Monthly Archives: April 2014

An open letter to the Daily Mail…

This is brilliant. I am proud to reblog it. This is the type of Christian morality I agree with – not compassion-lacking moralistic claptrap.

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The Daily Mail chose today to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, champion of the oppressed, by publishing this article today.  Here’s my response.

 

Dear Daily Mail,

I’ve got a little boy.  His name is Isaac, and he’s nearly three.  Like any little boy, he loves cars, balls, and running around.  He’s barely ever still.

A few days ago though, he was.  I took him to the supermarket to spend his pocket money, and we passed the donation basket for our local food bank.  It was about half full – nothing spectacular, in fact, mostly prunes and pasta – and he asked what it was.  As simply as possible, I tried to explain that it was for people to give food for other people who couldn’t afford it.

This affected his two year old brain fairly deeply.  After a lot of thought, he decided to spend a little bit of…

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A Good Friday after all.

I found today very moving. Culturally, the Christian commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday could seem to be a glorification of a violent death, or an excuse to unhealthily wallow in overly dramatic guilt. In past centuries, to my Christian church’s shame, the crucifixion of Jesus has even been used as an excuse for anti-semitism. (I am glad to say recent Popes up to and including Pope Francis have specifically spoken against such an attitude, but it remains a deep shame for Roman Catholics to recognise in their history.)

Good Friday has never been my favourite feast day.

But today, at the Good Friday service at our local Franciscan college, I found the service to be a beautiful celebration of Love in the midst of failure. Good Friday is when a story – a narrative- seems to have gone wrong. It isn’t supposed to be like this. Our culture celebrates Christmas, but now it is about someone – not just a good and loving person but Love personified – being beaten up and falling on the road under a heavy burden, and dying on a cross. That’s not so much fun. In life and in fiction we want good people not to suffer. We don’t want friends to betray us, or run away. We don’t want to be the betrayers, or the cowards. It’s all a bit horrible, really.

It might seem to be a strange sort of thing to figure in Art or Literature for centuries, and a weird religious feast-day. But today I came to church acutely aware of things in my life which don’t fit the narrative I’d like them to. I can think of lots of areas where I wish I had been better – was being better. I wish I was more loving, and I wish I could sort out problems in some of my relationships. I lost a very old friendship some years ago, and I don’t know how to fix it. I do not know how to get on with some members of my wider family, and it seems to me that we are caught in pain that we have inherited, and are not capable of sorting it out by ourselves. I am certainly not. And it isn’t hard to see the same patterns all over the world. Pain and crap and just general unfairness, and good people suffering and being treated like rubbish, and ordinary people falling short of being the loving, supportive friends they would like to be. And some people just doing plain evil things.

So today, I found Good Friday very moving. I love the idea of the Christ-child at Christmas – but today I found the general disappointment and messiness and pain of how it all went wrong for Jesus a painful but somehow beautiful part of the story and an equal sign of God becoming human, and I loved the bit where, after the crucifixion, two secret disciples – Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – people who were too cowardly during Jesus’ life time to admit to following him – FINALLY did the right thing when it was too late, admitted they were his disciples, took his body, wrapped in linen cloths and ointment, and buried it in a tomb in a garden.

 

And I’m glad to say that the next instalment of the story is MUCH happier, to put it mildly…

 

I hope that EVERYONE reading this, those who believe the religious story or those who simply enjoy a well-earned  holiday  –  are comforted in any pain or disappointment they may have experienced when things have not gone to plan – feel the presence of Love and Life in their lives again – and have a lovely Easter!

 

 

 

What I did last weekend – The FCGB conference at Worth Abbey

I’ve had a lovely holiday so far. On Monday 7th we drove up to Lindisfarne, or Holy Island as it is also known. I love Northumbria and I often wonder if we will eventually end up living there. This time we only had 3 full days there – but it is such a special place it felt like a real break. We walked by the sea and saw seals – one very close indeed, and we rested and ate good food. I didn’t want to leave. But on the way back my family dropped me off at Worth Abbey in Sussex for the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Conference. And it was as good, in its own way, as my 3 days in Lindisfarne!

 

Why? Well – in Lindisfarne I am in a beautiful place, on an island, with people I love. It’s like Heaven. At Worth Abbey I was at a beautiful place, in what felt like a privileged island of people who all loved something I love = children’s books. It’s like Heaven. Added to that the fact that I was able to go to Morning prayer with the monks and the whole heavenly theme felt pretty clear! I read Zoe Toft’s blog post about it here today, and so first of all I urge you to read this and look at the pictures, as I couldn’t have put it better. http://www.playingbythebook.net She even chose the same heavenly theme! So what can I add?

I suppose all I can add is why I liked it as an author. Before Zoe persuaded me on twitter to go to the conference, I had no intention of joining the Federation of Children’s Book Groups. I thought it was an organisation for teachers and librarians like http://librarymice.com or amazing bloggers like Zoe. I was an enthusiast like them, but as an author I felt a bit like I would be butting in or eavesdropping to join their organisation. It felt embarrassing. I was also a little scared! I was wrong. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and what I forgot was that before I was ever a published author ( and that has only just happened this year with ‘Girl with a White Dog’ in March and the forthcoming ‘Lucy’s Secret Reindeer’ in September) I was an enthusiast. I have loved children’s books for decades. I have admired, bought and borrowed and most importantly, READ children’s books most of my life. For some very happy years I sold children’s books in bookshops. I was a very good children’s bookseller. I even did an M.A. in Children’s Literature at the University of Roehampton. (I totally recommend this, by the way. I studied part time in the evenings 1993-1995 but now you can do it part time. It is a WONDERFUL course! http://www.roehampton.ac.uk/postgraduate-courses/childrens-literature/index.html) I LOVE children’s books. And surely that’s the prime motivation for any children’s book writer. And why anyone who loves books should go to the Federation of Children’s Books Group conference. Because everyone there is an enthusiast for children’s books. And because if you take someone – anyone- who loves children’s books, if you whisk them away from their ordinary life to a beautiful place, where they have no housework and will be plied with delicious food and drink all weekend, and will listen to talks and presentations by and interviews with (just to quote an incomplete list – and I will make sure I find my temporarily mislaid programme and list ALL the wonderful writers): Cressida Cowell, Philip Reeves & Sarah McIntyre Meg Rosoff Lynne Barber Anthony Browne and Helen Oxenbury Abie Longstaff and Ruta Sepetys – Just to cover Friday and Saturday alone!!! (more on an amazing Sunday next time!) Then you will be in Heaven.

 

So I am booking for next year asap. And I encourage anyone who loves children’s books to do the same – ESPECIALLY authors. I will do a special blog post soon on why authors in particular should go. It will be on 10th-12th April 2015 It will be at the Olde Barn Hotel, Marston, near Grantham. Authors already booked (though subject to confirmation and to change) include already Kjartan Poskitt Elys Dolan Simon Mayle Giles Paley Phillips Kate Wilson and Tom Moorhouse but I am confident that there will be many more added. I can’t wait! To register interest email fcgbconference@gmail.com or call Jane Etheridge 0208 6418173 Hope to see you there!

Thoughts in the night.

I can’t sleep. It is 4.30 a.m. Thursday 3rd April 2014. There are lots of reasons for my sleeplessness. One is that I have to go to an important hospital appointment with a family member tomorrow.

The other is that a young girl, Yashika Bageerathi, just about to take her ‘A’ levels, has been unnecessarily sent away on her own, back to a dangerous domestic situation from which she was fleeing. She is on a plane now, treated like a dangerous criminal, surrounded by empty seats and with guards, a very costly flight paid for by tax payers’ money. Many thousands of people (177,892 at this point) signed the petition to ask the Government not to deport her. Many thousands of people asked our government not to put her in Yarls Wood Detention Centre (already a source of great concern about its running) and to let her stay. She had the support, not of troublemakers or extremists, but of her headmistress, her fellow students, her own Conservative MP and the Christian Evangelical Steve Chalke. The money spent could have been saved and compassion and common sense have at least allowed her to stay with her family for a further two months until her ‘A’ levels were completed and proper arrangements for her safety ensured.

Why is this important? She is only one person amongst many, after all. All around us, as the world turns, wars and famines rage and individuals suffer. When I go to the hospital tomorrow I will not be the only person worried for a relative. People will die even as I wait with my relative for the Consultant to see us. If we get bad news – well, we won’t be the first or the last. Yet if the Consultant who sees us, treats us merely as one case in millions when we sit in his or her consulting room, we would rightly regard him or her as shockingly callous and lacking in humanity. Each patient, to a good Consultant, is an individual. Each life is worthy of respect. Budgets have to be decided and general decisions have to be made, but each person who will be seen in that hospital tomorrow, and indeed each person who works in that hospital, is unique, and the wonderful mathematics of Compassion is that the more each individual is treated with kindness and compassion, the better for the population of the country as a whole. As John Donne said, ‘No man is an island.’ That whole poem should be read by our Government.

We have just had Sport Relief, and on the television the fund raisers encouraged us again and again to empathise with individual stories of suffering around the world. Each time a person’s story was told the money flowed in, and it was marvelled at time and time again how kind and generous people could be. The presenters proudly announced that the Government would match the money donated by private individuals with money from taxes, and everyone felt good. Our Prime Minister and his wife were filmed preparing to run to raise money. The Government understood that something wonderful was going on, and they wanted to be part of the outpouring of empathy and compassion generated. They understood the power of the individual story and they wanted to be associated with it. Cynics might say it suited them. I hope that is being too harsh, but if we feel good about helping an individual we can sometimes overlook any unjust economic and political factors which led them to that position. However, I would say that the reason why we as a nation feel good about Sport Relief is that it IS good. It is profoundly humane to feel compassion for individuals, and as long as this goes hand in hand with creating Just structures and systems where individuals flourish we will have a healthy society and world. The two factors complement, rather than oppose each other.

So what is the power of Yashika’s individual story? Does it complement a just ordering of our society? In what way has the Government chosen to be associated with it? Is it being used to encourage compassion and empathy, or is it being used for something far more worrying?

I don’t think it is inhuman in itself for a country to have restrictions on immigration. It must be in the power of a nation to decide that some people are given citizenship and others not. What is important however is that these decisions are made and are seen to be made, with fairness and compassion, with the right values, and that each individual case is taken on merit. Yashika’s story is important for us all and for the future of our nation as a compassionate, decent place, because of the context of the decisions made around this particular case and the way that a young woman has been deliberately made a political football in the full glare of publicity. The shamelessness and unnecessary public conclusion to this case is very chilling.

Yashika’s case is important because this is a time of high unemployment and where people are struggling, and historically, as I know from years of research for ‘Girl with a White Dog’, such a time is one where we need to be very aware of scapegoating and demonisation of others. It is important because those who know Yashika’s individual story love her and understand her situation, and those who made the decision yesterday to deport her did NOT know her as an individual and chose, in the full sight of the nation, to refuse to do so. This Government deliberately and shamelessly chose to let us all see them act with coldness and contempt, not just towards Yashika herself, but towards the Head teacher and the young students supporting her, the community who spoke for her, her M.P. and the thousands who signed the petition. They even seem to have acted contemptuously towards Parliament itself, as Yashika is due to appear before the Home Affairs Committee in June. Our Government deliberately chose not to see her individual need, and deliberately chose to let us see how unimportant such individual need was to them, even though they were given ample evidence and time and opportunity to do so. This is frightening for us all.

They inflicted suffering utterly needlessly and were not ashamed. They seemed to glory in their own imperviousness to appeals for compassion- they would not even let a hard working student complete her exams before sending her away. They ignored the fact that she was suffering and seemed to rejoice in their power to do this. They used her for their own political ends, tapping into an undercurrent not of compassion but of fear of the immigrant because they estimated that this could gain them political power, and they didn’t care at what moral cost this came.

Why? Why would a democratically elected government behave with such contempt, such arrogance? Is it because they judge that they are in charge of all the stories being printed in our press, the programmes being churned out by our television studios, the politcal debates on our radio stations? Only yesterday I was informed by a taxi driver that he had seen on the television that most of the people with disabled stickers for their cars were fakes. When I asked him where he got that information from he said a programme on Sky television. He accepted the story because it was from a place of power, and it shapes the way he looks at disabled people. It is not a good story, and we discussed that any abuse of disabled parking in this story is not being used to encourage a tighter, fairer system and crack down on offenders, but to feed into a bigger narrative that somehow disabled people aren’t ‘really’ disabled and shouldn’t have special treatment. It seems that our ‘free’ media and our government are telling the same stories. This is not healthy for democracy.

We live on stories. We are story-makers and we are made of stories. We each have a responsibility now to fight to make sure our nation’s narrative is one of fairness and decency , of honour and compassion and kindness, of basic humanity, or we, and our children are all, as John Donne might have said, stuffed.

P.S. I know that these opinions are shared by those of many and no religion, but, for the record, I am a Christian and believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. ‘Gospel’ means good news. I do not believe the deportation of Yashika had anything to do with this Gospel, and noting to do with the ‘Christian values’ that some people claim they are defending. It is not ‘Good news’. How can it be? It has nothing to do with Love.