Brown paper packages

Oh, all right – white Post Office jiffy bags tied up with parcel tape. They just don’t make packages like they used to. Still, it’s nice when they arrive, whatever they’re wearing.

Having said that, I’m at the stage of the rewrite of the new book where even post is a distraction. Even lovely post with presents inside. My head is full of characters who need to change their motivation, move from A to B via a completely different route, and keep the comedy while hanging out with a new set of friends. It’s complicated. Every now and again my poor husband gets handed a new draft (via email) and told to give me a report on it, pronto. He then points out the new holes I’ve introduced into the plot, I go back to the drawing board and on we go. The children are lucky, frankly, if they get toast for tea at this stage. Luckily, they know it and keep their heads down.

However, when I eventually summon up the energy to park my characters for five minutes and open a parcel, it’s so worth it.

On Saturday, those nice people at Chicken House sent me the new Threads covers they’ve been working on, to bring the first two books into line with the loveliness of the third. I was expecting pictures of covers, but what I got was actual covers, on real books. They  look like this now.

Pretty, huh? A matching set. I particularly like what Steve, the designer, has done with Threads itself. They’re small changes, but good ones. The overall effect is more delicate and detailed, but it still stands out.

I really like the bag he picked to go on the back, too:

It’s a simple clutch in my favourite shade of almost-Sciapparelli pink. Nonie would approve. (I never did like that green one that was there before. This is one I would happily use myself.)

So if you have the set already, I’m afraid you’re going to have to go out and replace the first two copies. There really is no choice. They you’ll have a lovely set of matching spines on your bookshelf, like this:

Worth it, no? Clever Steve.

In two separate packages, I also got a necklace and a bracelet, which go rather well together. The bracelet was from a fan of Threads called Sophia (sic – great name), and I wear it often, especially when I’m visiting schools. It means a lot to me that she was inspired by the book to do what Crow did and actually make something herself.

The necklace was from a teacher at one of the schools I visited recently – Douay Martyrs. She mentioned that she gets these from Uganda, where they are made out of shredded paper and cardboard, which is then twisted, painted and varnished. My necklace is quite beautiful and a very vibrant turquoise – another favourite colour of mine. But the best thing is that the money she raises from selling the jewellery goes to help a pay for a boy and girl to go to school in northern Uganda (where Crow is from). The girl is starting secondary school and the boy is doing A levels in Biology, Chemistry and Agriculture.

In Sequins Stars & Spotlights, Crow and her sister Victoria get involved in fashion accessories to raise money to fund education in their country. In real life, people do it all the time. The necklaces cost £4. They are the exact opposite of the tee-shirts made by slave labour that I got so cross about in Beads Boys & Bangles. Instead, they fund freedom. If you ever get the chance, do buy one. It may arrive in a lovely parcel, but better still is what happens at the other end.

This week I have been mostly …

Oh dear. Nearly two weeks since the last blog. Terrible! I blame general busy-ness, and too much going on in the world. My brain has been full and that makes it harder to write. Too much to say.

In these two weeks I have been mostly thinking about:

  • How lucky I am to get to talk to years 6 to 9 in a variety of schools across the country. My school visits are over for the term and I’ll miss them. Every school and class is different, but the energy of the staff and students is much the same. We have lots and lots of fabulous young people in this country. Thank goodness we do, because …
  • We also live in a world of earthquakes and tsunamis, and a nuclear industry that never seems to have the energy to properly dispose of its spent fuel rods – leaving them to lie around in dangerous places, where they can make a bad situation worse. We’ve all seen the pictures and heard the stories from Japan. One of my writing friends, Keris, has done something about it and arranged a fabulous auction of books and writing support to raise over £10,00 to help. Sometimes, people make an amazing difference.
  • Which is even more amazing when they do it en masse. Of course I’m watching the populations in north Africa as they change the political face of their region. What’s happened in Tunisia and Egypt so far is very wonderful. Government of the people, by the people. Good luck to everyone who’s trying to create a representative, democratic system. It might not be one we entirely like or approve of when it’s finished, but that’s our problem, not theirs.
  • And what happens to the dictators and their cronies now? What happens to the money they’ve been diligently syphoning off from their people for decades? A question that fascinates me as a writer and is building itself into the plot of a new book that I’m writing in my head.
  • Also, what happens to resistance fighters who aren’t lucky enough to win in swift, bloodless revolutions? Well, we know more or less what happens because the journalists who were captured by Gaddafi’s soldiers in Libya for 27 hours or so told us. They get tortured, consistently, for days on end, with their wrists and feet tightly bound and their bloated faces covered in tight face masks to the point of suffocation. That’s what happens. It’s happening now and no amount of ‘no fly zone’ imposition by the UN is going to stop it. It’s on my mind a lot. My 10 year-old regularly asks me what my superpowers would be, if I could choose my top 3. I know the answer now. I would choose only one and it would be to stop torture. Everywhere. Now.
  • As it happens, on one of my school visits I met someone who worked with Helen Bamber, who went into the Belsen concentration camp to help survivors aged 20, and has been helping victims of torture ever since. She’s one of my heroines: brave, sad, making a difference, never giving up. I saw her talk once, at a conference in London for survivors from Rwanda. She was in her 80s, and was riveting. She may not actually have superpowers, but she has superhuman mental strength.
  • And art. I’ve been thinking about art. When we’re not being overwhelmed by earthquakes, or tsunamis, or nuclear meltdowns, or revolution, or torture, what are we doing? What is it all for? What is the light that balances out all this dark?
  • Well, this weekend, some of the light was red. We went to the Tate Modern to see the new Picasso loan in temporary situ ($106 million, most expensive painting in the world, reportedly bought by Roman Abramovitch, very nice too) and as usual, we ended up on the 5th floor in the Energy and Process display. It’s up high and has the best light in the gallery, and the best views across the wobbly bridge to St Paul’s. In one of the rooms, red nylon tenting is stretched across the ceiling. Below it, a staircase is suspended in mid-air. It’s weird and thought-provoking and strangely beautiful. Conceptual art that stops you in your tracks, holds you for a moment and changes your perspective. In a good way. Much more affecting than the Picasso that day.

  • Later on, I found this sign on the ground, protecting another sculpture. Unintentional art. I found myself wishing we could apply it to would-be torturers with helpless rebel fighters in their clutches.

  • I’m now off to make some art of my own, in the form of the new book. If you need me, I’ll be in the library …

Kids at work

It’s always the things that scare you most that turn out to be the most fun.

Not that I was scared – just suitably nervous. Two workshops in one day, with Years 6, 7 and 8, followed by another one the following day with Year 9. I’ve done some great workshops before, but also at least one rubbish one (at least, I thought it was rubbish), so I really wanted it to work this time.

All of the workshops were on themes I hadn’t done before – carrying on where one of my chapters left off, making a collage of your favourite Threads character, and writing about friendship gone wrong.

Day 1 was Bishops Stortford College Junior School, where my niece goes. Just to add to the drama, it was World Book Day. As things turned out, we had a ball. Here are some fab photos of the Book Club and the creative writing workshop. Enjoy!

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If you want to see the photos of the artwork produced in the following session, check out the link on my Facebook page. Truly cool. Definitely doing that again one day.

Next day was Herne Bay High. When I got there, it was ‘Drop Everything And Read’. The school had somehow carved out 25 minutes for all of its 1500 pupils to sit down and read a book. Extraordinary. I watched them do it. It was the brilliant brainwave of one of the PE teachers. As the celebs in Jamie’s Dream School keep saying – today’s teachers are very wonderful. They deserve to be celebrated.

I talked to Year 7 and worked with Year 9. I’ve never known anything like it. Thirty 13 year-old boys and girls in a temporary classroom (their school’s being rebuilt around them), concentrating in absolute silence for half an hour on constructing some great dialogue between vivid characters in difficult situations. I kept saying ‘you can stop in 5 minutes’, but they didn’t want to. I read their pieces on the train. Fabulous.

Have I mentioned I have the best ‘job’ in the world? I think I might’ve.

The brighter side of fashion

Sometimes (see last post) … people don’t get drunk in bars, Hitler isn’t mentioned, nobody gets sacked and everybody has a good time.

This is what happened when Ann-Kathrin, who won the German fashion competition, got to see her dress design appear on a real live catwalk in Hamburg. I’ve already blogged about my trip to see the big event, but here’s a lovely picture of Ann-Kathrin walking back to her seat after accepting her flowers and applause.

You can just see the winning outfit in the background. Very Alice in Wonderland. The whole event was a bit like that, actually.

Ann-Kathrin’s necklace is a zip. Super-cool. And she already has that sub-fusc, shy/happy designer on the catwalk thing going on. Bodes well for the future, I think.

Ugly drunks

The thing about genius is you get there by being able to storm through conventional boundaries. Most people see an insurmountable problem – be it in maths, physics, music, literature or fashion – and you merely see a great height from which to view the next problem. You think slightly differently. Your brain is braver. You make brilliant connections, faster than mere ordinary mortals.

And often, your private life is a mess.

The trouble is, conventional boundaries may hold us back, but a lot of the time they hold us in a safe place. Sometimes safe is boring, but sometimes safe is good. I bet most people in Tripoli or on the border between Libya and and Tunisia right now are dreaming of safe. They wouldn’t see it as boring at all.

Conventional boundaries include manners, the ability to hold down a stable relationship, remembering things like to come home for meals, buy a Valentine’s card, not drink that extra glass of wine and not quote a love for Hitler in conversation with strangers, just because you know it will shock them to the core or, worse, because you really do.

John Galliano – who doesn’t look at his sharpest or most sober on the video posted on the internet – seems to be trying to think of whatever will horrify the couple he’s addressing most. He talks with slurred panache, but he seems to have forgotten that as an openly gay man living in Paris, he’d have been high on Hitler’s list for gassing himself. Not funny then; not funny now.

I don’t blame Dior for sacking him. I think that often big organisations can over-react to small situations, but John stormed through an conventional boundary too far. We’ve all studied the Holocaust. We’ve seen more recently in Rwanda how rapidly and horrifically ethnic cleansing can spread. There’s genius and there’s contempt for a vast swathe of your potential customers. There’s a quick pick-me-up in a bar, and there’s blind, drunk stupidity that you’ll probably regret for the rest of your life.

It’s such a shame. Nonie relates her glowing admiration for Galliano in the opening chapter of Sequins, Stars & Spotlights. I used a mythical Dior show to illustrate the absolute heights of haute couture catwalk fashion. And they have been the absolute heights. Now they’re tainted by the absolute depths of an artistic ego that’s been pampered and protected from conventional boundaries for too long.

In my books, Crow can be a difficult genius, but she’s quietly loyal to her friends and is willing to sacrifice anything – even her own name – to do the right thing. If ever she was tempted to go off the rails, those friends would rally round and stop her. Does John have friends like that any more? If he does, he’ll certainly need them now.

He’s a survivor and he’ll come back, but it’ll be from a dark place. He might start by going easy on the mojitos. It doesn’t suit him. He accuses the woman of being ugly. But there’s no ugly like an ugly drunk.