London

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Scribbly St Paul’s, February

‘London? Hate it,’ said my Uncle Bernard once, with the magnificent contempt of a true-born son of Coventry. ‘Dirty. Grubby. Horrible place.’

Of my five uncles, Bernard’s the one that wears bow-ties and does a faultless Donald Duck impression. He’s not a man to be doubted.

Lots of people at home would agree with him. Nowhere worse than cocky, cockney London. (Except, of course, Leicester.)

It was only after I moved there, years later, that I discovered the weirdest thing.

The place Uncle Bernard hates doesn’t actually exist. London is a composite image, one of those pictures made up of lots of tiny photos. The closer you get to it, the more it disintegrates into a million pixels. It’s a mirage, our capital, a slew of smashed-together villages and towns, a patchwork of many places adding up to something both more, and less, than one city. Uncle Bernard couldn’t have spent much time in leafy Hampstead or pristine Barnes or well-heeled Dulwich and come away with his slur intact. (He could in Morden. Morden reminds me a lot of Leicester.)

Staying with friends after university, the glimpses I snatched of this ancient mirage seemed impossibly forlorn. Looking back, this is probably a sign I spent far too much time in Inferno’s on Clapham High Street. ‘London’ was grand, and shabby, and utterly indifferent. I did not belong. Only by living here did I realise: not belonging is the way that this place makes you feel at home.

Lately, I have seamed the city with my steps, stitching east to west, morning and night. Along the way, I’ve discovered pockets of newness, postcodes passed through for the first time. As they always do, these patches of London splice many times and ideas together, council flats stacked against regency stucco, strident shop signs under tired Edwardian terraces. One bus journey holds scruffy libraries, turreted schools, and blond-wood, bare-brick sourdough pizza joints. An architectural procession of preening and neglect. Endless half-familiar streets, all laced with trees, the veins and capillaries of the city.

London is a patchwork sewn together by the minds that thrum here. There are as many Londons as there are pairs of eyes, opening to see her. My London is haunted by the ghosts of other cities: Singapore, Glasgow; Paris, Berlin; Birmingham, Bath, Lagos. Snatches of my own past, handed back to me, by this huge old sponge of a place, which turns to stone under the weight of our steps. A fractured coral reef, grown from lives lived over the top of those that have gone before.

I don’t know how much longer I can cling on to my London, this kleptomaniac old dame. She kisses you with lights by the river, the sea on her breath, picking your pockets with both hands. I don’t have the golden pickaxe to hack out a little piece of her, so I’ll carry on borrowing my time here, along with everyone else who sticks to her skin.

That skin. It’s beyond airbrushing. You can’t shut out the pores on her nose, nor the cracks in her teeth. She doesn’t care what you see. There is the glory of upflung stone, the soaring bright glass. And underfoot, the pavements pocked with gum, the things people let fall. The things they don’t want.

Where you are is always a part of who you are. Right now, I’m a mudlark, combing the river, scavenging meaning from whatever the day washes up. Noticing the things no-one else has time to see. Holding tight to moments that others step over, fragments of the city falling off the backs that hurry away. I’m putting them in my pockets for later. When I can tap people on the shoulder and say: Sorry, excuse me? Sorry. You dropped this. Yes, I saw it. Here you go. Yes. It’s yours.

For the Love of Trees

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Oh, trees. You had no chance.

I ache in April, when tart green leaves uncurl, and the trees begin to breathe again.

I love trees. But I doubt they feel the same, not at the rate I make them dead. Ever since I first held a crayon, I’ve laid waste to forests of paper.

Last week, my heart full of April, I did a watercolour of spring leaves. I realised afterwards that this was a bit like painting a baby’s portrait, using skin flayed from dearly departed Great Aunt Aspidistra.

I’ve scribbled through seven notebooks since 2017 started, not counting my sketchpads, or my diary. I’ve printed off miles of HP Everyday. Right now I’m writing, surrounded by shelves bearing a lifetime’s collection of mashed tree-corpse. My words float on a screen largely powered by burnt fossilised wood. And I have the temerity to want to knit these words into more books. Sorry, trees. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

I’m not alone in my hunger for paper. In the UK last year, over 200,000 new books a year were published, more than ever before. Even as writers starting out, like me, complain about how difficult it is to Get Published. On top of the commercially published titles, access to digital printing has made it easy for people to go it alone and self-publish. Who wouldn’t want to give E.L James a run for her Fifty Shades money? Tens of thousands of people try.

I’m going to say something others in my boat rarely say. (And if they tip me out, that’s fair enough). Thank goodness it’s hard, this Getting Published. It should be difficult to kill trees with your ideas.

And thank goodness for the long chain of (largely) passionate and talented people that link writers with the printed page. For the literary agents and the editors and the marketing teams and the booksellers, who want no tree to die in vain. Who want dead trees to bear words that will take hold of people, steal time from their busy lives, give them something irreplaceable. Something worth the arboricide. And yes, something that makes money. That recoups the time and skill and capital it’s taken, to see those words in print.

Often, writers like me, looking to Get Published, see publishing professionals as obstacles. A long line of gatekeepers, slamming the door in our faces. I like to think of them as the guardians of the forests that would otherwise perish, and leave us standing on a bald globe, with way too many weird and wonky books to read before the sun fries us to death.

I promise you this, tree-huggers. I’m not going to publish anything myself. You won’t find my baggy manuscript wearing a book-jacket on Amazon, just because I’ve decided you want to read it. It takes a team of hardworking, creative people to craft a book into the best version of itself it can be. And unless someone else thinks my story is worth working on too, I’m going to keep it firmly to myself. For the love of trees.

Unlooked-for Gifts

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Diolch, Ese, Xiexie, Tak, Na gode…

Today I scored a free lunch in one of my favourite writing places, the newly refurbished Bush Theatre.

‘Just one of those things,’ the bar guy shrugged, bringing me a (cracking) pastrami bagel. ‘Weird morning.’

Free stuff! Free stuff never happens to me. I’m the kind of person who’s always delighted to pay. I say ‘thanks’ at least ten times in any given transaction. (It’s my ambition to know how to say ‘thank-you’ in all the languages of the world. So far I’m at 47).

I’m rubbish at wangling freebies because I never feel like life owes me anything. It’s the total opposite. My life has been one long procession of unlooked-for gifts. Not least the most unlooked-for, most fundamental gift of all: the fact I’m here in the first place.

So many unlooked-for gifts, a long string of bead-bright flukes. Being born in peacetime twenty-first century Britain. To my parents, who not only had the means to look after me, but who are, more importantly, the best of eggs. My farmer’s-wife constitution. My brilliant tribes of family and friends. My remarkable daughter. Gifts given with pure lottery abandon. Not because I’ve deserved them. They aren’t anything to do with merit. They are utter mysteries. No wonder I’m a serial thanker.

So I need all 47 of my words for ‘thank you’ to do honour to the generosity of everyone who’s coughed up for Cancer Research UK, on account of me running the Coventry half marathon. You helped me smash my target. Thank you all so, so much. I can’t tell you how deeply I appreciate every penny.

I ran a half marathon for Cancer Research because the trouble with unlooked-for gifts is that we never know when they will be taken away. When our grip on the hand we love best will fail. When our bodies will mutiny against us. When someone will drive a car onto a pavement. The morning you’ll leave for work, and never come home again.

I ran because sometimes the weight of our unlooked-for gifts is almost more than we can bear. I have needed running, something I once hated, this dark winter. Some days the only thing stitching me together has been the pounding of my trainers on the pavement. The unlooked-for gift gained from running further has been a stronger body. At times, that physical strength has been all that’s carried the rest of me through the day.

This week, us Londoners are holding our dearest ones a little tighter. And we’re reminded of the only thing to do, when the gifts fall from our hands. When the price of our love is exacted, as it always will be, in its loss.

We have to take the chaotic, the uncaring, the senseless, and weave meaning from it. Make it matter. Take a new bright bead and string it on the thread. Watch it gleam there. Another unlooked-for gift.

If everybody looked the same…

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…we’d get tired of looking at each other

We all need to have the experience of walking into a room, or a town, or a whole region, and being the one human who looks different to everyone else there. To be the one sticking out like a sore thumb, purely because of the body we’re walking around in.

In Ruth’s Entirely Reasonable Programme for Being A Person, this sore-thumb experience is non-negotiable. (That, and an hour’s exercise EVERY DAY. Miss Bevis, my old P.E. teacher, would be proud. If incredulous).

Every one of us needs to know how it feels to be stared at, commented on, to feel your strangeness made visible. To want to peel off your skin and put on the same one as everyone else. Just to stop it speaking for you, before you get the chance to open your mouth. We need to realise how helpless we all are to the ways in which the world reads us, the meaning that is given to our outsides. The way all our bodies are tangled in webs of caricature and stereotype.

In Nigeria, I used to long to be able to step out of my pointy-nose Oyinbo hide. To walk into the market in Akure, without the handicap of flaming otherness. To be free of the exhausting enterprise of managing what I meant to others. Of the effort to make sense to people: explain myself. Having been sealed up on the inside of my own body, I vowed I’d never read others from the surface again.

White British people, people with skin the same weak-tea colour as mine, can react in funny ways when it’s their turn to become burning beacons of difference. They can get indignant. Feeling seen disrupts their sense of the white self as a transparent window onto the world. Everything they’ve absorbed on this small island from the magazine covers, the cultural establishment, the juggernaut of imperial history, that decrees that beigey people are the invisible, universal norm.

As if, in the UK, people with more melanin in their skin are the only ones whose outsides are dense with meaning. As if their ‘diversity’ lies like a gauze between them and the world. As if there aren’t as many universal norms as there are humans on the planet. In Ruth’s Entirely Reasonable Programme, I’d take anyone spouting racist abuse and put them into the crowds in Karachi, Lagos, Jakarta, Beijing. Let them know what it feels like to be seen purely from the outside.

Ruth’s Entirely Reasonable graduates would know that we need to find less claustrophobic ways of being people in the world. All of us are prisoners of the ridiculous accident of being born who we are. We owe each other the courtesy of really paying each other attention.

Today, Valentine’s Day, when our particular loves are mass-marketed a red sea of tat, I’ll be looking at every face on the tube, on the bus, on the street, with extra care. (Yep. I know. If I don’t get punched, it’s a miracle.) I’ll look at them like I do when I’m drawing. With the gaze of a lover, seeing all the ways the most-loved face is precisely itself.

Because the only way past the inescapable surface is to look at it as closely as possible. To recognize the fact that none of us alive look the same, no matter what our tribe, our type, our tint. We need to be able to see each other as our families see us, how we were looked at when we were newborn. See that we’re nothing but a collection of sore thumbs, each one irreplaceable, sticking out together.

Beginnings

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In the bleak midwinter…

OK, calendar geeks. This one’s for you.

I know it’s probably got something to do with an old pope called Greg, but why do we start our year today? Where, on my muddy little island at least, we are stranded in the cold, dead heart of winter. In the northern half of the world, everything is stopped. Outside, it’s damp, chill, corpse-grey.

Why doesn’t our new year start when the life rushes back into the world? When sleeping buds wake, and leaves uncurl to taste the light, and the air is alive with zooming things?

Maybe it’s because spring makes beginnings feel too easy. Newness, spilling out everywhere, unstoppable as the dawn, as breathing out.

Beginnings aren’t easy. They can feel like the end of the world. Things only grow when the sun comes back because they refused to die in the dark and the cold. Beginnings happen underground, in the silence, where no-one can see. When everything feels as dead as it could ever be.

When I started wittering online early in 2016, I’d thought that by now I’d look back, from the high-point of my current story, and be able to map how it had begun. But instead, the whole year has been me starting and re-starting, burrowing into it like a spiral, going further back and deeper down, always beginning again, and again, and again. Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself in a forest dark / for the straightforward pathway had been lost. Damn straight, Dante. No way out of the trees but through them.

As I go on starting again, I think about my grandmother’s oil paints, bright under clingfilm on the palette, how it felt to squidge them with my finger. I think about my grandfather, writing as his seven kids tumbled about him: how though I never met him, I hear his voice telling me about a two-day walk to London, looking for work. I think of my little, kind Nanna, the expert small-child-wrangler, always only ever two heartbeats away from spinning us a yarn. About my other granddad, who laced wide ribbons around the globe as a naval engineer, all the places he set his face to, far from home.

And I think about how everything I begin had its seeds planted long ago. How so much of our stories start before we are even born. All we get to do, if we get enough new years of our own, is carry them on.

So today, as the rain falls into another dull morning, we start again. It looks as if nothing much is different, but everything has changed. It’s 2017. Time to begin.

 

 

Tribes

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Hands up who loves notebooks?

I’ve been lucky enough to have had many tribes over the years. A fair few more than the ones I was born into, clan Grearson and the Poole horde.

There’s my Schoolgirl Six. My jaeger-fuelled Queens’ lot, and their counterpart, my adoptive SPC massive. My volunteering gang. My Nigerian family. My VSO vintage workmates. The huge web of love drawn tight around my little girl.

So many of my facebook photos are of my pea-head cheesing out of group shots, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But lately, for work, I’ve been a lone wolf. Obsessively drawn to stuff that can’t be delegated, that no-one else can do. My paintbrush, my business. My words.

So it felt brilliant to find my latest tribe, two weekends ago, at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference: story-telling nerds like me, all of us gathered in suspiciously beautiful Winchester. (I talk a bit more about it for their online magazine, Words and Pictures, here.) There were talks, workshops, critiques. There was a book launch. And fancy dress. But better than that, there were so many friendly faces. Everyone I spoke to was warm, kind, and hugely passionate.

My personal highlight had to be David Almond, author of the aching Skellig and one of my top five Geordies, talking to us about the uncertain adventure of making books, in his words, those ‘half-real, half imaginary’ things.

A life spent writing and illustrating can feel half-real, half-imaginary. Us fabricants make things exist that weren’t there before. We spend a lot of time hearing voices in our heads, seeing things that aren’t there. And for everyone still to get their words or pictures out into the world, you can’t help feeling a bit fictional yourself. Sometimes I feel like the tiny people living on a speck of dust in Dr Seuss’s story, who must yell out to prove they exist, or they’ll get boiled in Beezle-Oil. I AM HERE, outside world, honest.

Part of it is having the swagger to own a label. Like Ashley and Jerwayne say in Phone Shop: ‘If man say ‘im a ting, ‘im a ting.’ You write? You’re a writer. For me, one of the best gifts of the SCBWI conference was simply being able to be there. To feel seen. And to get in another group photo, obvs.

Before something can be real in the world, it must be imagined. David Almond talked about his boy self, going into Felling library in Newcastle, and picturing the day when he’d take down a book from the shelves and see the words ‘by David Almond’ on the cover. Today he can do just that.

Writing a book is an act of optimism, he told us. An act of love. As I stagger on with my current story, getting ever deeper into the woods, I know what he means. So do many of the people I met in Winchester, the other lone wolves of my pack.

Like love, a story is a gift that gives itself because it must. Your whole world, laid in a basket of bulrushes, and pushed out into the reeds.

Winchester

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Yay! (Image: SCBWI BI)

There’s only one thing more pretentious than a comedian explaining why things are funny. And that’s a writer, wanging on about writing.

It’s deeply interesting to a tiny handful of people and dull as frick to everyone else. Like the average Oscars acceptance speech, or those interminable wedding thank yous. (NO ONE CARES who made your cake. Is it time for dancing yet?)

But you’ll have to allow me this nerdy work post. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t be writing it, but the truth is, I’ve got a debt of honour to repay. To the memory of a lady called Margaret Carey, a lifelong volunteer for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, otherwise know as SCBWI. I won an award in her honour to go to SCBWI’s annual conference tomorrow, and without that, it would be impossible for me to be there. So, thank you again, SCBWI.

Last time I was more than one night away for work, it was 2007. I spent 15 days interviewing health professionals volunteering with VSO in remote Indonesian islands. This weekend, I get to meet fellow story junkies, children’s writers and illustrators, in Winchester. I’m possibly more excited now than I was then.

Winchester is a venerable old place that, somehow, I’ve never been to before. So, like the conference itself, I’m hoping that it will feel like discovery and homecoming at the same time.

I’ll be posting about the conference again afterwards, to share with everyone like me, who had that nose-pressed-to-the-sweet-shop feeling watching the line up take shape. For those folk currently writing alone behind a laptop, who’d love to hear David Almond talk, or get the chance to shake up their characters, or hear some good advice on getting published and staying published.

I must be a pretty unoriginal kind of soul. The things I’ve loved, that have drawn me to do them, have drawn thousands of others too. You want to study what, where? You fancy working in that, do you? You want to write for who now? Join the queue, pal. But if it feels like you don’t have a choice, you have to do it or you’ll burst, well, what’s life but one big queue anyway?

I think writers shouldn’t waste their energies seeing each other as the competition. (Easy for you to say, scholarship winner, you may well think). The only competition a writer should feel is with themselves. To strive to tell the best story they can. Children’s writers most of all, because their readers have to make so much more effort. Young readers deserve the funniest, wisest, most exciting, most valuable, most beautiful ideas we’ve got. If those ideas are good enough, they’ll inform the minds that build our future. And right now, that feels more important than ever.

Arguments

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Hands off my Furby, Donald!

Remember those arguments you used to get trapped in as a kid?

The ones that you had to keep going at, like picking a scab, even though it hurt and it was making everything worse, and you were going to end up with a horrible weeping mess afterwards.

 

Arguments about property. ‘That’s MY Furby!”

About boundaries. ‘No girls in this den!’

About truth. ‘Your Dad’s not really a racing driver.’

About honour. ‘But you promised!’

Right now it feels a little like the world is watching one of those arguments. Instead of two six-year-olds in a primary school playground, it’s the presidential candidates of the United States of America.

If he loses, Donald’ll be turning to the appeal courts, all: ‘Moh-oh-ohm. They didn’t vote for me. TELL them!’

Like the time Laura Watts put Jackie Noonan in the big bin outside Mrs Turner’s class, there’s no way this argument can end well. Never before has the debate felt so claustrophobic, nor the two sides so close, in being so bitterly divided. Never have such unpopular, imperfect candidates been so inflated by the anger of the people they seek to lead. Anger poured into binaries: truth and lies, black and white, for us, against us.

Anger is necessary. There is a lot to be angry about in America right now. But just shouting louder at each other achieves nothing. Like the EU referendum, the way people will vote depends on what’s real for them. What they, through their lived experiences, hold to be true, and how that fits with the pictures in their mind of the US and its future.

So much of the way we see the world, our self-evident truths, are sculpted from the place and time in which we’re born. You feel it best if you’ve ever gone somewhere new to live, felt out of place. Made the effort it takes to make sense to people, to explain yourself. You see that values come from a tapestry of experience only possible in one particular place, at one particular time. How meaning is sliced differently, even if you’re using the same words. Something I encountered working in Ibadan years ago.

‘Open-minded’, the way many of my Nigerian friends and colleagues used it, meant ‘outspoken’: sharing what’s on your mind, giving your opinion. Whereas most British people would use it to mean ‘trying to see both sides of an argument’: not making up your mind, listening to a different point of view.

The same phrase. Two different meanings. Crossed wires. Confusion. Incomprehension. But you can’t know what you don’t know, until you talk about it. (And boy, did we.)

‘The trouble with having an open mind, of course,’ said Terry Pratchett, working in the British idiom, ‘is that other people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.’

Anger deserves open-mindedness, in both Nigerian and British senses. People need to speak up: people need to listen. Anger needs more than infantile argument. It needs to tell its story.

Stories are the opposite of arguments. They keep us grazing the edges of our own beliefs and assumptions. To help us see what’s already in our so-called open mind. And to check whether it really ought to be there.

When we’re sucked into a story, we see through someone else’s eyes. We make the leap into another person’s skin, their world. We get to feel it from the inside. We get another reality to the one we’ve just so happened to be born into. We get practise at seeing things from another point of view. I think this makes us better people.

On Wednesday, the anger won’t be going anywhere. But the argument has to end, and the hard work of understanding begin, for the sake of the story every American is living. No matter how hateful their words, pages that get ripped out can never be rewritten.

When it hurts

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When it hurts: apply notebooks.

I had a brilliant surprise last week. I won a scholarship to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in November. I sent them a chapter of my story about Petrel, the girl with a deeply weird problem: spiders keep talking to her. And SCBWI liked it. Enough to get me along to a weekend of invaluable professional learning: character workshops, critiques, talks by heroes of mine like David Almond. (Oh, and a fancy dress party.)

I’m glowing with this investment. Thank you, SCBWI. You better be sure I’ll graft as hard as I can to honour it.

As Haiti picks itself up after Hurricane Matthew, as Syria continues to collapse in on itself, as the world waits to see whether a cartoon character will become US President, I can see how a weekend talking children’s fiction could seem cosy. Self-indulgent.

But when the darkness gathers, when the storm looms: that’s when we need stories the most. We need voices raised against the howling wind. They give us different worlds to the one we’ve been handed, more ways to imagine other, better futures. They can keep our dreams safe until the world is ready to see them built.

This is all the more important for children, whose minds will shape the tomorrows I’ll never see. They deserve not to feel trapped in the story they’ve arrived in, not to feel like there’s no way out. They deserve to know that when you feel like you have no choices, you can always choose your words.

An organisation who knows the power of this for young people is First Story. They help school kids, those who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance, to get writing. To see the value of their own experiences, find their own voices. I’m really proud to be working with them over the next few weeks, getting secondary schools involved in their National Writing Competition.

And today, World Mental Health Day, this work feels more important than ever. Especially given recent findings that mental health problems among teenage girls are on the rise.

Teenage girls are close to my heart. I’ve been one. Still am in many ways. I know about wordless compulsions, how it feels to etch your self-hatred on your surfaces. How it feels to be constantly losing the unspoken wars of purity and disgust. I know the silent girls, who say nothing, and the gobby girls, who say everything except what really matters.

One article suggested that by talking about young women’s mental illhealth we normalise it. I don’t know about that. When silence reinforces suffering, it must be broken. And since when is happiness the norm of human experience?

What I do know is that we should talk more with young women and men about the art of facing each day. Surviving life, when it hurts. Because it will. Where there is happiness, there is nothing to say. Joy is mute. But pain sings. It must have a voice.

I didn’t realise, when I was younger, that thin paper and cheap biro were not only getting me through the aching business of life. The sentences scribbled in the margins of my life, on trains, sitting in stairwells, jolting on buses, would keep carrying me through, long after the crises had passed. I had to weave with the threads I’d been handed, but the pattern was mine.

So I would say, to souls younger than mine: look for your words to bear life. They won’t make it hurt any less. They won’t diminish your struggles. They will be words of love and pain, braided together, as love and pain always are.

Those words. At first they feel heavy, dragging like chains. But they grow lighter, the more you carry them.

You’ll need them again and again. Bind them bright over your brow; sling them over your shoulders. They’ll be your chainmail, your armour. Your whole life you’ll be making more.

Wear them all, and it won’t matter that the night draws closer, that your story must end. You’ll step bright as steel into the evening, and go golden into the dark.