Friday, 9 October 2015

haven't a leg to stand on

Everyone has something to say about our beloved NHS, now more than ever. My first job out of Uni was as a medical personnel Officer for our local health authority, I went out with a nurse, I lived in nurses homes, I worked for the NHS,it was management and admin heavy, a cacophony of activity, one hand never knowing what the other was doing. The means of communication is now better, but not much has changed, there's still a lot of people running round like headless chickens.

I love it though, all babies born on the NHS should be stamped with product of NHS on their bottom, like a quality kite mark, it's something we should really be proud of in Britain, something we should fight for.

At the tail end of September I had one of those days planned when you know you've taken on too much, but you do it anyway - a drive cross county to run through an assault course activity with She Who Dares, followed by a trip into London to meet a friend, cocktails at Callooh' Callahay and curry at Dishoon. I had a funny feeling when I woke up that perhaps it would all be too much, but I just went for it. I really should learn to listen to my instinct.
On the third activity at Nuclear Games assault course, I reached out to hang onto a monkey ring and swing across a scaffolding frame aver the forest floor, then the fates intervened. I fell. I fell not far, but badly, as I landed there was an almighty crack and I yelled, 'I've broken my leg'. The instructor yelled, 'She has as well', everybody yelled.

Splayed out on the forest floor in agony my mind started to compensate, the girls held me, held my legs, held my hand, wiped my brow, kept me going, what amazing creatures we are, what capacity for compassion and care, I wasn't being brave, I was reduced to the dependency level of an infant, and these were my mothers, I'd do anything they told me if it would take the pain away. Helpless, I was tended by paramedics, helped into an off road buggy for a slow ride under the tree canopy to the waiting ambulance. Thank god I was outside, and could look at the softly waving foliage and the blue sky as a sign of hope, I'd be OK, I'd be OK. For the next week I've never felt so Human, and the Killers 'are we human, or are we dancer, has been playing on a loop in my head. I've been over emotional, pathetic, brave, insane, drugged out, wasted, hysterical, run the gaumont through a soup of emotion. Through it all I've had fantastic care from the nurses and doctors in the NHS, inspirational advice, help and love from my friends and family. I'm lucky to have them, thank you. And at the back of my mind - the thought that - well - this could all be experience to feed your writing.

While slumped in a hospital bed for five nights with the leg elevated (dislocated and fractured ankle, broken tibia and fibia) a numb immobility descends that's more than physical. The body, in shock, shuts down the creative spark, I couldn't even read, I'd just stare, thought or predication was hard, staring was easy. I could stare and watch, stuck under powdered light, longing to see the outside world. Across the way I could hear Martha's* (name change) soft scouse mumbles, I act as her interpreter, the youngest of six, trained to be a nurse at Alder Hey. I believe her because she told me, but she couldn't remember where she was, she wanted to go home, didn't we all, and thought I was her niece. I was on Martha guard duty at night, understaffed, she was left to sleep, but she would swing her legs over the side of the bed and start to shuffle off with her broken shoulder, pressing my buzzer, shouting, 'Martha's on the move again.' she looked daggers at me, I'd betrayed her. I wonder how far she would have got without me. Nurse came and went, changed shifts, took obs, bloods, changed bed pans, brought food. I dreamed of being able to have a shower, of using a toilet. My neighbour longed for ice cream, the Lithuanian lady by the window, also with Alzheimers, sang folk songs and shouted at us when she was hungry, 'Yum, Yum!' most of the time.

An evening shift change (12 hours with half hour break, three days on the trot, few hours off before nights)and the nurse asks Martha,
'Have they been good to you today.'
Martha - 'I'm thinking about it.'

I've thought about it, they have, the NHS has been good to us, we ought to be good to it back.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Don't be Afraid to Be Afraid - Meg Rosoff

It's helpful to take inspiration from those involved in writing life, so I was delighted to attend the 2015 Phillipa Pearce lecture at Homerton College, Cambridge, especially as it was to be given by a "Young Adult" writer of verve and clarity - Meg Rosoff.

My 16 year old son and I waited outside, enjoying the surprising heat of early September sun, before entering the Mary Allen Building. It was much like a school hall, it smelled of school, Homerton is an education college. My son has been to author talks since he was knee high, David Almond, Eoin Colfer and met Frank Cottrell Boyce, always on the promise that it would be 'good for him', he wasn't convinced. By the end he was engaged, enlivened and actually enjoyed himself, he even asked a question.

Such is the charm of Meg that she can turn an audience who look unlikely to share her maverick sensibilities and possibly controversial views, a Cambridge audience, all white, all middle and older aged, but then who knows what anarchist sensibilities lurk beneath the swish of a calf length pleated skirt.
After all, it was Cambridge where I joined an audience sing along to a version of 'I am an anarchist' by the Sex Pistols, even if it was by The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

Meg is a small, but powerful figure, commanding the lectern as if she were steering a ship a steady course. Her hair a shock of honey blonde, swinging earrings and ubiquitous writer garb of monochrome and scarf. I find those scarves useful for catching crumbs, and as age advances, for hiding neck wrinkles (I'm with Nora Ephron on that one, I hate my neck too). This is a woman who knows what she wants, I thought, and knows how to get it.

Alongside Meg Rosoff there was a screen with a black and white picture of Phillipa Pearce, her hand resting on a wooden door set in a wall, a door to a secret garden? Her most famous novel was about a garden - Tom's Midnight Garden. Meg talked about her connection to Phillipa, and the importance of children's literature. I wasn't going to argue with that, I took an MA in the subject, led by the inspirational Michael Rosen. As an audience we were immersed in children's literature (Even the event photographer was a children's writer, the lovely Jill Paton Walsh) it is our first books that shape our literary taste and memory. For Meg this was 'The Cat in The Hat' and she recognises she has become this character by telling children to do the 'wrong thing' in her own books, "I am The Cat in The Hat."

Meg writes for a young audience because maybe writers write about the place in their own personal history where they "get stuck" and for her that was adolescence, "When you write for children or young people, you give someone the ability to write their own story." She was 46 when she started writing for children, but I think she'd had writing sensibilities long before then, surely working in advertising is writing fiction? She hadn't read children's fiction herself for over 30 years when she wrote her first book. Who has? Perhaps we should, beyond reading to our offspring, it's good to revisit those books from our childhood, "Most people have a book somewhere in their past that unlocks a world for them." Her first book was a pony book and it was suggested she write for older children, she took the advice, desperate to get out of her advertising job. Her first published novel was How I Live Now - also a film with Saoirse Ronan - and my favourite Meg Rosoff so far, it cuts through literary waffle like a clear stream running on a hot day.


"Literature allows us to think unthinkable thoughts, to embrace lateral thinking." Meg questioned whether it is the responsibility of adults to stick to the facts and illustrated this with a dark, realist telling of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, with a finale where the bears disembowel Goldilocks. (I was reminded of Dahl and Angela Carter)
She endorsed the importance of fairy tales, important because they are fiction, if we don't tell them we succumb to the idea that children's imaginations are dangerous, an idea gaining credence in some education circles. Although children's books, by nature of who they are written for, are always under scrutiny, they always have been. It is our ability to create fiction, to tell stories, that makes us human, "Imagination makes you better at everything, with the possible exception of accountancy, where creativity may land you in Jail."


Meg admitted she seemed to be lacking the fear gene, she had been very lucky, as her first novel was such a succuess she was allowed more grace to do what she wanted, although lacking fear doesn't detract from the importance of embracing it, she admits that we need to treasure our faults, to dare to fail, to take risks and question the status quo, if the system remains the same we are trapped, without fear there is very little motivation for change,

"Think big thoughts, do not be afraid to be afraid."

Her lecture met with rapturous applause, inspiring the pleated skirts of Cambridge and promoting my now fearless son to ask a question. Thank you Meg, long may you write. Next year it's Alan Ahlberg, "bogla bol!"

Monday, 20 July 2015

She Who Dares Writes: YA Short Story set in South Africa

She Who Dares Writes: YA Short Story set in South Africa: I was going to blog about how hard holidays are, having spent a week in lovely Cornwall, where I admired, but was uninspired, by the scenery...

YA Short Story set in South Africa

I was going to blog about how hard holidays are, having spent a week in lovely Cornwall, where I admired, but was uninspired, by the scenery and walked the coastal path, dipped in the sea, while my other half complained about the mizzle and driving the narrow roads. He doesn't share my love of all things Cornish.

So here's a short story for Young Adults I edited while I was down there instead. I was going to enter it for the Cheshire Prize, but it's too long, and I can't massacre 500 words for the sake of a competition entry.

A kiss for a cake

Lungelo had been standing by the roadside for an hour, the rain seeping through a hole in his left shoe. He would be late. Aunty would be cross, she would shout again.
‘Late again, always late, useless boy!’ Lungelo didn’t want to be useless. He shivered, it was cold. Mme said if you kept your middle warm you would be alright. He had to keep his middle warm, like a hot pie. Lungelo wrapped his arms round his skinny body in its old, checked shirt and closed his eyes. The rain was lighter now and the sky was high, bright and wide. He would dry off soon. Maybe he would start walking. He shifted his weight back to the other foot and peered down the highway. A lady was coming towards him on the other side of the road, her large feet spilling over flip flops and her red skirt swaying. She was wearing a hat. A big, pink hat that had drooped in the rain. One hand held a small pile of books steady on her head.

A group of workers in blue overalls approached the crossroads, jeering, jostling, and pushing each other up the gravel track. One of them had bare feet, mud clumped between his toes. They would be coming for their lift too. Lungelo hadn’t seen them before. He looked back to the woman, she was getting closer, her red skirt swirling round her knees in the breeze. He could see her shirt stretched tight, her hips swaying under the red nylon. His mouth was dry.

The men were on the other corner. Lungelo moved into the long grass behind a large, grey termite mound. They couldn’t see him there. Mme had told him a story when he was hot with fever in their tiny room in Langa, she had soothed his head and told of a boy and his brother alone on the road walking in the cold winter night from Fish Hoek to Cape Town. The little brother had grown tired and his older brother carried him for a while until he saw the shadow of a small hill in the darkness. A termite mound. He hollowed out a hole, tucking his little brother inside where he knew it was warm. Letting his brother sleep, he leaned back and kept guard. The early morning trucks picked out his body in their headlights, cold and rigid. The little brother was alive, asleep inside the termite mound.
Lungelo shivered again. He wouldn’t want to be out here at night. Oh no. As the woman came closer some of the men on the corner whistled. He could hear them calling across the road, calling things that were not very nice. Lungelo could see his Uncle’s truck in the distance, stirring up dust that was his lift. He stepped out from behind the termite mound. The men were still jeering. He wouldn’t like it if someone spoke to his sister like that.
‘Hey, brothers, you use that mouth to speak to your mother like that?’ They glared at him, one of them pointed a fat finger. The truck pulled up between them and Lungelo jumped up onto the front seat. Uncle wiped a damp tissue over his big, bald head,
‘Sorry I’m late boy, lets load up.’ All of the men climbed in the back of the truck. Lungelo pressed his cold legs to the vinyl seat, his heart pounding. Uncle swung out of the driver’s door and leaned close to the woman. She laughed, reached a hand up to touch his face and smiled. Lungelo watched them in the mirror, their heads close like love birds. Uncle must know her, perhaps she was auntie’s friend. Uncle grabbed the woman’s arm and kissed her on the lips. Perhaps she was not auntie’s friend. The men in the back jeered and whistled some more as Uncle climbed into the dirvers seat. He put his finger to his lips and winked at Lungelo. Lungleo slid his hand under his shirt, his belly was hot now and there was sweat on the back of his neck. Maybe the fever was coming back.
He was twelve that winter.
‘Time for you to work.’ Mme said, ‘Uncle will find you some jobs to do.’ But Lungelo missed school. He missed his friends. He hadn’t quite learned to read, and he would like to. There were a few books in his house, a bible, some magazines, but he had seen houses where there were lots of books, lots of them. Uncle had books and when Lungelo had done his chores, swept the floors and fed the chickens, he would look at them, running his hands over the hard spines.
Aunty met them in the yard, her bony arms folded. All the men climbed out of the truck, one of them pointed at Lungelo, shook his finger angrily. Aunty sent Lungelo to the kitchen,
‘Finish painting that wall. The new cook comes today, finish it before she gets here.’
‘New book? Asked Lungelo. Aunty sighed,
‘New cook, useless boy, what would I need with a new book?’ Lungelo went to the kitchen and took up the paintbrush. He would have liked a new book, he would have liked any book, although the letters danced before him and he did not know what the words meant, he could look at the pictures. He took his shoes off and placed them under the table, prised open the paint tin with an old fork and stirred. The paint was thick, gloopy, like the bowl of pap he had had for breakfast many hours ago. He pressed his dry lips together, he was hungry. He liked the sharp, clean smell and the sound as he slapped it on the bare plaster. It was a pale blue, a pretty colour. If there was any left, perhaps Aunty would let him take it back to Langa. Mme would like that. There was a soft shuffling behind him and Lungelo felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. He looked down at his paint speckled hands and laid the brush across the pot. He was too scared to turn round. It was like the time he had been followed home by a big dog. He could hear it panting behind, hoped it wasn’t with a pack, hungry and wild, like the dogs that chased the children in Langa, snapping at ankles and hands that were flapping or lagging.
‘Hello boy.’ The voice was warm, friendly. Lungelo wriggled to his feet and peeked over his shoulder. A big lady with shiny skin and a sweat stained shirt stretched tight was standing by the table. Lungelo could smell her sweat and spices across the kitchen. She lifted a parcel of books from her head, removed her pink hat and hung it behind the door, then pushed her sleeves up and smiled a wide smile right at Lungelo. It was the lady from the road. The woman uncle had kissed. Lungelo felt hot and sticky again, he backed into the corner like a trapped scorpion. The lady pointed to the floor, ‘Mind your feet now.’ It was too late. He had stood in the paint with his bare feet, left a print on the old newspaper, a blue foot and five toes. He would be in trouble. At least he had taken his only shoes off. Aunty came in the kitchen. She was tiny next to the road-lady, her clothes hung like washing on a line all bones underneath, Mme said her sister did not eat enough. She glanced at Lungelo but did not see the paint footprint near her clean floor,
‘What is the matter with you boy? Why you staring?’ She apologised to the woman for Lungelo’s foolishness, ‘My nephew, he is meant to be working.’ Lungelo thought he saw the woman frown, but she smiled at him again and held out her hand. He took it, her skin was soft. Lungelo could feel the sweat cool on his forehead.
‘Sonto,’ she said, ‘I am the new cook. Who are you?’ Lungelo looked at his feet,
‘Lungelo’ he whispered.
‘Well Lungelo, would you like to help me make dinner?’
‘Hmph!’ said Aunty, her hands still on her hips, ‘He doesn’t know how to cook! Finish the wall Lungelo.’ She waved her hands and marched out of the kitchen. Lungelo watched Sonto. She undid the string from her parcel of books and laid them out on the table. There were five. Each had a colour picture on the front, triple layered cakes smothered in buttercream icing, tables laden with roast chickens and potatoes, split yams and grilled fish. Lungelos stomach tightened, he was still hungry. Sonto pushed one book to him.
‘Open it, find something you like, you read the recipe to me and I will make it for you.’ Her eyes jumped with mischief. Lungelo thought she must know. He stared at the book mutely, pressed his lips together, shook his head and turned back to the paintbrush, the paint had to be stirred again. Sonto stood beside him,
‘Can you read Lungelo?’ he shook his head once, stared at the wall, it turned blue under his brush. Sonto touched his arm, ‘You do that well, like an artist. I could show you some words if you help me make dinner, how’s that for a deal?’ He kept painting.
‘I need to do my work or Aunty will be angry.’ Sonto smiled, her cheeks dimpled,
‘You leave Aunty to me.’ Aunty was Mme’s sister, but she was unkind. The road lady was nice. Still. He glanced back at the book open on the table. Mme had promised to help him to read but she had been too busy. Perhaps?
‘I want to go to school, but I have to work.’ He said. Lungelo stared at his paint speckled feet and gripped his brush, ‘Maybe if you teach me I won’t tell Aunty that Uncle kissed you?’ He almost whispered it but Sonto heard. She stepped back, hands on hips. Here it comes, he thought, and flinched, ready for the blow. But she laughed, a great big laugh that bounced off the kitchen walls,
‘Fair enough, cheeky boy. Come on. First we clean your feet before you get that nice paint on Aunty’s clean floor.’ She made Lungelo sit in a chair and ran an old towel under the tap, rubbed it at his toes. He laughed, it tickled. Sonto cleaned the paint away, brought him a glass of water. Lungelo opened the book to a picture of a fat, red cake.
‘Can we make this for Mme?’ Sonto nodded, helped him sound out the words, tore a page from the back of the book and wrote them on it with a stubby pencil. Lungelo said the words until he had them in his head and they didn’t fly away like the seabirds he had watched from the classroom window, flapping up the dust as they took off over the Jacaranda trees. Where the words had danced, now they were still.

Sonto’s breath was warm on his cheek. The paper fluttered to the floor as the kitchen door banged open. The man with the pointing finger stood there. His overalls were covered in dust, it settled on his skin like icing sugar. Lungelo looked at the open book, spelled out the word – i-c-i-n-g. They were to use it to make the cake.
‘What do you want Mhambi?’ Sonto was cross. ‘You should not be here.’ Mhambi glared at Lungelo, pointed his finger again and leered. He slid up behind the table and drank Lungelo’s water, then he pulled Sonto close, put his arm round her waist. Lungelo had seen women who went with men. Women who had children to feed. He did not think Sonto did that. He hid under the table. Sonto pushed the big man hard with her flat hands. Lungelo stuck his leg out quick and Mhambi fell over his clean, washed toes. He toppled like a tree, cracked his head on the table corner and got up slowly. Lungelo picked up the cook book to throw but Sonto stood in front of him. She shouted,
‘Get out!’ just as Uncle appeared in the doorway, he moved to let Mhambi
limp past. Lungelo peeked out from behind Sonto’s skirts and Uncle frowned at him.
‘Why are you not painting the wall Lungelo?’ Sonto stepped forward, oput a hand on Uncle’s arm, used her soft voice,
‘Don’t be hard on the boy, he helped me, he defended me against that stupid man.’ Uncle looked angry, but not with his nephew. Sonto smiled at Lungelo, ‘so now I will help him, won’t I?’ Lungelo nodded. A kiss for a cake, paint for a wall, words for silence. He understood.

Monday, 1 June 2015

She Who Dares Writes: The Stella That Never

She Who Dares Writes: The Stella That Never: I've been too long absent from the blogsphere, saving my musings for a post Word Factory event in London Town at Waterstones, Picadilly...

The Stella That Never

I've been too long absent from the blogsphere, saving my musings for a post Word Factory event in London Town at Waterstones, Picadilly. Expected to be part of a literati gathering at an evening salon and masterclass with the irrepressible Stella Duffy. Prolific and most excellent writer and curator of Fun Palaces.

Unfortunately my stamina in the face of illness doesn't match hers, I couldn't move my pathetic flesh out of bed down to the station and onto the train. Although the mind was willing, the flesh was - too weak. So I've made up what might have been, 'Everything is Moving, Everything is Joined.'

Arriving early at Waterstones, I bumped into Stella on the Stairs. We compared new dresses and comfortable choice of footwear, the reality of writing against the romantic illusion of having a writers garret to return to rather than a small town suburb. I bemoaned the fact that it was not the writerly life I imagined when I dreamed of a the career as a child. She told me with pen and paper you can write anywhere, anytime anyplace. I try, like a weak Martini. Her eyes sparkled as she recalled coming across some of my work through a mutual friend, an agent, no less, who had talked of me in warm and glowing tones, who only regretted that could not represent me at that time, but she knew of someone else, a sure fire three book contract, tour of the UK in three star hotels and book signings in Bolton, I'm getting carried away now. Ah Stella, it was not to be. Another time, another place.

Friday, 27 March 2015