Many things have grown from The Lost Words- a spell book. Such fine and wonderful things. I love how the book has become a portal of escape for children into the outside, away from the classroom. I love how it has become a portal for those who live with dementia and the people who share their lives, again, giving escape, finding lost memories. But of all the things it’s become, and all the things I have done in my life, working with these people, at Folk by the Oak, the musicians, sound engineers, visuals, designer- working with them has been THE best thing. The best thing. Ever. I’m at a loss to say more, other than, with their craft, learned over years, they take the message deeper.
This is The Lost Words Blessing. For those who are struggling to cope with the news about climate change, I hope this brings you peace of mind to see a clear way forward, courage to make changes, to know you aren’t alone. It’s a call to link arms and stand against those who deny, those who make false gods of money.
I love living in a place where I can walk out of my door and hear a cuckoo calling.
I’ve been home for a few weeks now and it has been blissful not going anywhere and just working in my studio day after day. Hannah is away, and she left her cat and her dog with me, and I have been falling in love with Little Fishheads, as he is now known. Right from the first he came walking.
And The White Cat came too.
Leaping the rocks, coloured like his fur, both cats shine in the sun and sparkle, as if the stars of night caught in their coats.
I’ve put out some stone to walk between, like marker stones, and I am hoping they will stay and I can see how long the gold remains.
Mostly The White Cat walks. But sometimes he does still like to hitch a lift on Robin’s back.
I painted, at last, the woman who walks with fish in the world’s winds. This is for a book, and more on that soon. It will, I think, be called The Unwinding. Because that is what it is. For there are times when I should be painting things, but other images step forward and demand to be realised.
And I have been steadily gilding pieces worked for the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital. Here, heron rises, carrying the twilight under her wings. White gold glimmers.
And here, the soul of a kingfisher is stitched in gold leaves, literally.
Today the Carnegie Greenaway team posted the film of me talking, in my studio, about The Lost Words. I’m really hoping this will be useful to schools. There are so many schools working with the book, so many children writing and painting inspired by it. I’m so glad, but have been inundated with invitations to visit schools, and cleave so much to home, to my brushes and paints and creature friends. So I am hoping this will help, be useful, inform. My desk looks so cluttered. I keep meaning to clear it, but then I just paint.
Nicola Davies and Dan came to visit, oh so very briefly. We walked together to the top of the hill and sat and watched and listened to birds. So lovely to see them both.
Another few weeks before I set forth again. This time to Hay. The walk I am leading is sold out, but Spell Songs has been moved to a larger venue, so more tickets have been released. It is our hope that we will have the cd’s by then. It would be great to play to a full house so please, help us spread the word. It’s a beautiful place to visit, and Hay Festival is a tonic for the tired soul. This year the exhibition will be Axel Scheffler’s Drawing Together show. And Axel is being awarded the Hay Medal for illustration. I remember when he first came to collect. Even then his work was a delight.
I’ve more news to come, but for now I think it is time to curl by the fire with cats. And think about how to finish and then what to do with this.
An email from my agent came, forwarded from Letters to the Earth. The request was for letters, to the earth, to be read at various venues, by people. Protest letters, love letters. Could I write one, would I write one.
This is what I wrote.
When I was young I would lie, pressed to the earth, eyes wide to the skies. I would watch you in your hundreds, criss-cross, hunt on the wing, layers of birds, some so high, seen only as dark commas against the blue, some so low to skim the reaching seeds of long grass.
When I was young I believed you carried the promise of summer sun on your wings.
When I was young I watched as you gathered mud in your mouth to build a home beneath the eaves of the houses of humans. Architect, potter, parent. I watched your shadow rise and fall, heard your children call, saw you answer them with food, watched them fledge.
When I was young I marvelled as you gathered, toward summer’s end, small dots on wires like wild music, fast, furious rhythm, written against the sky.
When I was young I didn’t know the distance you travelled, away from my winter, to warmer lands. I didn’t know how you carried in your bodies the maps of the earth, the paths of the flight, scenting the land, knowing its shape, each rock and stream and tree and river and ocean. I didn’t know how this knowledge was born in the egg, before egg became bird became flight, but I knew you were a miracle. Every single soul.
Once some believed you slept all winter beneath the ice in ponds.
Once some believed the Earth is flat.
Now some believe climate change is fiction.
But now, when I lie on my back in the long grass, breathing its scent, eyes wide to the sky, my heart still lifts to see your wings, though you are now so few. Each year more sky, more space, and each single swallow more precious for that.
And I still marvel to see you gather as autumn scents the air, still writing your wild music on the wires in the sky. But now the music is a lament, more space between each note, a song of praise and loss, an elegy for the ghosts of gone birds.
And I know, I cannot live without you.
And I sent a swallow, and now she flies with the Letters to the Earth and it is, for me, beautiful to see her alongside protestors in London.
I remember when the email came through with Lark, for The Lost Words. I remember reading it for that first time, sitting in an armchair by the window at Moundsey. I remember thinking, it was odd, because in a sense the word ‘astronaut’ brought the human in to the book in a way it hadn’t been before. And I read, re-read, as you need to do, until it sinks into the soul.
And it came with notes as to where it was written and why and how it connected to a deep depression, not Rob’s but a close friend. And haven’t we all at some point, at some age, felt that deep rift that as humans we fall into? And isn’t, at the moment, ever, and always for the human condition ‘the world more full of weeping that we can understand”.
To lift with the lark, it takes strength, it takes muscle, it takes such work, and to sing at the same time? How utterly perfect to see Lark in this way.
And I remember the first time I heard Little Astronaut, from the Spellsongs team, sitting on a sofa at Monnington House in January of this year. I’d missed the first singing of it, the shaping, but I felt something happening in the house, a crackle like static electricity. An intake of breathe, a sigh. Caroline walked in, hand over mouth, crying a little. So I sneaked into the room and sat quietly and listened as they ran through again. And how hard it was to breathe. How very hard.
How can music do this? Cut straight to your soul? Give you permission to grieve? To feel? Connect you with the human condition and leave you cleansed?
Working at home now, and listening to the Spellsongs master tape, the lark has come a long way from where it was written, to where it was read, and how it was shaped in to song. The cd is available by pre-order from Folk by the Oak. It comes with extraordinary sleeve notes and includes new artwork from me, new spells from Robert, wonderful photos from Elly Lucas, words from all the makers involved. Alison O’Toole has made it into a thing of great beauty. The inclusion of photos from Monnington and the stage open up the making of the work, invite you to enter and share the process. And Eva John and Caroline Slough are working on school notes in the hope that it will deepen the experience of The Lost Words for children.
There will be an LP too, for those like me who love vinyl.
And guess what? It won’t fit on a cd shelf! Because it’s the size of a small hardback book.
( I tried to get them to do the record/lp in pro, but Adam said we had to draw a line somewhere!)
In response to your recent letter to parents at you school where you state:
Could I please point out that while listening to music might be your hobby, for many who work in the music industry it is a profession. Indeed for many who work in the industry of the arts it is a profession.
The statement in your letter only illuminates your own ignorance. It also saddens me, as over 30 years ago I was told by my headmaster that I could not make a living as an artist, but that it was a good hobby for me to pursue in my married life. He went on to inform me that girls only went to art college to look for a husband, which seemed a complete failure of logic, for why, if you wished to find a husband to earn a living so you could pursue your hobby would you choose to hunt one down in a place where you can’t make a living? But I digress.
Sir, the music industry in the UK brings in an estimated 690 million pounds. How this is assessed I am not sure, for music does so much more than just provide a living for many people.
But the main point that you are missing I fear is that education is not meant to be a process a child is passed through, like meat in a sausage factory, to emerge at the other end with certificates and employability. Education is a powerful thing, and music teaches people how to collaborate, it teaches a sense of time, it teaches patience, it teaches listening skills, it broaden understanding of wider subjects, so many things, too many to list. Music is not something that is often done in isolation. It’s about learning to communicate, to share space, both physical and sonic. It’s about knowing when to speak, to sing, to play and when to be silent. it’s about finding a voice, being heard.
We don’t have to look far to see what happens when people are unable to co-operate and listen, and think in creative ways.
Those who do not wish to make a living in the music industry can benefit in so many ways also.
As a teacher, and a head teacher, you should be supporting the education of all your pupils and their access to music, not just the few who can afford to take private lessons after school.
A failure to do so is a dereliction of your duty, and were I to give you a school report I would say ‘could do better’.
My old headmaster is dead now ( nothing to do with me), so he did not live to see that I could indeed make a living as an artist, and whilst there were indeed many handsome young men at art college many of the women I was at college with were there to seek an education, and not a husband.
Yours, completely unbelieving that 30 years on this can still be an issue.
See Guardian Education article re letter to head. And, if anyone reading this has a child at the school in question please print off letter and take in for headmaster ( assuring him first that my headmaster died of old age, and it was nothing to do with dragons)
My thanks to Dr Adam Rutherford for highlighting this article on twitter. One day we should talk of what happens when artists and scientists work together.
Ps, to all children who are told by ‘grown-ups’ that you can’t make a living in the arts, this is nonsense, and grown ups don’t always, or in some cases, often, know what they are talking about.
To all young musicians, you need to join the Musicians Union so that you can have contracts checked. And also, do take a look at the work of Help Musicians, a charity who fund music lessons, instrument costs, start ups, who have mentor to help you navigate through the tides and turns of currents of what is a fierce industry. And know that if you choose to follow your heart, you may need to get a part time job to help support your dream, you might always need one, BUT you will have spent your days doing something you love. And that is everything.
In 1992 I was living in Bath. At the time I was working as an illustrator and was lucky enough to include Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Oxfam amongst my clients. I worked with Oxfam to produce a calendar that was sold through all their shops. The work centred around the crafts they sold in their stores and the people who made them, and my flat was full of rugs and ceramics, and embroideries ( I had to give them all back, but loved spending time with them).
One of the paintings was later sold. In pencil and watercolour, it shows Guatemalan weavers working, spinning, weaving and carding. The owner is downsizing and is offering the piece for sale. Not sure of the size at the moment, but will find out and add tomorrow. I seem to recall them being quite large pieces. It is framed. The price is £3000.
I loved this job. This was before I worked in picture books. Most of my work prior to this had been one off editorial pieces, and then sets of greetings cards. I felt then that I was just beginning to learn my craft, but I guess I still feel the same every day, so it’s good to look back almost 30 years and see a strong piece of work, a developing language. And obviously a passion for putting goats into pictures.
Email me if you are interested and I will pass your details on to the seller.
While I was in Dulverton I made a podcast with Number Seven Dulverton. Not my first. There’s another coming soon from the wonderful Folk on Foot, so subscribe to their mailing list, and have a listen to the other sounds on their site while you wait.
This Ex Libris podcast with Chris and Davina has an unusual premise. Imagine you are laid out on a funeral pyre ( I do love a good bonfire). You have a coat on, with one pocket, and in that pocket, a book. So Which book would you wish to mingle your ashes with? Which words would you burn, together with your remains, so that in an afterlife you were part of that story.
To find out which book I chose you will need to listen. There could have been others. The one I am working on now is one that I have, off and on, spend 5 years of my life in. I’d be happy to live there. It’s wild and free, but more of that soon.
I almost wish I had chosen a blank notebook. For isn’t that what life is? A story we write about ourselves every day, if we don’t let others write it for us? The other book I might have chosen is The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. A place of peace, beauty and lists.
So tell me, and tell me true, what ashes of pages would you like to live your afterlife in and why? As Davina says, it doesn’t have to be a favourite book, nor a weighty tome. Give thought to the shape of that world. For though they contain only 26 letters, in patterns, these letters make worlds within the leaves of their covers.
Yesterday I was visited by the film team working on the Carnegie/Greenaway awards. The Lost Words was first nominated, then longlisted, and now shortlisted for the Greenaway. So wonderful. I’ve been shortlisted once before and it’s such an honour, for the whole team behind the book. And it’s in amazing company too.
I’m working so hard, trying to finish a book, begin a new one, finish the visuals for Hay Festival Spellsongs, so I didn’t want to have to travel to London for the filming, so was delighted when they said they would come to me.
I talked about the book, how it works, the importance of the design, how Robert and I worked very closely together, words and image informing each other. And then they asked me a question that I struggled to answer. What would it mean to me to be chosen by the shadowing groups as the best book. What does it mean to an artist to win an award.
Been thinking. It’s wonderful to be shortlisted, to see our book in such company. The book has won a few awards now, been shortlisted for more. But, you don’t make books with the aim to win awards. At least I don’t. So what is the aim? For me, I think it is this: to speak from my heart and soul, in as beautiful a voice as I can achieve, into the heart and mind of a child. I don’t mind how old that child is. What I really mean is a person, but I say child because it is that place, the open, wild, receiving, hungry place where the imagination runs wild. And if you can do that, if someone says, ‘this is my favourite book’, if you can help someone escape for a while into your book, if you can show people something they’ve not seen for a while, never noticed before, if you can make studying nature cool again, if you can take children out from the classroom, away from the tests and the desks, with teachers away from that pressure of targets to be achieved, that’s the prize, the best prize. And if you can give people some fresh air in a book, connect with them through the pages, inspire new ways of seeing, understanding, well, that’s an ambition.
And I have almost finished my next book, which is so much about escape and following your heart, and I will be able to talk about soon, and show you soon…….but for now, how wonderful for us all at Hamish Hamilton to have this for our book.
Two more paintings to go, then the next one will be finished. And other news to come soon.