The Royal Ballet School

I don't think I'd ever been to Richmond Park before my visit to the Royal Ballet School a couple of weeks ago.  It's rather spectacular: 2,500 acres of land in south west London which could almost be open countryside, except that it's more picturesque, with groves of ancient oaks that could have come out of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich.  It also famously has a large herd of deer, and a dog called Fenton, but I didn't see either of them as I made my way from the station.  

My destination was the White Lodge, a beautiful Georgian building which stands alone in the middle of the park.  It's a former royal hunting lodge, built for George II, and used by successive British monarchs (Queen Victoria was fond of it, and Edward VIII was born there) before being handed over to the Royal Ballet School in 1955. 

But it doesn't always look as ominous as it does in my photo! Sometimes it looks like this:

                                                                                                                              Photo: Royal Ballet School
The White Lodge is actually the Lower School, catering for pupils from 11-16 years old: after that they move to the Upper School, next to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.  The students have all gained their places there because of their dancing skills, and come from a wide range of backgrounds.  In addition to their ballet training they study all the usual subjects, and the English department like to invite authors in to encourage reading.  I spent the morning talking to  years 7,8 and 9, and then in the afternoon spoke to some of the year 10 students.  

I've taken recently to drawing a few pictures during my talks, to demonstrate the sort of thing I used to do all the time when I was working as an illustrator.  The evil alien Gollarks from Kjartan Poskitt's Murderous Maths series are pretty well suited to drawing big on a flip-chart, and since I was at the Royal Ballet School I decided to do a ballerina Gollark...

That opened the floodgates, because when my talk was over and book and random-bit-of-paper signing time rolled around, everybody seemed to want a ballet Gollark.  I've never drawn so many tutus in my life.  And in honour of the impending launch of Goblins I drew The Dance of the Sugar Plum Goblin too...

In between talks came a very nice lunch, and then Suzanne Gunton, Head of the English Department showed me around the school and told me a little of its history.  One wing houses the White Lodge Museum and Ballet Resource Centre, a treasure-trove of ballet history which deserved far more time than I was able to send there.  There were displays about the White Lodge and its inhabitants as well as about the history and development of  Classical ballet and of the school itself, with many artefacts, photographs, videos and drawings. (The red costume in the case here is from a design by Rex Whistler.)  You can take a virtual tour of the museum here. It is open to the public, but booking is essential - details on the link above.

There are other relics and treasures all over the building, including this bronze statue of Dame Margot Fonteyn.  The students have a tradition of touching her finger for luck as they pass, which is why it's paler than the rest of her.

While I was doing my talks and signings, I kept noticing the view out of the class room windows to those wintry oak-woods.  Living and learning in this beautiful building, in these surroundings, must be like going to school in Rivendell, and you might imagine that the pupils here would seem different from those I usually meet.  They didn't, though; they were normal kids; pleasant, polite, happy to giggle at a ballet-dancing Gollark, and ready to chime in with good questions and ideas when asked.  It was only as I was leaving at the end of the day that I caught a glimpse through an open door of a ballet class in progress. There were some of the children who'd been listening to me burble on about goblins and Traction Cities that morning, busy practicing their art with the most wonderful grace and discipline, a lovely image to take away with me from this most extraordinary school.

Thank you to Charlotte Taylor for inviting me, to Suzanne Gunton and Suzanne Watt Bertoni for looking after me so well, Richard Johnson for giving me a lift back to Richmond Station in the afternoon, and to Rob Green of the Maths department who helped out with my sessions and took the photos of me at work (and didn't mind too much when I said 'Nobody likes maths').  He also put together this collage of images from the day...

All images are used here with kind permission of the Royal Ballet School

Four New Books by McIntyre & Reeve!

When I first bumped into Sarah McIntyre at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years ago, I little realised that she was going to become one of my very best friends.  And I certainly never imagined that we would end up working together.  We have very different personalities and views on things, and there seems little common ground between her lovely comics and picture books and my novels.

But what do you know?  As we nattered away to each other, both in real life and on the internet, all sorts of mad ideas started to pop out.  It turns out that it's actually quite a good idea to collaborate with someone whose work is completely different from your own, because it forces both of you to try new things.

So it was only a matter of time before some McIntyre/Reeve collaborations appeared.  You may have read the Mortal Engines Christmas story which Sarah illustrated here on the blog, and I've already mentioned the four-page comic story we're working on for the Phoenix.  Now I'm very happy to announce that we've signed with Oxford University Press to produce four illustrated books, the first of which, Seawigs, will be published in the autumn of 2013.

Seawigs will be very different from my other books.  It's a lot shorter, for one thing, because a lot of the work of building the atmosphere and describing how things look will be done by Sarah's pictures as much as my words. I did most of the writing, but its completely influenced by Sarah's ideas and sense of humour, which was great -  instead of staring blankly out of the window whenever I got stuck, I just 'phoned her up and asked what would happen next, and she'd suggest things.  Most of the things she suggested were as mad as pants, but they all found their way into the plot somehow.  It's the most fun I've ever had writing a book!

Sarah will be getting busy on the illustrations for Seawigs later this year, and we'll also be thinking about our next book together, which won't be Seawigs 2, but a completely different story.  And after that ...  well, frankly, I have no idea where our adventures will lead us. But that, of course, it what makes it so exciting!

Here's a link to Sarah's blog, with her take on the OUP announcement.


Like most people with even a passing interest in illustration and/or science fiction, I was saddened to learn last week of the death of the legendary French comics artist Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius.   I think I first encountered his work among the production designs for the movie Alien when I was in my early teens, and later I sought out all the comics, published sketchbooks and collections of his work that I could find.  I'm not a big comics fan, and I don't much like the actual stories of many of the Moebius strips I've read, but his drawing - especially his line work - is extraordinarily spare and vibrant, and his visual imagination is spectacular.  (What a strange artistic establishment we have, that turns celebrity self-publicists like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst into household names while dismissing a draughtsman of Moebius's skill as just a comics guy...)

But although many people outside the world of fandom may not know his name, they would certainly recognise Moebius's work.  He had a huge influence on the way modern science fiction looks, working on, or at least inspiring, many of the trend-setting movies of the past few decades.  And because product designers often take their cues from such movies, echoes of his visual ideas have crept into real life too.  

Here's a link to the best of the Moebius articles I read last week, on the Tor website (where I also pinched this version of Moebius's print Stargazer from).  It's by the Bristol-based SF author Tim Maughanwho knows far more about all this than I do, and it recounts Moebius's early career and explains how, via his work on the Greatest SF Movie Never Made, he changed the look of SF cinema for ever.  Whether you're a Moebius fan already or are coming to his work afresh, it's well worth reading:  Moebius - the Visionary's Visionary.

Read Books - Or Else! (A visit to Lampton School)

I'm very busy with the last few chapters of the second Goblins book at the moment (I know, the first Goblins book isn't even officially out yet, but it should be around soon: I hope to be posting Exciting News about it here in the next few weeks).   But I'm just taking the evening off to blog about a couple of fantastic schools I visited in London earlier this month.

The first is Lampton School in Hounslow, a large modern comprehensive which is classed as 'outstanding' by the Department for Education, and quite rightly so, as far as I could see.  The well-stocked library library seems very popular with the pupils, who had had a say in picking its snazzy red and green colour scheme.  I spoke to a large group there, who listened patiently to a version of my usual spiel about the things which turned me into a writer and the books I've written since.  They asked interesting questions afterwards, and I ended up signing quite a lot of books...

Later I had a go at an illustration workshop - the first I've done!  We didn't have very long, so I stole a leaf out of Sarah McIntyre's book and tried my hand at organising a comics jam, where the class gets into groups of four each draw one panel of a comic strip before passing it on to their neighbour to do the next panel.  And it seemed to work - we ended up with some spectacularly mad stories involving farts, aliens, and the Evil Iggle-Piggle.

Like a lummox, I forgot to take any pictures of the results of the comics jam, but I did think to take one of my hosts: Librarian Penny Randhawa, her colleague Elizabeth, and library volunteer Sue (I also met another volunteer, Ann, but she'd escaped by the time I got my camera out).  They were all wonderfully helpful and welcoming - Elizabeth had even borrowed a larger car to pick me up from hotel in, because she'd heard I was tall! (Which I kind of am, now I come to look at the picture...)

I keep hearing about schools where the library is under threat, or not used enough, but Lampton's is an example of one that's brilliantly run and genuinely valued by the pupils.  It was a treat to visit it!  Before Elizabeth drove me back to the station I did a quick Horrible Histories style cartoon for the library wall - I think this Viking ended up saying, READ BOOKS - OR ELSE!

And the following day I went down to Richmond and the Royal School of Ballet - but that's another blog post...

Two Schools

This has turned out to be a busy month of events for me.  I'll be off to London again later this week for two school visits and a talk at Roehampton University, but I just have time to mention two other school events I did recently.

St Luke's Science and Sports College is a big modern school in Exeter, and the librarian there, Aileen Hamer, invited me to to visit at the end of February.  I gave my usual talk about my Life and Works, in which I discuss the books that inspired me as a child and the ones that I've written as an adult, with detours into my illustration career and anything the audience want to ask about.  In fact, I gave it four times, to various different year-groups, in St Luke's very impressive and well-equipped auditorium (I'm the tiny dot in the distance in the photo above).  There are some more pictures on the school's website, including a good one of me looking Very Old and Wrinkly Indeed...

Then for World Book Day on the 1st March I was asked along to Newland House School in Twickenham, where I talked to two groups of pupils and then signed books non-stop for about an hour and ten minutes in the library.  Honestly, I don't think I've ever seen such a long signing queue (not that I'm complaining)!  It was also the first time I've talked about my new book Goblins.  I read a couple of segments, and showed images of some of the characters - my own scratchy pictures, drawn while I was writing, as well as David Semple's brilliant cover portraits.  It's always difficult choosing which bits of a book to read - they need to be exciting, and give a flavour of the book, but not reveal too much about the story.  I'm still finding my way a bit with Goblins, but the two passages I picked seemed to go down pretty well.

One hour later...

Authors on social time-frittering site Twitter were marking World Book Day by posing for pictures with their favourite books, and I thought I should join in.  I don't really have a favourite book, though: I have lots of favourites, ranging from Bleak House to We're Going on a Bear Hunt, and it's impossible and also kind of pointless to choose between them.  However, I do have a favourite author - Geraldine McCaughrean - and The White Darkness is one of her finest books, so here I am clutching a copy.  (Thanks to the hipster-friendly 'Instagram' app on my 'phone, it looks as if it was snapped on World Book Day 1926.)

The picture was taken by Newland's librarian Caroline O'Donnobhain, who not only organised my trip but invited me to stay at her house the previous night: it was a real pleasure to meet her and her lovely family.

Spring had come to London that day, and when I had finished at Newland House I made my way up to the South Bank, where I ambled about in the late afternoon sunshine and snapped more Instagrams...

(Needless to say, spring had gone away again by the next morning: I walked to Greenwich with That Sarah McIntyre, and it was freezing...)

Many thanks to Mrs Hamer and Mrs O'Donnobhain and the staff at St Luke's and Newland House for two thoroughly enjoyable, well-organised school visits!

Explore the Worlds of Tomorrow ...

I'm not a betting man (I'm far too pessimistic), but if I were, I'd be ready to lay odds on the next big trend in children's and 'YA' publishing being Science Fiction. That's why, when Sarah McIntyre asked me to co-chair a SF event for the Society of Authors, I suggested 'The Rise of Sci Fi' as a subtitle*. Here's a link to her blog, where you can find all the information you need about the evening, which will take place at Foyle's in London's Charing Cross Road on 22nd May.  I'll be writing more about it here soon.

*I rather like the term 'Sci-Fi', having been drawn to the genre in the first place by its hoky, fun, fantastic elements.  Of course, a lot of serious Science Fiction folk loathe hearing it called that!  But it's certainly true that modern children's SF tends more towards the Sci-Fi, Science Fantasy end of the genre.  It's difficult to think of a popular modern equivalent to hard SF 'juvenile' books like Robert Heinlein's Have Spacesuit Will Travel - although I hope that's about to change.  Perhaps this is one of the subjects we'll touch on at the event...


Logo designed by Kevin Clarke (1981)
It's funny, the things that stick in your mind.  While I was talking to a Dr Who fan at the Microcon SF convention in Exeter last weekend, I mentioned that the first Dr Who story I'd ever watched was one set on a jungle planet where descendants of the the crew from a crashed spaceship have formed two primitive tribes - and my long term memory suddenly supplied me with the information that these tribes were called the Tesh and the Sevateem (The 'technicians' and the 'survey team', you see...).  What on earth made me store that scrap of information for three and a half decades, I wonder, and what far more useful bits have I forgotten because it was taking up valuable chunks of my memory?

There was quite a lot of Who-ishness at Microcon, mainly because one of the guests was Nick Walters, author of several Dr Who books, and another was the delightfully actressy Anneka Wills, who once played 'Polly', an assistant to William Hartnell's original doctor.  My knowledge of (and interest in) the series is a bit patchy, but both  Nick and Anneka were charming, and it was good to hear them talk.

SF journalist Steve Green set things rolling on saturday morning with a selection of short films from the Delta Film Awards .  My favourite is a tense and sinister piece of Irish horror/surrealism called HATCH: I can't say anything about it without spoiling it, but it's well worth a look.  Steve also introduced me to some Star Wars parodies which I've not seen before: Pink Five is the story of one of the other pilots in the Rebel Alliance, and is funny and cleverly done.

Returning for his third visit to Microcon was Jasper Fforde, author of The Thursday Next books, the Nursery Crimes series and the children's book The Last Dragonslayer.  I read The Eyre Affair, the first Thursday Next adventure, in the run-up to the convention.  I wasn't expecting to like it, because I'd heard a little bit about the series and it sounded to me as if it would be full of in-jokes for the English Lit. crowd. And I suppose it is a bit, in that it's set in a parallel world where literature is as popular as football or pop music is in ours, and features whole scenes which take place within the texts of Wordsworth's Daffodils and Charlotte Bronté's Jane Eyre.  But that's just one facet of a very rich and funny book, and the literary jokes should be accessible to anyone as the books and authors mentioned are cleverly explained for anyone who doesn't know them.   It took me a chapter or two to get used to the tone, but I was soon swept along by the story, which is rather an ingenious one.  The playfulness of it all, the sheer number of ideas flying around, and the way each is followed to its illogical conclusion, put me in mind of Douglas Adams, although I think Jasper Fforde is a better writer.  The talk he gave about his life and career was equally entertaining, and left me eager to read more of his work.

Saturday night concluded with cryptozoologist Richard Freeman telling us about his expeditions to Sumatra in search of the mysterious, ape-like creature which locals call the Orang-Pendek.  I try to be sceptical about everything, so I was prepared to be unimpressed by this account of near misses, half-glimpsed creatures and cameras which didn't work at the key moment, but Richard is another excellent speaker, and as he described the sheer size of Sumatra and the denseness of its forests it became clear that it would be perfectly possible for animals unknown to science still to be hiding there.  An interesting, thought-provoking account.  I did try doing a drawing of Richard Freeman, but I'm a bit out of practice and he came out looking like a James Bond villain...

After that most people repaired to the nearby pub called the Imperial for food and a quiz (no questions about the Tesh or the Sevateem, sadly).  The Imperial is part of the Wetherspoon's chain, but a rather posh part: it has an orangery with a huge window like a cobweb designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which taken from a mansion which used to stand on the site now occupied by the University. (Thanks to Bristolcon's Cheryl Morgan for that bit of local history: her Great Aunt Harriet had her wedding reception at the Imperial.  But I don't think it was a Wetherspoon's in those days.)

Sadly I had to leave at lunchtime on the Sunday, and didn't get to see the presentation by legendary space and science fiction artist David A. Hardy.  It was a pleasure to meet him though, and I did come home with a copy of his book Hardyware. 

Also a pleasure to meet were Harry, Obbie and Cecily, who had seen on this blog that I'd be at Microcon, and came to find me and have their copies of the Mortal Engines and Fever Crumb books signed.  (To be honest, I don't think Cecily has got around to reading Mortal Engines yet, but it was very good to see her anyway.)  I asked their dad to take this picture of us, and Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson sneaked in as well.

Like all the best cons and festivals, Microcon got me listening to speakers I wouldn't have gone to see otherwise, and learning things I didn't know I didn't know.  I'll certainly return as part of the audience in future years, and it's whetted my appetite for BristolCon in October. (I was planning to go to Eastercon as well, but sadly other commitments mean I won't be able to.)

Many thanks to Exeter University Science Fiction Society for inviting me along and providing my accommodation, and to all the people I met there for being such good company.