Roots

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Memorial Park, Coventry, by Peter Crowley.

One sunny Saturday when I was seven, a completely new feeling hit me, right in the middle of going downstairs. I was so full of it I had to sit down. Mum found me and wondered what was wrong.

‘I’ve got a funny feeling,’ I told her.

‘What kind of funny feeling?’ she asked.

‘A sad one,’ I said, hands pressed to my chest. ‘Like I miss something.’

‘Hmm,’ said Mum. ‘Sounds a bit like homesickness.’

I was puzzled. How could I be homesick? I was home.

But the longing was there all the same. It had found me, in the middle of that sunshine, that no-school freedom, that afternoon playing Lego with my sister. I realise now that feeling was of loss-to-come. Some moments mean so much that you miss them, even while they’re happening.

I felt the opposite feeling this week. Homesickness doesn’t really have an antonym. Home-wellness? You know, the feeling you have when you’re in a place that’s really yours.  It’s nothing to do with deeds or mortgages, that feeling. It’s more about places that have held you, that know you.

I was running under the beeches in the park at the end of the street I grew up on. I felt lighter and stronger, each step faster, just because I was there, passing the trees that are wardens of my childhood. Trees that watched me ride my first bike, push my little cousin in her pram, sit with my sketchpad. We have grown taller and thicker together, me and these trees. It probably looks nothing special to anyone else, these few green acres of Coventry park, but this is my place. It is a place that breathes into me.

Coventry is a hard place to be from. It’s not just that it doesn’t like to let you leave. Maybe it’s because it’s right in the navel of the country, but it seems to have a weirdly strong gravity. Coventry throws ‘em out for a while, but its kids tend to boomerang back home.

Coventry is hard, at least to me, probably its sappiest daughter. It’s hard to look at, in places. It’s had hard times. At school, if people called you ‘hard’, you’d made it. It’s hard for strangers to drive around its bonkers ring road. But there’s something to be proud of in its hardness. The blitz hit out its front teeth. Macroeconomics made it the Specials’ ghost town. Now, the cranes are busy again on that old skyline with its three spires. Coventry is a place that has had to get back up, time and again.

My park is Coventry’s memorial to the Great War, planted in a softer time, when the city took loss and death, and turned it into grace, creating a place that grows and breathes. At the foot of each tree is a plaque, which bears the name of a fallen son of the city. A hundred years ago right now, numberless young lives were forever lost in the trenches of France. In their memory, there is a place for families to potter and dogs to race in the sun, where you can swing a golf club or play five-a-side. A place that watches its people grow up, safe in the privilege of peace: to forget.

As ceasefire teeters in Syria, I hope that in a hundred years there will be a war memorial park in Aleppo, a far older and grander city being torn further apart every day. And that there, people will know what it is to have got back up again, to have rebuilt everything they lost in 2016. There will be somewhere to fall quiet under the cedars, crickets singing as the heat fades. Where children play in the shade, instead of being pulled from the rubble.

In 2116, who knows what will be left of my place. Maybe nothing but more clay brick houses pulled from the heart of the country. Or maybe the trees run wild, and stumbling into the forest one day, an intrepid kid sees the stone square the oldest beech has grown around, and wonders what it is for.

In these places, there is bliss in forgetting. Feeling the ache of loss-to-come and letting it go. Over us all, the leaves shiver in the sunlight. Underneath our feet, the roots run deep, knitting together the broken ground.

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Blind

beautiful
Dear Fairy Godmother…

This summer was supposed to be the first in a long time that I felt ok about wearing a bikini.

Didn’t quite happen. Because, like many a girl from my part of the world, I wear my burkha on the inside.

We all know how we’re supposed to look. Stomach: a taut stretch from rippling ribs to jutting hip bones. Breasts: high and proud. Limbs: long, strong and smooth as butter.

That wasn’t what I saw in the mirror. So, back into the old black swimming costume.

Sometimes, it would be a relief to cover myself from head to toe. To hide from the bullying gaze of my inner Heat magazine, that only ever sees all the ways my lived-in body invites contempt. As if loathing could lazer away your physical flaws, when all it does is uglify your mind.

My insecurities are my own, but they’re far from unique. I’m sure hardly anyone looks at themselves in beachwear and truly loves what they see.

The question is, why need such bulletproof self-regard, just to feel the sun on your skin?

In the UK, we may throw our hands up at the French police, making Muslim women strip at gunpoint on the beach. Showing the same kind of force as the Iranian religious authorities when they arrest women for immodest dress.

But in our gawping society, female bodies exist on the same axis of desire or revulsion. They are never just the way we are anchored in the world.

We’re long used to the idea that women dress for a reaction. Take Cinderella. The original makeover story. Cinders is transformed by a magic frock: a frock so damn fine the Prince is helpless, overwhelmed with attraction. It’s not a million miles away from the queasy old argument that a girl wearing a certain kind of clothes is to blame for someone else’s lustful violence. That she was ‘asking for it’.

There’s a story that’s been floating after me for the better part of two years. I feel it calling when I walk along the Uxbridge Road, passing the local masjid with bare arms. I feel it when I cross the school playground with my daughter, and wonder what the Somali mums think of me with my hair blowing madly in the wind.

It’s a what-if tale. Aimed at anyone that’s telling anyone else what and how they should put over their body.

What if the rules didn’t apply to the looked-at?

What they were only for the looker?

My story’s set in an alternative present, in a religious society which tells people the old story about the danger of bodies. Women can’t be looked upon by men: men can’t be trusted to control their lust. But in this world, power is split differently, and there’s only one logical solution.

If they’re going beyond the family compound, men must cover their eyes.

For, after all, if your right eye causes you to sin, it is better to pluck it out…

My story is about a girl whose father is blinded in a fundamentalist attack, and her fight for justice. For a world in which people see each other as human beings.

When we’re policed as prisoners of the flesh, we lose the ability to look each other in the eye. To see past the marvelous, ridiculous, flawed and brilliant bodies we are accidentally moored within. To the life that leaves everyone in the end.

When we lose sight of that, we’re all blind.

Time

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Tamagotchi. Never had one.

When I was little, my parents were always a bit baffled by the kid’s need for stuff. I never got the Keepers, the Boglins or the Gameboys that everyone else seemed to. (At least, that’s how I remember it. My little sister, who had an avalanche of cuddly toys, and a Tamagotchi that Dad queued for at 5am outside Toys-R-Us, might have a different take on things).

Tamagotchi aside, my parents never really cared about giving us things. But they cared so much about giving us experiences. I still remember the first concert Dad took me to. The way Mum showed me how to draw shoulders. Fireworks over Kenilworth Castle. Pink sand between my toes. Watching a foal being born. Stray cats gathering in the Spanish twilight.

My parents worked hard to give us these kinds of memories: and their work was also its own reward, because both of them were lucky enough to love what they did.

So, of course, I was always going to grow up to think that time is the most precious resource we get. Money comes, and generally goes (at least when I’m spending), and (hopefully) comes again, but time is the one thing you’ll never get back. None of us know how much of it we have. So use it doing something that makes your soul sing.

Because once our time’s up, our lives collapse into the past. When the book slams shut, all the pages kiss each other. All the moments of your life, being over, exist at the same time. You will always be five, tears prickling as your pencil won’t make the letters. You’ll always be seventeen, gazing out of the window at a face in your heart, not writing about Richard II (‘I have wasted time / And now doth time waste me.’) There will always be night falling over a strange old city, the future spreading unknowable against the sky. You’ll always be watching your baby’s fat feet jiggling in the high chair. Maybe you’ll always be half-listening for that voice you’ll never hear again, accidentally setting the table for two.

When I write, when I draw, time goes bendy, drooling like a Dali clock. There is no time, other than when the work is finished. Hours and minutes feel the same, or else I don’t feel them at all. Even now, even today.

It’s my birthday today. I have been given more years than many people, and my life has been bright with love, so much of it I can barely breathe at the blessing of it.

And I feel the debt to my dearest ones, who have shared their time, their faith, and their cash, so that I can spend mine doing this. I’m impatient to see the tiny green shoots I’m planting grown tall, branches stretching out to shelter us all, like the rowan tree Dad planted when I was born. But who knows how long that will take? And the only thing worse than wasting your time is wishing it away.

I can’t magic back the time others have so generously given me. And, right now, I don’t have any money. I can only pay forward their love by carrying on, step by step, word by word. Because, as Moloko used to sing, late at night in my tiny college room, the time is now.

To my daughter

Bess Pirate Girl
Pirate Girl by Bess

Last week, dearest Bess, you turned five. The first thing you wanted to do when you woke up on your birthday was stand tall against me, to see how much you’d grown now you were five.

I’m writing this to you for your fifteenth birthday, a birthday I find hard to picture, when I’ll no longer need to bend to hug you, and we’ll look each other in the eye, your face level with mine.

All letters are a kind of trust exercise. This one more than most. I’m writing with blind faith in the next ten years. Faith that the tomorrows will keep coming until we stand in that moment.

Because, marvellous girl, what I can’t tell you yet, in the fierce pride and love of your fifth birthday, is how I think of all the children born since 2011 that won’t see theirs.

In 2015, (the year you turned four, started school, learned how to write your name) 16,000 children under five have died every day across the world.

You could have been one of them, but for the sheer luck of where you were born, and when. There was the kidney infection just after you turned one, which needed a week in hospital with IV antibiotics to shift. The wheeze that sprang up with each cold when you were two, and the nights we spent in hospital, watching every breath heave your tiny chest. You had help, quickly and effectively, whenever you needed it. You have spent your earliest years in a country where no parent needs to worry whether they can afford to take their sick child to the doctor. We are so, so lucky. Please, never take this for granted.

I think of the lives lost because they began in the wrong time. Futures that were snuffed out by the living conditions of the past. People must have been used to it, we think, with death so omnipresent. But parents have always held hopes for their children, just as I hold hopes for you.  It’s just that there were more ways to have them dashed from their hands. Ben Jonson lost his son aged seven in 1603, to the plague.  His elegy throbs with the same fierce pride I feel for you, in words which long outlived his son:

Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.

In too many places, over four hundred years later, nothing has changed. We should burn with shame that the vulnerable years of childhood are still so dangerous in so much of the world.

Many parents will say that all they want is for their children to be happy. I don’t wish that for you. Don’t be happy while there is so much needing to be fixed. Be happiest, wonderful girl, working hard to fix it. We have so much to do, and our time is so short. You will need all your spark, every flicker of your quick mind, and all your rage.

Right now you are as careless in your skin as a tiger cub. In the next ten years, I hope you’ll run, shout, play. Read, draw, write. And ask questions – always ask questions. May you never get sidetracked into feeling uneasy with yourself. Your face is the single most beautiful thing I will ever see, purely because it is yours.

No matter what happens after these first five years of yours, whatever the adventures or hurts, the humiliations or triumphs, one thing is true. Wherever you go in this world, however far we are apart, until your very last heartbeat, you are forever wrapped in my love.

Home

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

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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

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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

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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.