I was Brighton bound on Friday, heading towards the stormy South coast for the Southern Schools Book Awards Ceremony. I hadn’t been to Brighton since my university days, when I spent a day there with a Bristol University housemate who lived not far away in Crowhurst. So it was great to be back. I can’t say whether the place has changed. To be honest, I can’t remember much about that previous visit, apart from a walk along the pebbly beach near the old pier and the famous Grand Hotel. But believe me, my age and depleted brain cells are more to blame for that than anything Brighton has or hasn’t got to offer.
Oddly enough, my hotel – the OId Ship Inn – was slap bang in the middle of the one bit of Brighton I did remember and after a drive round the M25 and down the M23, I was glad to blow away the cobwebs and retrace the steps of my student promenade with a stroll along the sea front.
It was a rough old day. The sky was grey and menacing, the sea snarling and uninviting. The mood seemed appropriate. All the way down in the car I had been listening to live coverage on Radio 5 Live of the hostage situations in France, and when I got back to my hotel room, I was just in time to see both sieges ending on the television. Very frightening but a huge relief to see the situation back under control. My thoughts go out, though, to all those who lost loved ones over those dreadfully dark days.
Having followed the events in France so closely, the day had that surreal, extraordinary feeling about it. Fortunately, the evening of Friday 9th January was extraordinary in a far more positive way for me. It was the evening of the Awards Ceremony for the Southern Schools Book Award, hosted by Carnegie Medal winning author, Kevin Brooks, and held in the stunning venue of Roedean School. The wind was raging as I drove up the long drive towards the impressive face of the famous school, which has more than a little ‘Hogwarts’ about it. I then joined Kevin and fellow authors Anne Cassidy, Phil Earle and Sally Nicholls for reception drinks with the SSBA and Roedean staff. Thanks go to them for such a friendly and warm welcome.
The Southern Schools Book Award is a fantastic award in that it involves hundreds of school children reading the shortlisted books. Among the aims of the award is the desire to re-establish and strengthen the reading for pleasure habit and to promote the ethos that it’s ok to read. From the conversations I had with the students I met throughout the evening, the award is certainly ticking thoses boxes. I have never known such an enthusiastic and well-informed bunch of book lovers. Wonderful.
There were some amazing titles on the shortlist for this year’s Southern Schools Book Award: Anne Cassidy’s Finding Jennifer Jones, Sally Nicholl’s Close Your Pretty Eyes, Phil Earle’sHeroic, Nick Lake’s Hostage Three and Sophie McKenzie’s Split Second. It must have been very hard choosing between them, but in the end the young readers’ votes went to Sophie McKenzie. Although unable to attend, Sophie sent a lovely video message to the gathered audience.
As this year was the tenth Southern Schools Book Award, the 2014 organisers created an additional award, The Extraordinary Award, over and above the five shortlisted titles. I was both proud and honoured that this was awarded to my debut novel, One Day in Oradour. The SSBA said, “We felt that the content of this book had generated so much interest and discussion it merited standalone recognition, both to commemorate the 70 years since the events in Oradour and to mark the ten-year milestone of the SSBA.”
One of my main reasons for writing the novel was to raise awareness of the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane on 10th June 1944, so I am so, so grateful to the SSBA for this award. It reassures me that the story of Oradour and what happened to its people, really isn’t being forgotten.
Wow! What an extraordinary day that was!