Three cheers for school visits!

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Demons & magic – essential for curriculum

A few weeks ago, I did one of my favourite things as a writer: visited a school. On the hottest and longest day of the year, I stood in a cool (aahhh, relief) assembly hall and spoke to two lots of 9 – 12 year-old boys, around 150 in all. Together we covered important topics that would be part of any national curriculum I had a hand in – alchemy, magical instruments, demons, Faustian pacts, corruption and abuse of power. Yup, that should equip them for dealing with whatever the world can throw at them in later life. Oh, and the crucial ingredients for what makes a good story: strong, believable characters, powerful motivation and a tight plot structure.

I involved my audience as much as possible, asking questions ranging from easy to more demanding, not because I expected them to know all the answers but because it’s extraordinary how often children can surprise themselves – and their teachers – with knowledge they didn’t know they had.

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How to draw up a Faustian pact

   

This is why I love school visits. Yes, I always hope a good number of my audience will be inspired hearing about my book (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, in this case, as you probably guessed) to queue up afterwards for a signed copy. But sharing with children the things that excite me about books, how they can not only entertain but enrich your imagination and experience with themes and images that link straight to the great classics, gives me the biggest thrill of all. You can enjoy the world of Narnia, for instance, with no idea that fauns, centaurs, dryads and naiads are all rooted in Greek mythology; ditto with the fabulous creatures and themes – hippogriffs, dragons, unicorns, the basilisk and phoenix, alchemy and shape shifting, all well-known tropes of mediaeval literature – in the Harry Potter stories. But if, having read these when young, you later on pick up a copy of Ovid or Vergil or Dante or Milton, it will feel – at least in part – like coming home.

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Hippogriff

Because my books are aimed at Years 5 – 8 (straddling the primary/secondary divide) I visit all kinds of schools, alternating between speaking to the oldest and youngest Year groups. Every school has a different – but, in my experience, always positive – atmosphere, from the most comfortable private school to the most cash-strapped state primary. I am full of admiration for the teachers who organise my visits; with all the pressures they are under already, it can’t be easy to free up several classes across a school day to attend my talk. Yet I often see from their faces – as well as the pupils’ – at the end that it’s been worth while. The experience of meeting a real, live author who takes the children on a journey they wouldn’t normally go on, can be truly exhilarating, inspiring them to take their own reading and creative writing to new levels. And that can only be good.

 Why, then, do I find it so difficult to charge a visit fee?

Initially, I reasoned I was new to this game, the main thing was to spread the word about my books while enthusing my audience with the glories of reading, and with luck, to sell a good number of copies afterwards. A few visits which didn’t quite work out like that soon toughened me up. In some schools I’d sell 60 or 70 books; in others, after talking to 120 children, only a handful. I gained in confidence that what I offer is worth having, therefore charging a fee is perfectly reasonable (I know!). But what really swung it for me was an observation by a fellow author that if we, as speakers, don’t put a value on ourselves, neither will schools. My ‘generosity’ (ok, cowardice) in waiving a fee makes it much harder for another author to charge one, and time spent away from writing needs to pay its way, or how can a writer make a living?

   The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst Cover for MATADORThus chastened, I do now charge for visits, plus expenses. It’s the piece of information I dread giving, even though the modest sum named is well below the rates recommended by the Society of Authors. Thankfully, most schools are fine with it, though I still can’t get over the brazenness of one private school in the wealthiest part of London informing me that on principle, they never pay fees or expenses to outside speakers. Needless to say, plans for my visit stopped right there and I was left hoping that the same principle didn’t extend to the school’s own teachers, administrative and catering staff.

   So if you know of any school who’d like their Years 5, 6, 7, 8 inspired by an author talk ranging from Greek mythology to the First World War (Ante’s Inferno), or from alchemy to demons and Elizabethan magic (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst), taking in the art of creating convincing characters, dialogue and story structure on the way, put them in touch with me here: 

http://www.griseldaheppel.com/contact/4587972230

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Alchemy or chemistry?

I promise their students will go away with a good working knowledge of such useful concepts as the Seven Deadly Sins and what exactly constitutes a Faustian pact.

Knowledge like that… Well, you can’t put a price on it, can you?

 

(Adapted from an article on Authors Electric Blogspot 1.07.17)

How to get rid of the parents

What do these children’s books – or series – have in common?IMG_0097

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1905
The Chalet School by Elinor Brent Dyer, 1925 – 1970
Malory Towers Enid Blyton, 1946 – 1951
Down with Skool by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, 1953
Harry Potter by J K Rowling, 1997 – 2007
The Dragonfly Pool by Eve Ibbotson, 2008
Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke, 2012
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens, 2014

The list isn’t exhaustive. I could have begun with Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and Tom Brown’s Schooldays but that’s going a little too far back and besides, those great classics don’t generally count as children’s books. By now you’ll have got it: these are all stories set in boarding schools, a type of establishment reserved for the pampered offspring of only the very wealthiest in society – or at least, that’s how it’s seen today. IMG_0091
As a children’s author, you’d be mad to use an environment totally alien to the experience of 95% of your audience, with more than a whiff of a bygone age about it. Wouldn’t you? Tell most adults that the plot of your latest book takes place in a boarding school and their eyes glaze over. ‘Oh, that old thing again,’ is the message, sometimes spoken out loud.

Yet that’s not how children feel. Look at that list again. The first four titles do belong to a different era, or even several, dating from 1905 to 1970. But the other four are highly successful works by contemporary authors, who’ve created brilliant stories against backgrounds ranging from a bonkers wartime school deep in the English countryside, to a ghostly cathedral school in Salisbury, to a magical castle in Scotland, to a 1920s finishing school for young ladies. Children reading these books don’t care whether boarding schools are old-fashioned or divisive: what they recognize is the perfect background for a tightly structured, smooth-flowing plot, whether about ghosts or wizards or teachers being bumped off in the night. Parents (who get in the way of adventures and have to be neutralized in some way) are got rid of from the outset. Left to themselves day and night – apart from the teachers of course, who don’t count – your characters have to tackle problems, deal with enemies, fight their battles (often literally, as in the Harry Potter books), uninterrupted by school pickup time and weekends.IMG_0092
It’s the equivalent, I suppose, of sending a group of disparate adults on to an island where they are gradually murdered, one by one, or forming them into a fighting unit in a war zone. Besides, it’s hard to write a children’s adventure that doesn’t involve school in some way, unless you resort to fantasy; school is what children do. Why shouldn’t the action take place in a kind of school they don’t go to? Tuck boxes, eccentric, wild-haired teachers, talking after lights out and braving dark, shadowy corridors at midnight add to the frisson of the story.
IMG_0093So I’ll come clean now and admit it: my wip, The Fall of a Sparrow, takes place in a boarding school. Not only that, I’ve followed Eve Ibbotson’s and Robin Stevens’s example by setting the story in a different era, in this case the 1960s. Cynics may assume this is so I don’t have to bother with mobile phones and social networking but that’s not the reason. Mobiles are easily dealt with: at critical moments there’s bound to be no network, or the battery’s run out, or they’ve been dropped down the loo. For anyone who’s ever tried to get texts from their children this is all too believable.IMG_0094

Much harder to deal with is how different boarding school life is now from how it was 50 years ago, when exeats didn’t exist and school life for most boarders went on uninterrupted until Half Term. This would appal present day parents, who bring their children home at weekends and often visit them during the week as well. Phone calls, texts and emails in between times keep everyone in touch with each other. Placing your characters in predicaments that they must use all their ingenuity, courage and resourcefulness to overcome becomes increasingly challenging when in real life they’ll be home every few days, curled up on the sofa with an xbox and a cup of cocoa. A gentler, more nurturing attitude to children poses problems for the writer (though I know which I’d rather have).

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A good place for talking after lights out

So, no easy way out for my heroine, 11 year-old Ellie Cooke. Lonely, angry, terrified her past will catch up with her, she arrives at Limewood House in 1968 ready to fight her corner; only to be greeted like a long lost friend by a strange 9 year-old boy who appears out of nowhere. Who is he, and why does he think he knows her? Unravelling the dark family secret concealed under the sunny surface of Limewood plunges Ellie into mortal danger, as the house’s tragic history threatens to engulf her too.

And not a cup of cocoa in sight.

 

 

 

Why do we tell stories?

IMG_0080That’s easy – to entertain. To lull our children to sleep. To give people a way of occupying their minds on long plane journeys. And, of course, to make a living, if you happen to be the writer of that novel picked up in the airport bookshop.

It’s not as simple as that, though, is it? Because if you’re a writer, you can’t help writing, whether or not your stories ever get published. The urge to tell and listen to stories goes deep into our psyche and is common to all human societies, no matter how ancient.

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This was brought home to me forcefully – and wonderfully – on a recent visit to Arnhemland in the Northern Territories of Australia, a region of 37,000 square miles which has been returned by the Australian Government to its Aboriginal owners, the Yolngu. To visit this beautiful, wild (and very humid) landscape you need a special permit; or you book, as we did, with Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris, the only safari company allowed to operate there.

Our guide took us on boat rides through the Cooper Creek billabong, gliding through powder blue water lilies under dense sawpalm forests and swamp paperbarks, past fields of wild rice, landing us in places where we scrambled through thick grass and over stones to vast overhangs in the rock face, shelters frequented by Aborigines for thousands of years.

IMG_0082And wherever they stayed, there are rock paintings: figures of men and women, spirits, birds, wallabies, fish, serpents – shapes delineated not separately but on top of each other, the same surface used over and over again with older layers of yellow and terracotta-coloured ochre fading under the more recent (still in terms of hundreds of years!).

This is because the paintings weren’t made for their own sake: they were done to illustrate stories. The man (art was strictly a male thing) telling the story would draw as he spoke, as if the rock face were a blackboard – and the teaching image that evokes isn’t far from the truth. Adults and children may have enjoyed the stories but that wasn’t their primary purpose: as Roberts and Parker put it in their book Ancient Ochres: The Aboriginal Rock Paintings of Mount Borradaile, ‘Dreaming stories… explain and enshrine all patterns of living and behaviour, from codifying domestic and inter-clan socio-economic arrangements to delineating what is edible.’IMG_0083

A scary story about the Rainbow Serpent, for instance, woken from his sleep by the screaming of a hungry child, whom he promptly devours along with its mother and the rest of the clan, highlights two important lessons, according to our guide. First, when moving around the land gathering food, it’s good to be as quiet as possible; second, mothers need to give their children plants that will satisfy their hunger, not cause them to cry more (as was the mother’s mistake in the story).


The formidable Rainbow Serpent

Sadly, apart from a magnificent representation of the Rainbow Serpent on this overhang (clearly an important painting, since – uniquely in this area – it bore not a trace of other story tellers’ drawing over it), we found no illustrations of this particular legend. Though if there had been, we wouldn’t be allowed to see them anyway, since Aborigines are careful about giving away cultural secrets. They don’t mind our seeing these historic drawings because we don’t know the stories that go with them. Without the words, the images mean nothing.

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Wallabies

Well, they knew a thing or two, these ancient peoples. While literary critics down the ages argue over the ‘moral obligation’ question, whether the purpose of stories – children’s, especially – should be to foster virtue and good behaviour in their readers, for the Aborigines, there were no two ways about it. Stories carried a vital lesson about survival in their environment: listening well could make the difference between life and death.  

If that isn’t a ringing endorsement for the writer’s and storyteller’s art, I don’t know what is.

When is a Young Adult not a Young Adult?

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Newnham College, Cambridge, library

Weeks later, I’m still chewing over something that came up in the Writing for Children Event I spoke at in Cambridge recently. A quotation was put to me and fellow panellists Mary Hoffman and Sue Limb, from an article written by children’s literature critics, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig:

‘The sense of moral obligations, which governs all writing for children, has acquired a new bias. It used to entail keeping your stories as anodyne as possible; now if anything, the opposite holds true. Painful topics have become virtually de rigeur.’

Tracy BeakerI tackled the moral obligation assumption bit already, plus the truly weird idea that anyone would strive to create anodyne stories for any audience, let alone children.  As for the last part of the quotation, given that these critics were writing about trends since the 1970s, I wondered what had upset them.  The answer? Writers such as Jacqueline Wilson, it turns out, with her realistic portrayal of children from broken homes like The Suitcase Kid and Tracy Beaker.

From a social history point of view, this is fascinating. You could argue that Wilson is actually following her Victorian predecessors in depicting children in difficult, lonely situations; all that has changed is that’s she’s updated the reason for their plight from parental death (The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Kim), to the present day realism of divorce and single parenthood.  KimHer heroes may go through painful predicaments but they learn to deal with and surmount them, just as the unloved and neglected orphans of the century before. Tracy’s acute sense of abandonment leads her to behave badly; but then so does Sarah Lennox in The Secret Garden, until she finds friends who actually care about her. Rather than children being disturbed by such realism, fiction can do a valuable job of making those struggling in similar situations feel less alone.Houghton_AC85_B9345_911s_-_Secret_Garden,_1911_-_cover

I’d have had more sympathy with Cadogan and Craig if their quotation referred to the more recent genre of Young Adult fiction. While not strictly intended for children, YA books are allowed to compete against children’s books in literary prizes, with the result that in the last 7 years, 5 of the winners of both Carnegie and Costa Children’s awards have been books whose plots involve dystopia, war, violence, rape, death, torture, incarceration, terminal illness, suicide and other equally cheerful themes. maze-runner-trailer-2-11Topics not so much painful as positively agonising. Of eight books on this year’s shortlist, all bar one – Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth – are classed as YA.

Our author panel at the Newnham Literary Archive Event mused on possible reasons behind this flowering of such depressing literature, much of it wonderfully written by some of the best authors around today.  My theory is that the genre has grown out of computer games, with their linear narratives involving fantasy kingdoms, fast action and blood all over the screen. But I was much taken by an audience suggestion that its roots may lie in the overwhelming bureaucratisation of the education system, allowing teenagers to escape to a simpler world where you can just fight your way out of the endless pressure of SATS tests and GCSEs.

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Fighting their way out of SATS tests

Whatever the reason, it is unfair that YA is allowed to dominate the children’s book awards, simply because there is no separate category for this genre. And I wonder if publishers realise that their biggest readership – far from being teenagers – is young people in their 20s and 30s. Go to any YA event at a literary festival and you’ll see what I mean. If Patrick Ness is appearing, you’ll probably find my sons there (26 and 29). YA fiction being read by young adults, then.

Or as we used to call them, adults.

Not at Hogwarts on World Book Day

IMG_0011Charms, pacts with demons, magic spells, astrology and crystal balls aren’t normally subjects taught in schools (unless you’re lucky enough to attend Hogwarts). Yet for one hour last week, talking about my book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, I managed to squeeze such dark mysteries into the curriculum of three different schools, in groups ranging from 140 primary school children to smaller classes of Years 7 and 8.

Yup, that’s right, I’m talking World Book Week here, that glorious time of the year when authors are invited to descend on classrooms and school libraries, celebrating with young people the joys of reading, writing and dressing up as dubious literary figures. (Overheard in one school: ‘Sir, sir, can I come as Karl Marx?’ ‘[wearily] Well, Alex, if you can prove to me that Karl Marx’s work is literature….’)

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Books by pupils at SS Philip and James

It’s tiring and by the end of the day my voice needs much tlc (oh all right then, several cups of tea) but I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I write stories about things that excite me and to be able to pass on that excitement to young readers and see their imaginations fired up gives me a huge thrill. Each audience reacts differently: some are bursting with questions the whole way through about magic, alchemy, and how I think up my characters; others wait patiently till the end of my talk and grill me then about my ideas and way of writing. Either way it is heartening to see so much enthusiasm for books and writing among young people: well done to them, and to the teachers and librarians who inspire them!

How to write for children: be anodyne. Apparently.

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Mary Hoffman, Anne Rooney, me, Sue Limb

Last Saturday I was invited back to my university college to take part in a fascinating Literary Archive Day discussing children’s literature, inspired by the Rogers Collection, a wonderful treasure trove of children’s books donated to Newnham College in the late nineteenth century. No other college library in Cambridge – or Oxford, I believe, though someone will probably put me right – has anything to match this. What better reason to gather together a bunch of Newnhamite children’s authors?

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The Rogers Collection

Christina Hardyment and Caroline Lawrence gave superb talks on Arthur Ransome and Mythic Tropes in Children’s Fiction respectively, while I made up a panel with Mary Hoffman and Sue Limb to discuss how children’s writing has changed over the last few decades. An excellent opening speech from Dr Gill Sutherland (‘A child who does not feel wonder is merely an inlet for apple pie’) gave us plenty to, um, chew over, but one phrase in particular bothered me so much I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Dr Sutherland quoted those authorities on children’s literature, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig, who talk about ‘the sense of moral obligation, which governs all writing for children’.

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Apple pie awaiting an inlet.

Now, I have no problem with children’s books having a moral framework, indeed it’s quite hard to write one without. The main characters should feel like real people with strengths and weaknesses; for the story to be satisfying, they need to develop, to be affected by the things that happen to them, just as they would be in real life. They learn from their mistakes, they come through trials and are stronger for it. This works for much adult fiction too. But – a sense of moral obligation governing all writing for children?

No. The moment the message is put above everything else – plot, character, structure, credibility – any hope of a decent story is lost. Preaching about current moral issues – discrimination, inclusiveness, immigration – is no more appealing to present day children than such ‘improving’ books as Eric, or Little by Little, can have been to Victorian ones (though perhaps brought up with less choice and more rules, Victorian children endured such works with greater stoicism).  If you want to extend your readers’ understanding and sympathy, bind themes you care about tightly into your story. But the story must come first.

Nor was that all. Cadogan and Craig went on to lament that this sense of moral obligation ‘has acquired a new bias. It used to entail keeping your stories as anodyne as possible; now, if anything, the opposite holds true. Painful topics have become virtually de rigeur.’

This statement opens up so many issues I scarcely know where to begin. First, did writers really seek to keep their stories anodyne, eschewing all painful topics? Not E Nesbit, who has one of the Wouldbegoods become dangerously ill when his siblings make him catch cold so they can try out their homemade medicine on him.
Not F Hodgson Burnett, whose Little Princess suffers cruelty and deprivation at the hands of the mercenary adults entrusted with her care. Not C S Lewis, portraying the sick mother in The Magician’s Nephew, or the heroes of The Last Battle being overwhelmed by tyranny and treachery.

In fact, something much more interesting has happened. Themes that were judged acceptable in the works of earlier children’s writers would cause outrage now. What exactly is ‘anodyne’ about Jo March’s pet bird being allowed to starve to death – with her mother’s knowledge – in order for all the Little Women to learn a lesson about responsibility?
Or take one of my all time favourite children’s books, The Log of the Ark by Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey: a delightfully warm, hilarious account of the Great Flood in which, unbeknownst to Noah, an evil animal slinks on board, corrupting the gentleness of the other beasts and ensuring the weaker ones go to the wall. I can’t see this great classic being reprinted in today’s climate – or ever. Much too painful for 9 year-olds to read.

In other words, good writing for children has never been anodyne. The books that have endured and become classics didn’t shirk difficult topics, indeed only by presenting moral conflict realistically at the heart of a gripping story can authors engage the reader, allowing him or her to absorb any ‘lessons’ without realising it. No adult wants to read an anodyne novel; why on earth should a child?

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The library of Newnham College, Cambridge

Of course there was no time to say all this on Saturday. Instead, Sue, Mary, our skilful chairman, Anne Rooney and I thunderously agreed to disagree with Cadogan and Craig, using their views as a jumping off point for much fascinating discussion of subject matter, structures of myth and traditional tales, the rise of Young Adult books and who reads them – all of which will have to wait for another post.

And speaking of YA, did you, like me, assume that the offending statement came in the last year or so, in the wake of so many children’s book awards given to stories whose themes number war, dystopia, terminal illness, cruelty, incarceration, torture and violence, all graphically described?

Nope. They were talking about the 1970s.

Sigh.

Will the Real Winnie-the-Pooh please Put Up His Paw?

Right, people, a quiz question to get those sluggish winter brains going: which of these quotations is the odd one out?

  1. “Then would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?”
  2. … and this is what he wrote:    HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY.
  3. “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”
  4. …when you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.

wedged-in-great-tightnessYes, I’m talking Winnie-the-Pooh here. The most wonderful books for children ever written, not just because of their cute cuddly characters but because of their glorious, inimitable, uniquely subtle literary style. Analyse an A A Milne sentence and you’ll find a rhythmic build up of words that manages to convey meaning, warmth, character, emotion and a delightfully absurd humour that deflates pomposity in language in the kindest way.

My generation seems to have been the last for whom these rhythms and phrases are part of our DNA. ‘Astute and Helpful Bear,’ I might call my husband. ‘GON OUT BACKSON BISY BACKSON’ he might leave as a message for me. And no greeting in a card can ever compete with Owl’s way of writing Happy Birthday.original_owl

It’s because we know these books so well – and their enchanting Ernest Sheppard illustrations – that when something isn’t right in Winnie-the-Pooh world, it jars. As one of the quotations above does. Yup. It grieves me to say that the most often quoted lines from A A Milne, the ones you will find plastered all over the internet, that clearly warm the hearts of millions of Winnie-the-Pooh fans out there – these lines are not by A A Milne at all. If you haven’t spotted the imposter yet, I’ll give you a clue: no English writer in the 1920s would have used the word ‘smart’ to mean anything but ‘well-dressed’. Whoever – and I’m guessing it was someone at Disney – wrote ‘smarter than you think’ (No 3) was clearly not referring to the bear’s red jacket or his owner’s short-sleeved shirt and shorts. (Another clue – who is supposed to be speaking this drivel, Pooh or Christopher Robin? A A Milne’s dialogue is so well crafted you know at once which character is talking.)

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A A Milne – not a writer of drivel

Nor is this the only fake A A Milne quotation out there. The internet is awash with them. Winnie-the-Pooh has appeared in many different forms – films, television cartoons, hundreds of spin-off philosophy and instruction books – and of course all of these will depict him in their own way, coining new aphorisms and images. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as all the origins are made clear.

The problem arises when these nuggets of sickly wisdom are blithely attributed to A A Milne, who’d have plunged his head into Eeyore’s Useful Pot to Put Things in before writing lines like ‘Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart’, or ‘Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.’ head-in-hunny-potBut Google either of those quotations and you’ll find them attributed to him over and over again because the vast majority of people don’t know his books and don’t bother to check. And when a highly respected organisation like English Heritage (who should know something about, er, English heritage) celebrates Winnie-the-Pooh day by tweeting Quotation No 3, attributing it to A A Milne, the battle feels well and truly lost.

So we can now add #MockMilne to #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts.  What next – #ShamShakespeare perhaps? How about:

‘This living or dying thing, I just can’t get my head around it.’

‘Romeo, Romeo, who the hell called you Romeo?’ It’ll catch on.