2018: new beginnings

On holiday with my Leslie in Devon

2018 was the year I became a grandma and discovered, even as he grew inside his mum from sesame seed to apple and aubergine, the power of this love. On a personal level it was a year of many joys, not least the hours early in his new-born life when he slept on me while his mother showered or went back to bed. Mum celebrated her 91st birthday, still independent, sharp and powering along on two wheels. Leslie’s novel Violet, the last in his Lavender Blues trilogy and his deepest, bravest and most beautiful work, was published by Magic Oxygen and moved writer friends whose opinion he values – including me! And Mark Crane’s film of his memoir, Heaven’s Rage, was selected for some thirty film festivals where it was nominated for many awards and won a few. Leslie isn’t robust and lives with considerable pain without the help of a diagnosis. He’s remarkable and gifted, and any recognition he achieves – limited as it is by the reach of small indie publishers – makes me happy.

With Leslie at one showing of Heaven’s Rage

I’m a trustee of People not Borders, supporting refugees. For this tiny group of women volunteers in my home town of Berkhamsted, 2018 was the year we finally became a registered charity. We raised a record amount of money too, spent on blankets, tents, food packs and sleeping bags, Dignity Packs for women on Lesvos, keeping Mobile Refugee Support on the road in Calais and Dunkirk, and art boxes for refugee children. It’s emotional, and daily online immersion in the harrowing reality of a refugee’s experience would numb and incapacitate me. Instead we draw strength from the close friendships we have formed, celebrate small differences we can make, however temporary – the French police have a habit of clearing camps and destroying tents – and look forward to the award ceremony of the People’s Book Prize in May, when we will find out whether our fundraising picture book, I AM ME, has won in the Children’s category. It’s raised about £3,000 to spend on child refugees, and develops empathy in children 3 – 7. That’s the power and point of stories!

I’ve continued as Ambassador for Alopecia UK and supported more children with the condition in school. These days or assemblies are always thrillingly rewarding. School bookings to lead writing workshops were fewer through a year of budgetary constraints, but I enjoyed my three Enrichment Days at a comprehensive where all the drama, music and dance workshops grew out of my books. There was a point in which I was moved to tears seeing teenagers engaging emotionally with my characters. It was also pretty thrilling to visit another comprehensive where 750 students had read AVATARS OF THE INTELLIGENCE. This was one of three new Sue Hampton titles published this year, and being ‘from the world of Doctor Who’ is my fastest selling book to date – in part because it’s enjoyed by adults as well as teenagers and 9+. I’m equally fond, though, of THE DRAGONS’ DAUGHTER, celebrating a different way to be a girl, and a collection of fantasy/sci-fi adventures aimed at boys who might not be avid readers, called Y4 X 4 and inspired by 19 years of teaching mostly spent in that year group. But my writing time was spent mainly on adults and 2019 will see the publication of a third short story collection and – I hope – a novel that was praised by my favourite living author, Susan Fletcher.

On World Book Day, at the biggest primary school in the UK

I’m a big reader. My favourite novels of 2018 were by Elizabeth Strout – and yes, Susan Fletcher, whose House of Glass was a treat and whose Corrag I reread with even greater pleasure. I marvelled again at David Copperfield, last completed at the age of around sixteen, and returned to the devastating A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd. I’ve now experienced just about all of Anne Tyler, and looking for new authors discovered some interesting women writers in Jill Dawson, Avril Joy and Ali Bacon, but it may turn out to be Our Child of the Stars by Stephen Cox that remains, over time, most memorable.

This was the year I became a much more active activist, speaking on two Green Mondays at Preston New Road fracking site, protesting against Trump’s visit and everything he stands for, supporting the Stansted 15 and calling for an end to night-time deportations and the Home Office’s racist hostile environment. I spent a couple of evenings outside the Saudi Embassy, condemning the government’s ongoing arms sales to a warring regime killing children in the Yemen, and went to Downing Street to ask Mrs May not to bomb Syria. With a handful of other Quakers, I protested outside Church House when it hosted the Land Warfare Conference. And from Halloween to Christmas, I joined Extinction Rebellion’s non-violent movement to demand radical action on climate change. I’ve gathered in Parliament Square and sat in the road at the foot of Big Ben’s scaffolding. I helped to block one of five bridges one Saturday, part of a crowd that sang, danced and shared vegan food. Early one morning I was part of a peaceful presence outside City Hall on the day the London Assembly passed the Green motion to declare a Climate Emergency. And before that I helped to block the rush-hour traffic in Earls Court one morning – shaken by drivers’ hostility and sorry to inconvenience anyone but willing to bring London to a standstill because marching, writing to my MP, signing petitions and writing fiction as a small-fry keyboard warrior have not been enough, and disruptive, headline-grabbing civil disobedience is all that’s left. COP 24 came and went with a huge carbon footprint. The UN Secretary General spoke of “an existential crisis” and David Attenborough made the BBC News with his call for radical change if we are to survive as a species that has already destroyed 60% of others in my lifetime. But then it was business as usual. The UK government, having failed to mention climate change once in the new budget, continues to subsidise the fossil fuels that must stay in the ground. The media focuses on Brexit, celebrity news and delays at airports – so before Christmas I joined a picket of the BBC in London, where a speech by Scarlett, 11, and a song by Asha, 12, made me cry. It’s clear that the necessary change will not come quickly enough from government or corporations but from the ground up. The movement, swelled by the young, is global and growing fast. It’s not only peaceful but underpinned by love – of humanity in its rich diversity and of this beautiful planet we share. Of our grandchildren – which is where I began.

At PNR in August, before Cuadrilla began fracking

This is an emergency and that’s terrifying. But I believe 2019 will be the year the movement for climate justice gathers strength around the world… until it’s irresistible.

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