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Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Meet the multi-talented Beth Webb


I’m delighted to welcome Beth Webb, to my blog. Among other things, Beth is the critically acclaimed author of many books for children, teens and adults. Beth, do tell readers something about yourself and what decided you to be a writer. 

My Dad always wanted to be a writer and he used to make up stories for me when I was little. He taught me that stories came out of heads as well as books. Before I went to school I used to scribble on bits of paper and sew them between cardboard covers to make books, I guess the urge to be an author was with me even then! 

My first published piece was in a pop magazine when I was about 15. I met a brilliant blues group and wrote about them and was paid three guineas (about £25 in todays money). 
I didn’t know what I wanted to do after school – there was no advice on ‘how to be a writer’ in those days and my English teacher put me off being a journalist, so I read sociology and psychology. After uni I travelled around Europe, and lived with a hippie commune in a houseboat in Amsterdam and a mediaeval Bavarian castle, I also stayed for a while in an ex-leprosy hospital, then an attic in Rotterdam. I earned money cooking, cleaning, teaching English and selling paintings. I still love the Dutch language and people.  

When I was about 27 I thought I ought to grow up and come home, so I worked for an independent radio station, then a national newspaper where I met my husband. I started writing stories for my four kids as Dad had done for me, and in 1993 I published my first children’s novel.

In 2000 I did an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa, then I became a tutor for the Open College of the Arts. I designed and wrote their course on writing for children. In about 2003 I became a tutor for the University of Lancaster and the British Council’s ‘Crossing Borders’ programme, mentoring emerging African writers.
In 2005 I had a BIG break, and signed a major four book contract with Macmillan Children’s books for Star Dancer, my quartet for teens and adults about the end of the Iron Age and the Roman Invasion. When the recession hit, Macmillan cancelled my contract (along with quite a few others). Since then I’ve been caring for my elderly parents and illustrating books for adults with learning disabilities ( At the same time, a small independent publisher finished the Star Dancer series (  

I’m now working on several new titles for both teens and children. 


Whew! That’s quite a biography. Tell me, how do you find inspiration for your writing? 

Usually things people say get me thinking. For example, with Star Dancer, I met a lady at a picnic who wanted to be a minister, but her church didn’t approve or women priests. I began to think about all the people who can’t be who they are meant to be because of colour, creed, sex or disability – and Star Dancer began to grow.

When I get an idea I write it down, then from time to time I flip back through my notebooks. I’m often amazed at some of the ideas I’ve come up with. They aren’t bad.   

Who are the authors who have most influenced you?

Where do I begin? Ursula le Guin, Susan Cooper, Terry Pratchett, Philip Reeve, David Almond, Philip Gross. I couldn’t have written my historical work without the inimitable Prof Ron Hutton and every collector of fairy stories and folk tales.  

Do you base any of your characters on real people?
I use character types, or snippets of the things people say or the way they laugh rather than ‘whole’ people. However, there was a bully who I painted a fairly good portrait of in my ‘Dragons of Kilve’ book. I was a bit worried because in my contract I had to sign a declaration that I hadn’t used any real people in the stories (who might later sue). On the grounds that this guy was unlikely to ever read my books – and I had turned him into a rather unpleasant slug creature – I signed!

How do you develop your ideas into books?
I daydream a lot, I write down loads and loads of notes in spiral notebooks, I go for long walks and think, I talk to myself and probably most important of all, I tell the stories to long-suffering friends so I can ‘hear’ how the idea is shaping up – and they can tell me whether it works or not.

How do you write? Do you have routines and rituals you like to stick to? 

I’m at my computer every day from 8 or 9 am, usually with tea and breakfast next to the mouse, and I work until about 4, when my brain seizes up, then I go for a long walk to think through what I’m going to do next.

The Star Dancer quartet, set in the Iron Age, was originally written for teenagers but it crossed over into the adult market. Did that surprise you?
Yes, it did. Initially I wrote for older teens (14-18 years), but then I started getting fan mail from adults. I was hugely chuffed. But I think adults probably liked the fact I’d done lots of research and really tried to make the stories work in the historical setting. I think adults also like the fact that the fantasy element has a strong psychological underpinning. Demons and magic all have firm, thought-through roots within my books, I don’t just throw them in for fun.

You also write for young children with your entertaining series about Fleabag the cat.
I’ve written six books for younger children. Sadly some of them are out of print now, but I’m best known for a kiddies’ picture book (Junk Yard Dragon), the Dragons of Kilve (short stories for KS2 children), and the three Fleabag books. The Dragons of Kilve is now in it’s fourth edition – soon to be an audio book and Fleabag is now coming out as a new series with illustrations (by me!)

How would you describe the different challenges presented by the teenage and children’s fields of writing?

(Beth takes a deep breath…) I could go on far ages about this. How long have you got? In short, children like to be entertained and to explore emotions and the difficulties of life from a safe place they can return to when they close the book. 

YA readers like to be thrown in the deep end with all the rolling, terrifying dangers of high action writing with fantasy creatures like dragons and vampires, danger, death and sex (sex is a sticky question for another day).

Teen readers know the world is a deadly place, they are longing to find a path through – however risky. Watch them play computer games and you’ll see what I mean. Teens don’t like being protected.    

Apart from writing, you work with schoolchildren on a variety of projects. Can you tell me more about that? 

I run workshops and courses for young writers at schools up and down the country, and especially at a place called Kilve Court near Minehead in Somerset I’m also a professional storyteller and run storytelling workshops and events. I used to tell regularly at Glastonbury Festival, but gave up because of the mud! 

So what’s next? Will there be new stories for Fleabag and Tegen? 

Fleabag is getting a BIG makeover  - Fleabag and the Fire cat is being revamped this winter for publication next year. I’m also planning a prequel. As for Tegen? I’ve been asked if I’ll write what happens to her daughter Gilda, growing up in ancient Ireland, and others have asked for the stories of Sabrina and Owein – and how their ancestors become – well, it’d be a spoiler if I told you who. But I’m not sure. I’ll see what my publisher says when I’ve finished everything else I have in hand at the moment. 

Beth, thank you so much for coming, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you.

Find out more about Beth at her website, It includes her top tips on writing as well as a ‘contact me’ button if anyone has more questions. She’s also on Twitter as @bethwebbauthor and

Below: one of Beth's illustrations for Fleabag and the Ring of Fire.




Saturday, 7 December 2013

In Love with Laos

In November I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Laos. It’s a fascinating country and hard not to fall for with its beautiful temples, miles and miles of the spectacular Mekong River and fabulous mountain scenery, mostly clad in deep jungle green. The population is young – 41% are under 14 and everyone we met was warm and friendly. Tragically, the country’s strategic importance in Indochina has caused it great suffering in recent history – at one time it had the terrible distinction of being one of the most bombed countries on Earth. Inevitably, recovery takes time.

Little Girl in Traditional Hmong Costume 

Consumerism hasn’t really caught up on Laos yet which makes it attractive in many ways. Most shopping is still done in local markets on a daily basis. The colours and smells of these markets are amazing with lots of exotic fruits and vegetables on offer as well as those more familiar to us. There's also a lot of tempting street food made from very fresh and tasty ingredients.

 Buddhist monks in their striking orange robes are part of the everyday scene. At dawn each day they stream through the streets collecting the traditional alms of rice.

The situation is less good where literacy is concerned; the rate has much improved in the last decade or so but it’s still only around 60%. It’s hard to find books anyway outside the capital, Vientiane, so Etranger Books and Tea in World Heritage city, Luang Prabang, is an oasis for book lovers. Founded by a French woman, it sells mainly second-hand books in a plethora of language as well as great cakes!

If you’d like to know more about what’s being done to promote literacy in Laos, why not take a look at They also have a wish list on         

Friday, 18 October 2013

Margaret Mountford on Life after The Apprentice.

I'm delighted to welcome Margaret Mountford. Most people know her from the TV as Alan Sugar's formidable right-hand woman in the UK version of The Apprentice but today we'll be talking more about other things, in particular her interest in ancient history and the study of papyri. 
Margaret, thank you so much for accepting my invitation.
MM - Thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.

HS - You had a very successful career as a high-flying corporate lawyer. What decided you to give it up and return to academic study? 

MM - I decided to give up the law because I felt I’d done it for long enough (25 years!) and didn’t want or need to go on for another fifteen years or so. The buzz had decreased and the hours weren’t getting any shorter. I knew I wanted to do something different and for a while I considered going into business in some way but then I decided that what I’d really like would be to go back to being a student. I studied Classics, ultimately completing a PhD in the study of papyri.

HS - Like many people, I associate papyri with ancient Egypt, but I believe the ones you chose to study are rather different?

 MM -  Yes, if by ancient Egypt you mean Pharaohs and tombs. The papyri happen to have been preserved in Egypt because of the dry climate but they’re actually Roman and Byzantine and written in Greek. They date from between the first and the sixth centuries AD and reflect life in Egypt when it was part of the Roman Empire in the East. The Romans took Egypt over from the Greek Ptolemy dynasty after Augustus defeated Queen Cleopatra. When the Roman Empire in the West failed, Egypt became part of the Byzantine Empire.

HS - Do the papyri you research deal with any particular aspect of Egyptian life at the time? What was the attraction to that?

MM - I’m not really interested in ancient literature, so the papyri I study are what we call documentary, and are largely the legal and administrative ones, including court documents, contracts and documents recording transactions involving land, but also include anything else which was written down, like private letters and accounts, even laundry lists and lost donkey notices.. There were many wealthy estates in Egypt by the fifth and sixth centuries, all generating an enormous number of business letters, orders, invoices and property documents. I find it fascinating to build up a picture of everyday life from them. There are also theological documents which are important for the study of early Christianity.
HS - How were these papyri found?

MM - Papyri have been found in all sorts of places including rubbish tips. Old, unneeded papyri were often pulped up to make the papier maché known as cartonage which was used to make mummy cases – a rather grim example of recycling! Most of the ones I’ve studied were dug up at the beginning of the twentieth century by two Oxford scholars working on ancient rubbish tips around what was then a sleepy little village on the banks of the Bahr Yusuf River. It was once a prosperous city called Oxyrhynchus, ‘City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish’.
HS - Is your work done in libraries or have there been times when you’ve got your hands dirty?

MM - The papyri that I study are kept in the Sackler Library in Oxford. I do need to look at the originals, but they’re mostly scanned and digitised to make sure they aren’t put at risk, so no, I don’t get my hands dirty (and I certainly wouldn’t be allowed to touch the papyri if I did!). I have been on one archaeological surface survey, spending 3 weeks in the Fayum (the area where the famous mummy portraits were found). It was intriguing to see how these once flourishing towns had been abandoned when the canals silted up and then been buried by the desert. There’s not a great deal left as most of the houses were built of mud brick, sometimes coated with lime, and all of that has been carted away over the centuries, mainly to use on fields. I don’t think I have the patience to be an archaeologist.


HS - As well as doing demanding academic work, you’ve forged a career on TV and become a household name in the UK version of The Apprentice. Has it been hard at times to combine the two?

MM - There is a time limit for completing a PhD and I don’t think I would have been able to comply with it if I’d continued with the show. Filming was full time for the couple of months or so every year it took to make a series

 HS - Subsequent to leaving the show after five series, you’ve appeared in various other programmes with sociological or historical themes. Is TV an avenue you’d like to continue to pursue?

MM - Not particularly, but if I was offered something really interesting I’d seriously consider it.

 HS - Do you have plans to write? If so, would it be fact or fiction?

 MM - I enjoyed the writing I had to do for my PhD but otherwise my years as a lawyer drafting corporate documents have cured me of writing.

HS - When you have time to read for pleasure, what kind of books do you choose?

MM - Whatever catches my eye in the bookshop – novels mainly and I’m partial to a bit of fantasy. I really enjoyed Game of Thrones. The TV version was fun. It was filmed in Northern Ireland where I grew up and on Gozo where I have a holiday home so it was nice to recognise familiar places, but the books are much better.

 HS - What kind of music do you listen to and who are your favourite composers?

MM - Opera, piano music and lieder – my favourite composers are Verdi, Wagner, Schubert and Liszt.

 HS - Finally, a loaded question – Strictly Come Dancing – could you be persuaded to put the go in the tango?

 MM - Certainly not. I was asked a long time ago but the training looks far too much like hard work.





Sunday, 13 October 2013

Frocks and Rocks

 The wonderful exhibition at the Queen's Gallery in London showing portraits from the Royal Collection highlighted courtly fashion in Tudor and Stuart times. They were eras when privileged men as well as women wore sumptuous clothes that often cost more than lesser mortals could hope to earn in a lifetime. Royalty and the nobility decked themselves out with lavish fabrics, frequently exquisitely embroidered as well as fabulous jewels.

Detail from a portrait of Elizabeth I as a young girl.
Detail from a portrait of Edward VI
But woe betide anyone who dressed above their station. Sumptuary laws, introduced as far back as Ancient Roman times to discourage extravagance but more importantly to preserve the distinctions of rank were still enforced in Elizabethan days. Cloth of gold or silver was strictly for the Queen and the highest nobility, as was the fur of sables. The Statutes set out in exhaustive detail what was acceptable for the different strata of society and penalties for infringing the rules were severe.