One grandma’s lockdown

Some of these experiences will be common to many; others are more individual. It’s possible that I had the virus mildly early on, but I haven’t lost anyone close to me and that makes me very, very lucky. I’m acutely aware that for some humans in other parts of the world with no health service and no savings, this year has been and remains both devastating and terrifying, so I know ‘white privilege’ is written all over my own perspective.

I’ve been both very emotional about the death toll and frustrated and angry that in Britain these figures have now become so hard to find. It disturbs me that while in many countries the cases continue to rise, the shock and grief of our collective response has dulled. I tell myself that even when only 11 UK deaths are recorded, each one counts for just as much as every individual in eight or nine hundred.

Several times I’ve cried watching interviews with survivors still battered and suffering, their stripped humanity raw and their gratitude deep.

A recent procedure of my own – a scare that proved unfounded – showed me the detail of the care taken in a hospital environment, reminding me of the ongoing vulnerability of medical staff and our duty to protect them as well as each other.

My anger at the government, initially because of the failure to provide these courageous people with PPE, peaked with deaths among NHS and care workers but has not abated as one failure has followed another.

I’ve learned to appreciate the work of the underpaid and undervalued in a shockingly unequal society that I hoped we could reconstitute more justly.

At People not Borders we were able at the height of the pandemic to contribute financially towards PPE etc for refugee camps. However, it’s been hugely frustrating being unable until recently to raise much money or collect donated items, so it feels great to begin sorting and boxing again for Greece, and to see shoes we’ve bought reach refugees in Dunkirk.

I chalked ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE on walls around town and yes, in the quiet I imagined I could “hear her breathing” (Arundhati Roy). I used to love walking in the middle of the road, the way strangers greeted and helped each other, hearing birdsong and having time to look, listen and think.

I actually believed for a while that the world might take the opportunity of lockdown to make the radical changes necessary to avert climate catastrophe – and have more recently raged as our government has prioritised bailing out polluting industries.

I’ve trusted Channel Four News to try to find the truth and care about it. It’s thanks to the team there that I have understood how differently the virus has impacted elsewhere, and how manageable for people like me the lockdown has been.

My reading, fairly prolific, and has broadened to include inspiring and/or educative non-fiction titles such as Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, The Hammer Blow by Andrea Needham, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd and Dear Life by Doctor Rachel Clarke. But I still feel a little self-indulgent reading before 6pm!

I’ve had time to read articles, mainly about climate change and racial injustice, online. I’ve even tried to retain some facts.

Of the novels I’ve read, my favourites were Annabel by Kathleen Winter, The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré and Notes from the Lost Property Department by Bridget Pitt. I also found Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo very powerful.

Having decided not to write any more fiction myself, I have – preposterously – completed an adult novel begun in, and because of, lockdown. My decision to focus on activism and family from now on had not factored in a global pandemic; I had to do something and writing is what I do. The novel, a sequel to my 37th title, INTACT, which was published in March, might or might not exist in the future as an e-book, depending largely on whether a few people buy INTACT! But I’m lucky that a pension and simple living spare me the financial problems most authors are facing.

My daily exercise has been a walk with Leslie and we have built up our fitness to manage four or five miles on occasions, but have struggled to avoid runners in particular but also, and increasingly, people who are neither wearing masks nor taking care to keep social distance.

Every day, even if restricted to street walks, we have looked for flowers and celebrated those seen for the first time (this year) as they’ve bloomed. Trying to bring back or discover their names and hold on to them until we are home again has been our alternative to learning a new language or, in the case of certain gifted young people, all Chopin’s Etudes.

Those talented siblings, the Kanneh-Masons, have brought me joy and elation with their weekly livestreams from their living room in Nottingham.

For weeks I cleaned more often and more intensively but that was a phase.

Zooming continues in spite of having lost some of its appeal. I often find myself even less likely to contribute on screen than I’d be in person. They’re a blessing for the shy, as is the Leave Meeting option.

My new concept of a busy day – applying objectively ridiculous pressure – would have made the busy, pre-lockdown me laugh out loud.

I abandoned bras with very few exceptions and with pleasure, but that leaves me feeling old and exposed when hanging loose on the street without a hoodie or XR jacket.

Every bedtime we have recalled the good things that have happened that day, some of them small but cherished all the same – like yesterday’s clear view of a Red Kite gliding directly and not far above us.

Early in lockdown I continued an inter-faith vigil for the climate that had begun in Westminster but had to regroup online. It was moving and heartening sitting in silence on my living room carpet with a candle and various texts: not just Quaker books but XR’s This Is Not A Drill, The Book of Joy by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama and I am Because You Are by Satish Kumar. I also developed my own little daily regenerative routine, which endures and never fails. (I make prayer hands and say “Peace,” then lift them for “Love” and raise one arm in a loose fist for “Justice”, head bowed.)

The May Rebellion couldn’t happen, which was a huge disappointment and at times deepened my despair.

But that month my first foray for any purpose other than exercise was with Extinction Rebellion, when a small group of local rebels began to witness safely, in masks and two metres apart, on the high street. Initially we made NO GOING BACK placards, with almost all the shops closed. Continuing every Sunday since, we have now changed the message to BUILD BACK BETTER, but I also chalk that Black Lives Matter. Climate justice and social and racial equality were always closely connected but from now on, in XR, they will go hand in hand.

In France the Citizens’ Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a referendum on Ecocide Law. I allow myself to hope that such a law could soon be passed, and that before long Ecocide will be declared an international crime – which would change everything fast.

My emails to my Tory MP have become even more frequent and on 25th June I was part of a socially distanced XR presence at his constituency office. When he voted against reuniting child refugees with family in the UK just recently, the emotional tone of my communications changed as I appealed to his humanity. So far I have received no reply.

I’ve been glad to be on antidepressants (since my XR trial in October) because for me they work and I’ve stopped feeling ashamed.

I won’t be alone in expressing the wish that I’d been born in New Zealand where one world leader shows integrity, compassion and wisdom.

The Royal Academy of Dance ran some weekly online ballet lessons which I took with some excitement, about sixty years after first planning to be a ballerina but never ever being taught. I did find the tuition more formal and less exciting than I’d hoped, and objected from a feminist perspective to being encouraged to flutter eyelashes – in my case non-existent – as part of the end-of-performance curtsey.

Like many, I’ve wished we had a garden, although in the shared space at the back of the flats neighbours who didn’t really interact have now bonded and it’s lovely to see children playing safely together.

Also like many, I’ve planted seeds for the kitchen window sill and have hopes for the little basil shoots that already have the appetising scent of a holiday in Italy back in 2005, the last time we flew anywhere.

I’ve pined for my favourite naughty vegan treat of chips in paper from the fish shop next to Berkhamsted station, where I’d been indulging 10 or 12 times a year in conjunction with getting the train to London. Tempted as I am, I’m not ready for a takeaway yet.

Today my 9 month conditional discharge from the court expired. We are planning the next rebellion but without knowing what will be possible or safe, and I can only hope we’ll wake up a government that for all its greenwash is still hell-bent on pushing us over the cliff as fast as possible.

More than anything I have missed hugs with family and friends, seeing family and friends in person, across a café table or our kitchen, and in particular I’ve felt the loss of my Grandma Mondays with my grandson. I’m lucky that he lives a few minutes’ drive away and in recent weeks we’ve enjoyed his garden with him and his parents. All the same, every time we’ve left I’ve cried because I just want to hold him, and sit him on my lap for a story, and play all day. And I’ve seen my daughter once since March.

I’ve felt for those shut in with someone abusive, grumpy or even just cold – just as I’ve felt for those who’ve had to risk their health to work, or who are in financial difficulty.

Since I stopped teaching to be a full-time author in 2008, Leslie and I have spent most of our waking and sleeping hours together, but the extremes of early lockdown confirmed for me how very much I love him, how happy we are together (almost all the time) and how fortunate that makes us.

I’m conscious that for many thousands of people in the UK alone this year has brought grief, loss and pain. I’m very, very angry with our government because it failed them – and the NHS, and care homes and care workers, and bus and taxi drivers too. I’m furious because of the government’s ever-flowing stream of ‘world-beating’ lies and because in so many ways they’ve prioritised profit over human life.

I’m more determined than ever to work for that better world.

Kids’ fiction matters

As a child I was frightened by the Wolf Grandmother, wicked witches and ogres, and didn’t like Beatrix Potter because animals sometimes became pies. Evil in fantastic form gave me nightmares even when I knew it was all ‘pretend’. Drawn to the sadness of love, I avoided darkness in my reading choices from the local library, and my sensitive father protected me from the real world as featured in his commuter’s newspaper long after I had the reading level to process it. Looking back as an adult depressed by that reality, I think he was right, but these decisions about reading and viewing content are for parents to make with intimate understanding of their own children. Nothing much has changed for me. I’m a Pacifist vegan and I’m terrified of climate chaos and the Far Right. But as an adult I see it as my responsibility to look into the darkness, name it, understand it – and work to dispel it. I don’t allow myself to live in a world of songbirds and rainbows. There are things – and public figures – that make me despair and sometimes leave me angry, because they normalise war or violence, prejudice in any form, lies or consumerist greed, so how do I respond? I can block, and believe me I do, because I don’t want hate on my feed. But it’s more useful to challenge it, and campaign for change. And fiction for psychologically healthy young readers is worth writing and campaigning for.

When a mother of young children, and a primary school teacher, I used to both monitor fiction and consider carefully how much dark reality to reveal. I remember parents complaining that having read The Suitcase Kid, their daughter was lying awake worrying that they’d divorce. I stood my ground because so many children in the class lived this already and benefited from fiction that understood and helped their peers to understand too. But the disillusionment that faces teens or pre-teens as they learn how many ways our leaders fail us, that we sell arms that kill children, that some adults mean them harm and some police officers should be arrested themselves, appals me. The end of innocence feels like a terribly sad loss – which is not to pretend that children are angels who don’t know how to be unkind.  Of course they do. But racism, like all prejudices, is learned. Nursery children really are oblivious to the differences that divide adults. How soon we introduce them to these divisions, and how we present them, may just determine the kind of adults they become. So children’s fiction matters, not just for aesthetic or literary reasons but in terms of child development. That lays on children’s authors – however famous, and regardless of adult material they may produce – a genuine and daunting responsibility.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is less damaging to young readers than the kind of fiction that dehumanises anyone, through racial or gender stereotypes, in pursuit of humour which is really ridicule. And since humour which is really sneery, jeery disrespect is everywhere, it’s not surprising to find it in children’s books. Laughs at other people’s expense are easy to come by and women like me with alopecia can provoke that kind of humour just by existing. I remember being shocked when, during an author visit to a primary school, I first read a passage from THE LINCOLN IMP in which the bully’s cruel jokes prompted laughter from my young audience. It can be a knee-jerk reaction of the kind that finds it funny, just in the moment, when someone falls on their face – until, sobering up, most of us feel guilty and reflect with concern. I remained confident, however, that amused readers would soon find themselves scorning such wit and empathising with the victim in my story. I’m conscious that it’s up to me to make sure of that. But if a narrator mocks other characters, without learning to stop like Freya in ALAS AND ALACK, the message absorbed by readers is very different. They’re being taught that mockery is a clever kind of wit and some people are fair game. And those of us who object to comedy because the context is too raw or the joke too callous are readily dismissed as over-sensitive. Where’s your sense of humour?

Of course children’s stories don’t have to be predominantly funny, and as a teacher I found that Story Time was most thrilling when the book I shared resonated with its audience at a profound emotional level. Kids can relate to fiction about the human condition as well as underpants. In fact I believe these are the stories that count. In my own writing my central characters might lose their hair, be overweight, or have special needs, uncool passions, a disability or an ethnicity that sets them apart – so that readers connect with them emotionally as they understand the experience they share with them. I was overwhelmed when a teenage boy told me that THE WATERHOUSE GIRL had made him a better person. Stories are excitingly powerful, but children’s authors abuse that power if they perpetuate in the next generation the problems that split and damage us.

As for death, climate breakdown and the plight of refugees, I believe they’re all important contexts for children’s fiction. Of course they’re distressing – that’s the point. Beth March dies; so, even does Michael Morpurgo’s Dancing Bear. We learn to live with loss and sympathise with others doing the same. My picture book for People not Borders, I AM ME, is an empathy-developer that helps children as young as three or four to understand emotionally what it must be like to be a young refugee. I don’t believe in shielding children from the kind of reality that’s too big to ignore, as long as the exposure is measured and positive. Life is full of sadness and that’s what makes the joy soar. Children introduced to injustice and suffering feel compassion, and a desire to help, to change the world for the better. That’s the richest kind of maturity. This stuff matters, and there’s nothing worse than the kind of fiction that implies nothing does. I’d go so far as to say, at this point in human history, that fiction that presents our current world while ignoring the climate and ecological emergency is a kind of lie. I’ve acknowledged it in many of my novels, but in different ways and genres. Just as adult cli-fi can be more terrifying than the IPCC report, children’s fiction built on the same truth can be gentler, inspiring, brave. It’s a heavy responsibility to bear and requires delicate judgement, kindness and hope.

I’m not naming names – I can’t, not having read a huge number of children’s books in the last ten years – but I’m making a case. It’s a case that explains why, for example, The Secret Garden has just been filmed again and will always retain its power for as long as there are stories. Call me soft, idealistic, old, but for me:

Sadness is important; superficiality sells kids short.

Unkindness is a reality but the author shouldn’t be guilty of it!

Fun and deep seriousness aren’t mutually exclusive. They can work together to make a story unforgettable.

If it’s lightweight, or even trivial, it lacks staying power.

If it’s jumped on a bandwagon with no real vision, it’ll soon fall off.

When a character is a stereotype the author denies their humanity, and by extension, the humanity of real people with whom the reader may associate them.

If the stereotype is racial, it’s particularly damaging, and always was, long before Black Lives Matter. Enough!

If white authors like me create black characters we’d better take loving, enlightened care.

Authors must not limit girls – or boys, either.

Disrespect is not a healthy attitude to foster in readers and society.

Humour is no excuse.

Young characters can/should be deep, rounded, complex and individual rather than cool or conventional. It’s the rebels that inspire us and change the world for the better.

Even fantasy needs values. If the story’s not about love and the human condition, however young the reader, why bother?

If the story teaches a child to sneer, judge, be shallow and careless, give it a swerve.

Love and understanding – or depression and climate grief

I’ve been suffering from depression and taking medication for eight months now and for me the antidepressants have really worked, so much so that I’ve swung from a kind of shame (prompting two rather disastrous failed attempts to prove I didn’t need them) to an acceptance that I am happier and more functional using them. I make no claims to any knowledge or understanding of depression – unlike the brilliant Matt Haig, whose tweets and whose book Reasons to Stay Alive I unreservedly recommend – but there are rare occasions when I understand my own emotional processes, and I’ve just experienced one.

Our feelings are so muddled, connected and conflicted that identifying them can be difficult to do, and when I recognised my depression I was confused. I knew I had always had the potential, always been romantically attracted to sadness in literature, music and film, as if I sensed from an early age that beauty and sadness are interdependent, like love and loss. So was there a chemical inevitability that as I grew older and experienced more loss in various forms, the sadness would overwhelm? Or was it something else that took me to my G.P.? Is my depression climate grief, a rational response to the facts as climate scientists explain them, because those facts equate to the most profound kind of loss that humans could fear, and experience: the end of humanity, and of life on earth? The timing fitted. After years of what I’d considered campaigning and then activism I had become not only committed to non-violent direct action as a rebel with XR, but emotionally immersed in the science, living its saddest of truths because I’d taken that truth, via the brain, into my heart – which then broke. Which remains fractured, and which I am afraid would break again if I came off the pills. Arrested for the third time last October – just before I visited my GP – I admitted to depression, and told the doctor at the police station, “I don’t know where depression ends and climate grief begins.” “No,” he said, “neither do I.” Do I know many rebels on medication too? Oh yes, more than I had imagined.

Yet, returning to the inextricable way in which feelings can be connected, it’s not so clear. We’re not as simple or as altruistic as I may have suggested. We’re selfish beings, and maybe we need to be to survive the world’s suffering. My need for medication coincided last October with two arrests in consecutive months and two court appearances over ten days, including my trial for my April arrest, at which I represented myself and pleaded not guilty at the end of months of stressful preparation and sheer anxiety. So was it really climate breakdown that crushed me, or something more personal and much less deep: fear of being criminalised (since I’ve always been a good girl and need people to recognise that) and a desperate need to acquit myself well, not just for ‘the cause’ but in the eyes of my fellow-rebels?

And what about the insight today brought? Well, yesterday, towards evening, I felt lower than I have for seven months or so. Not as unreachable as I was, back in October, because Leslie could make me smile and laugh, bless him, but nonetheless unable to meet a friend at my doorway to sign a card for my neighbour. I wondered why. Was it the science I’d read earlier in the day, warning that the temperature rise ahead of us could be sooner and higher than previously thought – up an unlivable 5 degrees – and the possibility that now we have six months to avoid the worst? Reasonably, plausibly, yes. To respond any other way would be madness! Was it disappointment and frustration that again an action I had committed to was postponed or cancelled and another reconsidered by my affinity group? Understandably, yes. There isn’t much time to delay and the pandemic has made the kind of protest XR planned impossible this year. And yet…

It was only today that I knew for sure what else was affecting my emotional balance. I was due, for the first time in a few weeks, to see my grandson, son and daughter-in-law, still socially distanced, in their garden this morning. That visit made me the happiest I’ve been for a long time, leaving me energised, smiley, positive, chirpy and at peace. This teaches me (setting aside the very obvious connection between climate grief and grandchildren) that yesterday I experienced a different kind of fear – that my small grandson might almost have forgotten me, might not take enough notice of me, might love me less than I want him to! I was dreading a kind of (relative) rejection; how needy and childlike is that? Rationally I am grown-up enough to handle the reality that he will never love me as much as I love him, because that’s the way it works. But I also recognise a deep-seated variation on loss that has been with me for some reason all my life. As an adult, in spite of feeling treasured as a child, I almost always expect to be loved less than I love, and almost always assume that I am. (I won’t name the exceptions in case I’m wrong about those!)  So there’s anxiety and inadequacy in the mix, a sense that I’m less lovable, or deserving, than the family and friends I love most. My depression last night was one expression of a desire to be loved more than I am! I could blame alopecia or never being pretty and all that jazz but regardless, it really does feel shameful! Especially as I am with a husband I love very much, whose love has sustained me through lockdown. This is some brain and heart divide.

Enough time on the couch. I share this only in the hope that it may help someone else, in the sense that understanding ourselves can help us to understand others, and that inevitably, it’s complicated so understanding will always be incomplete. And thinking about Black Lives Matters, as we all have been, I’ve made a jump. If I was brought low by the possibility of being loved less, I can just begin to imagine life for those fellow-humans who are, in a society that’s systemically racist, never valued as equals by that society and repeatedly rejected. It’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve recognised the difference between colour blindness (my M.O. all my life) and active anti-racism, a difference that is about the love I thought I lived by but also about a deeper, informed, listening and empathetic understanding. There’s blind, instinctive love and there’s love that accepts and honours the lived experience of someone else even though it isn’t mine, and even though my perception and assumptions might have been as different as my experience. Love in action accepts this experience I haven’t lived as reality, as truth. Love is the most powerful force I know, but without understanding, as 1, Corinthians 14 tells us, it’s not enough. From love and understanding, justice comes.

When writing isn’t enough: protest, behaviour and truth

It’s Sunday, so I was on my high street with a placard again, with XR friends – all of us in masks and socially distanced. When #nogoingbacksundays began we were deep in lockdown, George Floyd was still alive and there was hope that as a species and a nation we might learn from the last few months, and recognise that business as usual was already killing us before Covid-19. We’re a small group of regulars and we stand in silence, appealing for climate justice and connecting with the Black Lives Matter movement. After all, like coronavirus climate change affects people of colour both disproportionately and first.  If we look to the global south, to the Pacific Islanders and indigenous peoples, we see terrible climate injustice, and those suffering have done the least to create the crisis.

For Leslie and me, this Sunday protest falls when we would otherwise be ‘joining’ our fellow-Quakers for Meeting in our own homes, so we try to approach the hour meditatively or prayerfully as peaceful witness, a kind of vigil. Very few passers-by engage with us. A few hoot to show support from cars, or give us the thumbs-up – like a plaited girl of about twelve across the road, a mini-Greta – but most either ignore us or scrutinise our messaging before turning away. We’ve had no hostility, and it feels important as one of few actions currently available to us. But  however many times I take this kind of stand, it’s always a shock – that human beings are walking on past as if we and climate change don’t really exist, when in fact we’re acting on a scientific consensus and with love. When what’s at risk and already being lost and destroyed, is everything, is LIFE ON EARTH. When the normality the government aims to revive is deadlier than the virus. When the nutters going over the top and classified last year as terrorists are actually responding rationally to the evidence as the world’s experts present it. Or rather, we’re under-reacting, in our well-behaved way, because weeping and wailing would be more proportionate and trying to shut down government arguably quite reasonable since our leaders are the criminals. There’s usually a point when I sing internally, or remind myself to focus on the light that is both truth and love, in order to hold on to hope, because the alternative is the kind of grief that hollows out and immobilises. Then I realise that perhaps what most people are rejecting, or sidestepping, is that very grief that truth awakens and once faced can never sleep again. So I remember to understand.

Yesterday, when rebels talked to some sympathetic councillors on Zoom, everyone was very decent and polite, articulate and respectful. The meeting was seen by most as encouraging. But again there was a moment when I did weep and wail, inwardly and privately, not just with frustration at the snail’s pace of change at local government level (arguably speedy relative to national government) but at reality. Underpinning our low-key conversation was impending catastrophe, with rising temperature and sea levels, extreme weather, climate refugees, and millions of deaths right now: Greta’s world on fire, and at war too in more ways than one. Yet anyone overhearing without English might assume from the tone that we were debating the new colour scheme of the council chambers. We have to play this game, apparently, to avoid all the negative labels used by Cressida Dick and the Met, the Daily Mail, our Prime Minister and Pritti Patel. To seem mature and respectable rather than hysterical. Because right now, when people abandon democratic channels and peacefully shut down bridges, glue themselves to the Department of BSEI, sit down in airports or take down statues of men still honoured in spite of their crimes against humanity, those protesters are seen as a threat to society and decency – even though the goals of such protest are justice: climate, racial and social. The inversion is breathtaking. Yet such protesters are the modern equivalents of those radical reformers society learned in time to admire, to thank – in spite of their less than muted opposition to abhorrent norms we no longer attempt to justify. (Not even the far-right thugs do that, because they have and require no justification but ignorance and hate.)

Yes, I’m emotional, obsessed and often devastated by everything I challenge: not just climate inaction and systemic racism but the arms trade at which Britain excels along with the world’s betrayal of refugees fleeing from war and oppression facilitated by the rich white nations. Isn’t such emotion legitimate? I didn’t expect to persuade the courts that my actions when arrested were necessary, in the attempt to prevent a greater crime, because as magistrates are advised in XR cases, they’re “not about climate change or morality”. The law, like governments, still sleeps, adhering to rules outdated by the present reality fronted by activists but also by the United Nations and David Attenborough. As a shy person who prefers to let others do more of the talking, I sometimes conform to the low-key exterior that effectively denies that reality. I often duck the confrontation the truth would risk. But I have learned from my recent reading that racial injustice calls us to be actively anti-racist rather than just colour blind, and that only honouring the truth of lived BAME experience is enough. It’s the same with climate activism. We must honour the truth of lived BAME experience of climate breakdown and of evidence uncovered over decades of scientific research, study and modelling.

   Even if it makes us trouble-makers, law-breakers and extremists generally unwelcome at parties.

Another World Is Possible: a poem for #poets4theplanet #beginafresh

Words that never stop meaning


Frail and dusty

the dream still gnaws through sun and wine

as chance decays,

still alive

but critical

so hold her close

Breathe in each molecule that builds

the love of which you’re made

Then hope beyond belief

because the new beginning is a fine root through rubble,

Wind’s corps de ballet white on blue,

A chain of hands across a chasm of flame,

The teeming underside,

Fear honoured wide eyed

in grief’s communion

And every morning’s soaring cry

undimmed, unmasked

and bravely yearning

Sue Hampton

A poem for lockdown

I wrote this on Easter Sunday and in the few weeks since a good deal has changed. More deaths, more misjudgements, more lies – and less care being taken by some in response to the messages of relaxation. I think it’s important to remember how shocking everything was until we got used to those deaths, misjudgements and lies.

Will I remember
the runners hurtling past
like bandits with weapon breath,
the measured queues in masks,
time that swelled like baking,
the skin tech couldn’t touch?
Will my senses recall
the fresh taste of streets,
the unstained blue
and broadcast birds?
Will I forget
the daily final score,
graves like factory foundations,
white-cold lorries neatly tiled in wait,
end of shift faces grooved and raw
and tweets sharing loss from the void?
I want to remember the grid that grew
with quietly donated lives
honoured once weekly with saucepans and spoons.
Privilege vs exposure,
the space money makes,
the depth of the debt.
The angriest I’ve ever been.
What will I remember?
In separation, belonging.
In horror, courage.
In love learned,
a rainbow at the door.

Sue Hampton

Pride? At what price?

It nearly loses Darcy Elizabeth. It may explain the Union Jacks strewn around a doorway on my route down to the high street. Oh, and it comes before a fall. We have an ambivalent attitude to pride, explained in part by the two definitions the OED offers:

   1 a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from achievements, qualities or possessions that do one credit, and

   2 consciousness of one’s own dignity, the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself.

 To me 1 seems natural, an expression of the positivity most of us find helpful. We encourage each other to allow these feelings: “You should be proud of yourself.” In definition 2, on the other hand, pride becomes more of a character flaw than a quality. We judge and are alienated by such pride. We don’t like people like Darcy (unless he’s Colin Firth) until he’s redeemed by love and admits his pride was a failing of which he’s ashamed.

Apparently, then, pride is only acceptable up to a point, which is why the word excessive is key. At one end of its spectrum, pride is healthy self-esteem, a delight in a kind of validation that we all, to varying extents, need – and part of the ‘greatest’ love (uh-uh) Whitney sang about until I could reach for the off button. At the other it’s a synonym for arrogance, superiority, conceit and even contempt for others. We are comfortable with someone’s pride if it is simply personal pleasure, a reward for effort – the emotion on the medal rostrum, the Distinction certificate on the wall, the platinum disc or flush of applause. But not if the proud individual belittles others. If it spills over from the personal to the critical or superior, it’s offensive. Pride is merely self-respect until it disrespects other people. It’s the overspill that makes the difference by impacting on the self-respect of others. We like winners to be overwhelmed and grateful in their victories, to acknowledge debts to others and their achievements. I read a fine book by Satish Kumar called I Am Because You Are. As humans we are connected and interdependent. But when the proud set themselves apart, they are denying their need and their vulnerability, and claiming an elevated status that expects us to look up from a lowly position in life. Such pride is a loss of humanity to inflated ego. It’s an excess of individualism.

Here in the UK our society is highly individualistic. Those protesting against lockdown are demanding a kind of freedom that permits them to do what they want regardless of the consequences for anyone else. In America those with guns occupying state buildings and filling streets represent a more dangerous, less guarded form of individualism that refuses to be restricted in the interests of public health, and asserts the right to override the rights of others. What we read in their placards and flags is a pride known as nationalism, which sees America as independent rather than connected, with a power and identity greater than other nations. Here pride is a denial of need, a rejection of rules and a belief in exceptional status. It sets aside compassion for those who are in any way different, and shades into tribal hostility towards those who don’t share their identity as they define it. It can be expressed in vitriol and violence as, by losing touch with humanity, the nationalist denies the humanity of the other. So when I see the house with Union Jacks around the door, or the England flag on a roof, I feel a chill, and when I hear the word patriot I say, not me. That I was born in the UK was an accident over which I had no control. I feel no pride, definition 1, because my nationality was not my achievement or even my choice. I feel no pride, definition 2, because I do not consider that nationality a quality of any kind, let alone one that justifies an excessively high opinion of my country or its people. Indeed, whether I look back at history or to the present government, I see no justification for any such pride in my nation. There is much to celebrate but also a great deal to regret.

CBBC’s Horrible Histories debunked the greatness Britain has liked for many decades to claim by exposing the foreign origins of many symbols of Britishness (not just tea!) and faced an onslaught of outraged – patriotic – protest that ignored the factual accuracy of the programme. Reason makes way for emotion. Nationalism, like climate denial, requires no justification in the form of evidence. A patriot’s nationalism is in fact as personal as the pride of a girl who thinks herself prettier than the others. It’s a distorted perception stemming from inflated ego – or pride spilling into excess as it overlooks what we share as humans by disconnecting the ‘I’ from the ‘we’. In an age of fake news, patriotism exists in defiance of truth.

But surely pride in my country is important for wellbeing, happiness and self-respect? It might be, but I can’t feel it. The facts prevent it: the government’s inaction on climate change while pretending leadership, its punishment of the poor and disabled while guarding the interests of the rich, the moral bankruptcy of our arms trade and abandonment of the refugees it makes of those it does not kill. And the lies. If, however, I were a citizen of New Zealand, I would be profoundly thankful for a leader who by valuing life and health over business has kept her people alive. I would delight in that achievement, but also in the values that led it. I wouldn’t consider myself superior to the British because their government failed them – and the humanity test. I prefer to celebrate being a citizen of the world, and everything that unites rather than divides us.

What then am I proud of? Not my hair!! I needed to come top in English at school but I’m not proud of that need. Such pride is insecurity. Is what I feel about my writing pride? Well, by definition 1, yes, because I delight in it – the process itself and the sheer pleasure it gives me, quite separate from publication or rave reviews. And because there is satisfaction in feeling that what I have written is the best I can do. I see INTACT as my greatest achievement as a writer, but that’s where the pride ends. No spilling over into a deluded belief that I have achieved more in this novel than other writers in their greatest work. My pride in this latest and probably last book is tempered by my reader’s recognition of those I revere. But I can’t do more than my best and that, regardless of sales or approbation, is enough to sustain me. It’s also tempered by recognition of everything area of human achievement in which I fail: a seriously long list including driving, sewing, technology and sport.

Like any other mum I tell my children I’m proud of them. By that I mean I don’t just love them – love being unconditional – but appreciate their qualities and achievements, in particular the caring humans they are. I’m an adoring grandma, and take enormous pleasure in the small beloved’s company and filmed exploits, but aim to avoid definition 2 which would translate into an excessively high opinion of him in relation to other people’s grandchildren. Competition is built into the fabric of our society and I will celebrate anything he does well, but more importantly I hope I will celebrate his kindness and compassion, a sense of justice, honesty and warmth – values at odds with definition 2.  Am I proud of the human species? Not in the sense that I consider us more important than gorillas and whales, or even the biblical sparrows. But I acknowledge the power we have over other species, and feel ashamed of the many ways we abuse it. I am ashamed too of the inequality governments and people have allowed or even fostered, in unjust societies where some humans have power over others – and of the pride with which those who have much dismiss those who have little. I celebrate human achievements in art and music, words and architecture, but not in warfare, and not in ecocidal practices that destroy our shared home. And I think the kind of pride we see at Covid Daily Briefings, with Cabinet members and others unable to admit or discuss mistakes the government may have made in addressing (or not) the crisis, or put economics before human lives, not only fits definition 2 but carries a horrifying price – just like the price of inaction on climate. When world leaders behave as if they know better than experts, ignore evidence and can never be wrong, such pride can be terribly costly.

“But you’re proud of your activism? Of being arrested? Of XR?” Well… I’m not brave, but I can sometimes draw on the courage of conviction. Not just my own deeply-held Quaker convictions but the truth as set out by the scientific consensus, IPCC and UN. Sorry, Sinatra, but owning a ‘way’ with the prefix ‘my’ in another song I can’t endure does not make it right. That’s the mistake of the gun-toting white nationalists. I feel compelled to take whatever non-violent action might be necessary, when I can, because I have exhausted other methods of campaigning and by supporting fossil fuels around the world the government is hastening the end of life on earth. My mental health demands such action; the alternative would feel like complicity in extinction. I’m glad I didn’t duck arrest because of fear, and I’m glad I defended myself at my trial – at an emotional cost that will be reduced next time. And I’m heartened when my family tell me they’re proud of me because support always helps. I have huge respect for the fellow-rebels I know, and applaud most of the actions XR has taken, while disagreeing with a few. When I look back to Waterloo Bridge last April I am – YES – enormously proud of the way we lived together in our peaceful, loving, vegan and creative community, deeply conscious of how and why. It was beautiful and bright with hope. The love was practical and spiritual and tangible. Our rebellion changed public consciousness, pressuring the media as well as the government to tell the truth. But it wasn’t enough, and it’s hard, especially in lockdown, to find a new and irresistible way forward. Yet without change life on earth will become untenable. The death toll from climate change will dwarf the numbers lost to Covid 19.

Pride can be dangerous and divisive but maybe U2 were right. To be a quality rather than a mistake or failing, pride must be in the name of love.

A better dream

There was a land where people belonged to tribes that fought each other with words and sneaky plots. The richest people on the winning team got to rule, in law and in print. They learned to break the rules to stay in charge. That meant big lies to hide mistakes and why they made them.

   The other members of the tribe, the ones who didn’t have chauffeurs and second homes and free booze at work, kept clapping because they believed the lies. Or that lies were OK as long as they kept their tribe in charge.

   And the people in the other tribe were angry and pointed out the lies but the tribe in charge said they were lying. And tribe members quarrelled and sometimes forgot why they joined the tribe in the first place.

   There were people in that country that didn’t belong to a tribe, because they didn’t like the rules, or seeing them broken. Or their own life was terribly hard and they had no way to believe in change.

   There were people from other lands and different tribes and they weren’t always welcome. If they were escaping from bombs, the tribe in charge wouldn’t let them in. It didn’t make any difference if the bombs had been sold by the ruling tribe and made their land rich – while it left the bombed country poorer and sicker, as well as broken.

   The tribe’s leaders got richer because rich people paid them for help to get richer, and the people they didn’t care about got poorer.

   And all this time, something was happening around the world that most people in most tribes didn’t want to know. The whole planet was getting hotter, and living things were dying: creatures of the land and sea and skies. People far away were dying too but the tribe in charge didn’t go to school with them so they didn’t count. The air was thick with poison and the earth was burnt and drowned. A gang of storms terrorised and crushed lives. But nobody put it in print or told it in people’s living rooms. When the tribes met they talked about other things, like leaving the enormous tribe of friendly tribes across the ocean. Some of the leaders of the tribe in charge only really liked their own tribe. They only wanted their own rules. So they broke their own rules, and got rid of the tribe members who thought being in a big friendly tribe made things safer and fairer.

   The tribe in charge had won again, with sneaky plots and lies. Still they didn’t take the world’s temperature, even when children in their big cities died breathing the air. When people tried to make them listen with banners and trees and songs to stop traffic, the tribe in charge sent the police to drag them away, and called them criminals. Even when a little bit of truth told by children leaked into print and into homes, the tribe in charge told everyone to carry on as normal because they had everything under control.

   Even though normal life was deadly.

   The tribe who wanted that to change were thinking what to do next to open the leaders’ ears and hearts when something happened that no tribe had expected. An invisible killer was born. It crept inside faraway tribes and made them so sick that sometimes they died. But not before they’d breathed death into others. In the land of our story, the tribe in charge paid no attention even though the killer was on the way. They didn’t get ready and they didn’t make any new rules until the hospitals were full and there were too many bodies to store.

   Then everything changed. The ruling tribe had to make rules they didn’t think they could afford. Suddenly the land was quiet enough to think. The city skies shook off their poison veils. Some of the people in tribes were just humans now, alone in their homes, and as they recovered peace and colour and music and art and books, they started to love again. Not only those they had stopped touching, but those in other tribes, even those furthest away. Not just other humans but the trees and rivers and birds. And being alive. They wanted the dying to stop but they didn’t want to be normal anymore. Now that they could hear the earth whisper, they stopped shouting. They missed embraces, and before they crossed the road to avoid strangers, they smiled, whatever their tribe.

   The silent killer that got inside people scared everyone, but not everybody stayed safe at home. The healers had to go where the danger was, and some of them died. People whose jobs were not about making money had to keep feeding people and caring for the old. So they moved each day in the world of danger. They had no time to look up at the blue sky through pink blossom. And some of them died. So did some of the poor people taking the safe people the things they’d bought, or clearing away the waste.

   Meanwhile in sunlit woods, it was the ancient trees that were cleared, and the web of life broken, for money. And some of the rich people in the tribe in charge got rich as the poor grew poorer. The new poor, who couldn’t work at home, no longer slept at night. There was fear, and weeping, and anger too.

   But everything had started to change and it didn’t stop. Not even when the sickness was over and the healers could take off their armour and take time to grieve. Across the tribes people saw the mistakes and the lies and the courage and the pain and they said, “No more.”  Now they could see beyond their tribe, they joined the human family. A different membership to renew. They’d rather be humans together, living fairly and kindly and protecting everything and everyone that lived on the earth. Because they knew what mattered most and it wasn’t money.

   So when the leaders of the tribe said everything was all right now and it was time to get back to normal, the people said, “No.”

   No to lies and sneaky plots and blood money. No to war. No to poverty. Yes to truth, and love and justice. Yes to the beauty they had glimpsed, because once it shone, the darkness cleared.

   “Vote for us,” begged the leaders in charge, and the people said, “No. No more tribes. We are one.”

    “But we are the law. We make the rules!” the old leaders protested.

    “Not anymore,” the people said, and their cry echoed and gathered around the world. “We will make a new law, to protect all life on earth. To mend the web we tore.”

   They called it Ecocide Law. It was a new beginning. And everyone saw that it was good…

Fiction and reality: how close a connection?

A little more than a couple of years ago I began a novel for adults – only my second in over 30 titles – inspired in part by falling in love with, and marrying, a non-binary man who wears women’s clothes. And real life has twice now caught up on it.

Georgie is in many ways very different from my husband Leslie Tate; I’m not Mags, although we intersect now and then. And their unconventional love story, which is no romance, is not ours. The narrative draws at least as much on imagination as on my own ideas, passions and experiences, because very little that happens to Mags has happened to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t inhabit it along with the Britain and world around them. It’s always my intention as a writer to keep my fiction as real as possible, even with fantasy stories for children. By that I mean I aim for emotional authenticity: a humanity in my characters even if they are not human. INTACT is not autobiographical, but I hope it feels true.

When I began this book I considered myself a bit of an activist with Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and placed Georgie on the road to the London Arms Fair in 2017. But when it came to climate change, I relied on the written word – in my blogs, tweets and posts but also in my fiction – to qualify me as a kind of keyboard warrior. I was a concerned, even despairing Green Party member and a supporter of Stop Ecocide who marched at every opportunity and visited the fracking site at Preston New Road to support the protest there, but no one had heard of Greta Thunberg and I was living both with very little hope and a less than deep understanding of just how terrifying the climate science really was. By the time I finished my story, all that had begun to change.

I joined Extinction Rebellion in October 2018, when my novel now begins. Since then, I’ve been arrested three times and defended myself in court, because I’ve wised up to the future horror awaiting us if we can’t cut free from fossil fuels and live more consciously and caringly on this Earth, without consuming and destroying. There’s having a general awareness of the truth – like Mags in INTACT – and then there’s living and breathing it because it’s deep in the heart. Transforming from one to the other, as many have in the last eighteen months, is not a reversible process. And sharing the truth isn’t easy because those hearts and minds that haven’t absorbed it are spared the grief and sorrow that can be overwhelming. I decided to write a novel about rebel characters I created to experience variations on my own activism, thoughts and emotions. Now an e-book that can be downloaded for a donation to XR, FOR LIFE is closer to present reality than anything else I’ve written. Having finished it, I could no longer see any reason to continue as an author once it had become necessary for me to devote what energy remains to rebelling… for life. But what of INTACT, the manuscript I believed to be my best writing, now that it had been overtaken by more urgent issues?

Well, it may be my last book. But I had to update that manuscript, already underpinned by my values, by setting it in the autumn and winter of 2018 and adding references to the climate movement that swiftly became global. Georgie reads the IPCC report. Mags is trying to go ‘properly’ vegan. One of the younger characters has joined XR. The insertions fitted seamlessly, but don’t alter the fact that this is an intimate novel about relationships, fulfilment and the power of the past. It explores love of many kinds. And of course love inspires Extinction Rebellion and my Quaker peace activism. I’d find it hard to write about anything else.

As the publication of INTACT drew closer, reality broke in again, this time with the Covid-19 virus that has, as I write, killed nearly 70,000 of us globally, confined us to our homes and made many lucky enough not to be in mourning both frightened and angry. It is, of course, a kind of preview of an even more frightening future guaranteed if we don’t avert climate chaos. It requires change and adaptation, and exposes the shallow desires we mistook for needs, leaving us with the recognition of what really matters to us as humans – or what it means to be human. Which is to love and be loved. As Mags and Georgie both know, not least because more than fifty years ago as children they loved each other very much.

The crisis may allow some of us the freedom to read extensively but this not a good time to launch a book. I expect there will be fiction before long about lockdown and the loss of loved ones who died without family beside them, but I won’t be writing it, not unless I live it, because that would be cheap, inauthentic and insensitive. For now, at a time when it’s hard to have a socially distanced conversation about anything but the virus, some readers will choose escapism. But as a writer I can’t do that. I have to connect fiction to reality; that’s an emotional imperative for me. The lockdown has nudged me into writing the sequel towards which INTACT could be said to look. But I will have, as always, to let the characters lead. They are not for me to awaken, recruit or transform, and I never know exactly where they will lead the narrative. But I do know that 2019 was very different from 2018, and if Mags and Georgie live through that year it can only be, as context, the time it was. Maybe it will change their world too.

Click here you’d like a copy of INTACT, praised by my favourite living author, Susan Fletcher, delivered through your letterbox.

Mothering Sunday

Following my recent story, The Vigil, I’ve returned again to my characters from FOR LIFE, a novel about rebels available to download for a donation to Extinction Rebellion. For those who don’t know, Manda is a kind of mother-in-law, in spite of the death of her son Rob, to Gem.

Since Rob died, Manda had never quite adjusted to Mothers’ Day. Now with the Care Home closed to visitors she wasn’t sure she should have sent her own mum a card. Perhaps Hamadi would open it with surgical gloves, show her the picture from a distance that meant the pink shape could just as easily be a hippo as a camellia, and read the message on repeat, at increasing volume, with more patience than she could normally muster.

   Such a lovely morning. But for once she was relieved to take direction from the Prime Minister and spend the day alone. It was just a day, one that mattered to girls in service who were graciously allowed home to their mothers for tea and cake but meant next to nothing in a health crisis that was a glimpse of a future no one wanted to think about now.

   She sat on the sofa, drinking coffee and watching the daffodils outside her flat, remembering that they were really narcissi, which reminded her of Trump and Johnson in a way at least one of them would have no way of understanding.  Would Libby ring? Her daughter had joked after the Prevent nonsense labelling rebels extremists that the cops had obviously been monitoring Manda and she was their evidence. Still, they were closer these days, thanks to Skye. Who would have predicted that Auntie Libby would rise to that role with such spirit and calm?

   No Zoom meetings scheduled, so perhaps she’d download that novel set in Ethiopia that someone had recommended on Twitter, as a change from Jem Bendell, Rupert Read and Roger Hallam. She knew she shouldn’t be feeling so frustrated and grumpy already, with the possibility of weeks or months of isolation ahead.

   Her phone rang, but told her it was not Libby but James. Only a fortnight earlier they’d all walked in St James’s Park, against the better judgement of all three women but reassured because nurseries, like schools, were still open, along with restaurants and pubs.

   “Are you climbing the walls?” he asked.

   “Guilty as charged,” she said. “I can’t get my head around the idea of not seeing Skye except on screen. How are you doing?”

   “Bit bored I guess, but I’m running every evening, after dark.”

   She supposed it wasn’t the best time for him to take a sabbatical to find himself. Now he’d be stuck with that self and the only possibilities of discovery online.

   “I’m not that bored.”

   “But no May rebellion to prepare for?”

   “No. But no one is giving up. It’ll happen.” She wasn’t admitting to the emptiness or the attempts to come off the antidepressants, which had been too hard to contemplate trying again for a while. Not to James, who seemed to admire her so-called bravery almost as much as he regretted the part she’d played in clogging up what he called the system and wasting police and court time.

   “I thought you might try to convince me that this virus will be the trigger for the kind of change you want…”

   “Don’t you want it too? A safer, more just world back in touch with real human values? I mean it’s becoming clear who the key workers are in this society and it’s the NHS workers and supermarket staff…”

   “I know. I’m not on the other side, Manda. Anyway, I rang to wish you a happy Mothering Sunday as our mums always called it, because I thought it might not be the best…”

   “Or the worst,” she said, probably too quickly, because he wouldn’t have forgotten the first Christmas, the first birthdays, the first celebrations of any kind, however meaningless, without Rob.


   There was a moment of silence while she tried to guess the way his face looked, where in the house he was sitting – but was glad it wasn’t a video call because he couldn’t see her uncombed hair, or the less than sexy dressing gown he’d never approved when they were together. Her own face looked older than his, when she wasn’t smiling – and dead serious was her default expression these days, except when being Grandma.

   “What will you get up to today apart from your run?” she asked.

   “Nothing much, I guess. I thought Libby might come round but she says she’s self-isolating…”

   “With symptoms?”

   “A cough, apparently. But there must be those about too, and colds, and flu, and chest infections. It doesn’t mean…”

   “I know, but without testing… And they can’t even get proper protective equipment to the frontline NHS staff.” Remembering that he’d bought a mask from Amazon, quick off the mark, she tried not to feel cross about that. “Are you shopping for anyone? Mrs B next-door? Libby, if she’s coughing? Because if not, I will.”

   “Mm, good idea. I’ll offer.”

   “There you are – your day has a purpose now. One that isn’t to do with abs or step counters.”

   “Thanks! But don’t worry about Libby.”


   He pointed out that she was young and healthy; Manda didn’t mention the amount of alcohol the healthy young had a habit of consuming. Then he said Libby had told him not to tell her because she’d freak. Ah, the same way she overreacted to climate change, Manda supposed.

   “OK, take it easy,” he said. “Make a cake?”

   “Not just for me!”

   “You’re too thin, Manda.”


   And a moment later he had gone, sounding so cheerful and normal – normality being her ex-husband’s speciality – that she felt rattled by contrast. Leo would have held her, stroked her hair and known she didn’t want to be reasoned with. And made baking worthwhile. She hoped he was with that elusive son of his, making music.

    She called Libby but had to leave an answerphone message. Whichever idiot said there was nothing to fear but fear itself needed to do some serious editing in the light – or darkness – of a deadly virus and mass extinction.

   In her head she heard Libby tease, “You don’t know what to do with yourself, do you?” and she wouldn’t be wrong. So many actions in her diary, leading up to May, all abandoned. Manda felt suddenly lost.

   She was cleaning the kitchen surfaces – which had recently been getting a lot more care and attention – when her phone rang again.


   “I thought I’d call to say Happy Mothers’ Day wherever you put the apostrophe.”

   “Thank you, but Dad said you were ill…”

   “Just coughing. I bet you had me on a ventilator.”

   “People are, more every day, and there aren’t enough to go round!”

   Libby’s cough was small but certainly dry. “But way more people just have slight symptoms or none. I hope Boris isn’t about to go full totalitarian; I want to go to Brighton for Easter. And you know me, I never get really ill. It’s your generation and Gran’s that have to be careful. Is she OK? She doesn’t know anything’s up?”

   “Not a thing, I imagine.”

   “I guess that’s good at this particular point. If you go and see her…”

   “It’s closed to visitors.”

   “Oh yes. But you could do a Love Actually with placards in the garden outside her room.”

   “I think they’d set Security on me.”

   “So! Glue yourself to a tree.”

   That reminded Manda of rebels trying to stop HS2, and made her feel guilty. Would the felling stop in a lockdown or would that be classified essential? She had to admit her daughter didn’t sound ill.

   “I’d better go,” said Libby, who rarely explained why. “Speak soon and don’t worry.”

   “You’re the second person to tell me that this morning. Lots of love!”

   Having made herself another coffee, Manda noticed a message on her phone. No! Her friend Farah was struggling to breathe and shut away from her own kids. In her little Oxfam diary she’d written, but later crossed out, their plan to meet at the café, now closed.

   She sent a message which felt inadequate but added a green heart at the end. Was it psychosomatic that her throat felt sore? She had a vague memory of coughing in the night, between Prozac dreams too colourful to forget, but there was no one to confirm. “FFS!” she said, aloud. What about refugees? The homeless on British streets? Anyone in countries that could be themselves considered vulnerable?

   An autopilot scroll through Twitter found a rebel friend up a tree and being illegally evicted with no regard for social distancing. And here she was, doing nothing for anyone. Further trawling offered a reminder of an online XR action for this particular day, and an email to send to Alok Sharma, minister at BEIS, about safeguarding the future of children and mothers-to-be. Welcoming the kind of activism she would normally dismiss in favour of something more physical, social and sacrificial, she rushed off an email, and attached two images, one of Skye and another of herself glued to that tower. Her tweet carried the same pictures until she realised Gem would not be happy, and deleted Skye’s wide-eyed smile on a swing. Thinking also of my daughter, who may choose not to bear children in an ecocidal and genocidal ‘civilisation’. Plus a picture of young Libby, pretty and neat from the start in her gran’s knitting.

   Manda felt a sudden conviction that she must see her mother, and not just virtually but through sunlight and breeze. But how, with no lift from Libby and no overcrowded public transport? It must be walkable, given the serious lack of time pressures – although if she was going to get thrown off site before her mother had glanced out of the window, it might not be worth the many wrong turns she’d be bound to take regardless of an app that wouldn’t behave.

   And it wasn’t fair to call in the hope of speaking to her favourite carer, but with luck he’d be on duty and swing it if necessary. “Thanks, Libby,” she muttered. It was like an action in a way, but she didn’t need chains this time, or padlocks, a banner or even a tube of quick-locking glue. Just one word typed per A4 card in the largest possible bold font. But before she began she hurried a small batch of muffins into the oven.

It was roughly tea and cake time when Manda finally found her way to the care home, breathing away the raggedness resulting from getting lost more times than she’d admit. Tucked discreetly around the corner from the gates, she surveyed the scene. The front garden looked immaculate as ever, with its potted plants and symmetry and perfect edges, but the car park was almost empty. She could guess the message on the A-board without approaching it. Yes, it was closed to visitors, but she wouldn’t exactly be visiting. No men in uniform on the prowl. So, as long as she could locate her mother’s room from the outside rather than a terracotta corridor… and the cherry tree would help. It should be flowering.

   Probably best to scoot. The path led through tall photinia, well disciplined and mathematically placed but gleaming. Catkins swung playfully and the creamy camellia was riotous. Without a backward or sideways glance, Manda hurried on, apparently observed only by a squirrel, until she stopped, smiling, as she found the cherry tree and looked across the grass to an open window that she hoped was her mother’s.

   But she could be asleep, or in the lounge. Only one way to find out. Manda approached the striped curtains that didn’t help because they hung at every window. But a familiar tartan dressing gown lay on the end of the bed. The figure sitting looking into the garden looked for a moment too small to be her mother. Manda unzipped her backpack, where CONSCIENTIOUS PROTECTOR was still pinned by two corners and flapped. Was she dozing? The sun made it hard to see.

   She put the tub of cakes down on the grass with its note to staff taped to the lid. Then she pulled out the cards and checked the sequence. Ready. She must be two metres from the glass. As she swung her bag onto her back, she saw her mother stir. Manda leapt and waved her arms like a puppet pulled at every string.


   Landing, she put her finger to her lips and began the reveal she preferred to attribute to Dylan while her mother stood, her face framed by curtains, her glasses in place. SHHHHH! was followed by HAPPY, MOTHERS and DAY. Then, LOVE, YOU, and MANDA, and finally P.S. I’M and CONTAGIOUS.

   Her mother was clapping. Manda hadn’t felt this happy for so long. Not the last time she’d been there with Libby, and been more or less completely overlooked and overshadowed. Not the time before that when her mother had complained so repeatedly about Rob not visiting that she’d almost shouted, “He’s dead, Mum!” She hadn’t seen that smile for a while and maybe her mother hadn’t seen hers either, not a real one. She blew an extravagant kiss. Then to show that this supposed contagion wasn’t deadly – because her mother wouldn’t remember about the virus even if she’d been told – she did a little dance with her thumbs up and waved goodbye, hoping there’d be no bereft cry behind her as she walked away, like there used to be from Rob when he was in Nursery. Never from Libby.

   Amused by her own excitement, not too far from elation, she headed briskly towards the gate. She had turned around the corner when her phone began to sing. Just a number, no name. No! Not Farah’s husband?


   “Manda, it’s Hamadi.” Her favourite carer was talking quietly. “I found the cakes you kindly baked. I’ll have to check whether we’re allowed…”

   “Sure! Your call. I wore latex at all times, unused. From a pack I had after surgery.” He was twenty-six – she’d asked him. He didn’t need to know that. “I know I broke the rules.” But he approved of her more typical XR rule-breaking – he’d told her.

   “I saw you. Love Actually? Very nice. Very kind. Your mum is bouncing.”

   “That makes two of us.” Manda remembered she wasn’t wearing a bra. “OK, thanks for everything, Hamadi. I won’t misbehave again.”

   He’d gone before she could say she hoped no staff were isolating with symptoms, or swear about the government failing to provide them with masks. She put away her phone and wondered if she could remember the way back without too many mistakes. James would call her irresponsible. Even Libby would say, “It was a joke, Mum, not an action plan!” But she hadn’t endangered anyone. And her mother was bouncing.

   By the time she’d walked a mile she was warm, her scalp sweating under hair she should really get cut before the summer. If any hairdressers were open. Passing a window, she glimpsed herself, serious face back in place. The comedown. There was no avoiding it, even without a cell at a police station. And if the virus got into that home…

   If. What if. Gem had said on the phone that they mustn’t allow the worst of those in. “What if,” she’d said, “this is the turning point and we never revert to the same destructive stupidity?”  Yeah, Gem, it wasn’t impossible. But mostly it seemed less plausible than a Richard Curtis rom-com. And worth believing in, all the same.

   The little capsules at breakfast had stopped her informing her own walls that she wanted to die whenever the space inside felt too dark. And now the challenge was living even more differently, and staying alive. But what if Farah died, because some customer had shared the virus in exchange for pecan pie before Johnson got round to closing the cafés?

   She’d saved herself one cake for tea.

The Vigil

This is a very short story which continues into real time my novel, FOR LIFE, which can be downloaded for a donation to Extinction Rebellion here.

For those who jump in with no knowledge of the characters, Gem is a young mum, a new Quaker, and a rebel. Having lost her boyfriend Rob in a car crash a few years ago, she is now living with his friend Nick in London. Manda is Rob’s mum, a committed activist who has given up work for the rebellion.

Nick had promised to keep Skye entertained once she woke. Gem could rely on him to do that. No faith, he’d say, yet nothing worried him. But really she supposed his faith was in her, and the human spirit. Hers felt dampened, frayed. The streets had begun to empty like a beach in a storm, and even for a climate doomer, as the Guardian called people like her, this pandemic was too surreal to comprehend. Yet Nick had proposed waiting for the nursery to close, as if he trusted the men in suits delivering judgements from their daily podia – a government in which she had no faith whatsoever. And he seemed more relaxed about his lack of clients than she felt about attempting to work from home in a flat that had been cramped for one and a quarter.

   Gem must find that inner place she could access in Meeting on a Sunday. She placed the candle on the rug and lit the wick.

   “Seven o’clock and she’s still asleep,” said Nick, quietly, smiling as she sat and crossed her legs. “Happy vigilling.”

   Yes, happy to be taking part, she thought, and smiled back. “Thanks.” Remembering the Sunday afternoon two weeks earlier when she’d sat facing Parliament, with the Square roped off behind her, and felt the sun on her face, she realised she’d had little idea that it would come to this. She supposed she’d been in the kind of denial that allowed climate sceptics to sleep – and rage at the likes of her.

   For this hour she’d signed up for, she would be solo. No one to share a pavement, a view, a conviction. Not in her front room, anyway, but they’d be out there, in their own homes. Someone somewhere had just extinguished a flame in a lounge and turned their thoughts to breakfast. The baton was hers and she needed to focus on the light.

   Gem breathed in deeply and out again. There would be no more Quaker Meetings for the foreseeable future, not with real 3D bodies and those hard chairs to lift into a circle. But she was meant to know how to centre down into silence, wait on it, open to be filled. The Buddhist meditating behind her in Westminster, who could manage nine hours at retreats, had a body that gave itself up like dough. Gem loosened her own stiffness as she breathed, and inhaled the scent of bay and rosemary. She told herself it was normal to be scattered, to swirl with rising numbers, hospitals under strain and the lack of testing, but once this was over the world would have to find a path through the grieving because every living thing on earth would still be at risk.

   Earth. To Skye that meant soil, mud, wellies, having little idea of a sphere in space, turning mysteriously through time. Gem pictured it, blue and white – remembering the livid red of the Australian bush fires and the Amazon blazing on as far as she knew. An evangelical vigiller had produced a tiny hand with a marble-sized planet sitting on its palm. A white palm, probably belonging to a blond Jesus. But the differences didn’t matter, or the words. Only love.

   Closing her eyes, she let the word repeat on a loop in her head, thickening with a secret smile that sneaked up on her. It led to justice, which was love in action. As she echoed this new word inside, she felt conviction ebb away, as if justice was a dream that would never be lived. For a moment she imagined herself back on Waterloo Bridge, the drumbeat behind and the police line in front; she heard the song about rising like water for climate justice now. The urgency and the theatre; the bond of resolve strong as superglue. She missed it. October had been colder, tougher and way more vulnerable but she still hadn’t been charged for her cold night stuck with Manda to the tower, and now perhaps her day in court wouldn’t come.

   It was a cue to hold Manda in the light. That would have been a simpler matter, given the friendship they’d settled into, without a new resolve Gem hadn’t yet shared with her never-was mother-in-law. She couldn’t let Manda near Gem, for both their sakes. Because Manda’s toughness wasn’t physical and she was thin as an addict – which was, in a way, what she’d become. Activism fuelled her but ate her away too. And if she couldn’t be Grandma for weeks, months maybe, she’d be pulp. Bereaved all over again, but alive.

   Time to let the light do its thing. How beautiful the flame was, its crocus yellow beyond bright, its curls and stretches, tilts and shivers mesmerising. Such power – as if darkness could never defeat it. And yet all she’d have to do was blow. Even Skye could manage the puff. Symbols weren’t always enough, because love was fierier, rockier, more like the air than the flame, more of an ocean. Which would explain why she still loved Rob, and nothing could end that love, any more than a virus could claim him. The insubstantial flame couldn’t match such certainties. And without their shared love of a still-real ghost who lived with them all, maybe they wouldn’t make the same kind of remodelled family: her and Nick and Manda, together for Rob as well as Skye.

   The word discipline nudging her, Gem reached for This Is Not A Drill, knowing having read it from cover to cover where to find the bits she needed. Sam Knights, in the story so far, and Gail B at the end. She began to read aloud. It was the part about all the world’s children being our own that she repeated, again and again, the words slow and full. A mantra. She was here for the children, those with less flesh on them than Skye, or darker skin, and no guarantee that their island wouldn’t be swallowed by the sea before they grew up, or their markets by floods. “All the children are our children,” she murmured, picturing a child scavenging barefoot on landfill, another with eyes squinting from a fur-lined hood at a ragged polar bear on a street. She’d seen so little of the world and now the only way to protect it was to stay home. Maybe she should have allowed Gem to stay with Nick’s parents where she’d have a garden to play in. But at least when the nurseries closed, London would stop poisoning small humans in their buggies. If only lessons led to learning…

   She could hear Skye now, asking where she was and why, so she called, “Come and say hello.”

   Eyes drawn to the candle flame, Skye seemed for a moment almost shy. “Mummy, are you crying?”

   Gem supposed she must be showing her daughter a different face. Skye had read the adult reality, unmasked, as sadness. She smiled and stood to pick her up.

   “I’m praying for the world,” she told Skye, wondering whether the courts would find enough evidence to justify that claim, and uneasy with the verb because of its evangelical aura of magic.

   “And the elephants?”

   “Definitely. You can sit with me if you like but I’m guessing you’re hungry.”

   Skye nodded. Her hair was at its wildest but with luck she’d let Nick brush it after breakfast, if he made a game of it.

   “Porridge, madam?” Nick called.

   Skye ran. Gem sat again, and told herself to clear space for the truth and the beauty. Maybe this was why Meeting Houses were pale, cool and bare, as opposed to a muddle of colour and mess.

   She closed her eyes, but in the furry darkness an Earth-shaped circle rose, and for a moment she saw a red heart bloom at its centre before the nothingness made a fool of her. Reaching out both hands, she imagined rebels to hold them: a crowd to circle the capital, the Earth itself.

   “You are right,” the magistrate had said, not so long before the virus broke, “and you must win.” Gem would gather the science for her own trial, if it ever happened, learn it like a poem. Manda, who’d been bailed when released from Charing Cross station hours and appeared for her plea hearing days later, was now on three conditional discharges and said she’d go to prison – as long as Skye would visit her. But that was before self-isolation, and talk of lockdown.

   Rob, she thought. His name was such a big, wide, heavy word. In her head the sound of it still fractured. Would she be herself, the woman she’d become, without those months with him and everything he painted on a placard? Could he have been confident she’d never let go?

   She opened her eyes on the flame and felt it at last. More than warmth or glow or even peace, it held her, safe and loved and connected with everything, the whole, the pulse of life and its wordless wisdom. Bathed in its deepening stillness, she knew it would pass, but she would remember it, recognise it again. So many names for it, but who knew, and what difference did it make?

   The breath of God? A glimpse of something beyond and within and eternal.

   Something like hope.

Fundraising stories: another small way to help child refugees

There are three books I wouldn’t have written if I hadn’t got involved with a tiny, dynamic charity based in my hometown with the goal of helping refugees anywhere and in any way possible. I started volunteering with People not Borders a few months in – after two Berkhamsted mums had connected through Facebook and coffee, and determined to do whatever they could to alleviate the suffering they had seen as the refugee crisis hit the news. Many similar groups began around the same time in the late summer or early autumn of 2015. I soon became a trustee and celebrated when we achieved charitable status in 2018. We are volunteers and because we are so few, every penny donated is spent on refugees – not publicity. What we can do is very limited in the face of a crisis that is huge and growing, but it’s important that we focus on that small-scale action and don’t allow the desperately tragic situation in refugee camps in Greece or Dunkirk, on the streets of Paris, or in Syria, Yemen and Turkey, to dishearten and disempower us. We do what we can, and that involves appealing for clothes, food items and sleeping bags while also raising money to buy brand new waterproof boots, hospital equipment, nappies and pop-up tents – whatever, in fact, we hear from our partners on the ground is needed at the time, and that can change fast. We liaise with others who make our work possible, and couldn’t function without heroes like Angus from Herts4Refugees, our man with a van.

One key fundraiser so far, along with two big concerts, two sleep-outs and a Quiz Night, has been the two picture books I wrote about the experience of child refugees. I AM ME was beautifully illustrated by local textiles artist Paula Watkins and explores the mixed emotions and fears of a child resettled in the UK after escaping a war zone. Although such children are very few in spite of the work of Lord Dubs and Safe Passage, it’s a story that resonates with anyone who has felt like an outsider or had to leave home. Because it’s intended for children as young as 3 years old to age 7, the text is in rhyme (which I normally avoid as a writer, and used to discourage as a teacher, because it can be so banal, limiting and forced) to increase accessibility and enjoyment and to ensure that small readers are not distressed. I hope it’s sensitive but also spirited, and of course there is a happy ending of a kind. At People not Borders we were thrilled when it reached the finals of the People’s Book Prize last year. Thanks to Paula’s colourful and thoughtful illustrations, which look textured as well as vivid and showcase various materials and techniques, it’s a gorgeous book and has been bought not just for children but adults too. I always had in mind that adults would in many cases read the story to children, and I wanted to connect with them whatever their age, because like all worthwhile stories with emotional power it’s an empathy-developer. It helps us to understand what it would be like to be someone else, and in this case someone who has suffered trauma that is for us hard to imagine.

Last year the same publisher, the tiny but ethical and local TSL, released I AM ME 2, set in a refugee camp in Greece. It’s more of a prequel than a sequel, but also aims to tell a sad story with simplicity and bright hope. The illustrations are very different, and the tone a little more sophisticated as a result. We had come across the stunning work of young Syrian Abdulazez Dukhan, who left Homs at the age of fifteen and spent some three years in refugee camps in Turkey and Greece. Having done some translation work there because he spoke some English, he was rewarded with a camera, and captured many children, alone or in groups, sitting on cardboard or on a makeshift swing, tearful or smiling. These images are moving, in some cases haunting, and a testament to the children’s resilience as well as a painful reminder of how the adults of the world have failed such innocent victims of war. The book is most suitable for children aged 6-8 but again is bought by adults. My hope is that while young readers will feel compassion and perhaps outrage, they will be inspired by the courage of those whose lives they glimpse.

Together these two picture books have now raised about £3,000, in spite of our limited reach. I have been welcomed to some local schools simply for a free assembly about our work, or a short workshop based on the books which I’ve then sold after school. I’ve visited playgroups, churches and Quaker Meetings which have supported us in this way, a Rotary Club and and one high-profile company in Westminster with a social conscience. I’m hoping that anyone reading this will want to buy them from this website (not Amazon) even if they then donate them to their nearest school, library or church. A few wonderful people have bought five or ten and sold them to friends, neighbours or colleagues. And we gave 20 copies of I AM ME to Safe Passage, to be included in welcome packs for minors arriving in the UK.

More recently I realised as another story of mine – longer, with a few tiny illustrations by me and an older audience of 6-11 – was due to be published by a different publisher, Pegasus, (I don’t pay towards publication) should also be a fundraiser in a smaller way for People not Borders, so I am donating all my author earnings from WAGGLETAIL TED to be spent on child refugees. It’s the story of the developing friendship between a small dog afraid of children (as well as cats, vets and water) and a small Syrian boy afraid of everything but especially dogs.

If you can support our work by buying any of these books – and/or inviting me to your school, church, workplace, W.I. or any other group – then thank you. Both I AM ME and I AM ME 2 are available as e-books.