Monthly Archives: March 2016

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.