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2014 in Pictures

2014 has been quite a year for me – but I’m very aware that one thing I haven’t done very much of is writing here. I decided to take inspiration from one of my favourite bloggers, Sarah McIntyre (aka Jabberworks) for this post, to sum up 2014 with a few pictures. For 2015, I’m making a resolution to get back to writing here on a more regular basis. There should be plenty to write about – it’s going to be an exciting year!

But for now, what happened in 2014? It’s going to be a big one, so take a deep breath…

We kicked the year off on the Isle of Wight, celebrating New Year with friends in the countryside. January is also my birthday month, so Duncan and I went away for a weekend to one of our favourite places, Rye in East Sussex. We spent a couple of days enjoying wild and windy seaside walks, cosy pub dinners and afternoons reading books by a roaring fire.

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February got off to a pretty exciting start, when we welcomed a gorgeous new nephew, Little Frank!

The first Down the Rabbit Hole also happened in February, after I’d cooked up the idea of a children’s book radio show in response to all the discussions about the lack of children’s book coverage in the media, and pitched it to London’s art radio station, Resonance FM. We had three amazing guests for the first show: Tanya Byrne, Laura Dockrill and Alex T Smith.  Also taking part were the wonderful Melissa Cox and Louise Lamont – and hey presto, a Down the Rabbit Hole dream team was born!

It was pretty amazing to see all the fantastic responses to the show online, and I guess Resonance FM were looking on too, because they soon invited us back to turn Down the Rabbit Hole into a regular series.

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Tanya, Alex and Laura in the Resonance studio for the first EVER Down the Rabbit Hole

Meanwhile, there was also exciting news for me on the writing front. After interest from several children’s publishers, I was lucky enough to secure a two-book deal with Egmont UK. The announcement that they had acquired The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow coincided with London Book Fair in April of this year, and even dropping my phone down a toilet in a fit of excitement (or well, OK, actually because I was in a rush and late for work, but book deal excitement is a better story) didn’t ruin the moment.

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Signing the contract!

A few weeks later, Louise and I were at The Wolseley on Piccadilly with the lovely Ali and Hannah from Egmont to sign the book contract and celebrate with cakes, tea and a glass of champagne or two. What better place to raise a glass to The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow?

May saw the launch of Down the Rabbit Hole as a regular monthly series on Resonance FM. We’ve had a completely amazing year and a host of incredible guests: I won’t run through them all now, but you can catch up on our episodes here.

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Melissa with our studio guests for June’s Picture Book special – Ed Vere and Nadia Shireen

What can I say about the summer? It was a super busy few months with lots of highlights, from chairing children’s book superstars Michael Rosen and Malorie Blackman at the Foyles Festival to the amazing (and slightly mad) party we threw in July to announce the winners of the first ever Booktrust Best Book Awards.

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The graffiti wall at our Best Book Awards party

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We had a little too much fun with the photo booth

Then of course, in July YALC happened, and it was one of the most incredible weekends EVER. Need I say more?

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Hooray for YALC and all the amazing authors who took part!

I was pretty exhausted after the madness of YALC, so we went away for a few days in the countryside. We stayed in a little shepherd’s hut in deepest Kent, and spent our time sitting by the campfire, cycling down country lanes, reading in deckchairs, discovering country pubs and reading old children’s books. The weather was perfect and I half expected to see Pop Larkin driving his Rolls Royce down one of the Kentish country lanes at any moment.

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Deepest Kent

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A few handy books for a bit of campfire reading

August means Edinburgh Festival time! In spite of the unseasonal weather, we had a lovely few days mooching around one of my favourite cities, with ice-creams from Mary’s Milk Bar, coffee at Peters Yard, and of course lots of time at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Charlotte Square, where I was pleased to find that my shoes perfectly matched the carpet in the Authors Yurt.

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In September, I got married! Duncan and I had a gorgeous London wedding surrounded by friends and family.

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We headed to Budapest for a few days for a  ‘mini-moon’ which involved lots of walking, eating, drinking, reading and sleeping.

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Once we got back home, wedding and holiday swiftly became a distant memory. Far from a relaxing start to married life, the rest of the autumn was packed with things to do and see. I loved visiting the House of Illustration to hear Johnny Duddle talk about illustrating the new Harry Potter covers, and going to the opening of the fantastic new Oliver Jeffers exhibition at the Discover Centre with the Booktrust girls.

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Getting into the spirit of things at the Discover Centre… ice-cream cone, wine and cheesy grin.

In October, Seven Stories announced their Diverse Voices list at the Guardian’s offices: a list of 50 of the best children’s books celebrating cultural diversity in the UK. I was lucky enough to be on the selection panel for this list, alongside Julia Eccleshare, Sarah Smith, Debbie Beeks and Jake Hope, which was a really fascinating experience, and left me with a lot to think about.

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Just a few of the fantastic authors and illustrators featured in the 50 Diverse Books list at the Guardian launch

In the same month, Claire and I went to visit the Story Museum in Oxford, and had a lot of fun dressing up and exploring their 26 Characters exhibition. My highlight was definitely Holly Smale as the Snow Queen in the Narnia room: open what looks like a wardrobe door, and push through the fur coats to emerge in a glittering winter scene. While we were there we were lucky enough to hear the amazing Frank Cottrell Boyce give a hugely inspiring David Fickling lecture.

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Also in October, it was back to Earls Court for the Winter London Film and Comic Con, for a mini YALC ‘spin-off’. Our pop-up YALC included a Waterstones bookshop and two YALC panels. I had a lot of fun chairing the first event, ‘Hey YA!’, which brought back two YALC stalwarts, James Dawson (cosplaying as Katniss especially for the occasion, naturally) and Non Pratt, alongside US author James Frey, who was touring the UK for the publication of his first young adult book, Endgame. The second event focused on female characters in YA fantasy fiction, and was ably chaired by Liz de Jager, with fantastic panellists Samantha Shannon, Zoe Marriott and Laure Eve.

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The YALC lanyard came out again!

November took me off to Birmingham to visit the new Library of Birmingham for the Blue Peter Book Awards judging meeting. Hannah and I had a great day with Blue Peter judges Anna James, Liz Pichon, Michael de Souza, Ewan Vinnicombe and the Blue Peter team.

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And of course in December, I had the chance to talk alongside author Matt Haig about the popularity of YA fiction – not a bad way to finish off a very busy year!

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There are so many other things I could mention here – BOOKS, exhibitions, theatre, lovely book launches and events (Judy Blume! Rainbow Rowell! So many more!), friends, weddings, new babies, food and fun, but I won’t go on any longer.

Instead, I’ll finish by saying how excited I am to see what 2015 has in store. There will (hopefully!) to be a second YALC to look forward to, and there will be lots more from DTRH – we’ll be celebrating our first birthday in February.

Most excitingly of all of course, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is published on 4 June: the first proofs are beginning to wing their way out into the world, and the writing of a second book is underway. 2015 is going to be the Year of the Book and I’m looking forward to documenting it here!

Les Vacances

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I’ve just returned from a lovely holiday in the south of France. Staying in the depths of the countryside, we spent a happy week wandering through sunflower fields and meadows of long grass, reading books in the hammocks, cooking large and chaotic meals, swimming in a nearby lake and visiting the local market and hypermarché to stock up on yet more cheese, bread, saucisson and local fruit and vegetables.

Wine tasting at the local chateau of Montbazillac (mmmmm…), a stroll around the town of Bergerac (decked out in coloured garlands for a local festival), a visit to the Jardins suspendus de Marqueyssac and a night in the beautiful Ecolodge des Chartrons in Bourdeaux completed the trip. Here’s just a few of the many photographs:

 

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London Places: Kensal Green Cemetery

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A trip to a graveyard might not, perhaps, be everyone’s first choice for a Saturday outing – but when we heard that Kensal Green Cemetery was having an Open Day this weekend, we decided to go along and take a look.

I’m lucky enough to live near one of London’s loveliest graveyards – Bunhill Fields – and I love walking in Stoke Newington’s atmospheric Abney Park Cemetery – so I was intrigued to visit another of London’s most famous cemeteries and take some photographs.

Kensal Green Cemetery was first opened in 1833, its design inspired by the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Today it is considered one of London’s ‘big seven’ cemeteries which also include Highgate and Abney Park. It is a fascinating place to explore, and there are a whole host of well-known people buried there, including Wilkie Collins, Thackeray and Trollope: we also stumbled unexpectedly on the surprisingly understated grave of the inventor Charles Babbage.

The cemetery is enormous – 72 acres of grounds, including two conservation areas. It is clearly a haven for wildlife – we saw plenty of birds, wildflowers and insects as we strolled along the shady pathways.

Some parts of the cemetery are obviously in recent use, with contemporary headstones and carefully-tended plants. Other areas feel much older: here, the lettering on headstones is worn away; monuments are tangled with ivy; weeping angels have broken wings; buttercups and fallen petals scatter the long grass; and bees buzz amongst overgrown rose briars.

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G K Chesterton wrote about the cemetery in his poem ‘The Rolling English Road’:

‘For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green’

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Retracing London’s Drovers’ Roads

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This Saturday I took to the streets of Hackney for a walking tour with a difference, hosted by my friends Misty and Howard.

The walk was part of a Landscape Institute series of walks and talks for the Chelsea Fringe, imagining what London might be like if we were to adopt a green infrastructure approach to development.

Howard and Misty’s walking tour was based on their shortlisted entry for the recent A High Line for London design competition run jointly by the Landscape Institute, Mayor of London and the Garden Museum and inspired by New York’s High Line. Their design focused on revitalising the ancient London Drovers’ Roads – the route used to move livestock from pasture to market between Hackney and Bishopsgate. From 1300 up until 1900 sheep, cows and even turkeys were driven from Wales and Scotland to London to be sold at market along these routes.

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 We met at Hackney Town Hall for the start of the walk, where Misty and Howard handed out some beautifully-designed maps they had created, complete with an envelope of seed bombs to be scattered along the route.

They spoke briefly about the ideas behind their design, and then asked us to imagine we were cattle that had been driven all the way from Scotland, stopping off to pasture on rich commons along the way. To start the walk, they led us off towards London Fields  holding a teasel aloft (far more appropriate than a tour guide’s umbrella).

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En route, Misty and Howard told us more about the history of the Drovers’ Roads, and the drovers themselves. Because of the difficult and highly responsible nature of their work, they were typically well-paid and well-respected members of the community. However their life on the road was tough, requiring them to walk hundreds of miles and sleep night after night in the open air: according to Sir Walter Scott, their diet would consist of little but some handfuls of oatmeal, onions and ‘a ram’s horn of whisky’.  They were also very superstitious: Scott describes how they tied knots in cows’ tails to protect them against witches’ curses.

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At London Fields, we had the chance to put our seed bombs to good use, as well as spotting some clear evidence of the Drovers’ Roads still to be seen London today: as well as this sign for ‘Sheep Lane’ we spotted ‘Lamb Lane’ and the ‘Cat & Mutton’ pub . We learned that Broadway Market itself was once called Mutton Lane because it was so frequently used by the drovers.


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We stopped off at Hackney City Farm to see some real life livestock midway along the route, including this splendid pig, which gave Misty an opportunity to quote from an eighteenth-century essay,  the rather brilliantly titled ‘The graces and anxieties of pig keeping’:

‘A pig is sluggish, obstinate, opinionated, not very social and has no desire of seeing foreign parts. Think of him as a multitude forced to travel and wondering what the devil it is that drives him! Judge by this the talent of the drover!’

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After a peep into the pretty Hackney City Farm garden, we were on our way again.

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Following the drovers’ route took us along Columbia Road, where we stopped off for a quick coffee, and to admire some of the shop windows – as well as to meet a friendly local resident…

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 Misty and Howard told us more about their design for the competition as we went on: taking inspiration from the Drovers’ Route, it features permeable paving with hoof-shaped holes, planted with trample-tolerant plants; rowan trees (believed by the drovers to be lucky); and lighting in the trees inspired by the tail feathers of the turkeys that would once have roosted in the tree-tops. They’ve even chosen plants that could be used along the route, including plants that would have been used as fodder and those with animal names or folklore associations – Shepherd’s Purse, Lamb’s Ears, Cow Parsley, Cowslip, Cock’s Foot etc. Other plants selected have seeds that would have been transferred by the animals as they passed by.

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Almost as if we really were the animals ourselves, we were given some more seed bombs to scatter as well as some teasels, which made Woody the Boxer a bit excited: maybe he thought they were a bunch of hedgehogs he could play with?

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The last stages of the route took us past St Leonard’s Church and down Shoreditch High Street to Bishopsgate. These would be the final stages of the drovers’ journey, before the animals were taken to market and to slaughter: Misty and Howard had some gory descriptions to share of what conditions would have been like in the crowded marketplaces.

Just before Liverpool Street Station, the walking tour came to an end –  and the hungry drovers’ party went in search of some sustenance at the nearby Well & Bucket pub. Thankfully we managed something a bit better than oatmeal and onions…

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Thanks Misty and Howard for an intriguing morning – and the chance to see some familiar East London places in a new light.

The Chelsea Fringe runs until 9 June 2013.

See You at Rick’s!

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Casablanca has been my favourite film since forever, so clearly I couldn’t resist Future Cinema‘s latest extravaganza, which sees the Troxy  in Limehouse transformed as if by magic into Rick’s Café Américan.

I’d never been to a Future Cinema event before and having heard tales of their most recent Shawshank Redemption themed event, I had to admit to feeling a bit unsure about what I was getting myself into. The fun begins as soon as you book your tickets and receive your instructions and ‘papers’ complete with your new identity for the occasion – I became Gabriela Ostrowska of Italy for the evening. Arriving at the Troxy, the queue was full of people decked out in impressive 1940s finery, clutching their papers for inspection, whilst members of the Moroccan police shouted out orders, and various shady characters lurked in the shadows or struck up conversations with those waiting in line.

Once inside the theatre, however, there were champagne cocktails, swinging music from Benoit Viellefon and his Orchestra, roulette tables and Moroccan food from Moro. The music was fantastic and I enjoyed the chance to practice my (pretty woeful) swing dance steps on the dance floor, but even more fun for me was spotting the various characters from the film as they appeared amongst us: from Major Strasser and his fellow Nazi officers striding about, to Senor Ferrari, complete with fez and fly-swat, chatting with guests; from Sam leading a rousing chorus of ‘Knock on Wood’, to Rick himself coolly playing chess in the corner. There was plenty going on around us: the police hauling off anyone who looked like a ‘suspicious character’, much hushed talk of exit visas, and of course, the arrival of Ilsa and Laszlo to look out for.

 My highlight of the evening, however, was singing the Marseillaise in a recreation of my favourite scene from the film – I’ll admit to having been a little disappointed that most of the audience didn’t seem to share quite the same level of enthusiasm for joining in (but perhaps unlike me they hadn’t got the words ready in advance, ahem…).

Finally came the opportunity to watch the film itself, with every ‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’ getting a big cheer from the audience. Even though I must have seen it dozens of times, it was just as brilliant as ever, and I still teared up at the final scenes, as Laszlo tells Rick, ‘Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.’

At the very end of the evening we were granted our exit visas assuring us safe passage to Lisbon. Sadly it was time to leave Casablanca behind us and head back out into the cold and wet East London night…

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