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