Don’t Despair. Don’t be brutalised.




Yesterday afternoon my husband and I went for a dog walk, and when we got back I made the mistake of hanging up my coat in the porch. This meant that later, about 5.30, when I went to put it on to go to Sunday evening mass, the lining was absolutely freezing.

We went out to the car. Outside it was freezing fog – the car was really cold, and, to add insult to injury, when we made a right turn into a mist-filled road, my husband had to open the window next to the passenger seat to look left properly, so I got a blast of freezing mist to add to my misery. He then briefly opened the window next to the driver seat too, so we got assailed by cold from both sides. I was already chilled to the bone by my coat and did not feel in a prayerful mood going to mass. Our car heater didn’t kick in until we were nearly at our destination, I was frightened by the poor visibility on the roads and kept saying that perhaps we should turn back. He said the mist would clear and it would be fine, and he was right. We live in a bit of a hollow and, for the most part, the situation got better on the roads nearer the church, although there was one bit where we had to slow right down.

Once we had parked I was eager to get into the church as soon as possible. We rushed to the pedestrian crossing and to the street where our church is – it was full of mist, like some Victorian painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw. We walked quickly in the dark past the lit up pub and the charity shops, close for the night. It was brutally cold and the church would be warm. I noticed the man in the doorway as we went past.

I live in a city where there are many, many rough sleepers. I always try and buy a ‘Big Issue’ and I always try to give to buskers, but I never give money directly to anyone simply begging on the street. I have, on rare occasions, bought hot drinks and food, but not as often as I should. I support Shelter and I keep meaning to set up a direct debit to a more local homeless shelter, but I haven’t as yet. I have walked past many, many rough sleepers, and felt awful and said a prayer but felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation. If I gave money would it make matters worse and fund an alcohol/drug addiction? Did I have time to talk to someone who might have emotional and mental needs I could not begin to address? Best to leave it to the experts, I reasoned. And say a prayer.

Last night was different. My coat had been SO cold, the car and been SO cold, the draught from the car open windows had been SO cold that somehow, freezing as I was, it felt barbaric to run past him to mass.

So I stopped. And the man told me that he had nowhere to go. I suggested a couple of homeless shelters I had heard of – he said that they were closed, and that because he wasn’t from this country he had no shelter. He had seasonal work but when it wasn’t the right time he had nowhere to stay. I wasn’t sure if he was telling me the truth. I couldn’t believe that there was nowhere in the city. But it was SO cold. I was so cold, and I was talking to a fellow human being who was sitting in freezing fog in a doorway, and I was late for mass. So I broke my habit and gave him more money than I had ever given a homeless person and begged him to go to a bed and breakfast for the night. He was really surprised and thanked me. I hope he spent it on a B & B and not on drink in the pub. He didn’t smell strongly of alcohol, and if I were him I’d have definitely gone for the bed and breakfast – but then again, I’m not him. I didn’t feel entirely sure I had done the right thing but I felt a certain relief that I could now go to mass and warm myself up with a clear conscience. Although I felt a bit guilty about spending our family money like that.

My family were patiently waiting for me outside the church and I ran towards them, and as I did I noticed another figure in a doorway. I ignored it.
So we went into mass, into a blissfully warm church, and we sang the opening hymn and the priest announced it was Homeless Sunday, where we prayed for the homeless and those who help them. We did our confession of sins, and I was aware of that second figure in the doorway. I knew I had given more money than I should to a man I wasn’t entirely sure was telling me the truth. Why hadn’t I stopped for the second person?

So as the readings began I turned to my husband and said I was going to talk to the second person and tell him the church was warm and he was welcome.

When I found this second man he was sitting in the freezing mist, on a piece of cardboard on the doorstep of a charity shop, drinking from a small bottle of milk. I told him he was welcome in the warm church but he shook his head vehemently. This made me sad. What had happened that made this man prefer to sit out alone in the cold rather than come in to our church and be warm? To be clear at this point – there are often rough sleepers in our church, sitting in mass to keep warm – and on Friday nights over winter our church hall is open to them to stay all night. People from our church volunteer to help. And to be further clear – I am not one of them.

I asked this man had he anywhere to sleep – and he said that later he would go to the shelter by the railway station. So I knew that at least he would have a bed for the night. He wouldn’t come into mass although the temperature was below freezing and getting lower by the minute and he was drinking cold milk. I didn’t have the same amount of money I had given to the first person (who had said nothing about the shelter by the railway station) but I did have ten pounds left – so I gave it to him and asked him to get a warm meal somewhere so that he could get out of the cold for a few hours. Ten pounds might not buy him a restaurant meal – but it might get him something. He smiled and took it. I went back into mass. I felt better. I had met Jesus in the homeless.

At the end of mass I asked about shelters and said what the first man said – that there was no shelter. I was told that was wrong – that there were shelters open each night around the city, often based in churches (hence our one on Fridays). There wasn’t a list of them in our church however, so I couldn’t go back out and tell the man as no-one knew who was responsible for Sundays. I was told that the homeless charities would have gone around and told people. I realised that I had given away a substantial amount of money I couldn’t afford and which our family needed, to a man who, it seemed, may well have told me a lie. I felt stupid. If I was going to give that amount I should at least have given it directly to a homeless charity. I was told about a person known to the church who had got pneumonia from sleeping rough and had been taken into hospital, but still, on being discharged, refuses to go to a shelter and insists on sleeping on the street. She has alcohol problems.

I looked around our church, seeing the food bank bin standing in front of the mural, and felt hopeless. Our country was in an awful mess and so many people needed help and I had not directed my money in the most efficient way.

I cried all the way back to the car. It was all so awful. My grand gestures meant nothing. I was ridiculous to think I could help like that. I was sorry I had thrown away our money. I had just been self indulgent.

The men were no longer in the doorways, at least. But I didn’t know where they were.

My family were lovely. My teenage girls hugged me. My husband told me about how when he had helped on a soup run in London, that many of the men he met with had had mental health problems and could not cope with any sort of organisation – that they weren’t out to defraud anyone – just not able to cope.

This story does not have a clear ending or moral. It is not a fairy tale. I may have done the wrong thing. Even if it was right I probably won’t do it again. I can’t afford to do it again. But I think, on balance, that last night, just for myself, I am glad I ‘spent’ that money. I find I don’t care if that first man lied. It was still too cold to be out. It was too cold to walk past two fellow human beings sleeping rough, as I so often do, and not be brutalised myself. I hope they both had a warm few hours at least – maybe in a warm pub but preferably in a shelter or B & B with a bed each – and got out of that freezing fog. Most of all I am glad I talked to each of them and told them that they should be warm. That it wasn’t right that they should be out in the cold like that. That they deserved to get shelter and be warm like me. I hope they believe me.
I think I will set up a direct debit to a homeless shelter. I think I will try to find out a list of the shelters in my city and the days they are opened, and ask my priest if I can put it on the back of the church. I am not sure if I can cope with being a regular volunteer.  I know I can’t solve this. And I know that if I keep crying and giving money every time I see someone in a doorway that won’t help anyone and our family will have nothing to live on.
But I think, as a community, we CAN make things better. Even if we are not a front line worker we can protest cuts to vital services which help at early stages so that fewer people end up on freezing streets. We can talk about it so that it becomes an issue.

If mental health and alcohol problems contribute to homelessness, why are we cutting budgets to metal health services? Even if we are not directly affected, we should make it known that this is intolerable. Maybe those of us who can write, can help campaigning groups, can write to our MPs about cuts to mental health services. Show that we care. Let’s write to newspapers, call in to radio stations, talk about it at work.

If chaotic home lives and abuse contribute to mental health problems and homelessness, why are social services being cut? Why is the work my husband does, working with emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children, so underfunded? Why did the local pupil referral unit he worked in have to close because of funding problems, when it was doing such great work helping excluded children get back into mainstream education and was so supported by the police and social workers?

If the sheer cost of homes contribute to homelessness , let’s support campaigning groups like Shelter.

If the stress of Zero hours work or short contracts contributes to mental breakdown and homelessness- let’s change things. Let’s insist people have fair working conditions and pay so that they can plan and budget and not despair.

Lets also support those on the front line – the emergency services, the priests, the social workers, the psychiatrists and GPs, the teachers and teaching assistants, who have to deal with suffering people every day and try not to go under.

As a writer of children’s books, what can I do? I am not my husband, who is so calm and patient and grounded and works with children who need him, but who can be extremely difficult and challenging. But I can work with publishers to create books, often with wonderful illustrators. Hopefully these books will entertain and cheer. Hopefully they will encourage children to love reading and read other books by other people, and maybe encourage them into education and give them power as literate people. Most of all, I hope my books help children understand about love. I hope my books help children realise that they are valuable – that they have a right to warmth and shelter and love and happiness – and that this applies to everyone – not just them.

I have recently come across a wonderful charity called Family Links – I leave you with a link to their website and a wonderful video so that you can feel encouraged – people can make a difference at every stage and we don’t have to despair. We don’t have to be brutalised.

Losing my religion

One of the  most helpful books I have ever read is God of Surprises by Gerard Hughes. It is a book which looks at our images of God – and, most importantly, uncovers our secret image of God, the one we may not admit to ourselves. We may SAY we believe, and believe we believe,  that the God we think we worship is loving or kind, and yet we may behave as if God is a sadistic old man waiting to catch us out. Sometimes, it may be better for us to lose our religious faith if it brings along with it a false, unloving God. Then we can re-discover the true God in the holy hurly burly and mess of life. Encountering  a  living, loving God in unexpected places – a ‘God of Surprises’ as Gerard Hughes says, is far more important than having a religion.

I do, however, get fed up of cheap jibes and lazy stereotypes about religious people  and the way that bigoted, publicity hungry people who flood social media and the internet with their false religions are quoted as representative  of my faith. As a Christian I want nothing to do, for example, with those self-styled Christians who say that Jesus hates homosexuals, or who despise women, or who seem to worship capitalism or personal prosperity. I know that devout followers of Islam want nothing to do with the message of Daesh or the self-styled ISIS. Neither are all Atheists Richard Dawkins. Please let’s pay each other respect and take the time to actually find out what the other really believes or doesn’t believe, before sneering at them. We may have more in common than we think. We should unite to be loving together. I believe I have profound and challenging things to learn from Atheists and Agnostics and people from other religions but I think that Christianity has something to offer too. We can laugh together – I love humour – but  I don’t like ignorant or lazy mockery. I’d appreciate it if people who sneer at my religion could actually make the effort to read the bible as scholars  and encounter the profoundly learned reflections on it by good people like Rowan Williams  before they dismiss it. I would like them to read about amazing spiritual experiences like those of Julian of Norwich – or  historians like Diaramuid MacCulloch ‘A History of Christianity’ so at least they pause before lumping all people from an ancient religion together. I’m a Christian and I don’t even know what all Christians  from different traditions believe – so I don’t know why other people think they do. Mockery is unkind – sneering is stupid. There is enough unkindness and stupidity in the world already.

But I do feel grateful for being challenged. I think that is a gift from the God of Truth and Love.

Sometimes losing aspects of my religion in order to get closer to the real, loving God, may be the most devout thing I can do. I haven’t lost my religion – I love it because I do believe it facilitates my encounter with a Loving God  – but I hope every day to lose any false, unloving, hateful Gods I  may inadvertently  be following.

Losing my Religion by REM

I’d also like to recommend ‘The Ship’ by Antonia Honeywell It isn’t the sort of book I normally find myself reading – dystopian fiction is not my cup of tea normally – but I thought it really made me think about religion and false claims to perfection and was very challenging in a good way.


PS In an earlier draft I included the beautiful song by Rufus Wainwright ‘Going to a Town’ – but I have deleted it for today as its criticism of some aspects of America might not be the best words to repeat today, on the Inauguration of the President. It is better and more courteous if today is full of blessings and good wishes for America and its peoples and the world. However, I would throughly recommend this beautiful song and its challenge to how the figure of Jesus Christ can be misrepresented and used as a vehicle for hate. I will certainly include it in future posts.

In Praise of Hypocrites.

In praise of hypocrites – or proud to be cracked.


DSCN1644 - Version 2

A picture of my dog, Timmy, unrealistically seen as a saint.


The real one, with his partner in crime, Ben.




(I did actually want to put in a picture of a cracked and repaired vase – but couldn’t work out how to find a copyright-free image to share, so, not wanting to be a hypocrite, thought I’d share legal pictures of my dogs. Who are actually neither cracked nor hypocrites, and Thomas Merton the mystic would describe them as being saints because they are truly who they are!)


Anyway, those are the pictures – here are the words!




I think that we have an interesting problem today with the ideas in the media of what is good and what is true. It seems that people distrust, quite rightly, ‘whitened sepulchres’ – hypocrites, do-gooders. We are revolted and fascinated by stories of bad people doing things in secret whilst pretending to be good, and excited when newspapers reveal all. This is the truth, we say, and we buy the newspapers, we click on the links, as a thank you to those journalists and newspapers who are revealing the ‘real state’ of affairs to us. Our media are our primary, most trusted storytellers, and we believe them.

My 89 year old dad is very worried about the state of the world and religiously watches television programmes with the ending ‘…from hell’ (‘Plumbers from hell’, ‘builders from hell’ etc) and any documentary revealing what is REALLY going on in care homes, hospitals, schools. What is REALLY going on is always awful. There is never a hard-hitting documentary which reveals the shocking secret that nurses want to help sick people get better, or teachers go into education to teach. There are however, soft-hitting, feel- good programmes where the narrative is that someone is heroically good or unusually loving but living in a horrible house or very ill or needing help in some way, and in the end they and their family get their just rewards from a smiling presenter and a delighted audience.

I must admit, I nearly always cry at the programmes where heroically kind people get rewarded – whoever produces them knows how to press my buttons. These are feel-good programmes. But so, in a funny way are the ‘from hell’ programmes. They balance out each other in a strange secular universe shot through with religious language and imagery. My dad feels good – he feels empowered by both types – he likes watching the programmes about our secular saints but he likes knowing how to spot an evil plumber and loves how the presenter on the motorbike or with the secret cameras always unmasks them – he feels inspired by wonderful people and glad because he knows he is not like any of those people from hell. These programmes provide narrative structures which make my dad feel he knows, even in this modern world, how to judge between someone who is good and someone who is bad, and so he can still look after me, his daughter, and ring me up and warn me about them.

Perhaps I am the same. I RT and share on Facebook and twitter things other people like me have read and feel outraged about. I send far too many messages to my (long suffering) children on Facebook, alerting them to this or that politician or crisis or urging them to sign this or that petition. I share about my heroes and heroines. I know what is good and what is bad. I know whose side I am on.

I think I am right.

The thing is, it is not that easy.

Take hypocrisy, for example. Of course we don’t want to be governed by outrageous hypocrites, but I think we are a bit too quick to ‘expose’ people for being so, people who are really trying their best. We are all hypocrites to one extent or another – we are all trying to project or present a nicer image of ourselves than we really are all the time. As a writer I want the name Anne Booth to be associated with good things – with love, with kindness, with tolerance, with empathy, with humour. Does this mean that I am always loving or kind, or tolerant, or empathetic or humorous? Absolutely not. But am I a hypocrite for wanting to be so and failing? No. I’m just human. Is it right to aspire that my writing reflects these values? Yes. Should I be publicly shamed for when I am not as nice as I want to be? Please not!

If we demand that people in power are absolutely not hypocrites in any way and yet are told by our media every day that that is what they are and that they shouldn’t be – if we demand otherworldly perfection and believe the stories that it is attainable for some specially favoured people, we don’t get it. Instead, we get something very odd.

Our story-tellers in the media warn us, quite reasonably we believe, against anyone with skeletons in the cupboard, anyone who is trying too hard to make us think they are nice. That makes narrative sense. Our storytellers in the media tell us that the world is full of bad people pretending to be good, but that, at one and the same time, there are also celebrities, human demi-gods, and that we deserve such a one as a hero or heroine. Add to that the irresistible narrative twist that everyone has a secret they don’t want us to know, and we are hooked. We know it is dangerous to be naive, to be tricked. We need the media, we believe, because they alone can find out people’s secrets – they and they alone can reveal the truth, tell the true story – they have the secret cameras, the God-like ability to read hearts and minds. And then the generosity to share this with us.

Believing this story is dangerous. I fear that it means, bizarrely, that when someone comes out in the media we trust and is presented by our story-tellers as someone who isn’t a hypocrite and who doesn’t try to be nice or please everyone – when they, right from the beginning, openly, without shame, behave badly and incite racism or stir up hate and claim, ‘I say it how it is’ and when what they say is shockingly bad – people can’t quite believe it. We tend to trust our storytellers – that is a prerequisite for being able to relax and enjoy the story. To some extent we ‘suspend our disbelief’ in ‘non fiction’ as well as in poetry or drama or other forms of art. If someone is openly accepted and successful on the TV or on the papers or on the internet then they must be good. Bad things are always hidden, we see in all our narratives – and hypocrisy always has to be revealed by dauntless investigators. But we also know that everyone has a secret that the media can help us discover -everyone has a shadow side. ..So then the ‘shadow side’ of this openly bad person, their secret, the narrative twist, must actually be that they are really nice. What a relief! Like the abused person who believes that the person who hits them loves them ‘really’, it seems that our society has not been prepared narratively by the stories it has been told to cope with either basically good people having faults or, conversely, someone really being as racist or bullying as they seem.

I think the real story is that all humans have to accept a certain level of being cracked as part of our condition. We have to accept that these cracks are genuine weaknesses, blemishes, without hating ourselves for having them. Tricky. We are all, to some extent, incapable of doing the good things we want to do and prone to do the things we don’t want to do.(See, in the Christian tradition for example, St Paul, St Augustine etc etc) And that is O.K. We need to be more empathetic – to recognise the story that, given certain conditions, we too could be as grumpy or as selfish as the next person, and often are. I really like the way C.S. Lewis writes about this in ‘The Screwtape Letters’. In order to forgive each other, in order to accept our imperfection, we do have to accept that some things we do are really good but some things are really bad. We need to be more forgiving of ourselves and our neighbours because of our shared humanity. We have to somehow accept in the first place that we are not perfect and will never be so, and yet keep trying to do the right thing.

Because our shared humanity, imperfect as it is, is wonderful. The best story of all, is that, amazingly, miraculously, imperfect humanity is loved and is capable of love. Humans are love-able. I happen to believe that this is the essence of the Christian faith I profess, and I know that people from other faiths and those of none also believe this. I believe this is the true story. It means that imperfect people can somehow open themselves up to love and find something within and beyond themselves. Light gets through the openings, cracks remain but are filled with gold. Cracked people can do wonderful, un-cracked things, like rescue people at sea or welcome refugees or save rain forests or, less dramatically but equally heroically, just be kind to a grumpy neighbour or a demanding colleague or family member or friend. Everybody can love – there can be true actions of love equally in a playgroup and in an old people’s home as in a mountain rescue or a battle field.

Everywhere, everyone, of all abilities can try to be kind. It isn’t always very exciting, but the stories we need to hear are the true ones, like politicians from all parties staying up late day after day and nodding off because they are wading through tedious paperwork and legal forms in order to make our country a better place to live. There are so many loving things happening in this world, and we need to tell more stories about them to ourselves and our children – not impossible stories where the chosen few are put on temporary pedestals for narrative thrills – narrative fast food equivalents full of enticing but sentimental additives – but real stories of love by fallible people.

If we don’t tell different stories for ourselves and our children – if we don’t challenge the narrative that it is reasonable to demand inhuman squeaky clean perfection, an absolute lack of hypocrisy and faults from ourselves or those in power from any political party, we end up with something strange. We don’t end up with perfection, we end up with a population of anxious perfectionists, with people who cannot be themselves for fear of being exposed, who don’t try to do good for fear of being labelled hypocrites, or we end up with psychopaths, people without conscience, who have no qualms about power.

As Yeats said in ‘The Second Coming’ :
‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’

At least, hypocrites know that there is something to hide. Let’s openly accept our innate hypocrisy and not fear being exposed by certain types of storytellers. Let’s not fearfully keep out of sight – let’s come out as hypocrites and get on with trying, imperfectly, to wisely and humbly discern and then champion the truth, to do good, to do our best,and to tell our stories of love.

For an example of how cracks can still be beautiful:

Put away the matches – the forest is dry

Girl with a White Dog Front Cover FINAL 300dpiImagePut away the matches – the forest is dry.



It is peaceful in my house at the moment. My two eldest children are away at university, and my two youngest are at school. My husband, a teacher at a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, is at work. I am minding my neighbour’s dog this afternoon, but at the moment she, and my own two dogs, are all asleep. The sunlight falls on the dog beds by the window, and the clock ticks, and my spaniel snores beside me on the sofa.

And so I am having a little time to think.

Because I know that it is not like this for others.

Because today in our country there are politicians making speeches using language which, to be put it mildly, does not help promote peace. The language they use sows division and fear and suspicion and the general sense that somehow we are being cheated or threatened by nameless people.

Cheated by whom?

By the foreign doctors who work in our overstretched and underfunded hospitals and help us when we or our loved ones are sick?

By frightened, isolated unaccompanied child refugees in Calais who have a legal right to be here and who are fleeing wars often fought using British-made weapons?

By people whose religion we don’t understand or value?

By those of our own citizens who have the misfortune to be ill and need benefits we really should, in a all decency, and in acknowledgement of our own luck, be glad for them to have?

By ‘bed-blockers’ (horrible term) – those, often elderly, who cannot leave hospital because they have nowhere to go to?

By people labelled by others who have no inside knowledge or respect, who have no right to judge, as scroungers or cheaters or ‘useless’.

The trouble is, such rhetoric is nothing new. We should know better by now.

I fear that too many politicians and media pundits are like people playing with matches in a dry forest – the trees catch fire and they are taken aback by the destruction which ensues.

So please – put away the matches. Choose the stories you tell carefully. Think about the words you use. They enflame people – they catch fire – but fire can destroy as well as warm – where do you want the fire to take hold?

Think about the words other people have used. The stories other people have told in the past – the ‘us and them’ tales which only ended in bloodshed, in tragedy.

Nothing good.

We should all know this by now. We should know, whatever political party we vote for, that the wrong words breed fear and that fear breeds hate and that the world cannot exist on hate.

We should know our own recent European history. It is not hard to access, for goodness sake. I cannot believe that what happened in Germany in the 1930s can be so easily forgotten. Those who are the victims of anti-semitism today cannot forget. Those who are the victims of disability hate crimes, or racist attacks, or islamophobic attacks, or attacks because they are gay. They are aware – but we all should be.

I wrote ‘Girl with a White Dog’ because I was uneasy at the headlines I could see in our papers – the way migrants and refugees were talked about as if they were sub-humans. And I was aware that the stories of these subhumans who are threatening our beautiful country are the same sort of stories that were told to children and adults in the Germany of the early 1930s, before the world finally woke up to the evil of Nazism.

And I wanted to tell a different one, with a happier ending. And I still do. And I believe that there are enough of us out there who can do it.

Do we really want to tell the same stories that Hitler told at the beginning of the 1930s? The fairy tales of good people and bad people – but with a value system that doesn’t recognise or celebrate true goodness, or tenderness, or interdependence, or the beauty of difference and diversity?

It started with words. Words which enflamed people.

Let’s use different words. Let’s stop playing with matches in a dry forest – that will only lead to tragedy. We know this. History tells us. If we must use matches, if we must use words which catch fire, let’s light that fire in a hearth, in a home, and make people welcome. Be kind. Use kind words. That builds a legacy of gratitude and love and mutual respect, and leads to Peace.


This is my book ‘Girl with a White Dog’. I wish it wasn’t relevant, but it is. I would like as many children as possible to read it so that they can recognise what sort of stories are being told to them by too many in this country. I want them to know that there are other, better, stories, and they can play a vital part in telling them.


Please support the work of WarChild – this retelling of the gospel story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph becoming refugees has been written by me and illustrated by Sam Usher. It was published last year and raised £30,000 for WarChildUK, but sadly this is a drop in the ocean and so much more money is needed. Nosy Crow are publishing it again this year (so now it is in different formats) in the hope that we can use both words and pictures and continue to raise funds and empathy for refugees.

The Fairiest Fairy

I am so delighted with this review I have decided to reblog it – especially as I am a bit behind on my own posts!


The Fairiest Fairy-6471-3

This is a perfect antidote to all those fairy books aimed at girls who want to wear sparkly wings and look pretty. The Fairest Fairy is a joyful read that subtly questions which character traits are of true value.

The premise is that ‘Betty was a fairy who just never got things right’. She’s at fairy school where the other students find it easy to succeed where as she struggles with every task. She can’t perform spells, paint rainbows or wake flowers (who knew fairies had so much to do!) And part of the reason she isn’t very good is that she gets distracted; everywhere she turns there are animals who need help. She removes a thorn from a rabbit’s foot then gives him a cuddle, she gives a pep talk to a blackbird who is too scared to fly and cleverly untangles a butterfly’s laces. The fairy school students takes part in a contest to find…

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The small details

Yesterday I wrote an email to an editor about a book I have written for 5-8 year olds and which will be published later this year. I had realised that I had made a big mistake with what someone was wearing – and it was such a relief to realise this in time. It seems like a small detail – a question of a red sweatshirt  with animal badges rather than the reindeer jumper I had described, but it has big significance for the character and the illustrations, and uncorrected would have made an unsatisfying nonsense of the end of the previous book about the character.

In a few minutes I am going to get back to writing my current novel. Like ‘Girl with a White Dog’, it has involved me in lots of historical research. I am finding that the small details are vital. They are vital for me to understand the story and really inhabit it – and they are vital, in a work of fiction, for truth. It DOES matter if a character in 1916 would have read a particular poem, or been taught a particular thing, or regarded others in a particular way. In one sense, it is perfectly possible to write an exciting story riddled with anachronisms, but as a writer I think it would be so less satisfying, and it would be letting down the reader big time.

Because small details do matter – and sometimes they are not always that small – just unregarded. If we are lucky some wonderful hardworking historian has found them – like Boria Sax in his book ‘Animals in the Third Reich’ – and it is a fiction writer’s  privilege to be able to incorporate them into a story, as I did in Girl with a White Dog

So what are the ‘small details’ in our current culture which future historians and novelists will uncover? What will stand out for them as being unregarded, unreported, dismissed as unimportant, and yet, when looked at properly, will be seen to say so much about our values and how our culture is headed – which if not acknowledged will make a nonsense of our nation’s narrative?

There are many examples – not least, in light of International Women’s Day yesterday,  the treatment of women in our world today and the fact that their needs are often relegated to ‘small details’ – but today I would like to look at the treatment of the disabled and the ill in our culture.

I think that you might deduce that the treatment of the disabled and the ill in our culture is a small detail if you look at the lack of public outrage about it. The money which is being spent by our present government to contest this legal ruling  about the ‘bedroom tax’ is not commented widely on, nor is the distress this is causing people having to be involved with the Govt’s appeal after they thought they had won: here is a story which is huge for the people involved and yet a small detail in terms of news coverage – the story of those families involved

Then yesterday the government ruled in favour of cuts which will mean  that disabled people will lose £30 a week – that is £120 a month – which  anyone who has tried to survive on a low wage will realise is not a small detail at all. This has been widely criticised. by charities working with those involved, yet it seems that it is a relatively unimportant thing for those of us unaffected. If you click on the highlighted blue words you will get to a BBC report on this, and can watch a video clip of a disabled Peer’s consternation about the cruelty of these cuts.

So on one hand the welfare of those who are ill or disabled seems to cause little alarm, and yet the narrative that they are scroungers arouses great interest. Here is an example where big details (£30 a week loss for those who desperately need it) are being seen as small – and where small details (relatively tiny number of people defrauding system) are distorted into being big ones. So we have huge coverage of those who are not disabled pretending to be, and hardly any of those who are in desperate need and not getting the support they need. Just look at this excellent piece in the guardian about phantom cheats:

I love History and the work of historians. Historians can, with dedicated work, discover small details which can illumine our understanding of why things happened the way they did. I have to pay attention  to the small details in my stories so that they have coherence as narratives – so that they are satisfying and truthful. We have to pay attention and talk about the ‘small details’ glossed over or left out  in the mainstream news – in the narrative our media and politicians are writing for our nation  – these details, left out, make an unsatisfying nonsense of our narrative as a caring nation with ‘British values’ – these unregarded details, omissions and contradictions may be the most important of all.





The Good Chance Theatre – guest post from Kate Beales

I was lucky enough to meet the theatre director and writer Kate Beales (@katebeales13) at a wonderful writing workshop at @Gladlib run by the novelists Shelley Harris @shelleywriter and Stephanie Butland @under_blue_sky When I discovered that she had recently been to Calais to help refugees I asked her to write this blog post about her visit and the work of Good Chance Theatre @GoodChanceCal

29th February. A day that defies the regular rhythms of annual circularity. A day when events flash into visibility, then disappear again. I’ve always loved the elusive mystery of leap years. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have an anniversary on a day that only shows up every four years.

On this particular leap year, Monday 29th February 2016, I’m caught up in an event which fits with the strangeness of the day, something I can’t believe is happening, something I find so incomprehensible I’m almost relieved that this time next year its anniversary won’t exist. In the Calais refugee camp known as The Jungle, demolition of the fragile, makeshift homes of some of the world’s most vulnerable people is under way.

I’m visiting the camp with two compassionate and open-hearted companions. We’re here to offer our support to the Good Chance Theatre and the rest of the camp. Like many others, we are aware of the decision-making process that has been unfolding in Calais, but we are unprepared for the scale of violence and suffering that escalates over the following days.

When we arrive, we are blocked by a polite but impenetrable line of police, who warn us that there will be no entry to the Jungle today. Journalists on their phones are gazing over the no man’s land dividing the road from the camp. No-one seems to know what’s going on. We drive round the corner to the other side of the camp and find people going in and out as usual. We walk past flattened earth and stationary bulldozers. There’s a single police van with one unmoving silhouette inside. The main street is very still. There’s no sign of trouble, just silence.

At the Good Chance Theatre, it’s not quiet. We are drawn into a riotous game of Pig in the Middle, and now I’m leaping around the tent, trying to hold my own against a dozen young men who all seem twice my height and half my age. They find my efforts to keep up hilarious: the ice is broken in minutes. We play until we are all exhausted. As the group drifts away to rest, we join a seasoned volunteer for lunch in one of the nearby cafes. The food is delicious. We drink hot, sweet chai, as our new friend tells us about December in the camp, a family living in a tent, sinking into the mud. On Christmas day a delivery of wood arrived and he spent the day building the family a house. “It’s the best Christmas I’ve ever had,” he says. I try to express my admiration at his generosity, but he waves my words away.

Later in the afternoon, there is a movement theatre workshop, led by a skillful volunteer, another regular at the theatre. We join in, playing games, creating choreography, sometimes laughing, sometimes intensely focused, moving in chorus, singing simple songs, stamping and clapping together. When the workshop is over, I’m invited to lead the following session. I work to build on the rapport we have established, and follow the energy of the group, using circle games, mirroring, shared sounds and actions. There’s very little English spoken, everything is communicated through gesture. It’s an improvisation held together by collective good humour.

During this time, the theatre is filled with a small group of constant participants, and a shifting crowd who ebb and flow in and around the tent. The tent is a haven – a refuge for the refugees, as one of the Good Chance team puts it. It also strikes me as a fixed point, a centre, with a series of concentric circles around it – all the different groups pulled in different ways towards the space and its activities. In the middle, with us, are those who are joining in. Somehow, despite everything that’s happening, these young men (they are all young men) are able to laugh, sing, and play along with us.



Then there are those who are engaged in watching, intently focused on our activities. If we invite them to join the circle or catch an imaginary ball, they decline with a polite turn of the head, a downward flick of the eyes and a tiny half-smile. They watch from the side with their arms folded: they seem part of the action, but not quite in it. One man stands in the circle, watching from within. When I invite him to make a gesture, his arms remain crossed. “You’re crazy,” he says. I acknowledge that he’s probably right, and leave him in peace. Later, when I glance in his direction, he has started to move with us.

Beyond our workshop, there are others around the edges of the tent, having conversations, or playing games of their own. It seems that they are here because the space is welcoming, filled with shouts of laughter, not of fear. People can come here for refuge, whatever is happening outside. Because of course outside, everything is happening. Not far from us, the camp is starting to burn.

There are further ripples – men who stand at the entrance, or just outside, as though looking for something, but too restless to come in. Outside the tent there are wider circles still: those going about their lives, cooking, working, washing, sleeping, eating, like the inhabitants of any city. Then there are those not going about anything at all, other than sitting on a rock or a hummock of mud, arms wrapped round their knees, some rocking back and forth, some with tears on their faces, living out their anguish in the open air. And beyond all this, though I’m not aware of it yet, there are the people at the centre of the real life drama of this day, facing the police, the fires, the tear gas and the water cannons.

So many people work with generosity and compassion to alleviate the squalor and suffering in the camp. At the Legal Centre we meet a young Afghan volunteer. During a break in the workshops we are folding paper, making origami boats and planes, flying them around the tent. This young man sits in a corner for a very long time, head bent, fixed on his paper. When he emerges, he’s holding a beautiful and complex puppet folded in the shape of a chicken. The chicken can be held so its head goes up and down, pecking at the ground for imaginary food. We are transfixed. The chicken is passed from hand to hand and admired before becoming the focus of a game. It’s a beautiful makeshift treasure in our theatre world.

Those of us who work in the theatre rely on the suspension of disbelief, the collective capacity to leave reality behind and enter imaginary worlds where anything is possible. It may be hard to imagine, but this is happening at the Good Chance Theatre in Calais. The Good Chance has created a space where refugees can come for respite from the horrors they have faced and continue to face in their daily lives. Even as the camp burns, they can laugh, play, trust each other, and take refuge in the pure joy of making a story or a song. They can find different ways to communicate. A young man tries to talk to me. We have no shared language. His eyes are burning with anger as he clenches his hands into fists, holds them up in front of me and presses them very gently against my face. I don’t need words to know that he is trying to show me not just anger and frustration, but a desperate desire to be understood.

At the end of our workshop, my son starts to play his harmonica, and soon another volunteer opens his rucksack and pulls out a clarinet. The refugees gather around the music and start dancing. One by one they pull us into the dance. The bulldozers are still here, and the police in riot gear. The fires continue to rage outside. None of us is naïve enough to think we can stop what is happening, or change the terrible reality that is the Calais Jungle. But, just for a few minutes, on this February 29th, we have suspended our disbelief. Hands are joined. We are dancing together in our wellington boots. We have forgotten our differences.