Friday, 29 August 2014


This summer offered me something completely out of my comfort zone.

We were in the depths of rural Ireland when I realised that a very good friend of ours had a significant birthday.

Now, we have known Stephen for many years. Our children have been friends since before they can remember, and we have lived in and out of each other’s pockets for the best part of a decade.

It’s fair to say that Stephen gets away with a lot. He speaks his mind (often unintentionally), has changed career multiple times (apparently without breaking sweat), and has a view of life so relaxed that he turned up at his brother’s wedding in a suit that he hadn’t thought to try on for more than a decade. The subsequent photographs are invaluable evidence of the tensile strength of mixed cotton and polyester fibre under overwhelming pressure.

He is also the only person we know whose hair has actually gone white overnight. So when I decided to write him a birthday poem, it’s fair to say that I had lot of ammunition. What I didn’t have, however, was time. In total I had twenty-four hours before the deadline, in which time I also had to work on our house build, edit a manuscript, cook the dinner and manage the sports runs and  homework.


The resulting poem (below) isn’t perfect, but it was a valuable chance to have an idea, work it through and put it on paper under enormous time pressure. There’s a lot I will change when I go back to it, but I got finished in time and – more importantly – Stephen got his present.

And that’s what really mattered. Happy birthday Steve.


Distinguished Members of the Board
I’ve called you here because – dear Lord! –
Our scientists (while searching for
The key to all life heretofore)
Have stumbled on a find so rare -
So out of step it doesn’t square
With our belief that adaptation
Played a part in our formation.

This find – let’s call it Homo Blurt
(That’s Slide 14) – seems to subvert
Our firmly held belief that man
Develops all the skills he can
To help ensure the preservation
Of his lifespan allocation.

Observed in its own habitat
(I think we’d best gloss over that)
Our subject, superficially,
Presents in general as do we.
Four limbs attached the standard way,
A brain – of sorts – that works OK,
Yet here’s the rub.  Our specimen
(Slide 15, please, and figure 10)
Displays (with striking non-compunction)
A total lack of edit function.

Its cry, “Did I say that out loud?”
Rings out – with glee - and oddly proud,
Across its natural terrain
(It thrives on riverbanks, in rain).
If challenged, to avoid triage,
It triggers cunning camouflage,
Which, faster than the speed of light,
Transforms its jet black hair pure white

(See Slide 16).  But stranger yet,
Despite the ever present threat
Preventative incarceration
Poses this abomination
Does its behaviour show alarm?
No not at all, for to disarm
Its predators as you will see
(Let’s skip ahead to 23)
One further method of defence
Has been observed.  When grave offence
Has been detected Homo Blurt,
Seen here dressed in a formal shirt
And shiny suit will then begin
To shed its tightly fitting skin.

See how the buttons start to strain!
Our subject’s rudimentary brain
Has recognised a threat to life
(Hence frantic signals from its wife).
This trait we’ve called ‘defensive shedding’
(Employed here at a family wedding)
Has saved the creature year on year.
(Slide 30): First, an engineer
Then presto! With a change of skin
Poor IBM has let it in.
But has our subject yet divined
How to behave near humankind?
Why no!  With kamikaze risk
Watch it appal psychologists!

In summary, as I conclude
By totting up offence accrued
Across the years by this unique
And frankly quite unnerving freak,
I question – does this dreadful lack
Of filter hold the creature back?
If not, there’s only one conclusion:
Subject disproves evolution.

Thursday, 29 May 2014


Sometimes, reviews of the very best books just require a picture.

New house rule: no reading underwater, even if you are wearing goggles…  

And what was the book too good to leave on the edge of the bath?

Wednesday, 16 April 2014


One of writing’s greatest challenges is closing the gap between what you want to say and your ability to say it. 

Putting pen to paper for the first time can be a shock.  The story that seemed so clear in your head suddenly won’t do what you want it to – and fixing the problems of one part has knock-on effects elsewhere.  It’s like a giant game of three-dimensional chess, complex and challenging, requiring huge determination.   Wanting to write a book is just the first step.  So what happens next?

(Keith Gray - The Writer's Pyramid)

On March 29th, SCWBI SES, the Scottish chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, met in Edinburgh for a ‘Strong Beginnings’ workshop with author Keith Gray.  SCWBI is the international organization for writers and illustrators of children’s books, and if you’re not yet a member, it’s well worth a look. 

Both published and unpublished writers can join, and it’s a valuable source of support and information.  The international website is here, the British Isles one here, and my review of Keith’s workshop will be available here when it’s published in Words and Pictures, the SCWBI British Isles online magazine. 

Until then, here's SCWBI SES’s latest success story, YA author Christina Banach, whose debut novel Minty was published last week by Three Hares Publishing.  Go Christina!

Friday, 28 March 2014


Two things in our kitchen are always priorities - coffee and chocolate.

March is a birthday month for us, and as our house build cracks on, the pressure to save money keeps growing greater.

With that in mind, we decided to celebrate with whatever was left in the cupboard.  The result was this - spontaneous mocha birthday sponge cake - as good warm with ice cream (it turned out) as it was cold with coffee.  The only drawback?  It doesn't last very long.  But what else are birthday cakes for… ? 


2 tablespoons instant coffee granules (we used Nescafé)
200g unsalted butter
200g golden caster sugar (ordinary will do)
4 medium eggs
180g self-raising flour
20g cocoa (we used Bourneville)
1 teaspoon baking powder


1 tablespoon instant coffee granules
150g unsalted butter
265g golden icing sugar (ordinary will do)
35g cocoa


1. Preheat the oven to 180.

2. Grease 1 round 8" cake tin and line with parchment

3. Dissolve two tablespoons of coffee granules in one tablespoon of boiling water and leave to cool.

4. Cream together the sugar and butter until light and fluffy, then add the eggs (mixing all the time).

5. Add the flour and baking powder.

6. Stir in the dissolved coffee.

7. Transfer into the cake tins and bake until the cake has risen away from the sides and is springy to the touch (30-35 mins approx.).  A knife pushed into the centre should come out clean.

8. While the cake is cooking, dissolve your remaining two tablespoons of coffee in one tablespoon of boiling water.  Set aside to cool.

9. Beat the sugar and butter together until light and fluffy.

10. Stir in the dissolved coffee and add the cocoa powder, mixing until well combined.

11. When the cake is ready, turn out and leave to cool.

12. Invite a nearby child to ice it generously, decorating with any sprinkles to hand.

Friday, 24 January 2014


Rain, gale, rain, gale, rain.  With the winter weather stretching on endlessly, January has been a month of hot drinks, casseroles and comfort food. 

This stew is a perfect antidote.  It’s easy to make, ideal for sharing, and – with the addition of chicken – uses up the leftovers from Tomato Prawn Curry, Odds and Sods Stirfry and Summer-Proof Soup, making it extremely cheap to prepare.  

Should chilly guests turn up unexpectedly, it's also easy  to bulk out.  Just add mushrooms


1 tablespoon olive or sesame oil
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
3 small onions, chopped
2 chicken breasts, cut into inch long chunks
2 peppers, chopped (preferably red and yellow, but any will do)
1 tablespoon tomato puree
1 tin plum tomatoes, chopped
250g pack cherry or pomodorino tomatoes, halved
handful of spinach
250g pack mushrooms (optional)


1. Heat the oil to a medium / high heat in a heavy bottomed pan.

2. Fry the chicken until cooked through, remove from the pan and set to one side.

3. Add the garlic, onions and peppers to the pan and cook for approximately 5 minutes.

4. Stir in the puree, add the tinned and fresh tomatoes and pop the cooked chicken back in the pan.

5. Bring to the boil.  When the sauce is bubbling, reduce to a simmer and cook for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

6. Remove from the heat and add the spinach, allowing it to wilt.  Great with potatoes (mashed or boiled), rice, or Breadline Bread.