Change, love and Christmas

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

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

Alopecia: Ambassador in School

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

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

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

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


Photo by Mikaela Morgan Photography

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

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

Once there was a baby…

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

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

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

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

What’s in a nickname?

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

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

Twelve ways to avoid despair


Ways to avoid despair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Know yourself. Be yourself.

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

In the woods: hope, healing and stories


Painting by Franz Marc described by Jeth in The Judas Deer

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

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

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

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

Empathy and charity: longlisted for a prize!

The publisher, the author and the illustrator at planning stage

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

With love: the spectrum and the page

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

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

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

Continue reading

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


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

Taking the author out of the fiction: mission impossible?

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

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

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

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

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