Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Golden Rule

It is Sunday and as usual there was a yellow food bin at the back of my church. It was full to overflowing with food brought in by parishioners to be donated to our city’s food bank.

People will go to the food bank this coming Friday. They will hand over a food voucher, given to them by their housing association, or social services, or the Citizens Advice Bureau, or a women’s refuge – any number of organisations who deal with the most needy in our society- and in turn, they will be given enough food to tide them over for 3 days. It may include shower gel and shampoo, after one mother admitted feeling bad that she washed her baby in cheap washing up liquid.

This is great. It is fantastic that people in our city care about others. I am glad to bring some food or nice shower gel with me to mass – it makes sense when I believe in a God who cares for the Poor, who self-identifies with the poor and actually says ‘in as much as you did this to the least of these, you did it to me.’

But there is a problem.

As Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999), a Brazilian Roman Catholic Archbishop and Liberation Theologian is quoted as saying:

When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.

There is a golden rule which says ‘Treat others as you would have them treat you’. It is found as a saying by Jesus in the Christian gospels of Matthew and Luke, but also in other cultures and religions, and is something that many atheists and agnostics live by too.

The Golden Rule has to be applied sensibly – in both senses of the word – that is with common sense and sensitivity. If I treated my husband as I would like to be treated I would buy him lots of chocolate and children’s books and bring him breakfast in bed. I did in fact do this in the early months of our relationship, but after nearly 18 years of marriage I have learnt that he doesn’t like breakfast in bed, would prefer to have a few squares of my chocolate than a whole bar, and (amazingly) would rather be given a valve amplifier or a bottle of ‘Goose Island’ beer than a children’s book. (He did however read the whole of Clara Vulliamy & Shirley Hughes’ ‘Dixie O’Day‘ book because he was very impressed by the cars!)

Nevertheless, I believe most people understand the basic principles. It is good to feel kind and unselfish. I like the thought of the food I put in the food bank helping others. But I remember that the person who came to talk to our church about giving to the food bank told us about a lady she brought to it who said it was the worst day of her life. And I wonder how I would feel if I were dependent on others’ charity.

I would like to live in a society where food banks aren’t needed. Where people are paid a decent wage for a decent day’s work, where pay day loan companies are not allowed to charge exorbitant interest on loans to the most needy, where people do not have to rely on zero hour contracts, and where the sick and disabled are not put through demeaning tests to prove that they are unfit for work. I would like to live in a society where those who receive from food banks, the unemployed, immigrants, asylum seekers and disabled are not frequently described by our press and politicians as lazy and disorganised, scroungers or liars. Because I believe in the Golden Rule, and were I unemployed, or disabled, or on a low wage, or a person fleeing from an oppressive regime, or just trying to escape from poverty and make a better life for my family,  I would hate to have to receive food from others when I would rather earn it for myself, and I would dread becoming the subject of censure, derision and hate.

I wrote ‘A Girl with a White Dog’ to help children realise that others are just like them – if we adults take the Golden Rule seriously we should remember that too, and act accordingly.

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The Blessed Ben

I’ve told you about Saint Timmy. This is The Blessed Ben.

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He is always interested in what I’m doing. I look down to see this:

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Or this:

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He demands, needs, loves cuddles – and as writing is a very solitary occupation it is nice to have a little dog to give a hug to when your rhymes aren’t working, or your plot is in a muddle.

It can be a bother when he leans his head on the keyboard. Or when he crunches up your pens, or lies on your manuscript.

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But it is great when he makes you take him for a walk, because sometimes you just need to get out in the fresh air and get some exercise. And I have some of my best ideas when I’m walking.

And he and St. Timmy are best friends.

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And here are 3 other literary dogs who inspire me:

Plum – who inspires the wonderful Emma Chichester Clark. I am delighted to read that  a book about her will be published soon. I love reading her adventures! http://emmachichesterclark.blogspot.co.uk/2013_09_01_archive.html

Dixie O’Day, the wonderful creation of Clara Vulliamy and Shirley Hughes. How gorgeous is this !

http://www.dixieoday.com

And Claude, the great friend of Sir Bobblysock, and the creation of the lovely Alex T Smith

http://claudebooks.blogspot.co.uk

‘Alfie Gets in First’, Dostoevsky & the purpose of education

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I thought I had locked myself out this morning. I stood with my shopping outside the door, and panicked. Inside were 2 dogs, all my editing work for the day and my phone. I couldn’t remember if I had given a spare set of keys to the neighbours – I have a suspicion they were claimed back when one of the children lost their keys last time, and I haven’t got round to getting more cut. The locked door filled me with despair. A quick scrabble in my bag revealed my keys, but I had already been reminded of one of my favourite books OF ALL TIME. ‘Alfie Gets in First’ by Shirley Hughes.

I have only ever given one talk at a conference. It was at a conference on children’s literature at a university some years ago, and as at the time I was on the teaching staff there as a sessional lecturer, I was asked if I would like to give a presentation. I chose to do it on Shirley Hughes, as I had done my M.A. dissertation on images of mothering in her books. And I got to the bit where I talked about ‘Alfie Gets in First’ and, the illustrations appeared as if by magic on the projector, and all my nervousness disappeared. I can’t remember much. I remember quite a lot of waving my arms and a sense of divine mission. I may have got a bit carried away. I distinctly remember claiming that ‘Alfie Gets In First’ was more dramatic than any book by Dostoevsky (I’m not even sure if I have ever read an entire book by Dostoevsky). In fact, I know I did proclaim that ‘Alfie Gets in First was the greatest work of literature EVER WRITTEN. The academics in the audience looked a bit startled, and laughed a little nervously. One of them said my lecture was ‘refreshing’ and a welcome change of pace for the end of a conference. In short, I got carried away.

But not much. Because being faced with a locked door is horrible. I remember as a child that I taught myself, care of one of Enid Blyton’s books, to get out of a locked room when the key is in the lock on the other side of the door. It involves sliding a sheet of paper out under the door so that most of it is on the other side, and poking things through the lock so that the key falls out with a satisfying thud on it. You then carefully pull the sheet back in under the door and, provided the gap is big enough, you receive the key and are able to let yourself out and foil any wicked smugglers who have locked you in.

But back to ‘Alfie Gets in First’ – being little and on the other side of a locked door THAT YOU ARE TOO SMALL TO OPEN is a huge problem. Lewis Carroll’s Alice knew that. And Alfie is in the horrible position that his mum and his little sister are on the other side, and his little sister is crying, and although his mum, and his lovely neighbour Mrs McNally        and the milkman, and Maureen McNally, and the window cleaner are all calling encouragements through the letter box (beautifully shown in the two page spreads), it is ultimately Alfie who has to be brave and clever enough to decide to get a chair, stand on it, and let everyone in. What an amazing ending! What a triumph!

What I love about ‘Alfie Gets in First’ is that the illustrations and text combine to create a child character, who, loved by everyone, still has to be brave enough to act independently and fix a problem. Shirley Hughes’s work promotes a world where children are valued, where their problems are taken very seriously, and where their victories are properly celebrated. It is full of love. We need more of that. We need that when we look at the huge numbers of powerless refugee children in the world, and ask ourselves what will make the world safer for them, what will truly empower them – education or bombs? We need that care and respect for children when we look at the impact of family homelessness and unemployment and disability on children in our ‘developed’ nation. We need it when children are judged not in a climate of love but by materialistic standards. Wouldn’t it be great if we stopped testing our young children so much, and took more time to listen to their individual problems and celebrate their HUGE victories in navigating the tricky territory of school and playground and family life? Helping children to have the self confidence and bravery to open doors by themselves, both physically and metaphorically, is surely the foundation of true education. Hooray for Alfie and Shirley Hughes!

I believe a new ‘Alfie’ book is coming out soon. I can’t wait!

Here is the link to the official Alfie website http://www.alfiebooks.co.uk/allaboutalfie.asp

where you can actually see the rough drawings for ‘Alfie Gets in First’. Amazing!

Timmy from ‘The Famous Five’, Thomas Merton and being yourself.

I have a dog called Timmy. Just writing it makes me feel amazed. All those years of reading ‘The Famous Five’ and dreaming of having a dog called Timmy, and when I was 40 my dreams finally came true.

Here he is.

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Timmy is on the left. He is very big, and gentle, and kind.

And the sweet little  brown and white character on the right is Ben, but more about Ben another time.

This is about Timmy. Who is far too prone to raid the bin, and moults everywhere, but is patient and very good at loving and being loved by everyone. Who really helped my lovely, heart-broken father in law who came to live with us after he was widowed, just by sitting beside him and sharing his toast. Who has gorgeous eyes and a cold nose and a very waggy tail, and is one of this world’s optimists.

Who reminds me of something the writer and 20th century American Roman Catholic monk, Thomas Merton said. He said that animals and plants give glory to God just by being themselves – they are purely who they were meant to be – and so they are, in a sense, saints.

I love Thomas Merton’s spirituality. I love the fact that he changed his mind as he grew older, and wasn’t embarrassed to admit it.  He had a ‘wild’ life before his conversion to Catholicism, and then, typically, chose to continue that need to take everything to extremes and joined an extremely strict order of Roman Catholic monks called Trappists. Which is when he began to write in earnest, had a sort of breakdown because he was unreasonable to himself and to others in his piety, and emerged from it still a Trappist monk, but a more compassionate, more loving, often difficult and argumentative person, not always easy to live with, but always trying to be honest, and his true self. You can see his developing spirituality evolve through his writings, and you can see him grow from book to book and change from a rather pious Catholic writer to someone who became more and more open to the world, to other people, to other religions, whilst keeping and deepening his own personal religious faith. At the end of his life he was in very close dialogue with Buddhists, and, by then an influential writer, became very involved in marching against the Vietnam war. Monica Furlong wrote a fascinating biography of Thomas Merton, and many others have written about him, not least the brilliant former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in his book  ‘A Silent Action’.

And I think it is lovely to think about what he said – that all we need to be, is just to be ourselves. To be unselfconsciously loved and loving in the way that a big old soppy golden retriever is. It is much more difficult, Thomas Merton said, for humans to be the true selves they were created to be, than for trees and animals. But it’s a good aspiration.

Which is why, trying to copy Ethiopian art, I painted this, not to offend anyone, but to remind me of what Thomas Merton said about holiness, especially in his book ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’, which, sadly seems to be only available second hand .

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(I gave Saint Timmy a bone, but it didn’t come out very well in the photo.)

I’ll have to paint St Ben next!

 

Writing new worlds

One of my earliest memories was being in reception class and telling a lie in school. The teacher asked us how many children were in our family. 

‘I’ve got 3 brothers,’ I said. I had. But the trouble was that I had promised my mum not to tell anyone about my severely disabled brother. If I was asked, my mum said, I was to say I had 2 brothers, as it was ‘none of anyone’s business’. So then I worried. I had been naughty. So I put my hand up again.

‘Please Miss. I haven’t got 3 brothers,’ I said. ‘I have 2.’ And now I had a new worry, about being a bad sister and lying to a teacher. Because that was a sin, and I was a five year old second generation Irish Catholic girl and really wanted to be good. 

 

I was born 2 years after my youngest brother was taken into an institution. My family had really suffered, and I was born into a very sad story which continued throughout his and my childhood. Life is difficult for many children. They inherit narratives they had no part in making, they live with secrets, and pressures, and worries that really shouldn’t be theirs. They are stuck in impossible situations, and I believe, I know, as many writers do, that books can help.

 

Books can help because they give us another world to live in. When I went to the Nosy Crow Conference last Saturday Lucy Mangan expressed that beautifully in her opening speech. I read all the time. I read Enid Blyton, I read L.M. Montgomery, I read ‘Bunty’ and ‘Mandy’  and ‘Tammy’ comics. I read Helen Cresswell and Joan Aiken.  I could not have coped with life without laughing at Paddington, and Jennings, and Just William and The Moomins . I longed to be part of the world of The Chalet School and Malory Towers and The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. I loved The Family from One End Street because the family were working class, like mine, but I also imagined flying with Prince Paul to The Secret Mountain, or taming tigers like Jimmy in Mr. Galliano’s Circus. Above all, I wanted to be a girl with a dog called Timmy, or Scamper, or Buster. Our house was too small, our circumstances not right to have one. But I could read about dogs and own one in my dreams. When I read I could not hear anyone talking to me. I could escape and be whoever I wanted to be, wherever and whenever I wanted to live. I took books on all our long treks to the hospital to visit my brother, I read them at home, in the sitting room when everyone else was watching the telly, in bed. Everywhere.

 

There was plenty of grit in my life. There was plenty of suffering. I don’t think I could have borne more in my books.

 

So how do we as writers deal with the responsibility of writing about hard things in fiction? My first published novel will be for 9-12 year olds. It is called ‘A Girl with a White Dog’, published by Catnip, and it will touch on, of all subjects, Nazi Germany. How can I justify this, when I know how much I needed to escape difficult things in my reading as a child?

 

I think it is because I want ‘A Girl with a White Dog’ to free children from fear, and one of the most pernicious fears there is, is fear of ‘the other’, so prevalent in our media today. I want my book to be a story that they can lose themselves in, and emerge from, with a new way of looking at the world and those who are ‘not like’ them. Children will always have limited power to change their circumstances, but I hope my book will teach them that they (like us all) can choose the stories they believe in, and ultimately that can help to change their – and our world.