Monday, October 27, 2008

a breath of winter

Sailed out of Aberdeen at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, heading for Lerwick in what I thought were mountainous seas, but hey, I do have a tendency to exaggerate. I did lurch to my cabin window at about 7.30 a.m to take some photos to prove that the mountains were real and not imaginary, but the very action of standing upright was more than enough to bring on a fit of the dry heaves and I had to assume the horizontal position promptly before I went in for major cabin redecoration.It was a journey from hell, and as the ship left Aberdeen harbour and wallowed and yawed out into the full ferocity of the North Sea, I did wonder if I was going to make it intact.

And what vicious shipping magnate named the Shetland ferries in such a completely unsympathetically onomatopoeic fashion. To wit : the s.s. Hrossey and Hjatland. Don't know about you, but when I give it the technicolour yawn, the sounds that emerge from me are along the lines of Hrosseyyyy and Hjat, hjat, hjaaaatt. Too much information, I suspect. Enough already.

I'm still swaying slightly and I've been here for 24 hours now. I was greeted with horizontal sleet as I came off the boat. Sleet? Yikes. We are far North. Edinburgh was sub-tropical by comparison. I'm only here for four days, talking to Shetland's teachers about the projects that I worked on with their children. Also talking about my dragon book and banging my climate change drum, but mainly having fun showing groups of teachers how I managed to get their children to enjoy writing stories. This involves a lot of drawing on the dreaded interactive whiteboards which is about as easy as drawing with a small and wayward half brick with a different agenda from your own. Where I place my pen on the board bears little relation to where the actual drawn line appears. This is deeply disconcerting. Off the top of my head I imagine it to be a bit like chopping onions using those gloved hands that you see in use in nuclear power stations when they're handling uranium - you stand on one side of the leaded glass screen, and on the other side are your virtual hands actually using the knife on the onions. Weird. However, when the whiteboards work, they are truly amazing devices, enabling large numbers of people to watch as you draw something to illustrate what you're wiffling on about.

But when, as happened today, I accidentally hit the wrong area of the screen with my mouse/pen/cursor, and all the huge drawing we'd been working with disappeared, it was incredibly hard to keep sounding ladylike when all I wanted to do was curse like a sailor.

Two hours of talking is effortful, though. At the end of the morning all I was fit for was to curl up with a book and try to pile in enough calories to stop myself from freezing. I can't seem to find a switch to turn the heating up, or indeed, to turn it on in this room where I sit tapping out this post. And yes, I've piled on more layers of clothing, but there's a limit to how many layers I can fit, one on top of the other before my arms stick out from my sides like the Michelin woman. The heating here in Lerwick comes piped in from the town's monster incinerator which occasionally belches out foul smokes and fumes that you can taste. It's called 'district' heating, and is a grand idea if, and it's a big if, the filters work. On the days when you can almost chew the air, I suspect the filters are not working as they should.

So. Tomorrow, I go talk to another group of teachers, but afterwards I hope to get out of Lerwick and go breathe some seawashed air. Winter has already arrived up here at sixty degrees North, which came as a surprise since I left mid-autumn behind in the softer South. I want to get out in the crisp wind, feel the teeth of ice blown across the sea and flirt with the Big Chill before it comes in a few weeks time to the more temperate latitudes where I live. Annoyingly, the clocks went back this weekend, thus allowing fewer hours of daylight to walk Shetland's coastline. I won't be able to go for the long walk I'd anticipated, and will have to find a shorter route - perhaps I'll attempt Fitful Head again, now that there's no chance of being set upon by Arctic terns determined to protect their nesting sites. At this time of year I might get blown off the summit, but that's a risk I'll be able to see coming. The Arctic terns came out of a clear blue sky last May and forced me to turn back. This time the only thing that'll be nesting in Shetland are sets of occasional tables.

And that was a truly pathetic joke for which I apologize.

Friday, October 17, 2008

last of the southern epics

Thank heavens. Now I can collapse in a small Ardbeg-sprinkled heap and say - Job Done. One last heroic effort today - up and down to London in a day, by rail ( am I insane, or what?), pausing momentarily in front of a roomful of senior librarians to flash images, illustrations, sketches and ideas and general climate-rant in front of their thankfully smiling faces and receptive minds. And then back on another train up to Scotland. Phew. 

Let's hear it for librarians. Come on, LOUDER. Damn it, these people are the Keepers of the Faith, the real Masters and Mistresses of the Universe. They deserve a special place in our hearts and minds. When the money is tight, in this country you can still go to the Great Temple of Literature and ask politely if they will acquire something you want to read for their collection. Oh yeah, and you are hoping that they're going to pay for it. Try doing that in a bookshop and see how far you get.

And the fund of knowledge pooled in that room today was formidable. Anything you want to know about children's books - enquire within.

But for now, I'm on an unbelievably overcrowded train and one of my fellow passengers ( the posh one with the flaky children) is  - I can't quite believe this - pouring milk out of a vast plastic container into a teetering cup of hot tea a scant millimetre from where I sit tapping this out on my Precioussssssss. Can I stand the strain or shall I pack up, fold my tent and stop now before it all goes to hell?

Tough call. One last heartfelt hoorah for librarians the world over. And now - I'm gone, before the Descent of the Milk and the Ensuing Carnage. Laters.

Monday, October 13, 2008

train through Lakeland

When I was very very small I was given a beautiful two-tier box of coloured pencils. All shades of the rainbow were there, pointy end upwards in a matt black card box with a top that tilted on a paper hinge to allow this baby artist access to her tools. I loved those pencils to bits. Every time I tilted back the lid and gazed in awe at the colours, I was almost hyperventilating with excitement.

Not unlike how I respond to a wall of yarn in a knitting shop, actually. However, these days, my response to all the hues and types of yarn has to be firmly sat upon less I commit fiscal suicide. Fiscicide? Yes. Anyhoo... My pencils had their maker's name embossed in gold ( not real gold, for heaven's sake) and the name was Lakeland and Cumberland. 

Well, that was a long, long time ago. Coloured pencils? These days, my dears, we find ourselves a burnt twig with which to daub the walls of our cave in these straitened times. ( you know - that stockmarket-melted, climate-changed, credit-crunched Armageddon we're currently enjoying. Some of us are enjoying it more than others but they had better hide their smug smirks less the rest of us rise up and rip them limb from limb, but hey, I digress) It's pretty chilly in the cave, and most of the stunted twigs we find lying around are saved to put on the fire at night. But sometimes, as the Tribe's resident storyteller, sometimes they allow me just one little twig with which to tell the story of what the heck happened to all our 21stC towering dreams, and how we all ended up living in caves.

I think, in truth, the Tribe would probably eat me, because my net worth in survivalist terms, is really negligible. Too old to bear Tribabies, too slow to hunt Tribeasts and way too mouthy to put up with any kind of Tribull, I'm pretty sure I'd end up in the pot, simmering nicely along with some turnips. 

where the hell am I going with this? 

Heavens, by now you're undoubtedly scratching your heads and wondering what on earth was in my breakfast back in Birmingham earlier this a.m. Or can it be that a week of touring has finally dissolved the weak glue that held my synapses together? Hope not. Boy, do I hope not. I still have miles to go and promises to keep. So. Pencils. Lakeland and Cumberland have long gone, I think. Or morphed into another pencil-creating company with a different name. Derwent pencils are ringing some vague and distant bell in the porridge of my brain. Anyway. Lordy. Do stick to the point, Gliori. The train has passed through some hideous urban conurbations, most of which have completely passed me by, locked in embrace with my desktop, as I have been. But I looked up about half an hour ago and found myself in the middle of a landscape of such quintessential pastoral beauty that I was completely blown away. It was the Lake District, home of Beatrix Potter, William Morris, John Ruskin and many other luminaries of the art world whose work has enriched our world, to the betterment of us all. The views were exquisite, and if only I still had access to my little box of pencils ( reaching out for them down through the years) I could have drawn a sketch to show you what I mean. For now, simply the words will have to do.
This is a wonderful world, full of beauty. We ignore it at our peril.

Friday, October 10, 2008

dogless in transit

Another day, another train. 

Yesterday was spent partly in York and then on to Newcastle. Three separate events in one day, three hour-long talks to different groups of children about climate change. And my dragons were welcomed, well-received and the message they bear was well and truly delivered.

The rest is up to each and every small person, every teacher, every parent and every single individual who has heard what I had to say. And none of it is exactly stuff that we, the adults, didn't know already, but perhaps something of the passion and the urgency I have brought to this whole project might rub off on some of the people who have heard me talk.

The working day started at nine in the morning and finished at eight at night. After which, Emma and I headed for the bar of our exceptionally comfortable hotel and toasted ourselves for having put in a stonkingly good day at the coalface. We had supper and then, eyes barely able to focus due to sleep-deprivation exacerbated by a fire alarm going off in the wee small hours of the night before in the hotel we stayed in the night before in York. Well, that wasn't exactly the most elegant sentence I've ever cobbled together, but I'm sure you know what I mean. You get the picture. We're into the home stretch of the tour, as of now heading back down the country to Cheltenham to take part in the Lit-Fest. Anyhoo - last night, after drinks and dinner, I collapsed on my vast hotel bed, sank back into the pillows and phoned home. The news was good, but let me feeling a very odd mix of emotions. To explain-

my beloved Eldest child has been struggling with heroin addiction for years - how many years we're not entirely sure, and in this case, the numbers are not important. Suffice to say, this has been a very difficult thing for all of us to get our heads around. Crikey, Gliori - mistress of the understatement, or what? I'm trying to keep this light, so bear with me. Don't think for one second that I feel lighthearted about all of this, but there is nothing to gain by wallowing. You'll have to trust me on this one. My child has been in the Dark Woods ( his words) for so long he can probably hardly remember what the sunny uplands feel like. In terms of years spent on this planet, he's old enough to have a house, a job, a wife, children and a receding hairline. In reality, his life stopped when he put it on hold in his early twenties by embarking on this descent into hell. Watching this happen to a beloved child is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. In truth, when members of your family embark on this journey, they take a part of you with them.

The news from home is that next week he's going to start to claw his way back out of the darkness. He'll do some horrible and necessary weeks of de-tox and then he'll be gone, far, far away to do at least one full year of re-hab. I have no idea who he will be when that year is over. It's not like the Federal Witness Protection Programme in the good old you-ess-of-ay, but there are similiarities. It's unlikely that he'll ever be able to return to the city of his birth, and it's possible that he may never want to re-engage with his family. He has to break ties with the past in case they are the ties that bound him in cycles of self-destructive behaviour. Only he can decide in the years to come, which, if any, of the threads from the past he will pick up and weave back into his new life.

And I have to watch from the shore as his boat heads out into the fog, without any clear idea of where he's headed,  whether he will return, or if I will recognize the man that steps back onshore. I am so very proud of him for deciding to take this step into the unknown, and I applaud his courage.

But right now, on a train to Cheltenham, I wish my dog was by my side, because right now, I could really do with an uncomplicated creature to wrap my arms around and have a good cry on. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sleepless in transit

It's now Wednesday and Emma from( The Trouble With Dragon's publisher) Bloomsbury and I are on another train, with a wifi signal dipping in and out of focus, on our way to a school in Ilkley ( Yorkshire) to talk to another 110 small persons. Yesterday was great - speaking to a whole school of children( ages from 5 to 11) about climate change, and about the Dragons, and watching their dear little open faces as they 'got' it. And it's such an important thing we're talking about that my voice breaks every time I talk about it, because I am so utterly convinced that we have to hurry up and DO something before we miss the window of opportunity for turning this whole thing round.

The soundtrack that runs through my head for the tour is Kate Bush's 'Ariel'. Songs that get stuck in your head are known as 'earworms' but this music is far too beautiful for such an ugly term. I am transported literally by the train, and metaphorically by the music, and the net result is a dreamy state of langour which seems to work well when I have to get up there and talk to hundreds of people. By the end of this week, I will have spoken to almost a thousand children, and I'm hoping that those thousand children go home and start asking questions of their parents, their teachers and each other. I'm hoping I've given them exactly the right amount of information about climate change, in a form that they can understand and remember. Hopefully presented in a way that will give them enough of an idea of the urgency with which we have to address the issue, and of the importance of doing so.

Otherwise we are going to sleepwalk our way to extinction.

All around us, financial markets are in turmoil, the US is obsessed with election fever and we appear to be taking our eyes off the most important issue of our age. Climate change gets a few column inches while the FTSE and Dow Jones steal the front pages. If we all lived on Tuvalu and were watching our homeland disappear under a rapidly rising sea, or if we lived in Bangladesh and were watching as our tiny vegetable gardens wilted and died under saltwater, or if we were Inuit people who could no longer dare to go fishing on the ice because the once solid whiteness beneath our feet had become treacherous slush or...if we were one of a billion people whose lives are going down the pan and not because their investments were failing, then I think we would no longer care about what the markets were doing.

Apologies. Not my most cheerful posting,this. I remain hopeful, but I also want to jump up and down and yell HURRY UP.

And being away from home without my fiddle has made me feel music-starved. If the craving gets the better of me, I can always go and find a music shop and pretend to be interested in buying a fiddle just so I can get my hands on one, but I'm still too shy to play in front of strangers, and besides, Emma would probably die of embarrassment at being seen out with an author with what I can only describe as fiddle issues. She undoubtedly would think fiddle music is boring as hell, and would be too polite to say so.

It can't be easy, going on tour with an assortment of authors and having to adapt to whatever their particular 'things' are. As a publicist, you're obliged to spend an awful lot of time with your author. Breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week, plus all the work and the in-between stuff too. Next time you're in a hotel, have a look at the couples having dinner. The ones where there is a young woman in the company of an older one - they're not all mother/daughter combos or even father/daughter ones, some of them are publicists with the people they're paid to look after. Their 'monsters'. I'm trying my hardest not to be too monsterish, and I think, apart from yawning non-stop due to sleep deprivation, demanding to be fed three times a day and ranting on about climate change, I'm not too bad, but you'd have to ask Emma.

But not right now, because she's grabbing a quick nap, the sensible woman. I've got zizz-envy - I'm too wired to sleep, probably due to the bucketloads of coffee I've already consumed and it's only mid-morning. On tour, I never sleep much which means that by the time I get to the end of a tour, I'm so spaced out I look like the unholy union of the marriage between a rabbit caught in headlights and Dracula's mother. Attractive, NOT.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Trouble With Dragons goes live

It's publication day today, and I'm on my way to London. The night is slowly turning to day outside, as this red-eye train sways and clatters towards London. I'm red of eye too - not enough sleep for the past few nights, nervously anticipating this week of full-on dragon events. Why exactly this meant that I had to sample my way through several single malts and talk long into the wee small hours for the last three nights when in truth, the sensible thing to do would have been to have gone to bed early, relatively alcohol-free, is a question I'd rather not answer.

But hey - hindsight is a wonderful thing. And I haven't drunk any malts since last winter, and it was like meeting up with an old and dear friend. Och, Ardbeg, come away in, and wee Caoil Islay - how grand to see your wee face again... and we just had to have ourselves a ceilidh and put the world to rights, and before we knew it, it was 2 a.m and the bottle was drained. In my own defence, I have to point out that it wasn't even half full. I am such a cheap date.

The most exquisite dawn is breaking outside - the sea a pewter sheet of rolling silk on my left, one lone fishing boat dragging a v-wake back to shore. As ever, I am reminded what an beautiful world we share. Which makes what I'm about to do a whole lot easier, because it's far simpler to talk about something you love than just about anything else. Touring with a book is a tough gig - being hauled out in public after the months of solitary confinement when you actually made the damn thing can be very discombobulating. The contrast between the big cities we're about to tour and my normal Sleepy Hollow lifestyle, gives me a wide-eyed staring look just the right side of psychotic. Thankfully, authors are expected to look a tad deranged, so I can get away with it, but trust me, if I was your medical health professional, you wouldn't let me within a million miles of you.

In anticipation of being heckled by climate-change deniers, I've been re-reading all of the books I initially digested while I was working on the Dragons, but I know that I'm pretty useless when confronted with the kind of rage that the majority of deniers seem to exhibit. The rage is born of fear, but that doesn't make it any more palatable. It also, ironically like a high-performance sports car, goes from nought to sixty in under a second, and I am continually aghast at the speed with which seemingly mild people will transform themselves into froth-at-the-mouth table-thumpers when the subject of climate change is raised.

Their arguments become more and more hysterical and unsound, which tends to be indicative of someone finding themselves stranded on the moral equivalent of melting pack-ice. In a way, this is funny, if you happen to enjoy wiping spittle off your glasses, but in another way is pretty tragic, since we all have to share this green and blue oasis in space, and frequently, I find that it's the table-thumpers who are beasting through far more than their fair share. Their arguments tend to begin in a condescending, avuncular fashion - as if it's their mission statement to put me straight, to disabuse me of my falsely held opinions. First they attack my knowledge (and the findings of the IPCC), then they move on to my politics ( it's all a left-wing conspiracy) followed by my choice of newspaper ( suddenly it's bad news to be a Guardianista) and then rapidly, they turn, Jeckyll-like into a creature resembling the unholy union between a frill-lizard and a froth-monster.

Oh, sigh. I can refute, explain, reason and generally hold my own till the cows come home, but in the end, it matters not a jot. I may as well spout pages from the telephone directory for all the good it does. Recently, a relative actually came out with the appalling opinion that the flooding in the coastal plains of Bangladesh was a good thing because 'there were too many of them'. The root assumption at the slimy black heart of that particular foul sentiment was that 'they' were less deserving of life than the relative herself. Her solution to the over-population part of our climate change problem being - the hell with the poor. The horrible thing about this kind of ghastliness is that these core beliefs are held by apparently kind, good and upstanding citizens. Kind, good and upstanding citizens who are terrified of change if it means that they have to accept a lesser share of what's available in order to accommodate the needs of people they perceive as being less deserving.

So, yeah, that was someone with whom I exchange Christmas cards. What the heck is it going to be like having a frank and full interchange of opinions regarding climate change with persons unknown and possibly hostile? Watch this space.

I'm just going to step outside for a while...