I’ve been making a documentary about the search for alien life. Lots of great interviews with astrobiologists. We’re just getting to the fine edit stage, and I’m finishing off the animations, but writing a documentary script is a very different process from writing fiction…
With children coming back to school today, it’s time for me to organise some author visits. But I’ve done email mailouts before, and they haven’t always gone to plan…
Kidzania a bit of harmless fun, or a boot camp for the training of good little compliant obedient consumerist robots? What do you think?
When you’re writing, there are always times when things slow down – you’re not quite sure where you’re going, and it’s not flowing as it should. Writing is a bit of an emotional rollacoaster – and so it should be – but by having a couple of books on the go at the same time, at least i’ll be confident about one of them at any given time!
My creative writing workshop at the Michael Morpurgo exhibition at the V&A Museum of childhood on Friday
Thanks to Ross Montgomery for putting me in touch with them.
As a fan, and as someone whose own books have strong science themes, and often strong female characters leading them, I think we need more of this kind of role model. Casting a woman in the role is a brave, unexpected idea, no doubt, but if Doctor Who is about anything, it’s about making brave, unexpected ideas.
So what’s with all the criticism from Doctor Who fans? Well, I’m a fan from the old guard, and I suspect I know…
Long, long ago, science fiction fans were all lumped in together. They all liked weird fiction, and that was enough. They met once a month in a pub called the One Tun in London to talk about spaceships and re-runs.
Then one night, sometime in the mid 80’s, a barman caught two male Doctor Who fans snogging in a corner. The proprietors at the time could handle the wooly scarves, and the people dressed in Star Trek uniforms, but in those less enlightened times, two men kissing just wasn’t on, and they were turfed out on the street.
The rest of the sci-fi fans carried on drinking, but Doctor Who fans are a principled lot, and they walked out en-masse in solidarity and never returned. To this day, Doctor Who fans meet in another pub, the Fitzroy Tavern, and, like Britain and Europe they’ve never really seen themselves as part of the same crowd since.
Why mention this? Because it just doesn’t strike me that this is a bunch of people who would be suddenly outraged at the casting of a female Doctor. It’s an idea that’ been rumoured, after all for decades.
The truth, I suspect is a bit more complicated. You see, Doctor Who fans are a contrary bunch. They like an argument, and are perfectly happy to spend an evening fighting bitterly about whether the buddhist subtext in the 1982 story, Kinda was handled more subtly than that in the 1974 story “planet of the spiders.” They’re also, or they were, in the 80’s, a bit scared of girls.
But they were never afraid of things changing. If you ever meet someone who argues that black is white as though it’s a fight they’ve been having all their lives, then it’s likely they’re a Who fan. If they manage to convince you, then they definitely are (and you’re not).
So what’s really going on here? I suspect it’s two things:
Firstly, it’s that Who fans are arguing – nothing new in that – but now other people – media people, and BBC PR people with an interest in getting headlines and filling pages, are listening to the arguments, seeing a way to drum up coverage, and god forbid, taking them seriously.
Secondly, Doctor Who now has a much wider audience, generated by the popular surge of the show’s reboot. And a lot of the twitter storm around the new regeneration is generated by them – fans some of whom may have come to the show because of its unconventional hero, and his/her contrary ways… but also because they rather fancy David Tennant. And it’s probably this group for whom Jodie Whittaker just doesn’t cut the mustard.
The bottom line is Who fans are going to argue over this long after everyone else has forgotten about it. In the meantime, it’s just great that a show that celebrates the mad, strange beautiful absurdity of the universe – a show that created the daleks to teach children about eugenics just two decades after the 2nd world war – a show that featured a female Prime Minister in the mid 70s – that satirised plastic surgery (with a perfectly flat Zoe Wannamaker), and foreshadowed virtual reality (in 1976) – that introduced gay lead characters to a family audience while other shows were still too scared to do it – that you can sit down to watch every week and not know whether you’re going to be introduced to a western, a horror movie, a technothriller, a space opera, a comedy, or a treatise on the nature of reality, is going to flip the rules yet again on Christmas Day.
It will upset some people. But all great art does.
I thought I’d have a go at representing how the publishing industry looks to me right now. What do you think?
40% of Democratic Unionist Party activists, and a good chunk of their leadership believe that the earth is a little less than 5,000 years old and that creationism should be taught as science in our schools.
There’s already evidence that the rules on teaching radical religious beliefs as science are being ignored, and with the DUP now propping up our government, the risk is that this could be about to get worse.
There’s a school of thought that says this doesn’t matter much – that people can believe what they like about how life came about, and that in our day to day life, it’s not really that important. Dinosaurs are like dragons. If you want to believe in them, fine. If you don’t, that’s OK too.
As a writer of children’s books, I spend a fair amount of time around dinosaurs, and dragons, and I can tell you, they are not the same. Dragons are great – they teach us lessons about greed and heroism and power, but dinosaurs are something more. Dinosaurs are our history. They teach us what really happened, and why we are the way we are.
To deny evolution (whichever set of religious or nonreligious beliefs you hold) is to misunderstand the nature of the entire universe and our relationship with it, and with each other. The unbroken line of ancestry that connects us to each other, and to everything else, back through time to the first dividing cell 4.2 billion years ago is the key to understanding who we are, the world we live in, and why we do the things we do.
But more than that. By replacing dinosaurs with some other explanation of our creation just because it fits better with our beliefs, we send out the signal that evidence based study, rational thought and scientific rigor can be simply swept away if you don’t like its consequences. And the fight against that notion is a fight worth having in any classroom, or anywhere else on any day of the week.
Regardless of who it offends, evolution is real, and we can prove it. What’s more, we have the children on our side – because in a fair fight for children’s attention between dinosaurs and angels, the dinosaurs will always win.
If you feel that the rules are being compromised in your children’s school or if you are coming under pressure to teach creationism as science yourself, knowing who to talk to can be difficult. As a first step, Humanists UK have a full time advisor who should be able to point you in the right direction https://humanism.org.uk/contact-us/
If you’d like me to come along to your school and talk about the role of evolution in my work, just drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’re a writer, it’s a question you get asked all the time. Literally every time I enter a classroom, the first hand that reaches for the ceiling will have the same question attached to it:
“Where do you get your ideas?”
And that’s odd, because in 30 years working in the creative industries, writing, illustration, animation, theatre, TV and film, I’ve found primary school children (and their teachers) to be absolutely the most creative people I have ever met. My stock answer is to ask them where they get theirs.
It’s not limited to schools either. In fact, I’m likely to fall head over heals for the first woman who doesn’t ask the question on our first date.
We are all taught that ideas a kind of magic – that they’re floating around like fairies, and some magic people can see and catch them, and the rest can’t. But worse than that, we’re taught that the route to “good” writing or art is through mastery of the technical disciplines – drawing, grammar, spelling.
In reality it’s not like that. Creativity is a set of muscles and they’re absolutely vital ones in every area of life even if you never want to compose a story, or draw a picture. By not recognising that, we fail to train and exercise those muscles, and they waste away until we struggle to remember where it is ideas come from.
This week I took part in CWISL’s Shoutsouth workshop as part of National Writing Day (http://www.cwisl.org.uk/shoutsouth-2017/4593844242). Two days of intensive creative writing and story making for children from south London schools, in which none of the writers and illustrators and teachers involved ever mentioned spelling or punctuation, or tried to tell a child how to make a drawing look neat.
Why? Because there are two types of creativity:
First, there’s the creative use of technical skills – the construction of sentences, the drawing of shapes and shades, the clever solving of the hundred problems that every attempt at communication throws up. This is the creativity we all understand, and we all get taught in school and beyond. It’s the creativity of the builder. Vital, practical and sharp, and it depends on your ability to work with your technical tools.
And then there’s the other kind. The big stuff. The creativity of the architect – who sits and stares at an empty sheet and asks “What do I want to achieve, and why?” The feelings, and the philosophies, the abstract notions, and motivations and concrete realities that swirl and crash together to form the underlying structure of (and I do not exaggerate here) every decision in your, my, and everyone else’s life.
This is the muscle we don’t train in school, because these connections are fragile and personal, and if you don’t learn to solidify them properly, they don’t survive first contact with paper or screen. They’re easy to spot, but almost impossible to mark, so we generally just sit back and hope that somehow kids will start to develop those muscles on their own. The problem is, we are not giving them room, in our current curriculum to try. And nothing kills big ideas like spelling and grammar.
Concentrating on the technicality of your work focuses you away from the ideas, and into the execution of them. We all instinctively know when someone is using technical small scale creativity, but isn’t doing the bigger thinking behind it.
A badly executed brilliant idea is still a brilliant idea. Whereas a technically perfect nothing is still nothing. All too often, that’s what we train ourselves and our children to create, and I’ll bet you read work like that every day, or watch it on TV, or hear it delivered in a meeting.
We need to train people to have ideas. Not for the sake of art and literature, but because big ideas drive everything we do, feel and think, even if we pretend that they don’t, and if we treat them as magic fairies that only the creatives can see, then we don’t see ourselves as capable of making the choices that drive our own lives.
But we can do it. We can get rid of the “where do you get your ideas?” question. I know we can, because, at the workshop on Monday, once our group of children had abandoned spelling, and torn out that first scary blank page of their exercise books, it took about fifteen minutes before those magic fairies started settling.
And we could all see them.
If you’re thinking of getting an author to talk to your school, and you’re in the UK, just get in touch: email@example.com