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Tall Tales [Aug. 19th, 2005|09:22 pm]
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Yesterday durham_rambler, samarcand and I talked our way into the pre-opening party of Seven Stories, the Centre for Children's Books. It's a project that's been several years in the making, growing from a two-woman campaign, then taking possession of an old mill by the Ouseburn (I remember an open day at the adjacent Lime Street artists' studios, when the Centre opened its doors to sell second hand books and display grandiose plans, which were tacked to the bare walls - they seemed then to be squatting in the derelict shell of a building), to this spectacularly rehabilitated palace of fun.

Seven Stories from the Ouseburn

From the Ouseburn, it's obvious where the punning title comes from; the old mill rises, story on story, in ranks of windows. From the street, part of the original frontage is masked by a dramatic addition, an external staircase in its own tower adjoining a wide gallery in glass and white tiles, decorated with bold scribbled drawings. I had seen this before, and been unimpressed, and when we parked outside the building last night to a cacophony of loud music and a chaos of abseiling performers, we scurried inside as fast as we could.

Inside was much better: there were pictures to look at, and sparkling wine to drink. There was a chocolate fountain - not the ultimate chocolate rush it might sound, but great for entertainment value - and there were seven floors of book-related stuff, linked by a beautiful bright and airy staircase.

Looking down the staircase

Inevitably, and this was always going to be one of the drawbacks, a comparatively small part of the book-related stuff involved just sitting down and reading the things - though the glass gallery made a delightful crow's nest in which to do just that, with its blond wooden floor and brightly coloured rugs and cushions, and books scattered temptingly around. The entire top floor was an open loft space, for readings and talks, where the retention of the original beams (the architects' display spoke with feeling of the task of cleaning off the years of accumulated pigeon droppings) made it clear that this space was not designed for fully grown adults. One floor housed the reception area and bookshop, one the cafe, one was staff accommodation and another (also closed) offered some high-tech potential which I have completely forgotten.

The lowest floor was The Engine Room, an "activity area", though the staff member on duty was entirely pleasant about my describing it as a "play area". He wore a badge announcing him to be CAST, which stood for Customer something something Team - but the theatrical note was entirely appropriate to the flavour of the place. This floor also had one of my favourite items: a slab in the floor announced that the Puffin Time Capsule, buried in 1978, lay below - this glossed over the fact that its burial in 1978 had been somewhere completely different, in the offices of Puffin Books; when Puffin moved, they offered it to the Centre (whose collection also includes the archive of Puffin editor Kaye Webb).

The other two floors were galleries displaying some of the Centre's collection, and these too were strong on presentation: I felt as if I had wandered into a stage set. Inevitably, illustrators offer more scope for visual display, although there are also typescripts and manuscripts, early editions and translations. But of my two favourite items from the galleries, only one was illustration, a set of Pauline Baynes paintings of mythical beasts: Shelob, a dragon, Jabberwocky, in the jewel-bright colours and delicate lines of a Mughal miniature. The other was text: a handwritten letter to Peter Dickinson, from those pre-email days when writing to an author required more commitment than it does now, from a reader who was writing a thesis on some Arthurian topic, asking about his treatment of Merlin in the Changes trilogy, and his typed reply, giving thoughtful answers to her questions and - this was what particularly appealed - asking a favour of his own. He was at this time embarking on The Flight of Dragons and asked, if in her researches she found any good dragons, would she let him know.

By the time we had explored all this, and listened to some speeches, and seen the ceremonial cutting of the cake, and checked out the bookshop (I did, I admit, buy books, but only two) the loud music was beginning to make itself felt throughout the building. Not being great fans of street theatre, we thought this was our signal to leave - but when we stepped outside, the soundtrack (a mosaic of fragments of music and words) spoke to us, with a noise of clawing and gnawing, nibbling and squabbling. And since we know what makes that sort of noise, we stopped to watch, and realised that the noise and confusion through which we had entered the building had resolved itself into a magical aerial ballet.

Scarabeus Theatre strut their stuff

Fairies and magicians danced on ropes up the side of the building, and a plush rabbit was slaughtered in a welter of red feathers.

As an adult who reads incessantly, and loves both the books of my childhood and the children's books I have discovered since, I had a good time, and will probably return to some future events; I'll even pay for my ticket. Whether Seven Stories will succeed in making reading appealing to children, and how much it will offer to those children who read - well, Jacqueline Wilson was there this morning, the doors have opened to paying customers, now we find out whether and how well it works.