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Grace Grearson Letter pic
A letter of my grandmother’s, 1944

I’ve always been a shambles at saying goodbye. If you know me, you’ve probably suffered one of my dreadful parting burble-athons. And probably one of my oops-nearly-kissed-you-on-the-mouth, oh-god-that’s-your-actual-bum farewell hugs.

I reckon that’s why I’m so often the last woman standing (ok, ok, leaning) on a night out. Let everyone else make their cheery, graceful farewells. I’ll just keep on dancing.

So of course I’m gutted that the UK has had one too many jaegerbombs, been sick all down itself, and has staggered off early from the EU party, shouting and swearing, into the dodgy minicab being driven by Farage. Now all of us Brits have to make abrupt, fumbled goodbyes to our continental cousins, whether we wanted to or not. #Awkward.

And this forced goodbye is more than embarrassing. It leaves me feeling out of place, at odds with my nation and my countrymen. ‘It is part of morality not to feel at home in one’s home,’ wrote German thinker Theodore Adorno. That’s something I’d become numb to, in the expectation of the obvious, that we’d choose to stay at the EU discotheque a little longer.

I’ve been sealed in my social media bubble of Remain voters, many of them London-based economic migrants like me, who’ve made their home here because of work they couldn’t find where they grew up. I hadn’t realised the anger and fear crippling other parts of the country, where a raw deal is pinned on immigration.

I can understand how it’s easier to resent the stranger, than to handle being made to feel strange in the place you were born. But people who leave their homes in other parts of the world don’t do so lightly. And we as a nation have traipsed merrily all over this globe for hundreds of years, nicking stuff from other people’s homes, to build the country we see today. We can’t simply winch up the drawbridge of our muddy little island and retreat inside our Englishman’s home-is-his-castle.

We Brits need to remember how it feels to be without a home, to have forces bigger than your own world pulling it apart. Something our grandparents’ generation knew all about.

At dawn on June 16th 1944, on the other side of London, my grandmother Grace Grearson was curled up with my three-year-old uncle. It had been a night of bombing. She’d taken little Quentin into bed with her, to soothe him to sleep. Downstairs, her father, my great-grandfather George, was making tea in the kitchen. He called up to ask if she’d like any. She heard him nattering to the next-door neighbour.

I can only imagine how she felt having to write to her husband, serving in the Navy, to tell him what happened next:

Suddenly, there was this terrific crash, the windows blew out, the ceiling all fell down, and as I went to carry Quentin downstairs, I found only the top 2 or 3 stairs of the top flight and the back of the house nothing but a pile of rubble. I climbed down as best as I could – and it was agonising knowing that Dad was beneath it all […] He was killed instantly, thank God.

Her home and father lost to a flying bomb, Grace had a long, bitter slog to piece back together her life. She and my little uncle spent weeks sleeping in a friend’s bomb shelter, wearing borrowed clothes, while Grace salvaged what she could from the wreckage, and single-handedly found herself a new home, moving herself and Quentin away from the bombing. I exist only because she didn’t lay herself down on the rubble and refuse to get up. Her drive to rebuild her family has meant that my little girl, George’s great-great-grandaughter, is growing like a weed on the other side of the city where he died. And here and now, we have life, peace, and laughter: more than enough to share.

Home is being safe. Being able to walk your children to school. Sleeping at night without the fear that death is droning overhead, or coming to knock down your door. Home is being able to have your family together. Home is hard work, and looking after each other, but it’s also the space to think, to create. Home is the freedom to disagree and still love each other. More than that, it’s something we carry inside ourselves. Fairness and kindness and fun.

Britain is our home. It’s one that can only get better if we can welcome others in to make it theirs too. And we all help each other to make it the fairest, safest place we can.

Now, we face huge uncertainties that will make that harder than it’s ever been. I have no faith in those cynical and manipulative goons scrambling to be in charge.

So it’s up to us.  Time to get to work.

True nobility

SketchI’ve seen true nobility just a handful of times in my life. And each time, I’ve never wanted to see it again.

Nope, I haven’t stumbled across Prince Harry in a Chelsea kebab shop after a heavy night. True nobility has nothing to do with who your gran is, or how many anorexic lions jig about on your funny coloured shield.

True nobility is something you can only bear in flashes, like the sun in your eyes. I’ve only seen it when someone I love has had to stand up, walk past the coffin to face us all, and talk about the person we have lost.

It hurts, this impossible dignity. I don’t know if I could do it. To find the way to tell the story of one life, the evil puzzle of its end. To feel the animal howl of loss, and still say aloud the words that no-one ever wants to say. To stand up straight.

I’ve never felt pride like it, for that person speaking, for the person they are talking about. Pride so fierce I thought it would burst open the top of my skull. But I would happily never feel it again.

Too often in my life, we’ve had to say goodbye to someone who should have had more time. Who had to put up with the maddening ordeals that terminal disease brings. Whose time was stolen away because we still don’t know enough about cancer.

I ran a 10k Cancer Research Race for Life on Saturday. So far I’ve wussed out of the usual bragging spam about it on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve got that popularity contest paranoia that I’m not running 50 marathons in the mud in just my bra at night, so who cares?

But that’s not fair on everyone I ran for. It’s not fair on the people I’ve felt this unbearable pride for. Because only by understanding cancer can we make it into a disease of the past. We have to pay forward the love we’re left with, when someone leaves us, to make sure a future life isn’t lost in the same way.

So please, chuck a bit of cash to Cancer Research: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ruthgrearson

It’ll help bring us closer to a future without the unfairness of cancer.

When it comes to saying goodbye to those we love, there will always be that blazing pride. But the fierceness of that pride should be because the weight of their life in the world: full of people known, adventures had, laughter remembered.

Not because they left too soon.

 

 

 

 

Talents

Teatowel
Me, book: happy. Legs? Overrated.

I’m sitting crossed-legged in the school hall, the sun streaming through the long windows. The floorboards are hot to the touch, and the smell of polish is choking.

(If you scrape your fingernail just right, you can make a curl of varnish jump off the wood.)

Next to me, Elizabeth Makepeace is making sure the holes in her white socks run in perfect lines. Something stinks, somewhere. Probably Ciaran Jenkins has trodden in dog poo again.

Mr Haverty is telling us juniors about Jesus’s parable of the talents. How the clever servant was given five coins by his master, and used them to make five more. How the next-cleverest servant cottoned on to the plan, and turned his three coins into six. How the third, dim, servant buried his one coin in the ground, to keep it safe. The first two servants get big pats on the head. The last guy gets shown the door.

‘God has given us all special gifts,’ says Mr Haverty. ‘And we mustn’t hide them away. We must make our talents grow.’

Back then, it made perfect sense. Use it or lose it. Now, it seems pure Biblical The Apprentice. Complete with Lord Sugar’s pointing finger of doom. ‘You’re fired.’ (And they will cast him into the darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth).

When we were in Year 6, everybody knew what their special gift was. Robert Gregory could sing. Really sing. Laura Watts was the best goalie the school had seen in years. Kathryn Corrigan could play loads of musical instruments. Even that weird extra-big recorder thing.

Mine was that I could gulp stories like lemonade. And I could draw. I’d draw things for anyone who asked. ‘Will do you me a horse? A face? A crow?’ (Actually, the crow didn’t come out very well. My client wasn’t best pleased.)

My primary school made a teatowel for parents. We had to draw ourselves doing our favourite thing. Amongst all the kids playing football, netball, badminton, I’m sat reading at a table. I haven’t even bothered to draw myself any legs. Legs. Overrated.

Years later, I think about the servant who buried his coin. And I really feel where he’s coming from. I’m standing there with a shovel in my hand, thinking – ‘I’ll come back for that later. It’ll be safe there. But now I’ve got some serious work to do.’ And I went off to do everything else but the things I loved best.

A talent, something that you’re good at for no reason, something you love doing, may be a gift. But just because it comes naturally, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Making your talent sing is the hardest work you can ever do. Because it’s a part of who you are. You have to face down that awful black feeling when you get the yips and it’s just not going right. When you look at everyone else’s talents, stacked high and gleaming, and feel your own is a tarnished chip of tin, only fit to slip into the earth.

A friend of mine writes songs. He says the hardest thing is listening back to one of his songs, when everyone else is happily singing along. He’s the only one who can hear all the places it should be better, the note he fudged, the middle eight that sags, the lyric that jars. But he keeps writing, because the songs won’t leave him alone.

What the parable can’t explain is that talents have a funny way of springing up, regardless. Push them underground, and they grow roots.

After a long break from artwork, I started painting on trainers, to make a bit of money while looking after my baby. It made me dust off my paintbrushes and pencils. It sent the rust flaking from my fingers, and tested my eye, my ability to meet a brief. To create something that delights people. I’m always touched by the way my lovely customers react when they open their parcel in the post. It’s my dream to create that feeling on a wider scale, with books instead of shoes.

If there’s something you love, something that was your favourite thing to do as a kid, take five minutes now and do it. Pick up the pen and doodle, dust off the camera, shake that ass, throw your head back and sing your heart out. Go on. Please.

Because, trust me, it’s never too late to reach for the spade, and dig up what’s buried deep, longing to feel the sunshine.

Faces

Facebookdrawing
Face. Book. Arf arf.

When I was little, I saw faces everywhere. In the patterns of carpets and curtains, in the trunks of cherry trees. In our windows, where the stained glass panels watched us with jewelled eyes.

Cars had faces too, and could look cheerful or cross. Our old Triumph Dolomite had a squinty grin. Faces were always emerging from the woodwork. My Nanna’s wardrobe, the one that survived the blitz, was made of glossy walnut, with knots and whorls that made sad eyes and a sighing mouth.

Looking back, most of the faces I spotted came from the total bonkerness of 1980s interiors. Patterns chased each other all over our house. And the carpets. Cat-sick splurges of beige, rust and brown. In one patch, I saw a tribal chief with a feather headdress, and another, a gurning witch.

Seeing faces everywhere, I loved picturing the faces of the people I met in stories. And trying to draw them just felt right. Even now, with an idle biro in hand, before I realise it, I’ve doodled a face.

But aren’t we all drawn to faces? Aren’t we all hungry for them?

It’s what keeps us huddled around the glow of our phones into the small hours. Apparently, we upload about 1.8 billion photos to social media everyday. Of course there’ll be all the landscapes, and pictures of people’s food. But I’m betting those uploads are mainly mugshots.

I missed out on Facebook at university (just, ok?). I’m sure if we’d had it, the sales of the college Sports Teams Calendar 2003 would’ve been hit hard. Back then, images of faces were harder to come by, especially those faces you might have, you know, sort of, really liked to look at.

Now, we swipe through so many images on our touchscreens, they’re becoming throwaway. Definitely for Snapchatters. And we can curate them ourselves. How many hours are spent gazing at our own faces, refining the life we’re projecting, #nofilter?

I’m fascinated by the ‘what if?’ that hangs over our digital lives. What if the energy crisis hits, what if the plug is pulled? Where will it all go?

As someone who loves to draw faces, I could try and argue that a good illustration is better than another beautyface selfie. More durable. But although it takes more skill, and tries to capture the feeling, the story, behind the features, a drawing still falls short.

The best, most beautiful faces are the ones no image can capture, the faces before us when we close our eyes at night. The ones that you see clearest with your heart.

Should the lights go out, and the Cloud evaporate forever, those faces will still be there.

Reader vs. Runner

IMG_2030
Watching. Learning. Book sniffing.

Today I’ve been wandering the London Book Fair, as dazed as Alice in Wonderland.

Amid all the gloss and bustle, there was a reality check that stayed with me. Reading books is a minority pursuit, according to Nicola Solomon from the Society of Authors. Apparently, people who like to read manage about 19 minutes a day. Compare that to the 10 hours a day we all spend on our phones or tablets. And the numbers of children reading are continuing to fall.

Calls to get more kids reading used to wash over my book-nerd head. I thought it was like the fretting over children’s levels of exercise, the need for them to move more. Some people like reading, some just don’t. Some are mad on sport, some aren’t. How much can you make someone like something they don’t like? Something that doesn’t come naturally to them?

I read without thought, without effort. It’s a complete reflex and pleasure. But ever since my first sports day, I’ve been a shambles at moving about in the world. In my sixth form common room everyone would hit the decks whenever I tried to throw my sandwich foil in the bin. And how I hated running. It was torture.

When my aunt died, I made myself run a 5K Race for Life. It took three bras and a lot of pounding beats to get my legs to work.

And yet. For someone that still thinks the best run is one that is OVER, I find myself running more and more often. For longer and longer. And I realise I’m utterly wrong about liking things despite yourself.

Because I’ve come to realise how brilliant it feels to slog through that voice. You know, the snaky one that says, ‘You’re rubbish at this. You’ll never be any good. Give up.’

Too often, when we’re younger, us girls don’t get the chances to stay active in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves. To make us feel strong and alive. Our bodies can achieve the most exhilarating things. They are not just surfaces to be looked at.

Sticking out the physical pain of exercise makes us stronger. Sticking with reading makes us stronger too, in a different way. We get stories. We get more ways to think of ourselves and others. We get more experiences than one life can hold. We get to imagine different futures. We don’t have to be trapped by other people’s words. We can tell the voice in our heads to shut up, and keep going anyway.

Hangovers

IMG_4216
Bellenda. Quite.

I have a theory that most British people are naturally two drinks soberer than everyone else. Two drinks down, we’re our best selves, happy in our own skins, confident enough to chat to strangers, be funny. Dance. Or is that just me?

People from other parts of the world aren’t like this. Ten years ago I was living in Nigeria. Many of my Nigerian mates didn’t drink at all. They didn’t need alcohol to let themselves have a blast. There would be times when a gang of us roared with laughter down the street, singing and joking and being VERY LOUD. We must’ve looked hammered, but we were all stone cold sober. Fun was just a lot nearer the surface, all the time.

Back here on our cold, grey, island, it seems we’ve always had a drinking problem. It’s woven into our culture. In Othello, Shakespeare plays the crowd, getting Iago to big up the English talent for boozing. In the 18th century, not long before my current story is set, crowds marched on Westminster to protest new gin laws, shouting ‘No Gin, no King!’ The need for alcohol, and the worry about it, are old news.

I once walked back home along Clapham High Street at 2am on a Saturday night. It looked a lot like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Or 28 days later. I stepped in pretty much every kind of bodily fluid. The weekend bursts into misrule, because we button ourselves down so much during the week. The price of control is the longing to lose it. We want to find that happy, confident place, because of all the things we bite down, hold back. All the places that life rubs and pinches. Our creeping fears and hidden bruises.

In my heartbroken early twenties, I’d get back from a night out and fill half a notebook with tipsy scrawling. Most of it toe-curling ‘poetry’ (wince). But the urge to write it was unstoppable, like vomiting.

For all its awfulness, it was the other, better way of dealing with what hurts. Working pain into words, rather than trying to soak it away. Putting it down. ‘Oh God! That men should put an enemy in their mouths, to steal away their brains,’ moans Cassio (Othello again). How many of us felt like that this morning? Our hurts aren’t ours alone. And if a record, a tidemark of experience, can help us make sense of ourselves, it might help someone else too.

I should have made this confession earlier. I’m pretty hung over today. But tonight, I’ll leave the glass of wine with dinner, and crack open my laptop instead.

Breaking the Rules

Red on the Heath
A more successful girl on the run.

I’m rubbish at breaking the rules.

My aunt says that when I was seven, she found me loitering at the corner of my street, looking puffy-faced and cross.  She asked me what was up.

‘I’m running away from home!’ I said.

‘Oh,’ she said mildly, being all Canadian about it. ‘Well, you haven’t got very far.’

‘I know…’ I scuffed my shoe on the pavement. ‘I’m not allowed to cross the road by myself.’

Nine years on, I wasn’t having any teenage rebellions. My actual Mum was my head of sixth form.

(I know. It explains a lot.)

So it surprises me more than anyone that I’m writing the story of a girl who’s an out-and-out lawbreaker. Someone who refuses to be bound by the rules that would keep her where she belongs: powerless.

I am fascinated by what people do when the rules aren’t fair. When they are broken down. When they exist only to break you.

In the late 1700s, for many people, life in and around London was tough. Violence was a fact of life. Crime was widespread, and theft a daily reality. There was no police force as we’d know it today, and to find and convict offenders was often difficult. The answer of those in charge was to make punishment as crushing as possible. Crowds would watch people hung, whipped, or stood in the pillory to be pelted with stones and shit. The message was clear. Break the law, and we’ll break you.

In law, as in wider society, women had their very own iron cage of rules. Once she was married, everything a woman owned became the legal property of her husband. If a wife killed her husband, it was called ‘petty treason’, and considered worse than murder, because he was her superior. It had a special punishment of being burned at the stake, rather than the usual hanging.

In this unruly world, harsh punishment and wild lawlessness writhe and coil around each other like fighting snakes. It’s against all this that my character Red has to fight. She has to trample over the rules, to carve out a life that’s hers, when everyone else wants to use those rules to tear her down.

I’m fighting with her. Rules are rules. But they aren’t always right.

Because of you

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‘I’m a witch… When it’s nobody else’s business, it’s my business.’

Before all of my boyfriends (even Robert Gregory, age 10), my heart belonged to Terry Pratchett.

‘It’s good,’ said James McConville, in Year Six, about Diggers. ‘But it’s hard.’

I opened the first page, cautiously, expecting mind-fog and bafflement. Instead, there it was. That warm, funny voice, talking to me. It would talk to me for the next twenty-three years, until Terry died, this time last year.

He gave me some of the best friends I never met, in worlds we made together in my head. He said ‘bugger’. In print! He made me laugh myself sensible. Made me need stories like I needed to breathe. I had to chase Sam Vimes along the streets of Ankh-Morpork, until the words went blurry at 2am. I’d reach for the book as soon as I woke up the next morning.

I’m only sorry that the price of his remarkable mind was that he had to leave far too soon. And now it’s up to the rest of us to be as wise, as gleeful, as fun. Gulp.

My books aren’t in the libraries yet, Terry. But maybe they exist in L-space, home to all the books that were ever written, and all the books that ever will be written. Maybe the Librarian’s handed you one of mine right now, with a gentle Oook.

If so, you have to know one thing. It’s only there because of you.

We could be heroes

Red for course book
1780s hoody.

2016 has begun with a stream of goodbyes: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Maurice White, Terry Wogan, Harper Lee.

People well-known, in this corner of the world at least. Remarkable for the talents they shared with us. Music, ideas, fun. Languid … diction. Gifts we can still hold tight, even though their givers are gone.

Celebrities are a bit like your favourite book characters: we’re drawn to them; we know their names, their voices. What they have to say feels like it’s just for you. But they will never know you in the same way. Often they have no idea you’re even watching. Even though it’s so one-sided, we follow their stories. We burn to know what’s going on. What’s going to happen next?

What’s next for me might seem like the dusty past. I’m deep in London in the 1780s, writing my next book, about a girl who’s on the run as a highway robber. It’s a story that’s bursting to get out of my head.

My girl’s a firework. There’s no way she can live as she aches to, and she can never be with the one she loves. Losing her father puts her life in danger, and her future starts to close around her like a trap. So she breaks out. But how long can she stay free?

A hero’s story rings out. It leaves us seeing things differently.

Long after the song is over, the echoes murmur to us. We could be heroes too.