Parent and Child Space…

Dear owners of vehicles who park in parent and child spaces when they do not have children: please reconsider.

It takes you a matter of moments to put on shoes and coat, pick up your keys, and leave home. On a good day, it takes me twenty.

You can visit the supermarket relatively flexibly. I must plan my visit with the cunning of a military strike, poised precariously between meals, nappies, naps, and general willingness to cooperate.

You can slide out of the gap between your vehicle and that parked next to you like a ninja. Even when I have a wide berth, getting myself and my offspring in and out of the car is like maneuvering a severely pregnant heifer – even when I’m not pregnant.

You lock the car behind you with the slickness of John Travolta’s sexiest dance move. I am lucky if my Michelin-man hands – which clutch between their fingers the contents of Mary Poppins’ entire bag – can find the car keys before my toddler bolts.

You can stroll across the car park at your leisure, come rain or shine, and have a hand free for an umbrella. I cannot haul my toddler, infant, changing bag and shopping bags from one end of a busy car park to the other, dodging traffic.

You can choose a trolley from any trolley station. You can even choose the skinny-latte of carts, the slim one that has a turning radius. My choice is limited to the bloated metal beasts that you can’t see around, let alone steer – especially when there are two screaming children inside. These exquisite models are only available at the parent and child bays – where you have parked.

It might seem like a decision of no importance when you pull into those bays, knowing you have no children and seeing that there is a frazzled mother behind you in need of parking. But when you take those spaces – especially at this time of year – know that a mother like me then has no choice but to go home without shopping. When you take those spaces when you do not need them you epitomise a conceitedness and individualism that is damaging to society.

When you take a parent and child bay, the person who then spends the journey home enraged beyond reason, and quite possibly in hormone-induced tears, is not my tiny passengers – it is me.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.


The Most Wonder-full Time of the Year

This week, in preparation for that Cambrian Explosion of the toy box that is Christmas, I did a bunch of wrapping, and I shared a really special time with my family decorating our tree. I feel smugly prepared, but something gnaws at me:

Everywhere I go, images of Santa abound, and he’s to be visited/assisted/rescued in every festive episode of every children’s programme that my son grazes at.

As a mother to young children, I am in the thick of what I’m dubbing my ‘Santa Quandry’: Santa isn’t real. And, at age three, what mummy and daddy tell toddler about the origins of his presents this year will stick. Do I really want to tell him that they came from a fat man who would find himself blocked at the bottom of our fireplace by a large, draft-excluding piece of cardboard?

Let’s examine this Quandry. Of course, there’s real wonder and excitement at Christmas time, especially if there is something a little bit mysterious about the gifts. The mystery opens the door to traditions that can be tenderly kept down the generations. One that captures all the magic and wonder for me is listening outside the living room door for the sound of the angel chimes that would signify that Father Christmas had been. I now have my own chimes, and want them to be part of the fabric of Christmas with my children. But, to put it bluntly, I don’t want to lie to them. Does that kill the magic? Worse, does it put my children in a position where they kill the magic for someone else’s children?

It seems to me that by being honest with my children from the outset, I can shield them from that awful mark of passage – discovering that Santa isn’t real, perhaps at the hands of peers who will not be kind or generous about it. Will that rob them of the season’s wonder?

No, because the real wonder of the season is the nativity story that we remember. Baby Jesus is all to easily relegated to some quiet suburb of the heart, crowded out by the lights and gifts, the overpowering ‘Santa’, the pressures of wanting family and friends to really feel how much you love them, the crush of preparing the perfect festive treat, the bite to the wallet as the day approaches.

Silently, so silently, the wondrous gift is taken – even in Christian homes, like mine. How often do I really stop to think about what we are celebrating?

I am, of course, au fait with Saturnalia and all its winter festival associates, and that arguing for a return to ‘the real meaning of Christmas’ is repeatedly attacked by those who -quite correctly – say that other feasts came first. That’s not the point. If Christmas is, for me, the time to think on the infant  who was given to us as the most costly gift of all, then isn’t that the story that should take centre stage with my children? It’s much more serious than “Where did my presents come from?”; it’s “Why do we give presents?” In fact, it’s much more important than the presents I’ve bought and wrapped, the tree I’ve decorated, the social calendar I’ve filled or the meal I’ve planned.

Perhaps, then, the answer to the Santa Quandry is simple: don’t lie. The gifts under the tree are from family and friends. Giving them – as you discover as parents – is a blessing, a token of love in a world so desperate for it. That is, in itself, wonder-full, and needs no further wrapping to make it so. But it is also in receiving gifts and returning to the hearts of our families at Christmas time that we remember the unspeakable vulnerability, tenderness, and grace of a God who lay, that first Christmas, in his mother’s arms as warm and as close as my 7-month old daughter does to me now. That is the true wonder – and it is a story worth telling.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.


I’ve always written the way that I read – fast, almost breathlessly. I read the whole of ‘Paradise Lost’ in an afternoon. When I read articles online with others, I often hum a tune to myself while I wait for them to catch up.

My writing is – or has been – by and large, the same. The whole of my fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran’, was written at high speed; I was capable of getting down several thousand words in half an hour, and of polishing off several chapters over a weekend. (These ‘chapters’ were often 10,000 words or more long!). This speed has been a hallmark of my academic and writing career, and a genuine boon.

But something has shifted. It perhaps began when, in my capacity as a teacher, I organised several outings to the Arvon Foundation for my creative writing group. In these intense weeks away – often in places with no internet and very limited phone reception – workshops with professional writers and poets enforced a retreat from the speed at which I am used to living – and writing. I relearned how to lavish attention on a handful of sentences. And then promptly forgot it.

Although I have spent a lot of time editing both ‘The Knight of Eldaran’ and ‘Out of the Darkest Place’ (which I co-authored with Peter Gladwin) over the last few years, time to actually write creatively, freshly, has not existed. So when I sat down to begin work on a new novel yesterday evening, it was a thrill to feel that flush of excitement.

The creative part of writing is rather like the emotional whirlwind of falling in love – there is newness, anticipation, sparks fly (while editing is like the commitment it takes to keep falling in love throughout your marriage). You can’t wait to get back to that story, and perhaps it is that adrenaline that makes you write so fast. And, last night, I was expecting to write fast.

I didn’t. In fact – meaning no disrespect to them – some of my weakest students could have written more in the hour and a half that I wrote last night than I did. That I was typing one-handed whilst holding my nursing/sleeping/nursing again seven-month old was actually by-the-by. I was slow-writing, taking the time to weigh and consider the words, structures, images, pauses. Taking time, rather like one would take time to enjoy a glass of fortified wine. Enjoying the nuances and flavours, having the opportunity to really savour them.

Being one-handed certainly impacted my speed, but in the end, I was proud of those slow-written words (about 346 of them). When one has young children, slow anything is a delight. And it struck me that, just as fortified wine is complex and concentrated so, too, is the slow-written word.

My decade-younger self would probably turn up her nose at how little I wrote last night. But older, wiser me will relish it – and hope for much more slow-writing time to come, even if it comes slowly.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.

The Deep Dark Wood: Overthinking ‘The Gruffalo’

Despite being Italian, my family has always, thanks to one Tanta Johanna, celebrated the day of Saint Nicolas on the 6th of December as done in Germany. When I was young, this was the day that advent calendars, Christmas decorations and chocolate were delivered, a kind of pre-Christmas warmup for the big day itself.

This is a tradition I am maintaining now that I have children of my own, but they are so young that I didn’t want edible treats to be the focus. Instead, I bought them a new book each and, while my seven-month old has been slapping her way through ‘That’s Not My Fox’, for my nearly three-year-old son, I bought a copy of Julia Donaldson’s ‘The Gruffalo’.

I don’t think there can be many people in the UK who haven’t heard of the Gruffalo but, I confess, I had never read the story and knew nothing about it. So it was with real interest that I sat with my children to listen to my husband reading it for the first time. And, as a literature student, there were a number of things about it that really struck me.

The story follows a mouse through a wood, where he encounters three animals – a fox, an owl and a snake. In western folklore and fairytale, each of these creatures has traditional significances: in its size and demeanour, the mouse represents a kind of innocence and weakness which also, in the story, allows it to become a kind of Everyman. Young readers identify with a creature that is little and might encounter danger, which this mouse does.

Mouse’s foes here are traditional figures of the cunning and ruthless (embodied by fox), the otherworldly (in the owl, long an emblem of omen as well as wisdom) and the duplicitous (in the snake). Indeed, the ‘deep, dark wood’ itself has Dantean resonance, recalling the poet’s wandering in despair, and migh also, if we put on the hat of Freudian theory, be emblematic of the dark world of the subconscious and unconscious. In which case, could fox, owl and snake be allegorical symbols for sins or unspoken desires?

You might think this is getting a bit heavy, but don’t worry; Donaldson’s remedy to what could actually be quite frightening is inventive rhyming that skilfully mixes the key ingredients of balladic, oral, tradition – repetition, a strong rhyme scheme, alliteration, especially in emphatic positions, such as ‘scrambled snake’ – with vocabulary that undercuts frightening elements by contrasting the fairytale set up with quotidian elements like ‘ice cream’. These tangible, everyday items, named by the mouse, help a child feel like the protagonist is safe and in control, and make any threat in the story manageable.

Mouse himself showcases a very western virtue; in the same vein as Homer’s wily Odysseus, Mouse averts becoming dinner for any of the larger, threatening creatures through use of his wit. Readers delight in this, and the wit is compounded by Donaldson’s verse, which always gives the metrical and linguistic punchlines to Mouse, while the villains are contained by repetition. Mouse frightens the creatures away with talk of a Gruffalo, which he knows does not exist.

Except, of course, that it does – exactly as he has described it. So Mouse uses his wit again, explaining to the hungry Gruffalo that as he (Mouse) is the most frightening thing in the forest (as evidenced when fox, snake and owl flee from him), Gruffalo should leave him alone. Gruffalo duly does so, leaving mouse to enjoy his nut in peace.

As well as the oral elements that I mentioned earlier, Donaldson employs a triadic structure in the three encounters, conforming to rhetorical and narrative traditions, and frames the poem in a kind of ‘there and back’ frame, which not only heightens predictability and enjoyability for children but also allows for a strong resolution when Mouse escapes the cycle and gets his reward. Indeed, the final page uses a fraction of the lines used in every other verse, giving us a powerful sense of Mouse’s victory.

Overthinking it? Totally. But there is no reason why children’s literature should not be analysed in as much detail as any other. Good storytelling, after all, begins in the nursery; it is there that our imaginations are awakened.

‘The Gruffalo’ is just such storytelling: it allows little ones to approach some genuinely frightening ideas in a controlled situation, making it safe enough to explore intellectually, and thus perhaps better arming them for some of the trials of real life. Very Bettelheim. At the same time, Donaldson’s verse is skilfully wrought to introduce some of the most cherished tools in a literary workbench. And, of course, ‘The Gruffalo’ is gorgeously illustrated, too.

Hats off to Donaldson and Scheffler; this story genuinely deserves its accolades!

Like my writing? Check out my sister site to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.

Viking Angst: The Last Kingdom so far…


6 episodes into this adaptation of Bernard Cornwall’s novels, I can’t be the only one that feels like slapping the show’s protagonist, Uhtred (son of Uhtred) with a wet fish. Repeatedly. And then some more.

I have to come clean with you: I haven’t read the novels upon which the series is based (so no spoilers, please!); thus, I am purely making a judgement on the tv series (something I tell my students to never, ever do!). But I really do feel like challenging this angsty, identity-crisis-ridden, power hungry Viking-Saxon Legolas/Aragorn mash-up to a duel with something suitably demeaning. Blancmange, perhaps. Though I’m sure he’d still manage to slaughter me with it – Uhtred’s just that kind of guy.

Of course, story-telling that gets you this riled is inherently good story-telling, because it’s done just want it intended: got you to care. I cared when pre-teen Uhtred lost his father and was enslaved by Saxons (as a mum to a nearly three year and nearly seven month old respectively, how could I not?); I cared when Uhtred gained in his Viking family something he had never seemed to have in Bebbanburg. I cared when he lost that, and applauded him for keeping his promise to King Alfred despite personal cost. It warmed my heart to see a bit of genuine feeling between him and Mildreth and their young son. He was clearly a guy with anger-management and pride issues, but I was still rooting for him.

Then, the end of episode 5 happened. With the killing of his thieving servant, Uhtred seemed suddenly to go wild. The next thing we know, he’s riding off into non-aggressive territory to thieve himself, and shacking up with a pagan sorceress because… well, she looked ravishing. And poor wife Mildreth is in a position unenviable even to a Bond girl.

I understand that I can’t expect a character in this cultural setting to have feminist, or even proto-feminist notions, but… seriously??!! Uhtred son of Uhtred, you need to take a step back and realise that some things are more important than your patrimony.

The BBC has done well to create this series in a way that allows it to step past inevitable Game of Thrones comparisons, and the cinematography is atmospherically twilit, suggestive of a time and place where Christian and pagan worlds collide and victory is costly and uncertain. Indeed, the conflict between those views – with Christianity figured in cunning, scholarly Alfred and cherishing, loyal Mildreth and its foil in the primal instincts of the Viking world – is one whose resolution is as interesting to me as the story itself.

The spheres of those worlds clash in Uhtred. He is everything and nothing, seeking value in the only thing that means anything to him – his honour, vengeance, and inheritance. It’s a quest that is destroying him.

Am I the only viewer who just wants to see him learn a little humility and self-control?

Uhtred’s struggles are, it seems to me, applicable (in Tolkien’s sense) to much of life in the modern world. Our instincts are to avenge, to self-aggrandise, to claim our ‘rights’ even at cost to others. Our culture, like the Viking one, tells us this is okay, reasonable, normal.

Perhaps we, too, need to learn to ‘bend the knee’. Preferably before someone decides to slug us with a wet fish.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.