Being losers

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the NHS with thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Only love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why grown-ups could do better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We really COULD DO BETTER.

 

 

 

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

Niza Ali Badr

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

Finding a Green way through

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Short stories: Atwood, a U turn and the beauty of small

When my mum suggested a few years ago that I should try short stories, I was rather dismissive. I said I like to go deep with my characters and the short form wouldn’t allow me. For me, fiction is an exploration of what it means to be human, and I assumed the short story was bound to skim the surface. Since marvelling forty years ago at Chekhov’s genius, I’d read stories that, for all their cleverness or style, felt like games or exercises: slight, manipulated and fundamentally trivial. I also rejected the idea of fast-food fiction because I’m not a fan of pace of packaging. As a reader I like slow burners; I crave delicacy as well as depth. So as an author, writing across genres for children, teens and adults, I chose the full-length option. Until I read Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips, I didn’t know a few thousand words could deliver everything I need from a novel – interior character, narrative flow and linguistic power – in miniature and yet somehow in full. With Isis in Darkness Atwood blew away my assumptions that a short story must have a conceit or USP, a limited palette or a twist. That one sublime story opened my eyes and I began to write.

The result is RAVELLED, described by author and Creative Writing tutor Stephen Carver as “a masterclass in short story writing” and by poet, playwright and novelist John MacKenna as “a wonderfully diverse, challenging, beautifully written and understated collection.” I value such reviews above sales, and given the size of my profile and publishers, that’s just as well! The diversity was a choice over unity because I’d read collections that felt too uniform in tone and theme, like an album that grows less engaging a few tracks in because the rhythms are on repeat and the tunes are only variations. I hadn’t at that point come across the phrase ‘transgressive boundaries’ but if anything unites my stories – apart from the inevitable core of love and loss – it’s my characters that cross lines. As a woman with alopecia who no longer wears a wig and is married to a cross-dressing man, I’m drawn to unorthodox ways to be equally human.

I’ve experimented with different kinds of narrative too, including a dreamy fable that only feels like fantasy and another that unfolds in a few minutes of real time. There’s a traditional story with a modern sensibility, and yes, one or two that overturn assumptions for reasons bigger than the fun of it. Whether set long ago and far away, in the Seventies or the present, the stories have their own registers and moods. Elderly eccentric Gerry arrives at her annual hotel in Away for Christmas and introduces her new young driver: “Meet Kyle Green. He’s not a bus stop. I would have got off.” But grief has a different vocabulary in Included: “His smiles were like missed notes, falling short. I saw – I heard – his attempts at normality slip away into a void, and that was where he’d find me, in mine.” Author Karen Maitland described The Goddess as “dripping with sensuality” and “exquisitely beautiful”: “In the waves that broke flat on sand, she looked for her old face. No longer edged in flickering black it seemed so small, like peeled fruit soft inside.”  But at the core of each contrasting story, characters must live – and vividly – through whatever changes in or around them.

That pivotal change may be small. In Sid’s case it feels total when, newly retired and single, he’s relocated to what the removal men call Divorce Drive. For Tess it’s a morning’s rebellious impulse that might be a rescue cry. And on Eva’s seventieth birthday, the past invades the present’s peace with the world she rejected. In the words of journalist, reviewer and author, David Guest, “these are tales about dealing with life’s challenges” and sixty years have shown me how various those can be – even in the absence of vampires or invasive supernatural forces. Did I build stories around these ideas? No. I found my characters. It was up to them to find their own story.

Writing this collection was a challenge in itself. But it was so rewarding – as a process and in terms of reader response – that a follow-up collection, WOKEN, will be published in May. The stories may be a little darker and some are very much of these times. In fact, the title story ends at the Women’s March on London after Trump’s Inauguration in January. But I’m more of an idealist than a politico and I never let ideology get in my characters’ way. On the back the publishers quote American writer Rick Cross: “Sue Hampton’s greatest strength is her almost preternatural ability to step into the shoes – the lives – of every character she introduces, large or small, every one of them as rich and real and secretly raw, as surreptitiously vulnerable, as any human being you’ve ever (or never) met. She is a sharp observer of the entire human experience, treating her creations with a remarkable tenderness and reverence even while she peels them to the bone.”

I’ll never have a review that means more or requires more tissues! Will this collection be my last? Well, as they said in Friends, I’m ‘on a break’. But I think I’m too much in love to stay away for long.

 

The Stolen Bike: a Mary Hampton mystery (true)

When Mary was thirteen, and the tallest, sportiest girl in the school, she stopped growing. Now, at almost ninety, she was even lighter – but not on her feet, which used to love country dancing – and her legs were often stiff. The hands that used to spin a cricket ball for Essex Ladies were swollen and couldn’t manage fiddly things. But Mary was just as determined as she’d always been, possibly more so. She’d always kept her carbon footprint tiny, even before human beings knew they had one, and to keep her muscles working and her spirits strong she aimed to cycle every day. Once or twice a week she rode all the way from Northchurch to Waitrose, which was about three miles and hard work if there was a wind to push against. Mary loved meeting her daughter Sue for a cup of tea in the café there, but she also loved chatting to the staff. She learned many of their names and several of them told Sue that her mum was their favourite customer.

One Thursday morning when Sue was away, Mary did her Waitrose shopping, smiled at lots of people as usual and went back outside to her bike. But it wasn’t leaning against the pillar where she always left it. In eighty-five years of cycling, Mary had never used a padlock, but now her luck had run out. Someone had stolen it. Shocked, Mary went back into Waitrose to tell the staff what had happened. They called the police. They fetched a cup of tea just the way she liked it, and after the police had come to talk to her, they paid for a taxi to take her home. Mary was very touched by their kindness. She did hope the police would find her bike, because it was small and very light, with a low bar for her short legs to cross over.

By the time Sue came home that Friday evening, and learned what had happened, the news was all over Facebook and nearly thirty people were offering to pay towards a new bike for Mary. When Sue told her so, she was overwhelmed, but said she couldn’t possibly let them do that; a second-hand one would be fine, and really she hoped her own would be tracked down. Many people began looking out for it. Some of them knew Mary by name and others only by sight. Hardly anyone knew about her county cricket, that she was Head Girl as well as captain of most of the teams, or that she taught piano at home in between many years as a primary school teacher. They didn’t know how much she still loved her husband Paul, how desperately she grieved when he died in 2003, or how bravely she learned to smile again. But in their posts some said how much her friendliness had meant to them in difficult times; young mums said they hoped they’d be like her in their eighties; some called her a ‘legend’ and several said they ‘loved’ her. Berkhamsted was on a mission. Continue reading

It’s #picbookday and I’m still listening for The Whales’ Song

Last week I watched a real-life scene on TV, in which a granddad who had just developed literacy skills read a picture book with his granddaughter. The woeful American text about princesses – with a mirror built in at the end of the story – was the glittery pink kind I ruthlessly denied my own daughter, but the joy of that shared experience moved me. Now I find that today is #picbookday and adults are filling Twitter with covers that represent their own memories. This might, until recently, have made me regret that my catalogue as an author, which includes everything from stories for Y2 up – through teenage and adult fiction – lacks a large, colourful picture book for pre-school. But this autumn that will change, thanks to a talented textiles artist, a charity project and a publisher prepared like me to forego all profit. I can’t wait! In the meantime, here are some thoughts about the picture books I’ve loved as a mum and teacher.

I have to start with Shirley Hughes because when my Philip and Sarah were small we loved Alfie and Annie Rose in all their appearances – and delighted in horrible Bernard too, especially when he made a highly entertaining nightmare of his birthday party. The drawings are endearing but at the same time the children, obviously the product of close observation, are utterly real. There’s no romanticising with this artist; she loves children just as they are, with their grumps and tantrums, jealousies and wildness, so she shows us in her soft but physical pictures all the faces and poses we recognise. I wrote to her to tell her how much happiness she created in the house and bless her, she wrote back, by hand – so I framed her letter for the wall of the smallest room.

Christian Birmingham’s work is more idealised, his children beautiful beyond any parent’s biased perceptions. As a teacher I loved using Windhover, illustrated by him and ably written by Alan Brown, with my Y3 classes. It’s an example of a deeper kind of picture book with plenty of emotionally compelling text. Another favourite for this age was The Tunnel by the inventive and sometimes surreal Anthony Browne. This is a book I remember, many years after abandoning teaching to be a professional author, for a different reason. Its richness lies in the paucity of words and the volumes spoken by pictures layered with meaning. I used to ask classes to interpret them using the visual clues and perhaps to provide the missing text themselves. His Gorilla is a sublime example of a streamlined story where pictures don’t simply illustrate the story but develop it, while incorporating whimsical details as references only adults will identify. Both these stories are powerful in their pared-down simplicity and understatement, and have a spirit of fun which offsets the sadness; they’re full of feeling without using its vocabulary.

My favourite picture book of all, however, is The Whales’ Song, which made such a lasting impression on me some twenty years ago that as soon as I saw that hashtag, its cover came to mind. Thanks to Gary Blythe, every page is visually gorgeous, with a luminous Pre-Raphaelite angel of a heroine and a colour palette that ranges from muted dusk to burning sunset. The text by Dyan Sheldon is lightly, dreamily poetic until the hard-edged, grumpy pragmatism of Uncle Frederick’s outburst – “Whales were important for their meat, and for their bones, and for their blubber. If you have to tell Lilly something, tell her something useful” – give the story a tension to break the spell. It also gave my daughter a speech she could deliver with dramatic relish long before she could read every word in it. This is the kind of story that makes adults weep even though no one dies, and is thick with the real-world kind of magic we find in the natural world if we recognise its mystery.

I acknowledged at the start that if there’s love between the two participants, any picture book can cement it, even one that might make the adult spit! I’ll finish with two that stir me with much more positive feelings, while celebrating that relationship between grandmother and child. In My Grandmother’s Clock by the excellent and versatile Geraldine McCaughrean, the pictures by Stephen Lambert don’t thrill me half as much as the sensual, multi-textured prose. In When Grandma Came, the estimable Jill Paton Walsh delivers a minimal but exciting, round-the-world narrative which is illustrated by Sophy Williams with a style that generally serves the mood well. At the heart of both is Grandma’s passionate love and vivid personality, and for me they both succeed in skirting sentimentality – although I suspect Uncle Frederick would disagree!

Happy Picture Book Day if you have a young person to share it with, and if you don’t, savour the memories. Even if you no longer possess the book, you’ll find the pictures enduring minus the mildew in your head.

Between the lines: a kind of loving?

In 2005 my friend Julie recommended a novel called Eve Green which won the Whitbread First Novel Award for Susan Fletcher. Having lost a couple of heady days to it, I found myself unable emotionally to leave it behind. So I recommended it to another friend, Gwynneth, during my annual stay with her and her harp-maker husband in the tiny village of Capel Dewi near Llandysyl. “Oh,” she said, “Susan Fletcher came here to write it.” This I found, given the remoteness and familiarity of a village that time forgot, rather thrilling. It was a much more concrete connection than the kind I hope to feel when I read a great novel inhabited by a presence or spirit that somehow understands me. Since this debut, I’ve read each Susan Fletcher book that followed. While I’ve often found that no subsequent novel can match the power of the first title I happen upon in an author’s catalogue – be it Carol Shields and The Republic of Love or Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons – with Fletcher, the opposite applies. After Eve Green, Corrag was my favourite, until I read The Silver Dark Sea, recently eclipsed by Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew. This means, of course, that I await the next Susan Fletcher novel with an eagerness built on firm foundations – or faith. There’s something about her voice, whoever tells the story and how, that is not only distinctive as all great writing must be, and constant through stylistic variations and different genre choices, but also a fit, a resonance, a profound and mysterious echo of an oddly personal kind.

When I became an author, reading for pleasure was transformed for some time into forensic scrutiny, but great writers take a short cut through to something I might call my soul. I mean the core of me, the part that knows instinctively what matters when the distractions, the froth, and everything that ego wants but doesn’t really need, have all disappeared like dust mites in a breeze. Yet without finely tuned language, living characterisation and layers of feeling and meaning, that core can’t be accessed. Recently I began to read a novel with an emotional storyline that should, theoretically, have claimed me entirely and had me reaching for a handkerchief. It didn’t, because it lacked all the above. Susan Fletcher never does. Here’s an extract from my review of Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew:

There are novels I appreciate in spite of the distance they set between us, but this is writing I value, admire, envy and relish while remaining emotionally immersed in everything the words combine to paint: the portraits, the landscapes, the still lives and the stories they tell in all their delicacy and brilliancy. Because Susan Fletcher’s gift, peaking here, is a sensual, joyous artistry, and like the paintings Jeanne discovers in the asylum, the language glows, thrills and exhilarates. The novel is profoundly moving – so much so that even before she experiences wildness greater than the wind, the washing day opening made me cry. While it’s not the first to explore old married love, a daughter’s love, a mother’s love and more, it does so with the artist’s eye that sees inside the sitter – and beyond a wife’s understanding of her husband, and his of her. This is a luminous book, gentle and wise and full of bright spirit. It makes me want to live more intensely and openly, to look at the little things (like a moth on a branch) and to let silence illuminate, not stifle or obscure.

What I’m describing here is the result of a unique soul-voice, and what I experienced as I read this beautiful book is like love. My husband Leslie only talks, often with animation, of respecting and appreciating great writing. But for me, the L-word is the only one big enough to carry all I feel when I read novels or poems that have the same kind of physical effect on me as walking through flowers at a garden like Hidcote, hearing that a friend has been taken into hospital or sitting with a baby asleep on my lap. I’d argue, though, that loving a book doesn’t have to involve disabling all critical faculties. It’s just an assessment that explores below the surface where some feel out of their depth – and others like me look for mermaids!

Nick Hornby’s character in High Fidelity is not the only one with a top five tendency, and I often score the books I read out of 20 (with no Susan Fletcher title earning less than 17). I’m a passionate person and there’s a fan in me – which can be embarrassing, especially now I’m sixty. Once I read at the same festival as Carol Ann Duffy, whose collection Rapture sustained my faith in romantic love at a time of crisis. I found myself unable to tell her so except in cliché delivered with teenage awkwardness, and walked away shamed in spite of her generous warmth. When I had lunch with Michael Morpurgo after years of exchanging letters and loving that soul-voice underlying everything he writes, I was too afraid of playing the fan – and of failing to live up to my own writing, which he’d praised – that I couldn’t find myself, and was haunted afterwards by everything I said and didn’t say. It was almost as if I had fractured the connection I’d experienced on the page, which had been as pure as it was insubstantial. So it may be better if I never meet Susan Fletcher, although we have corresponded in various ways. Besides, like all her readers I know her already, better than I know most of the people around me. With their bodies and audio, gestures and habits – even with their narratives – they may offer few glimpses into what I call their core. Perhaps that’s something only writers expose. I know myself that my work is the best of me, and while the book world is harsh, the connection I make with any reader is not only a part of the goal, a justification and a consolation. It’s happiness.

I’m only dancing (on and off the page)

A few years ago I raised over £800 for Alopecia UK by dancing non-stop for four hours.

I may be obsessed with dancing. Even though I longed to be an author from the age of six, pirouetting for a living would have done me nicely. Lorna Drake, ballerina, was my favourite heroine in Bunty, and when Dad took me to Covent Garden for The Nutcracker or Coppelia, that world on stage seemed even bigger and brighter than the imagination within me. But there was a problem. These humans had the delicate beauty of flowers and the power of goddesses; I was a frizzy-haired podge with a blush I couldn’t control. An unfortunate left/right error in a dance class – which earned my wrong-facing cheek a slap – convinced me that I couldn’t learn other people’s steps. I’ve never earned one certificate for ballet, tap or modern. Nonetheless, dancing is part of what I do and who I am. That includes my way of greeting the morning, receiving the light and expressing gratitude in love: an alternative kind of meditation or prayer. It also includes bopping in the kitchen. And when a talented friend, Julie Williams from the band Hidden Jules, adapted some words I’d thrown her about alopecia into a beautiful song, it wasn’t long before I was illustrating the lyrics with moves. I don’t expect dancers to be impressed. My style may owe more to the kind of actions we teach small children for The Wheels on the Bus than to the innovative performances I enjoy at Sadler’s Wells. But it’s an expression of feeling and I hope that makes it a connection of a kind.

Firstborn of all my characters was Daisy in The Waterhouse Girl and it’s not surprising that this girl, who was in many ways a braver, more committed version of me when I created her, is also a better dancer! As an individual, though, she finds her own steps – and with them, freedom from everything that could make her a victim. The joy of it builds her strength. And it doesn’t matter that not everyone ‘gets’ what she does because it’s hers anyway. In the sequel, Crazy Daise, prisoner-of-convention Rowan doesn’t know what to make of the way Daisy moves.

If hair is useful to an author because of the vast vocabulary it offers, dance is richer. Different styles yield their own moods and associations, cultural contexts and flavours, but underpinning all of them is something personal as well as technical and potentially emotional. In Gorilla Dreams, a story of confounding expectations, dance sets both my characters apart. It also has its contrasting registers. This extract shows how at the climax the imagery becomes dream-like:

His coat as dark as the evening light, the gorilla held her high. He raised her like a fallen star. He trailed her like a gown that whirled around his legs. From his arms she hung like a ladder, swung like rope and fluttered like a moth. In his arms she speared and rolled, and laced the twilight. Silvered and gleaming, the pair of them streamed. Curling and overlapping, they sparked like fireflies. They etched the darkness with patterns more intricate than cobwebs and bolder than sunset. So light were their steps that the evening hush gathered unbroken around them.

In Ravelled, my short story collection for adults, dance is almost elemental for Nei Bubura: Through the sounds of sea and wind, she breathed the lightest notes she knew…  stretched as if to find the clouds and pick them. It’s an expression of desire and a choice of identity for my Seventies teenager Marilyn, moving in her bedroom to the albums her parents banned: ..and danced as if Jim Morrison was holding her, one hand on her bottom as she swayed. And for elderly Gerry, dependent on a stick but declaring an intention of facing the music, it’s a metaphor for rebellious survival as well as loss.

Recently I went to a school in Basingstoke to support a remarkable Y5 student called Chloe who is now experiencing alopecia for the second time, determined to own it and take control. Beginning with a letter to the school governors, she’d organised an alopecia day, created a display about Alopecia UK and suggested fund-raising Mad Hair fun to include the teachers. Her wisdom, humour and spirit were inspiring, and I was delighted to meet her – even before I discovered her passion for dance. Unlike me, she’s clearly very good at it, but more importantly it gives her joy. That’s a word we hear a lot on Strictly and I could see it on Chloe’s face when she talked about dancing. With zero sequins and very little talent, I feel it too. So I don’t suppose I’ve finished with dancing, on or off the page.

Long ago, in my wig-wearing teaching days, I taught Modern Dance as a lunchtime club – and relied on the children to remember the choreography I had no way of recording.

The power of fiction: novels that changed me

A story changed my life. It was the first of my books to be written back in 2000 when my bald head was hidden under a wig, a secret I dreaded being leaked. So THE WATERHOUSE GIRL, with its young heroine with alopecia, made me an author and began to change the way I lived without hair. A teenage boy wrote, having read it, “You made me a better person.” Stories can have such a powerful impact on readers that they change the way we think or feel, especially about people who seem ‘other’ until a novel helps us to get inside their experience. I revisited alopecia in a teenage sequel and also found a new way to use it in a short story in my adult collection, RAVELLED – flipping vulnerability into difference revered, or in this case, worshipped, in The Goddess.  But as a reader I’ve felt, learned and understood so much through fiction that I decided to identify books I’ve read myself that have given me an insight I might not otherwise have gained.

A SMALL ISLAND by Andrea Levy helped me, as a white woman who had always opposed racism (and as a girl of thirteen wrote a poem against Apartheid), a genuine understanding of what it would have been like to arrive in the UK from the Caribbean in the days when ‘No Blacks’ signs on doors were not unusual. It’s a shocking and unforgettable insight powered by compelling characters as all great novels must be. Continue reading

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