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Listen Up. BBC at Best.

17 Oct

Me n’ mine have been asked to feature in the BBC’s ‘Listening Project’ on a few occasions. Thanks largely, to the matters that involve my family’s background, experiences, international work, kids and views on consumerism – and of course, our proclivities for nude rambling across the Trans-Pennine Trail … ok, ok – I’m joshing about the latter.


*DO* Listen.

But even before I ended up getting roped into recordings, I have to say that this small-but-mighty stakeholder project born of The Beeb has captured my imagination over the last few years – simply as a mere radio fan. But it also, always seems to stoke-up the fires of many others than I know, who have the sense to prefer the radio to the telly.

And yup – I love listening to the conversations of others. What writer/ person with a half-baked intelligent brain *doesn’t*? This is what the entire series is about. Ear-wigging. Nosey Norman Neighbours.

But every single episode is always so beautifully edited – that we always come away with a little nugget of summat or t’other. And today’s little clip? Well.  If there was ever a justification for paying for the existence of the Beeb (licence fee… cough … splutter…) today’s episode was the flagship for the entire thing.  A ‘Ruddy Dobber’ of a programme (as we say in Manchester.)

So my own wee friendies from all over the world – have a listen to this snippet of today  –  entitled “We’re Still Friends”. This conversation could have taken place in my kitchen. With various friends and family members.  All about Brexit. Why some of us wanted to get the hell out. And others of us felt horrified at such a prospect.

And I’m proud of the fact that I have pals in my life who have completely different views to me on the entire issue. So yes, it doesn’t bother me too much that I hang about with gorgeously-warm folk whose views sometimes make me want to, er, er …  reach for the Fizzy Andrews. (Hey – do they make *that stuff* anymore? I always think of it as cocaine – for 6 year olds.)

So, whatever your thoughts on Brexit, Europe, refugees, feminism etc. Just make it a priority to listen to this one clip only. (And MORE please, if you enjoyed the link here  – just have a perusal of the main website. Treasures for all!)

For me the key word on this particular broadcast is that of ‘Listening’. Backed up by ‘Friendship’. Closely followed by ‘Show Don’t Tell’. Listen to the emotions and the clarity in the voices of these two women from Donny (Doncaster) and how the real ‘listening’ and tolerance seems to be pointing towards a new direction for them as friends.

They’re listening and learning to and from one another. No sanctimonious attitudes or smart-arse-isms going on there. (I keep expecting to hear that Quakers are running this entire project  – but apparently not. Still. I’m biased.)

And – ooh yeah – let’s give a high-five to certain BBC Radio producers and journalistic-sorts.  The skill of recording and archiving oral testimony, and editing it for both needy and discerning listeners, is alive and well at the Beeb and at its regional stations – and on this particular long-running project – is showing right here and right now – at its top-notch best.

Bless the BBC and Radio. Especially this here Sheffield studio

Bless the BBC and Radio. Especially this ‘ere Sheffield studio


Go Ask Your Mother… Or Even Better -Grill Your Granny

7 Sep

Do you know what an ‘inter-generational’ project is? Sounds riveting, eh?

But before you expire of boredom in anticipation of today’s little bloggy-offering, please let me reassure you that this whole ‘inter-generational project’ malarky truly IS something to write home about. That it genuinely IS something that should tickle all of our fancies.

You too - can find out about an older relatives smoking habits. (Although in this photo, our kid possesses a chocolate cigar.)

See below. You too – can find out about an older relatives smoking habits. (Although in this photo, our kid possesses a chocolate cigar.)

In the days of yore, we simply used to refer to such projects as ‘Hey – I have a grandparent. Aren’t they BRILLIANT!!!??!!!’ (Ref: ‘The Fast Show’. Go Google.)

But I don’t want to get too sarky about this side of things, because lots of us (for whatever reasons) have lacked older relatives in our lives. For instance, the folk whom we could rightly claim as our own grandparents and older aunties and uncles, could have passed away when we were just wee nippers. Or maybe family breakdown meant that through no fault of our own, we were estranged from our parent’s parents.

Or perhaps even, those so-called Elders n’ Betters actually turned out to be drunken old lushes who had buggered off with a toy boy named Gazza to the Costa Del Sol (and that was just your Grandad…)

Inter-generational learning about growing up to be a Fag Ash Lil...

Inter-generational learning about growing up to become ‘a Fag Ash Lil’…

Anyways. In recognition of this – and of the fact that so many kids and young people today lack older role models in their lives, I’ve always loved creating and getting involved with such inter-generational projects. The first one that I ever heard about was run by a local community group in Gorton, Manchester. Teens who were having a tough time in life were taught how to do ‘hand-massage’ and were partnered with elderly folk in the area. As yon teen massaged the hand of an older buddy, they both got to know one another better, they traded experiences of dwelling in a (sometimes tough-to-live-in and to-grow-up-in area) and yup… you can just imagine. The youth received some great pearls of wisdom in life, made new ‘mates’… and the older ones who had lent their hands (and their heads) said that the whole project made them feel ‘less lonely’ and ‘more useful to the young people in our area.’

One of my all-time favourite inter-generational projects took place a few years ago, when I lived and worked in the Kalahari in Namibia. Whilst out there,  I trained San Bushmen youth to interview and record the words and lives of their elders. Not only did the kids find out startling new information in relation to how their ancestors used to live – before these amazing indigenous folk were kicked off their homelands – but the project also led to much improved relationships between old and young, heralding a revival in bushmen culture (the youth learning the traditional dances, the methods of hunting and gathering, the history etc. of their elders.)

The book I produced as a result of the San inter-generational project.

A wee book I produced as a result of the San inter-generational project.

It was startling that the San bushmen youth and elders often lived in the same one-roomed shack, but still knew very little about the histories of the elders. And yet… isn’t this something that we’re all guilty of?

I consider myself to be fortunate. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that my family are an unusual blend of working-class white and Pakistani-British muslim origin. Over the last two decades – collectively – we have had to overcome plenty of prejudice and bigotry (and I’m not even referring to the poor, discriminated-against Brummie contingent.) So we talk a lot. More than most families, probably.

But even then, we haven’t spent enough ‘getting to know you’ time together. And there has been a huge element of taking the grandpees (as we call them) for granted. Just ask my own Ma about the fact that she and I rarely get time to have a proper natter – because when we do speak to each other, it’s all about the littlies – the dates, the change of dates (yeh-soz Mum), the music lessons, the allergies, the tantrums, the sleeping arrangements, the bargain buys at Boyes in Ilkley and the Panto-tickets. It seems that the generation above us – and us grown-up parents, never get round to simply passing the time of day, talking about the past, mulling over not-so small matters such as Life n’ Death.

Sure, if you’re into your history as I am, you can take all of this ‘missed info’ stuff rather seriously. Urged on by the best Professor of History in the world (Carl Chinn) back in my university days, I actually recorded an interview with my own Granny. I unearthed some fascinating stuff (Gran was once wooed by a certain young Mr Cadbury, whilst she happened to be on her hols in Llandudno…) but you don’t have to be as organised as I, weirdy, nerdy-teen,  clearly happened to be.

Granny in the beret on Llandudno pier. Legging it from multi-millionaire choco-magnate. Like you do.

My Granny (in the beret) on Llandudno pier. Legging it from the advances of a multi-millionaire choco-magnate. As you do.

Because this is where the informal inter-generational project perhaps needs to be considered a bit more by all of us. I was reminded of this the other day when my ten year old informed me of a startling new nugget of information;

GIRL: Mum, did you know how you came to be called ‘Christina’?

ME: Well – yeah. I think Grandma just liked the sound of it.

GIRL: Oh no. It wasn’t like that. You weren’t given your name straight away. Grandad told me.

ME: Well… I know that I wasn’t ‘Christina’ straight away. I know that my hospital tag only had my surname on it. And I do remember seeing a few ‘arrival of new baby’ cards that referred to me as ‘Baby Jennifer.’ So they obviously changed their minds about plumping for that one.

GIRL: Well I know why and how it all happened. About two days after they brought you home from the hospital and thought you would probably be called ‘Jennifer’, the phone rang and Grandad answered it. A drunken man asked for ‘Christina.’  Grandad told the bloke that no one called that name lived there.

ME: Oh.

GIRL: Yes – then – the next night, at exactly the same time – the drunken man rang again and asked for ‘Christina.’ Again. And Grandad said the same thing. No one here called that.  And then when he hung up he said to Grandma ‘Actually – that’s a nice name isn’t it?’ And so they decided finally on your name and registered you with that name – and all of that.

ME: Great. So I was named as the result of a drunken, telephone mis-dialling phenomenon?

GIRL: Yeah! Cool eh?

nana and us babies

My Nana nurses me. My brother was probably hankering after Nana’s pink turban. Ah…the days when hats really *were* hats eh?

But this daft ‘your namesake’ new little revelation of mine reminded me of another ‘inter-generational’ discovery. Sadly, my own Nana died as a result of suffering with terrible dementia. For the last year or so of her life, her conversation made very little sense to most people. But as her granddaughter – it was perhaps easier for me than for others – to listen to her words and to try and find the meaning behind them.

But for Nana’s own daughters it must have been terribly too painful and too frustrating for them to listen to. (And if you’ve ever been through this, you’ll know that nursing a relative or friend through dementia is one of the most heartbreaking experiences in the world. This is truly a case in point where a generation-removed is sometimes a ‘balm for the soul.’)

A year or so after Nana had died – thanks to my dad’s renewed interest in family history – my mother informed me that she had just discovered that her Grandad had died in the Great War. Mum hadn’t known about this at all (because Nana’s mother had remarried when she was only small, so my mother had grown up only hearing about the stepfather in the family.)

AND YET – GOBBY GIRL HERE – already knew about this.


“But I already knew this, Mum,” I said when she told me about the fact that my dad had even discovered Great-Grandad’s war grave.  “Nana told me a few months before she died. An entire tale about how she met him when she was tiny and he was just back home on leave from the war. Wearing his uniform.”

Samuel Hight's grave 1 sml

When she finally knew where her Grandad was buried, mum left a photo of his family next on top of his war grave in Flanders.

This this little case study of course, marked a far more emotional inter-generational revelation than my recent discovery of the drunken phone conversation. And it also culminated in my parents going to visit my Great Grandad’s war grave in Flanders. Serious, heart-rending and important stuff can be uncovered – if we just listen to each other a bit more, between the generations. If I had thought to have mentioned this to my own mum before Nana died… perhaps we could have mentioned it to her more in her last few weeks and…

But no point in dwelling on it.

And on a lighter note,  as well as being the recipients of previously unheard-of information, the younger generations can also inform their elders of stuff that they might not be aware of. Or ‘grass us parents up,’ if you like. My daughter told me last week; “Grandad had no idea that you once chucked a tin of baked beans at Uncle Steven’s head. And that you always tried to get *your own brother into trouble* all of the time –  by sneaking into his room and turning the dial up on his stereo and leaving empty crisp packets filled with water on his floor.”

kung fu fighting

Thanks to my kids, my own folks are more aware of the Kung Fu fighting that went on when *their* backs were turned.

And then the titbits that you feed your own kids about what the grandpees revealed to you about their childhoods, can come back and bite the grandparent’s bums… (“Mum – Grandad tried to tell me off for punching my brother but then I said that he had no right to, because back in the 1950s he once hit another kid over the head with a shovel-handle.”)

So the moral of the tale is to keep that dialogue flowing between the budding youth and the oldies. Between ALL of us really. Or you can do as my mother-in-law has done, write down your life story and self-publish it – ensuring that your nearest and dearest find out about the bits that you may never have gotten round to sharing (although a very elderly friend of mine has done the same but has a lot more scandal to share and has therefore neatly typed out her life story and it remains under lock and key until she shuffles off this mortal coil.)

Go on Grandpa. Dish the dirt on what a miserable little swine our Dad was...

Go on Grandpa. Dish the dirt on what a miserable little swine our Dad was…

Inter-generational questioning of one another however,  can cause a bit of embarrassment. It might be pertinent for example, to advise the younger generation that it ain’t clever to grill your grandparents about their sex life (as a slap round the chops can often offend.) So diplomacy should always rule the day when interviewing your elders, my dears…

But if anyone- ANYONE – out there happens to know of a chappy who used to be rather sozzled during the 1970’s and who had a lady-friend called ‘Christina’ – you will give me a tinkle, won’t you?

Because it could be the last piece of my own inter-generational puzzle…

Teddy Boy-Dad. Apparently he had 'come to bed eyes'. But these days Mum says its in order to test the new electric blanket he got from Aldi.

My Teddy Boy-Dad once told me that “the girls always said that I had ‘come to bed eyes.'” And I’m all for trading stories Pops, but let’s leave it at that. Eh?

Sharing the Love

23 Jul

Save-Our-Libraries-007Now this wasn’t planned, but my 100th blog post has ended up addressing the love of my life; Books. Reading. Writing. Otherwise known as literacy. But rather than wibbling on about why I’m so besotted with all of the above, instead, I’m going to kick off with a bit of Shock and Outrage (because hey, if you’re already familiar with my blog, you’ll know that I’m at my happiest when I’m frothing at the mouth. And I don’t just mean as a result of excessive consumption of Sherbet Dabs.)

A recent CBI survey highlighted that 1 in 6 pupils struggle to read when they leave primary school and that for boys in particular – especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, reading rates are actually dropping. And the National Literacy Trust tells us that the gap has increased – between  the proportion of girls (61.6%) and boys (47.2%) who say that they ‘enjoy reading’.

And yet we live in one of the most well developed, most affluent nations in the world.  So, what the hell is WRONG with us? (Apart from the fact that we’re axing libraries – 201 public libraries were closed down as part of UK government cuts in 2011-12.) Now, I could spend the next several thousand words trying to persuade you of that I’ve been researching this issue to death, that I know precisely ALL of the reasons for this societal dismal failure, but I’m: a) not a well-paid journalist – or indeed, paid-at-all in order to preach to you and; b) I’m a hard pressed mother of two, who also tries to juggle several jobs, plus replacing the toilet roll AND continuing with my ongoing battle with our recalcitrant bin men.

Meaning that I can only provide you with a smattering of speculation and my own recent observations on this issue.

Previous posts on this blog have alluded to the fact that I was an early reader, that I had a Ma who encouraged me to sit with my nose in a book and that although I grew up in a pretty poor working class area of East Manchester, I was fortunate enough to live just a five minute wander from a local library, that babysat me for most days of the week (joke there, Ma – joke!) We also had a set of very exotic neighbours who influenced me with this peculiar reading habit.

He wouldn't let me upload the photo of him reading on the bog...

If Kirklees Libraries installed a loo in the corner of the children’s section – we might even move into the place.

There were all very bohemian because their kids were allowed to read books at the dinner table … and even (even!) whilst the family bums were parked on the loo! Consequently, my dream as a small child was to grow up to become the kind of lady who had a bookcase next to the bog.

So if I’m going to be honest, I’ve never really understood the Other Species. Those folk who can turn their nose up at a book – or at any form of the written word. Reading came oh-so easily to me. But a good few years ago, I began to write to inmates – both on Death Row in the USA, and here in the UK.

Me and our Ant, death row, Texas.

Me and our Ant, death row, Texas.

And the one commonality that I discovered – was this;  that incarceration bred the thirst for literature. As I began to hear the different ‘stories’ of an inmate, of those who had never really *read* before going to prison, the themes became all too common; the lifetraps of an impoverished background, poor attendance at school, a chaotic homelife, no teacher or other adult who took the time to prod and poke the kid towards the certain type of book that might appeal to them… And then added to this melting pot of low literacy, was all too often added the final ingredient of a reading disability (such as dyslexia.) Worldwide, it’s estimated that 60% of inmates are functionally illiterate – and this statistic is set to worsen as the prison system in the UK is still horribly hampered when it comes to supporting inmates with their literacy needs. Literacy Shame Stats  

The letter-writing provided me with a new mission in life – to either send books into prisons, or to furnish inmates with a long list of; ‘if you CAN – do try and get hold of this one …’ I’ve become sort of a nicer, fluffier version of Amazon’s ‘If You Like That – You Might Like This!’ pop-up box. And I don’t gain nowt from it, neither. Other than the warm gooey feeling of having helped a fellow human being.

So yes, I have to confess that I had been enjoying the rather saintly feeling that hurling book choices towards other people involves. But as they say, pride comes before a fall. And the smug grin was wiped off my face when Child Number One arrived in my life. Because Child Number One did not want to sit and read a book. No. Child Number One would happily command you (and I don’t use that term lightly, but hell – the kid is scary) to read to her. For hours on end. But would she pick up a book and read it herself? Nah. In fact, she would hide her school books so that you couldn’t find them.  And it wasn’t so much that Child Number One didn’t enjoy a ripping good story – no. I mean, now that she’s ten years old, she owns nearly 150 audio books (most of them pitched at the Young Adult or grown-up market – but don’t worry – I haven’t let her near Fifty Shades, just yet.) So how had this happened to me? How had I ended up with a kid – so similar to me in so many ways, but who would happily have carried out a ritual book-burning in our back yard, if I had mooted the idea?

‘Dyslexia’ is the fast answer to that question. But the solution to the problem has been less straightforward. So for the rest of this post – and in celebration of being Kirklees Writer in Residence for this month – and with me wanting to champion the Summer Reading Challenge which The Reading Agency created, I’m going to share a few tips and ideas for getting the reluctant reader to become a little bit more engaged:

1) AUDIO-BOOKS – Now, I’ve posted on this one before. Buying Cassettes You Oddball? The thing with audio-books however, is that they can be damned expensive. My own personal solution is to go all 1980’s and to employ the use of a good old fashioned tape recorder. That way you can pick up those cassette-tapes thingies that no bugger else wants at your car boot sales etc – and force your kid to listen to them at bedtime.  CD’s are fine too – but get a bit scratchy, don’t they? And downloands? Fine. But pricey. And they tend to be the newer books which ain’t always the most captivating for kids in my opinion… (But more on that thorny subject in my next blog.)

Once you’ve tried a few out, you’ll become familiar with the kind of stories and authors that are working best for your little wanabee book-convert. But then… the trick is this; DON’T let them listen to more than one or two of their ‘favourite’ authors or series in a book! Or to see the films first (see ‘TV’ below.) Otherwise you’re going to get – as have done – “Why should I read the book ‘Treasure Island’? I mean, Mum! I know it off by heart already!” (and believe me, she does.)

A small sample of the big cassette collection...

A small sample of the big cassette collection…

Because, you’re aiming for a teaser…. to get them hooked on the book. Which leads me to:

2) INTRODUCING A BOOK – I’ve stopped chucking books at my daughter and expecting her to break the ice with it. It’s exhausting enough having dyslexia, without some smart-alec grown-up ladling on yet more expectations for you. Instead, I read the blurb out to her – in a very amusing and quite frankly, very annoying – ‘Hollywood Film Trailer Voice.’ And then I read most of the first chapter out loud to her too.  And yes, if I’ve done my work well in terms of researching *the right book for her to begin with* (see ‘GO RETRO’), then the wee varmint, more often than not has been drawn into the story and has already overcome her initial reluctance to read.

3) LISTEN TO PROFESSIONALS – Librarians for example. They’re actually very nice people. Most of them.  (I won’t mention the one who yelled at me back in 1982 because she refused to believe that I had read 3 books in one morning and I wanted to get another 3 out and; “But our system doesn’t ALLOW for this sort of thing!” Old bat.) And most librarians DO want to keep their jobs and they DO love books themselves.  And they WILL guide you to different sections where the books have been printed on paper with different shades, or maybe has a different font, or is more spaced out.  And whilst we are on the subject of the professionals – an optician might also help you with dyslexic tendencies; try and find a local, small shop who can help you or your child out with a colourscreen test. Specsavers do them too. Here’s a bit more on how they may help you; Colour Screen Tests

But beware of signing up for the tinted glasses too early on. We just bought the overlays and the kid gave up on them after a few weeks when the novelty had worn off (and believe you me, the specs would have been a hell of a lot more expensive than the overpriced overlay things.)

4) BEFRIEND A  WRITER – Sounds a bit crazy, but it works. My lass has now written to several authors in order to thank them and to tell them that their books have had the honour bestowed on them as becoming her favourites. We have a little shelf of children’s books – all signed by the authors that the kids have met. Perhaps our favourite ever encounter was with Val Biro – author and creator of Gumdrop – Val sadly died last year at the age of 93. But not before he had painted my kids what is probably – one of the last ever images of that famous little car (see below). Gumdrop’s Page

Many authors are nice. And they like you too!

Many authors are nice. And they like you too!

People forget that us writer-sorts have fragile egos. We need to be told that we’re lovely and that you didn’t just hurl our book in the nearest skip (speaking of which – have you reviewed my book on Amazon yet? If not – please do. I might just give you a fondle the next time that I see you.) Chrissy’s Amazon Reviews

And the same goes for the Big Guys too – my daughter wrote to The Beano, explaining how the comic had helped her overcome her hatred of reading; and this actually led to an appearance on Radio 4 by the nipper – alongside fellow dyslexic Nigel Kennedy. Yup – nice, well brought up kids should say ‘thank you’, I reckon.

And it should go without saying that – like the bigger and scarier inmates in prisons – the smaller inmates in Da Family simply adore receiving proper, old-fashioned letters in the post. Makes them feel like important, worthwhile little souls. And if a real-life writer writes back to you? Coolio Daddio.

5) WORK WITH THE SCHOOL – I was the kind of kid who volunteered to be a school librarian. Not only did it get me out of many a primary school soggy playtime (jumping over strings of elastic a la ‘french skipping’ was something that I viewed with disdain) but it also allowed me to sit for hours and get to know different types of books and authors. However,  most school libraries today pale in comparison to those of yesteryear. I have lost count of the number of times where my daughter has brought home a book from the school library – and even from the public library – and has abandoned it, telling me; “I chose it because I just sort of panicked – I just grabbed the first one and it’s actually well- boring” or “They’re all dull-dull-dull in that library” or “If you don’t like girly things or football – and if you’ve done all the Dahl and Walliams already – then – there’s nowt left there to read!” 

So for the purposes of this blog, I was pleased to be able to find out about the School Libraries Association and to track down their Director and I’ll be sharing a bit about some of the marvellous work that they carry out in my next post.  Of course, one of the reasons as to why the reading books available at schools, or in their libraries may not the best in the world (or ‘they’re total bobbins!’ in the words of my girl) – is due to horrific budget cuts but … there is a lot more to be said on this subject, so I’ll hangfire with it for now…

Suffice to say though, that *most* schools will support you in your quest for discovering the best books, the most suitable sort – to pitch at your kids in order for the child to use as their ‘school reading book.’ Meaning that there is nothing to stop you from seizing the initiative and actually sourcing your own book to be used by your kid, when there is nothing available in the classroom that tickles their fancy.  Schools will generally encourage your kid to just damned well read; so they WILL let you use your own books if the reading standard is of a similar match. And please believe me that this also doesn’t have to mean a big financial outlay on your part. Because you can do this;

6) GO RETRO – Some may accuse me of being a bit of a hoarder (or a mucky old tart) but I am so very glad that I kept an awful lot of my childhood books (although let’s not talk about the entire collection of ‘Smash Hits’ from 1985 to 1990 still lingering in my parent’s loft eh? Or Dad’ll be onto me about it again…) Because those books – the Narnias, the Judy Blume’s, ‘Flat Stanley’, ‘The Silver Sword’ etc etc have been the saving grace for my family. Re-reading these books – through the eyes of my daughter – has led to me remembering the titles and authors of books of old; now out of print, or deemed to be unfashionable. Some of them, I’m pleased to say – are having a bit of a comeback or a bit of a re-print (‘Amelia Jane’ for example). And Ebay and Amazon are the bees-knees if you want to track down some second-hand copies of the books that really got you giddy as a child; not to forget the brilliant book sales which are ongoing at most public libraries too – cheap as chips, bless ’em! Get chatting to others adults too, about books that wowed them when they were or a nipper, or which have worked for their child (and yes –  a huge thanks to Sharon B – for telling us about ‘Mortimer the Raven.’)

An ancient copy of 'Mary Poppins.' My cousin coloured her teeth in pink.

My ancient copy of ‘Mary Poppins.’ My cousin coloured Julie’s teeth in pink.

Because the thing about a lot of kids and adults with dyslexia is this; they ain’t thick. Far from it.

The word-skipping and the letter-reversal and the sheer frustration with the stupid topsy-turviness of the english language (resulting in avoidance of writing, or of ‘poor spelling’) are more often than not, actually  the *signs* of a very intelligent mind. Of a brain that works *fast* – that wants to stream ahead and to ‘get to the point of the story.’ Of a brain that is good at de-coding information and which gets totally naffed off with the seeming lack of consistency in written English. So the worst possible sort of book for a noggin like this is something that lacks a riveting story; that purports to be your high-falutin’ literary stuff and that tends to witter on too much about watery sunsets, one that “takes about ten pages to describe a sodding tree-trunk to you” (that’s my other half speaking there – undiagnosed dyslexic, no doubt.) And no, I won’t mention any *specific* modern-day children’s authors here, because us writer-sorts do like to have a sense of solidarity. Just email me for their names instead…  😉

7) GET GRAPHIC – Graphic novels and comics were key in turning both of my kids onto books. The big favourites being ‘The Beano,’ ‘The Dandy,’ followed hot on the heels by Asterix, Tintin and the many Marvel and DC graphic novels from our local library, which my 7 yr old keeps himself amused with for hours (and his Dad too – “Hey! I’m sure that this one should have been in the ‘teenage reader’ section – look at Catwoman’s outfit in this one! That’s…. practically gravity defying!”)

Were you a 'Buster' - or a 'Bimbo' kid?

More of ours. So…Are you a ‘Buster’ – or a ‘Bimbo’ fella?

Another wonderful discovery at one of Kirklees libraries for us, have been the graphic novels for children that convey the Sherlock Holmes stories – along with the books that also illustrate the classics by Dickens and Shakespeare. The complex story structures of classics such as these, are indeed too tricky for children to read in their original form, but they are ideally presented in the medium of graphic art or using the cartooning approach. And they also lend themselves to good old-fashioned ‘Fam-Time shared reading’, where you can explain a little bit more about the socio-economic and political tensions of the time and about the inherent misogynistic attitudes of the Establishment during the 19th Century (or perhaps that’s just the bit that I enjoy telling the kids about the most, just before bedtime.)

When the comic books get ripped? You can upcycle a set of drawers. Here's one I did earlier.

When the comic books get ripped – or if you just want to fill more time when the TV’s gone – you can upcycle a set of drawers. Here’s one I made earlier. Ace, innit?

8) KILL THE TELLY – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The biggest enemy to the reluctant reader is excess screen time. Chuck the telly out of the window. And as well as providing you with more time to read, you can also fill all of the extra time that you will gain with the sort of project illustrated in this photo, instead. And if you *must* have a TV, don’t allow viewing on the week days.  Please, believe me – this little act of discipline is one that you’ll simply suffer the pangs of short-term pain for, whilst reaping the benefits of long-term gain. It can be a LOT harder to bin the box when they’re under the age of 5 (and I personally don’t think that I could have done it, back then) but the minute that they’re able to read, go nuts on getting hold of second hand books!  Let them lose on a pile of those instead of CITV or CSI. I now have to physically lock the room in our home, which houses our biggest collection of the most fun-to-read books (i.e comic/ annuals), if I ever want my kids to do anything other than read … and these days they rarely even think to ask me if they can watch the telly. Remember Roald Dahl’s poem on what TV does to your child?

But, if you had told me that life would be like this three or four years ago, I would have smiled politely to your face and mouthed ‘yeah, right – you weirdo,’ behind your back.

So there you have it. Just a few tips – but as always, I’m eager to learn from others. Please feel free to share any ideas on how to get ALL of us reading a bit more. We should all aspire to be like our next-door neighbour – a chap whom we never see without a book in his hands (even when he’s tackling the binmen for us! He’s a Trooper, indeed.)

And my next blog will involve passing on some thoughts about how we can start getting a bit choosier about our reading material, whilst still supporting our libraries.


Keep those books... you never know when you can captivate someone else with them. (And who remembers 'Chic a Boos'?)

Keep those books… you never know when you can captivate someone else with them. (And who remembers ‘Chic a Boos’?)


*NB – please note that NOT all of these measures will work with a dyslexic child or adult. The severity of dyslexia does differ between people – but I would eat my Tam O’ Shanter if the audiobooks don’t clinch it for you. Oh – and don’t forget that lots of our ‘Classics’ can be accessed and downloaded for FREE – by this amazing scheme… where the books are read out by a band of book-loving volunteers…

Theft of a Feathery Friend

3 Apr

The greatest pleasure of having children is when they Achieve. With a capital A. When they come home with straight A’s, get into the ‘best school’ and then ‘choose’ that highly respected or  financially lucrative career path that you’ve been not-so-subtly prepping them for.

Ah yes. Nothing more rewarding than when you finally see the results of the hard work that you’ve invested in the little swines and you can sit back, feel smug and crank yourself up to another level of living vicariously through them.

OK, OK –  I’m being really sarky now. The truth. For me, the greatest pleasure is when your child finally begins to understand a much more sophisticated level of humour and when you can begin to have a proper belly-laugh together (although I’m sure that some critics would point out that there is an element of surrogation in wanting your offspring to share your own preferred brand of humour.)

Nicholas Parsons has dyslexia too (but the 10 yr old was a huge fan of the hilarious 'Just A Minute' long before we knew this.)

The hilarious Nicholas Parsons has dyslexia too (but the 10 yr old was a huge fan of ‘Just A Minute’ long before we knew this.)

So, yeah. I’ve noticed recently that my 10 year old is enjoying the laughs a lot more these days. And  this is of particular importance for me because – as I have blogged here before – for dyslexic children, humour can be a tricky subject; the brain has a tendency to locks itself into the literal meanings behind the words and to focus on literal imagery.

So here’s a little conversation that demonstrates that we are getting there. Not quite there…. but certainly en route to sharing some more ‘mature’ family jokes.

7 YR OLD LAD: Mum, you can’t come and stay at Uncle Pete’s with us. There’s gonna be no one to look after Elvis [nb. Elvis is our budgie. In case you were thinking that The King really is alive and living in a terraced house in west Yorkshire.]

ME: Oh, Elvis will be fine. We’ll top his seed and his water up. He’ll enjoy the peace.

7 YR OLD: Noooo!  We can’t leave him! What if he gets kidnapped?

ME: Actually, that’s a good point. We should really be on our guard against those pesky budgie-smugglers, eh?

(Both daughter and her dad erupt into laughter.)

Those pesky budgie-smugglers after our Elvis.

Those pesky budgie-smugglers are after our Elvis.

HER DAD: HaHaHa! That’s a classic! Your mother is unusually quick witted today!

10 YR OLD: Hoooh yeah! Budgie smugglers! So funny!

HER DAD: Yeah. But hang on (to daughter.) How did you know what the term ‘budgie smuggler’ means?

10 YR OLD: Oh – the radio was on last week and I heard someone say ‘there’s lots of budgie smugglers about these days’ so I panicked. And Mum had to explain to me what it really means.

HER DAD: Ah, right.

10 YR OLD: Yeah. But I still don’t get why blokes would want to put budgies down their underpants. Men are so weird.

7 YR OLD: Oooh yeah! It would be all scratchy and nip-nippity-nippy wouldn’t it?

It's men like this that our feathered friends need to be very wary of.

It’s men like this that our feathered friends need to be very wary of.


POST-SCRIPT- Regular readers will know that I like to use my own photos as much as possible for this blog and I did consider asking my other half to pose for the budgie-smuggler photo. But I knew that he would then start getting a bit silly and start trotting out things like “Yeah, but in my case we’d have to rename them ‘Mynah Bird Smugglers or ow about RaptorPants?”  So I thought that I’d give that one a miss.

Bookish But NEVER Boring…

5 Mar

Reporting back from the promise in my previous blog – to expose the kiddywinks to those Public Information films that so many of us were nurtured with in post-war Britain, I have to say that I am rather disappointed.  We watched many – and the general consensus was “Freaky! Creepy!” or “well you never took no notice of them did you? ‘Cause you’re always talking to strangers in the supermarket. You shouldn’t be so friendly, Mum.”

In fact, my youngest (6) pointed out that “you make us read much more scarier books than those weirdy films what you had to watch.” And I have to confess that this is true. Not a day goes by without me exposing them to one of the classics. Last week it was ‘David Copperfield’ (the 19th century Dicken’s hero – not the overly-tanned n’ toothy American illusionist) and this week we are onto ‘The Man In The Iron Mask.’ (But please note – that clever little devils though they are, my two are not super-brats. I am talking about the graphic novel versions. With me there to read and to explain. No – I don’t shove them in the cellar with a dusty pile of The Classics first editions. Although believe me, the temptation is there on some days…)

In 'The Beano.' Again. But this time for an even more wonderful reason...

In ‘The Beano.’ Again. But this time for an even more wonderful reason…

Today has seen much cheer in the household – as we celebrate World Book Day. My daughter (10) commented to me that; “it was Dennis the Menace who got me reading wasn’t it? And who got me my first radio performance and magazine appearances,” (like she shares the same agent with Big Dennis or summat…) And this is all true. The dyslexic tendencies had led her to hide her school reading books and when I stumbled across an ancient pile of The Beano annuals, it transpired that I had suddenly found something that got her hooked into the world of books.  Which, some longer-term readers on here will know led us to a marvellous project that involved us trying to get reading materials to street children in southern Africa….(read the month of May 2014 for more info – and my girl’s own blog on it all here…  )

And the journey to the written word took the same ‘Beano’ pattern with the second child (who doesn’t have dyslexia) and who is now one of the biggest Dennis fan in the world. (Indeed, last night he informed me that he wanted all Horrid Henry books removing from his room (“I don’t like Henry. He’s not like Dennis. He’s a bit…. what’s the word…you always say? Sinister. That’s it.”)

Read... or you can watch the film. Or just summarise the story for someone else. The oldest methods are the best...

Read… or you can watch the film. Or just summarise the story for someone else. The oldest methods are the best…

My own thirst for new stories and fresh books (in between trying to write my own – which I am right now, patently avoiding doing…) is also never quenched. In fact, my daughter loves to read the books that I happen to be stuck into at any given moment. Albeit vicariously. Last night it was “I see that you’ve finished The Book Thief. Please PLEASE tell me what happens before I go to bed! Does she kick Hitler’s butt? Or what? Please don’t tell me she dies… I couldn’t bear it! I’ll never get to sleep if she dies..!”

But if you don’t happen to have access to small children yourselves in order to brainwash them with superb reading material – I would still recommend that you immerse yourself in the ancient art of reading aloud. Or of storytelling. Me and my other half  – before reproducing reared its head – covered thousands of miles in southern Africa as I read aloud to him on those deserted, long, straight and dusty roads (because they don’t have Radio 4 there and there are only so many times that you can listen to ‘Wicked Hits of The 80s’.) And even today I always keep a book in the car.  Of course, in the UK we have the opposite traffic problem. Standstill. So if we are having to suffer some (cough) ‘comedy play’ on Radio 4, then I just whip out a tome or two from the dashboard (“But just get to the point of the story,” he always says “You know that I can’t be doing with poetic and flowery so-called literary tosh.”)

Still. There are days when I don’t feel like reading to the kids. Or when they bring a book to me that happens to be a bit more drivelly; you know, something that I really don’t fancy wasting any of my precious minutes on. For example they learned a long time ago NEVER to try and get me to read the Disney book-version of anything out loud to them. And that I also really struggle with reading anything about superheros. (Unless The Life of Jesus counts, because that’s always a great one with which to go off on contemporary and political tangents with; “So sweetie. Jesus saved that lady from a horrid death. Do you think that it’s okay to chuck stones at a woman until she’s dead just because she might have been caught snogging a man who wasn’t her husband? Well that’s what happens in many countries all over the world today!”)c hamster 1

Yes, the world of my own offspring’s books tends to be funny, thrills n’ spills filled and … sometimes dark. Which reminds me of perhaps our ultimate favourite cheeky lad. That 6 year old Calvin and his precious ‘imaginary but real’ tiger, Hobbes.

I first found out about C&H when I was 14 years old and quickly amassed all of these incredible books by the insanely talented and hilarious writer/illustrator, Bill Watterson.  Watterson’s work is far cleverer and far more ‘LOL’ than Peanuts and the like. Calvin and Hobbes should be on the Must Read list of anyone who has ever been a child. In fact, it should be on prescription on the NHS for anyone who every suffers from ‘the blues.’ c hamster 2

As a young teenager I could identify horribly with the plights of Calvin and the nefarious schemes that his evil parents and schoolteachers always employed in order to stop him from simply enjoying life, not having not a care in the world and generally being a lazy little swine with no social conscience.  And now..? But of course. I can completely relate to the downtrodden parents who practically have to re-mortgage the home in order to find anyone crazy enough to babysit Calvin.

So, back to the Joy of Reading and a chance to share with you – in a celebration of all things bookish; what happens to be one of my all time favourite C&H strips.

And yes, gentle reader. I have utilised Calvin’s dad’s tactics on several occasions in order to bring one of the ‘less quality’ stories to a close….c hamster 3 final




Homework, Irony and the BBC…

14 Dec

MALE OFFSPRING:  Arrrghhh! I can’t do this! I HATE this! I HATE it!

ME:  Oh for…..(stopping myself)…it’s just homework! The sooner you get it done – the better.

MALE OFFSPRING: That’s alright for you to say! You said you never had nowt given you as homework when you were a kid. But I’m just 6! It’s not fair! I HATE this! I HATE my life! I keep telling you! I’m supposed to be HAPPY!

ME: I did get homework. But not until I was about 12.

FEMALE OFFSPRING: Well that’s because you must have gone to a rubbish school.

ME: I didn’t actually. It’s just that things were different in those days. Plus… if you didn’t do your homework… your parents didn’t feel the need to try and bail you out. Or to feel guilty that they might somehow might be turning out to be a crap parent.

FEMALE OFFSPRING: You just swore!

ME: No I didn’t. You must have misheard me.


ME: Anyway. I’ve had enough of this. I’m going upstairs. Or out. I’m sick of this every night. Don’t do your homework. See if I care if you end up on the streets at the age of 16 with no qualifications and you can’t even do your 5 times table!

FEMALE OFFSPRING: Oh that’s very mature, Mum.

MALE OFFSPRING: Good. I don’t care. I’m not doing it. Goodbye stupid numeracy book!

FEMALE OFFSPRING: That’s so unfair! So he doesn’t have to do his? Just ’cause he sits there and cries and whines like a big baby brat?!

MALE OFFSPRING: (whacks her with the exercise book) I HATE YOU.

ME: I can’t do another 10 years of this. I’m off. Make your own tea.


This is no exaggeration. This tends to occur most nights of the week in our home. Yes it is stressful. Yes it will get worse as the kids hit secondary school age and as fully-fledged teenagers, learn even more arsier tactics than blubbing, whacking each other with homework books or spitting grapes at each other. I know that.

But I’m actually thanking my lucky stars. It could be much worse. We have some great advantages on our side:

1) We are a 2 parent family. We can take turns to lock ourselves in the bathroom and have the odd swig of Listerine when it all gets too much.

2) We both work flexibly. We are around a lot more than most parents in order to supervise homework.

3) We possess a wonderful Grandma who sometimes takes over when the going gets tough in terms of weekend homework burden.

A Grandma who knows how to get around the homework tantrums...

A Grandma who knows how to get around the homework tantrums…

4) Our kids go to excellent local (state) primary schools where the teachers listen to the different needs of our kids and don’t pull our finger nails out if we occasionally don’t deliver the scribbled goods. They even let us choose reading books for our dyslexic daughter (how cool is that?)

5) We ban the TV from Monday to Friday. Okay… this is not so much an example of luck. We just know that the more that the TV is available, the more paddying occurs and the larger the flying missiles become.

So it was a super-duper irony today – when right in the middle of a blazing homework tantrum – the nice people from BBC 1 TV Breakfast Time called.  They wanted me to come onto the show in the morning in order to talk about the latest research by think tank OECD, that compares the number of homework hours spent between different countries.

I hope that the Beeb were not too disturbed by the freakish laughter that emanated from the other end of the phone line.

Either way, I’m always happy to talk about this issue. In terms of the research, I do find it rather strange that our kids in the UK are being compared with kids from the other side of the world (i.e. Shangai, Singapore) who operate within very different cultures, historical contexts and economies.

Malala Y and Stupendous Man - homework for 'who is your hero?' with our own unique interpretation...

Malala Yousafzai and Stupendous Man – homework for ‘who is your hero?’ with our own unique interpretation…

But I certainly welcome opening the dialogue – particularly in relation to the differences relating to the ‘homework question and class’ here in the UK. There are huge differences between the expectations and standards placed upon kids from more working class backgrounds and those born of the middle classes (dare I say it… the latter parents falling rather more into the competitive parenting pool. Whilst parents from working class backgrounds are less obsessed with an exterior sense of academic achievement.)

I probably veer between both camps, if I’m honest.

So if any parent is reading this and finds that the level of stress in their household is worse than our own and wants to dampen things down a bit, here are my tips:

1) If you are a lone parent – find another partner in crime quickly to help manage the burden of homework management. Doesn’t have to be someone from your preferred sexual orientation. Old Mrs Milligan next door might be worth her weight in gold (pay her in cans of Stella, or whatever her tipple happens to be.)

2) If your child is doing too much non-homework screen-time, do as we do. Ban the TV in the week. Hide the screens. If the kids are older and have screens in their rooms and deliberately disobey you – fit a trip switch into the home so that all electric goes off in their room (brutal perhaps but some kids need the iron fist approach.)

3) Speak to the school. Most teachers are utterly sympathetic to the plight of homework clapped out and downtrodden parents. Negotiate with them about what can constitute as ‘learning’ for your particular child and their needs from time to time.  And if it means getting a bit more creative about how homework is presented (i.e. using a video camera, a dictaphone, a blog post, having a parent transcribe a story – all techniques which we have used in the past) then bite the bullet.

fruity earrings sml

Liven up a dull national curriculum on ‘healthy eating’ by letting them make ‘fruity earrings’. Try and stop them from spitting the pips at each other though..

4) Stay away from the competitive parent sorts. Certainly don’t cosy up to them on Facebook. Perhaps think about talking to yourself in the playground instead (believe me – having a little chat with oneself DEFINITELY keeps the other parents away from you if you are really struggling to keep them at bay…)

5) Set up a list of *fun* activities that you consider to be learning/homework opportunities. Stop thinking about academic achievements for your kids. Start thinking about them being helped to become well-rounded individuals who have good logical and problem solving skills and who love the world and who will have a lifelong interest in society and the environment. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m not the sort to try and push the wisdom of a former Tory MP onto you… but one of the best buys that we have had in recent years along these lines is a tome produced by Gyles Brandreth ‘The Lost Art of Having Fun.’ Go and treat yourself to a copy!

(And no. I am not sleeping with the fella.)


6 year old boy has just peered over my shoulder and shrieked “Are you mad? Why are you writing about homework – you weirdo!”

Worms and Words

11 Sep

Certain kid turned DOUBLE DIGITS today. Enjoyed her pressies at the brekkie table (big thrill was being treated to a poached egg… I ask you! Is it a roller-coaster of giddy consumerist excess in this household – or what?)

And then it was over to studying the pressies. She was sitting and a-reading the packaging on her new ‘Wiggly Worm World’  (a kit that helps a child to set up a cross-section of a foot of soil so that they can observe an earthworm’s behaviour.)

And then she goes;

“Oh! That is absolutely outrageous! ‘Create your own garden for your worms to EXPLODE’!  Why would I want to EXPLODE worms? That is SO sick!”

And Dad goes;

“Sweetie. Slow down on your reading. It says ‘for your worms to ***EXPLORE***’

Oh the joys of a sharp mind, with dyslexia….that loves to skip the words…

The next Big Worry. Are we breeding worms in order to feed our ferocious budgie?

The next Big Worry. Are we breeding worms in order to feed our ferocious budgie?


For the ‘Chicks’…AND the Chaps

19 Aug

Women and Men in The West  – regardless of their upbringing or education or politics… or of how well-read they are often don’t realise how different the paradigm is for girls and women (and the men in their lives)  when it comes to equality and gender issues in the most developed and marganalised communities in the world.

So many development workers in the most “uneven” and “oppressed” communities in the developing world will tell you this; that even to talk of ‘Rights’ or ‘Female Equality’ will cause more harm than good when you’re out there in the field.

So what can you do in such scenarios? How can you start to erode the status quo – to provide a livelihood for women and to shore up a new set of rights for women and children as they seek to move from starvation to subsistence?

First of all you check out THE LORNA YOUNG FOUNDATION. You read about Lorna. And you get more than a bit inspired.

And then you think about giving a few pennies, pounds, dollars or dimes.   And if you have an edgy attitude yourself – if you check up on us you will see how radically different we are to most charities.

Joanne Harris, the internationally famous award winning of ‘Chocolat’  said it all in our recent BBC Radio 4 Appeal. All of the things that you and I enjoy – or taste – “are so much more delicious” when we’ve helped the producers to receive a decent deal for their back-breaking work.

Nuff Said Pals.

Attitude! Young Oromo Ethiopian women who work the coffee farms and whom The LYF are helping...

Attitude! Young Oromo Ethiopian women who work the coffee farms and whom The LYF are helping…

The MINX hit the Media – Thanks to Radio 4

12 Aug

Last week that marvellous and historical comic THE BEANO asked mine (and me) to explain on primetime BBC RADIO 4’s ‘Saturday Live’ as part of the PR surrounding it’s 75th anniversary.

My wee gal is only 8 but seemed to steal the show – as she explained why and how THE BEANO got her to read when nothing else could with the dyslexia issue. We were both so chuffed with the funny texts and calls and emails that we ended up getting from all over the UK and from around the world even – about this daft wee appearance!

But when we got home- her main issue was this “I wanted to talk more about Minnie the Minx. I don’t just like her ’cause she is a girl. I just think that she is actually COOLER than Dennis because she doesnt have a dog to help her or some big enemy and his gang like Walter The Softy and his softies. It’s just her against her dad. And that’s way funnier and it makes her waaaay tougher than Dennis!”

No big deal. Just made me smile. And ‘Well Proud.’

Talking was never an issue. Making her do the English phonic system always was...

Talking was never an issue. Making her do the English phonic system always was…