Saturday, 23 April 2016

What an imposition!

So I set myself the challenge of explaining book printing at Bookaroo Kuching. Simple! I told myself.
I would be talking to kids aged eight to ten who can easily understand the four-colour printing process, the way the pages are laid out on the page (imposition), and the way the huge pages are folded into sections (signatures), so all I needed were some nifty, colourful slides and a few anecdotes of how my own book was printed.

I had a group of kids of random ages. And almost as many adults. 

Would any of the parents be graphic designers, printers or publishers? Hmmm, I tried not to think about it. 

Then I realised that with several very little ones in the audience I'd have to race through my powerpoint and get to the hands-on bit pretty smartish ... or I'd risk people just walking out.

Of course, I had loads of props. I had a wooden block to show that printing was basically "pressing something with inky onto something papery" and I even did a quick demonstration of how the image will be reversed when it's printed, so you need to 'offset' it onto another surface to get the image the right way round. It's called 'offset printing' after all. That's pretty technical for me, and I felt happy when one or two of the dads nodded as I waved my inky fingers and the piece of paper in the air.

Oh dear, was I making a fool of myself?

No! Definitely not. There were kids at the session who had been at the Dragon Mask Making craft session that morning. They were hooked.

I asked my lovely helpers to hand out sheets of A4.  (As seen below, dressed for the occasion.)

Originally I had planned to just talk around the subject, so I hadn't really thought through a hands-on activity, but for someone brought up on hands-on activities, via BBC's ground-breaking Blue Peter programmes, I had no excuse. None at all. And my primary school teacher, Miss Muffett, would be proud of me. 

Now, I told the children, we fold the sheet up and we number the pages, and when we unfold it, we have a strange order - like this:

Thank heavens for nerdy dads and kids who love numbers, I thought as my willing audience began folding and numbering. The father in the photo above was obviously totally absorbed. His daughter could well have been asleep, or cross-eyed trying to see what Daddy was doing. Some of the kids got stuck in, writing a story. 

Yeah! I had got through to them! A few asked politely whether they could use pencils or crayons. And the boys who had been at my mask-making session stayed right to the end. Along with a girl of about seven who was in tears, as she'd made a mistake, and wanted to rewrite her story! I wonder how long her parents had to wait before she was ready to leave.

Please, teacher

The sun was beating down as I approached Sg Apong Primary School with my kind guide and driver, Mas. Everything in the school seemed well ordered and quiet. The library I was ushered into was well ordered and quiet. I took my props out of my huge bag and organised them in a well ordered and quiet manner. I looked at the books on the shelves. They were in Malay and Chinese. There were a few in English.

It's a Chinese language school, Mas explained. 

Hey ho, I'll act up. I'll use lots of mime, I'll ask the teachers to help me, I thought.

The children soon filed in, and they waved and said Hello. Sixty eight kids in all, sitting in neat rows, looking at me expectantly.The head teacher came in and introduced me. 
I started on my Powerpoint. And all seemed to be going well, as I explained where I got my  ideas from. Can you see what's in this picture? I asked, as a photo of an orang-utan holding a stick like a pencil appeared on the screen.

It's orang-utan said one.
Yes, and what's it going to do?
There was no reply.
Will it write a story?
Still no reply.
Don't they understand? I thought.
But no, they just weren't used to being asked.

I read from my book and they enjoyed being entertained. 
I wore my dragon ears and they laughed. 
I let them smell the real gobstoppers I had brought along.
When there was lots of text on the Powerpoint, they read it out loud. Wow - they were doing my job for me!

Soon a few of them were bored. They were talking. A teacher poked one of them gently.  But I didn't mind the little buzz of conversations. I suspected they were hungry. And I had a couple of very bright kids in the front row (put there deliberately) who were drinking in my words. 

Then I started drawing. I got the idea from Candy Gourlay and had practised for weeks and weeks, perfecting a simple picture that the kids could follow. I had simplified Charlotte Micklewright's illustration of Freddy and thought through simple stages the children could copy. Charlotte's drawings are adorable, so it was a happy experience.

While I was drawing there was silence. Complete and utter silence. Not a single titter. 
You could have heard a mosquito biting my ankle, it was so quiet. And when I finished they gave me a round of applause. Gosh! I have never had a round of applause like that, at least not within living memory. It made me so happy I repeated the exercise at the end, letting them call out 'ear' or 'nose' or 'tooth' as took their fancy. This time they were willing to participate. Very willing.

Then the second surprise of the day. The teacher presented me and Mas with presents. Mine was a large drinks container - Tupperware - and was decorated with a handmade paper rose. Wow, thanks you, I said. Shall I fill it with gobstoppers? 
No, water! they replied.
Doh! Silly me.

We handed out stickers and the kids rushed off to lunch. I had enjoyed myself and I had learned a fantastic lesson. 
These kids love watching. And reading out loud. It was to stand me in good stead for the rest of the book festival. 

(This young lady even copied my hasty dragon picture...later during the library sessions.)

On the way back to the car, we passed a class of older students reciting some Chinese text. I can't remember reciting things at school at that age. Maybe at seven years old, going through our times tables. Or repeating the odd word in French when we were older. But it was strangely comforting to hear them speaking 'as one'.

Fear for Ears

What is the first thing you think about when you're packing for a long weekend at a Book Festival? It's ears, isn't it? I mean, my best prop is my ears. Not my ears, of course, but those ears, the ears that belong to my character around whom and which my story is based. 

Got it now? 

Good. (Here's Raymond modelling the ears so you get a clearer picture.)

So I find my ears in their sensible box. Then I decide I can't really pack the sensible box because it's too big and because, when I add several copies of my book, papers, other props, clothes, mosquito repellent, sun cream, sunglasses, etc etc I know my case is too heavy and bulky. 

Ok, so no box. And if the ears get crushed, I'll have to make up another story.

But the ears don't get squashed. Of course they don't. They were made by Kinnetia Isidore, costume maker par excellence, and they are built to last! Almost....

The thing about the ears is that once I put them on I can face a crowd of children and not feel daunted. With the ears on I can talk in different voices. I can adapt my voice for different ages to understand. I can read out parts of my book without having to look at the book.  And I usually let the kids have a close look at the ears and touch them. They feel the sequin scales. They marvel at the flap of material that hides the blue gobstopper (wooden button), and they sometimes try them on. I like to think that if they remember nothing else about me or my talk or even my book, they will remember the ears.

I was haunted by my ears when I was little. Big Ears was a nickname that one of my sisters gave me. How sweet of her!  Probably her revenge for something I did to her at some point. But nonetheless when you're a teenager the last thing you want is ears that stick out. Thankfully now I've turned that to an advantage. And an even bigger advantage comes from the fact that I have a dent in my left ear. Unequal ears? Yeah, sure! Perfect for a dragon who wants to keep a spare gobstopper handy and has no pockets to safeguard it.

But even so, I'm a little cautious. I carry the ears with me everywhere I go. I'm frightened someone might sit of them and break the headband. I'm frightened someone might steal them. I'm terrified I'll leave them in one of the rooms in the library and they'll be swept up inside a pile of discarded paper clippings from the many craft activities and consigned to a rubbish dump.

Oh, stop being paranoid.

Well, maybe there are other things I'll be fearful for when I next do a long weekend at a Book Festival? 

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Waking Early 9 - Patterns

Possibly the most interesting morning I spent in Laos was in a weaving and dyeing workshop just outside Vientiane.  If I ever go back, I will sign up for a two-day course.

The women can stay here, in safety, bringing their own skills and learning new ones.

A lovely, messy time adding the indigo dye.


Below are the scarves we made. It took us nearly two hours to dye them, with excellent help from our teacher.
I also spent nearly an hour on the loom. It's a lot harder than it looks!

Some examples from their shop. Oh I wish I had bought more, but time was running out.
The labels below read: jack fruit, stick lac resin, indigo

I find the colours and patterns superb, and when you see the work that goes into a few metres of hand dyed, hand-woven fabric, it really makes you appreciate their art.

Of course, it's not hard to find colours, patterns and interesting textures all over - in the trees:
on the river platforms:

in the wooden roofs  (which I drew while waiting for lunch in Savannakhet)

and in the tiles and on the pillars in the temples, of course. I could devote more time to patterns, so maybe in tomorrow's blog....


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Waking Early 8 - Highlights and Lowlights

I've already mentioned that there were several 'wow' moments as we travelled round Laos, and looking through my photos, these still give me a little jump.

It may be something to do with having spent summers in Norfolk, England as a child. The sky there is so, well, all-embracing, for lack of a better word. It just goes on and on and on and lifts you out of yourself.  Now the climate in Laos may be a little hotter (!) and more humid than the UK, colours even more vivid, but I could feel the same sense of awe, day and night: from our hotel balcony in Thakhek, at around 5pm with the Mekong stretching away on the left.

a little later that same evening:

in the morning: the Chao Anouvong statue in Vientiane 

or another evening shot as everyone strolls along the Mekong in the capital and the sun is split in two by the railings 

I've learned one trivial fact - that sunsets (or sunrises) seem to get more 'likes' on Facebook than any other type of photo, even though they're pretty darn easy to photograph. They don't move, they don't need editing, they just are, provided that you are in the right place at the right time!

So, basically, the skies win, hands down. And if ever I want to regain that 'wow' feeling, I only have to look at this view from the boat, sit back and sigh.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Waking Early 7 - Lao coffee

If there's one memory that lingers longer than all the others of our holiday in Laos, it's the taste of the coffee. There's simply nothing like it. And it's not just the sublime taste. It seems to have qualities other coffees don't have, as if there are other ingredients dissolved in it - a happy pill, a calming pill, a you'll-never-taste-this-outside-Laos experience.

I brought some beans back with me. It was the 'Korean blend', their mildest roast, and I bought the Sinouk cup and saucer you can see above to make sure I could enjoy the full experience. I make it slowly and lovingly through a pre-dampened organic filter paper (!) but it still doesn't quite taste as divine. Probably the water, I tell myself. Here it is, growing amongst poinsettia plants on the beautiful Sinouk estate.

So where did we find such a delightful brew? That's easy, it's all over Laos.  Starting in our hotel in Luang Prabang, and continuing on the Bolaven Plateau Sinouk Coffee Resort, in the casino in Savannakhet, and in the caf├ęs in Vientiane. I don't know how easy it is to buy outside of Laos. I still have a lot of beans left - a little goes a long way!

Hmmm, all this talk of coffee -  I must go and brew myself a cup!

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Waking Early 6 - Elephants and other creatures

You can't go far in Laos without seeing elephants in one form or another. 
I've been a fan of elephants since I sewed one from felt in Miss Muffet's class, aged seven. 

So I wasn't disappointed to have to stay in a rather depressing casino near the Thai border - with no wifi, plug for the bath, or off button for the light in the wardrobe - because it was simply bursting with elephants. 

When we weren't out admiring temples, markets, or the bridge over the Mekong with our enthusiastic guide, we sat in the cafe overlooking the gambling floor - entertaining the cafe staff  by our total lack of interest in money as we buried ourselves in novels and sketch books. This was the huge plaster sculpture in the centre of the gambling floor, with Savan Vegas flags hanging all around.

Of course we saw live elephants, and other creatures, 
like these birds decorating the yellow house I was drawing:
 the pig chilling in a tribal village:

the cat complementing the tiles on the temple floor:
or the silk moths shedding their load in a weaving workshop:
But the elephants will stay with me for ever. And thank-you Miss Muffet for your patience in teaching me to appreciate them!