Sixty years! And what have I learned?

little SueSue 2I read something recently: ‘Never be defined by your past. It was a lesson, not a life sentence.’ I like that, but more importantly I believe it.

Flowers, trees, green space and sky can transform the way we feel, and remind us what living is.

Identity can’t be captured or reflected by a mirror.

Nothing that matters is ever a competition.

Forgiveness liberates. Being unforgiven is hell. And guilt is hard to shake off but it’s worth trying because it achieves nothing and limits growth.

Difficulties make us stronger if we refuse to be cowed by them.

Each of us is the result of our genes, upbringing and other influences and experiences. So if we can’t understand why someone is the way she is, that’s because we haven’t lived her life. But imagination can help with that – which is one reason I write!

The value of creative work can’t be measured in numbers any more than the value of a violet or song thrush.

Life on earth isn’t a trolley dash. We can’t leave the shelves empty for the next generation. We need, in a literal sense, to be caretakers of this planet.

Poetry is powerful. It’s what I value most from my education and upbringing. It’s what I most enjoyed teaching. For me, it’s the meaning and the joy.

There’s no such thing as an ordinary person – only people whose gifts we haven’t yet understood.

Since each of us is unique, any labels applied to us are unlikely to be a perfect fit.

There’s no point in aspiring to be ‘normal’. It’s easy to waste emotional energy on this meaningless goal (especially if we present as different) but if we can jettison the whole ridiculous concept, the freedom is wonderful. I’m loving it!

Having more money than we need to live simply really doesn’t make us happy. Having less makes us choose and appreciate.

When we are facing death or crisis, we know what matters: love. Only love.

Physical difficulties can undermine emotional wellbeing. Giving up is easy (for me anyway) but it also hurts.

People are mostly kind, with manners and empathy. The few exceptions live without real love, friendship or fulfilment.

In a romantic relationship, when love fades it is very unlikely to dazzle again however hard it’s polished.

Family history begins to matter around the time when it’s too late to access the memories of parents.

Each of us is a one-off individual – and exactly like our parents at times.

 

Nationality is a kind of accident beyond anyone’s control so letting it drive feelings or opinions doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Later in life sleep becomes an urgent need and blissful blessing.

Throughout life, confidence can be tidal – but without the rhythm.

Sometimes friends last for ever and feel like family but without judgement. Sometimes a deep connection can be secured in five minutes – even, just possibly, on Facebook!

 

Closing doors deprives us of opportunities so we need good reasons to keep them shut. It’s easy to narrow with age and to play a familiar role without learning any new lines.

There are often equally good reasons for and against a decision or action. But with big issues like government policies the love lens will normally clarify what’s right and wrong.

God is love. Love is God. By comparison, the whole religious remainder is fascinating and irrelevant. Tragically, it can also be divisive. In love we are one. Love is all. We have to trust it, and if it doesn’t seem to be working (to quote from Facebook again) increase the dose.

Little Sue kilt

Little Sue windowsilllittle Sue on beach

 

Sue bridesmaid

 

Love love love – on this day and every other

baby elephantsOn a sad day, a depressing day, when I feel for the enlightened young who are internationalists and respect difference, there’s something I need to tell myself. Not everyone who voted Leave is a racist. It was a complex issue and it was certainly possible, at the start, to have a thoughtful rationale for supporting Brexit. The referendum was hijacked by the right-wing press and Farage’s disgraceful poster, and personally, if I’d ever been inclined to vote out, I would have switched once the racism of the campaign became rampant. But that doesn’t mean I’m kicking, swearing and vilifying. As the Daily Mail declares today, we are a divided nation and whatever any of us think about the causes of that division, there’s been enough blame.

Division and austerity both cause violence – and we are facing an increase in austerity so we can’t allow the kind of split that means anger, bitterness and hostility. What we need to do now is hug, breathe and let go of the personal if a family member or friend voted the other way and Facebook got nasty. Because love – of people and planet, of peace and the generations to come – stands up for what it believes in but it doesn’t jeer and make a fist, and it doesn’t kick in heads.

And when we’ve hugged those who voted Remain too, because they see the world as we do, we need to hug (if only in a virtual sense) those who see it differently. I believe in respecting diversity of all kinds and that covers opinions too – or rather I respect the right of someone who disagrees with me to hold that position, even if – as in the case of racists and climate deniers – I can’t respect the position itself. Respect must overrule. We have to try to understand. Because we experience life differently, we have different parents and jobs – or no job – and these shape our views. I wrote on Facebook when I saw a photo of Britain First activists at a training camp that it’s sad they haven’t learned to love. And I meant it. Their hatred scares me but I don’t want to hate back. If they’d been loved by parents who believe in the light in everyone, if they’d loved people whose skins are not white the way I love my non-white friends, they wouldn’t be there.

The other response to what has happened is love in action – working to safeguard the future, like Tina Rothery who was up in court against Cuadrilla today because she won’t pay a fine for opposing fracking and she won’t be bullied. Volunteering at your local hospice or night shelter, supporting Oxfam – it all counts, it all tips the love/hate balance. And I predict an ideological coalition of people who love the earth, its species and its peoples, peace, equality and justice, more than they hate anything or anyone. As a Quaker I am going to work harder to see that light in everyone, to banish sneering and abuse from my responses to social media and to remember that hope – as I learned on a Friends of the Earth weekend – is finding the magic/beauty/love/peace in the now.

Love IS stronger than hate and we must live and prove it.

 

 

Driven to cheat: the test of a great teacher

Jean BrodieAs children all over the country emerge from SAT tests, I’m reminded of a sad but true story of a gifted, passionate and inspiring teacher whose commitment to justice led her to disgrace. I don’t remember her name and in any case, she’s been shamed enough. But I have enormous sympathy for her and I hope that when her tampering with those Y6 papers signalled the end of her career, she left assured of the love and gratitude of those whose interests she’d been trying to serve. What she did was wrong but it’s hard to blame her. Instead I blame the ‘system’, soulless and exacting, that drives everything, piling on pressure and making of education a competition, a business and a struggle to survive. Because it’s not creative, it’s not human, it narrows and limits and it can be brutally unjust. Continue reading

Flower power

Mum and daffodilsMy father was an architect but at soul level, a poet and gardener. As a child I became aware of the intensive, sweaty effort involved in keeping our garden beautiful. He’d reclaimed wasteland that ran down to a busy railway line when he designed the house for Mum, so it was deeply personal labour. But I also saw how much he needed the peace, the scents, space and colour when he rested in a deckchair as if he breathed the sunlight itself. As an evacuee he’d loved the countryside while longing for home. It was a pattern that continued when he boarded at Monmouth, where as a sensitive, artistic boy, he was profoundly unhappy, but where nature kept him whole. Through my childhood I was happiest when led by the hand to love the flowers. The photo, taken by Dad, shows Mum among her favourites. Continue reading

Frieda Kaurimuje: obscurity and greatness

Frieda altar complete

On paper Frieda’s life was tragic. Once she had to give up social work and claim disability benefit, physical problems limited her to a way of living that most of us would find wretched. She had a not-very-desirable Housing Association flat and no family in this country. Anyone would imagine that being Frieda was no fun, and yet fun was what she was. She liked to make the hospital staff laugh too and would play her queenly role, inviting one nurse to call her ‘Your Majesty’ and bow at her bed in order to entertain the ward. She also liked the idea that some observers might think her genuinely the queen of an African tribe. It made her sad that in spite of her efforts to hold on to it, she was losing her fluency with Herrero – the language of the songs delivered with fervour at her memorial service in a shabby upstairs room of an evangelical Tufnell Park church. At seventeen she came here as a refugee, because as an ANC activist she’d been driven in darkness to an empty grave by South African police wanting to know where to find her white boyfriend. She’d been the only black student at her school thanks to a UN scholarship, and the fastest schoolgirl sprinter in Namibia. Continue reading

On being a professional author: good reasons NOT to do it, and better reasons to do it anyway

  1. Sue at Reason CafeA small minority earn a living wage.
  2. Very few find publishers or agents with respect for writing as an art form rather than a nice little earner, and therefore few find publishers they can trust.
  3. Many agents and publishers will try to mess with the writing for commercial reasons – your strong girl should be a boy, your second book must be a sequel, your sentences are too long and your language too literary. A very famous author with a big publisher told us that this kind of interference still happens to him! This is one reason I’ve met and heard of authors taken up by the big boys only to cut and run. Some even revert to self-publishing.
  4. Without a big publisher, however, many writers have to do their own marketing. Promotion eats into writing time, which can demoralise and diminish the author. Most of us find it difficult and even rather shameful, but there are plenty of people eager to take money for relieving us of what we’re assured in today’s social media world is a ‘necessity’ – for a price. And blogging may be fun and a way to make people aware of an author’s name, but I can testify that even a blog liked by thousands on Facebook may not result in sales.
  5. Another time-consuming business is touting for appearances – i.e. chances to sell books. Many authors will appear free. Schools pay me; so do W.I. groups. Writers’ and reading groups may offer, but I’d rather sell a couple of books than be paid a fee. Most authors will fund their transport to any gigs they can get, thus turning opportunities into loss-making ventures.
  6. Authors are judged by their fame and sales figures, not their talent. But a celebrity endorsement doesn’t necessarily sell books, as I discovered when Beverley Knight praised THINNER THAN WATER. A five star review on a site like I Love Reading may not sell books either – I know because I had a wonderful one for this same YA novel.
  7. Few readers feel inclined to post a review, even if they email the author to say they loved the book, and authors really don’t feel inclined to ask – but may steel themselves in the hope that it isn’t seen as begging, needy or evidence of their lowly status. And one negative comment is likely to linger longer in the mind than ten packed full of positives – but that might be me!!
  8. Adults can be critical audiences, and many grown-up readers habitually restrict their reading diet. It’s in school, inspiring children who are open-minded and imaginative, that I experience the greatest thrill as an author: sharing the fruits of my own creativity as a way of inviting them to be creative too. A day of writing workshops is exhausting of course, and without my teaching experience I couldn’t begin, but I come away feeling that I might have made a difference and opened a closed door or two. Great feedback, from teachers, parents and the students themselves, always means a lot, even if it’s reported that an unusually excited low-ability Y8 set told the head of English I’m ‘sick’!
  9. What matters most to an author who believes in the power of the story and the beauty of language is the connection between writer and reader. When it happens, this connection – a kind of love – justifies everything and makes being an author feel deeply worthwhile.
  10. It must be almost impossible to sustain belief and morale without the understanding, faith and ongoing support of someone who not only loves the author but has such a connection with the work. Friends who are artists or musicians can help too because their experience may be equally tough. Without Leslie Tate, the brilliant, charismatic other half of #authorsinlove, I would not be writing still. But together we hold on, rant a bit, sink a bit but remain committed, because nothing matters in the book world but the writing. And writing matters.Peoples Book PrizeTop three in the People’s Book Prize 2012 with TRACES

Continue reading

On author activism – for good

Sue 38 degrees
I support The Green Party, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, CND, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth… and yes, I’m vegan too!

The other day I told someone at a Purple Tour event, “I’m not in my books.” I meant that while Leslie’s novels draw deeply on life-memory, I write historical adventures, futuristic dystopias and fantasy as well as real-world ‘literary fiction’ for adults, so I don’t and can’t adapt so closely from an autobiographical framework. But it was a silly thing to say. Of course I’m there. If there are any authors who don’t inhabit their writing in a sense that’s independent of plot, I don’t think I’d like to meet them; they might as well be computer programs. I’m not a big fan of detachment and I’m anything but distanced from my characters’ feelings. So I’m emotionally involved, but there’s more to it than that. As a human being I’m emotionally involved in the world too. I have beliefs, convictions and attitudes as well as my own particular life-set of friends, family, places and experiences. I’m present in every idea about humanity, however covert, that might be identified in my stories. That’s why someone once said, having read SHUTDOWN at the manuscript stage, “I would have known you’d written it, even if your name hadn’t been on it.” And no wonder, because into that particular novel – about education as it might be in the future, if we don’t change direction – I poured all my passion for creative freedom and my hatred of data! It’s not hard to see where I stand. I’m the Bald Green Author and in their different ways those two adjectives determine the way I see the world. So if we accept the power of stories to change us and arguably to reshape society too, is opinionated fiction dangerous? Or, at a time when all over the world people are calling for radical change, is author activism like mine a valid, if very small, part of the movement? Continue reading

The short story: a big difference?

In His KissRecently I was asked by Candy Jar to contribute a short story for a collection, and I hesitated. The subject was Lethbridge-Stewart of UNIT from early Dr Who episodes (Candy Jar have the rights to this spin-off character), and although I watched as a child, any kind of action-driven sci-fi requiring a body count (human or alien), has little appeal for this particular reader. In my novels I aim to use up to 87,000 words to build momentum or, equally importantly, explore a character’s psyche so intimately and in such depth that the readers know him or her better than they know their best friend or mum. Or even themselves. But when Candy Jar said this short story collection was all about character, and that I could write about the Brig as a teenager in love, in a context that was actually historical, I saw a challenge I could relish. In His Kiss (used to trail the book which is not yet available) turned out to be huge fun to write after all. And it was the beginning of a new interest in that very different beast, the short story, apparently popular again in an age where many can’t find the time or mental energy after work for a full-length novel. As a reader and writer, I became curious, and now I’m hooked.

cover MOLP2
Congratulations to short story winner John Irving Clarke and poetry winner Corrinna Toop.

Recently Leslie and I appeared at the awards ceremony for MOLP 2, the world’s greenest writing competition run by publishers Magic Oxygen, who ensure that a tree is planted in a deforested area of Kenya for every entry. For every sale of the resulting anthology, another tree is planted. It’s a wonderful, and literally a growing project, made possible because writers from all around the world enter at a small fee – with a poem or a short story. I’ve read almost all the stories in the new anthology with great interest, as a reader willing to be taken on a short ride even if the view isn’t the kind I’d usually choose. And setting aside the pleasures of the ride, I’ve examined the mechanics of the vehicle: what starts the engine, what makes it rev, turn or freewheel rather than meander, stall or even backfire. This varied anthology has whetted my appetite for short stories and my interest in the elements that make them different from the novel, where a different kind of engine powers a shorter journey at a different pace. Continue reading

EGGHEADS vs A CLEARER HEAD: mission accomplished… with bonus miracle

 

Eggheads the team

This blog, written on 9th August 2015, will be published immediately after the show is aired. So by the time you read it, the secret we swore to keep will be out, and we might have started to believe it. We aimed to spread awareness of Alopecia (right across the world!) and we also BEAT THE EGGHEADS! Only six teams in the history of the show have won a bigger jackpot. And in our case the whole £29,000 goes to Alopecia UK (well, minus the cost of chips all round, washed down with G and T at Glasgow Central station as we tried not to betray the result with screams, whoops or dance routines). Continue reading

Ambassador in action, or why representing Alopecia UK rather rocks

Representing Alopecia UK at a fundraiser in 2014
Representing Alopecia UK at a fundraiser in 2014
Talking at the Big Weekend for AUK in 2014
Talking at the Big Weekend for AUK in 2014

Last week I received a new contract – not on a book but with a charity, Alopecia UK, who have asked me to continue as an Ambassador for another year. Taking on this role in 2013 was the start of something hugely rewarding so I’m very, very glad. It’s a small charity founded in 2004 and run by two wonderful women, Jen Chambers and Amy Johnson, whose aim is to help anyone affected by the strange condition that is alopecia. It’s different for everyone, it’s completely unpredictable and many of those who live with it do so privately, even in secret – and with little hope of success from any ‘treatment’. It doesn’t make us ill and when an agent called it a disability I was shocked. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to experience or manage; it can be deeply challenging to self-esteem and undermine identity. I want to help. But how? Continue reading

Making a difference with character – or a character with a difference

By Ltljltlj (talk · contribs) - Own work, made to the specifications of the 2004 edition of Standard Highway Signs (sign D9-6)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1208074
By Ltljltlj (talk · contribs) – Own work, made to the specifications of the 2004 edition of Standard Highway Signs (sign D9-6)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1208074

One of my messages in school is that each of us is a unique individual, and that’s both true and important, but so is the end of the joke: “like everybody else.” Young readers need firstly to believe in the characters in stories and secondly to identify with them to some degree, but I try to create individuals who feel brand new and different as well as recognizably familiar. I’m not a plot-driven novelist. My characters are always the heart of the story and as an author in school I often prove to children that once they have two of them, that story begins to unfold in their imagination. It’s a wonderful thing! I let mine lead and some mean a little more to me than the others, probably for personal reasons I may or may not understand. None of them are stolen from my own real world and reconstituted on the page because that’s far too dangerous. But of course the seed or spark that grows into a Sue Hampton character may be the sliver of a memory of someone real, or an experience or emotion I’ve known myself. As D.H. Lawrence said, writers adapt from life. Daisy Waterhouse in my alopecia novel isn’t me: she’s younger, braver and funnier, a strong and passionate eccentric. I remember being taken aback when a literary agent referred to my alopecia as a ‘disability’. Even though I was guarding my secret under a wig at that point it felt misjudged, inappropriate – and emotionally just a little bit disabling! Continue reading

Love: different for girls?

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee
Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee

When does it start, with love? And is it different for girls? In fact, does the divide begin as early as language, or even before?

From an early age I was more interested in love than anything else. I was tuned in to relationships, not just my own (considering which relatives and friends I loved more and most) but those of people around me, and soon concluded that some of the adults in my world didn’t really love each other. I could tell because I lived with parents who were in love. They touched a lot and used the L word daily, to each other and to me. When they looked at each other, at home or out in the world,  they smiled. Continue reading

PROCESSING