HEROES ON A QUEST

Once there was a boy…

…whose earliest memories were of bombs exploding, people injured and killed, and fear. A deep, deep fear. Waheed Arian was born in war-torn Afghanistan. He says,’ I spent much of my childhood amongst death and fighting.’ The family escaped to Pakistan, and as refugees lived in camps, often cramped and without basic sanitation. Waheed contracted TB and suffered from malnutrition, which almost killed him. When he was fifteen his parents gave all they had to get him to the UK. He arrived with 100 dollars in his pocket, and very little English.

He became a boy with a quest.

He worked at various jobs to support his family in Pakistan, learned English and studied for his A-levels, because he wanted to be a doctor, making a difference to people’s lives, just as the doctors did in the refugee camps. Waheed says, modestly, ‘I did well enough to be accepted into Cambridge, and I gained additional qualifications from Harvard and Imperial College.’ He qualified as a doctor, and now works for the NHS. His quest hasn’t stopped there, though. This is not the end of the story. He’s developed a pioneering global charity that connects doctors in war zones and low-resource countries with their counterparts in the US, UK, Europe and Australia. During the Covid pandemic, Dr Arian was concerned that Covid has impacted people’s mental health, and he has now launched an online mental wellbeing service. (Read more at https://arianwellbeing.com/about/)

Once there was a girl…

…not a real girl, I know, but once you start reading about Vita in The Good Thieves, she becomes oh so real in your mind. Vita is the heroine you become as you read the book. She’s a stranger in New York, where her grandfather has been cheated out of the castle and land that have been in his family for years. Vita is on a quest to get the property back for her grandfather. She’s plucky and refuses to let fear get the better of her. She makes some unusual friends along the way, and never gives up. The author, Katherine Rundell, is wildly inventive and imaginative.

You want a definition of ‘a quest’? The book is a wonderful example.

The perfect quest…

Here’s how Katherine Rundell keeps us reading, eyes fixed on the text, living in another time, another place.

  • a compassionate heroine with a strong personality
  • a big problem to solve
  • she’s in a place that strange and new to her
  • bad things keep happening and she keeps on fighting
  • she makes loyal friends on the way
  • she attempts the impossible and wins through in the end

When you think about it, all those points apply to Dr Waheed Arian’s true life story. Quests are not just for heroes in books.

Frog: (who has always got something to say)

I shall go where ever my quest shall lead me.

Adventures for readers

Autumn’s coming, and the nights are drawing in. Imagine a fire just inside the entrance of a cave. Imagine the people gathering around as the evening offers a chilly breeze. A father ruffles his son’s hair. A mother puts her arm around her sleepy daughter, drawing her closer. A child snuffles. A baby whimpers. And then the storyteller begins, a tale of huntsmen creeping through the forest, of a strange deer, perfectly white, that stares, haughty and challenging, then disappears into the fading light. Is it the bringer of good fortune or bad? The story-teller smiles. He alone knows the outcome of his tale.

The comforting presence of companions sharing imaginative tales. How humans have always loved stories! And who doesn’t love rooting for the hero and being taken on an adventure? Tales of ships in stormy seas, travelling to lands beyond the horizon. Pirates burying treasure on far-away islands. Perhaps the most famous of these is Treasure Island. Originally serialised in the children’s magazine Young Folks, from 1881 through 1882, under the title Treasure Island or the mutiny of the Hispaniola, it was credited to the pseudonym “Captain George North”. How much more enticing is that than the name Robert Louis Stephenson?

Over the last seventy years adventure writing for children has progressed in leaps and bounds. I grew up with the Secret Seven and the Famous Five, and adventures set in boarding schools, where there were plenty of chums and lots of mysteries to be solved! I still love reading adventure stories for kids. One of my favourites is Journey to the River Sea, by Eva Ibbotson. It’s about Maia, an orphan, who can’t wait to reach her distant relatives a thousand miles up the Amazon. Instead of her imagined loving family, she finds two spiteful cousins who see the jungle as the enemy. Maia meets a mysterious boy who lives alone on the wild river shores, and begins a journey which takes her to the heart of her extraordinary new world.

Writers of great children’s adventure books invite us to suspend belief in the realistic and the sensible, and to go wherever the adventures may lead. Some writers start with the inkling of a plot; some with a character who seems to be calling to them. Some plan down to the finest detail; some make a start and see where the story takes them.

Like all your favourite creators of adventure stories, may we as writers have the courage to forge new pathways into the world of the imagination, and take today’s children on astonishing adventures they hope will never end.

Frog: This is the kind of adventure I really like… all in the mind.

Never say this!

Writers are very sensitive people, so I have some valuable advice coming up next.

Here are three things you should NEVER say to a writer, EVER.

1. Gosh, are you still churning out stories?

2. Are you going to be the next J.K. Rowling?

3. A writer? I’ve never heard of you.

 

 

In the face of such daunting remarks, here are three things you MUST do.

  1. Keep smiling.
  2. Keep writing.
  3. Keep believing in yourself.

 

 

Frog: (Wistfully) I could write a book about  Froggy Potter and call myself J.K.Toadling.

 

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

 

The Last Bear

A CHILDREN’S BOOK WITH A UNIVERSAL MESSAGE

Imagine an island hundreds of miles off Norway. Windswept, remote and lonely. Always cold, even in summer. There’s a small weather station and a tiny dwelling.

This is where April and her father live for six months.

Some children would hate it. No-one to play with. A dad who loses himself in his work because he’s still grieving after the death of his wife, several years ago. April remembers the time with her mother as ‘a lovely summer holiday she’d once been on.’ In one way, the book is about April’s relationship with her father, but the main plot shows her as a loner, resourceful and brave, and just the right person to help the last polar bear, stranded on the island.

This is a lovely story, in many ways pure fantasy, but with a message that inspires each of us to do whatever we can to reduce climate change and the loss of habitats. It’s illustrated beautifully by Levi Pinfold (though as a boring adult, I wished she had a nice warm hat — Hannah’s description of the wind and weather were chillingly accurate).

This book would make a brilliant gift for anyone aged 8 upwards.

Click the link to find out more about The Last Bear and its talented debut author Hannah Gold 

Frog: The last frog would be an excellent subject for a book. You could put my picture on the front if you like.

 

Writing memoir

When my father was very ill, I gave him an empty journal, hoping he would record some of the things that had happened to him during his life.

After he died, I found the journal. It wasn’t empty, but all it held was a tick-list of when to take his medicines.

My dad had been a soldier in WW2, working in the signals, sending and receiving messages in morse code.

The only tale he ever told my brother and me was about when he was in the Far East, in the jungle. One night he’d walked away from the camp to relieve himself behind a tree. The jungle was so dense he said he didn’t know which way to go, to get back out again. And then he saw two eyes shining in the moonlight. A wild animal was watching him.

The family would have loved to read more of his stories and thoughts.

WRITING A MEMOIR FOR YOUR FAMILY?

A brilliant idea! Make it fun. Make ’em laugh! Tell them stories. Get the grandchildren to do some illustrations.

Don’t insult  Auntie Winifred, but make sure you’re not coming across as some sort of saint either!

The important thing is, just do it!

WRITING A MEMOIR FOR OTHERS?

Yes, I do mean publishing it.

Here’s some great advice from Writer Marion Roach Smith. ‘Memoir is not about you, or me, it’s about something universal. That is, if you want anyone else to read it..’

Author Maggie O’Farrell published her brilliant memoir in 2018. ‘I am, I am, I am’ is a riveting account of her life told in seventeen near-death experiences, and it reads like the best kind of novel. You get lost in the story, and that’s because there’s something in there that makes readers think about their own life experiences.

 

WRITING A MEMOIR FOR  YOURSELF?

This too can be a satisfying and useful experiment. One of my friends says he’s recording his story for himself, to think about how he grew as a person, how events and opportunities shaped him.

This kind of memoir has to be a celebration, not a means of dwelling on all the daft and/or mean things you ever did, nor all those lost opportunities.

Life’s too short for negative thinking.

Remember, a good story starts with a single word. Go for it!

Frog: (eagerly):

Out of the pond. A memoir from pond to garden in a series of leaps.

Plasticine

From Wikipedia: Model made by Polish animator Monika Kuczyniecka

The house we lived in at Breachwood Green had once been a pub called The Sugar Loaf. In those days it was a small, detached cottage, just like the houses my children used to draw, with a path leading up to a door in the middle and with a window each side. I can’t remember one of the front rooms at all, because no one ever went in there. My memory of the other room is very hazy. I know there was a cupboard and inside lived a greyish brown lump of plasticine. It had a peculiarly revolting smell, and I was afraid of it. My dad tried to encourage me to approach the cupboard, open the door, and horror of horrors, lift the wretched lump out. I probably did it, because not doing as you were told was not an option. Not for children in those days.

My dad used to make things with this ghastly misshapen ball. He showed me how to form a little pot, the circular base first and then the long worm that had to be rolled carefully and then fixed around the edge to build the side, growing higher and probably wonkier.

I went to pottery classes later in my life. I’ve kept got some of the pots I made, and not all of them are wonky. I’m still not keen on the smell of plasticine.

Fimo’s fun, and so is clay. But not plasticine. Definitely not!

Snapper-jaws

Breachwood Green was a quiet village in the years following the second world war.  We hardly ever saw a car. There was a bus to take us to Hitchin or Luton, the nearest towns. There was a post office, next to a pub, The Red Lion, and beside that the forge where my grandfather, William Tripp, used to have his blacksmith’s workshop.  I never knew my grandfather. He died before I was born.

When I was old enough, I went to the Baptist Chapel on Sunday mornings. It wasn’t far from where we lived, and I walked there on my own. You could let five-year-olds do that in those days. I don’t remember the singing or the lessons, but I can remember very something I did one day. I brought home a hymn book. I don’t know why I did it. My mother was furious with me. I think she saw a life of criminality and theft ahead if it wasn’t stamped out there and then. She insisted that I went to the Sunday school teacher’s house, said sorry and gave the books back. She sent me off on my own, clutching the wretched book, a sense of terror rising with every step.

The Sunday school teacher lived at the end a very long drive, and she had a very snappy little Jack Russell dog, who guarded their property with something bordering on mania. I’d already had a bad experience with a dog, so I was filled with dread when I arrived at the gateway to find Snapper-jaws on duty. Tears slid down my cheeks. I wanted to run and run and run and never go back. However, I didn’t dare go home with the Sunday school book still in my hand. It was a no-win situation.

I’ll tell you what I did, and it was very naughty of me. I threw the book into a ditch underneath a sprawling hedge. There, that was the end of that!

I don’t know what I said to my mother when I got home. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the truth. Sometimes when you’re grown up you have to forgive yourself for something you’re sorry about, something you may have done years ago. I’m sorry I threw the book under a bush. I’m sorry I told my mother a lie. Without Snapper-jaws on sentry duty, I might not have remembered this story so clearly.

I’m sure all my mother wanted was to teach me a lesson – that if you’ve done something bad, it’s right to be sorry. You should own up and apologise, and then you’ll have every chance of being forgiven. I know now that God is the greatest forgiver of all, which is a very good thing.

Anyway, whatever happens, you can always learn something from it.

Frog: (Nervously) Give me a statue any day.

 

Riding my bike

Breachwood Green, near Hitchin in Hertfordshire. Where I lived until I was seven in 1951. Today I’m stepping back in time and remembering what it was like in the nineteen forties.

The cottage looked as if it had been brought to life out of a picture book. It had a front door in the middle, and one sash window each side. There were three sash windows upstairs. Come inside with me and have a look round.

There was a narrow passage that led past a room on our left and a room on our right. There were two doors at the end of the passage. If you opened one, you’d be faced with the stairs. I expect it was there because the cottage had once been a small pub, and you wouldn’t want the visitors to wandering about in the bedrooms, would you? The second door led to the kitchen, which I remember best.

What I’m going to tell you next will come as a great surprise. We didn’t have any taps inside the cottage. There was one just outside the house next door, and my mum or dad had to go and fetch all our water in metal pails. Of course, there was no toilet indoors either. Outside in the back garden, there was what was called a privy. It was a sort of shed, but the sort where you keep garden forks and spades and rakes. If you peeped inside you would see something like a long wooden box, fixed against the wall, with a smooth plank on the top. There were two holes in the plank, one for grown up bottoms and one for a child’s bottom. No flush of any kind. I expect a lot of readers are now feeling rather nauseous. If yes, skip the next bit.

Every so often my dad had to dig out the, erm, stuff in the box part, and cart it up the garden and bury it in a hole, I suppose. It must have been rather pongy I think, especially in a hot summer.

Anyway, let’s turn to something a bit less disgusting!

Not only was there no running water, there was definitely no central heating. My mum had to light the range in the kitchen every day, and make sure she had enough wood to get the fire going in the morning. There was a big woodstore next to the house, and sometimes I’d watch my mum chopping the wood. I’ve never liked axes, and I think Mum may have warned me never to touch hers or even come close while she was chopping.

It must have been a hard life in many ways, but for a little girl of four, five or six, it was wonderful. In spring the countryside was full of birdsong, and I remember running along the lane to peep into a robin’s nest in the bank. My mum had shown it to me. You can guess how sad we were to find, one day, that it had been destroyed. Mum said that boys sometimes did that sort of thing. They’d probably taken the eggs for their collections.

When I was about six or seven, my mum and dad bought me a bike, second hand I expect. You have to understand that there wasn’t much traffic in those days, someone on a bicycle perhaps, the odd tractor. Mum took me out on fine days, and this is how she taught me to ride. She had one hand under my saddle to stop me falling off, and the other hand steadying my little brother, who was about two or three. I wobbled a lot at first, but my mum’s hand under the saddle held me firmly upright. One day I rode along, chatting away to my mum, yak, yak, yak. Then I asked her a question. Why didn’t she answer? I looked back and nearly fell into the road. She was a long way behind, seeing to my brother who had fallen over and hurt himself. I was riding my bike all by myself!

This is post office (left) and The Red Lion in Breachwood Green in1946, when I was two.

Madeleine La Croix

 

Madeleine La Croix could have reached up and put the ball into the goal mouth with very little effort.

Fortunately for me, a would-be ace shooter, she detested netball.

In assembly she bumped up and down, lifting her heels and replacing them without a sound. Don’t ask me why. She could see over all our heads. Poor girl was a prime target for Miss Ling, searching out misdemeanours—coughing un-necessarily, sneezing above a certain number of decibels, that kind of thing.

The day after I came back to school after the flu, I looked among the rows of neat girls, affirming my place among them. Madeleine wasn’t there.

‘Oh, she’s dead,’ my friend said in a matter-of-fact voice.

‘Dead? She was perfectly alright a week ago.’

‘Pneumonia. Didn’t you know? Oh, of course, you’ve been away.’

I thought of Madeleine’s big square face, her dark eyes, her hair, long and brown carefully tied back. The dark mole near her lip.

I didn’t know her very well, but I missed her.

Apparently she had been an only child.