Friday 30 August 2013

Interview with the Crooked Cat


And no, I haven’t lost the plot, because this is no ordinary cat. This is a Crooked Cat... in the nicest possible way. It’s one that has kept a low profile while its two owners (actually does a cat ever have an owner?) acted as a “front”, until it was ready to hit the world publishing stage.


Cat, I’d like to say what a pleasure it is to be talking to you tonight, even though I am rather apprehensive about talking to what is in effect an iconic, if a somewhat nebulous and anthropomorphic personification. How do you feel about being interviewed at long last?

You may call me Crooked. I feel indifferent about the situation and, since I have heard that you are somewhat of a troublemaker, Mr Hardie, I shall take my time. You may continue.

Er, thank you, Cat, I mean Crooked, I'll try not to cause too much trouble. Few publishing houses have been run by an animal, except of course Penguin, so tell me how you started Crooked Cat Publishing?

Penguin? Pah. A bird in Cat’s clothing. There are few things in life more important to a Cat than to see its owner happy. That, my dear friend, and a rather large, dead fish in front of one, naturally. My owner, tired of the way that normal publishers value celebrities ahead of a good read, thought it would be a spiffing idea to start something up - a place where the story is the most important thing. And so it began...

I have to ask you.... why Crooked? Cats have a reputation for cleverness, being devious and often cruel. But Crooked?

How dare you suggest that I have a reputation for cleverness! Your readers may be familiar (though I’m quite certain that you possess not the slightest clue about it - I’m sure that you are an X Factor fan)......

I am definitely not!

.......with an old English rhyme:

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

I shall leave you to make up your own mind about it. CAN YOU READ?

Word has it that you would have loved to have published Of Mice And Men, The Birds and Under Milk Wood.

You can’t read, can you?

Yes, I can. Now tell me though, who is your favourite non-Crooked Cat author?

Are you trying to be humorous, Mr Hardie? Don’t. I am particularly partial to a piece of Jean Cocteau, Neil Gaiman and Jack Kerouac. I also like J...  BIRD. BIRD. BIRRRRRRD.....
Who is your favourite, Mr Hardie?

(Blimey! I interviewed Bernard Cornwell and now I'm talking to a cat!!! Chin up, Richard!) There are so many publishers out there.......

Oh, are you ignoring me, Mr Hardie? an independent how do you promote your brilliant authors?

You ARE ignoring me. Big mistake. do the big Cats do it? The cream (hmm, cream) rises to the top eventually. I love telling the world how brilliant our authors are, and they’re very good at it as well. The internet is beautifully lovely for this sort of thing - facebook and twitter to name but a few - but my poor paws don’t really suit the keyboard these days.

What do you look for in a book before accepting it, and how important is the author?

I don’t accept - I tolerate. Someone has to write good and use, punctuation properly, and sepll well. But what’s most important of all is when they......BIRD BIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRDDD.....

(Nurse, the screens!) On average, Crooked, what percentage of authors that submit to you do you take on?

About 15%. Even the ones who ignore me......


.........That’s very nearly half

How do you see Crooked Cat Publishing evolving over the next two to three years?

I see a big castle, a lot of mice (preferably just-dead) and lots of warm fires. I don’t think there’s anything else to say, really.

Cat, it’s been lovely taking to you......

No it hasn’t. Don’t lie.

 .....and many thanks for giving us an insight into Crooked Cat Publishing.

I am Cat. Call me Crooked. I have tolerated you. Farewell.

(Phew! It's a good job I didn't mention that next week I'm interviewing a dog!)

Crooked Cat’s fascinating and beguiling webpage is at  where you can find out a lot more about Crooked Cat Publishing and its authors.

You can also find out more about Crooked Cat Publishing on YouTube at

Friday 23 August 2013


They say that those who can do, and those who can’t... well, they teach. My guest tonight is proof they’re wrong.

Lorna Fergusson is not only an author, but she also runs her own company in Oxford designed to offer writers support, workshops and creative writing courses. She has just finished running courses on Plotting and Crafting a Submission, a series of courses at the Winchester Writers' Conference ('Heroes to Savour, Villains with Relish' and 'Plot, Pitch and Promote') and a workshop on Life Writing in Oxford.
Lorna puts into practise what she teaches to great effect.

Lorna, I’ve wanted to interview you for some time, but I know you’ve been waiting for something to happen before we got together. It has now happened and it’s good news about your book Hinterland. Can you tell us about and the storyline?

Pan Macmillan
I’m in the exciting situation of being on the shortlist of four for Pan Macmillan’s Write Now Prize for unpublished children’s fiction. I entered the synopsis and first three chapters last December, the whole novel was called in in January, I reached the longlist of eight in May and am now on the shortlist – so it’s been a long process! Hinterland’s hero, Kick Delaney, blames himself for a terrible accident which has befallen his sister Olivia. When the family moves to the far west of Cornwall, he discovers she is using her ‘zombie state’ to defend herself against the repeated attacks of a fearful creature. Kick, with some otherworldly assistance, has to save her. This leads him into the Hinterland, the realm behind our own, to fight for possession of his sister’s soul. And it’s there that a shattering choice awaits him.

That’s quite a plot, Lorna, and many congratulations on making the shortlist. Hinterland is still unpublished and although I know the winner will be published in hardback (and the very best of luck in coming first!), do you have an alternative publishing route for the book?

It goes without saying that it would be wonderful to win! However, if I don’t, my plan is to approach agents with the novel: the shortlisting should help, I hope, in terms of being taken seriously. At the same time, I know how tough the market is out there, so I’m realistic. Even if an agent loves your book, there’s no guarantee of publication. What’s great in these days of independent publishing, though, is the knowledge that I can if I choose to bring the book out myself under my own imprint, Fictionfire Press.

That’s a great strategy, Lorna. You’re right, the odds against being taken up by a traditional publisher are becoming astronomic and having your own imprint must be a major advantage. You used to make up stories for fun when you were a kid in Scotland, but were those stories for you, or to entertain other people?

I think there were always stories revolving in my head, but at the same time the show-off in me wanted an audience! I used to tell my sister stories and I wrote stories at school which won prizes. I also read all the time: I was an asthmatic child and reading was my escape and solace. The world of the imagination was often more real to me than the physical world around me.

I’ve always believed that children have incredible imaginations and writing for them is not only difficult, but also a privilege. Tell me, at what point did you get into writing books?

I had started once or twice and made little headway but when my Ian St James Award-winning short story ‘Exposed’ was published in an anthology, a major London literary agent (since retired) approached me. I found myself discussing what I was working on at the moment and thought... Right, then, I’d better write the thing!’. That novel was, ultimately, ‘The Chase’.

You started Fictionfire four years ago, but you were teaching creative writing before that in Oxford I believe. How did you start?

I’d attended the Winchester Writers’ Conference before I was published and when The Chase came out I was asked to give a talk there and that was the start. Over the past thirteen years I’ve run workshops and given talks at that conference and I’ve taught on the various programmes run by Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education. I set up the Fictionfire Literary Consultancy so that I could design and run my own courses and combine this with manuscript appraisal, editing and mentoring. It’s been a real challenge but I absolutely love it and I’ve met some wonderful writers along the way.

You obviously write using the rules you teach, but how do you go about editing your books?

Well, it’s easier to see the mote in somebody else’s eye than the beam in your own! However, I do try to be tough with myself and I apply the rules I recommend to others. First, stand back from the work to achieve the kind of distance you need to view your writing with a dispassionate, critical eye. Divide the process into stages: don’t try to do it all at once. Look at the overall shape of the work. Watch out for those sections where the momentum slows or the story sags. Polish the prose – I’m one of those writers who can agonise about the placing of a comma! Watch out for repetitions and lazy phrasings. Check internal consistency and facts. Repeat the process until you’re sick of the sight of the whole thing. Perfectionism is professionalism.

An agent friend of mine once told me that when you really hate your book, only then is it ready for submission. You now also run a series of afternoon Focus Workshops at your home in Oxford. What topics do you cover and how do they differ in content and results from your longer courses?

I set up the workshops a couple of years ago because I wanted something more flexible than formal day courses and which would suit regular attenders. It’s like a writing group without the time-commitment of having to attend every week. You can attend regularly or cherry-pick topics of interest to you as you develop various writing skills. That’s why they’re called Focus Workshops: in the past we’ve covered aspects such as writing great openings, creating a sense of place, creating dynamic dialogue, exploring the inner lives of characters, writing short stories and so on. Coming up this autumn are workshops on getting and staying inspired, writing creepy or scary scenes, what’s at stake for your characters and how that drives plot, and sending your characters on spiritual journeys. Every workshop involves discussion, analysis of excerpts and writing exercises. We have a lot of fun!

It sounds like it! Your first novel, The Chase, was originally published by Bloomsbury, but it has been re-released as an e-Book and paperback. What’s the reasoning behind that?

I was immensely proud, of course, to have been published by Bloomsbury but some years had gone by and the novel was out of print so I decided to retrieve my rights and publish it again myself. Not only do I have the pleasure of knowing it’s out in the world once more but I found the process of self-publishing very fulfilling – although it was a steep learning curve! I enjoyed commissioning a new cover, re-editing the book and writing the blurb and promotional copy for it.

In fact, doing what a publisher would do, but you have total control. E-Books seem to have more than 40% of the market. What are your feelings about this, both from a teaching and writing point of view?

There’s a great deal of debate going on about this: we live in uncertain but exciting times. The launch of the Kindle triggered a huge wave of eBook buying and this has now calmed down somewhat. It’s even been predicted that eBooks will go into decline.  elieve that digital and print books can co-exist: neither form needs to cancel out the other. I own a Kindle and a Kobo Mini – they’re fantastic when you’re travelling and I like being able to change the size of font. However, it’s murder to navigate your way to and fro within an ebook. I haven’t found that my buying of print books has declined just because I buy eBooks as well and I will always love the tactile satisfaction of owning a physical book with a gorgeous cover image. I brought The Chase out as an eBook and could have settled for that, but decided in the end to publish a paperback too. When the first box of copies arrived it was an utter delight to see them. For an author, nothing beats the thrill of holding in your hands the book you laboured so hard to create, unless it’s the joy of a reader telling you they couldn’t put your book down and were up half the night reading it!

I totally agree about authors wanting to physically hold their books. Mine are coming out in paperback form in November after being eBooks for 2 years and I can hardly wait. The Chase was a book for adults, so did you find writing Hinterland for children daunting?

For me, a story is a story. I had a great time writing Hinterland. I have two sons and I was making it up for them, originally. I was also recapturing what I liked in stories when I was a child – some humour, some adventure, a good sprinkling of the magical and otherworldly. I think choosing to write a children’s book was liberating – I could truly enjoy the ‘what if?’ aspect of composition.

You’re right. Writing a children’s book isn’t the easy option. In many ways kids are more discerning than adults. Do you have a new book project underway you can tell us about?

I have a sequel to Hinterland planned. I’m also well on through writing an adult historical novel. It’s dual narrative, set in the 19th century, with great locations and it’s inspired by true events – I’m very excited about it.

That’s definitely something to look forward to! The hardest question of all now, Lorna. As a teacher, if you could give one piece of advice to budding authors, what would it be?

Goodness, how to choose? The first thing I’d say is to trust the process. That means you need to have faith that you can see your project through. Break it into segments, deal with it a little at a time, but deal with it all the same – commit yourself to putting word after word on the page and you’ll get there. Trust also that in the writing process, new notions and connections will come to you. Don’t wait for them. Write and they will come.

Lorna, many thanks for joining us tonight, and good luck with Hinterland and especially with the Pan Macmillan’s Write Now prize.

Thanks very much for inviting me, Richard!

Friday 16 August 2013

Lakshmi Raj Sharma interviews me!


Richard, we've known each other for 2 to 3 years now and I've only known you as an author, but what made you decide to be a writer? Did you have the desire to write since childhood or was it something you added on to your list of interests later in life?

I’ve always loved books, Lakshmi. There’s a magic in them that no other media has and when I was younger I was an avid reader of just about everything from fiction of every genre to biographies. Currently my two favourite authors are Terry Pratchett and Bernard Cornwell. They have written nearly a hundred books between them and each one is a joy to read.
I can remember first trying to write a book when I was 10. It started with the words “It was a dark and stormy night” which I rather feel may have been used elsewhere! I got to page 3 and was at a complete loss as to what happened next, so played football instead!
Some 12 years ago when I was a Scout leader, I helped write the script for the Millennium Scout and Guide Gang Show. It was great fun writing for 80 kids on stage and I wrote and produced the next 4 Gang Shows. Each show had a stronger plot and became more of a story the audience could relate to and follow. The third show I wrote was called Timescape and had a storyline that I felt could easily be adapted into a book. I was very naive! It took eight years and many, many edits and versions before the eventual book called Leap of Faith was published as an eBook.
I must admit I also became more involved in writing when I flew to India from the UK several times a year. It was a great way to pass the time!

You told me before you've been to India and visited a number of towns. Have you been to my country very often?

15 or 16 times I believe, on business, but never as a tourist. As a result I have many very good friends in India and I love the country. Because I wasn’t there to see the sites, I probably saw more of the natural India as opposed to the parts tourist companies want you to see. I also have many Facebook friends in Allahabad, most of whom, of course, are students or friends of yours!
I have to admit I have never even seen the Taj Mahal, though I have seen many of the back streets of Bombay and visited the Mahatma’s house!

I know you also have a website and blog. Do you use them much?

I created my website with the help of a very talented friend of mine 2 years ago and I have to admit I haven’t had to update it very much since then, except when I changed my publisher to Crooked Cat in the UK. My website is really there to inform my readers about me and my books and to direct them to  book sellers and their sites, as well as of course to my blog, which I do update at least once a week.
Bernard CornwellI use my blog to post interviews with other authors, many of who are very famous such as Sue Cook, Bernard Cornwell and Helen Rappaport, though I find first-time authors equally fascinating when I hear of their struggles to get published and how they came up with their plots in the first place. Currently I try to post an interview every Friday at 6.30pm UK time and at the moment I get around 2,000 views a month. If only those views translated into book sales, I’d be very happy! It does however give other authors the chance of exposure.

Those are tremendous viewing figures! Now, please tell me a little about your books.

I won’t tell you too much, Lakshmi;  just enough I hope to make your followers want to find out more and buy my books!
I’m currently writing a humorous adventure series of books called The Temporal Detective Agency for Young Adults of all ages. The main characters are Unita and Tertia, two of Merlin the magician’s apprentices. Together with Marlene, Merlin’s sister, they start the Agency and move it to the 21st century because the cases will be more interesting and the toilet facilities far better. All the main Camelot characters appear in both books, but not as people know them from legend. For instance Merlin is a very well disguised woman and madly in love with a very puzzled Arthur, while Galahad achieves what he’s always wanted to be… a celebrity chef.
The Temporal Detective AgencyIn the first book in the series, Leap of Faith, the Agency solves the disappearance of Nelson’s statue from Trafalgar Square, the theft of the Koh-i-noor diamond. Tertia and Unita also meet new friends and old enemies before they win through against great odds.
The second book, Trouble with Swords, has the Agency travelling through time to Shakespeare’s London, Cleopatra’s Egypt and Ancient Rome. Excalibur has been stolen and without his talisman sword Arthur is powerless. The Agency once more comes to the rescue with a big showdown in the Roman Coliseum!
I’m half way through the third book, provisionally called The Bigger Bang Theory, where the Agency is involved in the kidnap of three of America’s best known presidents. To be honest, I’m having great fun writing the Temporal Detective Agency books, and as long as the characters have fun being detectives with a difference I’ll carry on bringing out the books.
Although the first two books have been available on Amazon and other eBook sites for a year or more, both are now being published in the UK by Crooked Cat Publishing and will be available as eBooks and paperbacks around November time. My agent in America, Caleb Mason, and I are working together closely to expand the marketability of the series.

It sounds as though it could go on for years! Tell us something about the genre which you have chosen. How is writing for children different to writing for adults and do your books target both age-groups?

Many people assume that writing for children and the Young Adult age groups is far easier than writing for adults. It’s not! Kids are very critical and extremely discerning. They know when a writer is being condescending, or when a book has been put together without any thought process for the characters, and especially the plot. I therefore have great respect for authors like J K Rawling and especially Terry Pratchett who successfully writes for both kids and adults.
Kids love adventure and humour, but above all they want to be involved in the action and be able to empathise with the characters. I try to make sure that my books have all those qualities and when writing and editing I always do it with the mind of a Young Adult. I also remember what a literary agent I once worked with said to me. She told me to put a piece of paper as near to my computer screen as possible with the letters GOWTS on it. They stood for Get On With The Story, and it was the best advice I ever had in writing for any genre. Too many authors ramble and lose their audience.
I try to make my books attractive to all age groups, I believe it’s called cross-over. I’ve often thought that an author who says their books are for adults may be targeting the wrong age group entirely. As for the genre, well I hate being pigeon-holed, but if I had to say which one my books fall under it would be Young Adult / Humour / Adventure / Fantasy, which I’m afraid is lots of genres!

As you say, you're first two books were initially only published in eBook format. What do you think about the future of e-Books?

I must admit I don’t own a Kindle, though I do download books and read them on my iPad. All my books were initially available only on electronic format on all the major electronic distributors, such as Amazon, Kobo and Barnes & Noble, as well as in Malaysia on eSentral, but like most authors I wanted them to be available to a wider audience in paperback. Crooked Cat publishing, coupled with my agent Caleb Mason have given me that opportunity.
I love opening a new book and the anticipation and smell of a newly printed volume is as exciting as that of a brand new car with leather seats! I have shelves in my study full of hardback and paperback books, many of which I have yet to read, but all are like old friends waiting to be greeted. I could never say the same of an electronic book.
In the Western world the Kindle has certainly made buying books easier and definitely cheaper. The downside is that people are no longer as discerning about which books to buy and enjoy. Instead I know people who will buy 5 or 6 a week instead of the 1 they have waited for ages to be published and then only read the first 2 to 3 pages before discarding each one because they “couldn’t get into it”. The disposable society has reached the book and that is a major shame.
In addition there are still many countries where the major part of the population do not have credit and debit cards, so they are unable to buy books on-line. Equally many kids don’t have them either, which makes it problematical for me to sell to my chosen age group! 
I believe the eBook has certainly made literature more accessible and the low pricing means that more people buy more books, but that really helps Amazon, while book shops, printers and all those associated with traditional book publishing will see a diminishing market and many will go out of business as a result.
Then there’s the poor author! One of the greatest thrills any author can have is to be asked to sign one of their books by a fan. Signing an eBook is not an easy thing to do! The relationship between the writer and his audience is therefore widening and that is definitely not good.

Your books are detective stories, but that type of story isn't normally associated with Camelot. What decided you to bring Arthurian characters into your books?

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is a legend known right around the world by children and adults alike. If Arthur actually lived though it would have been around the 5th century AD and he and his knights certainly wouldn’t have worn medieval shiny armour and lived in castles. They would have lived in villas left over from the Roman occupation, or two-storey (at most) wood and stone buildings with no heating and none of the amenities we expect today. It always occurred to me therefore that because we know little, or nothing about Camelot and the characters of legend that the “what if” factor could be used to explore their lives in more detail and bend legend slightly to make it relevant and exciting to a new generation.
I’ve created some additional characters such as Tertia, Unita and Marlene, the three mainstays of the Temporal Detective Agency, but most of Arthur’s original followers are there, although doing slightly unexpected things. Of course, as a Temporal Detective Agency my characters can go anywhere and do almost anything which gives them a rather special status, though as they operate from Merlin’s cave Although as most of the adventures start in the 21st century, Camelot is still a theme throughout the series.

Have books like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Lord of the Rings fascinated you?

I read them all when I was a kid and loved the magic in their stories. They were pure adventure escapism away from the world of adult reality.I have to admit I read Lord of the Rings when I was fifteen, though I did read The Hobbit when I was a lot younger. Reading Tolkien now I admit I find his writing a little pompous, but still full of wonder and dreams. His ability to create an entire world with a massive past and a future, as well as different languages and scripts for the different races of Middle Earth was an amazing talent and it’s to his credit that his books are selling in greater numbers now than ever before. Of course, Peter Jackson’s films helped to a large extent.
There will always be children’s book classics that (I hope) will be enjoyed for generations to come. Unfortunately many children’s classics are bought for kids by aunts, uncles and grandparents who read them when they were young and give them as presents at Christmas and birthdays. The eBook will change all of that. Giving an Amazon voucher is not the same and probably won’t be spent on a book!
The books you mentioned, Lakshmi, have charm, wit, adventure and the ability to teach right from wrong. They also taught many people how to read and we are in danger of losing so much to this electronic world.

What is your next book going to be about?

I’m  currently working on the third Temporal Detective Agency novel as I mentioned earlier and I have very definite plots for the two books in the series after that. In addition a friend of mine who writes vegan cookery books is going to collaborate with me on creating the Sir Galahad Celebrity Cook Book. The intention is to have a 3 course recipe from every century from the 5th to the 21st and see what people really ate in days gone by. I’ve seen some of the ingredients and they’re pretty revolting… which means kids will love it!
I would love to write an adult novel, though I have no plans at the moment to start it, nor do I have a plot in mind, so that’s a project for the future.
Right now, I want to finish the third book in the Agency series, start on the fourth and get the first two published as paperbacks in the UK and America. That seems enough to be going on with for the moment!

Many thanks for joining me, Richard, and good luck with your book series.

Many thanks. Lakshmi.
Incidentally my books will be available as both eBooks and paperbacks through the Crooked Cat Publishing web site and through Amazon in November

And my blog is Please join as a member of my blog and all my posts will be sent to you automatically. 

Friday 9 August 2013


My guest this evening is a teacher and author, but that says a fraction of what she has achieved. Ronnie is a recognised expert on Asperger Syndrome and the support of those on the autistic spectrum and with Asperger Syndrome in schools, colleges and universities. Much of her time travelling overseas helping educational establishments evolve learning programmes. To top it all she is an inspector for OFSTED in the UK.
I’ve known Ronnie for over 30 years and she never ceases to amaze me.

Ronnie, as an educationalist, you started as a teacher, so you have coalface experience as it were. Did you always want to go into education?

NO. It was the job I least wanted.  I wanted to be a journalist but decided to take a gap year before university and was offered a job as an unqualified teacher in a primary school.  After about 10 days of not having a clue what I was doing I suddenly realised that I really didn’t want to do anything else.

A true vocational calling. What encouraged you to move out into learning programmes?

I’m not actually into learning programmes.  When I had to retire through illness about 14 years ago I started to train teachers on my areas of expertise and it sort of evolved.  Somebody from the National autistic Society asked if I would talk to parents about Asperger syndrome and after that I was in great demand outside the education world.  Adapting learning for teachers and parents suddenly appeared in my repertoire!

What does evolving a learning programme entail?

I always knew my elder son was not like other children I had met.  As a baby he never slept and was very solitary and he had obsessions. For instance if I didn’t wheel his pram past the building site with the diggers on my home from the shops he would scream until I did.  At school he refused to read (because the books were boring) and wouldn’t do more than one of any kind of maths sum because if he could do one, he had demonstrated his knowledge so why should he do more? At the age of 7 he was diagnosed as having moderate, if not severe learning difficulties and I was told to put him in a special school and cease all expectations.  As he was plotting bird migrations in atlases at the time (even though he could not, as far as the teachers were concerned, read at all), I had to take matters into my own hands which included removing him from state education into a small independent school where they let him be who he was and learn at his own speed.  It was a relief when, at 18, he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.  He had had lots of problems at school because teachers and other pupils expected him to behave in a certain way and thought he was naughty when he didn’t.  It wasn’t that – he hated being in the wrong.  They just hadn’t asked him the correct way.  People with Asperger syndrome lack intuition. They don’t just pick things up but have to be explicitly taught.  What they have not been taught deliberately they don’t know.  However, they are the easiest children in the world to manage.  They love rules and will follow any rules you make – as long as you know how to make them and explain them to the child.  I am happy to say that he is now a graduate and working in the City.  He has his own flat and is totally happy on his own.

I’ve obviously met your son, Ronnie and his achievements are inspirational. I know that Asperger syndrome is an area you are closely associated with, and care about. How did that come about?

 This is from work undertaken by Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University. He maintains the world is divided into two types of people – empathisers and systemisers.  Empathisers are good with people, have high emotional intelligence and communication skills and can work out what others are thinking.  Systemisers are good with things and systems – like IT and maths and physics;  things which run with rules. Aspies are on the extreme end of Systemisers.  The problem is that we live in an empathetic world – most teachers and HR staff are empathisers.  We couldn’t do our jobs if we weren’t. But empathisers don’t understand systemisers.  Have you seen any job adverts lately? “must be good communicator” “must work well in a team”.  Why? If you work well in a room alone with a computer are you no use to society?  Systemisers get a really bad press in society today as everyone else tries to make them communicators and empathetic.  Anyone out there who is introvert, likes working alone, finds the telephone and email an intrusion, prefers working to systems and rules rather than being constantly creative?  You are a systemiser.  How far are you along the line?  Incidentally, Baron-Cohen’s other names for empathisers and systemisers are female and male brain (although you don’t need to be male to have a male brain etc).  Incidentally, people don’t “suffer” from Asperger syndrome.  It is just a different wiring or chemistry of the brain.  Aspies only suffer because the rest of society won’t let them be who they are.

I believe you have written a book on Asperger’s (I know you did, because I have a copy!) How can people buy it?

The book is “The Asperger Syndrome Pocketbook” (Teachers’ Pocketbooks 2009) and is available from Amazon or the publisher.

Many people believe current education is a dumbing down standards from those of ten to twenty years ago with less emphasis on history and “the basics”. As an educationalist, do you agree?

What a horrible question!  My own opinion is that standards had to be “dumbed down” because government policy in the 1970s raised the school leaving age to 16 (so everyone had to take state exams at 16) and all go to the same schools (comprehensives).  It was assumed that children would be setted so all pupils could be taught at the level of their individual abilities across subjects and take the appropriate exam for their level.  However, when mixed ability teaching came in (politically correct and easy to timetable) and GCSE came in (with the idea that very few could fail) teachers had to teach at the level of the lowest attaining learners. When the National Curriculum was introduced in 1988, programmes of study had to be suitable for everybody as did GCSEs.  Because people have such uneven talents the main problem, in my view, is the idea that all children can learn every subject the same way, at the same speed and to the same depth.  Nowadays, educationalists have realised that this cannot happen.  Setting is coming back into schools and trying to cater for pupils’ individual needs is being prioritised.  In this way, it should be easier to raise standards.

A report I read a few days ago said that 1 in 5 children at school are special needs. An astonishing fact if it’s true. Is this a modern occurrence, or has it always been true, but unrecognised?

Nobody has a clue what percentage of the population has “special needs”.  A study carried out by Melbourne University about ten years ago revealed that according to official statistics, 2-3% of the population had  motor or sensory needs (e.g. wheelchair, adapted materials for visual issues (not just glasses) or induction loops for hearing impairment); 10-12% had processing information difficulties (e.g. dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia), 5% had behavioural issues (e.g. ADHD, conduct disorder, oppositional defiance disorder); 3-4% had emotional fragility (depression, stress and anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm etc) and 3-4% had chronic medical conditions (e.g. asthma, diabetes etc).  These are the categories which come under disability law.  However, these statistics are flawed.  All the studies that Melbourne worked with had only been carried out in the First World (Europe, USA, Canada and Australia/New Zealand) and they only cover people who are diagnosed.  Who knows how many have no diagnosis?  These conditions are not new – they have always been around.  However, the causes of most of them, especially processing information and behavioural difficulties are still being researched and the effects of such things as pollution, processed foods and additives and other 20th and 21st century arrivals into our lives are not yet known.  Certainly identification is much better known now and for many children, formal diagnosis is more easily obtainable.    I discovered when I was 35 that the reason my handwriting was so appalling and I was not allowed to take my O levels at grammar school (it would be a waste of public funds, dear) is because I am dyspraxic.  How many other people, I wonder, think themselves stupid because their brains are differently wired?  Anyway, to answer your question, Richard – I don’t think it matter whether we have conditions that come under disability discrimination law or not is important.  What is important is that schools take on board that if children can’t learn the way they teach, then they should teach the way every individual child learns.

There seems to be a preoccupation with “no one must come second, everyone must win” in schools. Do you find this to be true and if so doesn’t this give children a false idea of what Life is really going to be like when they leave school?

 I think the idea that everyone must win is now dying out in schools.  Competitive sport has made a comeback (which is wonderful for those children who have strong abilities in sport) and more testing and examining is becoming the norm.  Children are certainly expected to fulfil their OWN targets which is probably closer to the real world than trying to beat everyone else.

That’s good to hear, Ronnie. Education is so important to humanity’s future. How do you see it progressing and what would you like to implement to improve things?

Who knows how it will progress?  I know if we could have a little less government interference and constant change it would allow teachers to remain confident about their skills and to develop their strategies to work with individual children.    If I had a magic wand I would see children grouped according to not only their attainment level but also the way they learn best and a greater emphasis on what children do well rather than the constant moaning about what they can’t do.  I would put spelling, grammar and punctuation on the syllabus of EVERY school subject (it is now but not all teachers feel confident about teaching it) and allow children to learn the skills they need when they leave school (like more writing in English and a little less literature).  I would also take the emphasis on academic achievement away.  Many young people are gifted in non-academic ways.  They should be as successful at school as those who are academic.  That is why I am such a champion of further educationalists who do such marvellous work with those who have been written off at school.

Ronnie, many thanks indeed for joining us and for giving us an insight into what your experience as an educationalist.

Remember you can buy Ronnie’s book “The Asperger Syndrome Pocketbook” (Teachers’ Pocketbooks 2009 from Amazon  on