Monday, 23 April 2018



Ah yes, that Cranky Laptop.  The ancient one with its weight and size. The one that needed the annoying cable & socket strip to keep it plugged into power and therefore alive. As someone, in response to my mutterings, told me: “That’s not a laptop, mother, it’s a desk top. Move on.”

So I did - and now I have a fine shiny laptop.My New Blue will be wonderful one day. It is light, slim and beautiful - unlike its human -  and has oodles of power. However, at first it felt almost as crotchety as the cranky old machine. A shouty, unfamiliar system made me feel slow and stupid and the screen was plastered with links to unwanted apps and games. It was as if Sleeping Beauty lay there daubed with fluorescent facepacks, overnight beauty aids and correctiveS patches.

The New Blue machine and I felt like strangers and all the embedded “helpfulness” made it hard to do what I most wanted to do which was a) to start some writing and b) be able to find it again.  I was in despair about wrangling any new writing into shape ever again.

Is it always like this with a brand new computer? Or was it that I had no helpful young person close at hand to sigh and smile in an amused way and say, quite casually, “Oh, you just need to do that.”

You see, a while back, I had a daydream. I'd imagined sauntering into town, settling myself in a coffee-shop and typing with careless ease plus -  cue hollow laugh - a gentle spark of inspiration. And it would all take place once I had my mythical non-cranky laptop. 

Alas no. Although I possessed the elegant New Blue, I was like an aged toddler attempting to stack different-sized plastic tumblers on slippery tiles.

However, being positive, I can learn and ask and practice patience - and be kind to helpful tech-bodies and all will be good.

Although how could I post my cranky words out in the blogosphere when my. New Blue wi-fi does not like the house walls – or is it the other way around? I was trapped in a zone of silence. Or faced with a search for a memory stick in a small rattly box that's Somewhere . . .

Or, as of today, through peace and quiet and an armchair in another room, progress has been made. The New Blue and I are here togther. We exist.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Autumn Images, October 2017

Time passes  . . .
      and another Autumn arrives, even for the Cranky Laptop.

Wandering in Harlow Carr Gardens, experimenting with a new camera:

Apples red and ready to fall, 

 A tapestry of colours

 Pale grasses ruffling in the wind

And a reconstruction of a Victorian potting shed. 

Meanwhile, another day, elsewhere: sunlight on a fountain after a funeral.

Perhaps, she thought, I may have cracked my photo and posting problem . . .

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Ahem. Yes, hello again, in a grovelling sort of way . . . 

I now know that starting up this new blog was a sure way of making a)my days suddenly grow busier and b)several electronic devices fail on me nastily, of which more anon. ANON? Please do note that deft twist of literary language as it links into something I spotted in the news today.

On 17th October, the post below was my piece for the month on the History Girls blog. I wrote it after going to The Globe to watch Emma Rice's production of Morpurgo's children's novel, ending the post with a few extra thoughts about lighting and effects in "Shakespeare's theatre". 

Those comments seem even more relevant today, with the news that Emma Rice will be stepping down as Director of The Globe at the end of next summer's season over the lighting issues. 

I suspect this matter of "natural light" must have made the season painful for many involved, although there were obviously highs like the broadcast of her "Midsummer Nights Dream". I'm hoping that Emma Rice's talents will soon bring her vision a happier home elsewhere. Meanwhile, I'll be looking forward to seeing "946" and Tips at the West Yorkshire Playhouse at the start of November.

Read on - and do visit the History Girls blog too, if you haven't already. There's a new posts by a historical fiction writer there each day of the month. 

"946" or G.I.s at THE GLOBE 

Today’s post is about a play – and a novel - for young people based on a historical event and performed at a historical place.

As soon as I saw that the Kneehigh Theatre Company was at The Globe on London’s South Bank in September, I checked dates and booked tickets. Although the Cornish-based company occasionally tours to Leeds, I wasn’t sure if that would happen with this show. So London it was. 
I particularly wanted to see how they would dramatise THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS, a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, the author of WAR HORSE. The story is another “animal & war” tale, written in his classic, thoughtful style which was why I could not quite imagine how the story – and the history behind it - could be translated for the stage and for a family audience.
I had hopes: Kneehigh has a wonderfully theatrical approach. Although their performances feel emotionally real, what the audience sees is not realistic in the TV or CGI sense of the word: the company uses a cast of multi-talented actor-musicians in a variety of roles as well as puppetry, music, song, dance and movement and seem able to tread between from moments of raucous humour to intensely moving sensitivity.
946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPSis set during WWII. Ostensibly, the story is about a twelve year old girl trying to find her lost cat, yet it is also about the pity of war and the changes that war brings to ordinary lives and places. Michael Morpurgo, as ever, reminds us of the histories that one generation should share with those that come after. 
The inspiration for Morpurgo’s book was both the requisitioning of Slapton, a remote, rural village in Devon in1943 and the disaster that happened there. The military had noticed that the wide, sloping beaches of Slapton Sands were similar to the Normandy coastline and therefore chose that area to stage Operation Tiger, an intentionally realistic, don’t-turn-back rehearsal for the D-Day landings.
During the preparations, as American troops flooded into the area and landing craft gathered along the Devon coast, the local villagers had to make arrangements to leave the homes, farms, livestock and land and all that everything that had been part of their lives for generations. Even then, the rehearsal did not go well. When German U-boats were spotted in the Channel, a mismatch between the British and American coding systems blocked radio warnings and the landing ships, full of troops and sailors, heavy equipment and vehicles were torpedoed. Many men were maimed, killed or lost at sea and, furthermore, the “realistic” nature of Operation Tiger meant that the “live” ammunition was used when troops engaged on the beaches.
Afterwards, Morpurgo found, that although there had been local rumours of the disaster, a news black-out was imposed. Morale had to be kept high for the proposed D-Day landings and so the tragedy remained an official secret for many years, both in Britain and in America. The number chosen for the show’s title - 946 – is quoted as the number of G.I’s who died at Slapton Sands. A grim event, and I could not help wondering how Kneehigh would manage this uneasy subject.
A question asked of Bertholdt Brecht makes the opening line of the show:
“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?”
”Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
Slowly, as a model farmhouse - complete with a smoking chimney - is carried on stage, we are shown a country backwater in miniature: a small Dorset farm, surrounded by tiny puppet sheep, a small black and white sheepdog and a delightful boy-puppet playing “keepy-uppy” with his football. In moments, that tiny scene expands to human scale. The small collie becomes a full-sized puppet collie, and we are inside the remote farmhouse with strong-minded Grandma, poorly Grandad in his wheelchair and, gradually all the family, especially Booey, the grandson and narrator. The grandfather is, very gently, dying. Grandma, clearly dominant, takes Booey out on a motorbike, recalling how she and her ailing husband used to travel, “Supreme!” she declares, a refrain that echoes throughout the play. Then, after the funeral, she announces she is setting off on a secret adventure, to do something she has waited until now to do.
If you have read any Morpurgo books, you will recognise his familiar time-slip structure when you see Grandma gives puzzled Booey her girlhood diary, briskly telling him that if he reads it – twelve-year-old Lily Tregenza’s diary - he will understand where she is going and why. As Booey starts reading the pages, time changes and Lily, played by Katy Owen, appears, furiously grabbing her diary out of his hands. 
A frisky self-willed young girl, Lily is obsessed with searching for her cat Tips who has been in hiding since Lily’s father drowned her litter of kittens. (This is a “told” incident, thank goodness.) Lily, unable to forgive her father, would not say goodbye when he left for war. 
Thankfully for my emotions, the puppet cat Tips is quite large and not particularly cute or needy: she is a typical farmhouse cat, in fact, and not one that anyone else on the Tregenza family farm worries about, because it is wartime and, short-handed, they are struggling to keep things going.
Lily attends the small village school, where lessons are now conducted by a teacher from France, the cruelly-nicknamed Madam Bloomers, who the “children” mock as she circles the stage on her bicycle. The “pupils” act their parts magnificently well, mixing naughtiness, name-calling and argy-bargy, along with acrobatically gliding around their old-school desks, and more. Even there, Lily does not change: she does not love school or rules and her liveliness and cussedness gives the play and story a nicely unsentimental edge.
Shortly, a group of evacuees arrive. Immediately, the cramped sharing of desks leads to arguments and fights between the village children and the incomers. They are, at first, instant enemies:
“They keep looking at us funny.”
“Well, look funny back!”
Gradually, Lily and Barry, a dim, kindly boy from war-damaged London, form an awkward relationship, with the headstrong Lily delighting in taunting the love-struck Barry throughout he play.
The whole “school cast” worked excellently, especially in a wonderfully raucous scene where Lily angrily suggests that Hitler and Churchill should settle the war between themselves rather than making everyone else fight the war for them, an idea demonstrated through a trio of children’s street games using rounds of scissors-paper-stone, a clapping pattern contest and a rather unequal skipping game at the end of which a Hitler figure is driven, snivelling, off-stage and a brash, triumphant Churchill celebrates with a tour-de-force on the skipping-rope.
Morpurgo was very involved with the Kneehigh Company’s adaptation, and I could not help noticing how subtly scripted the language was during these moments and the whole play. For example, the Nazi party is blamed, rather than the German nation as a whole, and although the children may be thoughtless, once they hear that their teacher’s husband has been drowned in a naval convoy, their behaviour immediately changes to sympathy, and for once the sight of school recorders brought peace and joy.
All the way through, the first half is full of activity and sound: the recorders sing tunefully, the tractor rattles around the stage, puppet hens squawk and small farm animals cause  havoc. Even the elusive Tips appears for a cuddle now and then.
However, the schoolchildren’s biggest surprise comes when Adie and his friend arrive in the classroom, asking for directions for their jeep: the children meet two black American soldiers, at a time and in a place where they would have been an unusual sight. Lily is totally enchanted by Adie, especially when the two G.I’s visit the Tregenza farm. 
Moreover, the soldier’s involvement, culture and cheerful friendship is emphasised all the way through by the music from the band on-stage, up in the gallery, descending to act their parts by ladders or skinning down the pole. 946 is full of “American” music - jazz, jitter-bug, gospel and more – and with never a single lute in sight.
I felt that the play is noisier and ruder than the original novel and once, rather mistook the book’s mood for me. When Barry’s larger-than-life bus-conductress mum visits the farm, her comic drag role rather overwhelmed the Ivy from the page, who I’d thought of as a helpful, extra pair of hands whose bustling ways had stirred the grandfather out of his mood of dejection. This book Ivy was hidden by the dramatically loud wails of protest about the awful green of her country surroundings. 

Yet, maybe the production needed that energy at that point, coming just before the imminent tragedy? As the second half starts to the sound of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, the stories start to interweave and darken and Kneehigh moves into the powerful arts of mime and symbolism:
- the stage, barricaded with lengths of wire, signifying the dangerous, restricted areas where Lily goes searching for Tips;
- the communication error is signified by two string-and-can phone-sets ( one colour British, the other American) the lines crossed but unconnected.
- an almost ritual acting out of the disaster, where G.I’s carry model ships forward to a rank of water-filled tin baths, like toys in the game of war.
- the fusillade of flashes and explosions and water spurting through the layers of mist and smoke: the fog of war indeed,
-  religious symbols: as the people leave the village, both the vicar’s church candlestick and the teacher’s menorah are carried among the precious possessions: this is not a one-faith confrontation.
- a tiny parachutist puppet descends; immediately an injured German parachutist stands on stage, hands in position but without a trailing parachute. The remote far-off is made immediate and personal
- the children and villagers holding out photos not only of the young German’s family but also the “lost” faces of British, Indian, Black, Jewish and other peoples who suffered in this World War
The production offers much to think about, not only the fact that life was changed for all in that community by those times. Lily’s “journal” concludes, ending with runaway Tips being brought home and the plot returns to the “present” of the early scenes. Where has Booey’s Gran gone? Who will look after her when she comes back? Who will the old lady live with? The squabbling family are waiting at the airport to find out . . .
Emma Rice’s production sharpened all the emotions and strengths of the Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips book, lightening it with humour and bringing sparkle and life to both the past and “present” stories, and there is much in this busy production that I would have liked to include but could not. You'll find a flavour of the show here.
However, at the same time, I was aware that The Globe was dressed for a twentieth-century war story. The familiar painted stage - see below - was stacked with sandbags or “protected” by wooden planking. Each pillar carried a large aeroplane propeller that whirred into action at significant moments, the music and sound was amplified and at one point a glitter-ball rotated under the Shakespearean canopy. This production meant a big change for The Globe, which was created to be as authentic an experience of Shakespearean theatre as possible, a theatre where costumes were laced and tied and where the great Round “O” would respond to the sound to human breath. Now – though not all in a single move - there are zips and electricity.
Emma Rice of Kneehigh is now the Director of the Globe so it will be interesting to see how Shakespeare will be played here in future. Her Midsummer Night’s Dream, recently shown on television, was much more in the vibrant, cross-dressing Kneehigh style than in the “authentically historic” tradition. Is this change a loss and if so, does it matter? Or is it a matter of “bums-on-seats” accountancy?
I will be seeing this production again. 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is now on tour – maybe near you? - and will be coming to the West Yorkshire Playhouse during Book Week.  At this, a term-time matinee) I will probably witness the show among an audience of school-children. What they will make of it all? How much of the history will get though to them. And what will they make of all this “singing about the dark times?”

Wednesday, 24 August 2016


The end of the summer season is coming, or so the weather tells me. The season of visitors and visiting seems over for a while, and I’m noticing a certain empty space.

Cat, our crotchety and very elderly tabby, died last autumn and, at times, we miss having her about. Cats have always been part of our home - single, double, triple cats and even, in a season of kittens, quadruple – but for several practical reasons, there is no cat here right now.

I’m suddenly reminded to make a quick diversion to a lovely picture book that had one small boy giggling away for ages: THERE ARE NO CATS IN THIS BOOK by Viviane Schwarz*. 

Do click on that title to see the video - and Viviane has created more brilliant books since.

Right. Back here for my Cranky Laptop admission.
Since last October, I’ve been peeping into a certain Cat Adoption website, looking at the various moggies pictured, and day-dreaming about the very lovely moments of about cat owning.

I ignore memories of gruesome remnants on the kitchen floor, the itchiness of fleas, the clearing up of ailments, the midnight retching or the early morning yowling. I even close my mind to the possibly eco-unfriendly litter tray used when Cat got poorly. Instead, I gaze at all the cat portraits and imagine a soft, purring cat sitting snugly on my lap. Ah!

Now, on that website, at the start of the summer holidays, there were three pages rich with cats and kittens. Yet, if I had to choose right now, just as schools start back, only one, thin page-full of photos remains - and some of those cats will need kind and careful placing. I do hope that good new homes are found for these cats, but it’s still not time for us to take on a new cat, not right now,

Yet, during these cat-lurking months, I’ve come across something I hadn’t expected. Ursula Moray William’s little Gobbolino was not the only black kitten that needed to find a friendly home.

I’d wondered whether I was imagining this pattern or catching some quirk of the site but when I mentioned this idea to a sensible animal-loving friend, she’d heard the same from a veterinary nurse. Besides, even the national website carries a story about a large litter of five black kittens along with a request for help, explaining that black kittens take at least a week longer to be “homed”. Black cats (and black and white cats) aren’t chosen so speedily either and August 17th was even designated Black Cat Appreciation Day, which is both good and sad at the same time. As I’ve really been eyeing all the tabby cats, it makes me feel a little guilty too.

Wondering why this was, another factor popped into my mind. When I visit EYFS & Key Stage One school-children, I often take a sheep puppet with me. Named Barley – as in baaaa! - he’s a great favourite with young children, probably more a favourite than I am, in truth.

Yet I’ve noticed that Barley never comes over clearly in newspaper photographs despite his popular personality. Visually, it’s not easy to see his precise features or expressions in a photo – and, yes, Barley does have some.

There must be something about the photographic play of light within all these black “pet” portraits that diminishes their full personality – their noticeability - which does seems a pity for all those real-life cats and kittens, much more than for my soggy cloth sheep. Not a comfortable thought at all. 

Mog, as we (and a certain retailer) know, is a striped tabby and comfortably lovable - but Slinky Malinki is definitely cunning. 

Or what about the dark, dangerous world that opens for hero-cat Varjak Paw when the Gentleman with the Black Cats enters the house?

Maybe, thinking of all those homeless felines, a new Gobbolino needs to be created? A kitten with sweetness and appeal? (She scribbles in notebook and recalls an old, shelved m/s in filing cabinet . . . . Bother. Shelved cat was definitely a tabby. )

*Meanwhile, whilst checking on Viviane Shwarz facts (and spelling), I noticed there's a link to Viviane's (possibly grown-up) web-comic, CAT AND BAG. It certainly seemed worth investigating – especially as I hadn’t thought about "web-comics" up till that nosy moment.


Sunday, 21 August 2016


Back on 17th August - and as it was still the silly mid-summer season - I posted this silly piece on the History Girls blog.  Usually, the excellent History Girls blog is full of well informed and interesting posts about all sorts of aspects and periods of history, written by a host of historical fiction authors, so if you have landed her on the Cranky Laptop, I'd advice you that the HG blog is well worth investigating. NB. My next HG post on 17th September should be rather more serious. Should! 

and Other Writing Lessons from Shakespeare.

“Blah, blah, blah!” – exact context later – is how this post starts, and it is partly about some writing points learned from Shakespeare or, more accurately, whilst watching BILL, a fictional comedy about Shakespeare’s lost early life.

Created by the Horrible Histories team, BILL echoes the “historical” style of Python or Blackadder, with members of the company playing several roles. The film is light-hearted fun although one can also play the slightly smug-faced game of spotting the Bard quotes and historical references.

The plot is simple: young Bill - full of dreams, vanity and confidence - sets off to make his artistic name in London, leaving his wife and children behind in rural Stratford-on-Avon. Meanwhile, King Philip of Spain is hatching a dastardly Catholic plot against Protestant Elizabeth and arrives with his men on a disguised diplomatic visit. What better way could there be to get close to the Queen than to stage a play in her honour and invite along? Surely nothing can . . .

The enticing play, of course, first has to be written, and at the end of a series of errors, entanglements and revelations, young Bill unexpectedly gains the favour of Queen Elizabeth I, a little financial security, and the “William Shakespeare” of that image is born.

Some of the best Horrible History moments included:
-         Bill the dreamer, losing his bundle-on-a-stick of belongings as he enters the filthy, crowded and violent city.
-         the man in an iron gibbet who chats to all passers-by
-         the over-eager plague-wagon pushers
-         the leather-clad King Philip of Spain - a man of many moustaches – practising his sword-skills. 
-        the sudden appearances - and disappearances - of  cunning Spymaster Walsingham.
-         the hidden war-room of the Catholic insurgents.
And additionally
-  Queen Elizabeth, played by Helen McCrory, displaying Big Royal Attitude as well as ghastly teeth and make-up, who alone is worth a mention on the History Girls blog.

As well as  Occasional interior images of the Globe Theatre.

I admit that BILL was neither deep nor soul-changing, but the film felt right for some cheering-up on a grey afternoon. The film made good holiday viewing with older children a second time around too. Besides – and the point of my HG post – is that all the way through the script, Bill is learning useful things about the work of being a writer. 

And here are some of Bill’s useful life-lessons.
*Bill, unwilling to conform to the lute style of the local music group Mortal Coil, leaves Stratford and sets off to find fame. Moral: Sometimes you have to believe in your own talent and set off in other, more solitary directions – and sometimes it’s best not to upset everyone at home when you do.

*Bill, starry eyed, arrives in London, trying to find where it’s all happening. Moral: Try to find out about the networks and structures of one’s craft but be wary: not every offer that comes along will be beneficial.

*Meanwhile, Lord Crawley, who plans to win Queen Elizabeth’s favour by writing a play, decides it will be easy. “It’s just talking written down,” he declares. Too soon, and under pressure, he discovers Blah, blah, blah . . .  (followed by a big, angry sigh of exasperation) God, writing is HARD!Moral: Writing is not as easy as some people think it is, nor done at all as quickly as one might expect.

*Bill, in an enthusiastic frenzy, writes an over-blown script crammed with every “Shakespeare” plotline we recognise. Moral: Bill’s crazy first draft isn’t perfect. He has to shape it into something that makes sense to his audience, but those discarded ideas can be used for another story or another genre.
*“You’re a writer. I’m a writer too!” young Bill declares, sitting closer to Christopher Marlowe. Despite Marlowe’s own troubles, he spends time helping Bill to structure his play, “modelling” how to work hard on a project. Moral: A good mentor is invaluable to a young writer, especially when they demonstrate how to work like a professional.

*Unfortunately, Christopher Marlowe, although a “successful playwright”, is already fatally troubled by debts. He tells young Bill. “There’s no money in it. I can’t even buy a house without borrowing money I can’t pay back.”  Moral: Writing doesn’t often bring a cosy, profitable life. Nor, for Marlowe, does Spying.

*Bill’s early “acting career” (within this film) shows him dressed as a tomato in the market, handing out leaflets promoting the eating of vegetables. Marlowe, alongside, appears dressed as a cucumber. Moral: Bill has big dreams but he has to do less noble work before he hits the big time, even if his family are horrified.

*Bill, struggling to write a new play, despairs and feels he doesn’t know what or how to write. Moral: Bill learns to “write what you know”, drawing on his own knowledge and emotions, even though his plot might be set in an enchanted wood.

Finally, Bill learns to be alert to other people’s agendas too, especially when they involve barrels of gunpowder and plots against the Queen.  

Moral: Make sure you have good ending!

Released to celebrate Shakespeare’s 2015 anniversary, the BILL DVD brought some enjoyable “holiday” moments this summer, including the glimpse into the scriptwriters thoughts on the world of writing.

Now that the visitors have left, I’ve peeped back into the world of “Bill” again, as I am reading SHAKESPEARE’S RESTLESS WORLD: AN UNEXPECTED HISTORY IN TWENTY OBJECTS BY DR NEIL MACGREGOR. An interesting collection, only just begun – and I had never quite realised the precise importance of calling one’s theatre “The Globe” at that moment in time.

And, yes, the Mortal Coil do “shuffle off” and John Gerard’s Herbal, written in 1587, dismissed tomatoes as “poisonous and of rank and stinking savour”, so this would have been a very trying task for a young and hopeful actor.

Penny Dolan

Friday, 29 July 2016

WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE! Or, On Second Thoughts . ..

Yesterday afternoon, I spoke without thinking about the full consequences. (There’s a lot of “forgetting the full consequences” in the air at the moment, in my opinion.) I'd left the CRANKY LAPTOP to itself and gone into town to buy a few needful things.

Now, in the morning, I’d been pondering about the plight of Jo Cotterill’s LIBRARY OF LEMONS. The week before, when I'd been in my local Waterstones, I'd expected to see a copy on the shelves. There wasn't. When I asked why, their system replied that it was out of stock. As the title's been mentioned in the media recently, the absence was a puzzle.  I’ve since checked and there are plenty of copies. They just weren't in my Waterstones. 

So, though I got no Lemons, there were books I wanted. I bought the new David Solomon’s MY GYM TEACHER IS AN ALIEN as a present and Terry Pratchett’s THE SHEPHERD’S CROWN for myself and a couple of other titles. Quite a big spend. 

However, what with all the flourishing of Gift Card and my SoA discount card and the bookseller's nudge about Why Not Choose a Half Price Title?, my itsy-bitsy little Points Card missed being stamped at the till. (Still with me?)  

So, yesterday, as I’d be passing, I decided to call in again and claim my red-stamped rights. Gradually, as Waterstones Central has pulled itself together again, this smallish two-storey branch in town has become busier and better. 

I could hear faint hammering and sawing sounds overhead. Workmen passing purposefully in and out from vans outside. 

"Improvements," I thought, idly, as I waited at the till. "More shelving. Good."

Then I saw a printed Notice: an A4 sheet apologising and announcing that this Waterstones branch would soon have its own in-house coffee shop.

I was, at that moment, delighted. Enchanted, even. I love being surrounded by books and I do like coffee. In fact, I was surely in need of a coffee right then? Immediately I started daydreaming about sitting in such a place musing, scribbling notes, all that Being A Writer stuff.
 “A great idea”, I told the nice young man stamping and squiggling on the grid on my Points Card.
Instantly enthusiastic, he told me he'd been drafted in from the big city branch and that he missed having the scent of coffee around him. We nodded our mutual approval. The shop might not be that large, but a coffee shop is a coffee shop, right? Surely? 
However, as I stepped back out on to the pavement again, all at once I was definitely not smelling the coffee. Suddenly I thought Oh! Coffee Shop? That means FEWER books!” and I felt very dim and stupid. 

My just-a-fantasy coffee shop would be taking up real world space. Furthermore, this is in a town that has a host of coffee shops but only one such bookshop! Even worse, after my positive response, I could now imagine those higher up in Waterstones being told “Yes, the customers are really happy about it.” 

How I wished I’d kept my mouth shut! But that wasn’t all. I remembered, back when I’d been browsing for Solomon’s book, that there'd been a notice by the front door: a friendly, wacky, hand-written advert for a Full-time, Experienced Bookseller. I’d wondered which of the long-term staff had gone but the queue had made it impossible to ask.   

Now I wondered if that "coffee V. book-stock" choice had been a real book-lover's last sip? A change just that bit too far? Especially as there was now an equally friendly, wacky advert for an Experienced Coffee Shop Manager?

Ah, well. Ah, well. I do truly wish my Waterstones bookshop – all bookshops – well in these tough times. None of it is easy. Will the planned coffee shop work out? I don’t know. Will it bring in more book-buying customers or attract more book-selling staff? I don’t know.

Nor, thinking on it, could I be absolutely certain that those upstairs improvements are why the teen and Y/A section was currently squashed back into the children’s corner? Or if that was why there was no shelving space or stock for A LIBRARY OF LEMONS?  

I must say that the coffee had taken on a bitter taste.
Onwards. Where else can one go?

Tuesday, 26 July 2016


The Cranky Laptop is back already, although by stealing a post from my old blog but one that I rather liked . . .

. . . On my Books To Be Read shelf, there’s now a most interesting title: NIGHT WALKING by MATTHEW BEAUMONT: A NOCTURNAL HISTORY OF LONDON: CHAUCER TO DICKENS”, a book which isn’t, I think, likely to be sitting in your local Waterstones.

I haven’t read the book yet so it’s waiting like a little treasure-box waiting to be opened. I found the title about a week ago in an independent bookshop I’d been meaning to visit for a long time: THE NEWHAM BOOKSHOP in East London.

It wasn’t the most thorough of viewings. I'd driven all the way from Oxford-shire, got caught in the late afternoon traffic and arrived way too late on a Thursday afternoon.  The youthful staff were very kind and polite. I’d heard good things about the bookshop from children’s author Catherine Johnson and others and I’d been following the bookshop on Facebook for a while. I hated turning up that late in the day, not that anyone expected me. My hurriedly low-key visit took hardly twenty minutes - but what a joy it was!

One side of THE NEWHAM BOOKSHOP is crammed with a wide range of children’s books. I picked up THE COLOUR OF DARKNESS by RUTH HATFIELD (who I’d met earlier that week) and, planning ahead for the summer holidays, a pleasing and well-designed Usborne Activities book of General Knowledge Quizzes that was just the right size for a bag or pocket. I did ask if they had a copy of the word game TABOO (because I'd played it a a couple of days earlier) but was sweetly and firmly told “We only do books.” Good for them!

I could have looked at the children's shelves far longer but the other side of the shop beckoned. A curved passage from one side to the other offered an excellent selection of teen & young adult books and was just where such books should be, well-placed to lead the older teen through to the stacks, piles and shelves of intriguing books on offer for grown-ups. 

I wish I could name more of the titles spread around that small room. The display wasn’t artistically elegant but I’m someone who finds a big generous book-hoard beautiful enough in itself. I glimpsed a good spread of novels I’d like to read, several (non-celebrity) cookery books, some poetry books and a very wide selection of non-fiction books on social issues and a host of books about aspects of the East End and London. I’m sure I spotted a poster for a book of photographs mentioned in The Gentle Author’s SPITALFIELDS LIFE blog

For a moment, gazing around, I fantasized about sneaking in with sandwiches and a sleeping bag so I could stay there till morning. But I couldn’t. By now, it was definitely four-fifty-nine o’clock and the staff were, discreetly but unmistakeably, needing to close. Murmuring my apologies and thanks, I left, cursing the road-works that were holding up all the traffic around East London and left me with so little time. 

Yet the quick trip wasn’t entirely wasted. Now I know where the shop is and what's inside, I hope to make another visit when I’m next in the area, and in funds. THE NEWHAM BOOKSHOP is one of those rare and special bookshops that deserve support. And besides, the bookshop puts on a variety of talks and events around the area, including The Wanstead Tap at Forest Gate, so this is definitely more than just a shop.

Meanwhile, here back home in Yorkshire, I'll soon be NIGHTWALKING the London streets alongside Chaucer, Shakespeare, Blake and Dickens, and all from my own warm and comfortable bed.  

Night night.

(The Newham Bookshop website is . The shop is at 745 - 747 Barking Rd, London E13 9ER. Closed Mondays and most Sundays. I suggest allowing time to find parking space.)

Penny Dolan