The night before Christmas……

I’m writing this on Christmas Eve.

I’ve spent part of the day with 33 young children and their parents and carers, acting out the age-old stories of Christmas, singing well-loved songs and carols, closing our eyes and communicating with God. You don’t have to believe all the stories word for word. But the message behind those stories is for all of us. It’s for little Imogen who loved it when we sang Happy Birthday to Jesus. It’s for Jasmine and Joe whose sister went to hospital this morning. It’s for Ernie, who made an incredibly neat and careful nativity scene in the creative session at the end, as well as for the very small boy who filled the stable with a hotchpotch of stick-on figures. The truth behind Christmas is for all of us, especially for those who can’t really believe it’s for them.


Frog: (Merrily)

Christmas in the pond was never like this.

Ten things you need to know about …

Swanwick Writers’ Summer School

Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, Derbyshire

10th–16th August 2013


1 Swanwick, as it’s affectionately known, is a writing holiday in beautiful surroundings. Some people have been going back for years and years.

2 The rooms are clean and comfortable, and the food is delicious. (All dietary needs catered for.)

3 You never feel lost or lonely, because everyone is friendly. There’s a reception for first timers, so right from the start you feel you’re among friends.

4 You meet people who want to talk about writing, reading, and the creative process, as well as simply enjoy each other’s company.

5 There are courses for all kinds of creative writing, also for the nuts and bolts of writing, for example, editing your manuscript, promoting your work, blogging, tweeting, and more.

6 Beginners and published writers are welcomed. Everyone learns, everyone shares expertise.

7 You choose your courses at Swanwick on a day to day basis. There’s such a freedom in doing this, and there’s always room for you. Some are one hour sessions, others an in-depth study spread over several days.

9 You can take as much time out as you like. When you start to feel brain overload, find a quiet spot to write or read, or simply relax.

8 There are lots of extras, which this year included an open mic session, a retro disco, a writers’ quiz, the book room, and of course the bar, which is always buzzing with conversation.

10 The after dinner speakers are talented and entertaining, and have a lot of expertise to share in a lively interesting way.

Next year’s Swanwick Writers’ Summer School is from 9th -15th August.

Find out more at



How to live a thousand lives


“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” (George RR Martin, in the mouth of his character Jojen Reed)

Long ago, in the days when most people in Britain lived hard, simple lives, and worked the land, there was a season called Lammas. I don’t suppose it began exactly on 1st August, because two summers are never the same. Lammas was/is the season of harvests – first the corn, and then the picking from the hedges and orchards – blackberries, apples, pears, nuts.

There was a druidic festival held at this time – Lughnasadh, It was held in honour of the great god Lug, who is commemorated in the Roman name in the Roman name for Carlisle, Luguvalium, meaning the fortress of Lug.

In Shirley Toulson’s book The Celtic Year, I read about the twelfth century Archbishop of Brecon, Giraldus Cambrensis, who described “a strangely mutated version of this festival”. Apparently the lads and lasses gathered from miles around, and danced in a wild and over-excited circle round the churchyard on 1st August, the feast day of the local saint, Almedha, singing wildly. That was the Celtic bit. The Christian part came when the gathering had to mime all the unlawful (in the eyes of the church) things they’d done on feast days, for example ploughing with oxen on a Sunday, tanning hides at Pentecost, spinning flax or weaving on Good Friday.

Was this a case of two cultures merging without anyone noticing very much?

In 1990, Brian Friel wrote a play called Dancing at Lughnasa. It’s set in 1936, in the home in County Donegal, Ireland, of five sisters and one seven year old boy. They welcome home their only brother, Jack, who has spent the past 25 years working in a leper colony in a remote Ugandan village. This is one of the most moving stage plays I’ve ever seen, mostly because Jack has become so much part of life in Africa, he has absorbed the culture and the spirituality of the people among whom he worked, and now he is more or less an outcast in his own native community.

This morning I opened the September issue of Writing Magazine, and read about Karen Armstrong has been awarded the inaugural British Academy Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding. An amazing prize for an amazing woman. But what is amazing too, is that every reader can share in understanding other cultures and religions.

As George RR Martin says, courtesy of Jojen Reed , “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”



FROG: (precariously)

What do you mean, precariously? I’m investigating the lives of tree frogs.




Oscar Wilde often makes me smile. “I never travel without my diary,” he wrote. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

April 23rd was World Book Night, which celebrates books and spreads the joy and love of reading. For the third year in a row I was fortunate enough to be picked as one of the book givers. I had to apply to give away a boxful of books, and there was a list from which to choose. I wanted to pick a novel I had read and enjoyed, and I wanted something that most people would like, something that would interest those who seldom pick up a book, as well as those who already love reading. I chose Rose Tremain’s The Road Home, and so far feedback has been positive.

What makes a book something you have difficulty putting down? The writer’s style is important, yes, but more than anything the plot has to be gripping, doesn’t it?

Here are my pointers for a successful book:

  • A brilliant opening.
  • Pace
  • A satisfying ending, whether it’s beautiful, stunning, unexpected or poignant.

There’s nothing quite like a book that delivers all three of these. Now all I’ve got to do is apply this advice to the novel I’m working on.



 FROG: (indignantly)

What do you mean – lost the plot? I’m doing research for  my next story.