Kiri and Lou

With a toddler around, CBeebies becomes a way of life, and in general it’s fantastic. The schedule is packed with quality kids’ programmes, from Clangers (now narrated by Sir Michael Palin) to Nick Cope’s Popcast (witty, well-crafted songs about unlucky hedgehogs, rusty robots, and rockhopper penguins).

For me, the jewel in the crown is a stop motion New Zealand import: Kiri and Lou. Kiri is a playful, impulsive dinosaur and Lou is her gentle, loyal friend who loves napping and sniffing flowers.

Lou (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords!) and Kiri (Olivia Tennet)

Their prehistoric playground is essentially the New Zealand bush, with its towering trees, tangled vines, and dense ferns seemingly constructed from dozens of layers of paper, and the wonderfully lumpy clay characters animated on top.

Each episode is a simple 5-minute story, and often involves our heroes meeting and befriending another creature, or resolving some tiny disagreement. They also all feature a fun musical number by Harry Sinclair and Don McGlashan, intricately arranged and seamlessly blended into the jungle soundscape. Those songs have withstood many repeat viewings, many hours rattling around our brains, and many kitchen table performances!

Our current favourites are probably Carrying Song and The Palorchecies, but they’re all household anthems.

Check out this amazing sand sculpture by In Good Form, created in New Brighton back in July, and see if you can spot your favourite Kiri and Lou creature.

Things that helped is my series of posts about the stuff that kept me going in 2020.

Second draft completed

Over the weekend, I completed the second draft of Margot and the Maelstrom. It became more of a rewrite than I’d anticipated, but I’m really pleased with the book now – it’s much more pacy than a year or so ago, and as good as I can get it without fresh eyes on it.

Finishing an early draft is a bit like reaching the top of a mountain – except as you catch your breath and begin to plant your flag, another, even taller mountain rises up out of the earth before you. The ground beneath your feet shudders. You watch as beloved characters and clever subplots are swept away in some sort of enormous landslip. There goes that lovely but unnecessary paragraph about conkers, buried under the wreckage of the second act.

You pull the map from your pocket and suddenly can’t make head nor tail of how it relates to the journey ahead. A low chuckle comes out of nowhere, carrying across the thin air and mocking you for your moment of hubris.

Somehow, you muster the courage to start climbing again.

Today, I’m still savouring that tiny, triumphant moment at the top of the mountain.

Winter Peaks: Quinag, Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor
Winter Peaks: Quinag, Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor by Bill Higham

Bookshop.org

Bookshop.org launched in the UK last Monday, offering an easy way to buy any book whilst supporting and promoting indie bookshops – who don’t have to fulfil the orders, but do get a healthy chunk of the profits. I’ve now received my first bunch o’ books, and can highly recommend the service. Buying directly from your local shop remains the best way to keep them going, but there really is no excuse to resort to Amazon now, if there ever was.

In under two weeks the site has raised a whopping £125,000 for local bookshops. It’s great to see the UK books community embracing it, especially during a time when it’s not possible to browse a physical shop here, yet we’re all keen to stock up on winter reading.

One clever feature of the site is the option for authors, bloggers, book clubs, or anyone else to set up an affiliate page and put together lists of recommended titles – then get a little commission when people purchase books whilst browsing their ‘shop’.

I do love a list, so have wasting no time in getting set up and putting these together:

More lists to come, no doubt.

Bad Seed TeeVee

In Spring, Nick Cave should have been embarking on his European tour with the Bad Seeds. Frenzied fans from Antwerp to Zurich should have been screaming the words of ‘The Mercy Seat’ back at him, touching the hem of his Gucci suit, and hearing just how the extraordinary, ethereal Ghosteen was going to work live. We’ll have to wait a while for all that.

Instead, Nick launched Bad Seed TeeVee, a 24/7 YouTube channel that rotates a generous selection of music videos, interview clips, outtakes from films, ferocious live performances, and other odds and ends from the Cave archive.

I’ve dipped into this channel many, many times since April. In the early weeks of its existence, fans in different timezones were swapping notes on how long they reckoned the loop of footage to be. Some of us were setting our alarm clocks for the next chance to catch an engrossing, previously unseen 40-minute jam from the Skeleton Tree sessions, ‘Life Per Se’. Since then, the channel has evolved, and kept on surprising. There have even been weekends devoted to fan-made music videos and fan cover versions. On 26th November, Nick will be joined by ex-Bad Seeds Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld for a Murder Ballads listen-along commentary.

Beyond the non-stop delights of Bad Seed TeeVee, back in July Nick beamed a solo piano performance entitled Idiot Prayer into our homes. Recorded in an eerily empty Alexandra Palace, it was a gig like no other – song after beautiful song plucked from his back catalogue, punctuated only by the shuffle of Nick’s lyric sheets and the clink of his gold rings on the ebony of a gorgeous Fazioli grand. The whole thing is soon to be released as a double live album.

Nick Cave performing 'The Mercy Seat' in an empty Alexandra Palace
Nick Cave performing ‘The Mercy Seat’ in an empty Alexandra Palace

Nick has also continued to field questions on his agony uncle blog, The Red Hand Files. The answers are often hilarious – I loved the string of posts about his attempts to secure a piano like the extremely expensive one he used in Idiot Prayer. Just as often, they have humbly suggested ways we might cope with these turbulent times.

We will be asked to decide what we want to preserve about our world and ourselves, and what we want to discard.

Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files #89, What Do We Do Now?

Nick Cave’s work has long thrilled and inspired me – I’ll sometimes just watch the final monologue from 20,000 Days On Earth when I need to borrow a jolt of creative energy. I needed as much of that as I could get in 2020, so I appreciate how Nick’s managed to find these new ways to connect with us throughout this difficult year, across the void.

I can’t wait to see him live again, someday, and thank him in person.

Things that helped is my series of posts about the stuff that kept me going in 2020.

Tangle Tower

Over on my adventure gaming blog, I’ve posted a spoiler-free review of Tangle Tower, an extremely charming and satisfying interactive whodunnit.

As this cartoon murder mystery from SFB Games begins, Detective Grimoire and Sally have been summoned to Tangle Tower, a sprawling mansion at the centre of a biologically remarkable lake. The case? The mysterious death of talented young artist Freya Fellow. It took place in a locked room at the top of a turret, when Freya was halfway through painting a portrait of her distant relative Flora Fellow. Oh, and the murder weapon is missing – unless you count that bloodied knife that’s been daubed on the canvas.

I’ve not played many video games lately but am getting back into them, especially short narrative experiences like this that can be completed in a weekend.

Next up will be Röki.

Cultivating magic

Earlier this year, the Studio Ghibli catalogue was added to Netflix. It goes without saying that the films are absolute classics that reward re-watching, but I particularly admire Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Part of that’s down to the setting – a vaguely European coastal city that makes you want to step into each and every frame and take a wander. It’s also got plenty of endearing characters like Ursula, the cabin-dwelling painter, and Osono, the kindly baker.

But what strikes a chord with me is the small, sweet, soulful story about our hero finding her calling in the wide world.

I was curious about the source material, Eiko Kadono’s 1985 book. Bang on time, a splendid new Puffin edition came along – in a fresh translation by Emily Balistrieri, illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton.

This part of the author’s introduction struck that same chord:

As I wrote and revised, wrote and revised, I discovered that I loved writing. As long as I created stories, I could live an exciting life with new discoveries every day. And I decided that, if nothing else, I would continue writing as long as I live. I’ll never forget the peace of mind I felt at that moment – I sensed the magic inside myself. I’ve come to believe that everyone has some type of magic inside them. If a person can find their magic and lovingly cultivate it, they’ll truly feel alive every day.

Eiko Kadono

That idea of finding something that you love doing and that will always nourish you is something that echoes powerfully through the book, and it became even more of a theme in Miyazaki’s film.

It’s a feeling I recognise now and am trying to hold onto.

The Ambience of Monkey Island

Around 1991, The Secret of Monkey Island fired up my imagination as much as any book I’ve ever read. I could enthuse at length about the immense influence that this video game and its immediate sequels have had on my storytelling, and I’m sure someday I will.

For now I’ll just share a playlist I discovered recently that has been my writing soundtrack over the past several mornings: The Ambience of Monkey Island.

YouTube user BuzzMoo has made available (at the time of writing) 25 hour-long tracks, featuring the in-game music and ambient sound effects lifted from many of the series’ memorable locales.

Quite different to the incredibly catchy main themes that run through these games, the music here is largely atmospheric, with lazy rhythms and unobtrusive, wandering melodies. It’s designed not to underscore high drama, but to soundtrack hours of exploring, puzzling and soaking up the scenery – also perfect for writing, I find.

On the Plunder Island beach path, gentle surf and clucking chickens can be heard amongst sparse percussion and timorous woodwind. Or perhaps you’d rather wallow in the faded grandeur of the Goodsoup Hotel on Blood Island, where distant storm clouds groan beneath melancholic harpsichord and steel drums. When you consider all of the islands that constitute the series’ twisted, anachronism-filled version of the Caribbean, there’s probably a spot to suit any mood.

As much as the island ambience is helping my work, it’s becoming mighty tempting to start yet another replay of these games. Once I finish this draft…

Reboot

I’m dusting off this old blog and planning to post more here from now on. There will be updates and thoughts about my writing for children, and all sorts of things that are inspiring and interesting to me. Perhaps the occasional glimpse of my illustration projects too, but Instagram seems the place for that, for the time being.

For a couple of years I’ve been working on a middle-grade fantasy novel, Margot and the Maelstrom. The first draft was longlisted for the Times Chicken House Children’s Fiction Prize 2019, which encouraged me to return to it, to redraft and tweak it into the best book it could be.

In summer 2019 I also became a dad, and perhaps expecting to achieve all that progress on Margot in the first year of fatherhood was over-ambitious. Now, in October 2020, I’ve caught up on some sleep and I’m still steadily improving the manuscript – all whilst jotting down oodles of ideas for the next book and resisting the urge to begin writing that.

Margot is now in good shape, and with a little luck I’ll be pitching it to agents before the end of the year. I’ll share as much of that process as I can here.