Tag Archives: Oxford Literary Festival

Keeping It In The Family: Shirley Hughes with Ed, Tom and Clara Vulliamy

In September I was fortunate to see Shirley Hughes in conversation with two of her children at the Soho Literary Festival. I started writing about it but got sidetracked by a dozen other things and Clara wrote such a wonderful post that it didn’t seem necessary to add my meagre efforts! Today I got to see them in conversation again, this time with the addition of the third Vulliamy sibling and in a larger venue.

In the morning of the Oxford event, MG had a minor meltdown which resulted in me phoning the festival and luckily managing to get the very last ticket for the event for her! I knew it was more for ‘grown ups’ but she was so patient at the Red House Children’s Book Award Ceremony I thought she would manage the day. She was fidgetty and bored for some of it, and totally fed up in the queue for signing afterwards, but cheered up immensely when seeing Clara Vulliamy and Shirley Hughes to sign our books. To MG, Shirley Hughes is important because she is “Clara’s mummy”, and Clara Vulliamy is important because she is Clara 🙂

Fortunately a festival person queue-jumped us (and other children) as the queue was so very long and MG so fed up, so kudos to the festival for prioritising the children over the adults! This did mean I didn’t get to chat to two lovely Twitter-friends who I’d met for the first time at the event for as long as I would have liked, but we still chatted and it was brilliant as both a me day, and a me-and-MG day.

The host of both the Soho and Oxford events was Mark Ellen who had known the family for over 30 years and was excellent at holding a very engaging and interesting talk with all family members. The first thing I learnt in September was that I’ve been pronouncing Vulliamy completely wrong: it’s more like vol-you-may than the voo-lee-army that I’ve been saying. Ooops!

Keeping It In The Family: Shirley Hughes with Clara and Ed Vulliamy at Soho Literary Festival 2012

At both events there was a talk through some slides of family pictures and paintings, some of which can be found in the book A Life Drawing, and on Clara Vulliamy’s website. There were a lot of similarities between the content of the Soho and Oxford events for obvious reasons, but I’m glad I went to both as they were still very different and hugely enjoyable. Today’s event was a lot busier, and I suspect the Hughes-Vulliamy family must be completely worn out!

Ed Vulliamy is known as a war journalist, but he vehemently despises war. You could see the journalist in him at the Soho event, as he took notes during the conversations on the back of an old envelope. A very engaging speaker, he talked of his work and childhood. In Oxford, possibly because there were children in the audience, he appeared more muted, but still added my favourite line of how a psychiatrist once said she didn’t envy him getting over a happy childhood!

Middle brother, Tom Vulliamy, a reasearch scientist, wasn’t in Soho (but referred to often in that event) so it was lovely to have his viewpoint included in person in Oxford. He commented how Shirley Hughes’ first picture book included a boy called Tom which he liked! He talked about his research and added to the anecdotes of childhood that the whole family shared.

As a daughter myself, and a mother of daughters, the most interesting people for me to watch and listen to were Shirley Hughes and Clara Vulliamy. Shirley Hughes commented at the start that there is no perfect time to have a childhood and that she is described as having an idyllic childhood, but growing up on the Wirral in the Liverpool Blitz wasn’t that idyllic! Later in the event, the family talked about how television was not allowed much when they were children. Clara added an anecdote of how she wanted a plastic doll which played a tune, rather than the hand sewn toys her mother made her, but she was not even allowed to go into the toyshop where it was sold! “The darker side of our childhood” she joked, continuing “which made me the bitter adult I am today”!

Keeping It In The Family: Shirley Hughes with Ed, Tom and Clara Vulliamy at Oxford Literary Festival 2013

Shirley Hughes said she could tell at a young age what her children were drawn to. Ed was interviewing people on election day with a skipping rope handle aged ten; Tom was racing to school on Saturday mornings to see how his aphids were doing; and Clara had a sense for visual narrative that meant illustration was in her future. But she didn’t push them into anything. Mark Ellen quipped that parents not encouraging children meant they were more likely to do something!

All the Vulliamy children said they didn’t realise that they had a famous mother until they were adults. She was just their mother. Tom told his teachers that his mother was a landlady because they shared their house with a succession of lodgers. Shirley Hughes still lives in the same house her children grew up in. The house used to be in a deprived area with communal gardens where the children played together and she sketched and sketched observations of the children who amalgamated into the children in her books. Bernard from the Alfie books was probably one of those children, she recalled, but now the area is affluent and she is surrounded by merchant bankers who don’t send their children out to play in communal areas.

Being outside, experiencing the world and looking are very important to the family. Tom, Ed and Clara all work in very different fields but they all observe the world meticulously to produce their work. Shirley Hughes said she thinks a lot of that came from her late husband’s family and how they all learnt that really looking at the world is so very important an ability to cultivate in childhood.

It’s hard to do the talk justice in my rambling, but it was a wonderful experience (both times!) Today I took some notes during the event so I will end with some wisdom gleaned from Shirley Hughes:

How to encourage a child with an interest in art: give them decent art materials, leave a sketchbook near them always. In times of boredom they might just start sketching in it. All children go through a phase at about 7 or 8 where the freedom in art that they had previously experienced turns into “I can’t draw”. Some persevere, they just have to get through it on their own but encourage them to persevere. If something doesn’t look how they want, they can do it again. Don’t be discouraged.

On creating a picture book: use minimum words, choosing them carefully. Someone is going to have to read this again and again and again and you don’t want them getting bored. Add something of interest into the pictures to keep adults entertained too, lots of details in pictures for children and adults.

There will be another novel.

Keep calm and carry on!

Oxford Literary Festival: Clara Vulliamy and Emma Chichester Clark

Despite living in or near Oxford my entire life, and the festival running for 16 years, I’ve never been to an Oxford Literary Festival event before. I have truly been missing out. It was hard choosing just one event, but also a no-brainer: how could I turn down the opportunity to meet Clara Vulliamy? The day of the event dawned grey and dreary, after a week of lovely weather. It also came with a small child who whinged constantly about everything from the moment she woke at 7am until eventually cheering up slightly on the bus into Oxford at about 10.30am. Given that the event was at 12pm, we made a pit stop for snacks and drinks to minimise extra whinging. We arrived about 15 minutes early but there was already another family waiting and it wasn’t too long before we were all invited in.

I’d actually been so nervous at meeting Clara, and wondering how to introduce myself: “Hi, I’m Child-Led Chaos”?! But then I remembered she does know my name, so I ended up saying “Hello, I’m Anne-Marie.” and was greeted like an old friend before she had to rush off to find some pens!

Firstly, I must say that although Clara Vulliamy is lovely, friendly, amazing and welcoming on Twitter; she is even more lovely in real life, talking to everyone as if they were the only person there and yet taking the time to talk to everyone. I’d never actually heard of Emma Chichester Clark before (ooops) but I also managed to have a chat with her and she was also very lovely, talking to everyone. All the people involved in the event were friendly and approachable and I’d recommend anyone who gets a chance to go to an author event in Christ Church JCR to go, it’s a lovely intimate venue (I guess you can pack more in but because this event included crafts, half the room was taken with tables).

My daughters were in a clingy mood, so although there were cushions set out for the children at the front and chairs for the grown-ups, I had to sit with them on the floor. I wasn’t the only parent on the floor, but the others at least managed to get more than two inches away from their children! Sitting down, surrounded by bags (spare clothes, wipes, snacks and drinks) and coats I felt like I was taking up half the floor but wasn’t really, and there was plenty of room for everyone. The event started with the housekeeping notices, which started with “no photography”. So I dutifully put my camera away, only having the one picture of the front of stage. I wish I could have taken more.

The first person to talk was Emma Chichester Clark who went through slides of all the characters from Wagtail Town, which was really nice to see them all separately. There were a lot more characters than included in the first book, Lulu and the Best Cake Ever, but there is another book ready for publication next year and possibly a third in the works (I asked while she was signing our book). After going through the characters, she read the book (which I will review later in this post).

After Emma had finished reading, Clara came on with a large cardboard cut-out Martha which she hid behind the sign for the children to guess what it was. She then read her book (which I will review later in this post) and showed a felt rabbit that all the children could make.

During the readings, MG and DG were very well behaved. They did ask for drinks and snacks and I tried not to rustle too much as I got things out of my bag, but considering how whingy the rest of the day was, they were on their very best behaviour for the whole event.

MG’s artwork on the left, DG’s on the right.

The craft session was centred around making the felt rabbits, although there were also Wagtail Town badges for the children to colour in. The four tables were covered in felt shapes, buttons, ribbon and pens. I was in heaven 😆 I had to help DG quite a lot with her rabbit, but she did all the decoration herself. MG managed to follow the instructions more, but still needed some help. I was somewhat trapped behind a table with them, so saw David Melling getting books signed and leaving without managing to introduce myself (although it wasn’t his event, so a bit of an invasion of privacy therefore I didn’t try too hard!)

The rest is somewhat of a blur. I got to talk to Clara for a while, the girls ran around getting in everyone’s way, I got both books signed to both girls and I gave Clara a very silly little gift as a thank-you for how kind she is which she was very nice about! We were probably the last non-event people to leave the room, although I could have talked to Clara for hours!

The girls were fidgety so instead of going out for lunch as planned, we got the next bus home and DG fell asleep on my lap almost as soon as we were back and slept for three hours (she stopped naps seven months ago, so this is very unusual but explained the grotty morning). Sadly this meant we missed a live drawing event with Clara and Emma that afternoon, although apparently it wasn’t well advertised and I didn’t know about it until after it had finished.

The picture above was taken by David Melling who kindly gave me permission to include it in my post. He also tweeted finished pictures by Emma Chichester Clark and Clara Vulliamy, Chris Riddell, Korky Paul, Emily Gravett and Joe Berger. I am utterly gutted to have missed all of this, but MG and DG weren’t in the mood for being out that long on that day so it wouldn’t have been a good time even if we had managed to see.

Wagtail Town: Lulu and the Best Cake Ever by Emma Chichester Clark

The story is about Lulu, a little dog with big ideas who gets carried away with wanting to make the best cake and disappointed when the cake she makes isn’t a winner. But that doesn’t mean Lulu isn’t a winner in other ways and all ends on a happy note. Emma certainly seems to know her dog breeds and all the characters in Wagtail Town have accents befitting the country the breed comes from, for example Lulu is French and lives in a house that looks like the Eiffel Tower. There appears to be a huge amount of background to this book – each character has a name and personality, there is a map of the town at the front and a final page that feels like the end of an episode. I get a feeling that this could easily be adapted into a TV series and I wonder if there are any plans for this. I think it would be very popular. The book also educates because of all the different breeds and any child with an interest in dogs will love looking up more about them (I will have to get a copy to send to one of my nieces who adores dogs!)

Martha and the Bunny Brothers: I Love School by Clara Vulliamy

I was so excited about getting to read this book (see I [Heart] Martha Bunny) that there was a chance it could have been a disappointment. I needn’t have worried, this is a lovely book and already a favourite with both my girls (especially DG who is already the biggest fan of Muffin and the Bear with Sticky Paws). Martha is a very sunny bunny who loves everything and is very excited about her first day at school. But she has to leave her two little bunny brothers behind which makes them all feel sad (bunnies put their ears down when sad, and Clara has captured this perfectly). The book is full of lists and side notes, and text that bounces around the pages. Each page has so much to explore, and cute little moments like Paws the puppy appearing in the corner of (almost) every double page. One of my favourite parts is the realistic breakfast with small children: all three have a different breakfast, one bunny brother will only eat his wearing a cardboard box on his head and the baby (toddler) is squeezing egg through his fingers delightedly saying “Mud!”. It’s a beautifully observed moment in a book full of such great observations of small children’s habits. It’s a book that children will understand because it speaks to them, and one filled with moments that parents will relate to. I still [Heart] Martha Bunny, her brothers and her creator.

Disclaimer: We were sent a copy of both Wagtail Town: Lulu and the Best Cake Ever and Martha and the Bunny Brothers: I Love School by Harper Collins for review. No other financial reward was given and the opinions are my own. I was not asked to write this post and bought the tickets for the festival event myself.