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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16638484

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

Empathy and charity: longlisted for a prize!

The publisher, the author and the illustrator at planning stage

This really is news! The picture book I wrote for People not Borders is up for the People’s Book Prize and anyone can vote (once) and comment. I’m a Trustee for this small but committed group of women in my home town (awaiting charitable status for some time now) and was excited to write the text and find Paula Watkins, textiles and mixed media artist, to illustrate in a way that’s colourful and original. All profits are being used to support projects with young refugees. It’s very much an empathy-developer, though, as well as a fundraiser. We hope it will help anyone who reads it to imagine, and therefore begin to understand, the experience of a child coming to this country from a war zone, but the text is gentle and the pictures beautiful.

With love: the spectrum and the page

My husband Leslie and I were talking with a friend about gender and sexuality. Like me, my friend is cis-gender and straight. We grew up with scant knowledge, understanding or experience of anything else, and while I have learned fast since meeting Leslie, she wasn’t familiar with much of the vocabulary. Leslie explained LGBTQIA, and my friend and I agreed that we were glad to be Allies. Then Leslie added that technically, as a straight but rather intermediate cross-dressing man, he doesn’t belong on that spectrum in a tick-box sense, even though ‘trans’ is how he feels and who he is. To which my friend looked at the initials he’d listed for her with explanations and said, “Then I think there should be another letter on the end: L for Leslie.”

I love that. I love him and his honesty and complexity, courage and vulnerability. I love her for saying it. And I love the truth behind it: that we are all of us different and individual, whatever group or category we choose to embrace and however others define or label us. My Leslie, like everyone else on the LGBTQIA(L) spectrum and outside it, is a unique human being.

As an author I’m looking to connect readers with people on the page who are unlike anyone they’ve met in or outside a book and yet recognisable, familiar and absolutely convincing. But I’m not talking here about those mysterious, eccentric supporting acts portrayed by observation, however memorable they may be. They’re much easier to pull off with aplomb, perhaps because the distance involved is the same kind that exists between us in life; by eccentric and mysterious we really mean different from us as well as unknown. I am thinking of characters that are equally distinctive but created with insight.

Continue reading

When Harry married Meghan: change, but not nearly enough?

 

Politically – rationally – I don’t agree with royalty. I believe that in spite of our differences, we’re all equal by virtue of our humanity. So I didn’t watch Harry and Meghan’s wedding ceremony yesterday afternoon, and this morning the phrase ‘A List’ rankled when MSN offered me pictures of what those supposedly superior humans on the guest list were wearing for the occasion. As an opponent of the currently relentless assessment in school I don’t enjoy hearing the language of ‘success’ in social terms outside the classroom. Like many, I was saddened and angered to see that rough sleepers were being cleared form the streets of Windsor or relieved of their sleeping bags, because they are as fully human and valuable in their humanity as any celeb or prince. And an expensive, champagne-fuelled, deluxe wedding highlights the gaping inequality that shames our society – a differential between rich and poor that has grown under the Tories and been shown to create or exacerbate just about all the social problems you or I could identify in modern Britain. I could throw in the ‘bread and circuses’ idea that the ruling class manipulates and distracts with pomp and partying, or I could claim that with an NHS in crisis there are just much better, fairer and inclusive ways to spend all that money. Factor in my Quaker (Pacifist) convictions and Harry’s military identity – come to think of it, the Church of England’s military identity – along with my belief in simplicity and keeping one’s carbon footprint as low as possible, and I had many reasons not to turn on my TV at midday on Saturday 19th May. There’s a BUT coming… Continue reading

Taking the author out of the fiction: mission impossible?

There’s speculation, with many love songs, about which lovers inspired them. Art can be more or less personal, and as audience how revealing we want it to be will depend on individual make-up. Maybe all authors expose themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, in their fiction. I discovered when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s compelling novel Flight Behaviour that she is both well informed and deeply concerned about climate change. The phrase is there, in the dialogue and thoughts of the characters and the storyline of butterflies arriving in their millions in the wrong country. I’ve only just seen the parallel with refugees, also displaced by destructive human activity. Sometimes the beliefs or attitudes of the writer are less explicit. I connect with the work of Susan Fletcher at a fundamental emotional level, so it shouldn’t surprise me to find her liking my Tweets about how we relate as fellow humans to one another and the natural world. This leaves me wondering whether I could love the work of a writer whose opinions are the opposite of mine. Would I sense such a world view underpinning the narrative even if there was no intention, within the fiction, of sharing it? I’m inclined to think so. Maybe, in fact, when I’m drawn to certain authors, part of the attraction is a like-mindedness I detect, if only subconsciously. If I’m right, even the fiction we choose as readers can reinforce our political positions.

Because my husband Leslie Tate has written in Violet a novel about late-life lovers who meet like we did, people ask how much real-life is exposed in the fiction, and how close he is to the male characters in his trilogy, since he adapts his own experience. I’m asked, with my alopecia novel The Waterhouse Girl, how much of the story happened to me and I say, “Only the hair loss – but Daisy is the person I wanted, when I created her, to be.” But I didn’t know that as I wrote the book.

A didactic intention is as dangerous to a novelist as an emotional splurge, and one can morph into the other. At the same time, it’s impossible to take the novelist out of the novel, and doing so results in the kind of distanced exercise that holds no interest for readers like me because I need connection. Without the kind of authenticity that characterises intimate friendship, I don’t really care. That doesn’t mean that authors need to write about themselves, but that if they explore feelings they’ve known in order to create a character they understand in depth and detail, the character will feel real. At the same time, writers must apply a carefully measured, analytical control of style and register, voice, pace and rhythm, continuity, shape and sequence. They must know and relate to their characters as separate and other. Without such self-editing, a cathartic exploration of intense experience will be therapy but not literature.

What about genres with escapist appeal? I would have said, until recently, that I didn’t do those. Then I agreed to write Avatars of the Intelligence, the first Lucy Wilson Mystery ‘from the world of Doctor Who’. The category is science fiction in the sense that the enemy – the Great Intelligence – isn’t human, and surreal things happen as a result (making it liberating fun to write). But the fantasy is never jettisoned from real human experience because the characters root the story in relationships and emotions we recognise. It’s only recently that I’ve considered how much of me I invested in Lucy and Hobo. He has alopecia and tries to front it while refusing to allow it to define him. They represent and champion diversity in various ways. Lucy is mixed race; I’m not, but used to be nicknamed Jimi (Hendrix) because of my thick curly hair and full lips. She has a gay brother; I’m married to a cross-dressing man. We both have Muslim friends. Hobo shares her commitment to social justice and equality. I share Lucy’s only fear, but I have many more! We are both imaginative and impulsive; although I can be equally determined, Lucy is feistier. But they have their own individual identities. Unlike Lucy, I was hopeless at gymnastics! Unlike Hobo I don’t have a brain for Science and Maths. As a peace and climate activist myself, I have given them some of my values. They never use violence but resist the dark force which for me is a metaphor for all kinds of controlling powers in our world today: the social media invasion, newspapers that stir up division and hate, Cambridge Analytica manipulating our emotions, government denying us the truth, materialism fed by marketing… all of it trying to shape our thinking and influence our behaviour.

Candy Jar lured me into this project with alopecia. Inevitably I’ve brought to it my own passions and style, both of which are more important and personal to me than the hair I’ve lost. Doctor Who episodes have their own distinctive tones, and the Lucy Wilson Adventures that follow will doubtless be the same, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to create in Lucy and Hobo their core or heart. Like all my characters, they are precious to me, and like my own children they’re influenced by me but somehow very much themselves. I hope to be creatively reunited with them one day.

Guarding our minds: sci-fi and the invasion of the real world

Sometimes I write something and life catches up with it.  Below the surface or storyline of my Lucy Wilson adventure, Avatars of the Intelligence, lie themes that are very much with us in 2018, having surfaced for all in the last week before publication. Through my mixed-race heroine with a gay brother – already set up by Candy Jar in the Lethbridge-Stewart books – and her best friend with alopecia, I reflect modern values among today’s young who embrace diversity of all kinds. And then there are the phones. As a young reader remarked in his review, “The students are taken over by their phones which is kind of funny because students are.” But when I wrote it, the manipulation of data by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook was yet to be exposed. I could argue a case for a pretty close parallel with the Great Intelligence, and when Hobo warns Lucy, “Guard your mind”, that’s not bad advice for all of us in a media-manipulated age – if we can only work out what’s real and what’s not. Reality TV already blurs the boundaries. What people share as real on various platforms can be maliciously or more innocently faked or just distorted, posed or photo-shopped – whether to embellish a personal narrative or to change minds. Like the heroes at the centre of my adventure, we don’t know who to trust.

#Resist is a hashtag I’ve used a lot since Trump was elected over the pond, and it’s something I do, with my physical body as well as on the page and screen. I resisted, for example, at Stop the Arms Fair and outside the Saudi Embassy, because I believe that making a business of selling weapons that will be used to commit war crimes is simply immoral. The force we were resisting is hugely powerful and hard to name. It’s not one nation but a cynically detached view of war for profit. It’s about the rich white West controlling and exploiting countries where people have darker skins, and it’s about cold, ruthless power masquerading as respectability. The arms trade as practised by the British and American governments is in my opinion vastly more evil than the Great Intelligence with Daleks as back-up, and it must end. But my resistance is peaceful; that’s the point. And Lucy and Hobo ‘fight’ with their brains, their strength and agility, their courage and their imaginations. There’s no violence; I couldn’t have written that.  I was challenged enough, as a Pacifist Quaker, by the military identity of Lucy’s famous grandfather, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. (I told myself he was never gung-ho, or careless of life, never motivated by ego or money, but an old-school gentleman soldier, an idealist who aimed to protect. He might have walked alongside me on the Iraq War demonstration, or indeed outside the Saudi Embassy, if he hadn’t already met his fictional demise.) For me, the love between Lucy and her granddad is as strong a force as the Great Intelligence. It powers her. And love, for any reader, is as real as it gets. It’s the universal connector. Continue reading

From author to readers: feeding back on the feedback

Dear students,

Firstly, I’m delighted that so many of you enjoyed Avatars of the Intelligence very much. “This is one of the only books I have been interested in for a while. I used to hate reading but ever since I read this book I have loved reading.” “I don’t think it could be any better.” Most of all I’m happy that you like my characters. People said some positive and perceptive things about Lucy – “I love Lucy’s character because she is strong-willed and determined (although a bit stubborn)” – but on the whole Hobo seems to be the favourite. “Hobo is a unique and original character who teaches us loads about alopecia and people who might not look like other people but are still really interesting and do good things.” “I particularly like Hobo. He is a character that shows how you can face bullies with a smile. Instead of shying away from comments about his alopecia he faces them head-on which makes him a really strong character in the book.”

A lot of you are interested in alopecia and the way I used my own experience of hair loss. “I really like how Sue takes something that happened in her life and turns it into something great.” I never thought of it that way when I was writing it but I’m happy for anyone to see the book in that light. Here, having already written two novels in which alopecia is the story, I wanted to introduce a clever, funny and individual character who just happens to have no hair. I also wanted to show that alopecia has made him stronger, kinder and wiser. As Ambassador for Alopecia UK I’ve met many young people with alopecia and that’s what it seems to do. Like all challenges it teaches people a lot about themselves and being human. “The book demonstrates how outcasts face challenges. Hobo is an extremely interesting character because he doesn’t fit into society’s expectations.”  Continue reading

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

PROCESSING