Sunday, February 07, 2016

Don't Look Now

The Sunday Times has launched a campaign to bring down the rate of stillbirths. As part of that they asked me to write a personal piece. This is the director's cut as it were. (If you read this and want to do something. Anything. Sign the petition here. It's not much but it's a start.

Among words certain to bring me out in a cold sweat is “stillbirth”. Another trigger is “dead” attached to “baby”, “son” and “child”. There’s a theme you see.

I should by rights have a 16-year-old wandering round the house, watching Youtube videos and stress-eating to cope with his GCSEs. Except I don’t.

I don’t, because instead of a gangly adolescent laying upstairs trawling Instagram, my baby son’s body moulders in a tiny white coffin in an Essex churchyard where we buried him 16 years ago. A shocking thought. To me anyway. But stillbirth is like that. Shocking. A whole life. A future taken away before the child draws breath.

When I read that the UK has the same attrition rate as Slovakia and Slovenia I despair. When I see that the UK has a higher rate of stillbirths than Croatia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Korea I wonder what is going wrong.

What is Iceland doing right to suffer the lowest rate of stillbirth among 186 countries? What changes are they making in the Netherlands where between the years 2000 and 2015 they have seen an annual rate of reduction in stillbirths of 6.8% compared to our measly 1.4%?

Why aren’t we up in arms?

Are we such fatalists that we bury our babies and think “That’s life for you” and “Is it Call the Midwife tonight? Put the kettle on, will you?”.

My own son died in utero two days before his due date. I enjoyed a good pregnancy - ate organically, quit drinking, took up pregnancy yoga, avoided blue cheese, prawns, liver and bad influences. I bloomed with happiness.

The only problem: I could not sleep. One night though, I slept well and late. Almost at the moment of waking, I realised the baby was not moving. I had a hot bath, ate vanilla ice-cream - an instinctive part of me already knew, but the rational woman decided that I was wrong. Because I had to be wrong.

At Guy’s hospital in London, the room was dark as the midwife swept my pregnant belly for the heartbeat on the ultrasound machine. I waited for the grainy pulse, for the baby to move. In vain. She called in a more experienced colleague and my husband gripped my hand. Terror. Fear. Think of your worst nightmare. Then double down.

An older woman with a kind face and efficient manner arrived. Silent, she watched the screen as she moved the scanner across and over my stomach, pressing it to find a scrap of life, and finding instead death, horror and desolation.

When she left us, I sat up awkwardly on the hospital bed and my husband wrapped his arms around me. Screaming, I held onto him in the darkness. I know the exact sound a heart makes when it breaks — it sounds like a wolf. Both of us heard it.

Horrors knock one against the next when your baby dies. Your child’s dead — that’s terrible. Now give birth to him. Not by caesarean because of the risk of bleeding and complications with future pregnancies which leaves only the alternative. I was induced and 60 hours later, I gave birth to my son. That at least I could do for him.

He felt warm and wet and wonderful as I pushed him out. Nearly seven pounds and beautiful. Though don’t ask me what colour his eyes were, but his fingers still folded to hold my finger. The first and last time I held his hand in mine.

We washed him with soft cotton wool balls and dressed him in a tiny white new-born’s romper we had brought in with us.

You feel guilt when your baby dies inside - as if you have failed him in the most extraordinary and catastrophic way. My heart hurt – not metaphorically but physically - and lunacy beckoned. My baby buried, I was not safe to leave alone; where I had once nourished another life, grief and despair filled me.

The consequences are endless. I am convinced that for more than a decade, I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Trapped in the endless video loop labouring to give birth to a dead child. I also suffered spells of post natal depression after the birth of my other three children. Needless to say the pregnancies were tense.

I cannot guess what sort of mother I would have been had my first son not died. My children would probably be sounder sleepers. Sometimes an inconsiderate child will sleep so quietly, they scarcely seem to move; I have to tiptoe in and check they are still drawing breath. Occasionally, I poke them.

There are no rules when you lose a child, you survive however you can: avoid those who are unhelpful; abuse the good will of those closest to you; a black sense of humour helps. “Let’s think outside the box,” I would say to my husband and my bereavement therapist would cringe.

According to the ONS figures which will be published this spring, ten babies are stillborn every day in the UK.

In 2014, 3,564 children were lost. Why aren’t those numbers falling? Stillbirth matters — to the children lost. To their bereaved mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers. To the families and friends and colleagues all of whom are caught up in the devastation that accompanies the death of an innocent. To every woman who wants to bear a child. To every man who stands by her.

My husband and I weren’t a given a reason why our son died. There wasn’t a mistake to point at and say “If only.” Sometimes a cause emerges such as pre-eclampsia, congenital malformation or infection. In around 10% of cases, such as my own, it is entirely unexplained. Doctors told me at the time that in the case of a middle-class woman going to term who has had an unremarkable pregnancy, a stillbirth is virtually always unexplained. How is that acceptable in this age of Google where everything is searchable?

If you are lucky, you reach an accommodation with tragedy. You swallow it up and take it inside yourself. If you are lucky, you have more children – other beautiful, glorious children. You do not so much “get over it” as get through it. People ask: “How many children do you have?” I say: “Three.” I think: “Four.”

Sixteen years ago, we lost a child. Nothing changes. Every baby’s stillbirth is a small tragedy for that family. For the country though that sits back and lets it happen, time and time again, it’s a national disgrace.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Beryl in the Dark

I hear there's a hot new book called The Widow written by former journalist Fiona Barton. It reminded me to look out a short story I wrote at the tail-end of 2009. It's a different take on things, but I thought I might as well put it up here.

Beryl in the dark

Widowhood isn’t bad. Truth to tell, I decided that before the sudden death of my beloved husband, and I take comfort from how quickly I adapted. Naturally, I’m lonelier with Arthur gone, and in bed, my feet are colder, but I have Radio 4 when the silence gets too loud, and last year I bought a pair of cream angora bed socks for my feet which helped considerably. It’s probably a good thing my sexual urges are long dead – not that they were ever that strong. But I did my wifely duty for Arthur and he appreciated my efforts. Once a fortnight, he’d bring a box of Terry’s All Gold in from the car, and I knew his needs that night wouldn’t be entirely satisfied by the orange cream. I myself always preferred the caramel crunch.

It’s a miserable day – never quite got light - and if that journalist wasn’t hanging around by the front door, I’d be tempted to slip out and treat myself to a box of chocolates. These days, I allow myself the odd binge and to hell with the consequences for my hips - I’ve arrived at the age where extra flesh is no great burden. Indeed, it’s some comfort to feel yourself to be a substantial figure – there’s far less chance of being blown away by the wind.

She arrived just past one, and every half an hour on the dot, she calls me on her mobile phone. I’ve turned off the answer phone so she can’t leave a message again which irritates her. She’s a slip of a thing called Emily Walsh, and I’m glad to say, she seems reconciled to failure - her hard little face is tight and bad-tempered on those occasions she leaves the car, bundled up in her oversized, red, waterproof coat, to pee behind the hawthorn hedge. Doubtless, she’d like to go back to her London newsroom and drink Fairtraded coffee, but whoever else she’s calling on that phone won’t let her. It’s all well and good for them, she’s thinking. They’re not the ones wasting their lives away, buffeted by cold winds in across the fields from the North Sea and soaked to the marrow by the unforgiving Norfolk rain. She should have got herself a proper job. I’ve no time for journalists – even the pretty ones - the lies they told about Arthur.

I can last three weeks without leaving the house in the event of invasion, epidemic or siege. There are plenty of tins – sardines, ravioli and beef stew, I bake my own wholemeal bread with sunflower seeds from packets, and in the freezer as well as single servings of pork casserole and meat and potato pie in handy foil trays, there’s milk, all swollen and grey-looking in those enormous plastic bottles. I never use those containers in the kitchen, instead, I decant milk into a small, rose-blown china jug that was once my mother’s. She’d fetch her own milk from the dairy in an earthenware jug and carry it home up the high street, never spilling a drop. I’d do that myself if I had a choice - so much nicer than a trip to the supermarket, though I admit those places have their uses. I bought a plastic bucket of jelly spiders and snakes when I went in last week ready for Halloween. I’ve no neighbours to speak of, but the woman at the farmstead up the track brings her twins down trick or treating. Last year, the boy came as a vampire and the girl a green-faced witch. Macabre of course and a thoroughly silly American habit, but the children themselves were charming. They had black cauldrons for the chocolate coins I gave them all wrapped up in gold paper - the woman was most grateful. She’s what they call a “single parent” I suspect. That’s to say, I’ve never seen the children’s father. Nice manners though. I always insisted on nice manners when I was teaching. My class knew to hold open the door for me and stand up when we had a visitor in class, they said “Sir” and “Miss” and quite right - the world would be a better place if everyone had better manners. Arthur had lovely manners. Exquisite. When he came in late at night, and woke me, he was always so apologetic.

I’m old – you’d think she’d show some pity, but none of it. She’s back, knocking at the door and peering in through the windows. There’s someone who could learn better manners. I’ve drawn the curtains – knock away dearie. I never did mind the dark. Not even when Mammy locked me in the cupboard when she caught me in some childish wickedness. I acted as if I did of course – to get out quicker, but she never caught on. I’d be hollering and crying something fearsome, but inside my own head, I was laughing at her. Emily’s put another note through the door asking me to talk to her – terrible handwriting. It’s on headed paper. They must travel with headed notepaper – how very old-fashioned. She must keep it in the glove compartment – I’ve not noticed her go to the boot. I’m surprised they don’t e-mail me, but perhaps they think I’m too old for a computer. I rather like the computer. It’s astonishing what you can find on the internet these days – I spend hours looking through it all. I don’t buy anything too hardcore of course, and I’m careful to erase my history. Best of all, I’ve picked up a couple of lovely recipes for jam – one with lime and ginger, most unusual. Like those photographs with the dogs. It seems ridiculous to think I’m a cyberspace astronaut, but here I am, helmet on, “following” famous names and bored housewives in Maine, both. Everyone looking to connect. It might help if they got out more of course. I make that point to them on occasion, although they don’t like it.

I looked up my little Emily sitting out there with such ill grace. She’d be surprised how much I know about her – articles, old school, her twittering, an hour ago she accepted me as a friend on Facebook. Obviously, I don’t use my own name with these things – I’m a 30-year-old mother of two, living in Cornwall with an interest in crafts. The last bit is true as it happens. She’s popular enough – 382 “friends” but then she would have that number if she accepts just anybody. She gets annoyed with her mother for commenting on what she gets up to. The mother’s probably mortified. She’s wiling her time away with her laptop out there - it must have one of those dongles you can connect up to the internet with. I just hope she isn’t using my wireless connection.

Emily’s been depressed lately – from the heavy hints, I’d guess an affair with a married man went wrong. Judging by her photographs, she’d be advised to spend more time working and less time getting drunk and sleeping around – that way, they might want her back in the office occasionally. No manners and even fewer morals. I’ve known enough women like her.

For a moment there, I thought she might be about to leave – she started up the car but she’s switched it off again. She’s cold – turning on the heater and letting it run a while. What I don’t want her doing is asking questions in the village. Forget free speech, privacy should be enshrined as a human right. I only ask to live out my days in peace, Lord. Surely that’s not over-ambitious. I had enough excitement to last me a lifetime when Arthur was arrested, and in the run-up to the trial. It’s not much to ask – to spend the rest of my life as “that nice woman who came in the other day.” Nobody would recognize me. There was a time when I was glamorous – a head-turner. Arthur maintained I reminded him of Elizabeth Taylor. He was very gallant like that. I shudder to think what he’d say if he saw me now, but you can hide anywhere with a good perm and an elasticated skirt. Perhaps not if you’re a man. He’d understand. He always understood me perfectly. I had my vices and he had his. Doesn’t everybody? That’s what the police didn’t seem to understand. The young lady in the car for instance, smokes. That is what I call a nasty habit. These days there’s no excuse for smoking – it may very well shorten her life but she seems oblivious. I have a good mind to go out and tell her to stop throwing her cigarette butts out of her window. She winds it down an inch and flicks out the butt still burning then winds up the window again sharpish to keep the rain out. The twins will see them lying there when they come trick or treating - it’s no kind of example for them. I wonder what they’ll come as this year. I sincerely hope she’s gone by then, and doesn’t pester the mother who seems like a very nice woman even if she is divorced.

It’s not the most salubrious of addresses my solitary house by an abandoned garage, but I like it more than I thought I would. They built a by-pass and the garage became uneconomic. There was compensation and the garage owner sold the remains of the petrol station along with his house. It’s obviously quieter than it used to be but behind the copse of trees, juggernauts rumble through and cars, back and forth, going nowhere I want to go. I’ve never lived by the sea, though we had it in mind for our retirement, but the sound must be similar – a dull roar of engines and road, water and shingle. I don’t even mind the way at night lights wheedle their way through the curtains and across my ceiling as desperate drivers pull in thinking they can get petrol, and pull out again cursing when they realize it’s a ghost town garage, the pumps as useless and stubby as rotten teeth. I lie awake for hours waiting for these foolish travellers – their confusion makes me smile. I was always something of an insomniac and the older I get, the less sleep I need. Arthur on the other hand slept like a baby. He’d have his bath and clean his teeth, and once he was in his striped pyjamas, he’d be asleep within seconds. I used to wonder how he managed it when he had so much on his mind. Perhaps he used sleeping pills and never told me? He didn’t tell me everything. Breakfast was the time he’d make his confessions to me. I forgot to put the cat out last night. That sort of thing.

This house serves my purpose. I found it on the internet and it was cheap £49,000. I’d plenty left to live on once I’d sold the old place. Gerald saw to that. Gerald managed everything for me after his father died. He had the house sold in two weeks – at a huge discount of course. Some developer razed it to the ground – such a waste. They’d have been better off painting it all the way through. It’s amazing the difference a lick of paint makes to the atmosphere in a room. Gerald brought me round the cheque, kissed me on my cheek and hasn’t spoken to me since. Like his father, once he puts his mind to something, there’s no budging him. I considered sending him a postcard telling him where I am, but he wouldn’t reply so I hardly see the point. He has his own life, and I respect his decision. From the moment they’re born, you know there’ll come a day when they leave you. Gerald planned to change his name and move away from the area. The bank was very understanding.

It’s snug since I had the central heating put in, and the new kitchen was a good decision. The bathroom was old-fashioned with a scratched-up, claw-foot ceramic bath and a high cistern for the lavatory with a long chain, but I liked it that way so I’ve let it be. There’s two bedrooms – my own and one at the back which I keep as a hobby room - for crafts, pergamano, decoupage, and card making. I sit there snipping and cutting, lost to everything. Apart from the craft table, I didn’t bring much with me – everything new. A fresh start – Gerald disposed of it all. Even the cat went _ I’m not sure where. Gerald was never fond of her. I’d like to think he kept some memento of his old mum and dad but frankly, I doubt it. If Arthur was living here of course, the house wouldn’t be enough for him, he’d be digging out a basement room. He liked his basement did Arthur. He could have been a professional builder, the time and energy he spent in our basement. Our rockery was the envy of the avenue. And he dug out a goldfish pond several times only to change his mind at the last minute and fill it in again.

This is the first time I’ve lived on my own. When Mammy died so tragically, I was already engaged. Arthur moved straight in and we brought the wedding forward. I was 22 and he was 19 – too young they’d say these days, but I felt as old as the hills even then. Now, there’s only myself to please and no nay-sayers. I won’t have it that there are no consolations to widowhood. There’s church. I always enjoyed a nice church service though Arthur was never that keen. There’s a lovely one in the village. Norman. Beautiful kneelers - I’ve never tried cross-stitch but I’m willing to give it a go. I’m told it’s therapeutic. I’ve become quite a regular at vespers, and a reliable pair of hands helping out at the coffee mornings in aid of the lifeboats and the unfortunates caught up in the latest natural disaster. Flood or famine, count me in to hand round the macaroons. The vicar can take a hint as well which was a pleasant surprise. He offered to drop by but I don’t want strangers in the house. I put him off. Politely. He understood completely. I told him: “I’m sure you have enough old dears to visit, without adding me to your list, vicar.” He was relieved – needy parishioners can be a nightmare to men of the cloth. To all intents and purposes, I’m a widow, retired to the county where I holidayed as a child. Unfortunately I have no children of my own – God’s will. I almost believe it myself.

I’ve done a six-week writing class as well. That was an eye-opener. The things those women were willing to share with the class whilst writing about the seasons changing astonished me. What goes on during the menopause is not a matter for the iambic pentameter. And as for the gossip after class when they all trooped off for coffee together - as Mammy always said: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Arthur and I would sit in silence for hours on an evening as we watched television together, and at half–past seven we’d have a nice cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit. If he didn’t fancy what was on, he’d go down to the basement to tinker around with whatever he had down there.

The reporter is hammering on the door like a lunatic. She’s losing the plot entirely. As if I would answer the door to a madwoman. I did the right thing buying a house in the middle of nowhere – goodness knows what the neighbours would think. I’m irritated though that she found me. If it happens again, I may have to move on and I’d almost decided to get chickens – Black rocks. They lay a lovely brown egg. You never seem to get a proper brown egg these days. I’m going to do some hoovering so I don’t have to hear her carry-on. I’ve hoovered today already. I always do my jobs first thing in the morning, working down from the top of the house to the bottom – bedrooms first, a quick going-over in the bathroom, a hoover round and a spit-and-dust. The kitchen I always keep straight. Nothing worse than a grimey sink. There she’s stopped. Perhaps it was her blood-sugar. She’s had nothing to eat all day and time’s getting on.

Thank goodness, she’s leaving, finally. I was beginning to get quite annoyed with her. I was shaking as I cut myself that last slice of seedcake, almost cut my finger. And that can get quite bloody. At least I can open the curtains now and drink my tea in peace. It’s almost time for the evening news. Arthur’s cellmate is on, maintaining Arthur made an arrangement to pay his family £5,000 if he didn’t call the prison guards while he hanged himself. Easy money if you ask me and a bit too late for his conscience to come calling. The wife was glad enough of it at the time. Greasy hair tied back in a pony-tail, a cigarette hanging out of her thin-lipped mouth, three snotty-nosed children hanging off her. The very picture of a convict’s trollop. Did he tell her what he had to do for the money? I thought not at the time, though she was no fool, there was a feral intelligence in those beady eyes of hers. She had a good look round the car park once she opened the boot of the car as agreed by the men-folk. Morrison’s 1pm – money in the boot wrapped in a plastic bag. Arthur warned me to make sure I wasn’t seen. Then something spooked her because she banged shut the boot and shovelled those children into that car so fast I doubt she even strapped them in. Doubtless she spent the money on drugs rather than food and shoes for the children – she was the type. I wondered afterwards whether the money was well-spent, whether the cellmate would have stopped Arthur hanging himself anyway. Unlike Emily, Arthur wasn’t exactly popular at the time, but I couldn’t risk him incriminating me at the trial. He understood that when I explained it all to him at visiting. He could see I was frightened – my hand trembling in his. He worshipped me, there’s nothing he wouldn’t have done to take that fear away. He kissed my fingertips - “Beryl lovie” - his breath warm on my skin for the last time.

Emily’s back. She must have parked the car around the corner out of sight. Would you credit it and bearing flowers? What an old chestnut. As if a bunch of tired dahlias would make me break my silence. You stupid, stupid girl. I don’t even like flowers, and just look at the time. The lady up the lane will be here within the hour. Alright, you’ve brought this on yourself. I’m opening the door. The look on her face as I open the door is almost worth the inconvenience. She virtually falls over her own pixie boots to get back up the path. “Alright my dear, come in.” I go into the kitchen and switch the kettle on. “Go in to the lounge and take a seat while I make you a cup of tea – you must be freezing.” She doesn’t need a second invitation. The chance to look round my lounge without me watching her. No photos. Nothing personal. A copy of The Spectator. I warm the pot, swirling the boiling water round its belly, ladling in the loose tea. I have a special mix reserved for visitors, and bring it through on a tray with my bone china jug of milk. It’s a shame I ate the last piece of cake earlier, but there’s homemade shortbread, fork-pricked and gritty with sugar. She shakes her head. Tea is fine. Of course, tea is fine. I watch her drink it. “Drink up,” I instruct her and she swallows it down. Have another cup and then we’ll talk. We talk and it’s more of a relief than I expected it to be. I tell her all about it.

We met in the working men’s club. Mammy with her port and lemon, myself newly qualified, stiff with boredom, and there he was through a fog of curling tobacco smoke and conversation. A messiah in a black satin shirt strumming a guitar trying to make them listen to his song. They didn’t hear him but I did. He wasn’t as educated as I was. Not as intelligent but I helped him, improved him, polished him till he shone – not that his talent ever got the recognition it deserved. His virtues were never recognized in the factory where he ended up. He and I both hoped he’d be made manager but he never got there, never got past floor supervisor. Perhaps he was too weak. Not enough of a leader for them. But they didn’t see him as I saw him. Arthur knew what he wanted. He was a man with appetites. Not even orange creams were enough. That first time, I made a suggestion he went on a little hunting trip – brought back what it was he needed - he wept at my feet with gratitude. I’d bring him a cup of tea while he worked. The girls always looked so relieved when I appeared at the door, and so very disappointed when I handed Arthur a digestive and took a seat to watch. He was a craftsman in his way. I tell Emily every last detail although she’s rude enough to fall asleep, drool hanging out of the corner of her pink lipsticked mouth, slumped in the corner of the settee like a ratty old cushion. My arm around her, I take her weight as we stagger up the narrow stairs to the back bedroom. Occasionally, she falls to her knees with a grunt, and I have to pull her up the last few stairs by her hair but she doesn’t complain. I get her into the bedroom and lie her on the spare bed, tying her ankles together with pretty pink silk ribbon and her wrists and ankles behind her back with pale blue. Yellow silk links the ankles to the wrists. I use my craft knife to slice the ribbon once I’ve pulled it from the cardboard spool – a small razor blade cut on the diagonal that slides up and down its plastic holder. Scraping the knife along the dangling strands of colour leaves ringlets of ribbon. Arthur always admired my finishing touches. She’ll be out for a while yet but for safety’s sake, I knot the black tights I’ve taken off her, slide them between her teeth and use them as a gag. “Congratulations dear – you have what you’d call a scoop,” I tell her, but she lies there mute, her eyes closed.

There’s her car of course but that doesn’t worry me unduly. I could drive it down to Norwich early tomorrow morning and leave it unlocked in the hope it would disappear. I’d have to get the train back and a cab home but there’d be time to do some shopping. Everybody knows how little old ladies like to shop. And there’s room in the freezer for more pie. Or there’s the quarry lake which can’t be more than a mile away. That I could do tonight. It doesn’t leave me quite so long with Emily, but long enough I expect and far too long as far as she’s concerned. Perhaps that might be tidier. There’s no trace of my special tea after 24 hours and I’ll be careful not to leave any other marks on her. She drives herself off the edge. Quarries are notoriously dangerous places. It might well be weeks till she’s found – if at all. And if she is? Depressed you see. Unstable. Too much time to think sitting in her car in the rain outside the widow’s house. No, I never spoke to her.

Right on cue, the doorbell goes and there they are, the nice woman from up the track and her two charming children. They’re dressed as monsters – the boy as Frankenstein and the girl as a ghoul. Every bit as charming as they were last year, the mother looking more tired than ever. “I wonder my dear whether you ever need a baby-sitter,” I ask, and her eyes light up.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

True North

I am supposed to appear at the York Festival of Ideas on Saturday evening and talk about "Living up North" along with Paul Morley who has just written an enormous book on "The North (and almost everything in it)". The thought of this event has been giving me sleepless nights and hives the size of whippets.

"The North" is what you call a big topic. Big.

Plus I can't find the valium I usually take when I have to do a reading. It is two days away and my body is running cold at the thought of it. I am such a wuss when it comes to leaving the house - never in a million years would you have me down as a child who'd had to do monologues at the PTA cheese and wines of the seventies complete with granny outfit and walking stick.

So I thought I might hammer out some ideas here and see if it helps...

For me the move from South to North was a return of the native - bearing in mind I'd been born and brought up in Leeds, gone to Durham university and worked in Newcastle.

Then I left.

Then I came back.

I still live in it. Since the gig at York university effectively brands me a "professional Northerner", this makes me unusual because most professional Northerners live somewhere else.

There is a truth to the North - an integrity, an authenticity.

The North pulls you to it, draws you to it - even the rocks themselves.

There is an idea of journeying Northwards, towards the unknown, towards the Other - of crossing boundaries into a place with dangers.

There's cold and snow, wolves and bears, invaders and raiders.

There's a cultural representation of straight talking and plain dealing of silent honourable men and gritty women, of poverty and pits, of black-faced miners and back-to-backs, community and mill chimneys and pit wheels, Victorian architecture and ambition. There's moorland and mountains and rivers that cross it. There's fiction and reality.

There are all of those things that we each of us carry and tweak, and accept or reject and polish to a North of our own making.

This North we have made for ourselves is the North we live in - and the North that lives in us.

...or I could manage a few scrappy verses of a monologue...?

Friday, March 15, 2013

I Rode the Bus

I rode the bus today – if it’s good enough for the new Pope, it’s good enough for me. And where to go? I started out from Durham bus station and had my choice. The ends of the earth where new Popes live? Or closer to home? Perhaps a pit village? High Pittington? Esh Winning? Crook? But the pits are long gone, and maybe not Crook. This had to be a journey into faith after all and Popes and crooks don’t mix, although Jesus was crucified between thieves so what do I know?

I plumped for Newcastle upon Tyne because that bus came and I wanted to leave the bus station pretty much as soon as I arrived. The station doesn’t inspire, still the Pope might, so I fought my way through the thick pork smell of chilli dogs to buy a newspaper full of Pope-y news to read on the way. I rather like the idea of diversifying from newspapers into chillidogs – it shows an original mind, and the newsagent certainly beats the shut-up shop along from it. A cheery notice on that door warns “Doorstep Callers Beware! You are not welcome here. I do not buy at the door.” No-one had been doing much buying apparently. The landlord had left his own notice stuck to the grubby glass announcing he had “re-entered the premises and as a consequence of such re-entry the lease has been forfeited and the premises secured.” Still it works, because it really does make you want to get on a bus.

I have travelled on plenty of buses in my time of course though not in the last few years. My mother said that at four years old, criss-crossing Leeds, slicing it up between home and school, wearing a straw boater and buttercup yellow cotton, I’d talk to anyone. I have this vision of dawn travellers sinking into their shiney, slidey seats in silent horror at my Shirley Temple entrance for fear I’d sit next to them and lispingly, ruthlessly, relentlessly chat. One afternoon, I’d asked her whether I could sit next to an old lady sitting across from us whom I thought looked lonely. “You didn’t care about leaving me,” she said accusingly (the eternal cry of the mother). “You talked to her for the entire journey and when it was our stop, I took your hand to stand up and the lady said to you ‘Your mummy and daddy must be so proud of you’ and you said ’I don’t have a daddy. I’ve just got a mummy,” and that poor woman almost sank through the floor with embarrassment. I had to tell her he’d died when you were a baby – that made it worse.”

But those bus-and-glory days are long gone so why did I feel I had to ride this bus this morning? Because I wanted to know why a cardinal did not ride in a leather-seated, tinted-windowed limo though the streets of Buenos Aires, but chose instead to travel among the faithful and less-than-faithful, bumping and swaying, the wheels on the bus going round and round. What did Jorge Mario Bergoglio get from those bus-rides around the city? Stories? Comfort? Warmth? An understanding what it is to work hard, to be tired, to be lonely, to have to stand when you want to sit, to know you are going home or going far away? Maybe too, I wanted to get on the bus, any bus, because we are on our own journeys and right now at least so far as faith goes, I don’t know where I am heading. Maybe, I thought, if I catch a bus like a Pope, I’ll arrive at a destination called Faith.

The queue of pensioners and shoppers, the unemployed and students shuffled forward out of Durham bus station and onto the X21 bound for Newcastle’s Eldon Square. I asked the price of a ticket. Single or return? Return – it is always good to have a chance to come back to where you started and at £5.30 (“Valid for one return journey on the day of issue only”) it seemed like a bargain, though doubtless Pope Francis would advise the money would be better spent on the poor.

Without thinking, I plumped down in the last seat downstairs and an elderly man with knobbly cheekbones and an oversized black wool coat got on after me, then hung disconsolate from a pole. Worried for his wellbeing come any sort of corner or abrupt halt, I eased myself around him and his coat to clamber up the steep stairs: the upstairs was full, every window seat with someone in it and everyone with an empty seat next to them waiting to be filled. I sat next to Joyce. I didn’t know it was her because she started out a stranger. The thing is, when you travel by bus, you don’t have to travel next to a stranger.

Joyce lost her husband Graham eight months ago, nearly nine. She believes he visits. One night as she lay in bed she felt his cold hand on her shoulder, his cold body against hers and leaped from bed. “ ‘I’m not scared, I told him. It was just I said to him “Ooh you’re cold,” and then remembered he was dead.”

Graham used to be a rep. He was 79 when he died of oesophageal cancer. He left a letter she found in a drawer telling her that if it was possible he’d come back to her as an angel. Joyce believes in angels – they both did. She carries a little one in her purse; ceramic ones hang from her lamps; and a cast-iron male angel holding a female angel stands by the garden bench where she and Graham used to sit together. White feathers have appeared in the living room, a book with his photo has fallen over twice, and robins are everywhere, their heads cocked, eyes bright, perching on her garden angels, telling her he is with her. “We used to talk to each other all the time”, she said. “I still talk to him all the time in the house. “ I asked whether she talks to him outside the house. That too. Discretely. She demonstrated, turning to the window, her elbow leaning on it. “Well, look at that,” she said, her hand against her mouth, not something you would hear, not something you’d worry about, just an elderly little body murmuring, reminding herself of something or other - not a widow talking to a shade.

We carry the dead with us. In her purse, Joyce carries a prayer card for her dad, half of a 10 bob note from her mother in a plastic wallet (who knows the whys and wherefores of the other half – not Joyce) , and she carries too her husband’s pictures – him as a young soldier, as a devoted husband holding her as if she is most precious. We sucked on Joyce’s Trebor mints and I thought how we travel with the dead – that the vacant seats are not so very vacant it turns out, occupied as they are by lost loves, by those who have slipped from this world but remain lodged in our memories and in our hearts.

Joyce and I rejoiced when the bus hits the A1 for a stretch, acknowledged the Angel of the North with his outstretched arms, sighed passing a washeteria someplace we didn’t know we’d be. “They go a different way every time,” said Joyce, looking out the window, all adventuresome.

I liked Joyce. She has joined a walking club. Took a bus the other day and walked six miles. “You have to make the effort,” she told me, “anyway he makes me.” There was no particular reason for this particular trip. “I’ll only be in town the hour.” She took the bus today because she thought she’d make the effort. “Just for the bus ride out,” she said. The family scattered Graham’s ashes in South Shields overlooking the sea, by a bench where they’d eat fish and chips. She’d almost caught a different bus to see if the handful of daffodils bulbs she’d planted there were out, though now she’s glad she didn’t.

“And now let us begin this journey…” Pope Francis told the world last night, “this journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches, a journey of brotherhood of love, of mutual trust.” I took a journey with Joyce today, and Joyce I decide is the reason cardinals take buses – to know of loss and constancy, to know there is love and death and despite death there is still love, and because there are travellers who believe in angels.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Holy Father, Holy Mother

The Catholic Church is so busy absorbing the shock of the Holy Father’s decision to quit, it is missing the point. Holy mothers are quitting too.

I’m a Catholic. Was a Catholic. Am a sort of Catholic. Am hardly a Catholic? Is there a word for what I am anymore? I’d like to be a better Catholic but it is just not cutting it for me. And why is that? Because the Catholic Church has nothing to say to an educated woman with socially liberal views – nothing, except “Please give us your children.”

I have so far – given them my children. Two of them – the boys, have taken their First Communion in red ties and polyester sashes, in part to keep my elderly and very Catholic parents happy. Now the Church wants my daughter. She is seven, and somehow, I am more reluctant to put her through the whole fandango of instruction. Why is that? Perhaps because I have to take instruction too, and it is dull, the church is drafty and I am busy? More likely, there is the small matter of “the future” because my daughter may well have children herself. Boys are boys. The chances are they probably won’t marry Catholics. They probably won’t have Catholic children. But my daughter might. Am I just perpetuating the cycle for the sake of it, because I was brought up on tales of Catholic martyrs crushed and racked, hung and quartered? On stories of priestholes and secret masses and “No Catholics here”? Because we were taught we were different, knew better, lived better, because we were “other”. Because I was educated by nuns who wore hearts spiked with nails, and because a perspex crucifix still hangs on my wall adorned with a silver, drooping Christ?

But in reality what does the Church offer me in return for the children it claims – the children we agreed to raise as Catholic when my Protestant husband and I went for marriage preparation with our then priest Father Kit Cunningham (Father Kit whose paedophiliac behaviour in Tanzania in the 1960s was the subject of a documentary not so long ago.)

I disagree with the Church’s prejudices against homosexuality. I regard as laughable – and tragic - its position on contraception, and as a woman who believes in equality in all things, I struggle to keep faith with a faith which reserves not just the top job but its priesthood for men. Because there is one thing we already know for certain sure about the next pope – black or white, traditionalist or liberal, Italian or not so Italian – the next pope is an old man. Money on it. So I am telling my daughter she can do anything, all things, that she can be anything – anything that is,except a Catholic priest.

Moreover, the next leader of the Catholic Church and its 1.2billion congregation, will not only be another old man just like the last old man, he will of course never have married and never have had children, with all that means in terms of life and love and humanity. Children mean everything. We mothers know that and not because we were taught it in a seminary.

Arrogance and insularity fed the church’s position on child abuse, the delays, the obfuscation, the reluctance to blame their own, punish their own, make some kind of recompense. Make no mistake, the scandal of child abuse in the Catholic Church puts the anachronisms, the illogicalities, and the stuff they get plain wrong into the shade. In a letter sent some months after news broke of Father Kit, I warned the head of his Rosminian order, Father David Myers, that if the Catholic Church lost the mothers “the game is up and you lose everything.” He reassured me as a mother that is to say "our hope for the future and...the ones who provide the next generation with a wonderful vision of the gospel of love."

The Catholic Church - Christianity itself - makes much of fishermen and of shepherds when fishermen and shepherds are far removed from this high-tech modern life. Then there is the ultimate mother - Mary, but this particular and almost faithless Catholic mother takes small comfort in the example of the innocent speak-no-evil virgin with her hands clasped and stars around her head, her naked foot upon the serpent, appearing then disappearing in her now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t kind of way. The priesthood was for men, motherhood for women, well motherhood carries responsibilities - not least to ourselves.

My message to the old Pope: Live long and prosper.

My message to the new Pope: Allow women to be priests, allow priests to marry, change your position on homosexuality and contraception, maybe then we can talk. You’ve got my number and I’ve certainly got yours.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Lost and Found

My aunt is slipping away from us. Old as she is, frail as she is, even so - I don’t want her going anywhere. I want her here where I can see her, not a memory, not someone I love but cannot put my arms around. Yet, I know we are losing her.

Loss is terrible. You lose so many things in this life. A sock. A black umbrella. A bag you put down and forget to pick up. You lose those you love and cannot imagine life without. You lose faith - sometimes in God, sometimes in men, sometimes in men of God. A man in a hurry who believes the law applies to others and not to him, can lose a reputation as former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne is discovering. He can even lose his freedom. Over the last few years, bankers, priests, policemen, and journalists have lost the trust of the public. You can lose your job, your money and your home. You can lose your head, your heart and the best years of your life. You can lose yourself and wake up too late or not at all. You can lose your life in combat when it has barely begun or when you are ancient and tired of it all but one thing is certain - lose it you will.

I have lost some of those things. A golden brooch with a raw pearl heart, in the shape of a bee, and given by a lover. I lost the lover too now I come to think of it. More than one - how careless I was in my youth. I have lost the odd friend – their loss too I’d like to think. Lost a bag on a train, a bet on a horse, a baby. Lost all perspective on the odd occasion.

And yet, we carry on despite our heavy losses. Moreover, often we try to find that which we have lost, and there, right there, is our glory. Once in a blue moon, you find a king and dig up his bones. And when a child is lost, we don’t shrug, we try our damndest to find her – week after rainy month combing riverbanks and stark hillsides, checking out sightings in hot and far-off places. Sometimes if we are fortunate, we find the lost child, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we find glory, happiness, peace and love, or go on a journey and find ourselves, or something we weren’t even looking for. We find out we didn’t need “it” anyway, and we find just what we need. We lose everything and we find we can go on.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Right Stuff

Third (and probably) final excerpt from A Year of Doing Good . I tried to join the lifeboat crew - for some reason they wouldn't have me.

Tuesday, 10 May

I walked into the lifeboat station past the little shop selling model lifeboats and teddies, then along a metal gallery; to the right there are crew rooms, and to the left the space drops away to the boathouse where the lifeboat sits in dry dock looking huge and orange and brave. Wooden plaques line the walls with the names and years of the former lifeboats and coxswains and all the rescues that the lifeboat has gone out on. A bearded chap who helps launch the boats took me through to the room where the lifeboat men were gathered. They were ranged in seats around the room chatting to each other, and silence fell as I walked in, which was the right moment to be a foot taller and ten years younger with a willy to call my own.

The operations manager was lovely and cuddly, like a cut-outand- keep grandad, but he wasn’t exactly biting my hand off. I may not be the ideal candidate. A five-foot-two, forty-something woman isn’t exactly poster material for the lifeboat crew. Grandad starts talking about training and the sea survival test you have to go through at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in Poole where they throw you into a tank of choppy water and see if you drown. Physically, I’m not sure I’m up to it. I’m a terrible swimmer with a bad back and a tendency to migraine. I’m short-sighted and I never lift anything heavier than my handbag or a glass of Chablis. I wouldn’t want to get to someone who needed rescuing in a stormy sea, decide, ‘Do you know what – that looks like far too much trouble,’ lean over the boat and, instead of reaching down a hand, shout into the wind, ‘Any last words? I’ll be sure to pass them on.’ But I can’t blink. I’m here to join the lifeboat crew. Grandad meets me halfway. He offers me a ride.

First things first. I climb into the yellow rubberized boots and trousers and enormous jacket. The trousers aren’t too bad because the boots stop them trailing on the ground, but the boots must be at least two to three sizes too big, which means I have to throw one leg up into the air to clear the boot before it comes to rest on the ground, then throw the other up in the air to keep the momentum going. Another woman turns up, a young teacher in the local high school, and I breathe a sigh of relief that I am immediately less of an oddity.

We walk from the gallery straight onto the boat deck before the boat trundles out of the boathouse pulled by a tractor. I am jacketed and booted and helmeted. The tourists lining the harbour taking pictures are firmly of the opinion I am a hero. A short hero, admittedly, but a hero nonetheless. One of the guys I am standing next to is six foot five if he is an inch, and I move away from him because he is making me look teeny-tiny. My fellow female lifeguard kneels by a massive metal chain, which is held in place by a metal bracket. When the alarm sounds, you hit the bracket with the hammer as hard as you can, the bracket lifts, the chain falls away and the boat slides from its metal bed parked on the slipway and into the sea. The only problem is there are two chains and two brackets. I kneel by the other chain, take the hammer from its box and raise it over the bracket. The vision of one chain falling from the boat while I repeatedly bash away at my bracket as the boat lists to one side and lifeboat men fall from its deck like passengers from the Titanic starts playing on the YouTube channel that is my brain. The alarm goes, and I hammer the bracket so hard I’m lucky I do not go through the plank beneath. Suddenly we are in the water. The helmsman guns the boat and it begins to plane, its pointy bit raised at a thirty-degree angle as it cuts through the water. The training exercise involves taking the boat across to Holy Island, opening up the engine, practising tying her up at the harbour and checking the shifting sandbars. Occasionally, spray hits me across the face and I try not to mind, like a real hero. The sea cuts Holy Island off from the mainland twice a day, flooding its causeway and occasionally catching strangers and the certifiably stupid off-guard. Only the month before, a car with four adults, two children and a dog had to be rescued by the lifeboat as they attempted to cross the causeway against the tide times.

I wonder why they do it. I’m out with a crew of seven and there are twenty-four volunteers in the village, including the chap who owns the crazy golf course, an IT technician, a college lecturer, a teacher, a plasterer, a plumber, a welder, a barman, a BT engineer, a few boatmen and one fisherman. I understand the boatmen and the fisherman, but everyone else? Why do they put their lives on the line? Because that’s what you do. They help the divers who get the bends or who push themselves too hard and run into trouble, surfers who get too ambitious, motorists who get caught out – like the man who took a drink too many one night and parked his van where the tide came in and was plucked from the roof of his van dressed only in his pants and shame. Occasionally, tragically, there are bodies; more often there are rescues.

I enjoy the sea journey out to the island; the problem comes when we moor. The boat is tied up against the harbour wall and a wet iron ladder set against it. We are distinctly lower than I would like us to be. I eye the ladder distrustfully and wonder whether, if I slip between the lifeboat and the lichened wall, I would be pressed flat and dead or would instead slide straight down into the waiting waters and drown beneath the boat. I sling my leg with its oversized boot over the side of the boat, step into oblivion and hope desperately that somewhere my boot will find a rung. I immediately start to dread climbing back in.

I climb up and down the ladders from hell three times: once onto the island, where we stretch our legs; once off the island back onto the boat; and one final time from the boat back into harbour, which is the very worst time, and I am certain I am not the only one envisaging me slipping between the boat and the dock. Still, there is the consolation of the admiring glances of spectators. It is almost enough consolation for having to heft two of the heavy rubber skids that the boat slides up stern-first out of the water and onto its carriage. These are so heavy, I can barely lift them off the ground let alone into the trailer to clear them away once the boat is free of them. I am useless at shifting the rubber beams but, given a hose, I excel at washing the saltwater off the lifeboat. This has to be the biggest thing I have ever washed. It just doesn’t make me look much like a hero.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

When the Snowdrops Come

Ok here is another extract from A Year of Doing Good:

Saturday, 5 February

I’ve had it in mind for a while to dig up a bunch of snowdrops for the little old lady who used to live in this house and who moved down to the village soon after her husband died. He was a keen gardener and made it his business to spread snowdrops around the garden, so that at this time of year, snowdrops with their tiny drooping white bells fill the lawn and the glade between the back wall and the sheep pasture. We loved him, and I always think of him when the snowdrops come. I am sure she thinks of him all the time. Together, my daughter and I found a trowel and we extracted a small bunch of snowdrops, their heads white and shy, hanging down as if they were admiring their new, leaf-green shoes.

We drove carefully through the rain with the pot on the floor of the passenger seat, reaching down every now and then to steady it. When we got there, the little old lady was preparing dinner. I’ve dropped in before when she is cooking dinner, and black smoke will be curling from out beneath the kitchen door, but she would not dream of telling you. She sits there patiently while you drink a cup of tea, and when you’ve gone, eats ash. We didn’t go in; instead we put them by her front door on the porch, out of the cold north wind, and I told her how I think of him at this time of year when the snowdrops come.

Good deed no. 36: said, ‘I remember.’

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Good Woman

Over the next couple of days, I thought I might run a couple of excerpts from "A Year of Doing Good" here on the blog. The media narrative focussed on my good deeds, in reality the book is as much about what other people do as it is about anything I did during the year. One of the most remarkable "characters" in the book is Jean.

The Helper (extracted from "A Year of Doing Good")

I am trying to set my kids a good example, having been set the best of examples by my own parents. I may fail. Epically, as my son would say. Still, epic fail or not, I’ll know I tried. What happens, though, if you don’t learn about charity and generosity from those who should teach it to you as a child? What then? Do you grow up hard and loveless? Or do you teach yourself what goodness is?

Jean taught herself. Standing four feet eight and a half inches in her tiny stocking feet, 61-year-old Jean makes you want to pop her in your pocket and take her with you wherever you go, like a lucky charm. After twenty-seven years of working with the terminally ill and those with mental health issues, she retired as a community support worker because of acute osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Since then, two days a week for a decade, the pupils at my kids’ school have taken it in turns to sit next to Jean as she hears them read. ‘That’s marvellous,’ she says as they stumble through the words. ‘Superb,’ she tells them as they turn the final page. Encouraging children when she was only ever discouraged. Boosting their self-esteem when hers was covered over with ash and beatings. Her arm around these children, when her own mother would never hold her.

Jean grew up in poverty in Ashton-under-Lyne with an alcoholic father who served in the merchant navy during the war, was unemployed thereafter and whose mood depended on the 2.30 at Chepstow. ‘I used to protect the kids. I can remember standing with my three brothers behind me’ – she stretches out her arms as she talks, as if to bar a doorway – ‘and saying, “Don’t hit them, hit me,” and he did. That’s how it was. That’s what life was like, but he was still my dad and I loved my dad – worshipped him. Three weeks before he died of lung cancer – he was only forty-six – he apologized for all he’d done, and I did forgive him – and my mum – because you have to.’ Jean says that life was hard in the 1950s. ‘Nobody had anything after the war. It was all make do and mend and it was all big families. I was around six and I remember my mother saying to my dad, “We can’t send her to school – she’s too many bruises.” You’d get a good hiding and that was one of those things. It wasn’t any different for the girl up the road, but it was a horrible childhood – hard and cruel. I’ve got more bad memories than good.’

However tough life was for that ‘girl up the road’, there was certainly no sanctuary to be found for Jean in her mother’s arms. Jean’s mother worked shifts in a cigarette factory and as a piecework machinist making handbags at home. ‘A grafter’, Jean describes her as. ‘Grafter’: a word of respect – a compliment. But compliments didn’t flow the other way. ‘I can’t remember a word of encouragement – none whatsoever. The only thing I can remember from my mother is her saying, “Go into the other room – you make me feel sick.” ’ The woman had spent her war in the Land Army, had five children in five years, ten years fallow and then two more children. She had an alcoholic husband and worked all hours. But there are all kinds of poverty in this world – did she work so many hours, was she so spent, that there was never a moment for a fond word or a loving gesture? ‘I can’t remember my mum or my dad ever giving us cuddles,’ says Jean. ‘I tell my children I love them every day, but there was none of that when I was growing up. That wasn’t just my upbringing, that was the 1950s for you, but she was a hard woman. Mind you, she had to be.’ As she speaks, I wonder that tiny Jean was strong enough to keep growing on the inside to the size of a giant. Years after, a woman can still feel a father’s fists fall on her young girl’s body, however heartfelt his ‘Sorry’. You can’t recover from the thousand tiny hurts where there should have been a hundred-thousand-million mother’s kisses. But you can hold your own children tighter, cover them in the kisses you never had, and say, ‘I love you, love you, love you, child, love you all the more for never knowing this myself.’

When Jean fell pregnant at sixteen she was sent to a Church of England home for unmarried mothers and their babies in Blackburn, the girls taken together for antenatal classes but not given pain relief in hospital during the birth of their babies and talked down to by nurses. ‘Inside you were all in the same boat – in a lot of ways it was better than home. Outside, though, they segregated you. You felt awful, you had to walk down the street with your head down, you felt shame – I still do sometimes.’ Her newborn son should have been put up for adoption; instead – ever the protector of the vulnerable – Jean fought for him. ‘I prayed on my hands and knees to my dad to keep him, because you were in that home to give the child away. I thought, I just can’t, and finally my dad said, “If you bring this baby home, you’re not to ask me or your mum for anything because we won’t help,” and by gum they stuck to their word.’ Jean cleaned houses with her baby in tow while bringing up her two youngest siblings, now one and three – siblings who when they left school came to live with her and her husband.

I am looking at Jean and thinking, ‘Why are you here doing good? Why aren’t you mean and angry after the start you had in life? When your health broke in your forties, why didn’t you say, “I’ve done enough,” rather than, “What can I do now?” Why don’t you take rather than give?’ I ask her whether it helps her to do good and she says, ‘I’ve seen it – I’ve been there, but you have got to have hope, you have to know that things will get better. I am who I am because of what I have gone through and I can never see me not caring, not doing what I do.’ In nature, where there should be bitter herbs and rank weeds, occasionally a tangle of wild roses bloom: scented, startling pink and beautiful.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

How Do You Write a Memoir?

How to give good memoir (otherwise known as Top tips for memoir writing.)
*get a life. You cannot write a memoir unless you live an interesting life. Live it. Live it the best way you can. Try to fit the writing around it. If you spend all your time writing about your life, life will be dull and your writing will be duller.
*find yourself fascinating. This one is hard because - best will in the world - the kind of people who find themselves fascinating tend to be the kind of people you don't want to be around. Nonetheless you have to overcome your scruples and find yourself interesting enough to write about, and talk about when someone asks you what you are writing about. And not mind when they sidle away really fast.
*find everyone else fascinating too. This is not as hard as finding yourself interesting because everybody has a story. The trick is to be interested enough to find out what it is. Don't judge someone. Get to know what they have to say - it is very probably worth hearing.
*having said "get a life" sometimes it is all in the writing. Don't presume because you are writing about something that has happened a gazillion times before that you can just knock it off without thinking about the words and how they fit together. Words count - who knew?
*it isn't necessarily about the outside that is to say, what you do, it is also about what and how you think, and ofcourse - everytime - about how you feel. A memoir is not a book of events.
*remember a memoir is about Life, not just your life, real life.
*unless you are willing to be honest and reveal who you are, you might as well write a novel.(Obviously you can also be honest and reveal who you are in a novel, there is just an outside chance you won't have to.)
*if you care too much about what people think, you might as well not write at all.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

A Year of Doing Good

The book is out. That's good. Two years in the doing and the writing and the polishing and the talking about, then it is all over and there is silence. I have no control over sales. Whether people will fancy it? Whether they will have seen the publicity or been too busy to take note. Strange period this.

So what struck me about launching a book?

*you have to talk about yourself a lot. Sometimes in the car when you agree to an interview en route someplace. This can give rise to your husband and children quoting back entire sections of your patter at the drop of a hat, and pleading, downright pleading, for you not to tell that joke about the coppers not fitting into jam jars again because really it wasn't that funny the first time.

*ideally launching a book when everybody else is on holiday means you feel ever so slightly delusional. I have a book out, you tell people. Let me come on your show, appear in your paper. I do really. Call me.

*it is advisable not to read online comments. This takes an effort of will. It takes less effort when a mate texts you out of the blue saying you are doing very well, and people are just jealous and not to get upset pet. Because that makes you think - wow bet there are some really peachy comments out there. Sometimes of course they are hard to avoid like the twitter message sent straight into my feed with my name and the cheery message "You make me sick." I checked out the sender and bearing in mind he was encouraging his followers to send him song titles with the word "vagina" in them, I decided against taking it too personally.

*that you need your friends around you when you have a success in the same way you need them around you when you fail, you need them to let you obsess, and hose you down as you lose all perspective, and mop up salty tears and reassure you it will all work out in the long run, and that I count myself extremely, extraordinarily fortunate in my friendships.

*that this book was as good as I could get it, that it required a huge amount of very hard work, that I am very, very lucky to get it published.

*there is always another book written by someone else coming along the tracks far too soon and that's alright.

Friday, December 07, 2012

The Back of My Cab

The news has been making me feel very old. Not just old. But like an old seen-it-all-before black cab driver. This is what happens when you start heading towards fifty - Here's who I have had in the back of my cab.

God I hated working for Newsnight. The bitchiest, most unsupportive newsroom I have ever worked in - this from a woman who (when working for another organisation) was once backed against a wall by a boss holding a chair, who imprisoned me between its four legs all the better to bollock me. I could go on about Newsnight but I'd still be hammering my keyboard frothing about the license fee this time next week.

George Entwistle.
How old do you have to be before the former director general of the BBC is someone who was your successor in a different job? George took over from me at Westminster as a Newsnight producer. I remember someone saying "He's very BBC" and wondering "What the Hell does that mean?" I understand now though.

Jimmy Savile.
There is a moment in my first book Wife in the North where I lift the ponytail of a little cousin who has been sick from cancer and who is well again, and as I lift it and run it through my hands, I celebrate the fact this girl-child is so lovely and healthy again. Years ago, I covered some charity event - I think for the local paper I worked for then, but it might have been for ITN. The children in the centre of the room were sat at tables having tea, grown-ups lining the walls around them. Jimmy Savile was holding forth, Jimmy Savile was why we were there. He walked around the tables, around the kids, parents chuckling at his banter, and as he stopped behind one girl, he lifted her ponytail and ran it through his hands, talking all the while. I thought: "Yeah gods, the guy is a pervert." I said as much to my photographer (it might have been a cameraman) afterwards and he told me: "Everyone knows. That's been around for years."

Max Clifford.
I never really dealt with Max Clifford - maybe once, maybe twice. I feel it ought to have been more on the grounds I have been a journalist so long - in my defence, celebrity stuff wasn't my area. But I did still have him in the back of my cab. Well not "have" him. Not have him and get snapped and sell my story through the agencies of well - Max Clifford.

(Scene fades to black, and up again.)Occasionally you feel good. You wear the right thing, your hair falls as it should, the light hits you like it ought to. Doesn't happen all the time. Hardly ever happens. It may never happen to me again - but it did that day, that day it was all a fit. I'd had a hellish train journey but I'd finally arrived in London to talk about the possibility of a book deal. I was walking along the Strand, wearing black, a tight belted top and a fishtail skirt which swished - I could hear it. Black boots clung to my calves and a long riding-style coat, lined all in silk, framed me. I was running late but about to walk into a meeting I was looking forward to (shame I managed to tuck that swishy fishtail skirt into my knickers when I got there, but that's another story.) My skirt was not tucked into my knickers as I walked purposefully along the Strand, and I was smiling a little because the prospect of a book deal can do that to you. Ahead of me, Max Clifford walked out of a building to climb into a car. He glanced my way. I met his eye. He was Max Clifford. I knew it and he knew that I knew it. I was all dressed in black, black, black with lips the colour of crushed raspberries. At that moment, Max Clifford thought he might see me again. Thought I had a story to tell, that I might knock on his door and say breathily "Mr Clifford, there's this man. He told me he was going to leave his wife or I'd have never...I've got pictures." It is one of my proudest moments.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Devouring Books

I had to go up to Edinburgh yesterday for an interview which meant a train journey. I like trains, the problem though is that I regularly end up sitting with an insane person. Insane people travel by train a lot.

This particular chap got on the station after me which meant I had to stand up and let him in. I should have known he was an oddity from the look he gave me - a look which said "You are sitting next to me. I don't like anyone sitting next to me. It means my imaginary friend will have to stand, and that makes him ANGRY." Anyway he reluctantly sat down, and I sat back down and picked up my newspaper to read more about something that wasn't Kate's pregnancy and the chap got out a book. All well and good. He was a reader which is a good thing. And it would have been had he grasped what is supposed to happen when you read - that is to say, you lift the book into your line of vision, hold it there, and read the text from left to right, thereby absorbing the meaning of the words. For him however, reading was a multi-sensory experience. He was indeed holding the book in his line of vision (and bearing in mind I was reading my newspaper here) the problem was he periodically lifted it to his mouth and breathed into it deeply - deeply like empty your lungs deeply. This went on for a while (time tends to stop when you read about George Osborne's taxation plans) and realisation dawned only slowly that I was sat next to a nutter.

While still facing frontwards, I slid my eyes to the left to watch what was going on next to me - was is a breath? If so, was it inwards or outwards? Or was it a kiss? And if it was a kiss - was it with or without tongues? Because if he had his tongue out, I was going to have to move. (If it was without tongues, I figured I could stay put.) I couldn't see that much without turning my head which I did ever so slightly - I was pretty sure it wasn't a kiss. Sensing my interest he moved slightly to block my line of vision, and quickly I switched my eyes back to my paper. Out of a darkening sky, sleet hit the train, slapping against the windows and giving me the excuse to casually glance his way. The book's pages appeared loose like it was poorly bound, its font was tiny and every now and then it had an ink-drawn diagram - I saw two: an ornate cross and something like the cross-section of a conker. Every now and then he sighed as if life was too much or the book was telling him something he didn't want to hear. I decided it had to be something vaguely spiritual, or cultish, although in no religion I know of, do you have to breathe on the text. By the time we pulled into Edinburgh Waverley, I was almost wall-eyed from trying to see exactly what it was he was reading. I failed. As I walked along the platform, I wondered - was he trying to suck the meaning through his mouth, but then he was breathing outwards and not inwards. Was he trying to animate the text with his breath of life? If I hadn't been there would he have ripped out the pages, salted and eaten them? And if he had offered, it would only have been polite to eat one too.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Take 1lb of Cranberries

The only advent calendars my kids are interested in have chocolate inside. Penguin's advent calendar has no chocolate. It does have me though behind Day 4 with my five top tips for good deeds at Xmas. It is the moral equivalent of a recipe for cranberry sauce. I am issuing a health warning...all this stuff about good deeds, I am beginning to get a little sweaty round the collar. There is a risk when you write a book about good deeds, people will think you are good. There is a risk when you come out with five top tips for good deeds at Christmas, people will think that you think you are an extraordinarily nice person. Here is the health warning: I am not a nice person. I am an alright person trying to be better.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lend me a tenner mate.

Social media is a slot machine. You put up a post, a blog, a tweet, pull down the handle and watch dry-mouthed hoping your readers go up as the comments roll around and around - till it all grinds to a halt on three lemons and a shower of interest and LOLs. You can stand there in the dark for hours playing it - man against machine. The souls of your shoes tacky against the nylon carpet. An almost empty pint glass in your hand, the dregs warm and flat. Hoping for a jackpot. An addict hoping for a hit. And the etiquette of it all is tough. Some people you like but there is never the time to get to know them properly. Others want stuff from you - a review, a signed book, or just to be your friend. What for instance is the done thing when someone who owes you money wants to be your friend on Facebook? Not that he owes me much. I can't even remember whether it was five or ten or twenty. I think it was ten and it was years ago. And it is not the money. It is just I can remember feeling stung as happening upon me in a cafe, this chap greeted me warmly, chatted loudly and effusively of how great it was to see me as he queued for coffee and a pastry, and then called to me as I sat at my table asking me to pay for his breakfast as he didn't "have the time" to pay himself. And the hungry, snaking queue of patrons heard him, watched me, as I was had. I remember thinking "Are you kidding me? You're standing there. At the till. Ofcourse you have the time." And he must have had the money because he was in a bakery buying coffee and a pastry - had joined the queue to buy them. And I'd liked this chap. And I'd felt let down and used up. But I paid for his coffee and his pastry and he left the cafe, calling how he would get the money back, and raised a hand in warm salute and I thought "I bet you don't. I bet you won't." Ofcourse perhaps that's why he wants to be my Facebook friend.

Card Sharp

So Penguin asked me for five top tips for good deeds at Christmas. Despite having done my year of good deeds, I am slightly leery setting myself up as any moral authority on what is and is not a good deed (particularly bearing in mind I am a journalist and as Lord Leveson will point out tomorrow journalists have no kind of moral authority at all.) Still bearing in mind I am a firm believer in a free press, my first top tip for doing good at Christmas is:

"Buy charity cards direct from a charity. Every year you say you will, then your eye gets caught on that snowy, sparkly woodland in the department store. Put your hands up and step away from the robin."

And since I am writing about good deeds for Christmas I am going to have to in all conscience give them a go and do them myself.(Makes hand into gunshape and holds finger-barrel to own head.) Yesterday I duly went online and ordered 100 charity Christmas cards and today 60 of them arrived.

Anyone who knows me stand by your beds (doubtless already covered in your festive quilt and festooned with sparkling pointsettia lights.) The likelihood is you will soon be in receipt of a Giotto nativity from Arthritis Research UK; glittery snowdrops from Cancer Research; a leafless winter's tree (hopefully not an ash) from Save the Children; or this one called "Christmas Post" from Action for Children.

Whatsmore I am, in one fell swoop, helping "reduce the pain and disability for the one in six people including children, in the UK who are living with this debilitating condition (of arthritis)", helping "save children's lives...fight for their rights...fulfil their potential" and beating cancer. And I haven't even written the damn cards yet. Yeah. How about that?

My husband looked a little confused at the delivery of the Christmas cards. This is because he is normally the one who writes them. In fact normally I never send a Christmas card. Not one. I haven't for years. Maybe one in a blue moon to an aged aunty but that is it. (Grits teeth and reaches for address book).

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hot off the Press

Went down to Suffolk to Clay's factory to see the book being printed, and took my eldest along on the grounds that if this one crashes and burns I might never get another book published.

I also thought there has to be a good chance by the time he is my age, books will all be on kindles and suchlike. Even I was surprised as we witnessed the process though, because when you think of a book, you think of the intellectual and emotional response that book elicits in terms of reading, whilst in terms of writing you think of the inspiration and creativity and the hard work involved. Books though are also a thing to be manufactured with consideration given to the grain of the paper, and glue and guillotines and conveyor belts. Then of course they have to be sold. Don't start me on the selling of books because I'll end up mewing in a corner. Who knows whether a book will sell? Can you make a wish? Clay's published all the Harry Potter books, so maybe it is a good place for magic to happen.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Is that a Handbag Beneath Your Burka or Are You Just Pleased to See Me?

I am not big on conferences. I have had to cover a fair few - usually political, occasionally educational. I associate them with late nights, thick heads, deadlines and trying to look like I know what's going on when I haven't a clue. I spoke at a Britmums blog meet-up a couple of years ago and this weekend I went along to the Mumsnet Blogfest. I admit I was slightly wary. It is one thing covering a conference when you are being paid to be there as a hack, it is fair enough if you are speaking or chairing an event which I have also done, but going along as a punter implies you are a believer or an enthusiast, and that is a hard admission to make if you are a natural sceptic like me.

Anyway on the basis that I am a mum, I am a blogger, I have a net and I am all for festing, I went. Here are my top ten things I took away from the conference. (There are 12 that is because I am adding value to my blog bulging as it is with unique content.)

1. I need to buy a wrap-dress in jersey with a nice geometric print immediately. Similarly, I need an expensive leather handbag.

2. Don't presume if you go to a conference on your own that you will spend the day friendless. I worried that it might be cliquey, that I would be left standing by myself talking to an aspidistra. I was entirely wrong (and I hope the lovely girl in tears I met in the Ladies at the start of the day recovered herself.)

3. "Why Miriam Gonzales Durante?" I asked myself looking at the agenda which had her down as the opening keynote speaker. "Because she's absolutely great" I answered once I'd heard her. Miriam is a partner in a law firm specialising in EU Trade and EU Government affairs.(She also happens to be married to the deputy prime minister.) She is seriously clever, warm and very glamorous. (The woman next to me described her as "like Jackie Kennedy" when she first appeared with her shiny, shiny dark hair and chic white top. Tell me I wasn't the only one in the audience thinking "Miriam, baby - Nick Clegg? Nick. Clegg. Why?"

4. Bloggers over-think the troll thing. Occasionally horrible people stumble into your world - real or virtual. Courtesy of psychologist Professor Tanya Byron, I realised that they are probably damaged, and that what they say is their problem and not yours.

5. Bloggers who are writing for themselves rather than on behalf of a company should forget about including keywords in titles, tags or disappearing down any such SEO (search engine optimisation)rabbit-holes. Where is the fun in angsting about rankings when you could be writing?

6. Similarly social media. Apparently we all need to get on google+. Which I am on. It is just I have forgotten what to do with it. I know it has circles like Dante's inferno and you have to send different things to each circle. As far as I can see this leads to a permanent sense of anxiety that you are sending the wrong thing to the wrong people.

7. Do not get there late if you want a cupcake.

8. The dos and don'ts of blogging about children is a coming issue. Blogging is growing up. As are the children some bloggers write about. Best question of the day - what do you do if your 16-year-old tells you he doesn't want you to write about him anymore?

9. There are some women out there who want to wear Caitlin Moran's skin. Personally I'm settling for throwing away my hairbrush and giving myself one of those fetching blond Mallon streaks that make you look like you are licked awake every morning by a golden retriever.

10. Don't invite Mail on Sunday columnist Liz Jones and expect her to send a floral notelet saying "thank you" and "how nice it was to meet you" - it ain't gonna happen. Don't feel hurt or bitch about her attitude when she accuses mumsnet bloggers of being patsies whose view of the world is so restricted they might as well be wearing burkas. Laugh. In a burka, noone can see you laughing.

11. I am all for writing. I have written three books Wife in the North, the-novel-that-lives-in-a-drawer-that-is-pants, and the one due out in January called A Year of Doing Good. I want to write more books. I also want to be happy. I'd like to think these things were not mutually exclusive.

12. If you paint your nails with a wacky chocolatey-plummy varnish courtesy of nails inc. that came in the goody bag, apparently it is flammable and your fingers catch fire as you type.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Trust me

So who do you trust as a mother these days? Is Jimmy Savile proof you trust noone? The desire to protect your child is visceral, primeval and urgent. From the moment they are concieved you do your level best to protect them. When they are born, you feel you would kill for them. As they grow, you tell them to wash their hands to keep them from germs and infections. You teach them how to cross the roads to keep them from road accidents. You are distraught when a playground bully pushes them or teases them or calls them names. We protect them even from themselves when they sit too long infront of the XBox or the television.

But what happens when we cannot see them, when we aren't there to keep them from harm. When they go to school. When they take up sport. When they want to sing in a choir, join the scouts, overnight at a friend's house. How then do we protect them from the violators and the monsters - from the worst there is in the world?

How suspicious do we have to be? How vigilant? Are we surrounded by those from the dark side? Surely not - they are not the norm, they are the ugly and dangerous exception. Perverts need access to children. We know they go where children are. When we aren't there to stand by them with a broadsword and shield, our children's best defence is surely their knowledge. We don't diminish their innocence by packing up knowledge and tucking it neatly into their lunchbox. Information is their protection. Tell them there are bad men, there is inappropriate language and behaviour, that noone touches them, that noone should make them uncomfortable, that there are no secrets between a mother and a child.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

No More Heroes Anymore

That loud splintering crack is the shattering of illusions in case you were wondering, and that tinkling pit-a-pat? That's the broken bits falling through the cold autumnal air like so many leaves to lie upon the damp ground. Why did we need these heroes - Jimmy Saville and Lance Armstrong? Why did we need to build them up and gawp and wonder at them? Why did we need to believe so hard? Did they tell their own story or did we tell it for them? The amiable, kindly eccentric who raised millions for charity. A knight of the realm but a knight humble enough to act as a hospital porter. And the cyclist winning against all odds again and again, beating his competition, beating cancer, beating down suspicion - a legend of his sport. Armstrong outrages not only so much because of his cycling wins, but because he faced down death and we loved him for that bravery, that derring-do, that gingerbread-man attitude of "you can't catch me". We are responsible for our own heartbreak are we not, by building them into men they could never be because no-one could be that selfless, that noble, that perfect. And when they are revealed - Savile the monster who boasted even in death that it was good while it lasted, and Armstrong labelled a "serial" drug cheat - is it all the worse because they expose us in turn as naive, as fools of our own making.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Travels with my Aunt

What is it about sex? Yesterday wasn't a day when I was going to get sex right. Ever have days like that? However hard you try - you just end up getting the sex thing wrong?

So I linked up with Penguin's digital guru Sarah-Elizabeth to talk through social media stuff, and before we started work I suggested we grab a sandwich. Sarah works in publishing which obliges her to wear black and be in her twenties with wavy dark hair and long legs. I have only met her briefly once before in a meeting so we chat a while. It turns out she hasn't lived in London all that long and has come down from a previous job in Glasgow. She says she is still going up to Glasgow at weekends, and it is about then I turn into her hopeless aged auntie. I hear myself asking her if she is going back to Glasgow to see a boyfriend and she looks at me a little strangely but says no it is just much of her life is still there. Since she is from the North-East I ask her where she went to school and if she went to university, and I just about stop myself asking her if she is eating properly and has she made any nice friends. What can I say? I am 48 and she is young enough to be my daughter. Anyway we finish eating lunch and I am pretty sure Sarah is relieved when we move back into the office to start work. She whizzes between pages and iconic brushes and html until our work is done and I'm suitably grateful. Later, I check out the About Me page on her blog which start with the statement she is a lesbian - moreover a lesbian who "tries to put the world to rights when it comes to LGBT issues". So that is a big old Oops from Aunty right there. I read it and I bang my head on the desk three times straight after.

And my day carried straight on. I climb on the train back North and haul out the iPad for a couple of hours of TV.
Since i missed the Danish thriller The Bridge when it was shown, I downloaded it for just such an eventuality as a long train journey without the children. I had only watched one episode about a month ago. Admittedly there had been a grim moment when a body turned out to be a top half of one woman and the bottom half of the other which must have made getting dressed that morning really hard, but all in all it had been OK.Twenty minutes in last night, a lanky moustachioed man goes into a bathroom and takes a tub of moisturiser from a shelf. The problem being he was naked. Actually that wasn't the problem. The problem was the fully-clothed guy sitting next to me on the train. I try and pause it but it won't pause. I scrabble at the iPad like a dog at the back door. The man next to me thinks I watch porn. I turn it off and sit looking at the blank screen. The chap next to me has his own laptop open and starts a game of what I am guessing is Civilisation. He is not happy when he has to stop building his empire to let the pervert out to the buffet. I don't really want the buffet. I want to fast-forward the scene so I can keep watching the episode. I decide the best place to do this is the loo. So I take the ipad into the loo. Too late I realise that this probably looks worse. This probably looks as if I have taken the ipad into the privacy of the loo to rerun my favorite porno bits and reach my destination just that little bit earlier than scheduled. I return to my seat and a further nine minutes into the episode the detective glances down a corridor to see a fat naked man in an armchair. I turn off the iPad again. The guy playing Civilisation either moves seat or gets off the train, and I watch for a little while longer till 40 minutes in when the female detective slides her hand down her pants and smiles. I give up and get my book out.

"Give us a twirl Anthea."

I am doing a twirl here. See I have revamped my blog (when I say "I" what I mean is an incredibly talented digital genius-person at Penguin called Sarah-Elizabeth Daley did things with code and photoshop that made my eyes water and I sat next to her and made insightful comments like "I still want it to be pink.") Likey? It is very exciting because I have been thinking about revamping the design since I came back to Blogland but I had this vision of accidentally pressing "delete" and everything disappearing.Not having proper computer support is one of the worse things about working on your own from home - I miss those nice men who'd say "Have you tried turning it off and on again?" Sarah made me brave though. She copied out numbers on a piece of paper and assured me with these magic numbers she could put it all back if I didn't like the new stuff. Apparently my blog was "very 2000". I looked at her blankly when she said this. I suspect this was her equivalent of me referencing the Victorian era. When you are as old as me however, 2,000 seems like yesterday. Anyway I took a deep breath and with Sarah's encouragement let go of the side and have doggie-paddled out into 2012.

Thursday, October 04, 2012


Well I have donned a frilly apron and French maid's outfit (as a Labour MP once suggested I should) and done some housekeeping on the blog and I am left feeling dirty and old. Dirty because of the dust and cobwebs everywhere, and old because I went through my blogroll and two-thirds of my friends had given up blogging. So I have been ruthless and pressed delete but I miss them. Do people even have blogrolls anymore? With all this "following" and RSS feeds, there doesn't seem much point. Anyway I like a nice blogroll - it reminds me of Arctic roll and sausage roll and rolls in the hay, so I am keeping it. If I have deleted you prematurely, feel free to come back to me. I will accept most excuses - the dog ate my blog being my personal favorite.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012


I held my daughter last night a little too tight; last night too, when she pleaded to keep the light on and read her book I said "OK". Not "It's late," or "It's time to sleep." When the book was done and she knew the ending was happy and forever after, I lay awhile alongside her warmth, watching her perfect face, admiring the gap where teeth have been, and listened to her chat and giggle, when by rights I should have said "Shh" and "Hush a while" and "I've things to do. Good night." And later, as she slept, I pushed open the bedroom door to check on her, and check again, check that she was sleeping underneath her goose-down comforter all covered over with polka dots and fairy princesses, guarded by a panda and a white-socked kitten.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Log off

We are an apologetic nation at the moment aren't we. Nick Clegg, the BBC and its security correspondent, and ofcourse, my personal favorite, Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell. Today the Telegraph published the full police log of Mitchell's altercation with Her Majesty's finest, and it is there in black and white - "plebs" - amid a fair smattering of "f***ing" and the advice "Best you learn your f***ing don’t run this f***ing government..." along with the killer "You’re f***ing plebs." If the log is an accurate report of events, the I-was-having-a-bad-day apology is worthless, his line that I-did-not-use-the-words-attributed-to-me-honest-f***ing-injun-I-didn't is unsustainable.

Of all the words a police officer could haul down from the sky, the word "plebs" is both loaded and political. I am willing to bet the officers concerned have been called any number of things by ne'er-do wells in the past. Surely if they were going to make something up, it would be more anglo-saxon than pleb? Or maybe not. Andrew Mitchell maintains he did not say it. Logic then dictates: either the police have it wrong or he does. Is he deliberately lying? Is he misremembering courtesy of losing his rag and adrenalin has wiped the gory details with a wet cloth? Or is he telling the truth? Perhaps he didn't misspeak - perhaps the police misheard. I am trying to imagine what he might actually have said to the police. Perhaps: "You're f***ing Debs" - whoever Debs might be, or "You're f***ing sheds - unlike me who is a pillar of the establishment. (Did I mention I'm the Chief Whip by the way?)" or maybe even "I'll have your f***ing heads." Now that last one, that one is a possibility.

Friday, September 21, 2012

How to Write a Bestselling Children's Book - probably.

When my two boys read a book these days, I quite often read the first one if it is part of a series. It got me thinking about how to write a children's book, so I broke apart a few. As anyone with any sense who has tried to write anything longer than a shopping list knows - there is no formula for writing a great book. No way to replicate on the page sheer bleeding genius, inspiration, creativity and craft. Having said that .... I offer this back-of-an-envelope deconstruction as an aide to anyone out there thinking of writing children's books. It comes with a skull and crossbones warning. Yes I have written a book - infact I have written three now (one is in print, one is in a drawer and the third I'll tell you about some other time). But I have never, repeat never written a children's book therefore I do not know what I am talking about. Still, that doesn't usually stop me so for anyone with an interest in writing for children, here is a deconstruction of six great books/series. These are merely observations. This is not a recipe. Do not knock on my door and shout loudly at me if you follow it and your cake fails to rise.
I looked at the following books/series.(Apologies in advance to the brilliant authors involved - no disrespect is intended.)

  • Harry Potter by JK Rowling (because I don't think you are allowed to write about children's books without writing about Harry Potter)
  • Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan
  • Alex Ryder by Anthony Horowitz
  • Laura Marlin by Lauren St John 
  • His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
  • The Bible, more specifically the New Testament(bear with me on this.)

They have these features in common:
1. a central character who is an orphan, apparent orphan, or missing at least one parent
2 a natural mother, or if orphaned, they have a maternal-type figure in their lives (eg Mrs Weasley in the Potter books).
3. a mentor (eg Chiron in Percy Jackson)
4 an alternative parenting figure who sometimes doubles up as a mentor (Laura's uncle, Joseph, Lee Scoresby)
5. best friends (eg the Apostles in the Bible)
6. special powers eg magic, spying, detective, miracles, cleverness
7. a training period (courtesy of the secret service, in school/half-blood camp, the Wilderness,)
8. a Saviour role (saving the world, saving other children, saving mankind)
9. a battle between good and evil (vs. Kronos and monsters, Scorpia, bad guys, Satan)
10. hero is percieved not to play by the rules - for which trait they are punished - (expelled from school, ostracised, crucified)
11. the hero is percieved to be in the wrong
12. the hero acquires equipment/weapons (wand, sword, techhy equipment, a golden compass)
13. half-and half mix somewhere (half-spy/half-boy, son of God and Man, good father - evil mother, child/daemon)
14. at least one parent has unusual powers (eg magic, father(figures)are gods/wizards/spies/detectives)
15. mystery surrounds at least one parent(there is also revelation) (eg how did parents die, exactly who is the father/mother figure)
16. very powerful villain (Mrs Coulter, the Devil, Voldemort, head of Scorpia)
17. adventures feature a world within a world (which ordinary people have no firsthand knowledge of)(eg a world of shadows, an alternative universe, Heaven/Hell, wizarding, gods/demi-gods)
18. in truth/in discovery there is goodness
19. the hero is on a quest (for a philospopher's stone, salvation for humankind, to find the children taken by gobblers)
20. the hero is prepared to sacrifice their own life
Interesting how the New Testament fits the template, or perhaps the New Testament is the template and it has seeped into our culture to shape the minds of our children? Now there's a thought. Anyway there you go. Be sure and let me know if it helps you write a book.