Fiction

A person's a person, no matter how small!

Here are some lines you might recognise if you, like me, have been a reader since you were very little.

"The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play, so we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day. I sat there with Sally. We sat here we two and we said 'How we wish we had something to do.'"

Or how about this? 

Do you like green eggs and ham?
I do not like them,
Sam-I-am.
I do not like
green eggs and ham.”

The cat in the hat bookcoverYes, opening lines from two children's classics - 'The Cat in the Hat' and 'Green Eggs and Ham'

By 'Dr Seuss'.

Admittedly, if you're my age, you're more likely to know the name and the books if you were brought up in the United States of America, but nowadays Dr Seuss is globally popular not just for the books (he wrote and illustrated more than 60 books under that pen name), but also because of the cartoons and films that have brought the author's incredible imagination and creatures and thoughts to life over the decades since he first put pen to paper.Green eggs and ham book cover

'Dr Seuss' was actually a chap called Theodor Seuss 'Ted' Giesel, who was born on this day - Mach 2nd  - in 1904.

He wasn't just an award-winning world renowned children's author and poet, but also an illustrator, animator, filmmaker and political cartoonist. And by the time of his death in September 1991, his many children's books had sold over 600 million copies and been translated into more than 20 languages.

Horton hears a who book cover

'Horton Hears a Who' (published in 1955) is one of my favourites - the story in rhyme of Horton the Elephant and how he saves Whoville, a tiny planet based on a small speck of dust, from the evil animals who mocked him. 

The most popular line from that book is "A person's a person, no matter how small" - it's just so profound! Dr Seuss isn't just about fun, there's usually a moral in there somewhere too.

And how about 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas!' ? That one was published in 1957.

All written by Dr Seuss! NOW do you know who I'm talking about?

As was/is the case with many successful authors Ted Giesel's first efforts as a children's writer - a book called 'And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street' - was rejected by many dozens of publishers. But just a few years later, by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, he was beginning to become quite successful. During the war he supported the US war effort and made a name for himself as a filmmaker. One of his war documentaries inspired a film called 'Design for Death' (1947), a study of Japanese culture - and that picked up an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. A couple of years later in 1950, a film called 'Gerald McBoing-Boing', which was based on an original story by Seuss, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

Such a brilliantly talented person!

Dr Seuss was also at the forefront of the movement to get children reading. In 1954, a report was published in Life magazine highlighting illiteracy among school children in the USA. It concluded that kids were not learning to read because their books were boring. The director of the education division of publishers Houghton Mifflin, William Ellsworth Spaulding, compiled a list of 348 words that he believed were important for young readers - first-graders - to recognize. Spaulding asked Ted Geisel to cut the list to 250 words and to write a book using only those words.

The result was 'The Cat in the Hat', which uses 236 of the listed words.

Astonishing!

Seuss' books, his words, have certainly got children reading down the years. Just as JK Rowling got a generation at the end of the 20th century picking up a Harry Potter book, Dr Seuss' creations have inspired millions of young readers. 

Down the years Dr Seuss picked up many an award, and even a special Pulitzer Prize in 1984, for his "contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America's children and their parents".  He even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and although he passed away in 1991 he remains one of the highest paid celebrities and authors. 

But I think it's his ability to engage children with words and to encourage them to read, opening up their imaginations to a world of possibilities and to laugh out loud, shed a tear or two and empathise with others, that is his greatest legacy.

So, with that in mind, I'll leave you with a brilliant quote from the amazing man called Dr Seuss.

Cat in the hat reading

 


A Song for Friday

It's a Friday.

It's almost the end of February - my second month writing this blog.

I have to say sometimes - just sometimes - I've struggled to be inspired as to what to bring you.

Shall it be another diatribe based on something that happened 'On This Day in History'? Just something that popped into my head, a picture I've seen, a quote I adore?

Or in this case, a piece of music?

Little known fact ... unless you're me or a few people I know who've heard me go on about this endlessly ... one of my favourite stage shows is 'Les Misérables'.

When it first came to London's West End I heard the soundtrack, saw some reviews and was absolutely determined to see it live. I didn't live in London so every time I was visiting the UK capital, for whatever reason, I would try to get tickets. To no avail! 

One time I even queued for hours in the hope of getting some 'return' seats. Nothing!

In 1993 when I moved from Jersey to the UK, I was in a better position, and eventually, sometime down the line, I got my opportunity. Ticket in hand I found myself in the theatre.

Absolute Bliss!

It did not disappoint. Loved the songs, loved the staging, the characters. Everything.

And since then I've seen the show about seven times, including once at the Jersey Opera House, a most excellent amateur production a few years back by the Jersey Amateur Dramatic Club. They were amazing, and the best thing was a few of my friends were in the cast. Perfect.

Now, don't worry, I'm not going to go on endlessly about the show, or the film, or the (very long - five 'volumes') book that it's based on. I've read it by the way, and it's a classic!

But just to say, Victor Hugo, the French poet, novelist, and dramatist had started writing the tome in the 1840s but the book Les Misérables  wasn't published until 1862. It's based on events which had taken place around thirty years previously.

Hugo had apparently walked the streets of Paris during the June 1832 rebellion which is the culmination of the novel. He saw those barricades. But the novel - considered one of the greatest of the 19th century - is not just about the conflict and unrest in France over the decades preceding 1832. It's a narrative on poverty, and injustice, and social and class division. Its themes are philosophical as well as historical. 

Hugo was not just a writer but also a politician and he had very strong views on issues like social injustice, he was opposed to the death penalty and in favour of freedom of the press, among other things. And this, ultimately, got him into trouble.

When Louis Napoleon, Napoleon III, seized power in France in 1851, he established an anti-parliamentary constitution and when Hugo openly declared him a traitor the writer had to flee the country. He moved first to Brussels and then to Jersey.

Unfortunately he was expelled from this /my lovely island for supporting a local newspaper that had criticised the Queen of England, Queen Victoria. So Hugo moved just across the water to another Channel Island, to Guernsey, where he and his family settled at Hauteville House in St Peter Port. The writer lived in exile from October 1855 until 1870 - and by the way, you can visit the house even today to see how he lived.

It was while he was in Guernsey that Hugo created some of his best work, including completing Les Misérables. It delights me that this classic was written quite close to my home!

Anyway, back to the stage production. And all I'm going to do is share one of the fabulous songs from the show. Hard to choose, so many great tunes but this is one I've selected for you today, sung by the amazing Josh Groban.

Oh, and if you're wondering - I'm posting this today because Victor Hugo was born on this day - 26 February - in 1802.

 

 

 


Telling Tales

When I was a child living in Kenya, I attended boarding school. My family lived on a remote farm, so for years until a school was built nearby, I was away from home during term time, living at school, sleeping in a dormitory with a dozen other girls.

There wasn't much in the way of entertainment, and quite early on I discovered I had a bit of a talent for story telling. Not reading from a book, but just making up stories as I went along. Most evenings after Lights Out and the matron had completed her rounds, the question would come from another girl in the dorm and I would start imagining and talking. Lying there in the dark making up tales. I'm sure most of the girls fell asleep to my stories, and sometimes I remember being so sleepy myself that my stories would mix with my dreams.

There's something magical about just making stuff up ... and going with the flow. Some of the children in my life (now grown up) also remember Aunty Cathy's stories. In fact, they remember them better than I do.

I have been a lot of things in my life, but if I'm honest I consider myself, first and foremost, a storyteller. Even as a broadcaster, a journalist and reporter, I think my best work has also been the telling of other people's stories.

And I'm intrigued by other storytellers.

It was on this day - February 1st in 1851 - that one supreme storyteller died.

Her name was Mary Shelley, and many of you will be aware that she is best known for her really spooky story -  Frankenstein.

It's a tale we think we all know. If not from reading the book, then maybe by television and film adaptations of the story of the monster, Frankenstein, made from bits of other humans.

Ah ---- NO!

Stop there.

Actually, the monster doesn't have a name. He is just 'the Creature'. It is his creator, a young scientist, who is called Victor Frankenstein. In an unorthodox scientific experiment, he manages to make a living breathing creature. The story is considered to be an early example of science fiction.

Mary Shelley had grown up in a literary and political family and was rather unorthodox herself. Her mother was the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who died barely a month after giving birth to her daughter. Mary Godwin, as she was known, was just around 17 when she fell in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was already married but they took up together and travelled through Europe. Mary eventually fell pregnant and over the next few years the couple were ostracised by society and fell into debt. After the death of their daughter, who was born premature, Mary suffered her first bout of depression. Eventually she gave birth to a son and was pregnant with another child when she finally married Shelley in late December 1816, not more than a couple of weeks after Percy's wife Harriet had committed suicide.

As I said - unorthodox!

But back to earlier in 1816. In May of that year Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley and their infant son travelled to Geneva in Switzerland, with Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont. There they planned to spend the summer with the poet Lord Byron, who had recently had an affair with Claire, who was  pregnant. It was a wet summer and the group spent their time writing, boating on the lake and talking and storytelling late into the night. 

One evening, as they sat around a log fire at Byron's summer villa, they told German ghost stories and Lord Byron suggested that they all try to write a ghost story.

Mary later wrote that she had no ideas, and was getting a bit anxious because this became a bit of an obsession with the rest of the group, who were constantly asking her if she'd come up with a story.

It was in mid-June that the germ of an idea began to grow. The group had been talking about life, and the principle of human existence. The idea that, somehow, a corpse could be brought back to life, began to take shape in Mary's mind that evening. Her ghost story, of the monster created by Victor Frankenstein, grew overnight in her imagination.

She put pen to paper, assuming it would be a short story. But it became more and with Percy's encouragement,  Mary produced her first novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

Mary was just 18 when she wrote the story, and it was published anonymously in London on 1 January 1818. Initially some believed Percy to be the author, because he wrote the foreword. But Mary's name appeared for the first time on the second edition which was published in Paris in 1821.

Over the years there has been much debate over the origins of Frankenstein, and the part Percy Shelley may have played in its development, if not its creation. But Mary went on to prove her talent. She penned other novels and biographies, worked as an editor and writer, while living an exceptional unconventional life.

Hers was a life of genius and strong belief. She had inherited her mother's feminist views and she defied many of the social conventions of her day to the point of scandal. And her life was marred by  tragedy - the loss of two more children including that baby boy who was with his parents in Geneva in 1816 and the death by drowning of her husband in 1822. Later in life she was the victim of blackmailers, she survived bouts of severe depression and ill-health and often suffered precarious finances.

Her own story is one worthy or re-telling, and today we still remember her, and particularly her most famous story.

Now that's a legacy. And THAT's a Storyteller par excellence!


Waste Not Want Not

Have you ever heard the saying 'Waste Not Want Not' ? 

I'm sure you have. It sort of rolls off the tongue doesn't it?

And in these days when we're encouraged to try to do our best to save the resources of our planet, the emphasis on conservation, recycling, and on 're-using' and 're-purposing' - it's a phrase that is very 'current'. Or at least, it should be!

This won't be the only time I talk to you about 're-using'. It's something I love to do, especially when I'm sewing and crafting, using up old material, ribbons gathered from all sorts of places, cards, pictures, papers. I'm also a person who loves to visit charity/thrift shops to find stuff that other people have discarded, and to give them a new life.

But that's a tale for another time.

Back to that phrase - 'Waste Not Want Not'.

What does it actually mean?

Well, it's really saying ... if you don't waste anything, you will always have enough. If you don't squander your money and resources, you will never be in want. If you use a commodity or resources carefully, you will never be in need.

In other words - there's always enough to go around. We just need to stop wasting stuff! 

I love that!

But although it's a phrase perfectly suited to today, did you know that it's an idiom that has been around since the end of the 18th century?

It's reckoned one of the first references was in a book called 'The Parent's Assistant' which was the first collection of children's stories by a writer called Maria Edgeworth, and it was published in 1796.

Maria was English/Irish and a prolific writer of children's and adult literature.  She had strong views on politics, education and estate management and she wrote on these matters, as well as creating stories. And apparently Maria was a significant figure in the evolution of the novel in Europe.

Queen Victoria was a fan. She was reading The Parent's Assistant in 1837, just three months before her coronation. In her diary she recalled reading "The Birthday Present" in "Miss Edgeworth's inimitable and delightful Parent's Assistant" while doing her hair.

Today's phrase is actually the title of one of her stories, entitled 'Waste Not, Want Not' (or 'Two Strings To Your Bow'). It's the story of two boys Hal and Benjamin, who are taken in by their Uncle. The motto is actually written over the chimney-piece, in the Uncle's big kitchen, and the narrative is mostly about how the boys learn the lessons of not wasting or squandering what they have, or are given.

Maria Edgeworth, in common with many early novelists, definitely wrote to teach as well as to inform and to entertain. Although it's not exactly the genre of storytelling that is popular these days, in their time these stories were very much in demand.

And the fact that Maria was highly regarded as a writer, at a time when educated females were often disapproved of, says much about the woman who more than 200 years ago first profiled a simple phrase which is even today calling us to action. 

Waste not, want not - Idioms by The Free Dictionary


Guilty Pleasure

Guilty Pleasure Alert! Christie books

I love a bit of Agatha Christie!

Today is a bit of a depressing anniversary date to hang this thought on … because it was today - January 12th 1976 - that Dame Agatha Christie passed away … but it’s an opportunity to celebrate one of my favourite authors.

Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile – these works have always been popular stories for filmmakers down the years, and in fact they’ve recently been re-worked again, with Sir Kenneth Branagh as the magnificent Hercule Poirot.

In recent decades on TV here in the UK, the fabulous actor David Suchet brought Christie’s Belgian detective to life for a load of episodes ('Poirot') across more than 20 years. I loved it! And many people are also now very familiar with Christie's Miss Marple through television and film.

But I’m pleased to say that way before I even knew there were movies and before I watched much TV, I loved the books.

From Christie’s very first successful narrative featuring the extravagantly moustached Poirot working his ‘little grey cells’ in ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’, to classics like  ‘Evil Under the Sun’, and ‘They do it with Mirrors’ and ‘The Moving Finger', featuring the aforementioned Jane Marple, as well as other stories with other ‘detectives’ at the centre … at one point in my life I just immersed myself in her stories. I can’t say I’ve read all 66 of her detective novels but I’ve given it good go!

Recently I’ve been re-reading lots of the books and thoroughly enjoying it. It’s pure escapism, but the older I get the more I realise just how clever Dame Agatha was.

They say you should write what you know, but from what I know about Agatha Christie, she wasn’t personally immersed in the world of crime and policing. But, undoubtedly, she must have been a great observer of human nature, and I’m guessing that she probably squirrelled away lots of information in her head (or maybe notebooks) about strange things that were in the news, or odd people who crossed her path.

I do know she had an inquiring mind. I love the fact that she had a fascination and passion for archaeology, which is the ultimate mystery solver. She often accompanied her second husband Sir Max Mallowan – a prominent archaeologist - on his digs, often to exotic destinations. Max, by the way, was somewhat younger than Agatha – 13 years younger – and she also defied other conventions by being not just a successful woman of words, but also a shrewd businesswoman.

And I know she had an amazing imagination – how else could she come up with some of the plots, twists and turns, and personalities she devised for her stories?

Agatha Christie has been called the "Duchess of Death", the "Mistress of Mystery", and the "Queen of Crime". And she was developing her storytelling techniques during what has become known as the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction … and her work helped to make it so!

As a writer myself, Dame Agatha is a bit of a heroine for me. Not that I want to write mystery novels, but her tenacity and ability to imagine and articulate her ideas gives me real inspiration for my own writing. Being able to just enter another world of MY imagination is something I know needs practice. And that means observing the real world I live in, and yes, ferreting away information about the people and places around me - in my own 'little grey cells'!

But also, sometimes, especially when life is a bit tough, I find it’s just good to stop thinking too hard and maybe suspend my reality, if only for a little while. 

So if you don’t mind, I’ll just turn to my bookcase and grab another Agatha Christie.

See you later!

Agatha Christie - Wikipedia

Agatha Christie bibliography - Wikipedia