My trip to the UK (The North)

We set out from London with the usual circus of roundabouts and wrong turns. Our GPS was inhabited by the voice of a sage who intoned Toward the North after every minor instruction to go left, right or straight on. So Toward the North we went, until we reached the fringes of Newcastle upon Tyne.

I liked the place immediately upon seeing the massive steel sculpture which heralds your arrival to the city.

The Angel of the North is an uncompromising and immense presence, totem like and just a little reminiscent of a crashed plane. But no, the outflung wings are of an angelic figure standing as if from the beginning of time, featureless and unyielding. It did indeed feel as if I was entering the realm of the Bearded One while turning, Toward the North as instructed by our wizened electronic master.

That evening we walked through the city. It was Saturday and obviously the night for couples to go out on the town in their best, while blithely disregarding frostbite. I could not help feeling this place has a profoundly unique way of life and with it, a great deal of vitality. Being somewhat less vital and frankly unpleasant in our elastic waisted travelling pants, we turned in early so as to be ready for the main purpose of our visit.

The following morning, we found our way into the Ouseburn Valley; a former industrial area which has undergone urban renewal.

Seven Stories which somewhat poetically, is a seven story Victorian warehouse located within the valley. The building has undergone a massive renovation to make it fit for purpose as the National Centre for Children’s Books.

We were met by Carey Fluker Hunt who had graciously come in on a Sunday to give us a tour.

 

I felt bad about interrupting her weekend until at a certain point, as we climbed Rapunzel’s tower, I realized she was very happy to spend her free time here. I quickly saw why.

There is a school of thought which states that once you know how a thing is made then its magic is lost. That may be so with sausages and the law, but cannot be further from the truth with books.

 

The current exhibition was Michael Morpugo, ‘A life in stories’ one of Britain’s best loved story makers and this unique exhibition showcases, for the first time, the notebooks and manuscripts that became the classics we know today including War Horse, Private Peaceful, Kensuke’s Kingdom and Farm Boy. 

The entire fourth floor or was it the fifth …either way, the floor was turned over to a display of Morugo’s final art, writings, roughs and all the familiar trappings of a work in progress. Now I say familiar, because this has been my life for many years now. However as a child who would not let a day go by without some kind of visual record … or heaven help me a poem, this stuff is gold.

The thing which niggled at me while we perused each display, was what an enormous gift it is to see the humble, unpolished, homely, tea and biscuit stained reality of how books begin.

Whenever I watch someone who loves picture books look at a new offering, there seems to be a practiced ritual. It starts with the stroking of the cover. Next is feeling the book’s weight and dimensions as they take in the face of the book, its font, its design, its personality. Then there is a ritual opening of the book with its wafting paper smells… those less inhibited will go right in for a sniff at this point.  Following this, an assessment of the paper begins; shiny or creamy or matt or toothy or glassy smooth …mmmh, a curled finger to lip… and they have not even begun to read yet.

My point is that a published book is a minor miracle on a number of levels. It stands at the end of an extraordinary process involving the skills of many people. I would have found it immensely heartening as a child to see the scrawlings from which a book is born. I might have learned an important lesson as well, about the time and effort it takes to shape an idea in order to achieve something satisfying, elegant and simple. And that something wonderful can emerge from that tiny idea. I might have even finished that poem … or not … probably better- not.

The display Bears! Is physically and literally a walk through the woods, a beautifully conceived and engaging exhibition of bear related books, art, marvelous toy bears and other bear quirkiness right down to bear prints on the floor.

Seven Stories even invites you to bring your own bear for the journey (Mine came in my folio). Such details attest to the thought which goes into these exhibitions where the possibilities of the themes are well explored.

I will often make puppets or dolls of the characters I am creating. Their world can expand into book trailers or plays. But here I saw it from a different perspective. Children dressed as bears and running across bear prints or resting in a

bear cave. They were experiencing and expanding the story of the book in their own terms. If the object of the exercise was to engage on many levels, then I would say ‘job well done!’

The attic of Seven Stories literally tops it off for me. Carey explained that before the renovation, this space was the abode of pigeons and ankle deep in bird poop. An image which I found only added to the atmosphere of delight. The massive beams, giant rustic wooden chair, fairy lights, and dress up racks promising snorts of amusement. It is a genuinely magic place, inspired in concept and generous in execution.

Later we sat down for coffee on the first floor café.

Carey talked about the history of how Seven Stories was the vision of Elizabeth Hammill OBE and Mary Briggs OBE . It did not always exist in a bricks and mortar sense and it was the thanks to these two inspirational women that it all happened.

Sadly, I was there on a Sunday and therefore missed the most important part, their Collection. This contains such treasures as; most of the material in the Michael Morpurgo exhibition, as he donated his entire archive in a recent show of support. It also contains a significant amount in the Bears exhibition including Barbara Firth’s entire archive for Can’t You Sleep Little Bear – sketches, final artwork, the lot.

Additionally Martin Waddell’s manuscripts and much more.

Carey explained how they work with the original materials as a starting point to curate their exhibitions and that the role of saving this material for the nation is at the heart of what they do in their position as the National Centre for Children’s Books.

It was a shame not to see the Collection, but I do believe it makes the perfect excuse for a return to Seven Stories.

As I went for one last look before leaving, it struck me how they allow children to explore the material in their own way within the Seven Stories environ.

Evidence of creative hands are everywhere from

the wooden book seats to

costumes to

glass book lights flying overhead in the atrium and even

strange watercraft in the canal behind.

 

In addition to all of this, Seven Stories reaches out to schools.

I loved our visit to Newcastle and Seven Stories, and cannot recommend a visit highly enough. We then piled back into the car to drive

 

through the moors- the electronic sage insisting…Toward The South.