Tortoise Haiku

As my more astute readers know I have been in London  all week watching Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House (if you didn’t know this then please feel free to read last week’s blog entitled ‘Opera Is For All’). The first two operas have been phenomenal and I am very much looking forward to seeing the final two operas tomorrow and on Monday. I literally bumped into Michael Portillo on opening night, although whether that is a good thing or nor I will leave to your own judgement.

I have had a marvelous time in London – there is so much to see and do there. I saw the Edvard Munch exhibition at the Tate Modern (very good, but be warned that it includes some rather lurid naked photographs of the painter) and I also went to the Rose Theatre on Bankside to see the ‘lost’ Shakespeare play Cardenio. I highly recommend Cardenio to theatre lovers – it is like Hamlet but magnified tenfold. There is death, passion, necrophilia, nudity (is there a theme developing here?) and yet more death. The Rose Theatre itself is incredible – it is the oldest Tudor theatre in Britain and the facilities are rudimentary as they still excavating the site but it stages incredible theatre. I urge theatre goers to visit The Rose – you won’t regret it.

So as you can tell, I have been loving my London sojourn but I have greatly missed my beautiful little tortoise Ovid. I have missed him so much that I had to take a trip out to London Zoo to see the three new giant Galapagos Tortoises that they have acquired. It was amazing to see these gigantic chelonians, but I will still be glad when I can stroke Ovid’s shell again. Here is a picture of the smallest and youngest giant at the zoo, Dolores, saying ‘Hi’!

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WordPress allows bloggers to see what search terms people have been using to find your site. Two days ago a person unknown found my blog by googling the term: ‘tortoise haiku’. Now there are lots of tortoises in my blog and there are quite a few haikus as well but I have never combined the two: until now! I always strive to fulfill my reader’s wishes and so here is a haiku that I entitle simply ‘Tortoise’:

Wise old head stirs slow

As air hangs over beauty

That was born of shell.

I hope that you enjoyed my haiku and I hope to have exciting news about my children’s novel ‘Tortoise Soup’ for you all soon! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blogs, please visit again and I would love to see your haiku comments below!

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Opera Is For All!

As you probably know by now, I am mad about the arts! Give me a play to watch, a book to read or an art gallery to visit and I am deliriously happy. But my ‘dark secret’ is that I love one art form above all others:opera!

Now you probably (unless you have met me) think that I am a member of the elite, one of the chattering classes but far from it. I grew up in a little mining village and I was the first member in my large family ever to go to University. I hope to show you here, in this Tortoise Soup blog, that opera is for everybody and that it is surprisingly affordable.

I have my primary school headmaster, Mr Crossley, to thank for my introduction to opera. I remember him telling an assembly, when I was eight or nine, how much he loved opera – how it was full of action and adventure and romance. That is the only assembly that I can remember but how thankful I am that it stayed with me. I kept it stored away like a hidden secret waiting for the time when it could be brought out gloriously into the open.

From the age of eighteen I started going religiously to the theatre but as yet I had not found my true love. Then it happened – one day around ten years ago I saw that a touring opera company were performing Madama Butterfly at the local theatre. Mr Crossley’s words came back to me and I booked the best seat that I could afford. That night my eyes and ears were opened. It was incredible to see how such a slight woman that played Butterfly could produce such an incredible voice. When she sang ‘Un Bel Di Vedremo’ the hairs on my neck literally stood up. When she hit that incredibly high note as she sang defiantly that her love would return the tears welled in my eyes and the whole theatre stood and applauded. I was hooked!

Since that day I go to watch as many operas as I can, and have become a particular fan of Puccini: the master of high emotion and soaring tunes. And here is the best bit, the bit that maybe some opera fans like to keep secret. Sshhh, watching opera is dirt cheap! I go to watch opera many times every year at the very heart of Opera land: The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden! And my tickets cost less than ten pounds every time!

Yes there are seats at the front that cost many hundreds of pounds but there are also dozens of seats for every performance costing twenty pounds or less. I always grab a ‘bench seat’ for a handful of pounds but believe me even the benches are luxurious. You don’t have to worry that you won’t understand what is going on – there are surtitle boards (‘surtitle’ rather than ‘subtitle’ because the board is above rather than under the stage) that translate every word. The music is incredible, and the singing is literally heavenly: I often leave the Opera House in raptures wondering how humans can sing as beautifully as that. And the story lines are great as well – they thrive on the dramatic, on life and death struggles. If you love the theatre, then you will love opera. If you love musicals, then you will love opera. If you love the soaps, then you will love opera.

I am so excited because tomorrow I take a deserved week out of my writing schedule and I head to London, to Covent Garden, to watch Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The Ring is a series of four operas that explore the tragedy of Wotan and the Norse gods. Like so much of opera you will know many of the tunes – the Ride Of The Valkyries is a classic that everybody knows. Four seminal operas in one week, I feel as if Christmas has come early.

Please give opera a go, it is cheap, it is beautiful, it is melodic and frankly marvellous. Opera isn’t just for the gentry and the well-to-do, it is for you and I. I hope to see you there one day at Covent Garden in the cheap but oh so wonderful seats!

Stop Animal Cruelty – Support Alfie’s Law

I love animals, and as you are reading this then there is a good chance that you love animals as well. I myself have a wonderfully bright and funny pet tortoise, one of the inspirations for my children’s book ‘Tortoise Soup’, but I have also had a cat, a dog, a guinea pig and a plethora of stick insects. Pets bring so much love into our lives and all they ask for is love and nurturing in return. Unfortunately there are sick individuals out there who abuse animal’s love and trust, and this is why we desperately need Alfie’s Law.

Alfie’s Law is trying to change the way that people who inflict cruelty upon animals are dealt with. There is a petition that I would like you to sign:  http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/34522. If we can all help to get 100,ooo signatures then Parliament will have to take the issue seriously and debate it.

All too often these offenders are given paltry fines or suspended sentences and are then freed to offend again. Some of these crimes are too horrific to contemplate but one case that Alfie’s Law is particularly concerned with is that of Codie. Codie was a beautiful and loving dog who was covered in lighter fluid and then set alight. It took eleven days for her to succumb to her injuries. The perpetrators are due in court shortly but the sentencing options open to the judges are simply not tough enough to cover disgusting acts such as these. Make no mistake, any people who carry out such sickening crimes against animals are a danger to society as a whole, they are as likely to attack people as they are animals.

Alfie’s Law wants to see a zero tolerance approach to animal cruelty, with the maximum jail sentence increased to at least two years accompanied by a lifetime ban on pet ownership.

Alfie’s Law also wants to make it easier and more cost effective for animal protection agencies such as the RSPA to bring prosecutions against offenders. Last year, sadly, 1341 vile people were found guilty of animal cruelty yet only 74 received a custodial sentence. We need to change this.

 
Animals cannot speak out in their own defence so we need to speak for them. Let us repay them for all of the love and happiness that they so selflessly give to us. Please sign the Alfie’s Law petition today at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/34522.

 
You can find more information at the official Alfie’s Law website: http://www.pawsforthought-alfieslaw.co.uk/
You can also submit a picture of your pet to the website’s gallery. My tortoise Ovid is on there, and there are so many beautiful pictures of pets of all shapes and sizes. I hope that you join the fight and help to bring justice for Codie.

Ventriloquism and how to do it!

Writing is my passion, my life – but while I continue the search to find the right publisher for ‘Tortoise Soup’ it is good to have other interests to pursue. Hobbies are important, and as far as I am concerned the more unusual hobby the better! That is why I have taken such an interest in ventriloquism – maybe after reading this blog you will decide that ventriloquism is the perfect hobby for you as well?

Ventriloquism is an ancient art, but it is surprisingly easy to master. If you follow the tips below then you too can learn all of the basic skills that you need to make a start as a ventriloquist. I myself have only been ‘venting’ for a few months but already I have reached the final of the Yorkshire Best New Act 2012 competition: I will be performing live on stage at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre this Thursday (13th September) at 8pm. If you are in the area then please come along and give me your support – I need all the help that I can get!

The first thing for a budding ventriloquist to do is to purchase their ‘dummy’. Buy one that you love and cherish, that fits your personality. There is a wide variety of vent dummies available online, I myself have a tortoise puppet (of course) that I call ‘Sheldon’. Here is a picture of us on our visit to the London 2012 Olympics last month.

Once you have your dummy practise in front of a mirror every night, try to ensure that your dummies mouth moves in a co-ordinated fashion with the words that they are saying. Just ten minutes of practise a night should soon have you at a level where you can impress friends and family.

Now we come to the art itself: speaking without moving your lips. This is surprisingly easy – there are only six letters that require any movement of the lips at all. That’s right – only six. Say your alphabet in the mirror now and try to keep your lips apart, relaxed and unmoving. What letters did you have difficulty with? W, F, V, B, M and P. These are the only problematic letters. ‘W’ can be circumvented by saying ‘oo’ in front of the word – ie, instead of ‘water’ say ‘oo-ater’ and instead of ‘wedding’ say ‘oo-edding’. Easy peasy. When saying the letter ‘F’ simply say a soft ‘Th’ as in ‘think’, and when saying ‘V’ use a hard ‘Th’ as in ‘then’. These ‘th’ sounds can easily be said without lip movement and are indistinguishable from ‘F’ and ‘V’ when used in a sentence.

So now we see that in reality there are only three difficult letters: B, M and P. Did I say difficult? I actually meant impossible. Even the best ventriloquist in the world could not say these letters without moving their lips – it is physically impossible. So what do we do? Well, we substitute different letters with similar sounds. For ‘B’ we use ‘D’ (ie ‘dottle’ for bottle – not ‘gottle’ as is commonly thought), for ‘M’ we use ‘N’ (so ‘nask’ instead of ‘mask) and for ‘P’ we use ‘T’ (so ‘terfect’ is ‘perfect’). When saying this ‘substitute’ sounds place your tongue against the back of your upper teeth and this will help to create the effect that you are saying the impossible letters. This does take a bit of practise, but after a while substituting will become second nature. Of course, you can help yourself by using words that don’t contain these troublesome letters: for example instead of saying ‘Bring me a pint of milk’ have your dummy say ‘fetch me a glass of water’.

Now that you can speak without moving your lips how do you throw your voice? You don’t – again it is an illusion created by a skilful ventriloquist. To create a ‘distant’ voice speak softer and for a ‘near’ voice speak louder. It really is that easy.

So there you are – thanks to Tortoise Soup you now know all the basics that you need to begin your life as a ventriloquist. It is such a fulfilling  hobby – you get a real sense of satisfaction as you see and hear yourself improving day after day. I hope to use my puppet when I am doing talks and book signings for ‘Tortoise Soup’, my fantastic upcoming children’s novel, so in this way I will get to combine my career and my hobby! Give it a go, it’s lots of fun – please comment below and let me know how you get on. And don’t forget that Sheldon and I will be doing a brief routine at Huddersfield’s Comedy Cellar night this Thursday from 8 at the Lawrence Batley Theatre! Come along and say ‘Hi’!

Paralympic Perfection

I have been lucky enough to have tickets for both the Olympics and Paralympics at London 2012. Last month I watched the Ladies’ Basketball and last weekend I was at the Excel Arena to watch some Paralympic Powerlifting. Here is the Tortoise Soup report on the brilliance of the Paralympics.

The Olympics themselves are, of course, a wonderful event. Athletes at the very top of their field giving every last drop of strength and energy to either win a medal or at least set a personal best. It is magnificent to see. The Paralympics however is even greater – the athletes achievements are so much more meaningful, it moves the heart and the soul simply to watch it.

The atmosphere at the Excel Arena was wonderful. Crowds were queueing around the block for the chance of a last minute ticket. Everybody had a smile on their face, and there was a tangible excitement in the air. I had a ticket to see the 48kg and under women and the competitors had a range of disabilities – many in wheelchairs, some with artificial limbs and one without legs. The weights that they lifted varied greatly as well – I was lucky enough to see the Nigerian winner Esther Oyema create a world record by lifting 135kg – nearly three times her own body weight. One of the competitors, however, failed to lift 64kg  but her effort was given rapturous applause – she was not a failure, her very being there was a remarkable achievement.

I have loved every minute of the Paralympic games, but for me there has been one stand out moment. Britain’s very own Ellie Simmonds winning her second gold (so far) in the 200 metres individual medley swimming. She is so much smaller than the other swimmers, and as she lined up it seemed incredible that she could even think of competing against them. After three of the fours strokes she was a distant second behind Ukraine’s Oksana Khrul – her short arms and legs mean that Ellie is unable to generate power by kicking off of the wall and she struggles at certain stokes. We need not have worried – as she turned for the final 50 metres it was as if somebody had switched on an outboard motor, she flew past Khrul and won by nearly ten seconds. It was such an astonishing thing to see that broadcaster Channel 4, when showing highlights on the news, had to say ‘we have not speeded up this footage.’ It has to rank as one of the most incredible minutes of sport that I have ever seen. Ellie Simmonds is such an unassuming young woman, with a beaming smile, and she has certainly become a national treasure.

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So what will the legacy of the Paralympics be? My upcoming children’s novel ‘Tortoise Soup’ addresses the issue of childhood disability. It’s heroine, Ruby Tinker, has been disabled in a car crash that killed both of her parents. This is how Ruby would sum up the Paralympics:

“The Paralympic Games have been incredible – not just because disabled athletes have shown that they too can do wonderful things, can achieve magnificent sporting glories, but because they have been accepted as athletes first and disabled people second. Huge audiences are loving the Paralympics because they have been entertained by great sport, it doesn’t matter that the competitors are not what some people would call ‘able bodied’. They have shown that there is no such thing as ‘dis-ability’ just ‘different ability’ – and after all, every one of us is different in our own little way. I hope that the Paralympics breaks down the ‘us and them’ mentality – that we realise that people in wheelchairs, people without limbs, people with mental challenges are all human too and have just as much to offer society. Then we really will have had a perfect Paralympics!”

Well said Ruby – she is a clever little girl! You can read more from Ruby and her struggle to be reunited with her beloved tortoise Byron in ‘Tortoise Soup’ when my novel is published. In the meantime, please do comment below and share your view of the Paralympic Games.