Several people have independently asked me this week where I’m at with novel number 9. Well, the short answer is: I’m still researching the topic – part time at that, because I mustn’t be deflected too far from the necessary task of promoting Over my Dead Body at the moment.
Truth is, most of this background work isn’t exciting enough to anyone else to report it. Goodness, some of it is even tedious for me, as I confessed last November! However, I like to focus on the positive and this week I discovered another gem that has given me new impetus.
Remember this shelf of novels I had to plough through? Well, one of them: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, has restored my faith in authors who write about eating disorders.
The storyline is pretty much the same as all the others. Lia is 18. She’s anorexic. She’s watched her parents split up. She has an ambivalent relationship with her stepmother. She constantly fights the urge to eat. She has a grossly distorted body image. Yawn, yawn. All horribly familiar.
But in Lia’s case there’s an added dimension: she’s consumed by guilt. Not because she’s stick thin and disobeying all the injunctions of her psychiatrist – no. Rather because, before she died, her ex-best friend and fellow anorexic, Cassie, tried 33 times to speak to her, increasing desperation screaming through the messages she left. But Lia refused to answer. And now Cassie has been found dead in a sleazy motel room. Alone.
So why did this book appeal? Lia’s teenage voice is authentic and engaging without the all-too-common patronising undertones. Her mental troubles are captured sensitively. She’s a haunted soul, and Anderson has managed to convey the devastating effect of such a situation without moralising or lecturing. All making us want to know why Lia ignored the pleas, how Cassie died, whether Lia will survive the trauma.
Also the writing is in a different league.
‘She’s still learning how to pick her way through the bombed-out countryside that lies between her stepmess and the mythological Wife Number One.’
‘I go up two flights and tiptoe across the polished floor of her bedroom, sloooooowly turn the doorknob, and open her bathroom door a crack. A breath of steam trickles out, filled with the sobs of a grown woman breaking into girl-sized pieces. I close the door.’
Furthermore, the author employs some simple but effective techniques which appealed to me. Scratching out the narrator’s thoughts
shrieks at us/lets us know what the ‘nasty voices‘ in her head are telling her /Lia really thinks, or would say if she dared. Repetition of the haunting reality of Cassie’s death keeps Lia’s preoccupation centre stage.
… she called.
thirty three times.
you didn’t answer.
body found in motel room, alone.
you killed her.
I was beginning to
lose the will to live/wonder if I’d made the right choice of subject for the next book. Wintergirls has made me believe in the possibility again. Onwards and upwards!
Imagine if you’d lost a child to a rare genetic disorder at the age of four … You know that neither your sanity nor your marriage could survive watching another one die … Then along comes a charismatic doctor who offers you … not only eradication of the rogue gene you both carry, but subtle improvements on nature too … if you choose them.
What would you do? (I went part way down this path in researching for my own novel, Saving Sebastian – a ‘designer baby’ with a difference; so of course I’m instantly drawn to the question behind Peter James‘ novel, Perfect People.)
You know enough to realise that tampering with the germline is serious stuff: there’s no going back. You’d be altering something fundamental which will be carried on in future generations. But then … where’s the harm in choosing a child who won’t need much sleep when he grows up? Or who won’t put on too much weight? Or who’s got excellent hand-eye co-ordination? Why not? Future progeny would be grateful to inherit such characteristics, wouldn’t they? You’ll be sensible, of course you will; you won’t be seduced by the idea of genius, or film-star looks, or Olympic medal sporting prowess. You only want what’s best for your child. Like every other normal parent.
In Perfect People, Dr Leo Detorre promises all this. More than that, he persuades couples that naturally-formed babies will, in 40 years time, have become the ‘genetic underclass’. They owe it to their child to give him/her the advantages of genetic enhancement. Anything less would be a dereliction of their parental responsibility.
Swedish scientist, Dr John Klaesson, and his British wife, Naomi, have every reason to want to eliminate the risk of inherited diseases. Their little boy Halley died from the consequences of a fatal defect carried by them both. They know they can’t cope with a repeat of that. But they have a one in four risk. Dr Detorre is their only hope.
He maps both parents’ genomes; he lists a shocking multiplicity of defects they are susceptible to. He promises to eradicate all the risks. For an eye-watering sum of money. They’re desperate; prepared to borrow way beyond their means, in order to have one healthy child. A boy. And they’re restrained: Dr Detorre offers them far more than they’re prepared to accept. They simply want a child free from disease with a little advantage or two, and they do a lot of heart searching before allowing even that little enhancement.
Once they’ve set the ball in motion, everything feels surreal. They’re flown to a floating offshore clinic way out in the ocean, isolated from all human contact ‘to avoid any contamination’ of any kind. For tests. For injections. For the conception itself.
But afterwards, back at home, in the humdrum reality of everyday normality, everything starts to assume a quite different perspective. If he’s so clever, why did Dr Detorre get the gender wrong? How come he introduced more than one embryo? – things any ordinary embryologist or fertility specialist knows how to do routinely.
Misgivings ratchet up to a whole new level when sinister things start to happen. A bomb destroys the brain behind the scientific revolution. The Klaesson secret gets out; the world’s media react. The twins start to show weird behaviours, precocious abilities, and worrying physical and psychological anomalies.
Other families treated by Dr Detorre are massacred horribly. A sect called The Disciples of the Third Millenium declare themselves determined to stamp out this work of Satan. And one of the Disciples is stalking the Klaessons.
Tested almost beyond endurance by the twins’ behaviour, John and Naomi are nevertheless devastated when the youngsters vanish, apparently willingly accompanying a murderer. And in the search for their children, they gradually uncover the truth behind Dr Detorre’s work and the appalling consequences for their family.
OK, there are some rather unbelievable features to this sci-fi thriller and some irritating linguistic flaws, but I found it was a real page turner of a book. And a cautionary tale to boot. Be careful what you wish for! The author says there were times when he thought he’d tackled too complex a topic this time. He did; but for me he pulled it off. I didn’t actually care that the genetic disease was fictional, or that the parents were naive, or the outcome predictable. There’s a price to be paid for sticking too closely to the facts, and I think James made some choices for the sake of dramatic tension that paid off. It’s not a treatise about genetic engineering; it’s a novel! Enjoy!
No two author appearances are the same: the venues, the audiences, the questions, the reactions, vary greatly. But of course, for the author, the subject matter is pretty constant when you’re doing a post-publication circuit. I’m in the midst of this at the moment for Over my Dead Body so it made a nice change on Monday to sit in the body of the kirk listening to somebody else; watching and learning from their performances.
Sally Magnusson was the star attraction of a conference at the Dementia Centre in Stirling University, talking about her new book: Where Memories Go: Why Dementia Changes Everything. It chronicles her mother’s journey into dementia – ‘a vicious brain affliction that hijacks memory, personality and functional capacity’. The blurb summarises it as ‘both deeply personal and a challenging call to arms. Faced with one of the greatest social, medical, economic and moral challenges of our times, society must urgently reconsider how we look after the most fragile of our citizens.’
Sally herself has been a familiar face to us in Scotland where she regularly presents for the BBC; and of course, her father, Magnus was a household name before her. She comes across as someone I’d like to meet, so I went with high hopes … and a degree of fellow-feeling given that my own mother developed vascular dementia in the last year of her life.
I was not disappointed. Her experience, as well as that of another excellent speaker, (Katharyn Barnett, a diamond analyst, telling her similar story) echoed mine in several dimensions. Both women lamented the lack of understanding, knowledge and empathy, the need for ‘big, bold, top-down culture change‘. Both appealed for better resources and support. Amen to that.
Sally’s book itself? Beautifully written, moving and very readable. It doesn’t shirk the reality, the frightening, sobering facts about this horrible thieving illness which is now so much more prevalent in our aging society. But it’s softened and made more accessible and gripping by the personal elements. The focus throughout is her beloved mother, to whom she’s speaking, whom she wants to remember in vivid detail.
‘I tap late into the night, eager to round up your slippery self before it slides into yet another shape. It’s as if I have to catch you now, as if by the time I see you again tomorrow it may all have changed, as indeed there is every chance it will. If I can only pin you by the bullet point, secure you with headings, trap you in words, corral you within a list, then perhaps I can hold you beside me here for ever …’
In the telling, the Magnusson family come alive and they feel very real. In spite of her glamorous public persona, Sally is a ‘normal’ daughter, niece, mother, aunt, to her many relatives, rolling up her sleeves and getting stuck in with ordinary everyday things. Driving the elderly as well as the young around. Escorting, comforting, entertaining. Being irritable, losing her temper, regretting, lamenting. As she says, she too knows ‘the confusion in a middle-aged soul’, being ‘pinched so hard between two generations that we have trouble locating an identity of our own.’
Her father, Magnus, comes across as a rather detached figure, retreating to his study and his writing, leaving the running of a large household to the womenfolk. Mother, Mamie, once a highly respected journalist in her own right, is portrayed as a lively, loving, wise, colourful character at the very centre of the family. Sally recalls her ‘falling out of a punt into the River Cherwell, tumbling down a Glasgow manhole and half drowning during the vigorous self-cleaning cycle of an automatic French toilet,’ but always bobbing up again with insouciant charm and wit. Now though, she’s causing a different kind of reaction, a vague unease segueing into horrified realisation: losing her sense of curiosity, wandering around a guesthouse half clad, challenging two huge ‘gansta types’ on the London underground, needling her twin sister, forgetting words.
The diagnosis comes harshly and there are no magic bullets, search as Sally might among the world’s experts. The family regroup; the Mamie-sitting begins. In spite of their busy, high profile jobs, the Magnussons resolve to look after Mamie at home. They are articulate, energetic, insightful, relatively wealthy – they have the wherewithal to marshall support and an army of assistants. Not everyone can. But even with their resources the toll on Sally and her sisters is heavy – the constant anxiety, chaos, extreme fatigue, frayed nerves. Their own families suffer.
On the other hand, they see for themselves the benefits of familiar surroundings, constant family presence, the therapeutic value of the music which has been so central to Mamie all her life. They confront head-on the reality of decision making at the end of life – do we let her slip away or do we treat? – as a family: unencumbered by the constraints and pressures of officialdom, with their mother safe in her and their own world.
‘What mattered was that life still burned within you, fierce and lovely, and we could not let you go.’ However ‘… we know it could be different, perhaps even should be different, next time. Drug development is out of kilter. We have medicine to stop lungs filling up but not the brain eroding. We have drugs and vaccines to counteract or slow down almost ever disease that nature has organised to bring life to a close, but none to mend the mind. So thousands of old people lie in thousands of beds,waiting for a death we do our best to deny them for as long as possible. Better, perhaps, to face thinking about a time when the treatment might be allowed to stop.’
Over time they revisit their decisions as they see the life they have revived her for sliding into ever more debilitating levels: the ‘scorching emptiness’ in her eyes, the dislocation, the sadness, the fear, the outbursts of rage, the ‘tyrannical’ attention seeking, the inconsolable weeping, the hostility, the violence, the ranting and raving, the unearthly keening, the hallucinations, the ‘nightmare your life became’. But Sally finds the most harrowing moments are when her mother manages to rise above the fog sufficiently to articulate her feelings: utterly lost; hating her dependence on others. That was the worst stage for me too, when my mother was aware of her predicament.
Difficult as the behaviours are, the Magnusson sisters face other stark challenges.
‘What is threatening to defeat us daughters is not so much your behaviour as our emotions. Others, namely the stalwart women who look after you as a part-time job, seem often to manage you better than we do. We have kept a major role in what is now a 24-hour rota not just because the financial reserves are finite but because it is clear you want us. Yet each of us is haunted by a mounting sense of failure … Perhaps, we three sisters tell ourselves, we need to hand over the reins to people who are not so emotionally involved, who don’t find tears flooding into their eyes every time you lash out or look lost. Perhaps we must contrive to become breezy visitors rather than ragged carers.’
Nevertheless the occasional sparks of recognition, the lulls in the battle when they sang together, the rare tender touches, kept them persevering at home to the end, shored up by the team of professionals who tended to their mother’s physical needs.
In the end Sally concludes, on a personal level, through this painful journey with her mother, she has discovered the true meaning of love – a love which she wants her own five children to understand. And on a more global level, she believes, ‘A nation discovers its truest dignity when it cherishes the dignity of those from whom it has not heard for a very long time. That much I have learned, beloved mother, from your living and your dying.’
The story isn’t new. So many thousands of other daughters have travelled a similar path, but perhaps the powers-that-be will listen to an attractive, articulate celebrity who has captured the anguish and the need so eloquently.
One final thought: Analysis of Iris Murdoch‘s writing reveals a change – simplified syntax and impoverished vocabulary – when Alzheimer’s started to destroy the connections in her brain. Mamie Magnusson simply stopped writing. I must listen well to critique on my own scribbling as the years roll on! Is this dread illness even now lurking under the lamp post outside my window?
I am seriously allergic to numbers. Yep, seriously. Tax returns … sessions with the bank manager … they freak me out. So having just dealt with both within the space of two weeks (horrors!), I felt I’d earned a wee treat.
An ideal moment, then, to turn to a book that’s been in my tbr pile for ages: Barbara Vine‘s The Brimstone Wedding. A wonderful change from the teen fiction on anorexia I’ve been doggedly ploughing through; writing of a different calibre altogether. And nothing whatever to do with ethics or medicine or heart-searching. Pure escapism. Add to that a deadline for a piece of knitting and I’m a really happy bunny: I can knit and read together all day without flagging - shame about mealtimes and the need for sleep.
Most people know this author better as Ruth Rendell (now Baroness Rendell of Babergh) crime writer extraordinaire, creator of Chief Inspector Wexford. As Barbara Vine, she has developed the psychological thriller, exploring the minds of the perpetrators of crimes; the whydoneit perhaps more than the whodoneit. And she has excelled in both spheres, winning numerous prestigious literary awards.
The Brimstone Wedding tells the story of two women: Stella, an elegant and intelligent resident in Middleton Hall Care Home, and Jenny/Genevieve, a young care assistant who detects a mystery in Stella’s past which intrigues her. They develop a special bond and Stella starts to share some of her story … and her life … and her possessions.
The two women’s voices narrate the tale (occasionally they’re a little too similar, I thought, making it tricky to know who was speaking until they dropped names or events in to locate themselves). Though they’re from different generations, constrained by different moral climates, their personal life experiences overlap in several ways: both were in unsatisfactory marriages, both had secret lovers, both contemplated leaving their husbands, both had traumatic experiences, both used a secret hideaway for their trysts (the same one as it happens). Their shared bonds draw them ever closer. That their lives are also linked in a uniquely special way, only emerges at the end of the book, and if the clues existed, I confess, I missed them.
The pace of the book is slow and gentle, well suited to the sedate life of an elderly woman dying of cancer in an old folks’ home. And the tiny text is tightly packed onto 312 pages so it’s a fairly substantial read. The characters are beautifully drawn, all flawed and very believable. We see the inadequate husbands through the eyes of their spouses, and share their frustrations and despair. The other, more dashing other-people’s-husbands who beckon them into illicit affairs, take us in too, with their soft words, their romantic gestures, their promises. I didn’t see their feet of clay either initially.
Both woman also carry psychological baggage. Genevieve has inherited a strong belief in superstitions passed on through several generations which constrain her behaviour (a characteristic that adds real depth to her portrayal). Stella is haunted by terrible secrets from her past and struggles to share them before her death, committing the worst to audiotapes only to be heard when she’s no longer around to witness the reactions. We know from the outset about the dark shadows, but we don’t know the how or the why; it’s this tension that drives the narrative.
Vine is an undisputed master storyteller and I was engrossed. It wasn’t simply a matter of the book being so much better than my recent reading – well, it’s in a different league; unfair to compare them. No, it was that this tale also touched familiar chords. I spend a fair amount of time in real life with elderly people; I volunteer in a residential home; I watch with admiration the affection staff develop for those they care for. And this story rang true. As did the author’s perceptive comments about relationships, marriage, careers, loyalty, ambition. She really understands people. I didn’t need the suspense of an ultimate frightening revelation to keep my eyes glued and my needles clacking until both jacket and book were finished.
‘Tender’, ‘horrifying’, exquisite’, ‘powerful’, ‘chilling’, ‘moving’ … they’ve all been applied to The Brimstone Wedding. They’re all true. A treat indeed. And all thoughts of numbers are now successfully driven from my head; I am once again sanguine about life. Maybe this year I will complete my tax return in April, avoid all that build up of apprehension. Maybe.
I hinted last week that I’d like to tell you about another dramatic exploration of an ethical issue which impressed me. So here goes.
Now, as you know, I’ve read a mini-library-full of books about suffering and the right to die and euthanasia and related issues, but the film Amour is one of the most affecting explorations of the topic I’ve encountered. I want to share it with you, but I should warn you that this blog does contain spoilers.
Amour is in French so I needed the subtitles, but that didn’t detract from the power of the story. It centres around an octogenarian couple, Georges and Anne, retired music teachers, facing the horrors of Anne’s debilitating and progressively diminishing illness. It’s been described as ‘one of the most honest, intimate and deeply affecting portraits of love ever committed to film‘, and it has deservedly won many awards – including an OSCAR and 2 BAFTAs.
Curious really, you might think, given the age and condition of the main protagonists (they’re both in their eighties in real life as well as in the film), the rather slow pace, and the subject matter. But the elderly couple are played to perfection by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Indeed flashbacks to earlier days when Anne was a beautiful and accomplished pianist come as quite a shock, her disabilities are so utterly convincing.
The opening sequence grabs you by the throat: a brigade of firemen and police are breaking down the doors of an elegantly proportioned though rather run down apartment in Paris. Behind a taped-up bedroom door they find the decaying corpse of Anne laid out on a bed surrounded by flower heads.
The onset of her illness is poignantly captured: Anne suddenly goes blank at the breakfast table and fails to respond to Georges. He initially thinks she’s playing a prank on him, and his amateurish attempts to revive her are an early indication of his unreadiness to take on the role that’s thrust upon him. When she comes out of her catatonic state she finds herself unable to pour a cup of tea. The dawning realisation seen in her face is haunting. What must it be like to be a brilliant musician and suddenly, without warning lose control of your hands?
She undergoes surgery to unblock her carotid artery, but something goes wrong, and she’s left paralyzed down her right side. After her first hospitalisation she makes Georges promise to keep her out of any institution thereafter. That promise exacts a fearful toll on him as she suffers subsequent strokes and increasingly loses mental and physical control, and we watch him being tested beyond his capacity with growing dread. Verbal expression of his feelings is kept to a minimum, increasing the sense of his isolation.
Anne herself initially makes a spirited attempt to live with her disabilities, and the scenes of her determinedly finding ways to cope with simple tasks using just one useful hand, or learning to drive her motorised wheelchair, spell out her dogged determination to get on with her life. Indeed it’s Anne herself who initially guides Georges as to how best to assist her. But we can’t forget the enormity of what’s she’s lost, and we can’t but sympathise with her when she says she doesn’t want to go on living.
Georges’ rather bumbling attempts to pick up the tasks of domestic life and Anne’s care reveal with great sensitivity both his fundamental devotion and his present unease. But his love becomes increasingly streaked with irritation as she grows more fractious and incoherent, and he becomes frailer himself, until one day he loses his temper with her. Hard to know who is more shocked.
Their daughter, Eva, (just visiting) exerts pressure on him to put her mother into care, but Georges categorically refuses to break the promise he made to his wife. Eventually though, he concedes that the burden is too great for him alone and he employs first one nurse for three days a week, and later a second nurse. But Georges then momentarily metamorphoses into a much more robust fiery character: he finds this latest recruit has been ill-treating her patient, and he calls down a curse on her that she be similarly treated in her dependency.
Anne’s pitiful crying for help, her incontinence, her inability to convey her wishes, the increasing indignities her elderly body is subjected to – none of the horrors are shirked by these fine actors, or the director, Michael Haneke. And it’s almost a relief when Georges sits down to calm his wife’s distressed crying by telling her a story taken from his youth. His soothing tone, his body language, the gentle stroking of her good hand … we are lulled into a sense that he has at last found a way to deal with the impatience and intolerable demands. The mournful cries do gradually diminish and stop, Anne lies perfectly still, only her blinking eyes reminding us she’s listening: it’s both touching and comforting. So the suddenness of his action (picking up a pillow and smothering her) takes one by storm.
After the act, Georges himself calmly sets about completing his self-appointed responsibilities. He buys flowers which he washes (not sure why) before snipping off the heads. He selects clothes for Anne. He sits down to compose a very long letter, working well into the night. He shakily climbs a ladder to tape the bedroom door shut and then spends ages tottering round after a pigeon that has flown in through the hall window. He tries to catch it in a blanket, and I confess I thought he was bent on violence towards it, but no, the real Georges is still there, doddery and clumsy, but still capable of compassion and logical thinking. He caresses the bird tenderly in the blanket as if its flickering life is a comfort to him, before he releases it. The symbology, though obvious, is pitch perfect.
Anne’s ghost pervades the apartment. Georges sees her vividly everywhere, rejuvenated now, active, independent, in charge. When she prepares to leave the house, calling to him to bring a coat, he follows her out of the apartment one last time and is not seen again.
The final sequence takes us back to the beginning, as daughter Eva wanders through the now-empty and silent apartment, remembering, thinking.
Though, as a film, Amour has garnered immense praise, inevitably some have criticised the showing of a controversial act of mercy?/killing. I’d recommend that you watch the whole film before making up your own mind about the right/wrongness of portraying Georges’ solution so graphically – or indeed about his actions. It’d be money well spent. And whatever you conclude, I’m sure you’d agree it’s a powerful way of stimulating thought and discussion on a vexed question.
As one year ends and an unknown year opens up in front of us, it’s a good time to take stock, isn’t it? But it’s all too easy to get things out of perspective.
Now, you (probably) and I (definitely) both know that self doubt and angst are a recognised occupational hazard for writers – well, accumulated humiliations and rejections of various kinds, and multiple petty blows to the ego, don’t exactly put one in the party spirit, do they? So it maybe won’t come as any surprise to you when I confess that I was feeling rather despondent recently about the constant struggle to achieve sales targets and get the latest book noticed.
But then I found Melissa Benn‘s article: Survival of the fittest, in Mslexia. What a tonic. She knows personally all about the agonies of tiny queues for signings, poor reviews, miniscule audiences, patronising jibes, totally negative feedback, being ignored by the marketing department, the demise of the mid-list author, diminishment … her list is pretty exhaustive. Merely seeing these negative experiences acknowledged as commonplace takes some of the sting out of them. And her encouraging tips on how to survive were balm to my soul. As she says: ‘the most significant difference between a writer and a would-be-writer is simple bloody-minded persistence.’ Persistence? Yep, that I can do.
I was also chastened. I haven’t actually suffered any public abuse or vitriol such as some of the authors she quotes have endured (not yet at any rate!) so I’m instantly berating myself for allowing lesser things to bring my spirits low. I have no right or cause to wallow in self pity. Shoulders back, head high, woman!
And then there was an interview with crimewriter, Ian Rankin. He’s in his early 50s, lives in Edinburgh, and has sold over 20 million books. He’s a success. He’s a rich man. Readers queue twice around the block to hear him speak or get his signature. Our paths cross occasionally but he’s in a completely different league from me. He certainly wouldn’t recognise me if we met in the street, I’m sure. However, it took him a good 14 years before ‘money became a happy factor‘ in his writing career. And behind his present fame and fortune lies private tragedy. He says he’d give all the money he has so that his second son, Kit, didn’t have the severe disability he has (Angelman Syndrome).
This little story puts my anxieties about book-related issues into a much healthier context. Do sales figures really matter in the bigger scheme of things? Does anyone suffer because I overlooked a typo? Who benefits if I lose sleep anticipating possible criticism or a vanishing audience? I recall Alison Baverstock saying, think in terms of gaining one reader at a time and appreciate each book sold, rather than feeling crushed by grandiose expectations. By now my mental shake is having an effect.
Besides, it being a new year, I’ve resolved not to try not to get myself ridiculously overloaded with busyness, anyway. As Ruby Wax (who, don’t you know, holds an MA in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford and knows a thing or two about mental health) said in an end of December interview for the Telegraph on the secret to a happy new year: ‘happiness is not a shiny 2014 diary already clogged with meetings, phone catch-ups and must-do errands‘: we’re happier when we’re calmer and taking life steadier. That’s a pretty good idea to hang onto as we launch into a new year, I reckon. Me more than most.
So here’s to 2014 … and more peace and giving and understanding and loving in the world. I hope it’s a terrific year for you: healthy, happy, productive and contented.
First, a very happy New Year to you all.
Next, an update.
Phew! That’s my annual excursion into the realms of children’s fiction safely over for another year. (Hard to believe that’s the fourteenth in the series!) Cobwebs and spiders and mysterious birds and magical bells and quill pens and metal puzzles have all been packed away, and the house has once again resumed its ordinariness. It took two days to set the scene (well, it’s a complete takeover); only about four hours to demolish. Appropriately enough this time the theme of our play was of an ancient storyteller passing on the tricks of the trade to a new generation of budding writers. (This gorgeous sign for the door was drawn for me by an expert calligrapher in Turkey!)The play began with a dream on a hot summer’s day in which the spirit of the old storyteller bade the children to follow the sound of bells and ‘Write!’ under her instructions.First they had to divest themselves of all distractions and worries and free up their minds to soar. Here they are, suitably divested, and in their bland authorial outfits.They then caught ideas in specially crafted feather and net catchers wearing inspiration monitors on their heads which flashed every time a new idea impinged on their brains.The ideas then had to be sorted to form the basis for a story of their own. (And yes, I did write FIVE stories this year – three of them based on the framework the youngsters had given me beforehand. You try creating a coherent tale that involves badgers and secret codes and smugglers and hidden tunnels and circus clowns and a boat and forests and horrible smells, all in one fell swoop!!)They rearranged the ideas painlessly by means of basic fabric stoles with loads of pockets which they wore close to their chests. It was then time to think outside the box and develop their own unique voice: illustrated by designing their personal variations on a basic hat.A roomful of dressing-up clothes, wigs, shoes and props gave them plenty of scope to learn about character development as they assumed the persona and idiosyncrasies of various protagonists they dreamed up. This outfit probably took the prize for most bizarre but was very well defended, I must confess!As they grew into the role of mini storytellers their own clothing became more distinctive.And when their narratives were well developed, the authors assumed grand brocade or velvet cloaks created especially to represent the appealing covers of their books.Throughout the play, with each ‘exercise’, their raw plots and characters were being magically polished and refined – with a liberal helping of fairy dust throw in for good measure naturally.And at the end of the process they read the final version to the audience wearing an exotic outfit to symbolise the rarefied atmosphere of an authorial reading.The whole thing culminated in a baking session where they made Storytelling Cake – but I absolutely cannot share the recipe. Every single person present has taken a vow of secrecy. It will be passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth, but never EVER given to schoolteachers so please don’t bother applying for a copy!