Twenty years ago, I wrote my first picture book text, Tattybogle. It was published in 1995 and is still providing me with opportunities such as school visits, and a modest amount of income.
When Andersen let it go out of print, I bought a print run from them because I needed to keep the supply of books going. It is basically a simple story of a happy scarecrow, but it has elements of the seasons and the cycle of birth, death and - rebirth? I've been challenged about this by a vicar and it is or was on the RI curriculum in some schools to form the basis of a discussion about the differences between reincarnation and resurrection.
I've also been asked for a copy by a mother preparing her children for the death of a cousin, and it is used in hospices for children and adults.Who'd have thought? Well, I would, for one, although I didn't know other people would 'get it'. One of the reasons I needed to write it was that when my children were very small, the old timor mortis conturbat me suddenly knocked me for six. Not my mortality, but theirs.
What had I done? Brought these precious beings into the world to die? I couldn't stop weeping... (OK, post-natal abdabs, I now know). I could find no comfort anywhere until I came across, I can't remember how, the Law of Conservation of Matter. No, seriously. That there are the same number of atoms in the world as there have always been since the beginning is a powerful thought. It means we've all always been here and always will be, just not in the same form. Somehow, it worked for me. I stopped howling into the washing up and went on writing bits of crack-brained philosophy into more picture books.
Ten years after Tattybogle was published, Starshine Music wanted to make it into a musical for primary school children to perform. Ruth Kenward made a lovely job of it. In 2008, I had an email: do you do school visits? It was from the British Foreign School in Seoul. Eh, what? They had performed the musical and wanted to follow it up with an author visit. 'Yes, but it's a long way to come for a day,' I said. It turned out to be two weeks, between three schools, two in Seoul and one in Daejon, with a bookshop signing in between, and treated like royalty all the way.
It's good being old in South Korea! The more grey hairs you have, the more wisdom you are credited with, and that earns you enormous respect and care. Niall went into the city on the metro while I was in the school. It was only a couple of stops, so he stood up - but not for long. Everybody in the carriage leapt up and offered him their seat! I kept being addressed as 'teacher', and, keen not to claim skills I don't possess, said I wasn't, until somebody nudged me and told me that 'teacher' is the most honourable form of address.
So, teachers all, feel revered and cherished!
Korea is full of contrasts. The young are tall and athletic and keen on all things western, modern and electronic. The older folk (the very much older, that is) are noticeably smaller and many still seem to be haunted by the past. Ginkgo trees line the streets and the nuts are foraged as soon as they fall, as are acorns, fungi, edible gourds, fruit all kinds from the hedgerows. The years of privation under Japanese rule have left an indelible fear of starvation in the survivors.
In the modern city, full of traffic and skyscrapers, the Koreans are also rebuilding their past. The temples, ceremonial gates and royal palaces are being restored. Many are now complete. This is a picture of the changing of the imperial guard; colourful, noisy and above all, proud.
Where was I? I seem to have gone from a contemplation of death to a celebration of Korea. It may seem less than coherent, but I've just been to see an amazing, joyous performance of Tattybogle at an infant school, and there is another adaptation on the way, by community theatre group Fluid Mechanics, and it made me think back to the beginning of the story. You write a little scarecrow story, and the next thing....