Archive for the month “April, 2013”

I’m in a Poetry Slam final!

It’s being held on 14th May in Oxford at the Old Fire Station. Competing under my maiden name, Jen Russell. Have to memorise three of my poems. Terrified, but looking forward to it as the Slam in Chipping Norton was so adrenalin-fuelled and exciting. Come along! The link is here:


Avoiding my tax return

Today I was supposed to be going through a pile of teetering paperwork to start work on my 2012-13 tax return. I feel the need to get it out of the way to ‘clear the decks’ for a fresh surge of writing. I know I’ll feel better when I’ve dealt with it, but I seem to have spent all day today avoiding actually doing it. It seems that I will do anything else… ANYTHING… except look at bits of paper with numbers on. Here’s how it’s gone so far…

1) Angus looks at me. Needing a walk. Do a longer walk than normal. Only fair to the poor dog, after all. He needs the exercise. So do I.

2) Get back. Put on a washing. Then decide that I need new business cards. Now. Spend about an hour designing and ordering print with Aylesbury college copy shop (who do very reasonable rates by the way). Then time for a coffee. Stare out of window for a short while.

3) So impressed am I with the college’s rates, I decide that I might as well get some Abominators bookmarks done for school visits and the Wychwood festival, to hand out to children. Tweak the design I’ve already worked on and send over to the copy shop for a quote. Another half hour used up, but the bookmarks look great.

4) I’ve been invited to be a guest blogger on Girls Heart Books, so it makes sense to get myself a gravatar on their site, and anyway I’m pretty excited about it. Another half hour on that. Could have done this later in the week, but in light of the financial mountain of paper lurking on my table, it suddenly seems incredibly urgent.

5) Hang up washing. Put another washing on. Do a quick blog entry for my ‘Stressy Buddhist’ blog, ( which I’ve just started for fun. Again, could have done that this evening…

6) I approached the Accelerated Reading scheme recently, and now an email arrives saying I can send the book. I glance over at the tax stuff. ‘No time like the present’, I decide, getting out a padded envelope.

7) Start to daydream about an idea for a new Abominators story. Write a few things down. Realise need to hang out the other washing and put a third load on. Decide it is urgent to pick moss out of Angus’s fur.

8) Time for a late lunch. Make a salad, and eat it while listening to The Archers. Pip really is being such a brat. And poor Tom. The shadow of the tax pile looms over me like the shadow of my old Maths teacher back when I was at school. ‘Concentrate, Jennifer! Stop looking out of the window!’

9) The house is a pigsty. ‘I can’t work in this’ I think to myself. Quick tidy round.

10) Come across an email from Sam Hearn, the illustrator of The Abominators. Reply to it. Remember I needed to register for PLR. Do it. Feels good to get it sorted, I’ve been meaning to do it for ages.

11) Remember I promised to send two copies of The Abominators to a charity near Reading for their auction. Package them up.

12) I can’t let the charity wait, I reason to myself as I survey the mess of receipts and invoices mocking me from the kitchen table. I have other stuff to post too… and need to get  a set of spare keys cut. Off to the High Street. Another hour disappears.

13) I get back. There it still is, the tax return heap – looking at me resentfully. Only an hour till the boys home from school, where’s the day gone? What on earth have I done? It’s not too late. I COULD make a start on it in the short time I have left…

14) or I could write a blog about avoiding doing my tax return instead…


A BRILLIANTLY organised author visit at Crowmarsh Gifford Primary School in Wallingford

On Friday I visited Crowmarsh Gifford Primary School in Wallingford, and it had to be one of the best organised and most fun author visits I’ve experienced.

Freddy Shannon, the librarian at Watlington Primary, had mentioned me as a local author to parent governor Trish Allen, explaining that I’d talked to the children at Watlington Primary about the importance of planning in writing. Trish Allen, whose children had moved from Watlington to Crowmarsh Gifford Primary then spoke to the head teacher of Crowmarsh Gifford (Barbara O’Dwyer), because she was aware that the Year 5s were learning about planning in writing as part of their literacy work. Once Trish had found out that the school was interested in a visit, Trish contacted the publicity team at Little Brown ( and asked if I could visit. Little Brown got in touch with me and I said ‘yes please!’

It was arranged that I should speak to 30 Year 5s about planning and writing technique, as well as reading from the book, and that I should then (after lunch) speak to 60 Year 3 and 4s about The Abominators. So the brief was nice and clear.

Trish Allen contacted the Wallingford Bookshop and owner Alison Jinks came along personally with copies of The Abominators, and also advance copies of The Abominators in the Wild (which is not in book shops officially until 2nd May). The whole atmosphere was wonderfully positive, with the teachers, the head teacher Mrs O’Dwyer, the book seller Alison and the involved parent organiser Trish all interested in and working towards one goal – to get the children excited about reading and writing.

And guess what? Genuine enthusiasm about reading is infectious. The children themselves were the most positive and excited I’ve ever talked to.

So well done and a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to Mrs O’Dwyer, Alison from Wallingford Books all the teachers at Crowmarsh Gifford – and especially to mover and shaker and book enthusiast Trish Allen. What lucky children to have you all on the case!

Shared Lives

My first impression when I enter Angela’s house is of how wonderfully welcoming it is. I soon feel at home, thanks to her warm smile, and the offer of a cup of tea.

Angela is an Ategi Shared Lives Carer. She and her partner Tina share their home with Debbie and Linda, two ladies with learning difficulties who, until they moved in with Angela two years ago lived most of their lives in care homes.

Settled in the living room, I chat with Angela, Debbie and Linda about their life together.

First, we talk about the cats – Leo and Slinky. Linda tells me shyly that Slinky regularly sits on the warm bonnet of the car, and sleeps on top of the kitchen cabinet.

When I ask Angela how she came to be an Ategi Shared Lives Carer, she explains that she has a background in care work, having worked in residential homes.

“Several years ago,” she explains, “I was working as a cleaner at Aylesbury’s Young Offender’s Institute, but I wasn’t happy. I missed working as a carer. It was around then that I came across the ‘Ategi Shared Lives’ advert. It said something along the lines of: ‘Can you give a loving, caring home to someone?’”

It seemed to make perfect sense. With her three children having left home, Angela and Tina were living in a four bedroom house.

“We had the empty bedrooms,” continues Angela, “So I thought that maybe this was a chance for me to go back to doing what I have always enjoyed most. Caring for people.”

Encouraged by Tina, and by her friend Jen, Angela made contact with Ategi. She spoke to them on the phone, and they visited her home and had long conversations with her and Tina. There were various important processes to go through before Angela could be accepted as a potential Shared Lives carer – to make sure that everybody’s wellbeing was taken into consideration and that their home was suitable. Years ago, when she was working in a residential home, there was a sad incident which has haunted Angela ever since.

“Two elderly ladies, who were devoted and very close friends, had to be separated,” she explains, “It was heartbreaking. One was sent to another care home, and died just a week or so later.”

Remembering this, Angela told Ategi that she would be happy to accept two people who would be unhappy to be placed in separate homes from each other.

Vicki, from Ategi said: “I think I have just the people for you – they were made for you.”

The people to whom she was referring were Linda and Debbie. At this point in the visit, Tina arrives home from her shift as a prison warden at Aylesbury Young Offender’s Institute. She has twinkling eyes, grey spiky hair and a great big smile. She sits down beside Linda.

“She’s trouble! She’s always messing around!” Linda tells me, but with a smile.

I ask Tina how she finds family life with Debbie and Linda.

“It’s very rewarding,” she says, “Especially with a job like mine. I have a hard day at work but when I get home that all goes. We’ll have a laugh together. They’re quiet today because they are meeting somebody new, but normally they don’t stop talking!”

Before coming to live with Angela and Tina, Linda and Debbie were in residential care for almost all of their lives. Neither has many happy memories, or ever completely settled in any of the care homes they were in. Two years ago, Debbie and Linda did not talk much. Both women found it difficult to make eye contact and would prefer to hide away. They had met before in other care homes, and had been reunited at the latest one.

“They did not feel loved,” says Angela, “they did not feel part of something.”

Angela finds it easy to empathise with Linda and Debbie, as she herself was painfully shy as a child.

“I understood how they were feeling. But they’ve changed since they came to live with us. They dress differently, they act differently, it’s a joy to see.”

Angela, Tina, Debbie and Linda now live together like any other family. Cooking in the household is a joint effort. Linda is an excellent cook, and washes up as she goes along. Debbie is best at pastries, whereas Linda has a gift for making the lightest Yorkshire puddings. As Angela explains, Linda and Debbie nod in confirmation. They enjoy watching TV together in the evenings, Linda and Debbie love programmes with animals in them. They all enjoy Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale. They’ll have meals out and day trips. They’ll argue about football. Linda supports Tottenham Hotspur. Like any family, they all have different timetables. Angela looks after her baby granddaughter Ellie on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Linda and Debbie go to their day centres a couple of days a week and Tina does her shifts at the prison. There are plenty of visitors, including Angela’s children and grandchildren. Angela’s daughter Becky brings Ellie to visit regularly, and Debbie and Linda love having a baby in the house. Linda’s family visit too – her twin sister Susan and sometimes her Auntie Mollie. Relatives and friends often join them for Sunday tea or a Sunday roast.

We talk about ‘respite’ care, when Angela has some time off from being a carer. This happens several times a year. Next week, Tina and Angela are going to visit Angela’s mum in Warrington for nine nights, and Linda and Debbie will stay with a short-term Ategi carer, who they know and trust. As the visit goes on, and after a second cup of tea and some cake, Linda and Debbie lose their initial shyness. We talk about the family sing-alongs, and Debbie gives me a rendition of ‘Doh a Deer’ from ‘The Sound of Music’.

“I love Drama,” she says, “I love to sing and act.”

Debbie goes to church every Sunday and has good friends there. She finds it uplifting, the singing and clapping. She loves the day centre she goes to as well. “I can reach out to people there,” she says, “I can have conversations.” Linda enjoys arts and crafts and shows me a scrapbook she made for Angela, which is filled with Christmas recipes she has carefully cut out and stuck in. She also shows me a special shoebox, which she has covered in beautiful patterned paper. Linda has been to Menorca with Angela and Tina twice, and judging from the photographs they all had a fantastic time. Debbie only went the first time, and decided that she did not enjoy the sun, or the water, so the second time she chose to have a short break with a carer instead. They will go away this year, but not to Menorca as – like most families these days – they can’t afford to go abroad every year.

“Debbie does a brilliant Frank Spencer impersonation,” says Angela. I look at Tina and she nods. Debbie smiles when they ask her if she’ll do one for me. “Go on,” coaxes Tina. Then she does it. The absolute best Frank Spencer impersonation I have ever heard in my entire life.

“Betty!” she says, “The cat’s done a whoopsie on the table!”

It is perfect. It is spot on. We are all helpless with laughter.

I ask Debbie how she feels about living with Angela and Tina, in a proper home.

“I am much happier living here,” she says, “in the other homes I did not feel loved, and people were mean to me. Now I have a family who love me, and I love them.”

As I prepare to leave, I think about something that was said at the beginning of the visit, when we were talking about the cats Leo and Slinky. Leo came from a family around the corner, but he decided that he was happier with Angela, Tina, Linda and Debbie. It turned out that this suited everybody concerned, so he was allowed to stay.

“He chose us,” said Angela, smiling, “just like we chose each other.”

Four new reviews in two days!

WOW!!! Four new reviews for The Abominators in the space of two days, all five star and three of them from Amazon Vine reviewers.

Now that quite a few Amazon Vine reviewers have given the first book the thumbs up, I am hoping that more people might try The Abominators with their children.

If you know of any 7-10 year olds who might enjoy The Abominators, and enjoy reading about inner confidence, resilience and pants… then please spread the word.

Here’s what the latest reviewers have to say:

Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Programme

This book is really good, my Son and I read it together and it makes him laugh out loud. It’s great fun and appeals to 7 year old boys due to the underpants. It’s a boy thing!

Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Programme 

J just hoovers up books now and it can be a challenge to find great fun stories for him as he reads so much. He loves the SWITCH books, the MR Gum series, and the Abominators is his new favourite. He’s keen for me to get the next in the series. Just right for 7-8-9 year olds.

Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Programme 

My 8 year old son grabbed this as soon as it arrived and read it before I had a chance to look at it. I soon heard lots of laughs – and he actually finished it in one sitting. I decided I had to know what had made him laugh so much, and so read it myself…. and was thoroughly tickled by the characters and story. Such naughty humour – just right for 7-10 year olds. Can’t wait for the next one.

Customer review
As an adult I really loved reading this book and the wonderfully resilient and uplifting character of Cecil, (whom one could easily imagine being an easy bully target) and his ability to transform all potentially negative comments and threats from others into positives. It was funny and lighthearted with the underlying significant message about how one’s inner confidence provides such a protective shield. I have bought it for several young boys – around ages 8-10 and await to hear back from them.

‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’

‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’ is an English proverb which comes from old English (example from @1485: “He had not left an holle clowt, Wherwith to hyde hys body abowte.”)

However many people think of the phrase as something only Scottish people like me say:

“Ne’er cast a cloot till May is oot! Och aye the noo!”

They’re absolutely right. I say the phrase a lot at this time of year, mainly to confuse and annoy people.

In translation the proverb means that we should not discard our clothing (ie. wear less clothes, not run around totally naked) until May is out, but there is argument about the meaning of ‘May’. Some say it means don’t wear less clothing till after the end of the month of May. But others think it means don’t wear less clothing till the hawthorn (or May) is in bloom – which in the UK happens in late April/early May.

This means that some will stay bundled up in balaclavas, overcoats and mittens till June even in a heatwave, while others throw off their cardigans in late April and walk around in tiny vests and shorts despite blizzard conditions.

I, being a hopeful type of person, go for the late April option. Which is why I spent last night bagging up the winter coats, gloves and hats and chucking them into the loft space while singing ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On Hip Hip Hip Hooray’.

It will probably snow on Friday.

My favourite event at this year’s ChipLitFest: ‘Evie and the Perfect Cupcake’

My favourite event at the ChipLitFest was in a little room at The Chequers, where Tina Sederholm performed her show: ‘Evie and the Perfect Cupcake’.

‘Evie and the Perfect Cupcake’ is about a girl called Evie who lives in a benign parallel universe, called ‘the Calorie Galaxy’ where calories are plentiful but weight is policed. The one hour monologue is performed with wit, sparkle and fun and is all about the tyranny of being thin, and the usually self-imposed (fuelled by peer pressure and media images) desire for physical perfection which entraps so many women.

Tina Sederholm takes us on Evie’s journey, where she emulates her successful sister and loses weight, despite the advice of her wonderful Aunt Gloria. Towards the end of the performance, it all gets serious, and at this point I found that my eyes were (quite literally) welling up with tears for all the Evies in the world who think that they have to be ‘good’, who deny themselves and torture themselves in a quest for perfection, forgetting who they really are in the process.

Every woman who has ever had an issue with image, weight or self esteem (that’s probably all of us then) should see this show. I will be thinking about it, and it’s impact on me, for a long time.

Look out for Tina Sederholm at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, I highly recommend the show.

Tina Sederholm

Tina Sederholm

Poetry Slam at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival

Went to the Poetry Slam (run by Hammer and Tongue) at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival.

People got up and had three minutes to read their work. Five random audience members held up scores, and the middle three scores were added up for the final score.

On the spur of the moment, egged on by Paddington Clare, and very terrified, I entered the slam under my maiden name (which is my poetry name) Jen Russell. I got Russ to text my poems and read one of them, called ‘The Western Arcade’, off the screen of my mobile phone. They had to tell me to talk into the microphone, my legs were shaking and I was sure I was going to throw up.

The round of applause and decent scores was great validation and even though it took an hour for my heartbeat to get back to normal, I’m glad I did it.

Now here’s the surprise… I came joint first! So I’m through to the regionals in Oxford on 14th May. I have to have three poems ready in case I get through all the rounds, so am having a think about which would work best in performance. I might also have to memorise them which would work better than reading off my phone.

Thanks to Hammer and Tongue for organising such a fun, adrenalin rush of an event in celebration of participation and poetry.

The Middle Class ABC

Went to a very funny and entertaining talk at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival, entitled ‘The Middle Class ABC’. The book of the same name was written by Zebedee Helm (who also did the illustrations) and by TV producer Fi Cotter-Craig.

In the talk they took turns reading extracts from the book, while Zebedee (is this his real name?, please may it be so) did LIVE and brilliant drawings on a flip pad. Paddington Clare and I were right at the front so we had the best possible view, while hopefully not unnerving Zebedee and Fi too much with our over enthusiastic grins (we don’t get out much).

Having bought the book, I expect to hear guests chortling uncontrollably from my loo in the very near future – hopefully because they are reading ‘The Middle Class ABC’ and not for other, more sinister, reasons.

The books is described as follows:

“The Middle-Class ABC is the book loos the length and breadth of the land have been waiting for – a humorous celebration of the facts and foibles, manners and mores of contemporary British middle class life.

Letter by letter, the clever, witty and sometimes absurd observations and cartoons will ring true for all good Middlings who will instantly recognise both their and their friends’ choices – children’s names, foodie fads, and holiday destinations.

Crammed full of affectionately teasing jokes this is a book for to enjoy at any time of year in the course of going about one’s business.”

Here is the Amazon link:


Rachel Joyce at the Chip Lit Fest

On Saturday I went to the Chipping Norton Literary Festival with my fellow counter-terrorist operative (or rather, fellow mum) Clare. It was a gloriously sunny day as we drove, Thelma and Louise style but in a Peugot 307, through the Cotswolds. The first event we went to was ‘Coffee with Rachel Joyce’ which meant we got to eat some cake. The man behind the coffee bar told me that I was very messy and asked if I was married. Clare thinks that I could have pulled.

We were near the back, so struggled to hear at first, but were soon engrossed in the interview. Rachel’s answers were honest, thoughtful and sometimes moving. She talked of her late father, and his boating shoes. She explained how she entered Harold Fry’s journey, covering the walls of her writing shed with maps torn from a road atlas, which then left her husband stranded somewhere outside Bath. She talked about writing plays for radio, and about the fact that she thought of Harold and Maureen as Anton Rogers and Anna Massey originally. I would love to hear the original radio play ‘To Be A Pilgrim’ from which the book grew. Rachel Joyce spoke of how writing plays for radio was fairly anonymous, when asked how it felt to be thrust into the spotlight. She said she had to write the novel, but she has to balance the attention this has got her with family life. So whenever possible, they will all go somewhere together – for example when the book launched in Canada the whole family made a holiday out of it. Clare and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the talk, and got our books signed by Rachel Joyce afterwards, feeling quite starstruck. I am looking forward to Joyce’s next book (she read and extract and it sounds excellent, and intriguing – as it plays with time), and hope she writes many more as she is an excellent writer, who can catch you out with her brilliant turns of phrase.

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