Never… Always… Sometimes Go Back (I wish I could use strikethrough in these titles)

An update, an update, my kingdom for an update. Not my words. Or anyone else’s. They have just mysteriously appeared out of nowhere. Anyway, wherever they came from, they prompt me to update you on the latest news. An update should have been forthcoming some time ago and the fact that it has taken so long is something I shall forever regret.

Oh well, what can you do?

So, let’s get the first bit out of the way in as business-like a fashion as possible. Sales have been slow and steady, but there has been encouraging word back from those who have purchased and hopefully this is something we can build upon. Some copies have been requested by wholesalers so people have obviously been requesting the book in their local bookshops – another good sign – and the next step is to hopefully get an order through from Waterstones. We’re working on that, but who knows how long these things take? I certainly don’t.

The link up with the charity has gone well, too, garnering a little publicity, including from the Press Association, but we are awaiting the game-changer moment when we get into the local newspaper. Sometime in the not too distant future I shall be visiting the Hospital’s children’s ward with the book and hopefully the combination of local author, new book, children’s ward, charity and photographs should see us gain some prominent coverage. Or a small column on page 22, I’m not going to be fussy.

The visit to the hospital ward has been delayed as, unfortunately, my CRB check (Criminal Records Bureau) doesn’t cover me for children and vulnerable adults, and so is being redone. This process takes 3-6 weeks and currently looks like it’s going to be closer to the 6 week mark, alas. Still, once we’re up and running, it’ll all be good.

All that said, I was still cleared to go in and visit my old middle school, now renamed Shirley Junior School. I attended from 1985-89 but the local school system has been reorganised and so now the children only attend for 3 years instead of 4 thus my visit to the top year was seeing 10 and 11 year olds, not 11s and 12s.

Anyway, they say never go back, and they are wrong. Not so wrong as to say you should always go back – I’ve had experiences before in my life where I shouldn’t have gone back – but the phrase could be modified to something less catchy like “Sometimes it is appropriate to go back and you really need to try to evaluate each situation on its own merits to see whether returning is truly appropriate.” I don’t think it’ll catch on.

It was quite a terrifying experience. I was to spend 45 minutes to 1 hour with each of 4 classes of 30 children across the course of the day. I have not previously spent more than about 8 minutes with 1 10 or 11 year old children, let alone a room full, and I fully remember just how cruel kids can be. I spent a couple of visits with the head of English at the school, Miss Dunne, discussing what kinds of sessions I could run with the children, slowly realising I could be even more out of my depth than I thought.

However, my fears were soon allayed, when I went into the first class at 9:30 last Friday morning. The support I got from the teacher, Mrs Ogles (not Miss Dunne, her class was the last of the day) was excellent, she joined in with the lesson, geed the kids along, and generally made me feel at home talking to them. Even better was the round of applause after each of the two readings I did. I set the children little tasks to do between each of the readings and then went to each table and quizzed the kids about the story and what they thought. The response was overwhelming positive and, it has to be said, it’s really what makes writing the book worthwhile.

Writing a book you spend an awfully long time in a room on your own staring at a computer screen trying to work out what combination of words might work best to get an idea which works in your head out into the wider world. Getting direct feedback from your audience, and such an enthusiastic audience at that, is brilliant. I can’t imagine that it would feel the same going in to talk to a group of adults in support of an adult-oriented book. Adults are cagier with their responses, if they have negative thoughts they try to cover them up, not wanting to offend. And I doubt I’d have been asked to sign so many bookmarks and pieces of paper had I been talking to adults (or arms, for that matter, though I did turn down that opportunity!).

As the day went on, I came to realise how different each class was and each teacher’s technique. When you’re a 10 year old at school, you tend to have just the one teacher the whole time, you aren’t exposed to the various methodologies of all the other teacher’s. With this opportunity I got to see how four different teachers within the same school ran their classes and how different each one was. Some joined in while others sat back and allowed me to (predominantly) run the session (something I wouldn’t have been comfortable with had I known that was how it would work, but actually turned out better than fine). They all had their own pieces of advice which I tried to accommodate as the day went on, and I feel like I may have learnt a lot more than the children did. I owe each of the teachers – Mrs Mendez and Mrs Herring in addition to Miss Dunne and Mrs Ogles – a great deal of thanks firstly for allowing me time with their classes and secondly for the help they offered. I just hoped that it proved to be a valuable experience for the children in their classes.

So then there is the aspect of going back. As I said, I last attended Shirley Middle School 22 years ago, and it has changed in many ways. Some of those are visible externally – plenty of building work has manifested itself, with a whole (small) street of houses demolished to provide some grass for the children to play on for starters. But other changes are only noticeable inside. Where once the walls were predominantly bare, now they are covered with designs everywhere. The chairs and tables are now bright reds and blues instead of grey, brown and beige. The place seems to be carpeted almost throughout. Some of the old rituals seem to have changed – in my day, when you came in from break/lunch, a few of the older children were stair monitors (including myself). Our job was to make sure that everyone who came in from break walked up the stairs is a safe and steady manner – no taking two steps, no talking, or you got sent back down and had to walk up the steps again. Now the job is done by teaching assistants and I didn’t see any of the talkers sent back down, just admonished for not maintaining silence. The school bell seems to have gone too. While being a stair monitor, I was also one of two children given the privilege/responsibility of ringing the bell at the end of the day and at lunchtime, but that too is now gone.

These were things I wouldn’t have remembered without walking up those stairs and witnessing the new forms the rituals had taken. I was taken back to being a 10 year old at the school, though I felt I couldn’t have been as young as these children seemed to me. I guess time does that to you. But going back to being a 10 year old at that school is what this book has been about. The genesis for How To Fill A Black Hole and The Marianna Chronicles as a whole was the fact that when i was 8/9/10 years old and I had finished my work in class I used to write stories about me and my friends fighting monsters in space. Looking back I realised I should write the book(s) that I clearly wanted to read at the time. I have said many times before that I am essentially writing these stories for a 10 year old me, but heading back to the school made it clear that this is not really the case. I am writing these stories for those children, and just as I have distinct memories of what went on in those walls when I was there, perhaps my book will become part of the fabric of those children’s memories in 20 years time.


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