For Life: a novella in progress

Two: Manda

Hearing that Libby was there with James, Manda asked after her.

   “Sun-worshipping in the garden,” he said. “Don’t quiz me about boyfriends. Subject closed, total shutdown.”

   Much like climate change, thought Manda. “Still drinking too much?”

   “Oh, you know, she’s young. They do.”

   Manda didn’t think Rob used alcohol to deaden reality, even though his grasp of that had been more detailed and harder to stomach. “I hope she’s all right but it’s difficult to tell. When I ask she always says, Yeah, fine as if she’s just run up an escalator.”

   James said she had a good job and a social life he called “prodigious”. Manda knew her sigh must be audible down the phone. Was he jealous?

   “Anyway, James, I rang because I want to do something in memory of Rob. For his twenty-fifth birthday.” She waited. “James, are you there?”

   “I’m here.” But she heard the doubt in his voice.

   “I thought of trees, planting twenty-five of them, to capture carbon. I thought of spending twenty-five days protesting somewhere…”

   “Don’t get arrested, Manda.”

   “I don’t know why not! But what I want to do is make a film. Use photos of him, and things he wrote – you know, in tweets and posts – and give him a voice again. Share the hell out of it on social media.”

   “I see.”

   She didn’t suppose he saw at all but she let that go. “I wondered whether you wanted to be in it at all, as narrator.” She waited, knowing he’d pause before he told her. “I couldn’t just do it and not include you.”

   “You go ahead, Manda. It’s your kind of thing.”

   He was using his ever-so-kind, patient voice. She knew what that meant, but why? People were hard to understand, and that included the man who’d shared a quarter of a century with her. This was what Rob would have wanted, to keep campaigning. Shining a light, she liked to call it, and God knew there was so much darkness. She didn’t know whether her boy was lost in it now or free of it forever.

   “Will you ask Libby? Or put her on so I can explain?”

   “I think we both know…”

   “Yes.” And denial was a kind of darkness too. “Give her my love and tell her I’ll call her later. I keep getting her answerphone.”

   “She’ll be all right, Manda. Libby’s stronger than you think.”

   Manda said she hoped so. Libby had always been a daddy’s girl.

   “Good luck with the film.”

   “No luck needed. Thanks,” she said, and almost mentioned her technical adviser – who was due soon – but decided there was no need to stir anything up. There didn’t seem much more to say, but she asked after his sciatica, which he said was giving him respite. For a long moment there was a silence that felt awkward, in spite of the many they’d shared in their marriage.

   “Are you sleeping, Manda?”

   “Not so you’d notice.” She winced at that, since that was something he was no longer in a position to do.

   “You should. You run too fast. Get some pills or Scotch or something.”

   She made a noise that wasn’t quite a laugh. “You should set up as a life coach.” Looking at the time, she hoped Nick wouldn’t let her down. Ending the call with a motherly, “Bye, James. Take care,” Manda thought about the roses in her old garden and tried to remember their different scents. For a moment she feared James would be abandoning them to the heat, although with talk of a water shortage, people must come first – people, who didn’t realise how many shortages there would be, before too long, if governments didn’t understand words like urgent and radical and systemic when applied to change. 

Now that Nick Gorski ran his own business, he might have less time for activism, but he wouldn’t have forgotten. Besides, the film would remind him. The two of them had been like brothers after all. Close enough to share a car.

   “But he cycles everywhere!” she’d yelled at him: a protest, an accusation, the skin on her face tight with tears.

   “He wanted to pick up something from Thornbury – a present for your silver wedding. From an artist guy with a workshop. Stained glass?” Poor Nick, usually so affable, so pretty. He hadn’t slept and his eyes were burning. Staring at him, she understood – remembering the last weekend with Rob in Bristol once finals were over, and a café where she’d overstated her love fora clock framed in a riot of coloured glass. Sometimes the stupid words waited below the surface like little land mines.

   A month later, as their silver wedding approached, James laid the Eurostar tickets on the kitchen table. “We can still go,” he told her. “Rob would want us to.”

   Manda stiffened and shook her head. “He wouldn’t. He knew me. He wouldn’t be that cruel.”

   Now Manda sliced the fruit loaf she’d baked specially. She’d made it when Rob brought his new mate home with him for the first time, term was a month old and they were already so much in synch it made her smile.  

   The doorbell rang and she realised what she felt was excitement.

Hours later, the air still too warm for pyjamas or even a sheet, Manda couldn’t sleep. Snatches from the conversation with Libby looped around her head: key quotes like, “You do know about Miss Havisham, right? Because honestly, Mum, this isn’t – like – healthy,” and “He’d be so embarrassed,” and, “You always do what you want whatever I say and however I feel.”

   Manda had refrained from pointing out that flying – to Malaysia because she deserved a break and Barcelona for a colleague’s hen night – wasn’t healthy either. Or that doing what she wanted regardless of anything climate scientists said and felt was Libby’s own M.O. She sometimes wondered why she held back for fear of fracturing what was already brittle between them. Manda supposed the film would be a way of waving a banner in her face – assuming Libby watched it. It would say, You break my heart too. There’s more than one way to grieve for a child.

   Maybe it would make a difference if Libby saw her weeping, or heard the soundtrack of that loss in darkness. But perhaps it would only confirm her status as the emotional obsessive of the family. Libby lived without the truth because the truth was a bullet that blew stuff away. And in the face of truth, stuff was such a comfort.

   “Oh, I lie low these days,” Nick had said, when she asked him about that truth and his relationship with it. So she’d told him she was glad to help him surface. She liked to think the film he’d edited would make a difference to him too. It was a shame he was so short of time, and not really hungry. Things changed, but she hadn’t expected him to be so… business-like. It turned her into the dense pupil who tried her own patience with the tricky bits. “Manda, do you mind if I finish this now?” His kindness felt like the cool, polite kind and that was disappointing after so long, but the result…

   “Happy?” he asked, and she assured him it was everything she’d imagined. He batted away her gratitude and when she hugged him at the door she had a sense of receiving less than she gave. It was only as he’d headed off to the station with the train ticket she’d bought at quite a price that she thought he might be crying after all.

   Eleven fifty-four. She rose out of bed to open the window wider, and kicked back the sheet as she lay down again. Still the images she’d chosen kept breaking in. Two days she’d given up to family albums. But Robert Liam Craig’s Facebook wall, still open, offered reminders of his understated outrage and equally low-key hope. She was just his curator, compiling and presenting. No need to speak when he, in his own quiet, hesitant way, had the eloquence of conviction. When he was so alive.

   There were other scenes that she imagined as much as remembered, but they were all the kind of time that was untraceable, unrecorded, with no substance or shape, no order and little colour. Rob crying for the turkeys at Christmas. Rob who tried to prove he could dance like a snowman or a road drill. Rob on his bike without a helmet, his hair like a plume of smoke around him.  Rob who hugged her when his granny had the first stroke.

   “I’ll go,” said James, when someone had to identify a body that was quite severely damaged.

   “I want to see him.”

   “You don’t, Manda. Stay here.”

   So she couldn’t say goodbye. It occurred to her that the film said it now.

   “No point in getting angry,” Rob told her, that last weekend in Bristol, when she was helping him with the shopping and some woman ahead of them loaded hers in plastic bags. And there she was thinking the rage she felt was secret and controlled. “Some people don’t change until legislation forces them, or the Sun tells them to.” “When hell freezes over, then,” she said, and he told her the day would come, sooner than she thought, when the young would rise up.

   They’d have to do it without him, but in the film he’d inspire them all the same, in the film. She might as well post it now. The minute hand was past midnight so his birthday had begun. What was there to wait for?

Chapter Three will be posted on Friday 25th January at 5:30 pm UK time.

For Life: a novella in progress

One: August 2018, Libby

Libby just wanted to be normal. When she was still at school that meant embracing the make-up and fashion her mother rejected, and choosing heels her mother called silly. It meant clubs and pre-loading, magazines to flick through, diets, and acquiring all the things her mother didn’t want or need.    

   “I’m sick of hearing about climate change,” she told Manda at fourteen. “I don’t know why people like me have to have our faces rubbed in the shit because it’s not our fault. We only inherited this mess.”

   With her friends, and sometimes her father, she turned her mother into a running joke, one her big, easy brother never laughed at. Manda was the hippie, the tree-hugger and the Earth Warrior on wheels (two). At university Libby told her best friend Bee that her mother made her sick because even though she never went to any kind of church she was so full-time holy – and determined to lay guilt all over her, like concrete. So Libby tried to feel angry instead.

What did her mother expect? The world was in trouble whether or not she did a road trip across the States with Bee as soon as she passed her test. And sin of sins, flew there first. As a student, she thought of Manda every time she loaded her shopping into plastic bags in spite of the recycled sari and jute alternatives she’d given her. Even once she started work, her mother haunted her when she threw another takeaway coffee cup into a bin and pictured the thoughtful bamboo keep cup Manda had provided, sitting unused in her kitchen cupboard.

People always remarked on the likeness between the two of them. This grieved Libby given the time she spent on her own hair – cuts, straightening and focused conditioning regimes – while Manda just let hers grow until it weighed more than she did. It was the dark grey of a practical, flecked carpet, and looked almost as tough. Rob’s had been the same and sometimes Libby thought it was part of their connection, symbolised when two heads of hair became one in an embrace. But Libby was taller than her mother, even in flats, and curvier too. Her style was understated, pastel and discreetly coordinated; Manda’s was random, and crumpled. She informed Libby that she’d started to wear everything at least three or four times if possible, to reduce washing, so must be forgiven if she smelled a little riper than she used to.

Libby quoted that development to her dad one Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2018. He used to roll his grey eyes at what he called Manda’s fanaticism or excesses. But he had been quieter since the split over what he called a stupid fling at a rock choir he’d joined on Tuesday nights, and Manda’s hard-line response. Libby felt sorry for him, mostly – when he wasn’t being a sexist male less than fully aware of his white privilege.

That afternoon was Mediterranean again but Libby chose to sit in his small, untamed garden to top up her tan. Her father kept manoeuvring himself into the shade, which required regular shifting.

“So how is your love life, poppet?” he asked, once she’d closed her eyes under her sunglasses.

Could anyone be a poppet at twenty-two? Libby sighed, and drained her glass of Pimm’s. She knew he’d run out and bought the bottle after her call; he was sweet like that, and never preached – even in her smoking days.

“I’m tired of relationships,” she said. “Were you tired of Mum? Because she really is tiring. Which is not to excuse your behaviour.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to.”

“But you hoped Mum would.”

“I did, yes. I thought honesty… well, I thought she deserved that. And practises it, after all.”

“To doctorate level and beyond,” Libby muttered. “I would have kept quiet. Not that I would cheat.” There had been a boyfriend who was with his childhood sweetheart but that didn’t count, or last.

“Your mother is principled…”

“No kidding.”

“And it’s all about love. I just didn’t measure up.”

“Who could?”

Libby was thinking about her mother’s love – for all species, which made her vegan. For the earth, which made her sell the car and start pedalling – and protesting. For her brother Rob, who never really died but was there in her mother’s world and conversation. For humanity, apparently. So much love to withstand; it was hard to return.

“I’ve been wondering whether I… looked elsewhere… because of the grieving. Not that I’d shaken off my own grief – far from it – but I couldn’t live it like your mother. I needed some kind of distraction or light relief.”

Libby sat up straight and reached for the sunblock after all. “Dad, do we have to debate which of you was more to blame? I’m not sure any jury would acquit you.”

James removed his sunglasses and gave her a look that worried as it fixed her. “It’s the grief I’m talking about, sweetheart. And I think that as a family we got it wrong.” 

Libby felt everything tighten inside. This was why she wasn’t visiting Manda today, so she wouldn’t announce, “Rob’s birthday tomorrow,” as if she was pretty sure Libby had forgotten to send a card. She’d thought she and her dad would duck it together, as rational beings who knew dates changed nothing.   

“Manda needed to express hers and I shut it down,” he told her, his voice thinner, higher. Might it crack? “Because it shut me down. And I think yours is locked away too, with no words to name it and the lid bolted tight.”

“It didn’t go so well when Pandora opened the box,” mumbled Libby, but he didn’t hear and she declined to repeat it.

His hearing was no sharper than his eyesight and he was only fifty-five. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him look old before – and it shocked her that every day he’d be older again. She didn’t know how anyone bore being seventy, eighty. And she supposed it was time she visited Grandma in the home where she had to wear nappies, even though, frankly, dying would be the lesser of the two evils.

“Evasion’s never healthy, Libby. Nothing big and painful goes away. When Rob died I had no idea what to do.”

“No one does.” She still didn’t, after three years.

She’d been at university when he called. “It’s about your brother,” he’d said, his voice half worn away but also full of something she hadn’t heard before. Rob, killed in a car that wasn’t even his, and cut out of its old metal as it lay upside down. “Why does he have to be so downright irresponsible!” Manda had wailed, as if he was still alive and she’d give him a talking-to when he came home. Libby didn’t say so but that was what she liked best in him: that spontaneous, why-not side of him that breathed life into the easy, mostly-absent side. Five years younger, she didn’t really know who he was inside the loose walk and the “Sure, whatever” and the “Mm, maybe.”

   Now her father was looking ahead as if something beyond the hedge compelled him.

“Rob never liked me,” Libby said, and as she heard the words, believed them with conviction.

“That’s ridiculous, poppet,” her father told her. “He doted on you when you were little. He was so patient and caring…”

“Yeah, sure.”

Libby had seen the photos to prove it – Rob pushing her in a wooden truck, or holding her hand on a cold British beach – but it didn’t feel true. She must have been annoying; toddlers were. She didn’t want children of her own because she wouldn’t be patient or caring enough. That was just the truth and nothing to do with her mother’s grief for all the unborn children who would suffer climate chaos and were better off without living.

A blue tit flew into the box Manda had nailed to the tree long before she left. Libby poured herself more Pimm’s.

“Don’t say Rob didn’t like you, poppet. He’s not here to contradict.”

“Really?!” Libby looked around theatrically. “You sure?” She sipped her drink. Really he was everywhere Manda went, like a fellow-pedaller on a tandem. He was the hidden meaning in her words and the pauses between them.


Libby apologised to her father and said she was in a funny mood. He smiled and she wished she forgave so easily.

“Rob always defended you…”

“When I was bad?”

“When you were wilful.”

Libby supposed that was what she was being now. Without explaining, she rose to go inside to the bathroom where she’d discovered the first menstrual blood on her knickers, and six years later shared a risky post-coital shower with a boyfriend while her parents were out. The décor hadn’t changed. The loo roll holder still rattled to the floor unless she outwitted it – as she did this time, remembering the way Rob never bothered to slot it back into place, which made her swear from behind closed doors. Once she threw the whole roll and holder into his bedroom to make a point – which backfired when it was still there twenty-four hours later, and had to be shoved back into place while he slept in spite of her shouting.

Libby had always felt small beside him and now she would never be his equal. “One of the last things he did was campaign for the university to divest,” Manda had said at the funeral, adding, “from fossil fuels” for the benefit of the climate illiterate. Libby had recognised the patronising change of tone; she was used to it, being one of the apathetic mass who didn’t even try to keep up.

On the landing, Libby stopped at the door to his old bedroom. It was ajar, and as she stepped in she felt the temperature drop. In novels that meant a ghost but Rob would never go along with such things. “It’s just Mr Willis from the church,” he whispered, when she was afraid of Santa in the grotto James had thought would be fun.

Her brother’s room might have belonged in an old B and B, except that being minus a stainless steel tray with kettle, tea and coffee, it was even barer. No trace of Robert Liam Craig. But the curtains were the same ones he’d kept drawn half the day during uni holidays. The same ones they’d pushed aside after bedtime when they were small, to look out for James when he worked late. “I can’t sleep until Daddy’s home,” she would tell him, because of the creatures that filled her dreams. Rob tried to ward them off with robot dancing, which worked up to a point, but it was Daddy who made the difference. And now she had no idea why.

Sitting on Rob’s single bed, she thought of Gem, the girl he’d been seeing when he died, but never once mentioned. Gem who looked like a slightly rebellious Girl Guide but was really an older woman. “Oh, only a few weeks,” she’d said when Manda asked. So no one knew what it meant, what they meant to each other. Everyone cried but Gem seemed awkward through hers, like an interloper with no clearance. “They couldn’t be that serious or they’d have been together that night. Maybe he’d just ended it,” Libby reasoned, but part of her feared Gem had been closer to Rob, known him better in those few weeks than she had in a whole life. “Soulmates,” Manda had called them, when it came out that Gem was vegan and Rob had just made the same commitment.

Gem had vanished from all the platforms Libby used after the funeral and Libby hadn’t messaged her since. She stared at her phone screen, not sure why or how. The number was still there. She tapped in, Hi Gem. How are you doing? X

She waited but no reply came by return. Gem was probably tied up at some protest. Or married with a job and a baby and trying to think who Libby was. Maybe all she remembered about Rob was the shock. Libby realised his death had swallowed up his life and spat it out in a few messy, incomplete bits she called memories but the final scenes were so much bigger than the rest.

She hadn’t kept in touch with Gem because they had nothing in common except the dying, and – she supposed – because she was jealous. In case Rob loved skinny, straggly, earnest Gem more than her. Now she couldn’t delete what she’d sent. With luck Gem would think it confirmed what she thought of her – that she was crass, frivolous and unfeeling – and ignore it.

At the funeral, whenever Libby circulated with a tray of food vegans couldn’t eat, Gem had been with Rob’s longer-standing uni friends like Nick Gorski, but apart too, pale and silent in charity shop black. At the beginning and end, when they hugged, she felt model-thin, all bone and scentless. Maybe she was broken now, by grief for the doomed world and Rob too.

   Relieved by the absence of a reply, Libby pocketed her phone and smoothed Rob’s bed before she left it. She looked back into the room, trying to picture it plus teddies, trains or film posters, but the cool emptiness defeated her. A ray of sunlight illuminated the dust on the chest of drawers. She imagined Rob’s soul like a snake skin, tucked between his old underwear and socks, and drifting out thin as a cobweb. But if it hung around anywhere, perhaps it was at a fracking site, or in Gemma’s bed.

Her father opened his eyes as she returned to her garden chair. “I’m thinking of getting some bereavement counselling, Lib.”

“Good for you.” She pulled her sunglasses down from her forehead. “I mean, that will be good for you. It’s not what I want.”

“I know, poppet, but it might be what you need.”

Libby nearly said what she wanted was another drink but she knew her mother worried him about that, as if drinking away two nights at the end of the week wasn’t absolutely normal, and just an alternative response to the state of the world. 

“What do you think a soul looks like?” she asked James. “Don’t say a tea light.”

“Maybe it depends whose it is.”

It always depended with James, who practically lived on the fence as far as Libby could see. And from that vantage point he seemed to think Manda’s head was in a dream world, a Utopia, when Libby thought it was way too dark and scary to venture anywhere near.

“Tell me what Rob was like,” she challenged him.

“Libby, why don’t you tell me?”

“I’m asking, Dad. It’s not a test.”

Her father’s head tilted up as if he were listening for something he couldn’t quite identify. Libby waited, remembering how Manda used to complain if she used her phone during what she called conversations but feeling tempted to scroll through the silence he’d let in.

“He was a good person, I think. Kind. Well meaning. He thought the best of people but not so highly of himself. A bit chaotic and vague at times. Funny, in a wry, deadpan sort of way.”

Libby repeated key words in her head. “Thank you,” she said. “Wish I’d known him.” She saw her father look troubled, about to protest. “I’m not dissing him, Dad. I just have this yawning gap I want to fill, you know? Everything’s fuzzy. And I want to fill him in, seeing as he towers over the rest of us in his… deadness.”

“I understand.” But she could tell from his voice and the anxiety in his eyes that he didn’t. Perhaps she was a mystery too, but she didn’t dare ask for the same kind of character study.

“Death and birthdays don’t mix,” she told him instead. “And I have too much alcohol in my bloodstream.” She put down her glass, and watched next-door’s cat jump the fence and eye them defiantly.

That was when Gem’s message sounded on her phone. Libby, what a surprise. I’m heading north tomorrow but maybe we can arrange something when I get back. No kisses.

Libby didn’t want to arrange anything now. It would be painful. “Oh shit,” she muttered.

“Anything I can help with?” asked James.

“Thanks but I’ll have to do my own clearing up.”

“You were always good at that. You thought the brush and dustpan in the kitchen was a great toy. And you hated sand or dirt in your nails. Even when you were a teenager your CDs were stacked straight in alphabetical order.” He smiled. “I’ve never known anyone smell as good as you.”

“Fussy to the point of OCD but fragrant,” she summed up. “I’ll take that over good and kind any day.”

“I didn’t mean… Come on, Lib.”

“Yeah, prickly too. No wonder the love life flat-lined.”

She heard the landline ringing from the kitchen long before he did.

“That’ll be your mother.”

He hurried, almost eager. Libby decided not to reply to Gem, who would probably want to eat vegan sludge in a place with salvaged scrap for décor. Another impulse led her to check Gemma Lovelock’s profile picture, which must exist somewhere even though she’d be the kind to scorn Facebook. Finally she found her, with a straggly-haired child in her arms.

Not Rob’s?! Libby reasoned with the part of her that had absorbed the shock and gone into freeze-frame. Not old enough, surely. But conceived not long after the accident either, so Gem had moved on fast.

Then again, the photo could be an old favourite rather than the latest. She looked back at the child’s face. The hair was wild enough.

She would never contact Gem again.

The next chapter will be available from 5:30 pm on Friday 18th January.

Writing rules/no rules

I thought I’d raise the questions I’m asked whenever I address adults or visit schools. I don’t mean, “Are you rich?” or “How old are you?” or even “Where do your ideas come from?” but the questions people ask when they write themselves, or are thoughtful readers curious about the process and the choices authors make. Often on Twitter or Facebook I see writers asking for advice – and receiving more of it than they might have bargained for. Just as online reviews are unlikely to be unanimous in praise or criticism, the answers that pile up never seem to come close to consensus. So I am under no illusions that my own theories and convictions will be received with nods all around. Writing is, after all, a deeply personal kind of creativity, and many of us who work at it day after day are striving to find something individual: a voice that is ours alone.

When I’m asked about the connection between life and fiction – “Is it autobiographical?” or “Is that character based on someone you know?” – I make a distinction. The observable fact that like Daisy in THE WATERHOUSE GIRL, Rowan in CRAZY DAISE and Hobo in AVATARS OF THE INTELLIGENCE, I have alopecia universalis (no hair at all, anywhere), doesn’t make these novels autobiographies. They are, however, informed by my own experience, thoughts and feelings about living with the condition. Few of my characters are knowingly inspired by someone real but they develop, like the stories themselves, as the writing takes shape. The most obvious example is Paul Golding in TRACES, who is in some ways like the father I adored, but lives a different life, and presents to me a different face and voice, yet represents for me my dad’s ideals. Borrowing named characters from life works better – and is less likely to provoke law suits – when a story is set in the past, like In the Blink of an Eye by Ali Bacon. Whether it’s faction or simply a very well-informed and increasingly engrossing historical novel is a moot point. Certainly the author takes none of the liberties I took with a certain English king in HUE AND CRY, even while attempting painstaking accuracy with my context. The distant past is fair game when it comes to resuscitating and recreating the famous on the pages of a novel. I would add, however, that setting fiction in a past we remember makes for a much more challenging intersection with reality. I’ve just read an enormously exciting sci-fi novel that left me questioning the author’s decision to mess with the familiar recent past in the way that Doctor Who forbids. Anything can happen behind closed doors – a shared secret. But make it ‘news’ within the story and readers may be unable to suspend disbelief faced with a character they ‘know’ and an ending that makes them object, “But that didn’t happen!” Well, dear reader, this is fiction. But the power of stories over us depends in part on a different, deeper kind of truth, which is emotional or psychological. We care because we recognise in a construct we know to be imagined something we call humanity. It’s a delicate balance to maintain when we ask readers to connect with our non-truth, invest in it and yes, love it. Undermining their belief in our fiction – breaking the spell we’ve woven to hold them in our power – can not only disconnect but disturb.

What about pov (point of view)? Would I advise first or third person? I know as an ex-teacher that young children find it hard to sustain a narrative voice; the third person often shifts into first. Inexperienced writers often debate the merits of one point of view over another, and reader responses can be emphatic. Some simply don’t like first person fiction, which tends, they say, to tell rather than show, or is by definition narrow, or stylistically banal in an attempt to emulate conversation – and I’ve only used it a few times in my 32 titles, because I acknowledge those risks. Others, however, prefer it for its freshness, focus and drive, and the instant, detailed access it offers to the narrator. I chose it for these strengths in my two alopecia novels, and in JUST FOR ONE DAY – giving my two narrators different but intersecting stories to tell in contrasting voices. In my third short story collection, due out in 2019, my own favourite is told in a voice I revelled in finding, because like her life experience it’s some way from mine, and because the style itself illuminates the character, making the dreaded ‘telling’ unnecessary in a way that felt magical as I wrote.

So do I agree with ‘show don’t tell’? When writing for adults, generally yes. Yet, in first or third, when writing for young children I do sometimes make explicit. It’s not verboten. I’ve also found that in a short story for adults, a little telling at the start can, on rare occasions, cover the ground with necessary efficiency before the narrative opens out into less concrete territory. Personally, I like to mix it, to try different challenges. And a third person narrative can follow one or two characters more closely than the rest, presenting their perspective and feelings on others known less intimately. It can be God-like, all-seeing and all-knowing. Or it can allow the writer to keep a storyteller’s distance in recognition of the storyteller’s art and artifice. It can jump across time and place, but its sphere might be small. So many options! The truth is that my so-called decisions are often instinctive rather than reasoned – guided by a sense of best fit for my character and my story.

Where do I stand on the rather contentious matter of flashback? I’m a big fan. Read The English Patient! Although it’s not compulsory in every case, and a character’s memories can be integrated into the present just as for all of us they thread through life, scenes that take the reader back before the action started can enrich and add layers to a story. I like to use it to substantiate character by enhancing knowledge and understanding in the same way that in life someone’s history can explain their present. I relish it, and enjoy its variations of setting and register, but am mindful that it must expand the story, not constitute – as in radio’s Just a Minute – deviation. Some say that readers won’t wear it because it holds up the story, but that’s to assume that all novels are action-driven. While in many of my adventures for children or teens, exciting plots develop and build, my writing is always founded on – and directed by – my characters. So the decisions I make, whether instinctive or conscious, always serve them and their inner (and outer) story.

Sue’s first adult novel in print is about time and ignores the idea that readers don’t like flashback, just as an artist friend was told customers don’t like purple!

What about open endings? Of course, stories always conclude in a way that’s artificial, since we know as readers that these characters’ lives continue without us. The endings we crave may depend on our own personal experience and what we want or need from a story. An author I know was asked by her publisher to change her ending, to make it less happy, romantic or predictable – in fact to thwart readers’ hopes for a character who deserves the best outcome. Hollywood would change it back. Some of us like our fiction to end well in a way that reality often doesn’t; others only engage with novels that feel life-like in their lack of resolution or joy. Some of us require all ends to be tied up and no question left hanging. Other readers – and I’m one of them – hate that kind of wrapping up and prefer ambivalence. But in writing that statement I realise that, as always, it depends. Who was right about my friend’s ending? I suspect that it would have been a very fine novel either way – because while endings count, everything that leads up to them matters more.

Is writing for children different from writing for adults? Yes and no. As a children’s author, I generally right wrongs and leave my young characters stronger and wiser, more at peace with who they are – even if, like Lamb in VOICE OF THE ASPEN, their future is endangered when the story ends because history must not be re-written. When writing for adults I often choose an open ending as the only honest option, and yes, I like to imagine a book group debating what happens beyond the story along with what happened within it, and why. Children like a coherent plot and expect one that moves forward at a pace, but some adults require neither and at times I find experimenting without them rather thrilling. I enjoy the impact of imagery especially when I’m having fun writing for young children (THE LINCOLN IMP, ONGALONGING, HEADCASES) and remembering how similes can make them laugh. In the YA thriller HUE AND CRY the spider metaphor for my psychotic baddie works in a very different way, while in my adult writing the images may be sparser – and hard to justify unless they’re fresh. Whatever the audience, an eccentric character, or outsider, can be realised through an individual way of presenting the world, with surprisingly off-centre imagery that feels like theirs alone – as in THE JUDAS DEER.

So much depends, it seems, that perhaps there can be few rules. Do I, then, have any? Oh yes, I do. Read well. Write as well as you can, in the hope that readers will reread a sentence or paragraph because it feels so elegant, powerful, insightful or original. Honour and listen to your characters, because you understand them even if you don’t always like them; never manipulate them or your readers. Care passionately about them and what happens to them, or your readers may not. But at the same time, stay in control of this fiction you are constructing, mindful of pace, critically eliminating repetition, cliché and redundancies, and don’t assume that the reader will know what lives only in your head. On the other hand, don’t underestimate those powers of inference and deduction in which children are assessed at an early age; there’s something very satisfying about reading between the lines. In my case, I know I mustn’t forget, in my fascination with what my characters think and feel as well as do, where they are. And while little fiction would be written if we only began a story with a ‘unique selling point’ as they say in the book trade – I believe writers should ask themselves why this story should be told. For me, fame and fortune, or the existence of a market for the story, are poor reasons. The story should matter. And we’re back to the truth fiction can illuminate, those insights into the human condition, the development of empathy. Keats said truth is beauty, so tell it. “Beautifully written” is for me without question the most exhilarating phrase a review can deliver. My rule – or goal – is to write as beautifully as possible, with an awareness that beauty can be found not just in lyricism and nineteenth century elegance but in the lean and raw.

Just a few rules then! I’m conscious that nonetheless they add up to an order tall enough to deter the greatest genius from writing a single sentence. But if we don’t take writing seriously, if we let it slide into the morass that is celebrity culture, commerce, fashion and consumerism, then we’re not only betraying every genius whose novels will always matter, but selling stories short when we know they can change us. We’re disrespecting the language that shapes our lives and being. So that’s the big rule, the one that can’t be broken: DON’T.

Delivering a workshop at MKLitFest

2018: new beginnings

On holiday with my Leslie in Devon

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

With Leslie at one showing of Heaven’s Rage

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

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

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

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

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

At PNR in August, before Cuadrilla began fracking

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

Change, love and Christmas

My adult novel FLASHBACK AND PURPLE ends at Christmas and my young eco-activist Ethan makes up new lyrics for the ubiquitous Slade hit:
Are you wasting earth’s resources having fun?/Are you jetting off for Christmas in the sun? /There’s a Santa pulled by dolphins To an island doomed to die/ So the wealth can eat turkey, booze and cry /So here it is, Marry Christmas, shame the party’s got to end/ There’ll be no future while we frack, grab and prete-e-end.

Because I’m in the Green Party I responded to a request from the local paper and came up with ‘how to have a greener Christmas’. The list of tips is at the end of this blog. It’ll be our fourth festive season as vegans but Leslie and I will be sending cards, from Campaign Against the Arms Trade and our local homeless charity, Dacorum Emergency Night Shelter (and food bank) – because with a combined age of 131 we have encountered so many people in our lives at different times that we remember with gratitude for what they meant to us. Some are far away and not online, and I find that with age the past gathers emotional weight that counts even as we face a disturbing future. So my compromise is to avoid all plastic or glitter insets while keeping a tradition I consider less damaging than most of the Christmas ‘package’. This year I’ve been more exercised than ever by the contradictions of the season of ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all men’ – #StopArmingSaudi, for Yemen’s sake – and I’m certainly not alone. Continue reading

Alopecia: Ambassador in School

The excellent Amy Johnson at Alopecia UK asked me to blog about my five years as an Ambassador for the charity, and in particular about supporting young people with alopecia in schools. When my novel THE WATERHOUSE GIRL was published in 09, I knew of no other work of fiction built around a character with the condition. Writing this story, in which I drew on but adapted my own experience, changed my life. My hero Michael Morpurgo called it “beautifully written”, “insightful” and “poignant”, and encouraged by his words, I became a full-time author. I realised I wanted to be as brave as my character and made the personal decision to ditch my wig, partly so that I could make an impact when visiting schools as an author leading writing workshops – and educate students with hair about alopecia, difference, identity and respect. Children, teens and adults with alopecia contacted me to tell me that my book had helped them to feel understood, and less isolated. Stories are powerful and mine was making life just a little easier for readers who, with or without hair, felt different or lived with challenges. A Y8 boy with hair wrote, having read it, “You made me a better person.” That’s because stories develop empathy; they’re hugely important because through them we learn to see the world from another perspective, and understand what it is to live another kind of life. This makes us less likely to judge others, and helps us to understand them instead.

The first thing I did after being invited to take on the role of Ambassador was start a support group because there wasn’t one in Hertfordshire. I’ve also been asked to visit a few groups in other towns to share my story. The second thing was raise over £800 by dancing for four hours. I didn’t know at that point that in 2015 I’d recruit and captain a team on BBC2’s Eggheads, an alopecia team that won £29,000 for the charity in one of the best experiences of my life – an experience made possible by meeting so many fantastic people with alopecia, online and in person. Over the last five years I’ve represented the charity on radio and at fundraising events, and I do enjoy making a speech! I now have 32 titles in print/as an e-book, and in CRAZY DAISE (YA sequel to THE WATERHOUSEGIRL) and a sci-fi novel ‘from the world of Doctor Who’ called AVATARS OF THE INTELLIGENCE, I’ve written about alopecia again. There’s also a short story for adults with an alopecia twist in my collection RAVELLED – in which the bareheaded goddess is worshipped for her difference. But it’s my school visits to support students with hair loss that are genuinely special and rewarding.

I’ve lost count of how many such visits there have been, but the young people in question have ranged from 5 – 15, boys as well as girls. Sometimes I am contacted by AUK; sometimes I meet parents on the Facebook page and make the offer; sometimes I am approached by a teacher or psychotherapist. I used to go anywhere – Herts to Anglesey and back on the first occasion, to support the extraordinary Chloe, who was traumatised after a boy pulled off her bandanna – but at sixty-two I need to limit myself to Herts, Bucks, Beds, Essex, Northants and London. If the school is fairly local I’m happy to drop by for an assembly free of charge. As an author my income is very small, so if the school is interested in a day of writing workshops at £250, that’s ideal, and allows me to work with classes or groups of students, guiding them as they create their own characters with a difference. I aim to inspire in more ways than one! Most schools leap at this option which for them ticks two boxes at once, but if the budget won’t stretch to that, together with AUK I try to find a way forward. Of course it’s really important to communicate with the young person involved about how the visit runs. Continue reading

May, the Nanas and Jodie as Doctor: on being a woman


Photo by Mikaela Morgan Photography

I’ve been reflecting on being a woman. My husband Leslie thinks I’m at the far end of feminine – in spite of my bald head and black CAAT campaigner’s hoodie – and I agree. I’m happy with that. But I’m not a helpless sidekick and I’ve freed myself from fear of what the mirror shows. Like my female friends I can be all action with a purpose and real drive. But many of my characteristics, like shyness (yes, I just hide it better these days), empathic listening, a tendency to tears, anxious lack of confidence in certain situations and compliance or self-blame in order to avoid or end conflict, are still attributed more commonly to women, and fit these friends too. We say sorry a lot. We’re free with our kisses on the ends of messages. We lie awake at night if we’re afraid we may have annoyed or upset someone. There are many roles for which we feel ill-equipped and certain areas in which, rather than claiming like POTUS to know more than anyone about everything, we admit inadequacy. Are there men who’d claim the same traits? I’d like to think so. Because when I look at the Trump-Kavanaugh-Weinstein alpha male, I’m frightened.

These are men who believe that only power counts – and wield it over women, using and abusing, belittling and scorning. Full of angry self-belief and self-justification, they see sensitivity, compassion, respect and kindness as weakness, as ‘snowflake’, as ‘girlie’, as ridiculous. See the disturbing portrait of the American male in Boyhood. Consider the word ‘scoring’ as a rite-of-passage goal for teenage youths. Re-evaluate that housewives’ favourite Danny from Grease, and the lyrics in Summer Loving: Did she put up a fight? In the light of #MeToo and Dr Ford’s courageous testimony, this seems like dangerous family fun. Now, as we embrace diversity of all kinds, it’s time we scrapped gender stereotypes and looked instead at common humanity and how best to relate to each other across all divides. Because Trump doesn’t relate to anyone. He is pure ego, using others only to serve himself, and confident of his right to ‘grab pussy’ whenever he chooses. No wonder he’s unfazed by the many accusations against Kavanaugh. In his eyes, the new Supreme Court judge’s track record simply makes him a heavyweight, a red-blooded guy. For Trump, anyone who has a problem with this is a liar, a leftie, and guilty of a witch hunt – a word, incidentally, that in itself says a great deal about such men’s attitude to women who don’t conform to their expectations and threaten their own power with something they don’t understand. Continue reading

Once there was a baby…

As a quiz show watcher I joked yesterday that if a hundred people on my high street were asked, “What’s the name of Sue Hampton’s grandson?” the score would be far from pointless. Nathaniel Paul was born five days ago and I’ve had my first long snuggle as he slept. Of course sleeping is something his mum and dad are rarely allowed to do, not least because they don’t want to miss a minute of his faces, moves (prone, but the choreography is still pretty thrilling) or, for the short periods when they’re open, his deep blue eyes. As Grandma I’m asked what I remember about these early days with his daddy, and I wish there was more to offer than a general sense of blissful peace broken regularly with anxiety. It’s the biggest thing we experience, until death, and however commonplace it is too – 31 million babies were born into the world last year – the news of a birth stirs emotion in those around it, even on the further reaches of Facebook friendship which on such occasions works as fast as a pebble in a pool. I was conscious, posting my pictures, of the mum who lost a daughter at twenty, and the dad whose son, the same age as mine, was killed in a road accident the day after Nathaniel’s arrival. Of the friends who never had children and having endured the constant prattle and news bulletins some thirty years ago now have to put up with grandchildren on all sides. Of refugee babies born in camps, or war zones. Life is miraculous – an adjective that even atheists may find themselves using when their baby begins it – but as adults we know hard truths about sadness, disappointment and all kinds of hurt and difficulty in our personal lives as well as the horrors on our screens. Looking at Nathaniel I’m struck by the mystery he holds. Who will he be? How will he sound, walk, laugh? What will he love? The urge to spare him all possible pain is overwhelming, desperate. But we can only know one thing about a baby we love: we will love him till the day we die. Perhaps that’s what makes being a grandma so potent – the knowledge that that day might not be so far off. Yesterday, talking to him as he slept, I told him that if I ever got lost, I hoped he would remember me when I could play. But my mum will soon be ninety-one, and is genuinely marvellous. It’s hard to imagine the difference that will make when he’s in her arms but I know that she’ll always live in him, like my dad. His mum has stitched him a family tree on a hoop and I love her for that – and so much more. Those who went before are part of him.

During his mum’s pregnancy I wrote a number of short stories for a third collection, and discovered towards the end that while styles varied and stories took contrasting shapes, babies were dotted in various ways right through them. But I’m baby-conscious by nature and if my husband catches me smiling in a public place he generally looks for the baby or small child at the end of my gaze. Back in 2016 I wrote an experimental kind of story for WOKEN, called The Golden Baby. It’s a folk tale and its mood was inspired by Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (which I stopped reading when its plot lost me) with a style that was more densely poetic as I tried to reach for the kind of startling imagery that Geraldine McCaughrean pulls off with daring bravado, only for adults. But as I began it, I didn’t know where it would go – and while this is usually the case with a novel, in a short story the risk feels commensurately great. I knew, however, that it would be a story of greed, superstition and exploitation as well as healing acceptance – because the golden baby is found by a less than perfect child, neglected by the mother he failed. The story acknowledges darkness as well as the light the baby shines on snow, and one writer couldn’t deliver her promised review because she found the use of blood as a symbol too disturbing. As a mum who had three miscarriages I understand the power of blood and was sorry, but as I grow older I begin to feel that the shadows must be allowed in if we are to cherish brightness. One reviewer wrote, “This is a tale, vividly and beautifully told…” ending with, “The scene is set for magic and transformation.” Aren’t all births exactly that?

In RAVELLED, my first short story collection for adults, rebellious, sexy Marilyn falls in love at sixteen with her English teacher Mr Jones, and with literature. Near the end of the story she visits the teenager who left school to have a baby:
She got eight As, including both kinds of English, and a C. Only Sue improved on that. Her parents couldn’t have been more moved if she’d just survived a car crash, and when she called on Anne and the baby, she noticed her friend’s results slip stuck to the fridge with A for English ringed three times in red.
“It was Mr Jones,” she told Marilyn, feeding the baby from a bottle. “He made me care.”
Marilyn said she knew what she meant. “How are things?” she asked Anne, because there were six of them in the house now, not counting a malicious-looking cat that caressed her bare legs.
“Oh, you know…” Anne looked out of the window to the deckchair on concrete, where Den was bare-chested and smoking with his back to them. “It’s not poetry.” With a smile Marilyn thought was brave, she turned to her blue-eyed daughter and asked, “Is it, poppet?”

I cried when I wrote that. Of course no life is a fairy tale. Not even Nathaniel’s. But I’m hoping to fill his with stories. Even more importantly, he’s so treasured, by two people so in love with him and each other, that he must know it already. He’ll always know it, and it will make all the difference.

What’s in a nickname?

By Job at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I was talking to a dear young friend who confided that at school some of her peers called her Pig. I was shocked, but understood how that nickname made her feel, because during my uni years a fellow-student told me at a bus stop, “Your nose is like a pig’s snout!” – yes, while sober, in daylight. My young friend is a fantastic human being, attractive inside and out. Setting aside the total unacceptability of anyone, as an individual or in the media, making a negative comment about anyone else’s appearance, it made me think about the power of nicknames. At school I was Shampy, or Shampers: fun and neutral, no criticism or ridicule built in. My two best friends were Pea (her initial was P and her surname Green) and Dougi, on account of her hairstyle which reminded us of Dougal on The Magic Roundabout, a cool must-see TV show at the time. I don’t remember anyone being given a nickname that was in any way unkind. Even my friend with the surname Cooper was quite contented to be Henry, after the boxer who fought Mohammad Ali, because she was slender and blonde so the incongruity made people smile. But if our given names can determine to some extent how we see ourselves, how much more influential can nicknames be, when they are chosen for an individual and adopted by a group of peers? Continue reading

Twelve ways to avoid despair


Ways to avoid despair

1. Take action. Action as a single individual can feel futile but it’s more powerful than we often know. It inspires others and overrides the helplessness we can all feel as small individuals in a world facing enormous dangers and frightening problems. This might mean resisting Trumpism (so heartening to be in such a huge, patient, good-humoured and creative crowd), donating money or goods to refugees, buying food for the foodbank or visiting someone lonely. Action might mean giving up flying because it just isn’t worth the environmental damage, and reducing your carbon footprint in other ways. It might cost, or involve regular volunteering. It might mean helping someone through a crisis. It might mean committing to a group of likeminded people who will become friends. Commit and give what you can when you can, but only with your heart.

2. Respect your fellow humans. Don’t allow the media to persuade you that people are hopeless, stupid and selfish. Appreciate all the love and kindness around you; I’ve lived all my life in the light of it. Don’t allow anyone to divide you from your fellow humans on the basis of difference. Celebrate diversity. Look for what unites us, and for the light in others.

3. Forgive. Always forgive, and try to understand.

4. If you come across prejudice or injustice, name it. Don’t let it go. This is hard and I’m not as brave as I want to be, but I feel so diminished and ashamed if I take the path of least resistance.

5. Don’t overdose on social media. But follow and Friend those who support, inspire, understand and take a stand for love. Make new connections that educate, strengthen and broaden. Share joy and hope whenever you can.

6. If world news breaks or incapacitates you, walk away. Know your limits and be kind to yourself. Judge more wisely than the news editors what you need to know and what simply damages and demotivates.

7. Spend real-world, face-to-face time with people you care about, depend on or support. Be the best friend you can be. Listen at least as actively as you share. Grow through experience that isn’t yours, and never judge.

8. Read fiction that makes you bigger by helping you to live a life that isn’t yours. Be moved. That’s how we change.

9. If you are drawn to art, poetry, music or dance, don’t consider it pleasure or an indulgence but a healing, a stirring or simply a gift. Celebrate creativity wherever you find it.

10. Give yourself time for a forest, a walk or silence, and feel restored. Sometimes I need to dance with no music, to connect with something deeper than words.

11. Know yourself. Be yourself.

12. Love. Keep believing in love. Celebrate love in action.

In the woods: hope, healing and stories


Painting by Franz Marc described by Jeth in The Judas Deer

You can call it forest bathing, therapy, time out or exercise. For me as a Quaker it can feel like Meeting for Worship in open, inner stillness. Because we’re together, holding hands when the path allows, it can be romantic, a renewal of what bonds us. And we don’t talk about war, climate change, refugees or Fascism. Just for a while the crises we face as a species, and on our screens, seem distant and implausible. Woods are particularly dreamy on a warm Sunday morning in summer when few humans are awake but the sunlight softens and fragments through leaves. This morning my husband Leslie and I stepped instantly into the immersive green, and an almost pristine quietness. Sometimes we talk about what we’re writing, or what fiction does and means. Sometimes we need silence. Today I was ready to receive, and the great thing about trees is that they keep giving. I felt a lightness, and a child’s fascination with the mysterious detail that can seem so ordinary to modern homo sapiens wired for sound. A sense of deeply connected peace is with me still. It’s a kind of healing. Continue reading

Not a relay but a book, or what teaching taught me about Year Four

I loved Y4. I taught that year group more than any other through my nineteen years at three London schools and two in Herts, and they were mostly, in a three tier system, the top class or leavers – which earned them special privileges including a residential trip away. They probably ‘grew up’ faster that way, and showed that they could, with a few exceptions, take responsibility with enthusiasm. Ian was foreman in charge of young gardeners when the Wild Garden was born; Alec was my technician, troubleshooting with I.T. problems. Every summer, being an emotional softie, I truly hated to see them go, and some of the tears shed in my classroom were usually mine. During their year with me they experienced stories by immersion, and books led into art, drama, dance and music as well as P.S.H.E. In questionnaires sent round by the head, my Y4 classes put Poetry at the top of their favourite subjects chart.

What did I learn about children as they turn from eight to nine? How imaginative they are. They no longer actually believe in a little dragon I pass from hand to hand even though there’s nothing there, but they will suspend disbelief for the fun of it.  I initiated a game on playground duty which involved a group searching for mini aliens, bringing them cupped in their hands and describing them in excited detail. Their imagination has a wild, free, elastic energy that embraces creativity. They enjoy discovery, and that includes new words they can’t wait to use. Enthusiasm in Y4 can be boundless if not obsessive, but they don’t fake it. However well behaved they were, I could always tell when they were less engaged than I liked them to be. If a Story Time book didn’t compel them into still, wide-eyed silence then it wasn’t good enough. The best had them leaving at 3:15 reluctant to wait another twenty-four hours, talking animatedly about what might happen next. A great story meant faster clearing up to make it onto the carpet for the next instalment. Clearing up doesn’t seem to be an obvious Y4 strength, but walking briskly back from the swimming pool (to allow their poor teacher enough time for a coffee before break ended) seemed, year on year, an objective that would never be achieved. Y4 children don’t progress beyond dawdling. Continue reading