Training with London’s Chessboxers at Islington Boxing Club

Leah Baxter, the hero of my new novel Chessboxer is an international chess master and also something of an athlete. She can run a five-minute mile. She can jab a punchbag seventy-four times in thirty seconds. She can jump a skipping rope a hundred times before screwing up.

I wish I had half of Leah’s athleticism and hand-eye coordination. I would love to be able to jump rope even ten times before screwing up. As it turns out I can jump rope precisely zero times before screwing up.

It’s Saturday morning and I have come to Islington boxing club, to spend some time flailing ingloriously with a skipping rope. Experienced chessboxer Matt ‘Crazy Arms’ Read skips effortlessly at my side, encouraging me with kindly advice. ‘Jump up just before the rope reaches your shins,’ he says. ‘You’ll get the hang of it soon.’ And later (since I show no sign of getting the hang of it), ‘Put both handles in one hand and just twirl the rope by your side.’

As well as being embarrassed by my lack of coordination, I am also somewhat starstruck. The fifteen other skippers in this gym are the best-known chessboxers in the UK – Gavin ‘Grievous Bodily Farmer’ Paterson, Cameron ‘The Hurt Locker’ Little, Roger ‘Cannonball’ Baxter, names I’ve become very familiar with these last five years.

After an eternity of entanglement, I get to play some chess. This is the essence of chessboxing training – moving from high-intensity cardio work to blitz chess and back again. But with my heart still pumping from my fumbled attempts to skip, I can’t remember any decent lines for white in the French Defence Advance Variation. I’m making it up as I go along, and soon I am haemorrhaging pawns.

‘You thought you’d be meeting Leah, didn’t you?’ I whisper.

‘It’s fine,’ Matt chuckles. ‘At least you write a damn good game.’

I’m pleased by the compliment because I always wanted Chessboxer to be read and enjoyed by people who know their chess, as well as by those who’ve never picked up a knight in their life. In writing first-person POV from Leah’s perspective, the challenge was to shoehorn myself into the shoes of a chess master and convey in writing the intense drama of high-level chess. If Crazy Arms enjoyed the book, I must have done something right.

Gavin calls time on the chess round and we move on to boxing – or in my case, a beginners lesson with boxing coach Zowie Campbell. ‘Stand at forty-five degrees,’ he says. ‘Hands up to your face. Elbows tight to your rib cage. Bend your knees. Now take a step forward and drag your right foot behind.’ It turns out that even the most basic punch, the jab, has a dozen separate components. ‘Twist your right foot as you throw the jab,’ says Zowie, demonstrating. ‘Pretend you’re stubbing out a cigarette butt on the ground…twist-twist.’

As the lesson progresses, I am struck not just by the complexity of basic boxing technique, but also by the poetry of it. As Iron Mike scowls down at us from a poster on the wall, Zowie takes us through a drill that would not sound out of place in a Hilaire Belloc poem: Step forward, jab, jab, uppercut, jab…step forward, jab, jab, left hook, back.

Also getting his first taste of boxing today is Matthew Lunn, an accomplished chess player and commentator. After our lesson, I make the mistake of challenging Matthew to a game. He lets me play white, gives me a huge time advantage on the clocks, and then mercilessly steamrollers me, delivering checkmate before I’ve even castled.

Gavin calls the switch and it’s time for the punching bags to get a battering of their own. ‘Bend your knees, not your neck,’ Cannonball calls over to me. ‘And stop sticking your arse out. Watch Matt and Cameron if you want to see good technique from tall people.’

The English word ‘agony’ comes from the Greek word agon, meaning ‘contest’. The final contest of the morning – the last delicious agony – is two laps around Elthorne Park and a sprint up Hazelville Hill. ‘Keep your gloves on,’ grins Gavin, ‘and I’ll be shouting at you to keep your guard up all the way.’

For lap, read lumber. For sprint, read stagger. I’m so grateful to Gavin and Matt for their willingness to induct an out-of-condition author into the mystery of chessboxing, but this final uphill sprint is killing me, and I can’t help thinking of the scene in Chessboxer where Leah encounters her gym equipment nemesis: Jacob’s ladder. ‘After three minutes, my muscles are burning,’ she says. ‘After ten minutes, I no longer know my own name. After fifteen minutes I want nothing more than to crawl into a deep dark ditch and die.’

In her often quoted book ‘On Boxing’ (1987), Joyce Carol Oates wrote this: ‘The punishment a person must endure to become even a moderately good boxer is inconceivable.’ Inconceivable, perhaps, but I do feel as if I’ve had a glimpse.

Chessboxer comes out on Thursday 3 October 2019, published by Andersen Press.

London Chessboxing’s next event Oktoberfist takes place on Saturday 5 October 2019.

I chatted with Gavin and the two Matts for this episode of their excellent Chessboxing podcast.

Chessboxing training happens every Saturday morning at Islington Boxing Club.

Author visit for KS2 classes studying the Titanic disaster

cover design: Two Dots Studio

If you are a Year 5 or 6 teacher and your class is studying the sinking of the Titanic, please note that I now offer a Titanic-themed author visit. We can do this right at the start of your Titanic unit (as a hook to create interest) or later on when the children have already been studying the topic for some time. It may be that your pupils are already reading my book Survivor: Titanic but this is not essential.

A recent report by the National Literacy Trust highlighted the positive impact of author visits. Pupils who had an author visit this academic year:

  • Were twice as likely to read above the expected level for their age (31% vs 17%)
  • Were more likely to enjoy reading (68% vs 47%) and writing (44% vs 32%)
  • Were more likely to be highly confident in their reading (37% vs 25%) and writing (22% vs 17%)

Content

The day starts with an hour-long assembly for the whole year group. We do a Titanic-themed quiz (harder or easier questions, depending on how much the children have already studied the topic) and then discuss the importance of primary sources: photographs, deck plans and survivor accounts.

Jack Thayer

I tell them about four of the passengers in particular: Jacques Futrelle, John Jacob Astor, Al-Emir Fares Chebab and Jack Thayer. We look at Jack Thayer’s exciting first-hand survival narrative, which influenced Jimmy’s escape story in my own book. After the assembly, I lead a historical fiction workshop with each class. These workshops last either an hour or ninety minutes.

Titanic-themed writing workshop with author Stephen Davies

Over the course of the workshop, I guide pupils in planning their own survival stories set aboard the Titanic. We work on characterization, suspense and show don’t tell. The workshop is punctuated by short bursts of speed-writing by the children. By the end of the day, pupils should be well on the way to completing the first draft of a short story, a task which could perhaps be completed or redrafted for homework.

The day ends with Q & A and then children have the opportunity to share some of their writing. I give plenty of affirmation and encouragement, along with gentle suggestions for improvement. When I do Titanic themed KS2 visits, pupils often end up wanting their own copy of Survivor:Titanic. I am happy to bring copies with me for sale and signing.

Testimonials

Steve’s visit was brilliant; it was a really engaging day that left our Year 6 pupils excited to write.  It was great for them to see the process a real author follows when planning a new story and showed them the importance of knowing their characters!  Steve created a great atmosphere for learning, celebrating everyone’s ideas and pushing them to think more deeply.  The stories produced as a result were excellent and really showed that they’d taken his advice on board. 

Ms Jelley, Year 6 teacher, King’s Park Academy, Bournemouth

Stephen Davies has visited our school twice now, and on both occasions the children have been truly inspired. The topic of the Titanic intrigues the children and Stephen’s presentation, knowledge and explanation of how he researched the historical event to write his novel captivated them. The writing workshop engaged all pupils and enabled them to create their own character and consider ways to bring them to life, which resulted in the children producing some outstanding pieces of writing. They thoroughly enjoyed the day because of Stephen’s inspiring words and the time he spent talking to them about books, authors, their interests and his experiences. Fantastic, amazing and inspiring are some of the words used by our children to describe the day, with many commenting that they are now considering becoming an author in the future.  

Ms Rochelle, Year 6 teacher, Park Hall Junior School, Walsall

We couldn’t recommend Stephen enough. His knowledge of Titanic was extraordinary and the children were engrossed with the stories and knowledge he could share. The aim of the session was to learn more about the Titanic but also to support our children with story writing. Stephen’s workshop was invaluable. The children were very excited to write their stories and use the advice given from Stephen – their stories were out of this world! ​

Ms Foster, Year 6 teacher, Manor Community Primary School, Swanscombe

This letter is a thank you for the amazing assembly and class workshop. I found both sessions really inspiring. I appreciated your picking me to get up and share facts about the Titanic. I felt really proud. Another thing that I enjoyed was the class quiz. It was a shame that our class lost. I enjoyed designing my own character that I could later on use in my own survival story. One of the best parts was transferring my planning into an amazing story.

Kerim, Year 6, King’s Park Academy, Bournemouth

Steve visited our group of Y6 pupils as part of our history topic where we were exploring different sources of evidence linked to the Titanic. During his visit, he exposed the children to a range of primary sources such as deck plans, photos and survivor accounts, introducing the children to life on board the ship. As a result of viewing these sources, the children were able to imagine their own character and setting for a short piece of narrative in the first person. Steve also told the children about a young man on board called Jack Thayer who was the inspiration for his own character ‘Jimmy’. The children were incredibly engaged by Steve’s presentation, enjoying the opportunity to ask further questions about the Titanic and listening to him read a few chapters from his book. 
It was a fantastic day which brought our topic to life and sparked the imagination of our children. We would definitely recommend anyone embarking on this topic to invite Steve in!

Years 6 teachers, Mosborough Primary School

To book a Titanic-themed author visit, please write to Yvonne Lang at Authors Abroad: yvonne@caboodlebooks.co.uk or contact me for further details.

Related post: 8 Children’s Books about the Titanic Disaster

Visiting the KAUST school in Saudi Arabia

At the beginning of April I visited the KAUST school in Saudi Arabia, to encourage secondary school students in their own creative writing. Exciting to find so many keen writers among them, including some who are using Wattpad to work on their own novels.

KAUST (the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) is located an hour’s drive south of Jeddah and occupies 14 square miles of Red Sea coastline. In a row of towering seaside laboratories, scientists pursue cutting edge research in impressively mysterious disciplines such as laser diagnostics, chemical kinetics and supercomputing.

The rest of the campus is tidy and somewhat sterile – hundreds of identical, cream coloured staff houses and insipid crossroads where careful, considerate drivers wait for their traffic light to turn green. On my second day at KAUST I was riding a borrowed moped to the school and ended up hopelessly lost among those bland intersections. Five minutes before my assembly was due to start, I was rescued by a kind librarian, who had come out in her car to search for me.

I love international schools and the KAUST school was no exception. I worked with eighteen classes of warm, funny, globally aware students – all of them wired to tell stories, even (or perhaps especially) the less academic ones. I’ve added a few photos below, as well as a couple of testimonials on my author visits page.

Sincere thanks to Catherine de Levay for rescuing me from the neat streets of Pleasantville and for overseeing an otherwise enjoyable visit. Thanks also to Authors Abroad, who are so good at organizing international escapades for authors and poets.

How to make Hilda and Twig costumes for World Book Day

The arrival of HILDA on Netflix means that more girls than ever are dressing up as Hilda for World Book Day this year. Daughter 1 has never before shown any inclination to dress up as a character from one of my books, but apparently she makes an exception for TV tie-ins.

Hilda is a quick and inexpensive costume to put together. We already owned a black beret, so our only expense was a blue wig. Once that arrived, Daughter 1 was kitted out in minutes.

Daughter 2 wanted to dress up as Twig, to accompany her sister. I searched online for Twig costumes: nothing. I looked at polar bear onesies, thinking we might adapt one: too expensive. We decided to make a Twig costume ourselves.

I won’t pretend that making Twig’s head was a quick job, or even that the result looks much like Twig. But it was a really fun craft project to do together. And if you start well in advance of World Book Day, you can do it step by step over a week or two with no stress.

Tape cardboard ears and nose to a balloon. Make glue (equal parts flour and water).
Cover head, ears and nose with three layers of paper
Cut eye-holes. Tape on sticks for antlers. Paint head white and antlers black.
Cut a slit up the back of the head, so it’s easier to get on and off
Paint nose.
Paint inner ears.

Our guide on this journey was the wonderful Mr Otter Art Studio, who made the video below. This video is a foxfox instead of a deerfox, but the process is the same!

Author Visit to Kazakhstan

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting two international schools in Kazakhstan: QSI Almaty and QSI Astana. Thank you to staff and students at both schools for making me feel so welcome, and to Authors Abroad for organizing the trip.

Hilda and the Great Parade is out now (Flying Eye Books)

Is there a more fitting way for an author to celebrate the new year than with the release of a new book? I am pleased to announce that 1 January 2019 saw the publication of the second Hilda TV tie-in HILDA AND THE GREAT PARADE. This story sees Hilda getting to grips with her new life in Trolberg and (as usual) getting embroiled with magical creatures. The book contains plot threads from The Bird Parade and three other episodes from the Netflix series.

This book was great fun to write and it contains one of my favourite characters from the Hildaverse: the Lindworm. Beware, the Lindworm is bigger and more dangerous than her name suggests!

Now that my daughters have read THE GREAT PARADE, they are eagerly awaiting Book 3 HILDA AND THE NOWHERE SPACE which I believe comes out in May. In the meantime they are getting their ongoing Hilda fix from the engrossing game Hilda Creatures. You place food, plants and other items in various locations around Trolberg and the wilderness, and then you wait to see who or what shows up. Here are some of the familiar and not-so-familiar friends my daughters have encountered over the last few days – usually accompanied by squeals of delight.

My family and I are just back from the Pyranees, where they went skiing and I made valiant but pitiful attempts to stand up. During the week we happened across a couple of isolated Hilda-esque cabins in the valleys. Can you spot them?

The Pyraneean setting was perfect inspiration for the fourth Hilda tie-in, which I started work on yesterday – a festive, snowy story containing plot threads from various episodes of Hilda Season 2. (Yes, that’s right, the award-winning Netflix animation has been re-commissioned for another series – watch this space!)

Later this month I am off to another snowy setting, Kazakhstan, where I have been invited to visit two international schools with Authors Abroad. 2019 is shaping up to be a busy year for school visits, so if you are interested in a visit, please book sooner rather than later. You can find session content, testimonials and fees on the school visits page of this site.

Warm wishes to Hilda fans everywhere, and thanks as always to Luke Pearson and Flying Eye Books for the opportunity to be involved with such warm, life-affirming stories.

Book Week in Doha

I spent last week in Doha, Qatar, at the Gulf English School. On Monday and Tuesday I was in their Junior School, Tuesday and Wednesday in the Infant School and Thursday in the Secondary School.

With its illuminated skyscrapers and man-made beaches, Doha is sometimes described as a mini-Dubai, although it’s hard to think of it as a mini anything. The skyline is awe-inspiring. On my first night there I walked through the West Bay area of the city and soon had a crick in my neck from all that looking up.

‘Reading takes us places we’ve never been before’. That was the theme of Book Week. My workshops transported the children far away from the fluorescent lights of Doha to the wonderful Saharan country of Niger, where pale giraffes roam wild and fishermen cast silvery nets across a silent river.

We read the book DON’T SPILL THE MILK and then the children worked on pages for their own book DON’T DROP THE MANGO. They used their knowledge of Qatar’s vast desert to dream up new adventures for Penda.

If you would like me to visit your school, whether in the UK or overseas, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. See my school visits page for details.

Three days in Austria

Two of my books are published in German by Aladin Verlag: BLOOD & INK and TITANIC: 24 STUNDEN BIS ZUM UNTERGANG. I just got back from a short tour of Austria, where I had been invited to talk about my 2015 book Blood & Ink, a book that is ever so close to my heart. As Austria’s new far-right government closes mosques and deports dozens of Turkish imams, now is a good time for frank, wide-ranging discussion of the issues surrounding political Islam. Blood & Ink is a useful springboard for such discussion because all of the characters in the novel are Muslim. No clash of civilizations here. No east versus west nonsense. Just two manifestations of Islam confronting each other within a remote, walled city.

In Vienna on Wednesday I was hosted by Büchereien Wien as part of their Lesofantenfest reading festival. It seemed fitting to be presenting Blood & Ink in Vienna because Timbuktu librarian Abdel Kader Haidara was here himself not so long ago, talking about how solutions to ethnic and religious conflict might be found in the Timbuktu manuscripts themselves.

On Thursday I took the train up into the mountains to Radstadt a pretty walled town surrounded by majestic peaks. I was the guest of BORG Radstadt, discussing Blood & Ink with students in years 8 and 9. Big readers, some of them, and a real pleasure to spend time with. It was warm and bright in the mountains – Bei uns wärmer als in Afrika, proclaimed the local newspaper headlines. Good for the blooming flowers, bad for those living in the mountains, where winter sports are so essential to the local economy.

On Thursday afternoon, the wonderful Peter Fuschelberger from Literaturhaus Salzburg took me to see his childhood haunts in Bischofshofen. A peaceful town known for its chocolate-box beauty and its dizzying ski jumps, Bischofshofen is one of the most important venues in the ski jumping World Cup. On the way up the mountain Peter told me about his sixteen-year-old nephew Florian, already an accomplished ski jumper. Seeing the jumps and hearing about Florian made me long to write a YA novel set in the world of ski jumping. There’s one already (GRAVITY by Juliann Rich) but I suspect there’s room for a second.

On Thursday afternoon I had a short tour of Salzberg, including the gardens of Schloss Mirabell featured in the Sound of Music. Then on Friday I did two talks at the Salzburg Literaturhaus. The young people at these two talks were especially forthcoming and we had worthwhile discussion not just about political Islam but also about empathy, research and cultural appropriation. When is it appreciation and when is it appropriation? Such a hot topic right now. The young people at these events really impressed me with their acuity and common sense.

Thank you to all the students who came to my readings in Austria, and to the fab teachers who accompanied them. Warm thanks also to Martina Adelsberger at Vienna Main Library and to Peter Fuschelberger of Literaturhaus Salzburg. Three days in Austria was not enough, and I look forward eagerly to returning.