewhat dreaded) World Writers' Conference as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and I am in it. And it starts today. From lunchtime. Hence my slight earlier-than-usual posting. I will not be fit for anything later.

I am sure the only reason I'm in it is because I'm crabbit and I think we are expected to be crabbit and indulge in near-fisticuffs because that's what some internationally-renowned authors did at the previous one, fifty years ago, on which this is scarily modelled. (Even the new one's website looks scary, don't you think? I have no intention of being crabbit in public, so the idea of being expected to be eloquently crabbit is scary.

Then all the bumpf came a couple of days ago and I became a bit less scared and a lot more excited, because I discovered that they have laid on a vast and exciting programme of social opportunities to discuss anything we want (well, book-related, I guess, but who knows?) with fellow delegates. And I very much do like the idea of discussing (even crabbitly) book-related things with other writers and to be given many opportunities to do this with writers I mostly haven't met before is an exciting idea.

As I say, hypnotised as I will be by all this probably-lubricated discussion and the effort to avoid fisticuffs or tongue-tied moments, you could probably get me to sign anything.

Wish me luck. I shall report.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

My experience of work experience girls

I've had two girls with me, doing work experience - Alex Brogan and Mairi Chittleburgh. They've been wonderful! Later, I'm going to get them to blog here about their experience.

When they first arrived, I spent time explaining all the parts of publishing, agenting and writing. Then I told them about all the projects I'm involved in at the moment and I identified some they might be able to help with.

Their main task on the first day was to go through the whole text for my recently finished novel, Lizzy Invisible, and a) make notes of every fact about every character b) check for consistency of facts and c) tell me if there were any aspects at all that I should change. I must say, I did like hearing choruses of "awwwww" and "OH NO!" coming from the next door room! Late that night, I incorporated their (few) suggestions and sent it to my agent, who has now pronounced it fit to go to publishers. *shivers*

They also started brainstorming names and characters for a commercial series I'm planning.

Then they made lists of schools I can tell about a competition I'm organising for the Highwayman books. And researched the authors I'm chairing at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Next task is to start planning a marketing campaign for my proposed ebooking of Sleepwalking and The Passionflower Massacre. They have already had some good ideas. And they will be commissioning the covers from my designer!

They will be spending a day or two at the Edinburgh Book festival with me next week. Unfortunately they can't come to my school event or workshop but they are coming to the event I'm chairing on Monday - Sally Gardner and Celia Rees. Do come!

They are both starting their final year at The Mary Erskine School in Edinburgh, a school I've had many links with. Girls from the year above them helped write Deathwatch and launch The Highwayman's Curse, for example. Fantastic school and the girls are a credit to it.

And they will get their names in the acknowledgements for Lizzy Invisible, if it is published...

Mind you, what I hadn't realised is that Alex Brogan has another claim to fame. And they both eat chocolate, so they will do well as writers.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Mondays are Red and the lovely trailer

I came across the trailer for Mondays are Red the other day. My younger daughter made it and I think it's very wonderful indeed.

Mondays are Red is currently an ebook only. It was my first YA novel and had some fabulous reviews. You'll either love it or think it's weird! It's challenging and different, with weird language because it's seen through the eyes of a boy not only waking from a coma but discovering that he has synaesthesia.

And my daughter who made it is now looking for a proper job in the film industry, making documentaries. She now has enough great work experience on her CV that she's ready for proper, paid work as a researcher or production assistant.

Let me know if you have any ideas or contacts for her!

If you'd like to buy Mondays are Red from Amazon, it will make my day! ONly £2 at the moment. If you write a review, it will make my week ...

UK link

US link

Lulu link for non-Amazon purchases

It's written for teenagers but very often enjoyed by adults, especially those interested in language. Teachers will also be interested in the examples of inspired creative writing from pupils at the end of the ebook.

Here's that spooky trailer again!

Don't read on if you don't want to read any reviews:

Friday, 27 July 2012

I'm Going For Gold

So, the London Olympics begin today. I'm looking forward to watching the opening ceremony on TV and heading to London tomorrow to see some events over the weekend. With my unsponsored packed lunch!

What you don't realise is that I'm also taking part. I'm proudly representing my country in the heavyweight category of the How About You All Stop Carping? competition. This is a little-known sport but the rules are this: every time you hear someone being cynical or disparaging of the achievements and hopes of others, you get one point for rolling your eyes, two points for yawning, five points for temporarily blocking them on Twitter (with a conversion giving two extra points if you also hide their Facebook updates) and a whopping ten points for writing a blogpost on the subject. I'm going for gold.

I was pretty ashamed earlier this week to read this article in the NYT. Is this really how others see us? How embarrassing. I plan to fight it. I may be crabbit, and that may mean I’m often grumpy but it does not mean I’m negative or mean-spirited. I see I have competition from the Guardian, where there was an excellent piece today which probably guarantees them a place in the final of the How About You All Stop Carping? comp. I was also delighted by the BBC coverage at lunch today, both the UK news and the Scottish one. No carping there, not a spot of it.

It strikes me that those who take such pleasure in focusing gleefully on any mistakes that are made (or that they expect to be made) are usually those who not only couldn't organise the proverbial piss-up but wouldn't even get off their backsides to try. They tend to be those who don't join organising committees, don't get involved in community activities, don't attempt difficult things. They don't have time because they are too busy disparaging the efforts of others. And that is time-consuming; it also drains the ambition and creativity out of you.

I've loved to bits the wonderful sitcom, Twenty Twelve. And some of the truths they've parodied are real things to discuss and criticize. And yes, some of the things that have been mirrored by reality have been brilliant. The buses getting lost because the drivers had never been to London, for example, hilariously mirrored the first episode. No, I'm not saying we can't laugh when ridiculous things happen or are said or done. I loved the Orwell quote in the Guardian article - when asked why Britain doesn't have the goose-step: because people would laugh.

But there's laughing when something silly goes wrong and then learning from it. (I'm sure whoever showed the wrong Korean flag has learnt from it...) And then there's sneering in advance and doing sod all about it except carrying on sneering and looking out for more and more things to sneer about.

To be clear: I'm not saying you shouldn't complain when things are done badly or that you shouldn't argue against something happening if you think it shouldn't happen. Begin against something or criticising mediocrity is fine; it's the mean-spirited, lazy, dour-faced carping and sneering while doing so that is what I'm on about.

Yes, so, some people who hate sport will become sick of the focus on something they find boring. Some people who work in London or one of the other venues may have their journeys to work affected for three weeks. Yes, drivers in London may well be irritated by the Olympic lanes. And the issue of not being allowed to eat unsponsored crisps or wear unsponsored clothes (let's see, shall we?) is an important one, and one we can fairly argue about.

Yes, it's has cost a lot of money. Things that are worth doing often do, and they are worth doing well.

Yes, we are in very difficult economic times, and spending a lot of money may seem like the wrong thing to do. But sometimes spending money on something special and luxurious rather than boring and essential is a right thing to do. Uplifting, exciting, worthwhile.

To all the athletes who have sacrificed and achieved so much to be selected, and the athletes who have worked so hard and been unlucky enough just to miss selection, to all the thousands of people involved in organising, planning and delivering these games, those in the public eye and those behind the scenes, you have my admiration, all of you. Whatever happens. None of the sneerers could have done what you've done. They are far too ensconced in their comfy sofas, throwing popcorn and spitting pips from the lemons they've just been sucking.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

My older daughter, since you asked

Several people have asked me to say something about my older daughter. I blogged about my younger one, and very occasionally mention her on Twitter or FB, but I tend not to shout about D1. There's a simple reason for this: she's not a public person and she's rightly cautious about info being "out there".

Anyway, here's all you are allowed to know about D1!

She lives in London. She has a fab job working for the Tate, an organisation she's followed and loved for years. She works in the Director's office, and has been there for a year now, after previously working for Burberry. She's incredibly knowledgable about art and design. And the latest thing she's been involved in is the launch of this - the Tate Tanks. Job well done!

She's gorgeous, relentlessly modest, and has a heart of gold. She is not at all crabbit!

Both my daughters are great friends. They share similarities - particularly in their honesty, integrity and care for other people - but they are also very different in lots of ways.

And I'm equally proud of both of them.

Here endeth the boast of a proud mum. With apologies.

Friday, 13 July 2012

When language isn't beautiful

I love language. I love new words and new ways of expressing things. I love how it changes and adapts and is alive, how we find a way to express anything we want with it, how new generations put their own slant on it. Despite having a strictly classical education - including having a degree which required me to read and write in Latin and Greek - I am not one of those people who winces at a neologism or adaptation of a word or when someone turns a noun into a verb or whatever. I think that's what language is allowed to do. I also have a tendency to prefer style to correctness, although the fundamentals must be correct if the writer is to achieve the clearest meaning and communication.


I can't stand it when people hide behind absurd jargon, thinking it makes them sound clever. Management-speak and Government-speak are ugly, usually quite unnecessary, verbose, exclusive and frankly rather pathetic when you deconstruct them.

Anyway, recently I was waiting for a train and couldn't avoid listening to a woman on the phone. She was speaking loudly, presumably to a colleague, and crikey, did she think she sounded clever! I wrote down some phrases that particularly struck me. The list that follows consists only of the phrases she used more than once:

"We need a starter-for-ten agenda."
"That's the absolute drop-deadline."
"...project-specific parameters..."
"Can you lean on the time-scales?"
" close of playday..."
"We should microwave that one but the other one's a slow-cooker." [She didn't mean a TV dinner.]
"It's a decision in transit situation, then?"

Yeah, I know what they mean, of course. That's not the point. The point is the clubbiness, the in-speak, and the ugly pointless messing around with words, in ways which don't make meaning clearer or more beautiful.

Self-conscious, affected. Ugh.

Until Mr M managed to stop working for a certain large company - speak not its name in my presence, unless I am armed with garlic and a silver cross - he was plagued by the ugly contortions of the language. He used to come back from work with tales of weasel phrases bandied about in the usually pointless meetings that held him back from his real work (and, indeed, the company's real work). Phrases wouldn't last long because "they" always had to create new ones as soon as anyone had got used to the old ones.

One I remember: "We need to schedule his on-boarding."

There were also a whole load of abbreviations, which one was supposed to know in order to avoid withering looks.

Can you guess the meaning of these:

AGAP = eg "It's an AGAP situation here."
CAC = eg "What is the CAC for your taxi?"
And probably the best: KSOR = eg "It's a KSOR issue." 

Any suggestions?! And do you have any management-speak phrases that annoy you? Amuse you?

Friday, 6 July 2012

Favourite places - and a chance for you to be published

I came across this today. Scottish Book Trust are running a competition in which you can write about your favourite place. It got me thinking about favourite places.

I have many. I love trees and this is a picture of some woods where I lived just outside Edinburgh two houses ago. The woods were why I wanted to live there. My husband wanted to live there because of a particular wall! *shakes head in disbelief*

I love hills, and this is the hill just through my garden now - Calton Hill in Edinburgh.


I love my new garden office, the Crabbit Hutch, where I am at the moment. It's pouring with rain outside but so cosy and bright inside.

I love being in my bed with a book. I won't show you a picture of that, if you don't mind.

I love standing on a beach, looking out to sea. Any beach. Any sea. But here's one. Pringle Bay in South Africa, where I was earlier this year.

I love the Yurt at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I wrote about that here. And here is me enjoying the sun while sitting outside it. It's always sunny there... 

Do go and enter the SBT competition but meanwhile tell me: where is your favourite place? 

Monday, 2 July 2012

Home foods from abroad

My younger daughter is returning home today after SIX months in various bits of Africa - SA, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and Zanzibar. You saw her jump out of a plane a while back. That seems tame compared with what she's done since then and I'm sure she's shielded me from most of it.

The other day, I asked her to tell me what foods she's most wanting there to be in stock when she arrives.

She said:
kettle chips
dips - tzatziki, hummous etc
nice salad stuff
spring onions
pickled onions
orange juice - no bits
nice bread  - good toastie bread, thick sliced etc
fish pie ingreds - maybe have this on monday night?
maybe some chocolate
I love that list!

What would be on your list?

Friday, 29 June 2012

Why illegal downloading really does matter

I make no apologies for fighting for the rights of writers and artists to earn from their work and to be allowed to make decisions as to value and cost. So, I bring you perhaps the best, fullest, and most passionate and moving argument for why this is important.

Interesting point about fair trade coffee, too - it's why I created the idea of Fair Reading.

The end of the article goes to the heart and is worth quoting:
"Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?
Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?
Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?"
Please, parents and teachers, tell your young people. It matters. It's a moral issue.

It's theft. And there are victims.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

All for books - George Watson's College off to NZ, representing the UK

I'm very very proud of a school in Edinburgh that I have strong links with. Actually, I'm very very proud of two schools in Edinburgh that I have strong links with. One is The Mary Erskine School, and I'll be blogging about them soon. And the other is George Watson's College.

I used to live within spitting distance of GWC, not that I'd ever want to spit at them, of course. And I have done a load of events there and have got to know the very supportive librarian, Jane Shankland, quite well.

So, I was DELIGHTED when Jane told me recently that a team consisting of girls from GWC had won the UK finals of the wonderful international Kids' Lit Quiz - something else I have strong links with. Yes, I am so strongly linked to things that sometimes I can barely move my arms.

So, these clever girls fly off to New Zealand this Friday for the WORLD FINALS. They must be so excited. I think they look quite excited, don't you? They are: Rosie Isaac, Rebecca Poon, Katherine Holdgate and Beth Miller.

Their experience began last November when the team won the Central Scotland Heat. They then progressed to the UK Final. in which they had a decisive victory. Essentially they’ve come top of around 700 teams in the UK already. *bows in awe*

Jane said, "We have had great fun coaching the girls and they all have a huge love of books and taking part in the quiz has definitely helped create a buzz about reading in the school. It is so encouraging to see reading rewarded in this way - not just sport!!"

And indeed it is. I wonder if the girls realise that their school was also where, in my mind, Deathwatch is set. The scene with the Madagascan Hissing cockroaches... And, coincidentally, that's the book that the other school I mentioned, The Mary Erskine School, helped me write. And that school recently won the UK debating championship - as I discovered when I bumped into them at the airport as they set off to Istanbul to make an official visit to the parliament there as part of their prize. Clever schools, and it's no coincidence that they focus so strongly on reading and books.

Good luck to the girls of George Watson's College! Have a wonderful trip and come back with memories to last you a lifetime! We are proud of you already.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Who are my fellow combatants?

Until just now, I felt like part of a secret society. A secret society at which I'm going to have to fight and be stroppy and possibly even crabbit.

Some months ago I was flattered to be asked to be one of 50 authors from around the world to make up the Edinburgh Writers' Conference. (I don't mean do their make-up, silly...) Why do I need to be stroppy and fighty and everything? Well, because the conference is designed to mirror the writers' conference in Edinburgh 50 years ago, in 1962, when authors such as Norman Mailer and Muriel Spark debated cultural issues and apparently some of the speakers "nearly came to blows". I'm pretty sure this is why I've been invited.

But who else has? The identity of the 50 authors was a secret so I couldn't talk about myself it till yesterday, when the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme was launched. I thought we might learn then.

Well, apparently there was a press release in my goody bag at the launch, but there wasn't in mine. So, a quick plea on Twitter elicited this pic from @robaroundbooks and now, if I peer really hard, I can see the names.

Thank goodness, because otherwise it would have been like a blind-fold wrestling match. I like to know who I have to be crabbit with, even if I don't hit anyone.

Tonight I'm in Dumfries and Galloway, as I'm speaking at a conference tomorrow for writers/aspiring/self-published, all about social media, blogging etcetcetcetc. A long drive and lots of time for thinking about my current novel - in which I have come to a horrible complete standstill because I have NO IDEA what happens next. This is the worst case of mid-book crisis I have ever had. :(

I'm telling you, if I haven't cracked it by the time the Edbookfest happens, I will be highly likely to hit someone. Whoever they are.

Friday, 15 June 2012

My life in a boys' school - and why I can do press-ups

I was born in a school. Literally. A boys' boarding school. And thus began a strange childhood spent entirely in all-boys' schools, in the depths of various parts of the country, with my father as my headmaster and both my parents teaching me English, maths, French, science, cricket and hockey. One day I'll write about it properly but not yet.

Let's just say I learnt to be tough. Let's also say that now I cherish the strangeness of those times, and think that it was, genuinely, character-building, and I'm actually not entirely dissatisfied with the character that it built. I spent a lot of time alone (but never lonely) and am now very good at that. In fact, I need a lot of space and time to myself. I do love being with my friends and family but I also like being with myself only. Despite what I'm about to say, I wouldn't wish to have had a different childhood and there were huge benefits, particularly in the holidays. Well, OK, only in the holidays!

There is one teacher I'd like to tell you about. He's dead now, and for that I'm not sorry. He was a brutal man. I've no idea what went into his childhood to make him so, but he certainly got great pleasure from tormenting me. He picked on me as the only girl, and he knew that I would never complain to my parents because he knew that I knew what would happen if I did. You didn't complain about a teacher in those days. Besides, for me that would be "running to daddy" and I certainly wasn't going to do that. It was unwritten but certain that I would not.

This man - we'll call him the captain, because he had been an army captain and still used the title - was cruel. His eyes were small and button-beady, his shape rotund and solid and chest-puffed, his face apple-cheeked, his nose bulbous and threaded and pitted with veins and pores, and he wore an ancient kilt that smelt of cigarettes and tweed. (Yes, he was Scottish but this school was in Yorkshire.) He taught history and geography. I was bad at both but never understood why. I just knew that for other subjects (well, apart from maths) I'd get high marks and praise, while for his subjects I was getting 20-30%. Every time I handed in the best work I could do, every time I hoped it would be a decent mark, and every time it came back with his acid, diminishing remarks and a mean grade.

I remember his hand-writing now - it was small, whip-tight and poisonous. Red, of course, and I even remember the kind of orange redness of it.

But there's something I remember more clearly. The PE lessons, because as an army captain wasn't he just the obvious person to be teaching PE to some boys and one girl? Brutal circuits we had to do and whoever came last or committed some invisible misdemeanour had the punishment of doing more. And press-ups and windmills. As many as he could make us do. You did them till you could do no more. And when you stopped, exhausted or with arm-muscles paralysed with pain, you felt a failure for not doing more.

That is not all I remember of the PE lessons. But all I will say about the rest is that I did learn to fight. And I don't mean verbally.

He was a cruel man and probably a sad one.

I have only one thing to thank him for: I can - and do - still do press-ups. Oh, and if anyone got me in a head-lock, I'd certainly know what to do.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Of boots, escalators and photographers

This is a true story retold from 2007.

I have always adhered to the motto "Be prepared". And now I know I was right.

I had to go to London, for various reasons including a school event and a Times interview to promote The Highwayman's Footsteps, and an extraordinary photoshoot. This was to take place in a fake dungeonesque place in a museum, after dark, in Docklands, and a load of people had gone to extreme lengths to set it up. So there was no possibility of chickening out.

Anyway, 7am train from Edinburgh, into King's Cross, across to Liverpool St, left my suitcase in L'pool St, got the train out to Essex, did a school talk, back on train into L'pool St. Decided, in my infinite wisdom, not to collect my luggage but to leave it there while I rushed to Docklands for the photoshoot, because Paul, the nice-sounding photographer, had already been waiting a long time and probably wanted to go home, because Paul, unlike me, has common sense.

So, I hurry onto the Underground in the middle of rush hour. I can do this - I am strong and fit and I used to live in London. A long time ago. Before Docklands existed. I get to Bank and I hurry through more crowds to the Docklands Light Railway. I am slightly concerned, as I have not been on it before and it could very easily be dangerous. There are, however, no warnings about the type of danger I am about to encounter.

As I step onto the escalator, my foot kind of slides gently and undramatically from under me and I almost fall. But, being strong and fit, and desperate not to be uncool, I don't fall. I try to put my foot down again, but it doesn't seem completely to be there. This is a disconcerting feeling, as, last time I looked, it was. However, I look behind me and see an object sitting at the top of the escalator as I rapidly leave it behind. I put two and two together and realise that the heel has come off my boot.

Those of you to whom this has never happened need to understand: this is not a funny situation. It is not possible to walk properly like this. And my luggage, where spare footwear should be, is in Liverpool St Station.

But I was in the Girl Guides and we know how to deal with situations like this. In fact, I remember my Docklands Light Railway badge and one of the tasks was, quite definitely: carry a spare pair of boots in your handbag. This, naturally, I have done. Yes, really, I have a pair of red suede boots in my handbag. I am not joking.

So, end of story, you would think. But no, because I am in very heavy crowds on a very busy escalator, about to enter throbbingly full tunnels full of fearsome marauding Londoners, who are quite happy to laugh at me now, but will not be if I stop in the middle of them to change into red suede boots. I could be arrested. So I hobble. At first, people feel sorry for me because they think I am injured. Then they laugh. Then they get annoyed, as I am not walking fast enough for them. Or me.

This is not helped by the fact that, on the DLR, there are no friendly maps telling me where to go. I am like a tourist. I have to ask for help. But I can't, because I have only one heel and this renders me pathetic. Being in the Girl Guides did not prepare me for this. Luckily, a businessman, perhaps finding a woman with one heel worryingly interesting, asks if he can help. I want to ask if he is a cobbler but even if he is he is fairly unlikely to carry a spare heel and hammer with him. Unless he was in the Boy Scouts. I am disinclined to ask this. This is London. You don't ask questions like that. It's the sort of thing that starts incidents.

I pretend that I have not noticed anything amiss with my footwear, and I ask him which train goes to West India Quay. "This train," he says, smiling in the way that only businessmen who have other motives than cobbling do. He gets on the train with me, which is worrying. But I still have not managed to change my boots, which is more worrying.

I cannot change into red suede boots with this man watching me. I also cannot change into them because I have no idea whether West India Quay is one stop or ten and I might be caught mid boot. So, between each stop, I do not change my boots. I tuck my feet beneath me and pretend that I am merely demented, hoping that everyone will ignore me. This works disturbingly easily. This is, after all, London. I must remember that. That as long as you don't get in anyone's way, or ask for help, you can wear broken boots if you want to.

I hobble off with increasing and impressive agility at West India Quay, which was five stops away, which is annoying because I easily could have changed my boots. But the day hasn't been going my way so far, so why would it change now?

West India Quay is deserted. It is an unmanned and unwomanned station. It also has no signs or maps and I have absolutely no idea where I'm going. I need to find a really sleazy dark street corner at which to change into my red suede boots. Luckily, there is a wide choice. I manage to change without being arrested or propositioned, largely because there is no one around at all.

Docklands is like a sci-fi film set. There are looming sky-scrapers, distant lights, boats with no people, restaurants with no people, a creaking saloon door and tumbleweed tumbling along the dusty highway. I have absolutely no idea where to go.

My phone rings. It is Paul. "Where are you?" he asks. "I don't entirely know," I say, "but I think I'm here." We then do a passable impression of the Anneka Rice show from years back, and I find the Museum of London and, in it, Paul and Simon. I half expect to find Paul Simon, but that would not happen on a day like this. I would not be prepared anyway.

Paul is dressed a bit like a cat burglar so he is quite hard to see. Apart from this, he is very, very nice. He has no idea about my stressful incident. And I don't tell him. I prefer him to think that I am calm and cool, that I always wear red suede boots on sci-fi film sets and that I am not the sort of idiot who would lose a heel on an escalator. He photographs me in all sorts of poses in all sorts of varieties of dungeon, amongst the artificial smells of ancient life and strangely authentic soundtracks of 18th century people drinking mead.

Simon keeps holding a thing to my chin, flashing a light and reading out a number. This feels important but I haven't a clue what's going on. Paul doesn't ask me to smile, not once - because, as I say, he's very nice and nice photographers don't ask me to smile. He asks me to think about the characters in my book. I say, "But you said you weren't going to ask me to do anything, like act or anything." "I'm not," he says, smiling, "I'm asking you to think. I take the pictures, you think." This suits me fine and I think about the characters in The Highwayman's Footsteps.

It is an extraordinary experience, surreal, soporific. Oddly pleasant. At one point I nearly fall asleep, and at another point I start laughing. I try to explain to Paul that I have had a weird day. A few hours ago I was failing to understand the accents of some Essex convent girls and one hour ago I was legless on an escalator, and now Paul is taking photographs of me in a fake dungeon. I don't explain this well. I decide to shut up in case I am smiling in a photograph.

You may be wondering why I had red boots in my handbag. It's simple. I love boots. And I thought it might be a good idea to wear these red ones for the photoshoot but I knew it would really not be a good idea to walk around London in them. Those boots were not made for walking.

After all, what if I lost the heel on an escalator?

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Escalating rudeness

I propose that the London Underground escalator rule is applied to all escalators everywhere. For those of you who don't know it, it's simple: if you want to stand still, stand on the right. If you want to walk, walk on the left.

I get crabbit with the selfish behaviour of people on escalators elsewhere. Thing is, I wouldn't dream of telling anyone how fast or slowly they should move; I respect everyone's right to go at his or her desired speed, to walk or stand still as desired. So, why is it that people think it's ok to stand blocking the whole escalator and when I say, incredibly lightly and smilingly and politely, "Excuse me, please," with a "sorry" and a "thank you" thrown in for politeness, I get scowled at? And even, sometimes, refused passage? And once yesterday, argued with?

I don't know what I'm doing wrong when I ask to go past them; I try to make my voice as light as possible, so as not to seem at all cross, and I always smile, but I still get daggers almost every time.

What is it with people? Is it just me or does anyone else out there hate the thought of holding people up, getting in the way, forcing them to go at a different speed? And whatever happened to good manners? I know I'm impatient and like to walk faster than most, but I'm busy, I'm in a hurry and have no time to dawdle on escalators holding everyone up. If I'm not trying to make you go at my speed, why should others try to force me to go at theirs?

It's a very trivial matter, yes, but pffffthp!

Friday, 1 June 2012


There's a scene in WASTED where a pigeon smashes through a window. A couple of people have doubted whether this is likely. Well, it may not be likely, but it's happened to me. Twice, in the same room, involving the same window. Here's how I told the story of the second encounter back in 2008

As my friends will know, I'm easily distracted when I am supposed to be writing. Usually by emails or people challenging me to Scramble on Facebook or suddenly feeling compelled to vacuum behind the fridge. Anything, really, to provide an excuse for not doing that very difficult thing: writing. But yesterday I was actually writing quite well. I'd not checked my emails or the back of the fridge for at least five minutes. Well, maybe three.

So, there I was, sitting on the sofa near the window, laptop on lap, typing away, when there was a huge explosion and the window blew in, as a vast and fierce pigeon smashed through it, showering me with glass and blood. I screamed. A LOT. And rushed from the room, dumping the laptop and slamming the door behind me. I spent some time screaming on the landing and trying to calm down. I was worried that my daughter might have been concerned so I weakly but bravely called upstairs, "Don't worry, I'm fine, honestly." No reply. I tried a bit more strongly. Hannah came out of her room. "What are you talking about?"

Anyway, we couldn't leave the bird in my study, could we? I had visions of it wrecking the place and, more to the point, my NOVEL was in there. Also, since my other daughter only last week had to claim insurance for the cost of repairing her laptop after spilling milk on it, I couldn't really claim for another laptop and expect them to believe that a pigeon had bled to death on it. The insurance company know I'm a writer and they'd be bound to think I'd made it up.

So, Hannah stood behind me, holding a big towel as high as she could, with the intention (in case you were wondering) of preventing the bird from flying further into the house if it leapt through the door when I opened it. I carefully opened the door a little, which caused more flapping and squawking (actually, I think the squawking was me) so I slammed it shut again. Deep breaths. Can you call a man to deal with a pigeon in the room? Does this constitute an 999 emergency? What would it be under in Yellow Pages? Bloody Bird-catchers?

But we didn't need a man, oh no. No, we could deal with this ourselves. First, I needed a shield. A large cardboard box would do and this I duly found. So, armed with the box, I opened the door again, with Hannah in towel position. No sign of the bird. Well, it must be dead. Or stunned. Or demoniacally hiding, waiting for me. Or it could come flapping back to consciousness if I wasn't careful. So I was careful. I gingerly poked a stick into every possible hiding-place, averting my eyes from the blood on the wall.

It had gone. Back through the gaping hole in the window. Presumably. The rest of my day was spent clearing up shattered glass and blood and dealing with the neanderthal glaziers who mumped and grumped their way to £90. And I lost half a day of what would obviously have been quite brilliant novel-writing. The best I've ever done. Really.

Since the novel in progress, WASTED, is about chance/luck/causal determinism/randomness/chaos and how apparently chance events have major effects on our lives, I wonder how this pigeon attack will affect the novel. The point of the novel, if you are interested, is that we cannot know how things would have turned out differently - we can't do what ifs. So, we can ask "What if the bird had never flown through your window? How would it have affected what happened next in your novel?" But we can never know the answer. All you can ever know is what actually does happen from that point. (Actually, in the novel, the reader can play round with chance because you get to toss a coin to determine the ending, and I get to toss a coin to select between alternative chapters. But I digress.)

You may like to know that by chance (or is anything ever chance? Isn't it all mechanically caused?) the scene I was writing at the time of the pigeon explosion needed something to happen that randomly affects the timing of an event. Perfect!So I put it in the book.

Chance? Fate? Or causal determinism? Makes you think. If a kamikaze pigeon hadn't shot through my window, would I have thought of this as the mechanism in the story? Or would it have been something else entirely? And would that affect everything else? We'll never know.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Crabbit and dyslexia

There is an aspect of my past work that many of you don't know about, because I had to let it slide when my writing took over. I used to be an expert in specific learning difficulties, specifically dyslexia. Very recently, I have decided to become involved again, and I'd like to tell you why.

In 1982, I became an English teacher. The tiny school where I taught in London had a high proportion of children with reading difficulties, and I became fascinated. When I left full-time teaching to have a family, I took a postgraduate RSA Diploma in Teaching Children and Adults with Specific Learning Difficulties (which, by the way, is how I first became interested in the brain - hence my books, Blame My Brain and Know Your Brain.)

One of the things I discovered was how some of my own relatively minor but irritating learning niggles could very easily have become full-blown dyslexia. On tests, I come out as moderately dyslexic, though in practice I clearly am not. (Though you should see me trying to lay the table, learn automated sequences, play music, recite times-tables, learn things by heart, remember series and do anything in a mirror... You should also see the typos and reversals that litter my blog posts before (and sometimes after)  they go out, though this is more dyspraxia than dyslexia, as it's my fingers that get confused, not my eyes.) I know my weaknesses.

Anyway, I spent the next ten years working in and becoming expert in literacy acquisition. In about 1996, I set up Magic Readers, which took groups of pre-school children and fostered a love of books and all the various sub-skills that underpin literacy, with the aim that when they arrived at school they would be raring to read. (In fact, many of them could read by then, though that was not the specific aim. The main aims were fun and fearlessness.)

When I had to stop Magic Readers because my own writing was taking over, I turned it into The Child Literacy Centre, a website which I ran and funded single-handedly until I also ran out of time for that, and closed it a few years ago. The CLC was a resource for parents worried about their child's reading or writing at school, and I helped hundreds of parents who contacted me with all sorts of worries.

My first published books - the I Can Learn home learning books - were implicitly and sometimes explicitly based on the multi-sensory principles used in teaching children with reading difficulties, principles which are the best for teaching ALL children to read. I was actually using synthetic phonics long before Synthetic Phonics became the rage.

As I say, I had to stop all this literacy work a few years ago, because my own writing was taking over and going in different directions. I discovered that there are only so many hours in the day!

So, why am I back again? Because Dyslexia Scotland has asked me to be one of its first Ambassadors. I recently attended a small (in numbers of guests, not quantity of food) dinner, hosted by Sir Jackie Stewart, perhaps Scotland's most high-profile dyslexic. I sat next to him and we all listened to his empassioned description of what it's like to be severely dyslexic, undiagnosed and unhelped. In fact the other Ambassadors are themselves dyslexic, and know very well what it's like.

I have a confession: I went to that dinner fully intending to say that I really really didn't have time to help. But I rapidly felt that I must and that I wanted to.

The fact that Sir Jackie admired my tartan boots possibly had an effect!

Tomorrow, I will be telling you a very tiny thing you can do to help dyslexics. It is genuinely tiny, will take and few seconds and costs NO money! Please look out on my other blog and on Twitter. We really really need your help and it's going to be a load of fun!

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Crabbit Hutch in pics

As you know, unless you naughtily haven't been listening to me at all, I now have a shed. No, I have a garden office. It's far too glorious to be called a shed. I was going to have a competition to name it but Mike Jarman christened it the Crabbit Hutch and that's what's stuck. I have to say it's nothing like a hutch but never mind!

Anyway, here is the journey from nothing to Splendiferous Garden Office, aka Crabbit Hutch.

First, there was this:

Then, it rained, and the men from Booths Garden Studios arrived. They didn't complain even once, but got on and constructed a huge tent, under which to build. I was mildly amused at the thought that my neighbours would be thinking THIS was going to be the size of the shed.

Things began to look, frankly, unprepossessing:

But soon the Crabbit Hutch was standing forlornly in a sea of mud:

And the lovely men from Booths were looking well-pleased with their job. 

An electrician came and used a HUGE drill bit to drill through my kitchen wall. His comment afterwards: "That was epic."

I began to put some shelves up and bring the stuff up from the flat to the hutch, box by box by box.

And I had my first cup of coffee, in a very appropriate mug.

Soon, things were beginning to look both homely and businesslike, because, of course, 
much crabbit business must be done in the Crabbit Hutch. Behind my desk, you can even see the board on which I'm plotting a novel, so that's good.

At first, Mr M and I were concerned that the hutch wrecked the view up the garden and that the neighbours would be cross about the in-your-faceness, though we had got planning permission. 

But I went out and bought some VERY tall bamboo plants and I think you'll agree it is now very discreet. In fact, we could play Where's the Crabbit Hutch?! And yes, really, it is in this picture:

Only one family member is not looking too happy. She refuses to come in because she hates walkiing on bark. Stupid dog: we taught her not to bark, not to not go ON bark.

And there you have it! I've had one day working in it and it was just wonderful. With the door open, I could hear nothing but birdsong and see nothing but flowering rhodies, azalea, pieris, and a castor oil palm. I've planted dwarf lilac outside and the breeze wafts the smell in. With the door shut it's entirely soundproof so I can listen to loud music and sing at the top of my voice. It is incredibly well insulated so it's cosy and comfortable. I have installed wifi, so I can still use Twitter and be distracted. And I can walk to work with a briefcase.
I love it!

If you're interested in doing the same, Booths Garden Studios are just fab.

And look what Mr M bought me:


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

This was a bit of a surprise to me, too...

Should we have a caption competition?

Click on the picture to read the words, if you wish.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

A present for the Crabbit Hutch

Look what a very, very kind friend sent me! She wanted to thank me for something, though I really hadn't done anything. It has pride of place in the Crabbit Hutch.

Crabbit cushion, made by @Burn2Write

I'll be bringing you more Crabbit Hutch pics on Friday. I'm loving working there. Sunshine, birdsong, fabulous shrubs in bloom, and I get to walk to work!

Friday, 18 May 2012

Teenage bedrooms - all in the brain

I'm in London, because I'm speaking about the teenage brain again at a thing tomorrow called the Youthwork Summit. This summit is run by some very enthusiastic Christians, which is a little bit worrying for me, as I'm a very enthusiastic atheist. The charming-sounding organiser knows this, because, obviously, I confessed, and he did seem to absolve me. So I think it will be all right, as long as no one tries to do what Billy Graham tried to do to me in 1981.

Anyway, this is entirely irrelevant. What is relevant is that I'm evangelical about the wonders of the teenage brain. I love love love the stuff I've learnt about the the neuroscience of adolescence in ten years of studying it. I did a talk on it last week to a mixed audience of young people and adults and I loved loved loved seeing the nodding heads among the adults and then loved times a hundred that it was a teenager who asked the first question.

It is without doubt my favourite topic.


Tomorrow is a different one.

I will attempt, for the first time in the history of the universe, to explain scientifically the fascinating reasons for the horror that is the stereotypical (apologies) teenage bedroom. I will attempt to show, in a ten-minute TED talk, that the teenage bedroom is a metaphor for and an illustration of everything that's going on in their brains and lives, linking it to psychology, neuroscience and evolution.

I blame Simon Mayo. He invited me on his show a few weeks ago to talk about teenage bedrooms and explain them. My first thought was, a) I have no explanation and b) I don't care about teenage bedrooms. But it's amazing what the chance to be evangelical about my favourite topic on national radio can do to my brain. And within the half hour I was given in which to prepare, I had a theory.

And tomorrow, the theory gets its first full airing, complete with photos provided by Photowitch, aka Helen Giles, who is still technically a teenager herself and therefore a very suitable illustration of the fact that teenagers are worth listening to and respecting and generally treating a whole load better than society often does.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

In which I destroy (part of) London Book Fair

I feel I should apologise to the company at the London Book Fair whose display I destroyed twenty minutes into the first day. Trouble is, in my stress I also completely forgot their name.

It was the beginning of a day during which I came to feel I really would have been better not being there. And if there's anything positive to take out of my experience, it's a reassuring message to all those writers who think they should go to LBF: you don't need to. Please do go if you want to, and many enjoy it and get something out of it, but it's really a trade fair, for publishers and agents. Not people like me. (OK, well, not me then.)

Anyway, back to my confession.

I arrived nice and early, an hour before I was meeting fellow authors/friends for coffee - the highlight of the day, definitely. Anyway, while wandering round aimlessly, I suddenly realised that I'd been incredibly useless and forgotten my pen. And notebook. Also, I'm utterly ashamed to say, my Crabbit bag. I mean, FGS, an author at a trade fair with NO PROMO MATERIAL? What was I thinking?

Now, clearly, no one was going to be selling Crabbit bags so I had to forget about that. But surely someone would be selling notebooks and pens? I had not realised at this stage that actually you aren't allowed to sell (or, therefore, buy) things at LBF. Things are for looking at only. Coveting and drooling over and doing foreign deals over, but not actually taking away and using. Even for ready money, and my money was ready.

Nothing daunted, I found a stationery company, and its beautiful display with lots of notebooks and lots of pens. And I picked up a notebook, to the excitement (I thought) of the man manning the stall. "How much are these?" I asked.

"Well, varying prices," he said, mysteriously.

"How much is this one?" I asked, and then started babbling about how I was so silly and had forgotten my notebook and had important coffee meetings to attend and this notebook was just perfect.

"£6.99," he said as I got out my purse. (Do you mind if we skip the bit where I dropped my money?)

"Ooh, and a pen," I said, as I waited for him to get change out of his wallet. (Change out of his wallet? Did the guy not have a TILL?) I picked up a pen from a pot of lovely pens and scribbled on the paper beside it, as you do.

"Um, we can't sell those ones," said a young woman coming to the rescue. "But we can sell one of these, if you like?" So I put down the forbidden pen and picked up one of the allowed ones, which looked very similar to me, and started scribbling on the paper again.

I was somewhat, but belatedly, aware that she was saying, "Um, that's not really for writing on - let me get you..."

"Oh, sorry, I thought it was the test pad. Look - someone else has already scribbled on it!"

"Yes," she said. At which point I realised that I was the someone else who'd scribbled on it. A few moments before. With the forbidden pen.

"It's just that I thought it was there for customers to test the pens on, you know, like in a shop." I realise that my intonation did imply that I meant to say proper shop.

"Well, it's just that this is our promotional material."

At which point, I was mortified. I'd ruined their only promotional material, with their beautiful logo. And the Fair had only been going twenty minutes. Subconsciously, clearly, I was so consumed with jealousy that they actually had any promo material that I felt the subliminal need to destroy it. I am a bad, bad person.

Reader, I ran. I am not meant to be at the London Book Fair, I can see that now. And I can't bring myself to use the notebook or pen.

Friday, 11 May 2012

How my brain caused an airport security incident

Some people ask why there is a picture of an artificial brain to the side of my blog. Well, I travel with it when I do school talks about the brain. And once, that got me into a great deal of trouble. I wrote about this trauma on a previous blog which I let go dormant. I have pasted the story below. Every word of it is true.

In which my brain causes a security alert at Belfast International Airport

I was coming back from Belfast, where I'd had a lovely day speaking to excellent audiences at County Antrim Grammar School. Ironically, this very day, when I'd shown my life-size, almost life-colour, life-weight model brain to one audience, I'd said, "One day, this will get me into trouble at an airport." And they'd all politely laughed. Later that day ...

So, coming through security in a very long queue, and I'm waiting for my bag to emerge from the weird bit where everything seems to disappear for longer than it should. And I'm standing in my pink socks (because I'd forgotten that I'd have to take my boots off and reveal that I was wearing more than black tights. Obviously, I was wearing more than black tights but you know what I mean.) And I'm wondering why four security people are leaning over the computer screen and pointing and turning their heads sideways and Looking Concerned and calling more people over. Then a man comes up to me, pleasantly enough, and says:

"Is this your bag, madam?"
Me: Yes.
Man: Do you have anything unusually dense in your bag? (I am not joking. His exact words.)
Me: (immediately guessing the source of the problem and not realising that this is not the time for jokes) Ah yes, that'll be my brain.
Man: Sorry?
Me: (realising belatedly that this is still not the time for jokes): A model brain. I carry a model brain because I'm an author.
Man: How does that explain it?
Me: Well, I write about the brain sometimes and I've been doing school talks in County Antrim Grammar School (hoping that the detail will make me sound authentic, which I am, and trying to look really relaxed and possibly even flirtatious, which is not something I really do unless pushed, which I was being) and well, this is one of my props.
Man: (perfectly pleasantly and nicely) I'm afraid we'll have to search your bag.

When security people say they're going to search your bag, they have a different meaning of the word "search" from the one my husband uses when he says he's going to search for the correct place to put the kitchen sieve. Very different. Their version of search involves them taking everything out of my bag, and then everything out of everything that's in my bag. Now I, being a bit of a control freak and an ex-girl guide, tend to have some weird things in my bag when I'm away doing school talks. Even weirder than plastic brains. To be honest I'd prefer not to say some of the things that I had in my bag but if you were one of my fellow passengers, you would know. And you would be laughing. As they were.

Anyway, each item had to be swabbed. They even took my brain to pieces and swabbed every part. I now have the cleanest limbic system and brain stem in Scotland, possibly the world. I mean, who else can say they've just had their brain swabbed by security, or indeed by anyone else?

One item they found needed further explanation (and widespread derision). It was a foil-wrapped package, small, about the size of two flapjacks. The fact that it actually was two flapjacks was not enough for the security people: they had to ask me what it was. I said it was special brain food, my own recipe, a new variation on my world-famous Brain Cake (TM), called Brain Bars (TM). This is the literal truth but was not enough. They had to smell it. "Flapjacks," was the verdict. "With other stuff in. Bits, sort of."

"What do you do with that, then?" they asked.

"Er, well eat it. I plan to eat it on the plane."

"Yes, but how is it good for your brain?"

Well, they did ask for the lecture ...

Now, all this was done in the spirit of enormous hilarity. However, I would have been less hilarious-minded if I had realised that Easyjet (praise be to them for cheap flights and horrible uniforms and blamelessly egalitarian boarding systems, unless you are the last one to board) had in their wisdom decided to move the flight to an earlier time and not tell me. So, having endured fifty minutes of such hilarity and thinking I might have time for a quick coffee, I sauntered through to the departure lounge with my clean brain, only to discover that my flight had just issued a final call. And the gate was not exactly near.

Some of you may know that I do need to wear good boots for school talks but by "good boots" I mean "good boots for looking glamorous in", not "good boots for running through airports in".

Previously in airports, I have been the one who has rolled her eyeballs and frowned superciliously when some idiot is called by name to board the plane at the last minute. "Would passengers Stupid and Inebriated please proceed immediately to Gate 1078 for immediate boarding. Failure to arrive in the next five seconds will cause your luggage to be removed and you to be forcibly ejected from the airport to enduring public ridicule and ignominy."

I will never roll my eyeballs at such people again. I now realise that all they were doing was carrying perfectly innocent, though possibly weird, items through security. They are the mere victims in our sad mistrusting world. They are the ... Yes, well, anyway. They probably are sometimes stupid or inebriated but I honestly wasn't. But I was last onto the plane and people had to get out of their seats to let me in and it was very demeaning and I am just glad I'm not famous.

But what I'd like to know (granted that the security people were only doing their job and doing it brilliantly, and actually were very pleasant, and that I have every respect and sympathy for them) is this: having established that the offending item was only ("only") an artificial brain, why did they still think that every damned item in my bag needed swabbing and sniffing? Is it the case that someone carrying an artificial brain and some flapjacks is in any way more likely to be an international terrorist? And why did they also take my perfume away and subject it to chemical analysis? Because I was carrying a plastic brain? Is it written somewhere that someone carrying a plastic brain is statistically more likely also to be using Issy Miyake as a disguise for something dangerous? It's the rule book what's wrong, not the excellent staff. It's not well designed for catching people who really might cause damage, not flapjack-carrying unfortunates like moi.

And another thing: the security people said that next time, if I take the brain out of the box and send it through the x-ray uncovered (yeah right, I can really see me doing that - so, certain ridicule versus possible ridicule??) there'd be no problem. Apparently the problem is trying to hide a brain and to make it look like a thing that's trying not to look like a brain.

I do not pretend to understand such things. Maybe if I had a better brain ... Or maybe next time I'll just leave my brain at home.

But there is a happy outcome to this story. Prepare to be very, very jealous. You see, they called the head of Security Training - oh yes, the Head of Security Training - over and they have decided that my brain (not yours, MINE) is going to be used as part of their training manual. I said that I'd have to charge a fee for this. They actually for several moments looked as though they thought I was being serious, but I decided not to push my luck and I quit while I was not really ahead. But anyway, yes, I am proud to tell you that it is now the case that my brain is part of the training for airport security.

Not many people can say that.

PS - when I told my husband about this, adding that "I knew this would happen one day," his response was, "I told you so." How does that work as a useful response? Anyway, at least I know where the kitchen sieve lives. I have the right sort of brain.