Category Archives: Writing

My latest book

snip-of-coverThose of you who follow my blog will be familiar with the many stories I have told about Nottingham High School; its Founders, its coat of arms, its war heroes, its caretakers and its one or two villains. I have recently finished compiling these stories, and many more, into a new book called Nottingham High School: The Anecdotal History of a British Public School, published with Lulu.com.

My history is an entertaining one about the people behind the institution – what they thought, said, and did from the reign of Henry VIII up to the modern era. I want to tell the stories of the ordinary people whose actions changed the history of Nottingham forever, and those whose lives had much wider influence on the history of our country and on the lives of people across the world. I tell the tales of all people connected with the High School – teachers, support staff, boys, alumni… from caretakers to kings!

image_update_72e24141db868b82_1348683417_9j-4aaqskThe book is written in diary form and runs from Thursday, June 30th 1289 to Thursday, July 12th 2012. It’s an easy read that you can dip in and out of as you wish. Find out about the antics of the boys, the excesses of the staff, the sacrifices of the alumni, and the castle-like school building in all its majesty.

My book contains new and previously unpublished research into the lives of some of the most famous ex-pupils of the school. Read about the childhood of scurrilous author D.H.Lawrence, whose controversial books were still banned 50 years after he wrote them. Read about the disruptive antics of Albert Ball V.C., the daring air ace who always fought alone. Read about American Old Boy, Major General Mahin of the U.S. Army, a man whose power and authority in the Second World War rivalled that of General Patton, until he was killed (or was it murder?).

The tone of my work is interesting and light, but at the same time, as you know from my blogposts, I can show my more serious side when occasion demands. A very large number of former pupils from the High School died in the two World Wars and their sacrifices are reflected in my book.

I have really enjoyed writing this new history book, and I hope that you will find it an entertaining and intriguing read. If you would like to give it a go, then it is now available from my page on Lulu.com.

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Filed under Aviation, Criminology, History, Literature, Nottingham, Personal, The High School, Writing

The Avro Lancaster at Duxford, January 28th 2009

A few years ago, when I was still a teacher, along with four other teachers and more than a hundred members of Year 9, we all went in two coaches to Duxford near Cambridge to see the Imperial War Museum.  Look for the orange arrow:

duxf

None of you will be surprised that the very first plane I rushed to see was the Avro Lancaster. The planes are rather crowded together, but there it was:

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There were trolleys and a little tractor to transport the bombs to the bomb-bay:

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The bomb-bay is enormous, and eventually would be capable of taking a ten ton bomb, the “Grand Slam”:

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The green cylindrical bomb in  the background in the below photograph is a blockbuster bomb or “cookie” and weighs 4,000 pounds which is around two tons. Quite often two of them were strapped together to make an 8,000 pound bomb. On occasion three of them would be bolted together to make things go with a real bang:

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This is the mid-upper turret, armed with two .303 Browning machine guns. The gunners were seldom particularly happy that a target was provided underneath for the Luftwaffe night fighters to aim at:

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This is the radome, behind the cockpit canopy. On more than one occasion my Dad would stand there. looking out, as the bombers all taxied out to the end of the runway for the take-off. My Dad was abundantly aware of the enormous casualty rates in Bomber Command, and more than once he wondered to himself how many of the aircraft he could see slowly making their way to the runway to take off would be coming back in the morning:

vera

Overall, Bomber Command lost 8,325 aircraft to enemy action. A total of 55,573 young men, all of them volunteers, were killed, a casualty rate of 44.4%. Of every hundred airmen, 55 were killed, three were injured on active service, 12 became prisoners of war, two were shot down and made their way back to England and 27 survived. One of the two reasons my Dad was one of those 27 fortunate young men was the fact that he flew in Lancasters. “A Lanc will always get you back” he told me on more than one occasion. I owe my own existence, therefore, to the excellence of the Avro Lancaster.

taxi

Sooooo….when the moment was right, a fat old man quickly jumped over the rope, walked up to KB889, gave it a good pat and said “Thank you for my life”.
There will, however, always be some idiot child who is seduced by the flighty, undependable glamour of fighter aircraft and who will stand there taking photographs of Spitfires until the bus leaves. Just look at him in this photograph here:

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Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Humour, The High School, Writing

Call me Ishmael

A few years ago, I asked a group of young people if they had ever read the finest novel ever written in English. They thought that they had probably read it, but asked me if I could be a little bit more precise about its title. I said it was called “Moby Dick”.
And they were wrong. None of them had ever read it.  One person even said that the book could not be considered because it was written by an American. The author’s name, of course, is Herman Melville:

Herman_Melville

Once he had finished with whaling and the sea, Melville came to live safely on land. Here is his house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts:

dick housezzzzzz

A lot of people, of course, are put off by the sheer size of the book. In the three volume British first edition, there were 927 pages. In the American first edition there were 635. (Bigger pages, presumably?).
Help, though, is at hand. I have prepared a handy guide as to which of the CXXXIV chapters can be missed out without causing any real damage to the story, or to your understanding of the plot. The problem was that, at the time the book was written, around 1850-1851, there were no television documentaries. Almost nobody had ever seen a whale. Many people had never even seen the sea. More or less nobody knew anything of whaling:

humpback

The reader, therefore, had to be informed about the Natural History issues involved, and that, dear reader, is the reason for the great number of the, as it were, “non-fiction” chapters.
In my humble opinion, therefore, do not trouble yourself too much with:

Chapters 24, 31, 32, 44, 54, 55, 56, 59, 61, 62, 64, 67, 73, 74, 75, 76, 79, 81, 82, 84, 85, 87, 88, 89, 91, 94, 101, 102, 103 and 104.

Wow!! If that doesn’t attract you, nothing will. In addition, these chapters could be missed out, but they may add a smidgin to your understanding of the book. These are:

 Chapters 39, 40, 41, 83, 93 and 100.

You must read absolutely all of the last thirty chapters, which tell the story of what happens when Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod finally set their eyes on a rather angry Moby Dick. (It doesn’t go well.) If you have ever read the book of the film “Jaws”, you will find this last section very reminiscent indeed of that modern classic.
Even if you have doubts, it is not difficult to give it a go. You can download Moby Dick to virtually any type of machine from Amazon, including some of the more modern lawnmowers.

It is free.

For a small fee, you can even download a version with pictures.

And then, away you go!

whale rtyuu

The book is stunning. Pay careful attention to what the characters say and the events which befall them.  You will often find that the author has skilfully linked them together. Perhaps he has provided echoes of words and events as the plot unfolds chapter by chapter. This foreshadowing throughout the book creates great tension, because the reader is given broad hints of what catastrophes are in store for the protagonists (who themselves often refuse adamantly to heed these warnings and carry on regardless to their eventual destruction). Here is Captain Ahab:

gregory-peck-as-ahab-2

And Starbuck. The coffee chain is named after him:

starbuck

Originally, it was going to be called Pequod’s after the ship:

clipper

They’re probably lucky it wasn’t named after the whale. Here is Queequeg, one of the three harpooners:

moby-dick_queequeg-stare

And here is his coffin, floating in the sea:

coffin
D. H. Lawrence, the greatest English novelist, called Moby Dick:

“one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world”

“the greatest book of the sea ever written”

wale tale

Here are half a dozen quotations to whet your appetite:

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

giphy

 

“That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

whale

“…mastering his emotion, Starbuck calmly rose, and as he quitted the cabin, paused for an instant and said to Ahab: “Let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.”

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“Tied up and twisted; gnarled and knotted with wrinkles; haggardly firm and unyielding; his eyes glowing like coals, that still glow in the ashes of ruin; Ahab stood forth in the clearness of the morn; lifting his splintered helmet of a brow to the fair girl’s forehead of heaven.”

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“Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. It was rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.”

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“There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”

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“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

Moby Dick

And don’t forget, of course, Moby Dick has the most famous beginning of any novel:

“Call me Ishmael.”

The quotations from the end are good, too, but I won’t spoil it for you!

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Filed under History, Literature, Personal, Wildlife and Nature, Writing

A trip around my Dad’s past: RAF Elsham Wolds

My Dad, Fred, used to tell me many tales of his years in the RAF. He served in Bomber Command, and, as I grew older, stimulated perhaps by the increased interest generally in the Second World War, I made great efforts to find out the exact details of where he had served and what exactly he had done. This proved quite a challenge. Here he is with a few of his unduly optimistic friends during basic training:FRED WAS

I do know that Fred served with 103 Squadron, probably in late 1943 and/or early 1944. This was the time of the Battle of Berlin which lasted from November 1943 to March 1944. My Dad did not take part in this titanic, and ultimately losing, struggle where 2,690 aircrew were killed in action and nearly a thousand became Prisoners of War. Bomber losses ran at 5.8% which is generally considered unsustainable. Crew morale was extremely low because of these huge casualties over “The Big City” as it was called, and luckily for him, Fred was never asked to bomb Berlin. Fred considered this to be the sole reason that he survived the war.

Here is the badge of 103 Squadron. The motto means “Don’t touch me”:

badge

Fred spent his time with 103 Squadron at RAF Elsham Wolds which is between Scunthorpe and Grimsby, two places neither of which have ever been described as the Paris of the North, shall we say?  Indeed, at the end of the conflict, one of my Dad’s great resentments, whatever he achieved against such a mad and bad enemy as the Germans were at that time, was that, like all the young men of Bomber Command, he knew damn well that they had all been forced to waste the best years of their lives, all of their youth, not pursuing pretty young girls at the village dance, but sitting in a Nissen hut in the middle of nowhere, feeling freezing cold and scared to death of a dangerous and precarious future. Fred’s twenty-first birthday, for example, had been celebrated, or rather, not celebrated, on a lonely, cold airfield in the middle of nowhere, far from his family. A definition which certainly would fit Elsham Wolds.
Here is Elsham Wolds on June 26th 1943, seen from about 10,000 feet up. Look for the three runways forming a huge triangle in the middle of the photo, and, on the right, five of the many circular dispersal points where the Lancaster bombers would wait impatiently for night to fall :

June 26 1943

And here is a Nissen hut, named after Mr Nissen:

nissen

Today, very little remains of RAF Elsham Wolds. A major road, the A15, has been built more or less right through the middle of it, and on top of the majority of one runway. There is a single hangar left, apparently a J-type. Look for the orange arrow, pointing to the hangar:

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It’s a funny feeling, though, to see a wartime building that your Dad would have known and no doubt loved when he was just nineteen or twenty years of age:

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Here I have made gallant attempts to match up the aerial photograph of RAF Elsham Wolds in 1943 with the present countryside. The orange arrow still marks the J-type hangar. One runway has obviously disappeared under the A15. On the Ordnance Survey Map look for the number “78” and then the irregularly shaped four sided area to the left of it. It is bordered with yellow minor roads. You may be able to pick this distinctive shape out on the 1943 photograph:

 

This is half of the runway which, on the Ordnance Survey map, has the radio mast symbol on it. The buildings have something to do with the Severn Trent Water Authority, but were seemed to be  unoccupied during our visit:

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This is the runway which runs more or less west to east, if you refer back to the Ordnance Survey map. It has now become a dumping ground for builders’ rubble:

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This is the Perimeter Track, or “Peri-track” running toward the start of the runway. When they set off on a mission, all the bombers would taxi slowly along the “Peri-track” to the start of whichever runway they were using that night:

peri track

The laws of trespass are quite different in England to many countries. Here, more or less, you can go wherever you want, provided you leave when you are asked to. Only too easy then, to take a Volvo saloon off the road, over ten yards of gravel, on to the old “Peri-track” and then round and off to the start of the runway. Here is where the bombers waited to take off:

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Unfortunately, some idiot vandal builder has built a metal fence to stop me attempting a proper take-off so I have to stop the car and just drink in the scenery:

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Nevertheless, let’s give it a go!

And I certainly knew what to do in my Lancaster. Accelerate as hard as possible. Keep your eye on the speed.  When it reaches 130 mph, a gentle dab on the brakes and then, lift off. You’re on your way. Seriously though, it was good to think that I might have been doing exactly what Dear Old Dad had done 60 plus years ago. In a Lancaster, of course, not a Volvo:

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“The Memorial: Beyond The Anzac Legend” with Dr Neil Oliver

 

Recently I have been watching a TV series with Neil Oliver about the Australian War Memorial in Canberra:

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It was called “The Memorial: Beyond The Anzac Legend” and it was on History Channel.
Here is the link.

The programmes examine what is being done to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, and in particular from an Australian point of view, the centenary of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.

This is an extremely moving set of five programmes and in my opinion by far the best work that Dr Oliver has ever done on television:

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One episode featured the letters of two brothers initially from Manchester, England who then settled in South Australia and became Australians. The elder brother served as Second Lieutenant John Alexander Raws and his younger brother was Lieutenant Robert Goldthorpe Raws. After Gallipoli, they were both sent to France and the disastrous Battle of the Somme.

Robert was to die on either July 28th or 29th 1916 and John was killed shortly afterwards on August 23rd 1916. Their biographical details are available here. Firstly John Raws and then his brother Robert.
What makes it all so interesting is the fact that the letters home from the two officers have been preserved and can be downloaded from this link.

The best thing is to do is to download them as a 164 page PDF document. I actually right clicked the download link on my computer, and then I selected “Save target as”. I could then choose where the letters were downloaded on my computer. I am no computer wizard, and I found that if I just clicked “Download”, I couldn’t find them afterwards. At least two lost copies are just wandering around inside the machine somewhere.

The whole point about these letters is that, for some unknown reason, they came through to the people waiting at home without the censors doing anything about them. I have read a fair amount about the Great War and I have never come across any letters quite like these.

Some of the things said are just unbelievable by the censorship standards of the day. Just to encourage you to take that first step, here are a few extracts, with the page references:

Page 134

July 16, 1916

There is something rather humorous in this situation, when I actually come to it.

John Alexander Raws, who cannot tread upon a worm; who has never struck another human being except in fun; who cannot read of the bravery of others at the front without tears well into his eyes; who cannot think of blood, and mangled bodies, without bodily sickness, this man, I, go forth tomorrow to kill and maim,  murder and ravage.

It is funny.

But I am glad to go. It is what I set out for, and the mission must be fulfilled:

recruit

Pages 136 and 137

How we do think of home, and laugh at the pettiness of our little daily annoyances. We could not sleep, we remember, because of the creaking of the pantry door, all the noise of the tram cars, all the kids playing around and making a row.
Well, we can’t sleep now because six shells are bursting around here every minute, and you can’t get much sleep between them:
Guns are belching out shells, with the most thunderous clap each time;
The ground is shaking with each little explosion;
I am wet, and the ground on which I rest is wet;
My feet are cold. In fact, I’m all cold, with my two skimpy blankets;
I am covered with cold, clotted sweat, and sometimes my person is foul.
I am hungry;
I am annoyed because of the absurdity of bloody war;
I see no chance of anything better for tomorrow, or the day after, or the year
after;
One could go on and on…..
And don’t think I always sleep on the wet ground. I sometimes get a dry bit. And I had a hot bath yesterday, and I am clean-for the time. By the way, while I was having my bath, another officer of his Majesty’s gallant forces was blown to pieces a little way in front. He had just come out of the trenches and was going to have his bath.

page 140

July 25th 1916

I am still alive but living rather a risky existence, what with shells and bullets and bayonets…..

August 4th 1916

I write from the battlefield of the Great Push with thousands of shells passing in a tornado overhead and thousands of unburied dead around me. It seems easy to say that, but you who have not seen it can hardly conceive the awfulness of it all:

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My battalion has been in it for eight days, and one-third of it is left–all shattered at that. And they’re sticking it still, incomparable heroes all. We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven, sleepless. Even when we’re back a bit we can’t sleep for our own guns. I have one puttee, a dead man’s helmet, another dead man’s gas protector, a dead man’s bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood and partly splattered with a comrade’s brains.
It is horrible, but why should you people at home not know? Several of my friends are raving mad. I met three offices out in No Man’s Land the other night, all rambling and mad. Poor Devils!

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page 141

Myself, I am alright. I have had much luck and kept my nerve so far. The awful difficulty is to keep it. The bravest of all often lose it. Courage does not count here. It is all nerve. Once that goes one becomes a gibbering maniac. The noise of our own guns, the enemy shells, and the getting lost in the darkness.
You see this is enemy country. We’re in the remnants of their trenches and wrecked villages, and the great horror of many of us is the fear of being lost with troops at night on the battlefield. We do all our fighting and moving at night and the confusion of passing through a barrage of enemy shells in the dark is pretty appalling . You’ve read of the wrecked villages. Well some of these about here are not wrecked. They are utterly destroyed, so that there are not even skeletons of buildings left. Nothing but a churned mass of  débris, with bricks, stones and girders and bodies pounded to nothing. And forests! There are not even tree trunks left, not a leave or a twig. All is buried and churned up and buried again.
The sad part is that one can see no end of this. If we live tonight we have to go through it tomorrow night and next week and next month. Poor wounded devils you meet on the stretchers are laughing with glee. One cannot blame them. They are getting out of this.

pages 147 and 148

Just before daybreak, an engineer officer out there, who was hopelessly rattled, ordered us to go. The trench was not finished. I took it on myself to insist on the men staying, saying that any man who stopped digging would be shot. We dug on and finished amid a tornado of bursting shells. All the time, mind, the enemy flares are making the whole area almost as light as day. We got away as best we could. I was again in the rear going back, and again we were cut off and lost. We eventually found our way to the right spot. I was buried twice, and thrown down several times–buried with the dead and dying. The ground was covered with bodies in all stages of decay and mutilation, and I would, after struggling free from the earth, pick up a body by me to try to lift him out with me, and find him a decayed corpse. I pulled a head off one man and was covered with blood. The horror was indescribable:

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In the dim misty light of dawn I collected about 50 men and sent them off, mad with terror, on the right track for home. Then two brave fellows stayed behind and helped me with the only unburied wounded man we could find. The journey down with him was awful. He was delirious. I tied one of his legs to his pack with one of my puttees. On the way down I found another man and made him stay and help us. It was so terribly slow.

page 153

Well, I’ve had my whack and enough to last a life time. I think one could call it a crowded time. Shells—millions of shells, shells all day and all night, high explosives. I want to put somewhere in here that Goldy fell at Pozières, or rather beyond it. Shrapnel, minenwerfers, whizz-bangs, bombs, tear gas shells, gas shells, sulphur shells-and thousands of gaping dead:


The stench, and the horridness of it can but be mentioned. I have sat on corpses, walked on corpses, and pillaged corpses. I got many interesting German souvenirs and could have secured cartloads from their trenches, but I lost most of what I took, and usually was too busy to pick up anything. I lost nearly all my equipment and clothes and with them my curiosities, but I brought back one bonzer souvenir that I did not expect to bring back—myself.

You always told me I would stick it all right, and I did, but I’d give anything to be out of it for good. All of us would. I saw strong men who had been through Gallipoli sobbing and trembling as with fever–men who had never turned a hair before. The fact that it was all so new to me probably helped me enormously. Goldy fell in the first hour, before I even saw him. I reached the same ground next day.

I worry that if we are not careful, we will finish up celebrating the Great War and our eventual victory over the Germans. This collection of Australian letters will go a long way in preventing anybody from making that ridiculous mistake.

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“500 Happy Returns” Now on Sale!

500 happy returns nottingham high school's birthdayI am thrilled to announce that my new book, 500 Happy Returns: Nottingham High School’s Birthday, is now available for purchase. Over the past month or so I’ve been working on the finished publication, and I’m delighted that it’s now ready to be presented to customers. The proof copies arrived about a week ago, and it was very exciting to see a giant word document transformed into a real, physical book. Now I’m getting excited all over again when I see the book listed on Amazon!

This book is the culmination of a creative writing project to commemorate the school’s half millennium milestone. I invited all the staff, pupils (from age 4-18), cleaners, and support staff to write a hundred words about their day, preferably linking their entry to a specific time. I had the idea that these entries could tell the story of the school day minute-by-minute from a broad perspective. Participation was entirely voluntary, and I was really pleased to get around 800 contributions from members of the school. The good news is that these entries cover the whole day and now you can pick up a book that charts a typical school day in a top British public school at the turn of the twenty-first century. It’s great to be able to see such a tangible product at the end of a school project, and I hope that all staff and pupils involved really like what has been achieved, and enjoy seeing their contributions in the book.

Hopefully, a lot of people will enjoy reading this volume, especially as it commemorates the 500th birthday of the school and all the profits are being donated to the school’s bursary funds. So here’s hoping that this publication will provide a lasting legacy for the education of gifted children years down the line!

Now available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Now available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

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New book sent to the press!

cover of bookJust a quick announcement to say how happy I am that we’ve managed to secure a publisher for our school project. In February the school celebrated its 500th birthday, and we asked each member of the school – staff, boys (aged 4-18), cleaners, support staff, and caterers – to record what they were doing at any part of their working day in 100 words. I’ve finished editing all the reports, and I’m pleased to say that we have a minute-by-minute snapshot of the school on its 500th birthday from over 800 perspectives.

I was originally planning on releasing the book just on Kindle, but I am very pleased to be able to tell you that there will be a physical edition of the book as well! You will be able to buy paperback copies of the books from Amazon, or download it straight to your Kindle.

All proceeds from the sale of this volume will be donated to the school’s bursary funds which provide crucial financial help to children from all backgrounds.

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Filed under Nottingham, The High School, Writing