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Laureate Log #7 - September 2008

My dear Dad, Harold, died in the summer after a yearlong struggle. I cannot imagine what my work, my mind or my life would have been like without all the many ways he affected me. With my mother Connie, the pair of them introduced me to hundreds of books, poems and plays; they told stories about their lives; spoke languages and savoured words, phrases, sayings, jokes, quotations, slips of the tongue and accents and filled my head as a boy with voices, ideas and expressions. They were both teachers and then teacher-trainers and authors of books about language and literature in schools. I was still talking about such things with my father days before he died. He was endlessly curious, endlessly generous, endlessly encyclopaedic - or as his step-son, Ian, put it at the funeral, 'Harold was a human Google.'

I've been writing plenty of new poems which will appear in a book, provisionally called, 'Michael's Big Book of Bad Things', which in a way, will be a tribute to my father's way of remembering childhood misdemeanours! I've also got straight back into doing visits, so I was up at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, chairing an event about picture books with Polly Dunbar, David Lucas and Catherine Rayner (three of the Big Picture Campaign's 10 Best New Illustrators), followed by an A-Z of Poetry event with Carol Ann Duffy, her musician John Sampson and poet Tom Pow. I've done a couple of local events, first at Hackney Library as part of Team Read, and then at Stratford Circus for the utterly wonderful Newham Bookshop. It was nice to be invited to tell the Society of Authors conference what the Laureateship is all about as well as hear from Alan Gibbons and his great Campaign for the Book. What Alan is highlighting is that under our eyes libraries, library staff and book budgets are being slashed. One point from the conference that really rang a bell with me was when someone said that being able to browse and Google usefully when you're online depends on the experience of having read widely and often in the first place.

Another big leap in the life of one of my Laureate projects: the shortlist for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize has been announced. As you can imagine, the judges, Kaye Umansky, Sophie Dahl, Dara O' Briain, Chris Riddell and myself had plenty of giggles on the way to choosing the books. We noticed that the main humour motifs this year were pirates, dinosaurs and underpants, though we didn't find a book about a crew of pirate dinosaurs looking for their underpants. Perhaps next year. Anyway, the shortlist got into the press as did two crass acts of censorship: a word from a Jacqueline Wilson book and a Carol Ann Duffy poem. Apart from the fact that I think both censorings were unnecessary, I notice that they were done on the say-so of very, very few people. Are we about to enter a phase where all it takes to ban a book is a hostile comment from one person? I can feel a new Puritanism digging in. I feel like Toby Belch talking to Malvolio: 'Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?'

Finally, the British Library exhibition on the history of children's poetry is developing nicely. Morag Styles and I are still wading through wonderful old volumes, including Robert Burns' first edition of 'To a Mouse'. Please note the dates of the Poetry and Childhood Conference (20 & 21 April 2009) at the British Library as part of the exhibition, with seminars, lectures and readings by Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy and yours truly. Enrol now! Contact Hannah Drake on hvd21@cam.ac.uk or 01223 767 735.



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