Category Archives: Books & words in general

In search of decent kids’ books

I’m new to the world of children’s books – or rather, returning after a rather long absence – and I have been impressed by what is out there at the moment… and keen to find more.

I started off in true PFB (Perfect First Born) fashion by reading my son books that were a bit too old for him. But they seemed to ‘overstimulate’ him (squawking and jerking around; it’s easy to spot after a while but at first you think, oh dear, he’ll be on the Ritalin in a few years) so now we’ve gone back to baby books, ie. anything with flaps to look under, and I’m saving the other ones for when he’s a bit older.

He also loves a bit of poetry, I think because babies respond to rhythm, and that is what poetry is all about. Plus it’s meant to be read aloud, so is a good way to appreciate it properly and entertain your baby at the same time.

Here are some of the children’s books I’ve either discovered or rediscovered lately. I would love to hear any recommendations of good authors & books… Continue reading

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Sight of Eternal Life Church, Shrubland Road

This battered corrugated iron church on Shrubland Road looks like it would be more at home in Alabama, or perhaps a Flannery O’Connor novel, than in Dalston, and I have always been intrigued by it. So I was happy to open a copy of Hackney: Modern, Restored, Forgotten, Ignored, and there it was. Built in 1858 at a cost of just £1250, it’s believed to be the oldest surviving example of an iron church in existence, a ‘tin tabernacle’ as they are called.

Published by The Hackney Society and available through their website or from Pages of Hackney, I found this book at the local hairdresser of all places, and went out to buy a copy soon afterwards. It looks at 40 buildings in Hackney to mark 40 years of The Hackney Society. As well as historical buildings it features contemporary homes and new schemes such as Adelaide Wharf and Sutton House, and is beautifully photographed and well researched. The saddest chapter, ‘Forgotten’, looks at buildings that have been demolished.

A bit of a gem, and a fantastic book for anyone interested in architecture, history or Hackney.

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Get talking at the British Library

British Library

If you like words and stories, you’ll find eavesdropping particularly satisfying in Hackney. Just yesterday in the doctor’s surgery waiting room (always fertile ground) I listened to two women reminiscing about the childrens’ homes they grew up in, and the nuns who cared for them – ‘We used to think of ways to kill them’, said one. And on the 38 the other day I heard three women talking about what they were going to do that afternoon after a trip to Primark – ‘I got some well sexy gear today’ said one, twanging a hot pink g-string, ‘I want to get home and sort it all out.’

And you only have to ride a bus in East London around 4pm to hear school kids speaking ‘Hackney Patois’, which has been described in Urban Dictionary as a combination of East London cockney, Afro-Caribbean and hip-hop slang. One of its most noticeable features is the lengthening of vowels, so like becomes ‘laaaaahke’ and mobile phone conversations are ended with a long, softly spoken ‘Baaahhhh’ instead of ‘Bye’.

Being a relative newcomer, I can only listen in on this patter, and will never speak it myself – I think you have to be born here for that. The most useful made-up word I’ve adopted in the past few years is ‘Hangry’ – which (obviously) describes a state of extreme anger brought about by low blood sugar. Happily, although I live with someone (actually two people these days, apparently it’s genetic) who suffer from this quite badly at times, it’s more comical than dangerous and easily remedied with two words: ‘Eat something!’. I think of it as hanger management.

If you find this kind of thing fascinating, get along to the British Library for their free exhibition ‘Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices’ which is open until 3 April. They have looked at contemporary language, such as marketing speak – ‘at the end of the day they’re moving the goalposts’; text speak ‘2 b or not 2 b, that is the q’, among others, and placed these alongside the kind of texts they have unique access to – you know, Shakespeare quartos, the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, that sort of thing.

You can also record your own voice and have it archived as a record of how people speak in 2011. ou can record your voice to add to the collection as part of the exhibition – visit ( to find out more.

Visit or tweet using #evolvingenglish (link the #tag to
British Library

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Guest post: Hidden City by David Long

Between school on London’s Essex fringes and Birmingham University – in what I suppose must have been a parentally-guided bid to broaden my experience of life, I spent six months clerking for a Japanese investment bank in the City.

In those days – we’re talking more than 30 years ago – I had a daily allowance of 75p in Luncheon Vouchers, and as often as not would set off across the Square Mile in search of a shady bench or leafy churchyard where I could enjoy my prawn and mayonnaise sandwich whilst reading a book. I was, even then, delighted to discover a maze of narrow alleyways and secret places that had somehow survived centuries of change, and soon acquired the habit of spending my lunch hours walking what was essentially still the geography of a vibrant and successful medieval city.

Years later, having moved to the London for a writing job on a magazine, my impression was that these ancient thoroughfares were being systematically destroyed, or at least modified beyond recognition as the demands of international finance gained precedence over any sense of London’s past or its cultural importance. In fact I was only partly correct, which is perhaps the best discovery I made whilst researching my latest book, Hidden City: The Secret Alleys, Courts and Yards of London’s Square Mile. Continue reading

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Pages of Hackney

There’s something so exciting about opening the front door to an Amazon delivery (except when it’s not for you. One of the problems of being home full-time is that delivery people tend to ring every doorbell in a flat just to get that parcel out of their life. Back when I was pregnant and the size of a house I would open the window and yell down to them to find out who it was for. If it was for me or my middle neighbours, who I like (Hi, E!), I’d waddle down. If not, I’d tell them I had a bad leg. Right at the end I’d tell them I was in labour).

But there’s something even better about buying a book from a bookshop. I tend to do this more when it’s a gift for someone (and books are a great gift – small, enjoyable and easy to donate to Oxfam if you don’t like them). Plus, you can buy one on the way to seeing the person it’s for. Buying a book on Amazon for a gift is just that little bit too organised. Bugger, baby awake. To be continued.

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Writing in East London & London in general

I went on an Arvon course this year. It was one of those things I have had on my Life To-Do List for years, and I was very much looking forward to it.

Arvon courses are the Holy Grail of creative writing retreats; they get booked out very quickly and they also cost a fair amount – around £545 for a four and a half day course, not including travel.

As it turned out, I wasn’t overly thrilled by the experience. Sometimes writing groups just don’t gel, and this was one of those times. We did have Lionel Shriver come and read to us, which was great (it was going to be Hilary Mantel but she won the Booker Prize and pulled out).

However, I’m sure some Arvon courses are very good. And to be fair to the organisers and everyone else who was there, I wasn’t feeling the best that week and was in no mood to be among strangers, or indeed humans of any description. And maybe my expectations were just too high.

But for anyone wanting to dabble a toe in the world of creative writing courses without leaving London, I thought I would list a few courses that I know of or have been on. The single positive side-effect of writing being so badly paid is that most writers, even really good ones, have to supplement their writing income with other work, and tutoring is one such way. London is home to many brilliant writers and writing courses and organisations, much of it generously subsidised by the Arts Council, so I would urge all aspiring writers – and by that I mean anyone who likes sentences and words and reading and listening to stories and poems, not just those advanced types who plan to write a bestseller and retire to the Bahamas – to check a few of them out.

Our very own Baroque in Hackney blogger Katy Evans Bush runs various poetry courses, which you can find out more about on her blog and her website. I haven’t been on any, but I have her book, Me and the Dead, which is published by Salt, and she’s a wonderful poet and, I suspect from reading her blog, an honest, challenging and constructively critical teacher (the best kind: save the therapy, just tell me if it’s crap.)

Spread the Word is a great London writing organisation, with frequent workshops and talks by publishing professionals – I went to one a couple of years back where the head of fiction at Faber & Faber, Hannah Griffiths, talked to us about the business of getting a book deal while calmly breastfeeding her baby; she was refreshingly down-to-earth.

The City Lit is another solid London institution – not just for writing but for anything from pottery to German classes. Mary Flanagan – who lives in Hackney – runs a very good advanced critical workshop where you simply have your work critiqued every few weeks, and do the same for others.

Nick Quentin Woolf runs a few writing workshops at Brick Lane books – he’s a friendly fellow, gives sound advice, and is a shining example of how a good workshop should be run. This is a sociable group and there’s always a drink afterwards on Brick Lane.

Anyway, this is just a starting point: please feel free to add comments on any others you’ve been on and rate. Thanks.


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Everyone else is doing it so I am too… best books of 2009

This year I wrote down every novel I read. I wanted to see how many I get through, and have a record. I’ve read some great books over the years that I would like to revisit but only remember fragments – a mum teaching her daughter to use a washing machine, a girl eating a sugar mouse – and wish I still had them. If anyone recognises either of those scenes do let me know.

Some were forgettable, but here are my personal favourites.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood – Anyone who loves Atwood will enjoy this. Three friends, all burned in various ways by the same woman, are shocked when she returns from the dead to cause havoc once again. A brilliant, over-the-top tale about the vicious side of female friendship.

I’ll Go To Bed At Noon by Gerard Woodward – The middle novel in Woodward’s funny, tragic trilogy about booze-soaked family life in North London. Continue reading

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