The power of 500 words

Happy new year! I’m getting this post out before February surprises me by arriving tomorrow ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ve come out of blissful hibernation with a lot of grumbling and scratching and complaining because the days are getting brighter. I suspect I may be in the minority on that front. Thankfully, the weather is staying nice and cold, so there are some good things to look forward to.

This week’s top excitement was the announcement that BBC 500 Words has launched once more. For those not familiar with it, this is a competition for young authors aged between 5 and 13 to write a story of no more than 500 words. A few years ago, I had the great sense to register to be a judge. My friend, colleague and very fine academic librarian, Fiona, wrote a reference for me in support of my application.

Before long, an email will arrive telling me that the first batch of stories have landed in my inbox. They will be from authors based around the UK, full of excitement and sadness, grand adventure and everyday experiences, heroic characters and downright villains. And everything in between.

It is the most fun, letting your imagination soar in the hands of people who are learning their craft, who have a story to tell and the encouragement to do it. If you enjoy reading and want to be inspired, check out the website. You can read the top stories from previous years, you can watch famous names read the winning stories, and you can appreciate the role this competition plays in developing our understanding of how language is used and taught. If you know any young authors, direct them to the competition or ask them about it, as most schools in the UK are participating. The website also has a bank of resources to help you along. I’m planning on using those with colleagues to see if we can improve our abstract writing too!

And if you are really caught up in the adventure, you can join me as a judge. The judging portal is easy to use, the criteria are clear, and there is support if you need it. There were 134,790 entries last year, this year I’m sure there will be more. You can set the age-group you mark and the number of entries you get. And if, like me, you are hooked, you can always ask for more ๐Ÿ™‚

Each story is a gift and I’m looking forward to curling up with a lot of good reads!

Face-to-place storytelling

I came across the concept of “face-to-place” storytelling in David Abram’s work. I liked this idea, so searched and came across a short piece on the Alliance for Wild Ethics website, where the term is credited to Marc Tognotti. In the discussion on oral culture, there is something that echoes my experience when I’m interviewing in the same location, face-to-face, or at least side-by-side – the memory of what is said in the interview is tied to the place where we walked.

the sensuous landscape itself was the necessary mnemonic (or memory-trigger) for remembering the oral tales (Alliance for Wild Ethics, 2018)

In my field notes, I have recorded observations like “the bee-walk is where Hugh spoke about helping students connect” and “from this spot in the sheep field, SFH has given me a line-of-sight to my house from the campus”. I recall watching the bees as we walked, my thoughts on Hugh’s approach to connecting with students. I know when I next walk in that place, I will remember the conversation about connecting with people from around the world. I now have a crow’s-flight-line between my home and workplace that I didn’t have before, tied as I was to the road network. In my mind, I have oriented myself towards home in a new way, which is simultaneously liberating and grounding.ย That knowledge came from walking the land and learning from the person who lives there.

My research also involves interviews at a distance, in real-time and asynchronously. In this, the digital and literate culture are intertwined with the oral, returning us once more to the Alliance for Wild Ethics (2018) piece. I like the idea that the oral knowledge of those who have kindly agreed to talk with me runs “underneath” and provides a foundation, as the digital and literate help us to connect across distances.

Even though we are not in the same place, these storytellers are face-to-place, with and in their own location, as I am with and in my place as I listen. I hope this provides a new way to tell their places’ tales. Through this story sharing, I am in the fortunate position to learn about new lands and to share my land in turn.

I like to think our lands are listening to each other through us.

It is to know, further, that each land, each watershed, each community of plants and animals and soils, has its particular style of intelligence, its unique mind or imagination evident in the particular patterns that play out there, in the living stories that unfold in that valley, and that are told and retold by the people of that place. (Abram, 2018)


Abram, D. (2018). Storytelling and wonder:ย On the rejuvenation of oral culture. Available at:ยย [earlier versions printed in Taylor and Kaplan (2005). Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature and Resurgence, issue 222, January/February 2004.]

Alliance for Wild Ethics (2018). Why oral culture? Available at:ย

Sustainable Dying – Re-use and Recycle

This article on organ donation reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad a few months before he passed away. Planet with plant from

His mum had donated her body to science, and he planned to do the same himself. Then we saw an article about donating your body, and realised that we hadn’t taken any of the steps to ensure that could take place – no forms completed, no notification made, not enough time left. He knew then that it was not an option for him.

I’ve always carried my donor card, but realising that it might not be enough, I’ve ensured in as many ways as I can that it is clear I am happy to be an organ donor should my varied odds and sods be of value when I no longer require their services.

I like to think my organs would be happy to have a second life, to be reused and recycled to help someone else. Previous owner: one careful lady driver ๐Ÿ™‚

I also have multiple sclerosis, and again in the newspaper spotted a piece about brain donation to help with research. A talk with my specialist confirmed the details, and I have now signed up to the UK MS Tissue Bank. I particularly like the idea that my brain and spinal cord may get the opportunity to travel around the world if they are assigned to a project outwith the UK, which is certainly possible. I think they’d enjoy the trip, and why should they stop living simply because the energy that makes me ‘me’ is no longer residing here?

Two things to note: 

  1. the letter from the Cambridge medical students and the life stories of those who have benefitted from transplants in the articles mentioned above are inspiring – as are the stories of those brave enough to give a living donation (I’m not that brave!)
  2. don’t underestimate the strength, love and understanding of your family – choosing to donate needs their acceptance and agreement too

So go on, give your fantastic body the option to go on doing good after you’ve moved on to pastures new ๐Ÿ™‚ 

NHS How_to_become_a_donor

Archive treasures

From NLM Turning the Pages
From Snape’s Anatomy of the Horse courtesy of the NLM


Two colleagues and I were there to build ideas for our upcoming MOOC – more on that in a later post once all is good to go! We met with one of the archivists – a treasure herself – who had gathered some of the items associated with the vet school which she thought might inspire us.

There was much excitement – such that I couldn’t possibly convey by post. I can still see A standing with an item in their hand saying “that can’t possibly be part of a stethoscope!”, and the general air of unwrapping presents each time the archivist opened another box. 

I had to share the fun, so it’s become my first post to the blog ๐Ÿ™‚

For more on the University Special Collections, see: or visit the brilliant Collect.ed exhibit currently on in the library (if you’re near Edinburgh!), see: for further details.