Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Naked Mole Rat - article from JUMP! Mag (3 December 2013)

I was just talking about these amazing animals the other day after a yoga class, as you do. So here's the article I wrote for the excellent online kids' magazine: JUMP! Mag a couple of years ago that explains a little more about quite how extraordinary they are... 

Drum roll please for the marvellous, magnificent and quite possibly, miraculous triumph of evolution that is:  

"Never judge a book by its cover"

CURIOUS CREATURES 3 - The Naked Mole Rat (or NMR for short)

The strangest creatures are, to me,
The ones I love the best.
The slimy, ugly and the odd
Are cooler than the rest…

When I began this Curious Creatures series for Jump! Mag, I made a list of animals and insects I wanted to cover. I began with the ones I had some sort of connection with and most were animals close to home that I’d seen or heard, which intrigued and inspired me. But rather impatiently, I’m now going to go a bit further afield and invite you to join me in the strange and extra-extraordinary world of *“Curiouser and Curiouser” Creature number 3…

The Naked Mole Rat is a thing
That really is quite weird.
No-fur, pink skin & almost blind;
It looks like it’s been sheared.

These extraordinary rodents don’t score highly on good looks - they have the appearance of uncooked, wrinkly-skinned sausages with tiny limbs and very large teeth that are situated on the outside of their mouths - and yet the more I see, read and hear about them, the more engaging and ‘beautiful’ they become. Frankly, if you lived underground in dark, ant-like colonies and had terrible eyesight, you wouldn’t be putting a makeover on the top of your ‘to do’ list, would you? 

Naked Mole Rats might not win a conventional beauty pageant, but they’ve got a whole bunch of other curious features and skillsets that are far more connected to their looks than you might at first imagine. The phrase ‘never judge a book by its cover’ springs to mind – well how a naked mole rat looks is not only an example of evolution at its most brilliantly efficient but goes far beyond being ‘skin deep’ into a beautiful set of DNA and chemically balanced brilliance. 

1. They can run backwards just as fast as they run forwards – extremely useful for digging underground tunnels and shifting large quantities of soil. 

2. Their ‘loose’ skin enables them to squeeze through even the tiniest of spaces in their digging expeditions.

3. They use their extraordinary teeth independently like chopsticks, as well as their paws, to dig through vast quantities of earth to construct their tunnels; a colossal 3-4 tons of earth in the few weeks after rain has been recorded! 

4. They live in *eusocial colonies of between 20 – 300 (the most common being around 80) behaving more like ants, termites or bees in their working and reproductive habits.

These curious creatures have become perfectly adapted to their harsh environment underneath the dry grasslands of East Africa. And these adaptations are key to their extraordinary super-powers.

A funny little animal,
This sausage sabre-tooth
Could also hold the secret to
Our own eternal youth…

ETERNAL YOUTH & other super-powers: 
5. NMRs are impervious to pain due to the lack of something called *Substance P, an important element in pain perception. But why is this useful? Basically, with the lower levels of oxygen and higher amounts of carbon dioxide underground, having no Substance P prevents a build-up of toxins in the body. In other words, the NMR doesn’t need to feel physical pain via its skin but does need protection from dangerous CO2 levels.

6. They have a much lower *metabolic and *respiratory rate than other small rodents such a mice, which means they adapt extremely well to the low oxygen levels underground. Because they are able to adjust their metabolisms according to how much oxygen is available - slowing down in difficult times and speeding up when there’s more oxygen - some scientists have described them as “living their lives in pulses” contributing to the fact that…

7. NMRs live about 10 times as long as their furry rodent counterparts. This ability to regulate their metabolisms also reduces damage from “oxidative stress”; this is the build-up of toxins in the body that is a by-product of anxiety, which in turn is connected to why.

8. NMRs lose no or very little muscle definition in old age. That’s to say, they defy all visible signs of ageing (even without a fabulous face cream, hey, hang on…) 

9. And strangest of all, despite their longevity, they are the only mammals that do not seem to develop cancer. All the above points must surely contribute to this extraordinary fact, plus the following…

(Almost) B-R-E-A-K-I-N-G  N-E-W-S…

10. The latest research (June 19th 2013) found that NMRs have extremely high levels (5 times as high as humans & mice) of *Hyaluronan or the “goo molecule”, a natural sugary substance that is essential for skin/cell hydration and repair. This might also suggest that if NMRs are injured - without feeling it, of course - the higher amount of Hyaluronan present would actually help to heal the wound faster. And guess what, this substance is used in face creams, too, so point 8 wasn’t so much of a joke after all… (NB the Hyaluronan is NOT extracted  from the skin of NMRs to make face cream, but artificially produced)

Crucially, in Naked Mole Rats the high levels of Hyaluronan appear to suppress cancer. So, let’s join the dots and suggest that almost as a consequence of needing extra-elastic skin perfectly adapted for underground tunneling, these Amazing Animals have gone and got themselves chilled-out, cancer-resistant extra-long lives!

Perhaps the secret of the Naked Mole Rat’s curious beauty is “skin deep” after all…

CURIOUS CREATURE SUPER-POWER: There are many - see list above… most curious and amazing of all is that unlike any other mammal, they have never been known to get cancer and they live to a ripe old age without losing much muscle definition.

SIZE: adults are approx. 8-10cm/3-4ins long, although the queens are larger

HABITAT: dry East Africa, typically countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia in an underground maze of tunnels (akin to those of termites or ants) that would stretch up to 3 miles long if unravelled. 

LIFESPAN: up to an amazing 31 years

DIET: very large tubers (‘very large’ means weighing as much as a thousand times the weight of an average NMR) mined deep underground in the tunnels.

PREDATORS: not many, but snakes and birds of prey might occasionally pick them off when they emerge out of the tunnels for a bit of fresh air

REPRODUCTION: like bees, the NMR colonies have one reproductive female who produces around one litter of babies (anything between 3 to an eye-popping 28) a year. Notably, she can reproduce continuously (the *gestation period is approx. 70 days, so that’s every few months) in captivity.


“Curiouser and Curiouser” – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Eusocial – insect society, like ants, characterised by specialisation of tasks and sharing care of young

Metabolic/metabolism – the chemical processes that occur within every living organism in order to maintain life

Respiratory – relating to breathing

Longevity - long life

Substance P – an important element in pain perception

Hyaluronan – the “goo molecule” that helps re-hydrate (keep water in) and add “elastic” to cells, among other things

Gestation – development inside the womb from fertilisation to birth

Go to JUMP! Mag to read the whole article and a whole lot of awesome other stuff besides...

Friday, 22 May 2015

Curious Creatures - the stag beetle...

I wrote this piece about stag beetles a while ago for a really super online magazine for kids called: Jump! mag

The editor Lynn Schreiber is also a social media wizz & recently tweeted about it again. So I thought I'd share it again, too: here

Stag beetle in my garden
Lynne has another most excellent website called: Salt&Caramel Check it out for always-interesting articles on parenting, invaluable social media tips and  product reviews. So the stuff of life, for quite a few of us...

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

CAREY MORTIMER - Asfodelo Dreaming

Cera una volta un piscatore II - once upon a time there was a fisherman
Wow, I've known Carey Mortimer for over 20 years. She is an artist whose work I have watched go from strength to strength - almost as if those early seedpods really were the seeds of the great work that has flowed and flowered as she continues to flourish as a painter of accomplished and astonishing skills.

Working in fresco, on gessoed board or wood or tin, often anything she can re-claim and re-use, this current exhibition by Carey at the Thackery Gallery is populated by still life and death at its most precise and fragile. From a fallen swallow to the chairs facing each other in poised stillness, there is an atmosphere of calm expectation, endurance. Here we catch glimpses of the past, perhaps fragments of paintings stolen from crumbling, forgotten chapels in the heart of Sardinia or snatches of dreams…Here seem to be objects from lives that have passed on a long, long time ago. But these are the things that are part of Carey's daily life. 
Cera una volta un piscatore II - once upon a time there was a fisherman

I heard more about this particular painting only after I had written this piece. Here's Carey:
(These chairs)"...were actually down on the local wharves, the fisherman's furniture, they sat at the chairs to mend their nets... lit by the streetlamp lights at night, with dark piles of nets and the dark river in the background, with no one around the pieces of furniture looked like something from an old master, so i painted them like that. the end of fishing in the mediterranean is near, as everywhere...i cant believe that the fisherman's sons will be able to be small scale fisherman." 

So while this sense of the past is very consciously and deliberately recorded by Carey, the sustainability is fragile, adding another layer in which poignancy folds almost seamlessly into melancholy.

Endurance III
Perhaps at the bottom of the meadow next to her house, stands a dovecote; Carey transforms it into an object spied through a painted veil, white feathers like exquisite  ghosts floating across the tiny windows, bringing movement to an already intriguing moment in time. Tiny herons nestle together confounding our sense of scale, teasing our perceptions of time and place. 

The work here has a narrative, lyrical quality and this quality, along with a mature, painterly self-assurance now sets Carey firmly at the table of truly fine artists.

Cera una volta un piscatore II - once upon a time there was a fisherman
Here is her own table, traces of past and present perfectly combined; a fisherman's hook hangs in a balanced composition with some form of ancient, translucent sea life like a memory that reaches back to the beginning of time.
And is it just that, a memory, as it seems increasingly unlikely that the old ways  of the 'small scale fishermen' will survive?

Heron Gate
Colours enhance the sense of a past warmed and often bleached by the sun; there is a richness and depth of tone not seen before in Carey's work and a decisive quality to the scenes so that the viewer is almost reminded of the adage: "a place for everything and everything in its place." Here is a harmony of vision that creates a moment of peace, of reconciliation as the here and nowness embraces the past.

Endurance II
And here we all are, it seems to say, passing through. Travellers through a life that might be many things but that will always, irrevocably, be part of the lives that have travelled before us, rooted to the soil beneath our feet, the air we breath, the objects we touch and relationships we create to comfort us. Time becomes irrelevant. We live, we sleep, we dream. What more can we hope for but to endure. 

Still and present, we remain. The children of possibility.

Carey Mortimer's new exhibition Asfodelo Dreaming is on show at the Thackeray Gallery, Kensington.

Mostar Diving Club

Another post today and more to follow…

"Big shout" (as they say) to my friend Damian of the marvellous Mostar Diving Club, playing Bush Hall tomorrow (Thursday 21st May) night.

If you fancy a bit of folksy trumpet combined with a bit of guitar & accordion, funked-up with a big, dreamy voice and bigger beard, then look no further than Damian Katkhuda...

Here he is having a bath with his guitar. Flippers on.
Oh man he's groovy...


 FOUR LITTLE SEEDS from the new issue of Okido magazine


There are 2 new issues of fab kids mags out…

OKIDO - the Seasons issue 


ECO KIDS planet - the Alpine issue

Here's a sneaky peak…

Okido & Eco Kids magazines
All about the Alps...
...& all about the seasons!

With all the usual favourites…and a poem about wandering seeds (soon to be made into a song - shhhhh…)


Lesley Barnes  is the marvellous, magical illustrator/animator/designer who created the beautiful menagerie of beasts to illustrate a poem I wrote for the Animal issue of Okido magazine called The Animal Zoo. Really it should have been called Animal Tea. Take a look to see why…

"With a whistle and a squeak and a terrible roar
Came a rat-a-tat-tat on the big front door…"

I'm mentioning Lesley again here as she's got a couple of books coming out soon (the first is with Tate) and they look like they are going to be absolutely awesome…

Watch her space!

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Mural by Alex Barrow and the kids of Le Herisson School, Hammersmith

What a beautiful thing the children and Alex have created…
In around three x 2 hour sessions over a period of weeks, Alex went to Le Herisson school to work with the children to create this beautiful mural based on our book London Calls!

They used Posca pens (for minimum mess and no drips) and having brainstormed ideas, the children helped Alex to create this colourful and detailed London landscape...
Here's Little Pearl waiting at the bus-stop for the 159...
And here come the bus, full of passengers; a rabbit, a carrot, ghost, superhero, crazy-Okido-reader, Totoro & a pineapple! 
A tiger making a call in the phone box, while a taxi speeds past containing the Queen. Look at the pirate ship getting attacked by a shark in the River Thames…Hello Tate Modern
Wow, that boat has just made it under Tower Bridge!
Look at all the folk in the London Eye!
And can you spot a Monster climbing Nelson's Column..?! 
"Look at that l'escargot" (!) sliding through the flowery grass, with a Tower, raven and ghost behind. Oh, and there's Buckingham Palace...
And the mural wasn't all - the entire school was dedicated to an exhibition of London, not a little inspired by our workshops based on London Calls! back in November 2014, when we visited the school as part of the South Ken Kids Festival

Hard not to be blown-away by the amazing artwork by the kids….

"We jump on a bus where an Oyster's the fare…"
"Big Ben is chiming, it's.." err, 1.25pm... 
Lots and lots and lots of buses, Queens and guards...

"So many places and things to be seen,
from the Column of Nelson, to tea with the Queen…"

"We jump on a bus where an Oyster's the fare…"
They had all made the coolest Oyster cards ever! And look at Her Majesty - that'll be tea with the Queen every single day, then.

"Spot the Gherkin and Shard as they point to the sky!"

The River Thames winds around London monuments...

 London landmarks jostle for room in drawings bursting with colour and full of busy London folk!
Guarding the Tower!

The whole exhibition was part of an event in which all the French schools in London participated, entitled: Regards Croisés sur Londres ("London through children's eyes")

What an honour to have played a part in such a creative enterprise!

Merci beaucoup Le Hérisson School - charmante petite école française


Wednesday, 13 May 2015



Is your primary school busy planning this year’s fantastic summer fair?

ECO KIDS planet magazine is offering free back issues to primary schools for their summer fairs! 

If you’d like some back issues to offer as raffle prizes, give them a shout:

Let #ecokidsplanet make some magic happen for your summer fundraising events! 


Eco Kids Planet - FREE ISSUES for your school


Friday, 8 May 2015


I am in awe, open mouthed, dumb-stuck and overwhelmed by such an outpouring of beauty, inspiration, art and invention. As Alice steps Through the Looking Glass into Wonderland, the elements and Nature rage and nurture - politics and religion combine in a spectacle at once painful and lovely to behold. This is a world where both the senses and the mind are utterly stimulated by design. Design becomes a towering giant that engenders what it means to be alive in the all-too-often empty narrative of Fashion.

I am in awe and saddened that such an exquisite talent was broken by human heartache and a weariness of life that came all too prematurely. Such a redefinition of wonder in a world of looks; fashion has never been quite so lovely nor so magnificently interpreted with such painstaking elegance. But this goes way beyond that world; this is somewhere else. He re-wrote the book. He fashioned a eulogy to fashion that came from another country, another time; a place of infinite invention. His own interpretation of breathing, being Alice.

And oh what huge love was lost, what a great and bold and bursting heart. What genius was held in the frame of a shaven-headed hoodie with silver-needled fingers. Could he not bear it any longer? Could he not continue to produce this shining light, this knight in tarnished armour?

I am in awe and feel more alive. I want to visit the show again. I want the world to see it, to glimpse what it is possible to imagine from a singular, beautiful mind. To be stimulated, excited and beguiled.

RIP - you were ace, McQueen. And this exhibition a wonderful glimpse into your Wonderland.


Monday, 4 May 2015

DOLLY'S BOOKSHELF REVIEW on Diapers - and - Daydreams blog!

Oooh this is a cracker of a review from the adorable Dolly across the pond! I love reading her reviews - although I suspect that quite possibly, she does get a little help from her mom … 
Do check out the brilliant blog for lots more children's book reviews and generally excellent stuff: Diapers and Daydreams

London Calls!
Dolly and pal getting into all things London
Dolly checks out the merch!
The photos are always hugely entertaining and as for the "Dolly Heads" rating system - superb! Now you would think I'm only saying this as she gave our book such a great review, but she doesn't always…

Too cute!
On that note, London Calls! got an absolutely horrible review on Amazon recently written by a Brit living in NYC. Alex's illustrations were deemed perfectly fine but my writing described as: "more like a pamphlet for the London tourist board than a kids book. Aimed at adults not kids." 

But it could have been worse. Curious, I looked up the reviewer's other reviews and another children's book was reviewed simply with one word: "Boring"

Which made me feel much better…

1. I know little folk enjoy the book as we've experienced the love in workshops, schools and events - and heard it from so many parents and teachers (and the other lovely reviews on Amazon.)

2. It was a book aimed at tourists, too! Tate Publishing wanted something that would appeal to visitors AND their kids.

3. Not-enough-to-do-if-you've-got-time-to-write-nasty-reviews-of-kids-books-on-Amazon…

I rest my case.

BACKGROUND information...

My first picture book - called A Possum's Tail - is a collaboration with brilliant illustrator Alex Barrow and came out 6th February 2014. A second book called London Calls! is a whistle-stop tour of London, led by a Pearly grandma and her granddaughter. London Calls! came out on 4th September 2014 and is my second book with Alex Barrow. A Possum's Tail was nominated for the 2015 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal.
Both books are by Tate Publishing.

Please see my AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE or CURRICULUM VITAE for more details & updates.

As well as writing children's books, for children's television and two award-winning children's magazines, I do both private and commercial art commissions, a selection of which you can see here.

The children's shoes are part of an ongoing series of "first shoes", including several cards commissioned by the Almanac Gallery.

Hand-drawn, bespoke invitations, announcements, portraits and menus, such as the examples here are also available upon request..

Any enquiries please email:


I've been a regular contributor to children's art and science magazine OKIDO since 2007. HAPPY 10th BIRTHDAY (WOW) beautiful Okido!

An Okido animated kids tv show, based on characters from the magazine is currently in production with Doodle/Squintopera The original adaptation of the show (co-created/adapted by myself, producer Ceri Barnes and Doodle Productions) was acquired by CBeebies. 52 x 11 minute episodes will be coming to a screen near you soon in 2015.......... . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .............................
N E W S F L A S H! MESSY GOES TO OKIDO Series TWO has now finished production, and will be coming to your screens S O O N ...! (Autumn 2018, to be exact)



Cartoon Forum 2011 Okido booklet

Cartoon Forum 2011 Okido booklet
Okido Cartoon Forum 2011

Happy Birthday OKIDO!

Happy Birthday OKIDO!
Okido was 5 years old this issue...the wonderful art and science magazine for kids I've been lucky enough to have worked on for the past - 8 - years now