What it means to be a refugee? Imagine…

I was stewarding the People not Borders exhibition one evening this week and nobody came. I read Anne Tyler with great pleasure for an hour or more and then, feeling a little jaded by the Christmas pop and schmaltz playing in the café, I longed for my favourite, very sad carol, In the Bleak Midwinter. Soon I found myself rewriting the lyrics with refugees in mind.

 

 In the bleak mid-winter
They’re sleeping on the streets,
With shoes that we discarded
Hard around their feet.
Snow has fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
On abandoned people
With nowhere safe to go.

 

 In the bleak mid-winter
Bombs break homes apart,
War ensures cold comfort,
Seals unfeeling hearts.
In the bleak mid-winter
The camps are sharp with snow.
Behind the wire we trap them
In worlds we’ll never know.

Continue reading

Grannima – a free story to enjoy

I spell Granny Fatma ‘Grannima’. Her legs are wobbly but she dances without them. Her arms start to curl and float like her starry dupatta. I bet the music smells of sherbet and turmeric.  I’m a good reader but my letters are big and people can’t find the words in them. So I show Grannima what I mean.

For ‘police’ I arrest her round the wrist. For ‘doctor’ I lie on the sofa and open up my tummy. I know when Grannima is joking because she winks. It means she’s only pretending. Once when I ate a banana she sat the skin upside down on the table and signed ‘squid’ – and pretended it nipped her. Then she winked and her mouth went wide and wobbly. I can’t wink yet. I’m nearly five but you have to be six for that. Grannima’s very old and she forgets little things. But once she drew me the girl inside her who wants to skip. It’s the same girl who’s barefoot under a Neem tree in an old photo she keeps by her bed.

In the summer we went to the park and saw lilies on the pond but not Indian ones. She pretended to pick one from the water and put it in her hair. We found a bush full of roses to sniff and I saw a baby butterfly as small as my thumb because I have eagle eyes. Then I went up and down the slide nearly fifty times and made friends with a boy while Grannima was swaying to her secret music on the bench. In the end she signed that we’d better go before I rubbed my bottom away like a bad drawing. I don’t know what her laugh sounds like but it makes her eyes melt like chocolate.

 

When we got home Grannima couldn’t find the key. I signed wait and went round the back. The kitchen window was wide open so I pushed my dumper truck underneath it. I did some good thinking. I even put rocks by the wheels so they wouldn’t roll. Then I pulled myself up to the window ledge and swung right over onto the worktop.

I bowed to Grannima when I let her in and she hugged me and signed, ‘My hero’. But Dad said the key was a big thing to forget and the house felt sad and crotchety.

Now I have a nanny called Julia to take me out. She can sign better than Grannima but she’s got no girl inside her. Julia won’t let me do high jump with Grannima’s stick and she never lets me push the wheelchair.

If Grannima’s legs are really naughty she stays in bed but if she’s awake she still dances. My signing is speeding up so I tell jokes. The girl inside Grannima seems to like them but Grannima’s fingers get too muddled to talk. Signing makes her tired anyway.

I had a dream last night that Grannima’s eyes wouldn’t open but I looked out in the garden and the girl inside her was skipping. She smelt a cobra lily and threaded it into her hair. Her salwar kameez was red and gold and her dupatta danced in the breeze.

So I gave Grannima a kiss this morning to make sure she woke. She still looked sleepy but she sat up when I fluffed her pillow. I asked her what she wanted and she wrote, To be best friends forever. I know we will be, because she smiled but she didn’t wink.

 

Illustrated by Stu McLellan:

https://www.facebook.com/stumclellanart

If you enjoyed GRANNIMA, you might enjoy I AM ME  and ALIENS AND ANGELS.

On literary connections: risks, lists and disappointments

I can’t be the only author who sometimes sees on an online bookshop that, ‘Customers who bought this also bought…’ and wonders, what? and why? My local library used lists at one time that suggested authors readers might like to try this if they enjoyed that… But writers like me could be accused of delusion if we linked ourselves to those we admire. I’m not the kind of reader who fixes on a particular genre and can search accordingly, whether online or on shelves. I look for novels with deep psychological characterisation and rich, distinctive or elegant language – regardless of context or category. Try that on a search engine!

I sometimes think our reading friends make the best recommendations. I am grateful to Nat when she said she thought I’d love Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. Because she knows me, I believed her and she was so right. She even said there was a paragraph that was the most beautiful she’d ever read. With no clues whatsoever, I knew when I’d found it – and that shared recognition meant a lot to us both as a new, additional bond between us. Continue reading

John MacKenna Interview: the things unspoken

Once We Sang Like Other Men is a new short story collection by award-winning Irish poet, playwright and novelist John MacKenna,  winner of the Hennessy Literary Award, the Irish Times Fiction Award and the C Day-Lewis Award and a writer I greatly admire. I found it compelling, bleakly beautiful, sometimes disturbing and often deeply moving. The blurb says:
‘These wide-ranging stories follow the disparate disciples of the Captain – a mysterious, powerful and magnetic figure whose violent and chaotic death at the hands of the army radically alters their lives in myriad ways. From rural North American farms and dive bars to the suburbs of Ireland and the sands of Palestine, we witness their struggles to find a place, a peace, in a world that is fractured and incomplete.’
Some, reading this, will at once find Jesus there. Many won’t. One might call this a modern, humanist reworking of an old story, or rather an exploration of the aftermath of the story for those who followed their master. We never know exactly what happened to the Captain or why, and I’m not sure it matters if readers fail to see the parallel. I’m a Quaker now but it took a while, to use a Biblical metaphor, for those scales to clear. Then I wished I wasn’t reading on Kindle because there was a part of me that wanted to look back, compare and piece together. I concluded, though, that it was more rewarding to wonder, care and feel.

Sue: Firstly, John, any comments on my response and suppositions? I’m guessing that you intended the book to be less of an allegory or puzzle than a study of damaged humanity post-trauma and possibly post-ideals.

John: Yes, my intention in writing the book was to explore the characters as people and, yes, the stories were inspired by some of the stories and some of the named characters in the New Testament. But I wasn’t attempting to rewrite the gospels – rather to look at the humanity of the people involved. The post-idealism of their circumstances, the losses involved were what interested me most.

Sue: The Captain is a shadowy, off-stage figure, many things to many people. When I create a character I tend to know more than I end up telling the reader. Do you see and hear him? Do you know the details of his teaching or his motivation, and how different or similar he is to Christ? Or is it essential that even for you, his creator, he’s clouded in many possibilities and contradictions?
John: Like yourself, I tend to know much more about any character in a story or book than I reveal. With The Captain, I knew his philosophy; I heard him and knew what he said but – just as I did in Clare, my novel about John Clare – I wanted the central figure to be missing. I wanted to hear about rather than from him. But I’m always intrigued by the sense of the absent and the untold in a good story or poem. The things unspoken, the anecdotes untold, the characters unseen really intrigue me.

Sue: The collection could be read as a comment on the intangible and subjective nature of truth within and beyond religion. But perhaps you always write believing it’s the role of the reader to interpret and imagine rather than receive a package. Do you consciously insert the gaps whatever you are writing?

John: I do insert the gaps. As in life, so in literature – the things that most intrigue me about people are the stories untold. The lives that are lived in parallel and the might-have-beens are fascinating. You see it in the lives of people – the moments when they said or didn’t say something and that moment changed their lives. As for the truth in religion – is there one, are there many, are there any? The characters in this book believed – totally – and the things they believed may have been true but they are left – in the wake of The Captain’s death – with an absence of leadership and certainty and belief. That’s an interesting place for a writer to mine.

Sue: You’re a humanist. Has your attitude to religion in any of its forms changed through your life and experience?
John: I grew up and went through college as a practising Catholic; then I went through a period of agnosticism. In the eighties I became a Quaker and now I would describe myself as an Agnostic Quaker. I attend meetings for worship and I listen and I learn but I’m not sure about many, many things. But after everything, the human figure of Jesus and his teaching intrigues and excites me.

Sue: How did this collection evolve? Did you begin with a single story that triggered eleven more, or did the concept of the book come as a whole?
John: A friend of mine said to me one wet, Sunday afternoon about twelve years ago – as we stood on the terrace at football match – “Have you ever thought that the disciples may have taken Jesus literally when he said: ‘Eat my body and drink my blood?’” I spent years thinking about it then wrote one story – Peter’s story – and it grew from there over a four year period. There are autobiographical elements in some of the stories, too, though.

Sue: I found these stories compelling but, like your poetry, achingly sad, both tender and dark. Did you feel this sadness when you write or do you achieve a craftsman’s distance?
John: I felt a sadness for these characters and my brother’s death seeped into the writing – and into some of the individual stories. I tend to write best out of the dark places in my memory and imagination and I tend to write mostly in winter – a time of darkness, too.

Sue: Is there a story that was harder to write than the others, and if so, why? Was there one that came to you whole, like McCartney’s Yesterday, and only needed recording?
John: Peter’s story came very quickly. I think because he was central to the ‘twist’ in the narrative. The story that was hardest was Say to Your Brother – because it’s the most autobiographical.

Sue: You have followed a poetry collection, When Sadness Begins, with these short stories, but are also known as a playwright. What’s next?
John: A requiem – more darkness – drawn from the songs and written words of Leonard Cohen and shaped with his agreement. The irony is that it’s now – in a way – a requiem for him, too. After that I tour a one man play I’ve written called The Mental – set in an Irish psychiatric hospital in 1990. I’m performing in that myself and being on the road is a break from the solitary life of writing – I enjoy that variety.

I’m grateful to John for his thoughtful answers, but more importantly for his courageous and passionate writing. I hope we meet one day. This interview appears simultaneously here, on Leslie Tate’s blog – where he explores creativity expressed in many forms by a variety of fascinating guests.

 

 

(Nearly) Stopping the Arms Fair: diary of a new old activist

I’ve been a member of CAAT for quite a few years, and of CND – on and off – most of my life. My dad was a conscientious objector after the war and always my hero and inspiration. I’d been involved in a few peaceful actions including one in Parliament Square and Portcullis House with a banner that read Stop Arming Saudi just before the second and very close vote in the Commons. But again and again I only discovered the dates of the Arms Fair, which happens at the ExCel in Docklands every two years, too late. I always had a busy diary to prevent me playing a part. So this January, when I found out the week when all the machinery of war is brought into the showrooms, I blocked it out. I then attended four planning days/weekends at Friends House in Euston where my commitment was sealed and I met some thrillingly well-informed and committed people, most of them young.

I was a little nervous on Tuesday 5th September because I’d never done the rather long and complicated train journey before and I was on my own. But when I arrived, I soon saw where to go: past the camp on the grass to the road at the East Gate. Some of the banners I’ve seen this week have been works of art, some witty and some simple but passionate. Creativity struck me as a key element of the protest, along with good humour, friendliness and patience. But most remarkable was the ingenuity that enabled people to outwit the police, in spite of a massive presence which grew day by day.

No Faith in War was the theme on Tuesday and Quakers were everywhere. By that I mean abseiling from the bridge (four arrests) and blocking the road in other ways by locking on and standing or sitting in the middle. I knew about locking on but I’d never seen it live and within reach before. Brave people put an arm through a metal tube and then perhaps through a suitcase or other object stuffed solid with materials which will challenge the police cutting crew. This means being on the ground for a minimum of two hours and sometimes four, and half of that time can be taken up by the process of removal – i.e. slicing through with power tools while the cutters and the person on the ground wear masks. The men in black were an intimidating crew and obliged to surround the protesters in a way that really was up close and personal. Legal observers are trained to listen, observe and make notes and I saw food and drink passed to protesters as well as cushions. The Quakers arrested for refusing to move from the road were mostly retired and in some cases elderly people unable to be there without a seat. Their prayerful stillness was very moving, as was the Quaker Meeting in the road for some 200 people. That was followed by an Anglican Communion service and priests placed a line of Bibles across the road, with grapes in between. There was Buddhist chanting too, and I saw groups from other faiths. I spent almost all my day at the East Gate but walked the length of the ExCel building (two DLR stops) with the rest of the cast of a short play I’d written – The Terrible Marriage of Britannia and Death – in order to perform it for the third time. I was Britannia in a Union Jack wig and zombie bride dress plus red glitter trident, but the Arms Fair – revealed as the Grim Reaper with hood and scythe – was the star of the show, along with Jesus played by a woman. We’d met at nine at the nearby Garden Café, which supports the protest, in order to practise, but weren’t sufficiently complete to do so, which meant that our first performance to the crowd was a little under-rehearsed. But it was huge fun and we bonded. I think it illustrates the odd mix of playfulness, creative effort, camaraderie and deeply serious commitment that characterises the whole protest. The day itself was the quietest of the four I spent, and the most middle-class. I wondered why I hadn’t seen Quaker Jo, who had coordinated planning, until I found that she’d locked on and been arrested early. Every arrest I saw was greeted with cheers, whoops and resounding applause.

Wednesday’s focus was Arms to Renewables so there were lots of Green Party groups present, three large wind turbines and many small ones made by individuals before or during the day. Events like this workshop were organised by Green Party member Mariette Labelle, and included holding beautiful gauzy waves which stretched across the road. We all swirled and jiggled around while the police warned us to move. At one – given the role by Mariette because I’d issued the invitation – I met Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, with his assistant Russell at Prince Regent. I then introduced him to the crowd before he delivered a powerful speech. He turned out to be what I’d expected – a thoroughly nice, warm, natural and friendly human. He began a Facebook Live after that, asking me to show him around – which I was in the process of doing when a lorry came and we all ran into the road with banners and the waves. By the time the police had persuaded us to clear the road, word travelled back through the crowd that there was a lock-on at the other end. We’d been an effective if unknowing decoy and Jonathan must have been delighted with his footage. Arrests were up to 57 by the end of the day – every one of them for ostructing the road, which was of course the goal.

On Thursday we called for free movement of people not weapons, with a theme of welcoming refugees and solidarity with LGBTQ humans, some of whom become refugees fleeing in fear of their lives. Things began quietly – if vey colourfully. The police presence was so substantially increased (after we’d run rings round them the day before) that I simply couldn’t see how anyone would pull off a lock-on. But Veterans for Peace held the road a while, asking the police to check for illegal weapons on the vehicles coming through. I danced on the island to Motown, chatted and took part in improvised creativity with a stretch of knitting produced on enormous missiles for needles (which became a border to cross and a web to connect us all). Somehow a picnic was produced to block the road: vegan chilli, rice, salad and tea for a huge crowd sitting chatting while the police looked on helplessly and warned from time to time that they’d allow us five more minutes. I think we held the road for a least half an hour. Then, on the mound by the campsite, I watched a moving play by African women who were asylum seekers, after which Q and A had just begun when we heard the noise that has only one meaning in this context: a lock-on. Don’t ask me how. We all partied behind the heroes and by the time I left, both gates were blocked. But I witnessed my first glimpse of police misbehaviour when a cushion was yanked roughly from one head on the ground.

Friday was my day off to catch up but there were academics at the gates holding workshops and giving talks, and Super Villains around like the Dalek that was arrested (eventually). There were early lock-ons but it was the least effective day, partly because of terrible weather. Saturday was billed as the Big Day of Action with art and live music on site. There were young children around and the atmosphere was almost carnival, but we were all thrilled to hear that the week’s actions had caused significant delays in setting up the fair. There were speeches from people from around the world’s trouble spots. But with more police than ever, and six on horseback, I felt a sense of threat and agreed when one woman chalked a horse head on the pavement with the words: Don’t you dare use those beautiful animals against us. I felt apologetic towards my friend, who’d come to her first protest because of everything dramatic and inspiring I’d reported. But then we were tipped off about something happening down by the bridge and the water. It turned out to be the chilling arrival overhead of a huge Chinook, causing a mini tsunami that soaked my friend. The best way I can explain what I felt is that I cried inside. It was a vivid and horrifying insight into how it must feel to be a victim of war. This terrifying beast was followed by Apaches and later, apparently, a warship was delayed by a lock-on on the bridge after we’d headed home. Walking back to the road we found lock-ons and were told the other gate was blocked too. We gathered in the road and a Quaker Meeting began: a seated circle of silence. Soon the police moved in on individuals, breaking up the worship and persisting when we ignored them. Leslie and I were given a final warning of arrest and chose to move, but simply to slip into the crowd holding the road closer to the queue of lorries. The police, helpless, seemed to be poised to push us from the middle in both directions and did begin some aggressive shoving, but then drew back. Puzzled, we wondered why. What was the next tactic? Then we heard that the other gate was blocked by a Critical Mass of cyclists. Up high in the first lorry, the driver was supportive and given food and drink. Nothing was going into the building for a while and after five fifteen we left for the station. My friend Flip felt the day had been both wonderful and shocking – not least because one of the police officers is married to a friend of hers. During the day Leslie challenged some of them about the morality of their position and some said they respected us. It’s clear they don’t all want to harass peaceful people in the service of the war industry. Back home and on Twitter, I saw arrest figures had reached a minimum of 107 and that contractors were apparently offering overtime because deliveries were behind and the fair was not in place as it should be…

Sunday was another day off for me but the policing at Stop Arming Turkey reportedly became more aggressive. There was Kurdish dancing in the road, which saw few trucks coming in and was blocked some of the day. Otherwise there were workshops and speakers as well as live music, and I saw a Tweet from celebrated Quaker activist Sam Walton saying that he’d heard the exhibition was four days behind…?

Monday was the day The Guardian finally reported the protest with a headline that more than a hundred had been arrested, quotes from some of those heroes and from Caroline Lucas and Jeremy Corbyn. It was also the morning I took part in a die-in outside the ExCel building which is hosting the world’s biggest Arms Fair. Here I am at the Garden Café where forty-something protesters of all ages gathered to be face-painted. In spite of a singalong to classics like All Along the Watchtower, some exuberant jazz piano and the camaraderie as we ate, drank and prepared – watched by three vans of police – smiles for the camera were not appropriate. Three of us dressed rather differently, in suits, heels and lanyards that read BAE, London Arms Fair. It was their job, when we reached our destination (followed by police) to step over us when we died. Lying for twenty-five minutes on the ground pretending to be victim of war was a memorable experience and one I’m glad to have undertaken. During this time I overheard a conversation between a young activist, watching with her small child, and an elderly man originally from India. She explained and asked what he thought. He approved. “It addresses the heart,” he said. I was close to tears. They shared a lot more, including some of his life story, but I didn’t hear it all. “I’m glad I met you,” he told her as the action ended. “I’m glad I met you,” she replied. That evening, after I had gone home, there was a candlelit vigil for peace and those killed or maimed by the kind of weapons on sale in the Fair.

Once the business began at the Fair the action continues. Committed with People not Borders, I keep an eye on Twitter. Maybe the London Assembly will ban it in 2019? Sian Berry for the Green Party  has already tried, prompting support from Sadiq Khan, but sadly the Labour team withheld theirs.

We’re not finished yet.

 

I am me

I became aware of People not Borders in February 2016, about six months after a few women in my town connected on Facebook to try to help refugees however they could. At that time most of the group’s work involved collecting food, clothes, toiletries and toys to send out to Calais, Greece, Syria or Turkey. I became a committee member and then a Trustee a few months later – one of the best decisions of my life. In recent months, while awaiting charitable status, we’ve been able to furnish and equip a new school built on Lesvos for both refugee and local children by NGO Better Days. We are volunteers of various religious and political persuasions with a shared humanitarian goal, and we have become a family. To find out more about our work, see our website or Facebook Page.

It was probably in April that Lisa, whose supply of ideas is inexhaustible, said at a committee meeting, “We could do a fundraising picture book.” I said I would write it and produced eight rhyming verses later that day. (I’m averse to rhyme but tried to make it sensitive rather than clunky!) Within a couple more days I had found an illustrator in Paula Watkins. Before the week was up I’d also secured an ethical publisher in TSL, who had already published both my short story collections and who embraced the project as a perfect fit with their ethos – of celebrating diversity and supporting minorities. Being a fan of Paula’s gorgeous work with textiles, I knew this book would be special. Since at this point I had not met any refugees settling in Britain, I sent my text to people who had: a whole team responsible for housing vulnerable families, meeting them from the airport and supporting their various needs as they adapt and integrate. To my relief and delight they all loved it, telling me that my attempt to capture the experience of a child arriving and adjusting to a very different kind of life was “beautifully written” and “just right.” Now I’ve met these families and it feels like a privilege.

Soon the book gave rise to an exhibition built around it as a creative, mixed media exploration of what it means to be a refugee. So why not launch a competition for secondary students and adults at the same time? We may be a small group of committed women but we think big. Organising it all has been a huge amount of work, but wonderful things have fallen perfectly into place and we hope that this ambitious three-tier project will provide insights, develop empathy and provide an outlet for creative people around Herts and Bucks.

All the profits from I AM ME will be used to support young refugees in various ways. We hope the book will make a wonderful gift for a child, perhaps for Christmas (and will be taking orders for matching T-shirts at all our exhibition venues). But we know that adults, aware of the dark realities the book spares young readers, will love it too. It’s a gentle book vivid with colour, life and hope.

We hope you and your family enjoy it over and over again.

Being losers

By si.robi (Murray A. US16 (10)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s a little linguistic change that’s been bothering me for a while. Murray used to be defeated now and then; I’d hear about another Man United victory. As a pacifist I recognise the way military vocabulary invades (oh yes) our speech, but given the combative nature of competitive sport, it’s a best fit even when fans gleefully celebrate annihilation or massacre. Now the noun suffered in the online news headlines is no longer defeat. It’s loss. And every time I see it I feel the faintest shudder. It’s the wrong word and its register is N/A.

You see, at my age loss is as devastating as it’s ubiquitous. The past is heavy with it and the future defined or overwhelmed by it. At sixty I’ve lost the father I adore, several dear friends, four unborn babies, stretches of my internal organs, a marriage and many human connections that once mattered and held. Not to mention hair – a loss that carried others with it for many years: my sense of femininity, identity, self-esteem. Mine is not a sob story. My life is full of love. No one escapes loss, which is after all a euphemism for death. And I honestly don’t know which hurts more – losing someone we love or loss of love itself.

Some losses can go out of fashion, virginity being the most obvious example – once a source of shame and regret but now abandoned with the same eagerness as a ticking cartoon bomb. The loss of innocence in our children goes is dreaded in emotional anticipation by parents who know their child will be lost to someone no longer immunised by Imagination’s magic and no longer devoted in dependence. And when as parents we realise we have lost – or forfeited – our children’s faith in us, we’re deeply shamed. I fear for children losing faith in the strutting adults who shape the world with its climate crisis, wars and inequality. Then there’s loss of faith in a religious sense, a commonplace ‘grown-up’ admission that’s almost a boast for some but for others is more of a wound. Loss of trust in a relationship, whether with God or a partner, can bring a burden of guilt and when it makes victims of us there’s a risk that next time it will lower our resilience. In its own diverse way loss seeps out of the past and has a cumulative way of undermining the present.

We talk about loss in terms that can be physical – sight, hearing, mobility – and when lives are changed by such losses, society at large often struggles to accommodate their new shapes, leaving those affected with a sense of no longer belonging. But even if such loss is only a kind of generalised fading with age, later life brings the sense of a lost time, world and self – before loss began. We like to think of wisdom gained in compensation, and yes, with loss we find insight, definition, clarity. An understanding of what it means to be human, i.e. to suffer loss in many forms. A gratitude for those gifts we value in direct relation to the pain of losing them. Of love, of peace. Of beauty in all its forms, some of them unexpected or overlooked until, busyness over, we recover time to connect with the light through the trees.

Of course poetry, music and art are infused with loss. I don’t suppose I’ve ever loved a novel whose author ducked it. When I’m thinking of blurbs or tag lines for my own work the three L-words usually present themselves first: love, loss and longing. They’re inseparable and fundamental and in fiction if they’re missing they leave behind a sink hole called reality to undermine its structure with a crash.

Maybe it’s intensity we crave when we dramatize sportsmen or women with balls. But Murray never really suffers a loss. He’s defeated now and then but he’ll win again. He nearly lost his best friend, he’s a father now and he was so affected by the Grenfell Fire tragedy that he offered to donate his Queens winnings in order to support those who lost everything because they had so little to lose. When we watch refugees around our world, in camps, or tiny boats or sleeping on Paris streets, we see their loss of living as they knew it – but not of dignity, not of humanity and perhaps not even of hope. Sporting defeats can be followed by triumphant victories and vice versa. There is rise and fall and it’s the moment that counts. But loss? That’s a big, gaping word for something that can overwhelm everything else. Recovery can be slow and it may only ever be partial because loss lies too deep and wide for reversals. We live with it until we die. Nothing is more intense than its heartbreak and grief and nothing is more universal. So in some part perhaps we savour it because we know instinctively that it keeps us real. We embrace it because we know it is the shadow of happiness. No technology or status, success, possessions or ego can protect us. It’s who we are.

To the NHS with thanks

If NHS treatment cost money, I really would be struggling for basics by now. For the first forty-five years of my life I visited hospitals as a patient only for D and Cs after miscarriages, and to apply for a wig or be given a steroid cream in my early months with alopecia.  I considered myself healthy and almost never took a day off from teaching because I was too passionately committed to give in to bugs and colds. Then things changed, and my digestive system began to pay me back for all those years when, emotionally, there was just no time to eat regularly or sensibly, or visit the smallest room in the school or house. I’m not feeling sorry for myself because I know how fortunate I am. I’m not disabled or suffering from a life-threatening illness; I remain active. But in the last ten years I’ve had five operations, four of them bowel-related; my one major procedure involved chopping and reconnecting. In addition there have been at least fifteen investigations of various kinds, many of them ending in ‘scopy’ and some of them too gruesome and humiliating to recall without a shudder. That’s setting aside two excisions for a malignant melanoma on my arm.

The points I want to make with this history are firstly that I’m deeply grateful for a health service free at point of care, and secondly that I’ve been the recipient not just of great expertise but of enormous kindness. Almost without exception, all these hospital experiences have been easier to manage, even when I’ve cried with the pain or the sheer loss of dignity, because those professionals taking care of me really did care, with smiles and sympathetic concern, warmth and friendliness and genuine humanity. Yes, I’ve seen how understaffed departments can be and how stretched doctors and nurses often are. I’ve had the frustration of cancelled operations and I’ve waited a long time for a buzzer to bring me a nurse. Mistakes can happen. But I have nothing but respect for those who work so hard, shouldering responsibilities that would terrify me, enduring the interference of politicians, administrative restructuring and a lack of resources as well as people – because however low their morale or raw their anger, the vast majority of those I have encountered have taken time to support me psychologically as well as medically. To be real.

A third point stems from comments by Michael Gove recently that people who don’t use services shouldn’t have to pay for them. It seems to me that in an enlightened society no one should pay for education or for health care. I could feel guilty about costing the NHS or tax payer so much money, but then my mother, at almost ninety, has made up for my neediness with exemplary good health, such rare visits to her G.P. that the practice called a while ago to invite her in, no prescriptions at all bar one for ointment when a toe became infected, and one experience of being admitted into hospital for a cyst that turned out to be benign. She doesn’t even have Paracetemol in the house. That’s the way it works. That’s diversity – even though Mum and I share the same values as well as genes.

We all pay our taxes and give to charity because we recognise that for some of us, the ride we find ourselves taking is smooth, and that others get jolted, bruised and injured. I remember being shocked once by a colleague who said smokers shouldn’t get free health care. Drinkers too, I presume, and drug users, and those who choose junk food, and people like me who worked too hard and fast for too long? Our shared humanity dictates otherwise in the hands of health professionals who don’t discriminate. As a Quaker I am sometimes challenged but deeply inspired by the idea of seeing God in everyone – or, if you’re not religious, goodness or light. It’s an idea lived out in our NHS, and it’s fundamental, underpinning what these professionals do. We are all, victims or perpetrators, equal in our hospital beds.

So let’s save our NHS from the profit motive that can dehumanise business. Let’s value those we turn to when we feel small, desperate and afraid. And let’s hold together as one species. After all in an X-ray there’s no difference between the company director and the cleaner. If society as a whole modelled itself on the principles of the NHS, inequality and all its many destructive consequences for that society would be reduced – which would dramatically improve the physical and mental health of the nation.

I have more surgery tomorrow but it’s minor, but I’m not brave with pain and anticipation is focusing me. I’m told by someone who had the same op that it’s excruciatingly painful for a few days – and that everyone at the hospital was wonderfully kind. I’ll finish with some reflections after my major op in December 2014, an experience memorable in many ways.

Ten Things I Learned In Hospital
1. Doctors and nurses are heroic individuals, and their care, at its gentlest and brightest, warmest and most freely given, is the most precious gift you’ll ever receive because…
2. Until you have surgery you have no idea how vulnerable and needy you can be.
3. The intense, medicated pain is so overwhelming that it separates you from the active self you normally show the world and leaves you helpless in the power of your dysfunctional body.
4. Sleep has a new kind of shapeshift identity. Both longed-for and dreaded, it’s a tease, a fearful risk, an unreachable goal.
5. Time has no meaning and night has no darkness. Your body is your only clock.
6. Talking behind curtains from our beds, we all sound the same. Clues like accents and the dynamics of age are smudged into the faint blur that’s the voice of pain and need.
7. But the courage of other patients worse off than you is palpable and moving and you feel a bond you’re all too weak to express.
8. A mobile phone is as helpful as morphine.
9. When the staff on a ward operate as a positive, supportive team no politicians can stop them doing God’s work and no words can express your gratitude.
10. Surgery is a bigger, more traumatic and more enlightening experience than imagination can foresee and once you’re home it will leave you crying at the first robin, rose or Strictly Rumba you see.

 

Only love

Politics is a dirty word. Talking about it at dinner used to be considered bad manners and could still be dangerous now. When someone called me a political activist recently, he meant it as a criticism. He was denouncing me, and the refugee charity I represent. But charity, as we know from the Bible, is a variation on the word love, which is closely connected with caring or empathy. Goodness knows we see little enough love in politics. At a time when our Prime Minister has been attacked for showing scant compassion, I’ve been reflecting on a widely shared perception that politicians bring politics into disrepute, and whether that could change.

Looking up the definition of politics, I find in the OED that it can refer to ‘activities associated with the governance of a country or area’. In this sense it excludes those who are not professionals, except in an election campaign when candidates, even failed ones, make a bid to participate in such activities. Perhaps I engaged in them myself when I canvassed for the Green Party, but it felt a long way from Westminster, not least because genuine conversations on the doorstep seemed authentic, human and personal. My husband’s own definition of politics, that it means working to change society, may seem idealistic when we look at debates in the Commons, or the careerist machinations that are closer to playing politics, but it feels much closer to what, how and why I campaigned with a Green rosette. The OED also defines politics as ‘a particular set of beliefs or principles’ and that’s what I was sharing.

The electorate could be forgiven for thinking that some politicians may have beliefs but not principles. Watching them in action after the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, or observing in horror as they cut disability benefit or privatise the NHS, some have suspected that their overriding belief is in their own superiority. Theresa May seems unable to relate to those outside the top 1% and while we might feel sorry that her experience has been so narrow, the consequences for those on whom the rich and powerful look down are devastating. Again and again we have seen politicians – and sadly they are not all in the same party – exposed as expenses cheats, as offshore tax avoiders, for corrupt links to business in general and fossil fuels in particular. It’s as if the rules to which the rest of us must adhere do not apply. Like Hollywood stars, they’re escorted by bodyguards and driven in expensive cars. Setting themselves apart, how can they connect? How can they believe themselves merely equal to the rest of us?

It’s not surprising, then, that Jeremy Corbyn is loved – for cycling, using the tube and walking unguarded through grieving crowds, listening and embracing. As MP of a diverse constituency where poverty is all too visible, he has always communicated with and supported his fellow-humans who live there too. It’s a striking contrast and it’s his evident and natural humanity that inspires faith in a different kind of politics. So politics can, it seems, be personal. It always was, but in a media age – look at the circus of U.S. elections – the way we read our politicians can earn them our votes. And maybe it should, because in every job and role in life, personal qualities count; without them experience and expertise are not enough. Again and again on the doorsteps I heard that Caroline Lucas is respected for such qualities; Jonathan Bartley was able in this election campaign to make a similarly positive and decent impression. Both are seen to represent, as the definition said, a set of principles – not their own advancement or profit. Like Corbyn, they want to reduce inequality, while the Government appears, both in its policies and the attitudes of its leaders, to drive it, King-of-the-Castle style. When asked who, among the Tories, could replace Theresa May, the public has little confidence in those who have been seen to lie, to manoeuvre, to jeer, sneer or put their own position first, to spend their time insulting others rather than presenting a fairer and safer way forward. They really have given politics a bad name.

No one can deny that this year political developments here and in the States have had the Rocky Horror show allure of highly coloured, sometimes burlesque drama. It’s not difficult to see some of the performers as dark villains or inept buffoons we can ridicule from a distance. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that in Corbyn the political stage offers us a different kind of figure, one who doesn’t seem to be acting at all, but has just stepped up to call for something better. No wonder crowds gather to hear that cry. What Green voters have in common with Corbyn fans, like the Green leaders with JC himself, is a commitment to integrity, fairness, honesty and compassion. That doesn’t feel political to me.

I don’t conceal my activism – for climate justice, against fracking, to expose the moral vacuum of our arms trade. That’s all political in the sense that laws need to be rewritten and the Tory government sees no need for any such changes, even those required to ensure the survival of the species. But my beliefs are ideals born of my Quaker faith, my love of God in every one of us. Speeding climate crisis and selling arms to oppressive or warring regimes is neither idealistic nor loving.

I belong to a group of women with different personalities, backgrounds, religious and political alignments who share a common goal: to find ways to help refugees and other homeless people abroad and in the U.K. We are passionate in our shared belief that whatever work we do as volunteers is what love, to use a Quaker phrase, requires of us. Our only position on borders is that where they exist, love and aid must cross them, and that whatever policies nations pursue on immigration, we must hold on to our common humanity, which knows no divides. As it says on the back of the T-shirt, our appeal to everyone is: HUMANS UNITE.

That’s not political. It’s a rational kind of hope because if we could only do it, there would be no war or injustice. And the only thing that can unite us is compassionate love – in action. That’s real activism for change.

 

Why grown-ups could do better

It’s time for adults to end the hypocrisy of double standards and start living the way we teach children to behave in school. For some politicians this would be the biggest U-turn in political history. It would also be a tactical switch for those in the media who present them to us, and to millions of us on social media. But we’ve let those primary school standards slip so far we’re in danger of destroying ourselves and the earth we share.

From the time they begin Pre-School, Playgroup or Nursery, we teach children to listen to each other respectfully. Take note, Paxman and Andrew Neill, who’ve both been known to interrupt their subject 50 – 100 times in one interview. Schools have bullying policies; the media doesn’t. In school, children are not allowed to call each other abusive names. That’s until they grow up and go into politics or just get a Twitter account.

School rules do not allow stealing by children or fraudulent abuse of funds by governors or staff. Many members of parliament claim three figure sums for taxis, breakfast or a duck house, switch homes, employ family members and invest in off-shore accounts.  In school, fairness is essential. Teachers are aware that all children are to be treated equally in the classroom. Adults, however, often behave as if they are more important than others who are different from them. David Cameron showed this when he jumped the queue for socks.

Schools log and address racist incidents, teaching those responsible that their behaviour is unacceptable. The racism of Nigel Farage was noted and deplored at Dulwich College by a teacher who believed it disqualified him from the role of prefect. As an adult and media darling, he feels free to share his racist views. See the famous Breaking Point poster in 2015. Boris Johnson’s racist language is tolerated even though he airs it from the Foreign Office; Twitter is full of it.

From a young age through secondary education, we teach students about climate change and our responsibility to protect the environment we share. But many adults fly at will, over-consume and over-package without a thought for the consequences – while our Tory government pursues policies guaranteed to hasten climate chaos as they undermine renewables and push fracking against local democracy and the will of the majority. We teach children to share. That’s until they’re adults. Then the gulf between the rich and poor widens and such glaring inequality causes just about every social problem we can name. And as for sharing the Earth’s resources, the rich take the lot, leaving the poorer nations at greatest risk of climate catastrophe.

We teach children not to lie. But we have reached a point where politicians think nothing of denying truth, fabricating excuses or unfounded accusations and trying to fool the electorate for power and gain. We’ve seen it again and again as doctors expose lies about the NHS and the police about the cuts they’ve witnessed. Some voted in the Referendum trusting the lie on the Brexit bus. We see and hear equally blatant untruths from various elements of the media whose unrestrained political bias drives them to disrespect the truth they are paid to offer the people.

Children are taught to solve problems without violence or aggression, and to avoid conflict. Governments make war. Politicians like Hilary Benn claim it’s heroic to do so. Those who prefer to talk to the ‘enemy’ in order to find a peaceful alternative are accused, like Corbyn, of being unpatriotic. Weapons in school are confiscated and their use leads to suspension. Governments like ours sell weapons as big business, for profit. In fact, this Tory government sells more than every other nation but America. A student who sold a weapon to a student who then used it to kill would be considered complicit in the crime. Our government sells arms to Saudi Arabia, and when Corbyn called for a vote on whether to stop, some of his Labour MPs backed the Tories in their determination to continue.

No school has an ethos that permits the annihilation of another school (plus any other inhabitants of its vicinity) or the stockpiling of weapons for such annihilation. In a student such behaviour would be seen as psychotic. In a Prime Minister like Theresa May, a declared readiness to press ‘the button’ that ensures destruction on a massive scale is applauded by her MPs. When Jeremy Corbyn says he wouldn’t press that button and kill millions of people, he’s declared weak and unpatriotic (again).

How did we reach this place where cynicism shades into moral bankruptcy? Who overturned the values taught in classrooms for the good of all in a diverse community, and replaced them with this depravity? Why do we jump on those who demand decency, justice and equality and peace, tell them to grow up and face the real world – when all they’re being is the adults we tried to nurture and develop in our primary schools? Accuse me of student politics. Call me naïve, but I used to be a primary school teacher and I believe we teach love, compassion, respect and tolerance for good reasons. I want a world where those in power remember that those values are for the common good, for the wellbeing of the individual and the healthy functioning of the community.

We really COULD DO BETTER.

 

 

 

Adult vs children’s fiction: a different kind of ending

Niza Ali Badr

When people ask me about the differences between writing for children and for adults, I could talk about age-appropriate vocabulary and sentence structures, about spending longer in my characters’ heads when they’re grown-ups and developing more external action for younger readers. But one obvious answer is the endings. In a story for primary age children, I won’t always avoid difficult or sad realities like bereavement, bullying or even war, but if my young characters have endured challenges and distress I’m always inclined to help them through to a happier place by the end, so that their future looks worth living beyond the book. Of course my hero Michael Morpurgo makes exceptions, most notably perhaps with Private Peaceful, in which the central character finally faces a firing squad. I aim above all for emotional authenticity so I’m not one for tying all ends up with a shiny rainbow ribbon, and in one of my early historical novels, VOICE OF THE ASPEN, the family my Lakota Sioux boy recovers at Standing Rock reservation is broken, with Wounded Knee on the horizon. In THE WATERHOUSE GIRL Daisy’s hair doesn’t grow back, because for those readers with alopecia that would offer a hope that may be false and therefore cruel. Continue reading

Finding a Green way through

I belong to the Green Party and it’s a commitment, an ideal and a kind of faith. But when people say Green is a wasted vote, asking why we can’t get together with Labour and the Lib Dems to defeat the Tories, or suggesting that the party should just step down simply because we can’t win, I do understand. It’s all hugely frustrating and we need a fairer voting system, one that justifies the name democracy. On top of which, I find that a friend with whom I share many values is standing for Labour in my constituency. When I look at this callous, morally bankrupt government to which the majority are so actively opposed, the word madness springs to mind. Like most Greens, including our joint leaders, I would have supported a Progressive Alliance candidate – in a collaborative pact between like-minded people who share the key Green goals. But where I live, both Labour and the Lib Dems declined, for the recent local elections, to form such an alliance. So I’ll be voting Green again – for some reasons I consider better than good, but crucially and overwhelmingly for the reason that informs everything else I believe and do.

Climate change is with us. It’s a phrase we’ve got used to, but it’s going to mutate into climate chaos and will ultimately destroy humanity if we don’t address it urgently. No one who has read extensively can challenge a scientific consensus that’s as close to unanimity as scientists get. The nations that signed the Paris Agreement accept the need for action. Yet many governments do little or nothing, and in the UK the Conservatives have cut subsidies to the renewables industries while continuing to bankroll fossil fuels and pursue, in fracking, a hugely destructive alternative to green energy and one that releases, in methane, a gas many times more damaging as a cause of global warming than carbon. It’s all unbelievably stupid and the explanation lies in financial links with the fossil fuel industry – otherwise known as corruption. And this threat to our children and grandchildren’s future seems to be one we’ve started to live with, just as we lived with the Cold War when I was a child and just as we now live with poverty and the Arms Trade, as if there’s nothing we can do except carry on as if it isn’t happening. Which is pretty much what Labour and the Lib Dems seem to do, only mentioning it in passing and continuing to pursue growth at all costs. I could use the word love for Corbyn: a humane, authentic, dignified and principled man who can sit in a story corner and read The Gruffalo like every child’s favourite grandpa. I passionately agree with him about many things. Intelligent and thoughtful, he accepts the need to avert climate disaster. But I don’t hear that recognition in his speeches. Why isn’t it top of the agenda, when a war industry adapting from #ArmsToRenewables is both feasible and necessary for peace and justice? And even if he alienated the Blairites further by voicing policies in line with Green thinking, how could he implement them when among his M.P.s are saboteurs with their own interests more pressing than the survival of our species? Climate change made me Green. It’s not something I can set aside, and only the Green Party takes it seriously. Only the Green Party shapes all its thinking and actions around this overwhelming truth – and that’s what, as human beings, we all have to do.

So I’ll be voting with my heart and convictions, hoping for a better vote and a second M.P. with passion and integrity. It feels like a moral imperative rather than a strategy, but perhaps it’s not for nothing. The more Green votes are counted, the more media attention the party earns, enhancing its credibility in the perception of the electorate – some of whom may decide, next time, that their Green vote might not be wasted. It also sends out a message to the other parties, who begin to consider, as Green votes grow, whether their own policies need to incorporate action on climate change because clearly there are people out there who care enough to vote with their convictions. These leaders could learn, too, from Green Party policies on the refugee crisis and education, both of which in their very different ways made me cry.

Unlike UKIP, Green is a party that won’t go away. I believe it will grow, and fast – preferably before climate disaster strikes closer to home. Look at Holland, more imminently at risk than us. But I’m not tribal, or even naturally political, and if Labour or the Lib Dems stole and truly committed to Green policies I’d consider voting red again (or yellow for the first time). It’s not who’s in power than matters, but how that power is used for good.  Do I want to see the Tories out for ever? Desperately. Do I understand any Green in a marginal seat voting for the party most likely to defeat them? Of course. Do I hope for a time when we’ll all be Green? Oh yes, because looking at the big and scary picture for our planet and its inhabitants, that’s what hope must mean.

 

 

 

 

PROCESSING