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Molluscs and me - a review of the book

Carole Youngs is editor of the Smallholder Series so I am delighted to be able to post here her review of my book:

As a keen vegetable gardener, my relationship with members of the gastropod family has been one of continuous conflict: the snails mounting incessant attack on any tender green shoots that dare show themselves in my garden, and me trying to devise ever-more devious ways to rid them from my plot. 

Then through this fact-packed book, I discovered Helix aspersa maxima, the edible snail - quite a different kettle of mollusc from those seeking to wreak havoc in my garden, though closely related. For a start Helix aspersa maxima is considerably bigger than the common-or-garden snail, with a shell diameter of 45 - 47 mm, and is highly prized by Chefs wishing to add Escargot a la Bourguignon to their menus.

This book is immensely readable, describing the author's entrepreneurial journey from a varied career in the public sector to becoming a fully fledged farmer, albeit on a small scale. Between chapters recounting her sometimes slippery path into snail farming, she provides the reader with fascinating snippets of information about the culinary and cultural history of edible snails, including lots of very tempting recipes from around the world.

As an entrepreneurial smallholder aiming to make a living in a niche market, Helen quickly realised that she needed to capture the interest of her potential customers in a wide variety of ways, from cold-calling up-market restaurants in smart seaside resorts, exhibiting at food fairs to an often bemused audience, to supplying molluscs for photographic shoots! All this promotional activity led to a 'farm visit' from a BBC crew - squeezing into the spare room where the snails then lived! Within a short space of time, Helen had become an expert in edible snail farming, and the first port of call for radio and TV producers looking for an authoritative voice on this definitely niche subject!

Seven years after becoming a snail farmer, Helen describes herself as having achieved some of the'famous' bit of 'rich and famous', and you cannot miss the real affection in which she holds her 'livestock'. I think she makes a great farmer, and this book reveals her as a highly engaging writer too.

Postscript 

Snail farming also has an important conservation role as, despite being a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, 'Roman' snails (Helix pomatia) continue to be plundered from the wild by those looking for a quick profit from selling them to restaurants and gastro-pubs.

Thank you Carole

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Travels in Blood and Honey

Today I'm revisiting a book I read a couple of years ago. I was reminded of Travels in Blood and Honey by Elizabeth Gowing by the heated discussions in the press about immigration.

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I often feel dreadfully ignorant about other countries and this book was a revelation. It is about an English couple who were re-located to Kosovo for work reasons and how they learnt about the country. Elizabeth's route was through taking up bee-keeping and learning Albanian through cooking with honey. It is just a fascinating story punctuated by recipes for local edible treats. I recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about the Balkans.

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More good books I read in 2013

The sun's out this morning and look what it's brought with it! I can't begrudge this little beauty a few dead leaves.P1000183

When the sky is dark grey for days on end and water pours down the road so you have to wade to cross, it feels like the rain never stops. So reading Instructions for a Heatwave, Maggie O'Farrell's latest novel was quite a relief. I'd forgotten just how hot it was in 1976. I read Maggie O'Farrell's first novel in 2000 when it first came out. A friend and I spent a week of that summer on a creative writing course at UEA. I was making some first tentative steps into writing fiction and still feel embarrassed when I remember those dreadful pieces of prose I struggled to produce. Julia Bell was a wonderful tutor who never made me feel inadequate to the task and she recommended that if we were interested in writing fiction then we needed to read Maggie's first book After You'd Gone. I loved it and looked out for each new book of hers as it arrived. When I bought this latest, the bookshop assistant said she thought Maggie's writing gets better with every book and I think I agree with her. This is a very accomplished book with a riveting storyline and the oppressively hot weather contributes in no small part to its atmosphere. Reading about sun and heat was very welcome when it was so dull and grey outside.

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Our best book group books of 2013

Joining a book group about then years ago was a really good way to get me back into reading fiction. I'd got so much into the habit of reading textbooks that I'd forgotten the delights of good story telling. It's a small group and we meet in each other's houses once a month, taking it in turns to choose the book.

Last January we were reading Peter May's The Blackhouse, the first of his Lewis trilogy and we were so engaged by the atmosphere of the Hebridean location and the intriguing characters that we went on to the read the other two just to find out what happened next. I then made the mistake of trying out the first of the China thrillers - The Firemaker which I really didn't enjoy. I found the characters irritating and the style a bit 'instructional' - I was conscious of being taught about life in China and given a stereotypical view of the Chinese. The insights didn't flow comfortably from the story in the best 'show don't tell' manner. So I don't think I'll try any more of those. However, the Lewis trilogy I would recommend.

I went to two book launches in January too. Alex Brown held her launch for Cupcakes at Carringtons in a rather posh members club in London, with red velvet cupcakes to suit the story - so it was wortth going just for that experience. It's a good book to take on holiday and read on the beach. The second book launch of the year was for Elizabeth Haynes' Human Remains which is her best book yet in my view. The story rests on the discovery of a pattern in unexplained deaths - people found long after they had died but with no evidence of foul play. It draws on Elizabeth's experience of working as a police intelligence analyst and it is well worth reading. Her fourth book Under a Silent Moon is next on my list for 2014. It sounds really good - a 'police procedural' with a woman DI. The Kindle edition is out already and it looks like the paperback will be launched early in 2014. There are some books I have to have in paperback and this will be one of them so I can look back at all the procedural documents and try to solve the crime.

In March we read Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey which was a big chunky book with lots of historical research behind it. It gave us insight into what it was like for both owners and workers when the mines were privately owned. It told the story of a big house Wentworth in Yorkshire, the Fitzwilliam Family who lived in it and the miners who worked for them and the other owners of the 70 local coal mines. It covers fifty years of history when relationships between different stratas of society changed dramatically so it's full of all the elements of a good story and we all thoroughly it. When I was browsing in Waterstones yesterday I noticed she had a new book out in 2013 The Secret Rooms, and I'm definitely going to get it in 2014... definitely in paperback because of all the details I will need to refer back to.

That's a few of the best reads last year - there are so many good books around I look forward to reading more. Happy New Year!

 

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This year's books about snails

2013 has been a momentous year for me as the publication of Molluscs and Me was a long time coming. Gestation was slow and the birth painful but, for me, it was as worth the wait as any new baby:

ImageThe ebook and paperback are both selling well and feedback has been very good.

A Slow Passion is the delightful book by Ruth Brooks who won the amateur scientist of the year competition on Radio 4 with her work on snail homing instinct. I would highly recommend this as a good read for anyone interested in the behaviour of very small animals. Snails are proving to be a popular creature for university students to study at both under and post-graduate level. As Ruth showed us, their behaviour is fascinating and they've also been adopted by forward looking primary schools where science is an integral part of the curriculum rather than something the children 'do' once a year in science week.

Then I found Elisabeth Tova Bailey's 'The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating' - such an engrossing study of snail behaviour carried out from the confines of a sick bed, which has some similarities with Ruth's book in its detailed observations but of a single captive mollusc rather than a wild population.

Altogether it's been a very good year for snail books.

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And the Mountains Echoed

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Sometimes when I've read an e-book I want to go straight out and get a copy of the paperback version to keep on my bookshelf and this is one of those books. If you've read The Kite Runner or seen the film and enjoyed it as much as I did, you may have already looked out for Khaled Hosseini's next book. Well I read the next one: 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' and was mildly disappointed. I thought he was another of those writers who got a three book deal on the basis of one good one and then couldn't do it again. So I was not enthusiastic about the idea of reading the third one. Then I heard it reviewed on Radio 4 and it sounded good so I decided to give it a go. I am so glad I did because I think this one is even better than the Kite Runner. It is the structure of the book that really engaged me: it is like a series of linked short stories because each one has a different central character. And the characters are so real and the story line so gripping that it feels like a true story. You must read it!

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Write your book!

It's November and it's Nanowrimo again and I feel I should have signed up but there aren't enough hours in the day just now. So I'm resting on my laurels:

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Is it really three years ago that I managed to complete the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month? I wrote my 50,000 the year before I seem to remember but didn't manage to get my completed word length onto the counter before the deadline - honestly! I can't remember what my excuse was in 2011 and 12 but I do know one thing: - focusing on writing to the exclusion of everything else does work. A big part of the secret is the support you get from all the other people going through the same thing - it's definitely a collective experience. There were hundreds ... no thousands of us just in Kent.  But it's happening all over the world and in some places groups of writers are getting together for 24 hour write-ins and weekends away. Lasdt year we spent a weekend at West Dean which was wonderful. I suppose it works like Weight Watchers. If you've got to meet up with a crowd and explain why you haven't achieved what you set out to do, it galvanises you into action. Nanowrimo certainly played a vital part in the long hard struggle of writing Molluscs and Me. Some years I wrote other stuff and sometimes I just produced pages and pages of the stream of consciousness that comes from a relaxed brain. But that in itself was very cathartic and eventually what I was writing started to make sense and form itself into a book.

So am I Nano-ing this year? Well strictly speaking I'm not, but I have got something I want to write and it needs doing now.  So I shall be on the margins, picking up the vibes from friends who are more involved and using that as a way of getting it done.

Nanowrimo forever!

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Molluscs and Me the online e-book launch

Yesterday was quite a strange day. When I first heard about online e-book launches I wondered how they worked and at first I couldn't think what to do. But eventually I made a list of the sort of things that might work and devoted a whole day to doing just that. Apart from the usual round of feeding the snails etc, I spent the day chained to the PC posting pictures and interesting snippets of information about every half hour onto my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/HRH-Escargots/173946612624979. Then I emailed as many contacts as I could which was three groups and almost 60 customers. I also kept posting to Twitter - again about every half hour or so. I started at 9 by changing the headline picture on Facebook to a party theme and inviting people to join me for a glass of something - in my case local apple juice - what else!

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A few people dropped by to offer congratulations and apologise for not being able to come - a few didn't 'do' Facebook - but I'm not sure I do really. There was a compeition for the best snail photo which was won by the only entry of course. The problem I now have to solve is that he's already got the e-book and that was going to be the prize, so I'll have to think of something else. I posted lots of snail pictures.

Overall the process was quite satisfying for me as I really felt I was celebrating and doing something positive to promote the book. It was made extra special by the arrival of the proof copy of the paperback so now I'm off to read that thoroughly and get the printed version onto the shelves as soon as I can. On the basis of a completely unscientific survey,  I think the majority of people I know really prefer the feel of paper.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Molluscs-and-Me-ebook/dp/B00FBFQHYC/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1380903290&sr=1-2&keywords=molluscs

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Molluscs and Me - the book launches

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At last we are published! It's been quite a long and painful process to arrive at this point and I am just pleased to have survived this far. The online book launch will be on Friday 4 October when I will be offering free gifts and inviting you to post your favourite snail pictures. So join me then please at H&RH Escargots on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/HRH-Escargots/173946612624979 for a virtual glass of something good - you can choose you favourite virtual tipple. 

The e-book is on Amazon (and other online book selling platforms): http://www.amazon.co.uk/Molluscs-and-Me-ebook/dp/B00FBFQHYC . It will shortly be available in paperback too.

The launch for the paperback will be at Brogdale, Faversham to coincide with the Apple Festival on 19/20 October. But more on that event later. I have a Meet the Snails Day for children between 11 and 3 on the Sunday so I will probably be focussing more on the book and enjoying adult company on Saturday 19th. I also need to arrange for you all to come and get together for a proper celebration without having to go into the Apple Festival ... unless you want to of course.

See you soon!

 

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The Warrior on the Wall

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Lin Tidy has written a book that will make you angry about injustice. It's about the way women are treated by the system - by the law and by mental health services. But Lin has a positive outlook on life so it's not a misery memoir and life in a marina forms a backdrop to the central theme. It is, however, a real story about her experience of being locked up in a category A prison for a minor offence. She had already learnt that she could write so that's what she did while she was in prison. Other women told her their stories so she wrote them down; lots of stories of injustice and lack of health care. So many women in prison have mental health problems and addiction issues that we should be asking why that is the case and what is being done to get them the treatment they are entitled to.

Lin started writing when she was living in California and decided to do some studying. Psychology and Spanish were her chosen subjects but the college insisted that everyone had to do what they called 'composition'. Although Lin was not at all pleased to be forced to do something she didn't want to do it turned out to be an unexpectedly positive step. The compulsory course was actually creative writing and it was her tutor's support that convinced Lin she could write. Since that time she has belonged to writing groups, added a Diploma in Creative Writing to her first degree and worked as a primary school teacher. Her teaching experience came in really useful in prison where she was allowed to assist in the classroom alongside the prison education service, helping speakers of other languages to understand the world around them.

The Warrior on the Wall is well named. Lin's story poses uncomfortable questions about the misuse of power and raises issues that should be challenged by all of us. It is available through FeedARead.com which is Arts Council funded and printed by Lightning Source.com. I would urge you to have a look at Lin's website: www.warrioronthewall.com and find out what she has to say.

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A North Kent childhood

I was attracted to 'Chalk Pits and Cherry Stones' because it is a memoir about life in Kent stretching back to the 1940’s. I didn’t live in Kent as a child but I’m always interested to read about its recent history. Jean Hendy-Harris tells the story of growing up in North Kent in the 1940’s and ‘50s and she remembers so much more about her childhood than I do about mine. The residents of Northfleet and Gravesend were deeply involved in the events of wartime as recipients of bombs aimed at the London docks as well as local harbours, airfields and factories. She talks of taking refuge many nights in Andersen shelters and abandoned chalk pits. It was a much more rural area than it is now of course and her family was deeply involved in the annual rituals of hopping and fruit picking. She suffered the shock of a strange father returning from the war when she was already six years old and accustomed to life without him. I found this a gripping story of the survival of poverty, not just lack of money but lack of aspiration. Why would girls need education at all when they could be bringing in an income? Working as a typist in an office was a step up to be fought for against family opposition because fieldwork was more familiar and available on the doorstep. Jean talks of creating her own imaginary family that had all the possessions and attributes that hers didn’t have – the beginnings of the creative process. Her writing style is very engaging and I found the story well worth reading even if you don’t live in Kent.

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Starting to write

My granddaughter gave me a picture of a snail she had coloured in – I rather like the eyelashes!Chili's pic small I wonder when she will start to write stories. I’ve never forgotten winning half a dozen eggs when I was nine years old. Bizarre prize perhaps but we thought we lived in the country and free range eggs were a novelty then. The competition was for writing a story and mine was about two girls who ran away from home. The original has disappeared over the years of moving from place to place and getting involved in the ordinary business of life but I still remember something of the plot.  I had thought through the details of how I could get out of the house without being heard – avoiding the stairs that creaked and holding my breath as the front door lock clicked into place behind me. I wasn’t planning to go alone because I’d arranged to meet my friend. So I had company and we’d planned in great detail what we were going to eat. That seemed to be a quite central concern. We went to hide out in the woods which I obviously thought was an exciting and wonderful place to be. The pages were illustrated with a drawing of a picnic spread out on the ground under the trees on a sunny day and we slept under piles of leaves like babes in the wood. There was no fear in the story – no fear of the dark or the woods or the unknown. It all ended happily ever after with our parents sending out a search party to find us and take us back home before the food ran out. They weren’t angry – just pleased to find us.  I can’t remember how I felt at the time but I do wonder if the process of writing helped to stop me from actually running away as a child. I used the creation of the story thirty years later when I had children myself and was feeling trapped. I rewrote it with myself as the child’s mother helping her to write the story while planning my own escape. The second version ended the same way with everything returning to normal and no one actually running away.

I feel sure that writing has always served the useful function of helping me to think through problems that were on my mind. That was certainly true with Molluscs and Me. I used to sit down every morning and write about the things that had happened the day before. Turning that stream of consciousness into a coherent book was the work that took seven years.

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Snail mail

How did I live before I had a computer? The desktop pc died last Tuesday and I feel a strong sense of loss for the familiar XP that I’ve been using every day for so long. Now I’ve got to get used to using a different system with unfamiliar layout and its own personality. It’s like having a stranger sitting on my desk – someone creating a barrier between me and everything I want to do. I have to think about the process of writing, search for the commands in unfamiliar places and the keyboard feels so different under my finger tips. Talktalk won’t talk to my new operating system either! It’s impossible to read my messages through their webmail system. I’ve had to borrow an old laptop just to keep up with missives from the outside world. Despite the problem I registered the molluscs on the Big Barn website this week (www.bigbarn.co.uk) which felt like a big step. With a bit of luck sales will increase and new doors will open.

the ultimate slow food

I’ve been reading about self-publishing, or self-printing as Catherine Ryan Howard (no relation) describes it: ‘Self-printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to self-publishing’. I’m glad I didn’t read this before I started on this road because it would definitely have frightened me out of the idea. But if I can control the rising sense of panic about all the things I ought to do but haven’t done, she does give some useful pointers. However, she makes the whole thing sound very complicated and I have discovered that it is not a good idea to buy the e-book version of a reference book because it isn’t easy to flick through it to find the topic you want.

But, according to Catherine, I am doing one thing right – entrusting the important design of the cover to a professional. It has been really difficult to choose an appropriate image. There were lots of lovely snail cartoons but they looked as though they should be gracing the pages of a children’s book. I particularly liked one of a snail in a floppy hat pushing a lawnmower. I can’t show you because the pictures have to be paid for so that would be breaching copyright. In the end after consulting my friends I’ve gone for a picture of food because most people said it was attractive and would make them pick the book up. Watch this space! As soon as I can show you I will do so.

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Stand out from the crowd

Mslexia magazine’s latest issue arrived in the post this morning and, as usual, I couldn’t wait to tear off the plastic cover and find out what’s in it. (www.mslexia.co.uk)

‘Dare you write about your parents?’ Now that’s an arresting question as I’ve just finished writing a story which includes my daughter. It was really hard to work out how to include personal stuff in a way that wasn’t going to embarrass everyone … including me.

‘Getting your book reviewed’ was the first article I went to as it was so relevant to my current situation. There’s a couple of really useful lists: one of things to do and the other of things to avoid doing. The rest of the article is divided into 10 numbered sections each on a different topic and I found the whole thing clearly written and very helpful. I have lots of ideas - now all I’ve got to do is implement the plan!

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Why don't you write a snail recipe book?

When I started writing ‘Molluscs and Me’, I began with the story of how it all came about. Then people said to me: ‘Why don’t you write a recipe book? Well recipe books only sell if the writer is a famous TV chef. I may have been on TV a few times but I quickly realised that doesn’t make me famous. I knew that recipes had to be there somehow and that gave me a problem to solve. It’s all about structure. When I read a book I’m always intrigued by the way the writer puts the story together. Toni Morrison’s book ‘Paradise’ (http://womenshistory.about.com/od/tonimorrison/p/toni_morrison.htm) made an impression on me years ago because of the way each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character. I rushed through each chapter to reach that ‘Oh I see!’ moment when I saw how this new piece linked together with all the others at the end.

Elizabeth Haynes latest thriller ‘Human Remains’ (http://www.elizabeth-haynes.com/) has mini chapters between the main storyline where she introduces each new victim. Elizabeth lent me Gowing’s ‘Travels in Blood and Honey’ (www.elizabethgowing.com/) when she knew I was struggling with how to incorporate recipes. The sub-title ‘becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo’ gives you a clue what it’s about. Each chapter has new items of Albanian vocabulary at the beginning and a local honey recipe at the end.

Phillippa Moore (http://www.skinnylattestrikesback.com/) gave me lots of help with structure and suggested that I read a number of books to give me ideas. Kay Sexton’s ‘The Allotment Diaries’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Allotment-Diaries-Plotting-Feasting/dp/1849533555) was a very good example of how to weave practical information in-between the elements of a story. It follows the seasons of the year and explains what you should be doing on the allotment each month. At the same time it creates a sense of the community of people who dig and sow alongside her.

So I had lots of ideas to draw on … and you’ll have to read the book to find out what I did!

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The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

Every morning I wake to the sound of tweet of the day on radio 4 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s6xyk). I’m trying – yet again – to learn to recognise birds by their calls. Birdsong is one of the joys of Slow Summer Snail Farm, but some of the noises made by other animals would certainly annoy the neighbours. As farm animals snails have a lot going for them in that respect: being very quiet is one of their endearing features. But ‘The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating' : isn’t that a wonderful title for a book? I had to read it of course and I’m so glad I did. The author (www.elisabethtovabailey.net/) is ill and is given a potted plant with a snail living in it. Bed bound and unable to leave her room she becomes fascinated by the activities of her snail especially at night when she can’t sleep. She reads everything she can to find out about snails too and tells us all about them. One of the poems she quotes is The Four Friends by AA Milne. I’ve read all his children’s books about Winnie the Pooh but I didn’t know this poem. The line she quotes is:

‘James gave a huffle of a snail in danger And nobody heard him at all. ‘ ‘Huffle’ is a lovely word - perhaps it’s the sound of a snail retreating into its shell. Snails have no ears. They can’t hear and they don’t make deliberate sounds. But if you listen carefully you can hear them drinking water and their thousands of little teeth make a rasping noise when they eat.

I’m not yet half way through the book so I don’t know what happens next but I can’t wait to get back to it.

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Seeing the world from someone else's point of view

‘It’s fascinating to see things from your point of view.’ In preparing 'Molluscs and Me' for publication I’ve asked some of the people who appear on its pages to read it. I felt I needed their permission to include them and it’s been a really useful source of feedback.

The other thing I’ve got to do this weekend is make sure I’ve changed all the names that need changing to disguise real people. It’s one of the things that stopped me writing for a while. Mine is a real story but how could I include real people? The answer is wrapped up in the definition of memoir. For a long time I resisted the label ‘memoir’ because to me it had pejorative connotations. I saw it, one the one hand as a way that powerful people re-wrote history to suit themselves, and on the other hand as nostalgic ramblings. But then I found Diana Athill’s books and I developed a strong admiration for her and began to see memoir in a more favourable light. She is amazing. Born in 1917 Diana has lived and still lives a life that is worth reading about. The first of her books I read is: ‘Somewhere Towards the End’ which is reflections on what it is like to be old (won the Costa biography award). I was hooked and then went on to read ‘Stet’ about her central role in setting up Andre Deutsch and her experiences in the publishing business. She is still giving talks and writing books – what a role model for the rest of us. On 29 April this year, at 96, Diana contributed to a radio 4 discussion on her passion for the letters of Lord Byron (https://twitter.com/BBCRadio4/status/328873742702874624‎).  At the beginning of ‘Somewhere Towards the End’, Diana, always looking forward to the future, buys a tiny tree fern. At the end is a postscript describing how well it is growing. She says: ‘I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern.’ 

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What is it?

What I like to see happening as children grow up is the development of a spirit of enquiry. I’m intensely interested in how we can help children not just to collect information but also to wonder how things work and ask why things are as they are. Books are one tool we can use, but certainly not the only one of course. When my children were small I had a collection of pictorial guides to living things and as soon as they could match shapes they could match a plant or animal they found with the pictures in the book. They were too young to read but matching shapes and patterns develops quite young. So at three years old they could identify the whelk shells we found on the beach, groundsel plants that the guinea pigs liked to eat and butterflies that settled on the buddleia. So which books could be helpful when you’re on the beach? First of all, make sure the book you choose is showing UK fauna and flora. There are lots of American books on the market which may be beautiful but not much use in the UK. Usborne non fiction books for children are well known and their Shells title in the Usborne Spotter’s Guide series has just about the right level of complexity for children … and lots of adults too. I'd be interested to hear from you if you can recommend any other titles.

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A Slow Passion

Ruth Brooks’ story was a gift from the BBC. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/sywtbas/2010/ruth/) At Slow Summer Snail Farm, when I was trying to bring snails to the attention of the public as an animal that could promote scientific enquiry in children, Ruth's story came along. She loves her garden and was fascinated by the behaviour of her garden snails. She noticed that they chose special resting places and eating places, sometimes quite a distance apart. Ruth spent years trying to get rid of snails using all the usual methods but eventually decided that enforced repatriation was a better solution. After collecting them up and taking them to a nice new home she was puzzled to see them quickly re-appear. When Radio 4 advertised their competition for Amateur Scientist of the Year Ruth took the chance to follow her curiosity and find out more under the guidance of a ‘real’ scientist. I told everyone I met about her experiments into the snail’s homing instinct and urged them to try it out. Ruth had groups of children everywhere painting the shells of their garden snails with nail polish and swapping with their neighbours to see what happened. Now the book is out and I had to read it. Ruth has collected some really fascinating information about snails and her enthusiasm shines through in her writing. If you're interested in wildlife and the mysteries of the garden then this book is for you.

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21 May

Writing groups have played an important part in my development as a writer. My first books were academic texts written to a formula set by the publisher which I didn’t need to share with others. But writing those helped to set my life into a productive pattern because I saw writing as a job that I sat down to each day whether or not I felt inspired. When I tried to branch out into writing fiction I started to look round for peer support.

Medway Mermaids (www.medwaymermaids.btik.com) meet once a month like most groups. Before the meetings they exchange by email pieces they’ve been writing so they can prepare to discuss them at the meetings. The members write all sorts of different material, poetry, short stories, magazine articles, travel, memoir and novels. As the website says: some of the members are published, some have hopes of one day becoming published, and some enjoy writing for its own sake. It was a good place to find out about competitions and events and get the kind of support that a new writer needs. I just needed someone to tell me I could do it and encourage me to keep going.

Nanowrimo (www.nanowrimo.org) (inter)National Novel Writing Month was a big breakthrough. It felt as though the whole world was writing that first November when I took part. Logging the word length each day with the online community gave me a great sense of achievement and I met Elizabeth Haynes (www.Elizabeth-Haynes.com). Elizabeth is a great inspiration to writers of all kinds and very generous with her time and support to others. A group of us joined her on a writing retreat at West Dean last year and wrote together all weekend. After November those of us in Kent who took part in Nanowrimo have kept in touch through Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/groups/431879136867994/).

Saveas Writers (www.saveaswriters.co.uk) meets at UKC for in-depth discussion of work in progress. I went to a meeting for the first time yesterday and was made to feel very welcome. I would say it is a group for experienced writers who want detailed feedback; the sessions are intensive and quite hard work. The members are not all poets so it was just coincidence that all the pieces we read last night were poetry.

Whitstable Women Writers will be my next adventure into the world of writing groups.

Writing groups are all different and I think it’s important to find the one that’s right for you.

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