Out of my comfort zone and into the world of Doctor Who

When the BBC announced the #13thDoctor as a woman I had my own reason to smile. Having been one of those children who hid behind the sofa in the black-and-white Lethbridge-Stewart days, I never ventured back to Doctor Who – even once latex and dodgy sets were replaced by CGI. But recently I’ve returned to sci-fi and it’s taught me more than I expected. In the week of the earth-shaking announcement from the BBC, I was proofing AVATARS OF THE INTELLIGENCE, the first in a children’s series called the Lucy Wilson mysteries, ready for a preview run. Like its publishers, Candy Jar, I celebrated a female Doctor, and hoped that my own action heroine will mean something to girls who meet her on the page – but to boys too, and their mums and dads and grandparents. Lucy Wilson’s world may not be as real as ours but it’s not so different either, and we need girls like her. We need boys to respect girls like her. And we need other girls to respect her too.

I’ve explored almost every other genre. Each one has its register and, to a greater or lesser extent, its rules in the form of expectations (even though I sometimes like to push those a little). Being a form of fantasy with a credibility built on science – often undiscovered but already imagined – sci-fi offers a heady freedom but also parameters. The idea is to develop something fresh within a tradition readers recognise and demand, and there’s a limit to how much this can be achieved through language and style. But in any case for me the characters always carry the narrative and make it matter. The rest is context. At the core of any good novel, whatever the genre, are the central character’s feelings and relationships, needs, strengths, weaknesses and unique, complex wholeness. Cue Lucy. Continue reading

Inside VIOLET: the review (it’s personal)

It’s more than domestic. What follows is a dialogue with my husband, author Leslie Tate, about his new novel VIOLET and being married authors sharing a commitment to writing as well as each other.

Leslie: Sue Hampton and I are lucky. As ‘Authors in Love’ we encourage each other, give joint presentations, discuss ideas and edit each other’s books. We work at our ‘author relationship’, recognising that each word has emotional weight and impact, giving each other time and attention, and sharing our ups and downs. It’s good to have someone there to talk to; it counters author isolation and makes it easier to take risks and stay creative. So Sue and I write for writing’s sake, read the classics and try to retain our integrity in a book world where authors are often dropped or pressured into major revisions in favour of so-called ‘market forces’.

Honesty is also a vital part of a relationship. So when Sue gave a forthright opinion of my latest novel ‘Violet’ it was a gift. And because ‘Violet’ touches on experiences we’ve shared (‘touches’ because Beth and James in the book develop their own story) what she wrote had real impact…

Sue: How can I review a novel by my husband, when I edited it, contributed to it with a couple of stories and a poem, and in a sense, inspired it?!! Not that I’m Beth. She has a serenity I lack along with a free-spirited openness towards the wild. Her history isn’t mine, and James isn’t Leslie either, but VIOLET began as a way of exploring our late love story by adapting from life. It took off, of course, as great stories do, in directions neither of us expected, but in it you will find the love of the natural world, of the mystery we might call God, and of imagination and story, that we share together as a couple and as authors.

Leslie and I are different personalities and different writers. He loves Joyce; I can’t quite get through Ulysses. Otherwise we are mostly, in a literary sense, in synch. But I have more reading stamina these days, and if the writing is good enough, I manage very little emotional distance. In fact, the less distance I manage, the more I value the writing, so I’m never happier than when, as an expression of the most powerful kind of engagement, a novel makes me cry – as VIOLET did, pretty much continuously from around halfway, but at times before that too. Not because I saw myself in it, but because I believed in James and Beth implicitly, as ‘other’ as they are. Leslie ensures that we know and understand them from within, soul-deep where even they can’t find each other.

I know Leslie cares even more about the language through which he creates his characters and their worlds than he does about these people on the page. His delight in words and styles is perhaps more evident than ever in this novel, which some would call experimental or daring. It’s a tribute to literature and creativity as well as love. I could call VIOLET a slow-burner; if it begins as a candle flame with an open door, it flickers to a blaze. And ends with what? Perhaps a sparkler: patterns playing in the dark. Does Leslie offer us real life in all its stops and starts, vacuums and repetitions? Of course not. But he does offer the kind of truth, for all his art and design, that’s bigger and stronger than any of us. Hence my tears. If PURPLE and BLUE are fascinating, troubled, adventurous and often exquisite, VIOLET is warmer, and much more tender in its mature humanity. It’s full of loss but like Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending, holds the kind of hope we long to reach. ‘Beautiful’ is such an emotive and overused word, but this novel does it justice.

Leslie: As I read Sue’s words I remember how she cried. She’d been busy editing my work all day, focusing hard, so I knew her tears were part of a critical response. I felt guilty about ‘putting one on her’ and was unsure what to say, but mostly I was surprised that my words could move anyone that much. At the same time, knowing that Sue reads and reviews fiction of the highest quality, it was a boost. It told me that ‘Violet’ had more power than I’d realised….

Sue: For those who wonder how much of the events in the novel actually took place, well, we did meet in an Indian restaurant (near Leicester Square) and I was early. There was no dance, but we did kiss at the station that night. We wrote letters and sent texts of the old kind. Like the lovers in the story, the other characters are fictional, but the feelings and dynamics will, I’m sure, seem authentic. There’s no alopecia and no cross-dressing. It’s for everyone.

Leslie: Looking back, it seems to me that the issue raised by this dialogue is: ‘can an author (or author’s supporter) review his/her own book’? I’d say yes, because authors revise their own work all the time, and because they usually have a sense of their best work – in my case, thanks to Sue, I rate ‘Violet’ as my best. But any author’s review takes its place alongside the others: it’s one point of view, certainly worth listening to, but less than the full story. What do you think, Sue?

Sue: I think authors who care about writing as an art form strive to improve, to learn from the greatest, and to evaluate critically what they write themselves. That’s the kind of author and reader I try to be. So yes, I think I know what needs to change because it doesn’t measure up. I know when my writing feels as good as I can make it. Sometimes I look back on a title published years ago and feel confident that I could deliver something better now. But a review, for public consumption – without prejudice? Not without risk of appearing boastful or deterring readers with excessive self-criticism. It was different with VIOLET because that’s yours; I only helped, and would have written a different book because I’m a different human. I offered my review because I wanted people to know that, aside from my love for you, I believe it – rationally, analytically, with as much detachment as I could find but emotionally too – to be both fine and powerful. Hence the unbridled weeping. I’ve read novels about love, death, loss and grief that have left me unmoved because the writing simply hasn’t been good enough. Yours is.

You can buy signed copies of ‘Violet’ here if you live in the UK. If you live outside the UK and have a PayPal account, message Leslie here and a signed copy will be yours!

Grief, memory, Dad and flashback – or the happiness problem

Between about five and half past this morning, I lay in bed crying for my dad, and picturing him in scenes that remain vivid. He died in 03. Some who live on without a parent mourn the love or understanding they didn’t share. I’m lucky enough to carry that love and understanding  with me, along with the knowledge that they – or he – shaped me. He’s with me, not as a ghost (much as I enjoyed Anne Tyler’s The Beginner’s Goodbye) but as part of who I became, and am still becoming. As a writer I like to explore identity and what accounts for it, so in my adult fiction in particular, I use flashback. But in novels a character’s memories have clarity that outside the page we can’t muster – except when the images we rerun are sharpened by grief, loss, pain and fear. Or is that just me?!

This morning I recovered the dramatic sequences: not just my father slowly dying in hospital but the bright blue, bitter day of his natural burial as I took again the same steps towards the grave. I heard my daughter read the end of his last poem beside me; I echoed the words I told him when he was unconscious; I was back in the school office where I took the call recommending that I go at once to his bed in the John Radcliffe. I have lived sixty-one years but these memories are acute – like two other deaths, both too soon and both hard to witness in dear friends. They feel complete and resist the fictionalisation that comes naturally when we tell our daily stories. This is different. This is action replay, and it happens inside. Continue reading

Author in school: what’s not to love?

Since I’ve taken ten school bookings in the last week – some for this term, some for next and one for World Book Day 2019 – it seems a good time to reflect on what I love about being an author in school.

The students. I won’t call them children because although more than half my bookings are primary, I also run workshops for teenagers. I love it when they’re excited before I even speak and I hear my name in stage whispers around the corridors as they arrive. I love it even more when they become enthused in my sessions, especially when I can see it before they verbalise it. There’s nothing more heartening than that awareness of a high voltage, big-smiled, lit-up face, and if there are more than a few of those in a room, it’s bliss. There’s no age limit on that kind of illumination but each face counts double over twelve!


I love some of the answers they give, and their insights into my books. I remember an assembly when a five-year-old asked, “How do you get the stories so shiny?” and a Y8 boy who told me in a letter, “You made me a better person.” That sums up the sheer range and variety of my school visits. I go to tiny village schools and big urban primaries, poky private schools and others that are gracious mansions in pristine, landscaped acres, inner city comprehensives and girls’ grammar schools in country towns. Although I’m always focusing on character and language, I plan afresh each time and try to find new angles and examples.  Continue reading

2017: reading, writing, learning and awe

As 2017 ends there will be a lot of this sort of thing around. Let me join the club with the ‘best’ books I’ve read this year, ranked:
1. Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher
2. A Secret Sisterhood by Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa
3. Is There Anything You Want? By Margaret Forster
4. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
5. The Tin Can Tree by Anne Tyler
6. Solar by Ian McEwan
I would like to include Heaven’s Rage by Leslie Tate in that list, because it’s brave, often gorgeous, deeply reflective and strikingly original in its mix of writing styles. It’s also impossible to categorize. However, as Leslie is my husband I don’t suppose I can!

The list reflects my habits. I do read more books by women than men, and these days my diet is mostly contemporary. I know when I see the above names on a cover that I am investing in quality. There’s an odd one out at number two, because A Secret Sisterhood is not a novel but a hugely absorbing exploration of female literary friendships and as such the product of revealing research, but the writing is novelistic and borrows some of the elegance of its subjects. I relished it. The other title that could be seen as the outsider here is Solar. It’s different from the rest in many ways – in its satirical and sometimes slapstick humour, the science it packs in and the author’s emotional detachment in spite of his evident opinions. It’s the most serious of cartoons and the verve of the writing left me breathless at times. Plot-wise it’s inventive too, with plenty of surprises. I was impressed, but it made me wonder whether McEwan has any faith in humanity. And it’s humanity that for me, the novel lacks.

Continue reading

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:


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.