Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Miss Allison and Novel Writing

My closest friend from school days, Elaine Noakes, came to stay with us for a weekend in the summer (July 2009). We did quite a few things together, which was all very nice. To begin with, I organised a dinner party for a few of our school friends and their partners, from Lister School (which was, first of all, a technical school, then became a comprehensive school and is now known as a Community School - see The dinner party was for the school friends that I have kept in contact with over the years. There was lots of food and drink, cheerful conversation and reminiscing.

The next day, Elaine and I went to the Anarchist Bookshop and Freedom Press in East London (near Aldgate East station) and then went on to the Whitechapel Art Gallery (which recently reopened) which is literally next door. Elaine bought quite a lot of material in the bookshop - it was a great opportunity for her, as they don't have a bookshop like that where she lives. Then, in the evening we went to see 'Time and the Conways' (by J.B. Priestley) at the National Theatre, London.

On the Sunday Glenn, Elaine and I went for a walk together in Wanstead Park. We had lots of conversation about politics and literature. Much to their surprise and delight, Elaine and Glenn found for example that, as children, they had both really enjoyed the Viking stories by Henry Treece see -

I never read any of those books at all; I much preferred more 'feminine-type' books, such as Louisa Alcott's 'Little Women' and 'Good Wives'. Also, Sue Barton's stories about nursing. I also really loved adventure stories, with children finding treasure in places like Tintagel, in Cornwall, for example. On the whole though, it has to be said that I cannot remember all that much about what I read as a child.

Elaine and Glenn walking in Wanstead Park, July 2009

But in this blog, I want to focus, in particular, on our conversation about English literature, and how this got me thinking and reflecting more on something quite specific - namely, our English teacher at school and my childhood dreams of writing a novel.

So, in the course of the conversation on our walk, we got talking about our English Teacher from Lister County Technical School. Now, as my readers know, I read loads of novels as a young girl and my love of books has remained with me throughout the whole of my life of course. I cannot bear not to have a good book to read. I always wake up in the morning looking forward to reading the latest book that I am engrossed in. And if I don't have one, well then, I have to find myself one pretty sharpish! That's the extent of it all. Anyway, in relation to my school days, my love of reading fiction obviously meant that the chances were that I was going to particularly enjoy the English lessons at school. And indeed, I did. Our English Teacher, Miss Allison, taught our class English right from when we were 11 years old, through to when we were 16 years old (years 1-5 as they were known as in those days). She was also our form teacher throughout this period. She was a strict teacher, who then made the lessons interesting, so the class behaved, which meant that we were able to listen and to learn.

I hated the weak teachers, who could not control the classes, which caused havoc to break out and made it difficult for those of us that wanted to learn, to be able to. I was a quiet member of the class (surrounded by many loud, white working class kids), which meant that I felt very vulnerable at times and in such situations. Basically, a third of the class was quieter and more thoughtful and studious, but two thirds were loud, rowdy and messed-about (doing stupid things like throwing paper aeroplanes about), given half a chance, and were not interested in learning. The French lessons were a good example of how the rowdy ones messed about when we had poor teachers. French teachers kept coming and going and most of them could not control the class. So, because of all this, whilst to begin with (in the first year) I got very good marks in French, I ended up with a poor C.S.E. grade. So, in this way, I very much appreciated Miss Allison with her ability to be able to control the class and deliver interesting and varied English lessons.

My favourite English lessons were those where whole novels and plays were read out in class (I was not so keen, in contrast, with English comprehension, for example, which I found to be rather nit-picking and where one could not get so involved with the plot). But when someone read out loud in class in this way, I became very absorbed, throwing myself into the stories, thinking and removing myself from day-to-day reality, once again. I was captivated. In fact, they were my favourite lessons, until the history lessons that we started to have with Mr. Thomas in the third year (now known as year 9), where we explored the Tudor and the Stuart periods. I thought that was absolutely fascinating. It was also the first time that I had ever heard a teacher talk about anything vaguely sexual; he talked about Henry VIII taking his various wives to bed. I admired his boldness here; I thought he was taking risks saying this to a class of schoolchildren, but he could 'pull it off' because he was such a strict, fair teacher. So, all that really amused me, and it is something that I have always remembered very clearly. Mr. Thomas was just such a good teacher; a good disciplinarian who then made the lessons interesting, indeed exciting, told us to take notes, and also added humour to it all. All this then lead me to reading historical books by Jean Plaidy. But in regard to Miss Allison, well now, Elaine was definitely one of her pets, one of her favourites; well, probably her favourite in the class, if the truth be known.

In addition, basically, Elaine Noakes and Alan Elias were top of the class. Alan, incidentally, then went into the legal profession, and became a partner in the international law company Clifford Chance, for a number of years. A company which, by strange coincidence, I worked at for a short period (1999-2000) myself, as a Project Manager, taking the library through the initial implementation stages of their Unicorn Library Computer Management System.
So, from a situation where both Alan and I had been bullied at school, we came out 'on top' in various ways. Anyway, I digress somewhat.

Elaine, like me, is an only child, but her upbringing was different to mine, and I think she had more time to develop at her own pace, as a child, than I did. She was indeed, very able, and various people in the class looked up to her. She learnt to play three musical instruments; the piano, the clarinet and the cello, and obtained many music qualifications, working through the grades - she had grade 8's in some, if not all, of her chosen instruments. She would also often play in the school concerts. Now, Miss Allison would frequently select Elaine to read out in class. And Elaine was, indeed, very good. I enjoyed sitting listening to her reading, enabling my imagination to travel freely. But Elaine said, on this walk of ours, that when she was at school she sometimes got fed-up with always being the one that was chosen to read. She also read a lot of Shakespeare plays out loud in the class, which of course, was particularly demanding. Apart from anything else, too much reading out loud can give one a sore throat, of course! Yet, in contrast, Miss Allison never chose me to read out in class. I expect this was also because she knew that Elaine was a good 'performer' as it were, because as I say, she often played in the school concerts as well. Patterns repeat themselves; those that are successful become more successful etc. By this I mean, that it would probably have been good for me to have read out in class - it might have helped to increase my confidence. Still, that's life and all a long time ago now. But now that I am 'going' for the novel, my thoughts naturally return to these early school teenage years.

Why am I saying all this now, one might well ask? Well, because on our walk Elaine made the point that whilst she seemed to be something of a favourite with Miss Allison, she thought that for some reason or other Miss Allison took a dislike to me. I hadn't really thought about this all that concretely before, but Elaine got me thinking, and I have concluded that she might well be right about this. Elaine said that perhaps Miss Allison had some sort of chip on her shoulder, and I disturbed or threatened her in some way or something. Miss Allison was definitely a spinster-type for one thing - that was for sure (in fact, she reminded me somewhat of the strict disciplinarian, spinsterish female teacher in the comedy series 'Please Sir', for any of you that can remember that comedy programme - see But Elaine did get me thinking further. Perhaps, Miss Allison herself had wanted to write a novel as a child, and was not able to, did not have the right conditions and opportunities etc. And/or was perhaps forced to go out and earn some money. Perhaps, for these sort of reasons, she became an English teacher instead; a poor second choice, of course. Who knows - but that would explain something about her attitude to me. She certainly seemed to find me something of an irritation, even though I never did anything to actively irritate her at all, unlike so many of the others in the class. Or perhaps she just wished that I was more confident; may be I represented something of a negative side of herself that she was trying to put behind her. Who knows?

Now, one might ask - 'why should I be given any special treatment by an English teacher?' There were after all, some 30 children in the class. But the point was that I loved reading and read more books than anyone else in the class. At one point Miss Allison set up a class library. This involved her taking books out of the school library, and putting them on a shelf in our classroom. At this point, I was reading books from the public library, the school library, the class library as well as books from my own collection at home. I also used to do voluntary work in the school library with my friend Pat Sandel in the lunch hour.

Then, Miss Allison told us to borrow books from this class library and to write up annotated bibliographies of the books we read, and put them in a journal. Now, I read about 8 books a week - I can remember that very clearly to this day. I wrote up annotated bibliographies of my 8 books a week very enthusiastically. I thought that this would really impress Miss Allison, be a way of helping me to get through to her, and for her to understand a little more about my mind, and how fast and enthusiastically I could read and think. I loved it all anyway, and wanted to do it, so this was no hardship to me at all. But Miss Allison did not seem as impressed with this as I thought she would be. Perhaps, she was hoping that someone else would shine through - who knows. She would also often say on my school reports that I could 'try harder'.

Then, I had this negative attitude and reaction from her when I approached her when I was about 12 years old, about writing a novel myself. I had just read a good book that had been written by a 12 year old and suddenly thought that I could do this myself. I dreamt of having a novel written by me on a shelf in the public library. I talk about all this in a piece that I wrote about the best-selling novelist, Michelle Roberts that is on our website - see Roberts

It all seemed such a wonderful idea.

It took a lot of confidence for me to go up to Miss Allison like that (especially as I was quite a shy and timid child). But at the time I so passionately wanted to write a story book, a work of fiction, that I put my inhibitions behind me and 'braved it'. But when she gave me the clear vibe that I had 'ideas above my station', and put me off, well that completely dampened my confidence. And still worse rather than giving me credit for how much I read and absorbed she wanted more from me. Unfortunately, this trait has continued somewhat into my adult life - with people wanting more and more from me. Glenn also suffers here in this regard. People never seem satisfied. Anyway, Miss Allison said that I should be reading a better class of book than that provided by Agatha Christie (who was one of my favourite authors about that time). Well, after that, I gave up all serious thoughts of writing a novel myself as a child. I came away with the feeling of being 'put-down' rather than having my confidence boosted, when I had wanted the opposite. I knew that I was capable of writing a novel; I just needed someone else to have some faith in me, and to point me in the right direction. Because, of course, I did not know how to achieve it at all on a practical basis. My mother would never have helped me either. This was a serious problem for me, and partly why I ended up often turning to teachers - I saw them somewhat as surrogate parents, in some way. No wonder that education has always meant such a lot to me throughout all my life!

In regard to the practicalities of getting a novel published, indeed, it is only now that I am really starting to get to grips with the intricacies of how to actually achieve this. This includes going through an agent and not going directly to a publisher directly of course; writing the whole book out in draft first, leaving it to one side for a while, then revisiting it and editing it. Then, once one has the completed draft manuscript to look through the Writers and Artists Yearbook and find agents that cover the area of one's novel. Also to look through the acknowledgements pages of recent novels in one's area, because as John Jarrold explained to me, authors often mention their agents in the acknowledgements. I contacted John Jarrold recently of John Jarrold Literary Agency - see and he made all this very clear to me and I very much appreciate this. Then, finally, of course, to make contact with the agent. But I can see that it is important to only do this when one really thinks that one has a winning formula; a best-selling novel; a novel that will engage. The way that I have been selecting out books that are real page-turners recently should really help me in this regard, I think (see my previous blogs about the novelists Douglas Kennedy, Rosamunde Pilcher and Erica James), for example. Also, the value and importance of enticing book covers.

But the whole thing did puzzle me as a child. I was a well-behaved pupil, who never gave any hassle. I got good marks in nearly all of my subjects. I was passionate about books and reading and very interested and keen on learning in general. So, anyway, all of this had a bad effect on me, particularly when it came to pursuing the idea of writing a novel, which I have put 'on hold' until now. Still, I got my first non-fiction book published in 2005, on Globalisation, see - so, at least, my fantasy of writing a book became a reality. And I am now starting to realise that many of the lessons I learnt from writing a non-fiction book can actually be applied to fiction writing - particularly in regard to the need for focus and determination and thinking in very concrete ways about how to make getting a book published a reality, which is somewhat different from dream-like fantasies of course! If one wants to achieve something, no matter what it is, one has to be clear and single-minded about it.

In conclusion, I very much appreciate how Elaine has helped me to clarify my thinking on these matters. And of course, it really was because of her that I went to university in the first place. And I have always been very grateful to her for that. She also helped me to become a more confident person in the sixth form; although the whole environment was much better for me in this way, in general, than my previous school years.
Then, when we were studying for our A' levels in the sixth form, Elaine suddenly said that she wanted to study at a campus university - leave home and London. Well, I often wanted to run away and leave home - since my early teens, but could never think of a sensible and legitimate way of doing it. I was too bright to kid myself that it would all have worked out alright. I could see that if I had run away I would probably just have ended up in care, and would have been worse off rather than better off. On the whole, your parents are going to care for you, be more bothered about you, than strangers in a social services department - I felt sure of that. Anyway, Elaine suddenly supplied me with the perfect solution. Everything turned around in the sixth form. People were now rating and appreciating my ability and my intelligence in general. Going away to a campus university seemed the perfect solution; the icing on the cake, as it were.

This was very much reinforced by our A' Level Sociology teacher, Barbara Rabone. She was 'all for it'; she definitely thought that Elaine and I should apply for campus universities outside of London. She had obtained a degree in Social Administration from Nottingham University herself, and said that the whole thing had been a wonderful experience and that we would really benefit from it.

In fact, the whole thing about us studying A' Level Sociology is interesting in itself. From when I was 11 years old, through to when I was 16 years old, Lister was a Technical School. Then, as we entered the sixth form, it became a Comprehensive School. It changed from being a very small school, with only about 350 pupils to being a large comprehensive school, with over 1,000 pupils. There was no A' Level Sociology on offer in our sixth form. Elaine and I started studying for Economics, History and English A' Levels. But we did not like the History at all. Each week we were told to learn a series of facts which we were then tested on. So different to the history lessons that we had had previously with the wonderful Mr. Thomas. So, anyway, we mentioned to some of our teachers that we would be interested in studying A' Level Sociology instead. Various social issues, along with religious issues were always being discussed in my home. It was something that I had very much been brought up with and I thought it would be very interesting to study all this in a more formal and disciplined way. Barbara Rabone had just started teaching at the school. She did not always enjoy teaching some of the more working class, rowdy, undisciplined children that she found herself having to deal with all that much. So, I think for this reason alone the idea of setting up and teaching A' Level Sociology appealed to her. And so, that is what she did. We were indeed, very fortunate and I am very grateful to her for all of that.

All in all, in my school years (from 1st-5th year, when I was 11- 16 years) Mr Thomas was the best teacher we had as far as I was concerned, and Miss Allison was our second best teacher. I wanted to 'put the record straight' here as well, because although I had these personal issues with Miss Allison, I still learnt a lot from her lessons and she was indeed, a very good teacher. Also, when I was 16 years old, I thought briefly about leaving school and becoming a nursery nurse. But Miss Allison thought that was a terrible idea; she said that I would hate it, clearing up children's sick etc. So, I decided to stay on and do A Levels. She certainly gave me good advice there; and I am grateful to her for that. Obviously, also, she could not really have given all the help that I would have needed to get a novel published either at such a young age, but it would have been nice if she had given me some positive feedback and encouragement, rather than the more negative feedback that I got. But there we go. It wasn't to be. I was determined, though, that our middle son, Victor Rikowski, would not suffer in this regard. So once when we were walking home from school one day when he was 10 years old, and he said he was feeling 'odd', the 'warning lights' came up. I went immediately and spoke to his junior school teacher and she said that she had noticed him walking round the playground on his own. I told her that he wrote lots of stories. She then really encouraged Victor; he read stories that he had written out loud to the class, and became something of a leader in this regard, really inspiring the other children. This all greatly increased his confidence of course. If my confidence could have been increased in the same sort of way, then that would really have benefitted me. Still, it wasn't to be. Reflecting futher, perhaps, also though, these early school year experiences have made me somewhat too tolerant of loud, bullying people sometimes, and this is something that I need to be mindful of in the future, and continue down my path of connecting up with tolerant, considerate as well as creative people.

So, that provides some more background information about me, novels and novel writing. But for now, enough reflecting - and on to novel-writing!

Dinner Party at our home with some of my school friends and their partners, July 2009

Friday, 18 December 2009

'September' by Rosamunde Pilcher

On a previous recent blog I wrote about the bestselling novelist, Rosamunde Pilcher and said that I intended to read some more of her books in the future. I have now read a couple of others by her and have very much enjoyed them.

I have just now finished reading 'September' I have discovered that this is a sequel to 'The Shell Seekers' (the novel which I refer to on my previous blog). It is not a straight continuation of the story, but some of the characters that were in 'The Shell Seekers' are in 'September' (such as Noel Keeling, and the artist Laurence Stern, Noel's grandfather). We see Noel forming an attachment with Alexa, for example. The main story is set in Scotland and revolves around a dance party that Verena and Angus Steynton decide to throw in their home in Scotland. Although not quite as gripping as 'The Shell Seekers', this is still a good book. And once again, we have a lovely book cover!

My friend Tina Sinclair from Lister School days emailed me saying that she was particularly interested in and enjoyed my blogs about Rosamunde Pilcher (29th November 2009) and Erica James (26th November 2009). Also, that she had read both 'The Shell Seekers' and 'Hidden Talents' (the latter being by Erica James). She said that she really loved 'The Shell Seekers' and has read it more than once. She thought that 'The Shell Seekers' was by far Rosamunde Pilcher's best book. She did not mention 'September'. As I say, though, whilst 'September' is not quite such a page-turner and does not have as gripping a plot as 'The Shell Seekers' I still think it is a good book and indeed, I very much like Rosamunde Pilcher's writing style in general. However, Rosamunde Pilcher has now retired, and no longer writes, but her son Robin Pilcher now writes novels. I will probably read some of his books at a future date.

Tina said that, like me, she also loves book covers and sometimes even purchases CDs by selecting the covers.
I do not think I have done that all that consciously in regard to CDs, but on the other hand, I do enjoy artistic and eye-catching CD covers. Having said that, it has to be said that that was all much more powerful in the days of records! So much more could go on a record cover. The 'War of the Worlds' album cover, for example, was amazing. Still, we have to move with the times of course!

In conclusion, I wanted to write this blog, because it enabled me to connect up some particular fiction writers that I have been enjoying lately with one of my friends, which I thought was all rather nice and fitted together rather well. I hope you agree!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Tony Benn: 'Letters to my Grandchildren'

Tony Benn and Ruth Winstone

Glenn and I went to hear Tony Benn in conversation with his editor, Ruth Winstone, talking about his new book, 'Letters to my Grandchildren: thoughts on the future', published by Hutchinson, London, 2009, ISBN 9780091931261. He spoke at the Stratford Circus Arts Centre on 15th December 2009, which is quite a new arts centre, next door to the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and is near to our home.

Tony Benn has this amazing capacity to be able to identify with, to reach out to and engage with just so many people, I think. In this way, actually, he reminds me a little of Michael Jackson. Similarly, he also wants to do what he can to try to make peoples' lives better. He was as inspiring as ever, reached out, listened and responded to people, and brought some humour into it all. But on the other hand, he did not look at all well. He had a bad cough, and he had difficulty in signing the books afterwards. Two of his fingers were very stiff. He has been in hospital recently; he has a heart condition and now has a heart pacemaker. Let us hope that his health will improve, but we must remember, of course, that he is now 84 years old.

We bought the book at the event, which Tony signed and we were able to speak to him very briefly. That was lovely and I read the book in just a couple of days. What a lovely gift to leave his 10 grandchildren, I thought - words of wisdom from a famous grandfather to his grandchildren. Something that they will be able to treasure forever.

Glenn, Tony Benn and I, just after he signed his book for us.

Tony covered many topics in his talk. This was followed by quite a long question and answer session afterwards. I took some notes - which has enabled me to write this blog. He began by saying that they were not actual letters in the book; but his thoughts, that Ruth Winstone then cleverly crafted into separate letters for his grandchildren - breaking them down into different themes and perspectives. Tony said that he thought that young people were very important today and should be listened to and that, in general, the population is a lot more sensible and rational than the media often gives them credit for. He also thinks that the voting age should be bought down to 16 years. In addition, that with all the new technology that young people have at their disposal, they have the capacity to destroy the human race with it or to solve all the major problems on the planet. Some responsibility eh!

Tony said early on that he was reluctant to say whether he thought that the Labour Party had a future, but that Blair's party was, indeed, a Thatcherite party, and that Thatcher said that her greatest achievement was 'New Labour' - heavens. On the other hand, he said that the Labour Party never has been a socialist party, but had socialists in it, a bit like the Church, that does have some Christians in it. Very funny, that one, I thought.

Then, a bit later he spoke about his mother, saying that she was a feminist; that she was a Congregationalist who campaigned for the ordination of women in her day. He also said that many political questions were really moral questions.

Ruth Winstone asked him what he thought had been his greatest mistake. He replied saying that we all make lots of mistakes, and he has made plenty himself. I found this a very refreshing and honest perspective (unlike my father-in-law who always reckoned that he never made any mistakes and regretted nothing much in his life). But he said that he did not do things just in order to get on in his career - so he did not make mistakes in that way. But when pressed further by Ruth, he said that the biggest mistake he thought he made in his political career was the nuclear power policy he adopted when he was a minister in the Labour government. He naively thought it was the right policy, but he now realises that he was mistaken. The policy was not cheap, safe and peaceful, as he thought it was; instead, it just gave even more power to the USA and its nuclear policy.

There was a long question and answer session afterwards - Tony was very keen to take contributions from the audience. The questions were many and varied and included topics such as religion, the National Health Service, the crisis of survival, the younger generation, the economic crisis, the future of the United Nations, Obama and the USA, higher education policy, social class, how would he sell the Labour Party at the next general election and whether Labour represents working people, proportional representation (PR), the banking crisis and the Euro.

In regard to the NHS, for example, he said that it was something that we should be proud of. In the USA, in contrast, 47 million people do not have any health insurance. Obviously, though, he was concerned about the commercialisation and privatisation of the NHS and did not like the hospital league table that now exists. He said when he was in hospital recently (after he collapsed with a heart attack) he found himself in a hospital that was at the bottom of the league table. He wondered how the doctors and nurses in that hospital must have felt. When asked about PR he said that he was not in favour of it, but preferred the single transferable vote method.

He is also against the Euro, because he said that Europe and the EC was not democratic. He gave the example of Peter Mandelsson who was recently appointed as an EC commissioner. Tony Benn is very keen on democracy and the power of the vote - he is very much a parliamentarian in this regard, which of course, is something that is very much in his family and has gone down the generations. At one point in his book, for example, he says:

"Throughout my fifty years in parliament I have come to respect and trust the members of all parties who have done a conscientious job representing their electors and expressing their own convictions." (p. 16)

Then, he warns us about the dangers of bringing in the far-right if we abandon democracy. He says:

"If the idea spreads that the whole political process is not about choice but about power, it is an invitation to far-right leaders who could come forward and promise that if they are entrusted with power that they will clean up what Hitler called 'the filth of parliamentary democracy'. (p.20)

He then emphasises the importance of trust between governments and the people, which he says:

"...must be the foundation of a mature and secure democracy." (p. 20)

His son, Hilary Benn, is now in the government of course, and his grand-daughter Emily, will be standing as a parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming general election. When reading his book, it becomes very clear just how proud he is of his family and this parliamentary tradition. His father, for example, was a Labour MP when the Labour Party was still quite young. Tony Benn is quite philosophical about the Labour Party and where it is currently at. In his view, in politics there are no permanent victories and no permanent defeats. At the moment, I am sure that he still remains optimistic that the Labour Party can somehow get back to its working class roots and to some (at least) of its fundamental principles.

He concluded on a light note, saying that at one time he was almost considered to be the most hated man in Britain, but that now he was considered to be something of a 'National Treasure'. Indeed. He will be sadly missed, when he goes. But we must be grateful for all that he has done, and for the great inspiration that he has been to the British population.

As I say, when I got home, I read the book very quickly. He begins the book by saying that he is very proud of his grandchildren, which I thought was lovely. As already stated, he talks a lot about the importance of parliamentary democracy throughout the book. On the other hand, he says that he has no artistic talent which I thought was rather honest of him! I was surprised to discover though, that he does not read very much, but prefers listening to people. And I can't resist including this quote about gays and the church, noting the fact that the church has been slow on these matters. He says:

"...the gay bishop Gene Robinson from America was not welcomed at the Anglican Conference in London in 2008. The world is full of men who hate each other and when two men love each other the Church splits!" (p. 148)

And the final postscript is a gem - entitled 'The Daddy Shop'. He said that when his four children were growing up he had often not been there for them, going to parents evenings, school concerts etc, because he had been too busy with his parliamentary work. He then felt guilty about this, so he made up a story which he used to tell to his children. This was about a group of children who got fed-up with their daddy not being around enough, and being there for them enough when they wanted and needed him. So much so that they decided to trade in their old daddy for a new daddy at the Daddy Shop. They took the new daddy home and he was wonderful and did all the things that an ideal daddy should do. But then, the new daddy went on holiday. They missed their old daddy so then went and got him back from the Daddy Shop. When they went to get their old daddy he was looking very sad, and was really pleased that his children wanted him back. Well, well - I could certainly relate to this story and to the many, many occassions that Glenn had not been 'there' for our children, when it came to homework, parents evenings, school concerts, for giving plain advice and for much else besides! He had the demands of his acadamic career. But it did made things very, very difficult for us - that was for sure.

On a final note, I would like to say that this is the second time that I have written about a Tony Benn event. The first was just over three years ago, when I heard him speak at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Members' Day, which I also found very inspirational (but he looked a lot better then healthwise). I wrote quite a long piece about it and inserted it on our website - and Caroline Benn

OR (for print friendly version)

I related my piece with our connections to his wife Caroline Benn. Glenn used to be a member of the Hillcole Group of Radical Left-Educators and Caroline was also part of this group. The meetings sometimes took place in the Benn's house, in the basement. Glenn was involved with some of the Hillcole Group publications. Caroline also read and commented on a draft manuscript of Glenn's book, 'The Battle of Seattle', shortly before she died.

Furthermore, I wrote a shorter piece, based on this talk for 'Managing Information'. This was entitled 'Tony Benn: links to libraries future', Managing Information, and was published in May 2007, Vol 14, No. 4, pp. 24-26

N.B. Thank you to our neighbours, David and Tamsin, who were also at the event, for taking the pictures of us with Tony Benn.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Michael Jackson, 1958-2009: a musical genius

It was Michael Jackson that inspired me to set up this 'Serendipitous Moments' blog. That was before he died. I was listening to him and feeling the power of his creativity, and suddenly thought that this blog would help me to express my own creativity in a new and different way. Blogs enable one to be quite spontaneous in this way; they can be as long or as short as one wants, on any topic that one chooses, and of course, they are very immediate.

So, it was very fitting and appropriate that the first blog entry on 'Serendipitous Moments' was about the death of Michael Jackson. I was so very upset about it; I wanted to express something quickly and immediately (and to counteract some of the media) - writing the entry on my blog was the ideal solution, and was in itself, a fitting tribute to Michael Jackson, I thought.

Anyway, on this blog entry I said that I was going to write a longer piece about Michael Jackson on another occassion. I wrote the draft of the longer piece very quickly; in the 2 weeks mourning period after he died. But it is only now that I have been able to return to it and finish it. So, the long article is now up on our Rikowski website, 'The Flow of Ideas'.

The article includes section on Michael Jackson, the musical genius; his artistic ability; comparisons between Michael Jackson and Mozart; Michael Jackson's vulnerability and sensitivity; the Martin Bashir interview; Michael Jackson, the misunderstood person; patriarchy; people wanting to break Michael Jackson and make him fail; Michael Jackson, the intelligent and thinking man; ways in which I personally identified with Michael Jackson and some concluding thoughts. Incidentally, I identified with Michael Jackson more than with any other famous person. Well, the long list can be seen in section 11 of my article!

Michael Jackson was one in a million; we are not likely to see anyone else remotely like him in our lifetime. Society should have cherished and looked after him; instead, of which everyone wanted a piece of him and/or tried to bring him down. Shame on society. Mozart, another child prodigy was not understood and appreciated enough when he was alive; and he died in a pauper's grave. Perhaps, one day, we will learn. Who knows.

Meanwhile, anyway, here is the URL to my article (it is in the 'Articles' section of the website).

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Friends of London Zoo

Towards the end of November 2009, Alexander and I decided to visit London Zoo again, and became Friends of ZSL (Zoological Society of London). This means that we can now go there as often as we like, for the next year, for free. We can also visit Whipsnade Zoo for free. Other perks include receiving a copy of the zoo magazine, discounts in the shop, and 2 half-price tickets for others etc. And nowadays, of course, the zoo is very ecology-focused and aims to save various endangered species.

Here are some more pictures that we took of some of the animals whilst we were there.

This heron was wild - not part of the actual zoo, but enjoying some of the otters lunch (dead mice!!).

Rosamunde Pilcher: best-selling author

Rosamunde Pilcher is another author that I discovered recently. Once again, I was quite persuaded by the book cover! This was of Rosamunde Pilcher's book,'The Shell Seekers', published by New English Library, London, 1987. The cover was of another lovely beach and seaside scene, with two children walking along the beach. Here is the book cover:

I did also read the blurb on the back of the book this time though, and flicked through the pages, to see if I liked the way in which the author had written the book. I liked the general look and the feel of it all; I thought it would be a book that I would enjoy and engage with. And once again, how right I proved to be! I bought the book in Waterstones and chose it over other books, that also looked appealing on initial inspection, but which I then rejected, because I was not so keen , on browsing, on the way in which the books appeared to have been written.
It was yet another book that I could not put down. The story is about a mother, Penelope Keeling, trying to somehow deal with her three adult children, who really did not treat her in a very nice, loving and caring fashion. Olivia, though, is the best of the three; she at least respects her mother's decisions - but then again, Penelope always loved Olivia more, and that was because of her own fate in love. The other two (Noel and Nancy) seemed far more bothered about what money they could get out of Penelope.

Anyway, the story is interwoven wonderfully with art, because Penelope's father was the famous painter, Lawrence Stern. Now, Stern's painting, 'The Shell Seekers', which he gave to Olivia, hangs in a room in Olivia's home. Her children are keen on the idea of her selling this, along with some panels and sketches of Stern's that Olivia has. When Olivia realises all this, she makes her own decisions. She sells the panels and donates 'The Shell Seekers' to an art gallery. She spends a little of the money on a luxury holiday for herself and takes two young people (her companion and gardener) along with her. None of her own children would go with her. These two young people then fall in love, much to Olivia's delight. In her will she then leaves the panels to the young man.

Penelope then sadly dies of a heart attack. Noel and Nancy cannot at all understand why Penelope made the decisions that she did in regard to the paintings, but Olivia does. In some way or other, love conquers, because in the last few pages, the two young people (Damus and Antonia) get married and Olivia is invited to an unexpected special celebratory wedding lunch.

'The Shell Seekers was one of the BBC's Big Read Top 100 Best Loved Novels.

There is a little additional story to me buying and reading this book though, which gives it an added dimension. I was reading the book whilst waiting for a train - now there is nothing unusual about me reading books on trains! But what was unusual was that a lady interrupted me and said how good this book was, as are all the books by Rosamunde Pilcher. And that the books by her son, Robin Pilcher are also very good, she said. Well, I was most surprised, and in fact, quite taken aback! I told her how I had started to select books from bookshops and libraries by the look and feel of them more than I had ever done before and how successful this was proving to be for me. Furthermore, that I was very keen these days to find and read novels that I could quickly and easily engage with and really enjoy. Life is too short to be reading books that leaves one cold and alienated and where one is not able to finish them etc. The lady very much agreed. In this frame 0f mind, I also recommended the authors Douglas Kennedy and Erica James to her, that I had also discovered by this route (see my previous blog entries on 'Douglas Kennedy' and 'You can't judge a book by its cover?'). The lady said that she liked Rosamunde Pilcher's books because they were written so well; and that they were interesting stories, and with no swearing etc. I did think the book was just a little old-fashioned in this regard - I mean, Penelope is introduced as being more or less an old lady, when she was only in her mid-60s. Heavens! But this is a minor criticism, compared to the warmth, wonder and intrigue that flows throughout the book.

Usually, I can quickly tell the value of a non-fiction piece of work these days; it seems that the same thing is now starting to happen to me with fiction. This also fits in with me reading more novels again at the moment (over non-fiction reading) and with my thoughts turning more and more to novel-writing. I was also interested to discover that Rosamunde Pilcher began writing when she was just 7 years old and published her first short story when she was only 18 years old.

I shall definitely, now, be reading more of Rosamunde Pilcher's books!

Thursday, 26 November 2009

'Hidden Talents' by Erica James

This book was such a one-off that I decided that I just had to give it a blog of its own - particularly as I am reading it at this particular point in my life.

Erica James is an author that I have discovered recently - see my previous blog entry on 'Serendipitous Moments' - 'You can't judge a book by its cover?', where I refer to her books.

Well, I went into one of my local libraries the other day and picked up 2 more books by Erica James - if I find an author and/or musician that I particularly enjoy, I like to get to know, enjoy and appreciate more of their work. So, I borrowed 'Hidden Talents' (published by Orion Book, London, in 2002) in this frame of mind, without reading much of what it was about, on the back of the book.

Anyway, I discovered that 'Hidden Talents' is about a Writer's Group. Why this is particularly significant for me right now is because, although I have read fiction all my life, it is only now that I am very seriously turning my thoughts to the idea of writing a novel myself! So, it all seemed quite fortuitous. The Writer's Group in 'Hidden Talents' consists of 5 interesting characters; Dulcie Ballanytne who runs the group and is in love with a married man; Beth King who is facing empty-nest syndrome and is having a relationship with a cyberman (!); Jack Solomon who is rebuilding his life after his wife leaves him for his best friend; Jaz Rafferty, a teenager who writes as a way of escaping from her boisterous family and Victor Blackmore, a conceited man that thinks he is well on the way to writing best-sellers, whilst no-one else in the group rates his work much!

A couple of quotes particularly struck a chord with me.

One is where Jaz Rafferty "...withdrew and immersed herself in books, reading herself into other people's lives, happily escaping her own." (p.8) I know that feeling very well; and I am sure that many other people read novels for these reasons as well. Another is a comment about writers writing about themselves.

" was glaringly obvious to Beth that she, Jack and Jaz were writing about themselves. Apparently most writers did this when they embarked on their first novel." (p.148)


Anyway, I won't say any more, other than to recommend the book and to say that, once again, this book also has a lovely cover - this time of a lady sitting on a bench in a park, reading a book.

Here is the cover.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Shopping at Christmas Time in London with Helen and Phil

On the weekend of 19th-22nd November my cousin Helen and her husband Phil from Gloucester came to stay with us, and we all went shopping and window-browsing in London. We shopped in Greenwich and Covent Garden; and also saw some of the street entertainers in Covent Garden. Helen bought lots of Christmas presents - and some lovely, pretty and unusual presents at that. But for various reaons I have cut my Xmas shopping right down and have decided that cards will usually now suffice!

We also went to see the Christmas lights in Oxford Street. Also, saw and heard the SOAS Rebetiko band on the evening of Friday the 20th November, who were very good. Our friend Les Levidov invited us to it and he plays the violin in the band. There are some 25 people in the band altogether. G2 in SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), where it was held, was packed. A few people also danced. Rebetiko, we learnt, is the rebel music of Greece (the 'urban blues'). It includes "songs of prison, hashish, love, emigration and desperation."

Then, on the Sunday we had a short (albeit a wet) walk on Wanstead Flats and in Wanstead Park. We also went into The Temple in the park, and saw the exhibition about the fascinating history of the park. The park was once the grounds of a great estate, Wanstead House. The heiress of the estate married a no-gooder, who gambled all the money away. The house had to be dismantled brick and brick and all the contents sold. The Corporation of London bought the grounds cheap and still own them, thereby providing much pleasure to the local community.

In addition, Helen, Phil, Glenn and I had lots of very enjoyable conversation together, covering many topics. We discussed the Vickery's, for one thing and how we first got to really know and like each other. Helen's father, Richard Vickery was my mother, Mabel Turney's (nee Vickery) brother (my mother being one of seven). Helen and I first got to know each other when we were still in our teens - I was 16 years old and she was 14 years old. We used to stay with each other in our parents homes then, go for long walks together, listened to lots of music and did lots of chatting etc. We discovered that we liked the same type of music and the same sort of fellas!! We also went youth hostelling in the Yorkshire Dales and Pembrokeshire in Wales whilst still in our teens, did lots of walking and had a great time.

I showed Helen our grandfather, Clement Augustine Vickery's nautical books. She had not seen them before. We also talked about our Auntie Irene a little - it was through her that we got to know each other. She thought that we would get on and how right she proved to be! Irene Littler (nee Vickery) being the sister of Mabel and Richard. They have all passed on now; only one of the seven is still alive - Aunt Jean. Helen has a brother and a sister, so her brother of course is carrying on the Vickery name.

When in our teens, Helen helped me to think about the types of fellas that attracted me. Although she was the younger one, she had quite a big influence on me here! These days, Helen and I have many interests in common - more than ever, in fact. This includes a love of music, books, arts and crafts, walking in the countryside and cycling. Like me, Helen adores Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' , for example, and Colin Firth's superb acting as Mr Darcy. Who else could possibly come near to it, one wonders? - well, no-one much apart from Richard Armitage, in my view. The part that Richard Armitage played as John Thornton in the BBC production of Elizabeth Gaskell's 'North and South' was breath-taking. Also, the plot has some similarities to 'Pride and Prejudice', but with a clear political dimension as well. Thornton owns a mill in the north of England, and at one point, the workers go on strike, for example. Here is Richard Armitage being interviewed about it all - see Helen and I also like the same sort of clothes, jewellery and ornaments etc - which is why we all had such a great time window-shopping together.

Helen and Phil's son designed our 'Flow of Ideas' website for us (, which we have been very pleased with of course. Now, he has moved on and his studying for a photography degree at Southampton University.

All in all, we had a really lovely time. Now, we look forward to the next time that we can spend some time together!

Here are some digital photos of our various escapades!

Greenwich Market

Having a meal out in Greenwich - Helen, Phil and Glenn

SOAS Rebetiko Band, playing on 20th November 2009

SOAS Rebetiko Band, playing on 20th November 2009

Our friend, Les Levidov, is playing 3rd along from the left in the back row

Christmas festive reindeer at Covent Garden

Helen and I in Covent Garden

Christmas Tree in Covent Garden

Christmas decorations in Covent Garden

Covent Garden

Stall selling hand-painted silk products in Covent Garden

Covent Garden

Christmas decorations in Covent Garden

Christams decorations in Covent Garden

Christmas lights in Oxford Street

Christmas lights in Oxford Street

Christmas lights in Oxford Street

Christmas lights in Oxford Street

Christmas lights in Oxford Street

Feeding the ducks on Wanstead Flats

Phil and Glenn in Wanstead Park
(suddenly turned cold, windy and then wet!)

Two swans with their four offspring in Wanstead Park -
I do not think I have ever seen a family of swans like this before.
I just had to take a picture of it!

Phil, Helen and Glenn in Wanstead Park

Monday, 16 November 2009

Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats is an area of green open space, that is near to home, and we often go for walks there, especially at the weekends. The Flats (both Wanstead and Leyton Flats) are part of Epping Forest and they are administered by the Corporation of London. It is truly wonderful to have this area in the East End of London, and so near to us as well.

Many recreational activities take place on and around Wanstead Flats, including walking, football, cricket, jogging, cycling. horse riding, kite flying and model aeroplane flying. It is very much an area that is enjoyed by a wide variety of people; including children, dog-lovers, keep fit enthusiasts, senior citizens etc. There is also a wide variety of wildlife on the flats. In particular, there is Alexandra Lake, where we often go to feed the ducks and watch the wildlife. On and around the lake there are Canadian geese, seagulls, coots, swans, common wagtails, magpies, moorhens, herons, woodpeckers, pigeons etc. etc.

In addition, there is an organisation entitled 'Friends of Wanstead Flats'. The 'Friends' hold meetings periodically, and they aim to ensure that Wanstead Flats remains a valuable, free green open space for the community.

Under the byelaws, cattle is allowed to graze on the flats. When I was a girl, many cows did, indeed, graze on the flats - and sometimes wandered into the road as well! Very surprising - to see cows wandering about in the East End of London! This was later stopped, although sometimes the idea of bringing them back has been raised. It is important that the byelaw for grazing remains, because this ensures that Wanstead Flats remains a green free open space.

For more information about Wanstead Flats, see

The Golden Fleece family pub is on the edge of the flats, and this is also a favourite of ours.

On Sunday, 15th November 2009, we decided to take some pictures of it all. Some readers might well be surprised to realise that such a beautiful place exists in the East End of London.

Also, nearby to us is the City of London Cemetery and Wanstead Park, and I will 'feature' these in future blog entries.

So, here are some of the digital photos that we took.