Friday is Writing Day

 Bishopsgate Institute_©_Mike_EllisIt’s a lovely idea. I’d arranged to meet a member of my Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators’ critique group each Friday, for some serious, no-chat, just get on with it writing.

This needed equally serious,no-chat,  just get on with it suroundings: away from home, and the ever-present risks of dispacement activity. We’re lucky enough to be able to visit the stunning Bishopsgate Institute,with its library of ‘ world-renowned collections on London history, labour and socialist history, free thought and humanism, co-operation, and protest and campaigning.’

It’s a gorgeous, old-school library: all wooden parquet floors, tall shelves and stunning stained glass windows, wonderfully combined with historial artefacts and all the current magazines you could possible want for a day’s displacement, I mean research, activity.

The first two weeks went by with us both unavailable. I opened out the last Friday of the month for any SCBWI-er in London to come along: also making it harder for me to chicken out. So I can report a wonderful day of productivity: steps closer to publication and an unqualified success. Hurrah! Or …

Friday: get up late. Persuade daughter that sad packed lunch of tiny bread and cheese and water is character-forming opportunity to cook for herself later. Swear at person slowly paying for Tube ticket in single coins of unknown currency. Sit in train in tunnel while driver says she isn’t sure why we are there. Make will in diary. Avoid psychotic black cab driver bent on pedestrian destruction. Shiver on icy street. Chat brightly to SCBWI member who has arrived and desperately try to recall meeting them at conference as described.

Gaze at lovely surroundings and take seat closest to radiator. Arrange six notebooks containing bits of writing, plot ideas, character sketches in optimum position on desk. Gaze some more. Hate main character. Gaze some more. Loo break. Look at postcards and consider purchase of tote bag to add to enormous collection of unused tote bags.

Sneaky look at social media. Set up app to prevent sneaky looks at social media. Rewrite first paragraph. Rewrite rewrite. Check how much of scheduled undisturbed 30 minutes has gone on new app. Decide it can’t be only two minutes. Gaze at surroundings. Discuss lunch and possible attendance at free classical concert in next room. Go for lunch.

Return to find out another writer has arrived. Whispered discussion of progress. Agree surroundings are magnificent. Reset app.  Spot stacks of books for sale. Examine dozens of books at length. Remember recent clearing of hundreds of books.

Reset non-disturbance app. Rewrite rewritten rewrite. Consider turning contemporary ghost story set in England into historical fantasy set abroad.  Start planning series of blog posts for newly-commissioned work. Gaze some more. Find text  from friend who has arrived for catch-up. Meet friend for hot chocolate with writer in cafe. Discuss translation, educational IT, websites, photos, daughters and NHS. Announce must return to writing.

Meet staff member and discuss London Fortean Society meetings, children and writing. Agree surroundings are magnificent. Anxious call from A Level burn-out casualty. Plan evening of writing to email for comment from writing partners. Divert to bookshop to buy two brilliant new books published this week by Robin Stevens and Melinda Salisbury. Robin_Stevens_Arsenic_for_Tea


Get inspired.

Write all evening.


Photo of Library, Bishopsgate Institute, © Mike Ellis

Other photos from writers’ websites

Melinda Salisbury

Robin Stevens



Tony_Benn_Big_Ben‘He encouraged us.’

I can’t think of a more beautiful epitaph.

I stood behind a banner with those words on, at Westminster this morning. The amplified voice of Tony Benn’s son Stephen described how his father never judged his children, but always encouraged them.

I didn’t give a eulogy at my Dad’s funeral and I didn’t cry. Maybe that’s why I was in tears, as people clapped the rose-covered coffin,  Big Ben struck noon and the sun came right out. Debbie_NHS_nurse_Tony_Benn_Funeral_KarenJKHart

Back to school?

New_Forest_last_day_of_the_summer_holidaysA levels, GCSEs: it’s the annual round of results and debates on whether it was tougher back in the day.

I don’t know about the grades. I don’t feel qualified to judge whether modular systems are fairer than an exam at the end of a course of study.

I did old school O and A Levels. Tough, yes. But I think she has it tougher because I was able to have a summer off from studying before Sixth Form started.

My 16-year-old scientifically-minded daughter picked up an AS result yesterday: a surprisingly decent grade in History. The surprise was that she hates the subject and hadn’t wanted to study it. It was the only subject she could fit into a timetable designed to meet curriculum requirements with required core subjects.

Her school in Kent takes exams early so she already had all government-imposed qualifications, except one. As she had to retake German until the alphabet ran out of letters at its rear end, the timetable left her with a History AS on top of her additional GCSEs.

Study doesn’t come easily to her and I think she deserved a summer kicking back a bit. The photo shows her on her last real day of rest during three days in the New Forest back on 15 July.

That’s the day she was given summer holiday work tasks for starting A levels in Biology, Chemistry, Geography and Physics. These have kept her occupied every single day since.

She’s read ‘Why does E=MC2? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’ and ‘The
Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins and is working on ‘The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison’ by John Emsley: all three books  need a written review.

There’s an assignment on the state of the oceans for each of the science areas and 15 news articles to find and review to cover a list of geographical issues.

Back at school to get results next Thursday. Back at school to discuss results next Friday. Back at school the week after for a further interview about A Level choices. Then back at school for real the Monday after.

She’s working harder this summer than I ever did after a round of exams. What might be a surprise to some is that she’s leaving the Kent grammar, where her friends are having a summer off. She’s not heading for a public school, where you might expect a summer spent cramming for a head start.

This is all for a state school in poor Tower Hamlets, where there’s the highest rate of child poverty in London.

Maybe this might help cut down numbers of the next generation of poor deprived kids here. And I hope she’ll  think it worth it, some day. Not now though: she’s too busy cursing poor Prof Cox.

A walk to Dog-Eared Corner

The triumph of common sense from Sptialfeilds LifeMy usual walk to work is along the Triumph of Common Sense, to Stepney City Farm, opposite Dog-Eared Corner.

I’ve gone for one of this week’s optional themes from the Weekly Blog Club: a walk. With 20 minutes to this week’s posting cut-off, I was about to send my regular tweet begging for one of WBC’s popular Squidgy Deadlines. But today I’m slaying the procrastination demon.

Down the seventy stairs from the fourth floor. This usually entails an urban form of ‘It’s a Knockout’. Will I get past the mattress blocking the stairs below? Have I forgotten the major leak outside Flat 31 or will I end up on my backside again? What else is there on the iSpy checklist of a Stepney staircase: vomit, urine, phlegm (tick), cigarette butts (two), discarded Monster Munch (lots), tissues, bits of straw (down to me and mine usually).

Out the door, inhaling Eau de Rough Sleeper. Onto the street past one of the last Jewish bakeries in the East End, resisting awesome salmon bagels or tiny Danish pastries endorsed by Nigella herself.

Cross the street where Stalin lived when he was in London. Architect-enhanced wealth mingles with overcrowded immigration, literally next door to each other. Look out for urban foxes filling up on the chicken bones that litter every street of the borough with the highest concentration of fast food and serious child obesity. No longer take a minute to wonder if the two are related.

Past the care home that specialises in dementia and suffer usual guilt about my dad. slowly going under in that vile fog. Catch a glimpse of the raised bed that my work has helped put in there to envliven sight and scent for residents.

Swap a grin with a young father, pushing his baby along at Mo Farah speed while her big sister runs, school bag, bashing against her chubby legs, as the primary school reaches register time.

Debate a walk through the park, with its groups of boys in uniform swapping spliffs and gobbing. No, too many mobile thefts recently and I’m limping with a sore Achilles tendon. Being mugged five times does tend to lean one towards a pessimistic outlook. And the last instance of being groped by about eight of them inspired police to say that I should consider covering up my long blonde hair as it made me look ‘obvious’.

That rules out the Triumph of Good Sense, as depicted by the Gentle Author amidst other East End Desire Paths.

So I pass the Crossrail workings, walk along the side of Stepney City Farm with the walls from an old Baptist college and past St Dunstan’s Church and ‘the bells of Step-nee’ from the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons.

And look, just look, at what is underneath my feet now.

The picture of the Triumph of Good Sense is from Spitalfields Life by the Gentle Author

Five Senses at Stepney City Farm


I have not fully trusted my senses since watching someone put a forefinger into an empty eye socket during a fire when I was 14.

This did not ‘happen’: I was in isolation hospital for a few weeks with a high temperature brought on by severe glandular fever. I have very few memories of that time but that awful hallucination is as real a memory as any other that I have. It involved all of my senses: I won’t go into any more horrible detail.

On to the nice stuff: my sensory week, which ha’ bin mos’ly at work on the Farm.

Hearing: Nineteen goslings in grass for the first time after hatching live on Channel 4 and a week in the barn at Stepney City Farm. The sound of utter joy.

Vision: More Farm birdies: it has to be the Herding of the Runner Ducklings. They hatched on the same TV show and are the most adorable sight: big feet, tiny wings and the Platonic ideal of duckiness. 

Smell: Is this a bit of a cheat?. It is certainly the toughest to convey online, alongside taste.The most memorable smell this week was the baking of delicious bread but that wins taste as well. So I am choosing the Forge at the Farm’s Rural Arts Centre. This mixture of fire and metal and warmth is striking (no pun intended.) This wonderful Spitalfields Life feature on my colleague, blacksmith Ian Lowe, was published on Wednesday and gives a real feel of the Forge.

Taste: The best freshly-baked bread in London and beyond; the old East End family firm of Rinkoff. We’re opening a café at the Farm in the next few weeks and I had a lovely trip with manager Jassy Davis – who took the terrific videos and pictures here – to sample some of their delicious loaves.

Touch: The soft, warm, woolly coats of two new Jacob lambs, who were born on Monday. Now who is going to believe me when I say it has been a tough week at work?


Stepney City Farm ‘can change the world’

I love my job at Stepney City Farm. I love the Farm, the staff, volunteers and trustees and (most of) the animals: from Dunstan the Drain Avoiding Donkey and all the teeny-tiny guinea pigs that appear at regular intervals to the recently dear-departed Rodney the Kune-kune pig and Henry Ferret.baby_guinea

As I’m still unwell and my brain has turned to slush, I am going to take advantage and include this wonderful guest post written recently for us by the Guardian’s acting comment editor Libby Brooks.

Libby spent a month with us and now comes in most Fridays. We are lucky to have her and the other 90 or so volunteers who make such a difference. Her words, not mine, deserve the widest audience possible:

Libby Brooks, Guardian, and Farmer Tom Forster, Stepney City Farm, East London

‘As my month at Stepney City Farm draws to an end, I am left reflecting on all the weird and wonderful things that I’ve done over the past four weeks. I chose to spend this sabbatical from my day job as a comment editor and columnist at the Guardian because, having spent the past few years commissioning and writing articles about how this country is – for reasons various, economic and political – going to hell in a handcart, I wanted to spend some time with people who are walking the talk.

Clipping the ferrets’ toenails or filling up the leaf mulcher may not appear to have anything to do with the global recession or benefits cuts, but the ethos at Stepney City Farm – self-sufficiency, education, community outreach – is exactly what a lot of folk are groping for at present, be that through the Occupy movement or even David Cameron’s much-derided Big Society.

Essentially, having spent a month here, I firmly believe that Stepney City Farm can change the world, and I’d challenge anyone to do likewise and not come to a similar conclusion.

I’ve done a load of things here that have made me think about much more than just the task in front of me. Planting broad beans to store in the polytunnel over the winter makes me realise what a different rhythm there is to working life when the seasons are in charge, and light and temperature cannot be fixed at the touch of a button.

Working in the media, there is an unappealing tendency to get sucked in by the notion that WE are the insiders, and WE know all the secrets of the universe. It’s been really good for me – humbling in fact – to be reminded that there are whole worlds of skills and knowledge for me to get learn from.

Stepney farmers like Tom have forgotten more about gardening than I will ever know. Feeding the goats one afternoon in the field by Stepney Way, and watching the cars speeding past, I was struck by the fact that – though I have a tendency to romanticise the countryside at something ‘other’ – all of the urban environment was once fields, and can be fields again, while fields themselves are human inventions of course.

Not that the majority of my time here has been spent standing around thinking deep thoughts while the goats go hungry. The great thing about volunteering here is that there is always something that needs done, and if there’s not then you can pass a pleasant half hour playing with the ferrets (my favourite farm animal by a country mile and no arguments).

I’ve helped to build vegetable beds, groomed the donkeys, landscaped the pond, swept up a lot of leaves and shifted a lot of hay and mud and general detritus around in wheelbarrows.
New ex-battery and one year resident ex-battery hens, Stepney City Farm, London
Zanier moments included chasing our rescued battery hens around as I attempted to spray their poor bare arses with anti-peck lotion. (These hens arrived with us in a terrible state, and were so traumatised that they were pecking at each others’ bald patches. Think on that when you’re choosing your supermarket eggs.)

And I shall never forget Goose Thursday. I arrived in the morning to the news that the local fox had attacked one of the geese in the night. The poor bird was barely breathing,and had to be humanely killed by one of the farmers. Then – and I genuinely think that this was what it would have wanted – we strung it up by the feet and plucked its feathers for down. Expertly gutted by our resident medic Katharine, the bird began to look a little less like a corpse and more like dinner, and I took on the task of roasting it with potatoes and fresh kale from the edible garden.

We made our own approximation of foie gras too, and saved the fat for another day. By 5 o’clock that evening – yes, I am going to say it, I can’t help myself – our goose was truly cooked and we sat down to a delicious roast dinner. Where else can you go from field to plate in under 12 hours? Or see every element of a bird, feather and feet inclusive, utilised?

It’s been a wonderful month, and I’m hoping that I can carve out some space in my working schedule to maintain my connection with the the greenest, greatest place in Stepney. And the ferrets would miss me.’