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A Ginger Tom, Spending the children’s inheritance and Hearts definitely not made of stone

Earlier this year I did register on the social media website Good Reads but have not been that prolific at putting book reviews on the site, partly because I have only a small handful of ‘friends’ who are also on Good Reads.  However, when I first began writing blogs last February, after a spell of down time from the world of work, I did post reviews of books.

So what have I been reading lately. Well a wide range of literature. A neighbour left a copy of a Street Cat Named Bob out for me and told me to pass it on when I have finished which I will do in the form of a Christmas card to a friend who has two cats and who adores my own ginger female, Marmalade. Streetcat documents the story of the incredible bond between man and feline whereby James wakes up one morning in his social housing – he is on a Methadone programme – to find a dishevelled cat with several health problems waiting outside his front entrance. He takes the cat in and tends his wounds but the cat makes it clear that he wants to go wherever James goes. James is busking at the time but once Bob is on the scene, his takings in his upturned hat treble. James is a street survivor having lived on the streets for several years before getting his flat. He makes use of the free time available on the internet at the local library and he also knows where he can obtain free medical help for Bob which he does. The cat begins to travel with him wrapped around his shoulders but after meeting up and reconciling himself with his mother in Australia James decides the time has come to get a proper job. He becomes a Big Issue seller and is amused by the attention he and Bob receive and the number of times he is videoed or photographed. One day he hears some Japanese tourists calling to Bob by name and referring to him as The Big Issue Cat. A trip to the library confirms that there is a plethora of pictures and videos on the internet via UTube. One day he is approached by a literary agent who offers him help to write his story about the relationship between himself and the ginger Tom. She finds him a ghost writer and they work together to bring the book to print. You will be unable to read to the end without shedding the occasional tear.

After that I read Blowing It by Judy Astley, a book I have had gathering dust on my bookshelf. I am rescuing the occasional paperback that has patiently awaited its debut. This was an enjoyable and, I think, Chick Lit novel. I am not sure of what defines a book as being in the chick lit category other than it could be a romantic novel. A couple plan to sell their house and travel round on a gap year of their own seeing various festivals on their travels. Their three children who are all in relationships, are not at all pleased with this turn of events. The youngest is planning a gap year but wants everything the same as she left it on her return. The children's relationships begin to wither as the book progresses and amusingly all have returned home after broken romances so their parents find them not only back home but back with the grandchildren. After a predictable – we are told our plots should not be predictable aren't we – brush with death which their father experiences, all arrangements are put on hold but the couple don't give up the idea entirely but plan a move to a nearby house which is less 'tired' and smaller. The Gap year will take place next year, partners are reunited and everyone lives happy ever after.

I then found Hearts of Stone by Audrey Pembroke on a library shelf. Audrey is a fellow member of Swanage Writers’ group and one or two members have read the book. I was very impressed, not only with the main plot and strong characters but with the sub plots which were cleverly interwoven throughout. Perhaps again a slightly predictable ending but this didn’t spoil the story as the manner in which the young heroine made her mark on the people at the big house, maintained her dignity and attracted the attentions of the widowed Sir Alan was fast-paced and the sub plots left as a surprise til the end. What a pity that this book has gone out of print. There are 10 copies available on Amazon being sold at the princely sum of one penny plus postage but, living in Swanage, as does Audrey, I was able to borrow the library copy without requesting it. A good read and not to be missed.

At one stage during the reading of the books above I picked up a Jenny Colgan book from the shelves of Swanage Library. Its title – Diamonds are a girl’s best friend – only became clear on the last two pages so this was a complete surprise. It charts the life of a Very Rich Girl who is waited on by servants – she has never even made herself a cup of tea – until one tragic night when her father dies suddenly. A clause in his will states that she must live independently for six months before she can claim her inheritance. She is resolute in her task striving to find herself accommodation despite having no money and being asked to clean up after three lads and a dog in lieu of rent. Eventually the worst happens when she discovers that her stepmother has sold the house as her father has left debts and failing investments rather than the millions she had expected. The Diamonds seem to escape her clutches but they do reappear in time for a happy ending. The characterisations in this book are excellent and despite her spoilt nature, we can sympathise with Sophie and be willing her to make a success of her life.

Having enjoyed White Tiger by Aravind Adiga I expected to find his Between Assassinations equally compelling but at one quarter of the way through the novel I am fairly confused by all the different characters he is introducing in each chapter. I shall plod on regardless as his writing style is quite captivating.

There are some other books awaiting my attention – one is After the Feast is Finished – which I seem to remember I bought after hearing it reviewed. It is about the aftermath of a bereavement.

Having taken a few lessons out of the Dorling Kindersley Cut the Clutter by Cynthia Townley Ewer I have pulled several pop-psychology books off the shelf and taken them to our local Oxfam Bookshop. Titles such as The Road Less Travelled and Men are from Mars Women are from Venus have been sitting there for years. I have dipped in and out of them periodically but have now come to the age when I think I am past redemption and I cannot recall the last time I looked at them. Others were I’m OK, You’re Ok and Berne’s The Games People Play which I was encouraged to read when I took my teacher training course nearly thirty years ago.

One reason my book shelves are so full of unread books is that my youngest daughter was for many years leading up to motherhood in the publishing world so was able to rescue books from the pulp shelf and, therefore, birthday and Christmases would see a carrier bag o books handed over. Cut The Clutter is a DK book so I believe this may have arrived a year ago when she worked at the publisher for a brief period.

I did offer some of my books to the local library, particularly those concerning reading, spelling and how to cope with dyslexia but I was told that they do not take books in if they are more than five years old. What a shame as the books I have are true classics in the field of Special Needs and are still required reading on the many in-service training courses. I have tried advertising the books locally with no result. I did sell a good many of my teaching books via an ex colleague and also via local networks so I am thinking of re-connecting and seeing if some of these books can find a use with someone else who is still active in the field.

My Christmas email landed in the inbox of an ex colleague who replied asking what I was doing. Not teaching was my answer. I have really come to the end of the road there now that technology seems to have outstripped my capabilities and the brain cells are forever slowing down. Writing is what I do now and I don’t seem to have lost the ability to be prolific. So there is another book I have been reading The Writers’ Handbook 2009. I know I should have an up-to-date one but for many outlets little changes. Having had a spending spree in the summer, I have to say that the best resolution from the book was to go on the Don’t Buy It Diet’ It is amazing how little you need when you keep this affirmation clearly in your head.

A Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year to all my readers.

A Street Cat Named Bob

A few weeks ago I caught the tail end of a section of The One Show where a ginger cat sat on the sofa while his adopted owner answered questions from Matt Baker and Alex Jones about how the feline creature had become such an integral part of his life.

In March this year, I had taken ownership of a female ginger cat who was not co-habiting too peaceably with my grandchild. There were various other reasons why Marmalade was adopted by us but many of her previous misdemeanours have yet to be repeated at Chez Castle. My neighbours, knowing we had a ginger cat, left a book outside our door which I picked up with some curiosity. On the front cover was a cat almost identical to our Marmalade. However, his name, Bob, reminded us that he differed from our ginger cat only in terms of gender.

The book documents the paths of a vulnerable ex addict and a homeless ginger tom. From the moment I picked it up I was captivated by this heart-warming tale of hope which also introduced me to aspects of living on the streets of which I was totally unaware.
James Bowen is the young man who has fallen on hard times since his arrival in the UK from Australia hampered by fractured family links and a relationship which also seems to have fallen on hard times. I was delighted to read further into the book that Bob’s debut into the life of James also indirectly allowed the dying relationship to rekindle itself until girlfriend Belle becomes a staunch friend and even provides a home to Bob when James disappears to Australia to revive lost contact with his mother. The book is told by James with the help of Garry Jenkins and his writing skills.

How Bob endears himself to everyone he meets while out with James makes the book delightful but the longest journey is that taken by James who, aware of his new responsibility as a pet owner, begins to turn his life around. At first Bob is left at home while James goes into central London to earn money busking. When it becomes clear that Bob wants to be a part of this life, the cat accompanies him, usually perched on his shoulders but otherwise tethered by a long shoe lace. It soon becomes clear to James that he earns more money when Bob is with him and this brings problems aroused by the jealousy of others who are working the streets.
For the reader, there is a wonderful insight into life on the streets and the coping skills of those who have very little material wealth and unfortunate backgrounds. James frequently uses the internet free on local library computers, becoming adept with Information Technology despite only being capable of a hand-to-mouth existence in everyday life. He is resourceful when it comes to getting free or low cost vetinerary help for Bob. The day that Bob has a microchip inserted, James is asked if he is Bob’s owner and affirming this he recognises the importance of the role which was thrust upon him.
After returning from a visit to Australia where his estranged mother and he have established more than superficial contact, he is well rested and has put on some weight. He is now determined to come off the drugs programme completely and, after suffering withdrawal symptoms, he makes the transition from the methadone treatment and sets himself the target to get paid work. He has been a Big Issue seller in the past and so he re-establishes contact with those managing the distribution in the London area. Again Bob is a magnet especially where tourists are concerned. James is frequently posing for photographs and is aware that some video is being taken but naively he fails to realise that this is all being published on the internet. Tourists are already bringing Bob tins of cat food and actively seeking him out but it isn’t until he hears some Japanese tourists saying ‘This is Bob, the Big Issue cat’ that he realises Bob’s fame is worldwide.

There are many touching moments in the book and times when my heart raced as Bob does have some unfortunate experiences on the streets with James but somehow even when his owner is rushing around panic-stricken, we have the feeling that all will be right in the end, especially if we had already seen them appear on the One Show.

This book should be on every cat lover’s Christmas list but, regardless of your feelings for cats, it will appeal to all. I wish James good luck as he continues to turn his life around. Hopefully becoming a published author (even with a ghost writer) has already set him on a path to increased happiness and wealth.

Read the latest news and stories from James and Bob at http://www.hodder.co.uk and at Bob’s very own Twitter site @streetcatbob

Portsmouth Schools Music Festival 2012

Were you told at school or at home that you couldn’t sing?  This remark was common in schools in what Howard Goodall refers to as the Bad Old Days.  Fortunately, thanks to Mr Goodall and his colleagues in their Music Manifesto, the Government was persuaded five years ago to back a National Singing Programme otherwise known as ‘Sing Up’.  The aims were to turn every primary school into a singing school by 2011.  Out of a total of 20,000 primary schools, 15,000 of them are now involved with Sing Up, using a huge range of music sources including 300 free songs with backing tracks, curriculum materials and sheet music.  So far 35,000 teachers have been trained to lead singing and bring the reality into schools and the project organisers hope to double this number.

As Mr Goodall says, singing or playing in a group is one of the most uplifting, rewarding, life-enhancing activities a human being can do.  I, myself, was a choir member and soloist at my own primary school in the 1950s and I have returned to group singing over the last 11 years since I moved to Dorset.  Some years ago I was sad to note that music was being sidelined as a subject in schools in favour of ‘teaching to the tests’.  How I wished there was someone who would make changes and this is where Howard Goodall came in.  He is known as the National Ambassador for Singing and he has his eye on secondary schools now for the next stage of the project.

So it was that I found myself, last Thursday, 6th July, privileged to be in the audience enjoying the third night of the four day Portsmouth Schools Music Festival.  I was there to support my grandson who was singing with the children from Solent Junior School in Drayton.  Little did I know as I travelled by train that afternoon what a feast of music was to be served that evening.

As I have a profoundly deaf sister, I am always interested in how children can be introduced to sign language and I was delighted to see the children signing in BSL for ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and indeed for the other songs they sang that evening.  Singers from Court Lane Junior School, Flying Bull Primary School, Gatcombe Park Primary School, and St George’s Beneficial C of E Primary School joined with Solent Junior School singers to produce a wonderful programme which included Keep Holding On, The One and Only, Never Forget and the rousing sound of ‘We Are The Champions’.  In my day we were obliged to sing music from what might have been known as ‘classical’ composers which was not always a stimulating experience.  How delightful it was to see the children making hand movements and body movements in time with the songs they were singing and all in perfect time thanks to the good teaching they had received.  That evening has to be one of my highlights of 2012 and I cannot wait to return next year.

Before the interval the Infant School Choir made up of pupils from four infant schools had entertained us with You Can Do It, My Favourite Things, Reach For The Stars during which we were encouraged to join in, Fabby Dabby Doo and Believe.

The evening had started with Portsmouth Grammar School Brass directed by Graham Brown playing a selection of music including the Olympic Fanfare and Theme and music from The Midsomer Murders.

Early on in the proceedings we were invited to send Tweets to @schoolsmusic which were then filtered to the main screen on the stage appearing on a continuous feed along the bottom of the screen.  Not for the first time was I pleased I had a Twitter Account.

This wonderful production of happy singing voices can only come about with the hard work and talent of a dedicated band of music teachers.  As a teacher I recognise the importance of a career where you can ‘make a difference’ to people’s lives.  I suspect that last Thursday, these teachers provided the children with the opportunity to do something they will remember throughout their lives and their love of music and performance will endure.  The evening has also made a difference to those of us in the audience who had feared that their children and grandchildren would not experience such uplifting musical events.

Well done all and I can’t wait for next year.