Sunday, 4 December 2016

In defence of Good Blokes

I don't often write about the work I used to do: the challenges and heartaches of Child Protection. But I have been prompted to do so by the recent disclosures of abuse by hundreds of footballers.

We are, rightly, horrified. It is the only possible response to the realisation that all those children have trotted off to football every week, with their boots and their dreams of Wembley, have been exploited by men (almost always men) who used those children for their own gratification. How could this happen? How did we not know? How could nobody stop it?

To begin - I'm not surprised. All organisations - churches, residential schools, sports clubs - close ranks when they feel under attack. It takes extraordinary courage from whistleblowers to stand up and shout loud enough to be heard. We also know that offenders are adept at wheedling their way into any institution that gives them easy access to children. Not just one child - but scores of them.

Does this mean that most coaches are abusers? No, definitely not. What these men have done is unforgivable. But most men are decent, honest, and want only to support their own children. We must not react to this by pointing a finger at every man who supports his son or daughter by spending hours with them at a football club. Offenders must be identified and punished. But we must not conduct a witch-hunt that could catch the vast majority of kind, decent men who are doing their best for their kids.

And this is where the courage of those now speaking out comes in. At last there is a climate in which their voices can be heard. They have names, times, dates, and are pointing fingers. They deserve all our support. For in disclosing what has happened to them, they are provide the foundation which can ensure we keep all our children safer in the future.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Truth and Fiction

Us fiction writers - we make stuff up. Sometimes we wallow in research for long enough to ground our made-up stuff in enough real-stuff to make it credible. And sometimes we just make it all up.

Readers know this. It's part of our contract with them - we do our best to make it believable and they do their best to suspect disbelief until the end of the book. But nobody really believes that David Copperfield or Anna Karenina or Middle Earth really existed.

Recently, it seems, some politicians have been taking a leaf or few out of our books. Here in the UK, the Leave campaign sprawled a slogan on the side of buses, insisting that they could give £350,000,000 a week to the NHS if we left the EU. And enough people suspended disbelief for long enough vote for it - though now the Leave leaders seem astonished that anyone might have taken them seriously. Across the pond, Donald Trump convinced voters that as soon as he was inaugurated as President of the US he would instigate criminal proceedings against Hillary Clinton - but now he's been elected this has been withdrawn. He claims, magnanimously, that he will give her time to heal.

Does this matter?

I would argue that it does. If it becomes acceptable for our politicians to abandon a semblance of truth - where will it end? Can teachers make up history, forgetting things like slavery or reframing it as 'development'? Or social scientist 'massage' the population figures, discounting anyone over eighty and thus meaning they have no need of social care? Let's not begin to think what the climatologists might come out with.

At times like this - times of great upheaval - we need clear thinkers. Men and women able and willing to cut through the claptrap and show us a truth. Men and women able and willing to stand up to the politicians and their wheeling and dealing.

Which will leave us fiction writers happily making stuff up, without worrying that anyone might actually believe us. Having said that, I think it's time Harry Potter challenged Trump to a game of Quiddich.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Book groups - and the writer.

My Planter's Daughter has been delayed, slightly, as my editor has been poorly. These things happen. We are slaving away over the words again now, so the end - phew - is in sight. When I have a date I'll give it you.

Last time I saw her, my editor said something that really set me thinking. (Actually, she said many things to set me thinking. This is just one of them.)

'This book,' she said, 'would make for a great discussion in a book group.'

Well, who wouldn't be flattered when someone who is there to be constructively critical says that! So I huffed for a minute or two - and have put time aside since then to think about it. I haven't written this book with groups in mind. In fact, I've been so absorbed in the narrative that I've had to make a big effort to consider one reader, let alone a group.

And - at the same time - I've attended a book group. I've read countless books and engaged in numerous conversations about them. Book groups are one of life's essential pleasures.

So how come I've made no real connection between my writing a novel and talking about novels in the book group? Like they are distint, unrelated activities? 

What a plonker! (I've said it - I'm sure it's what you're thinking.) But, having admitted that, I can't help wondering if other writers have a corner of their mind on a possible critique from a book group when they are sitting down to graft out sentences. 

Sunday, 13 November 2016

We can do more than lick our wounds.

It's a few days, now, since That Election. And there has been twaddle spoken, and written, from both sides. There has been plenty of 'it might not be so bad' reflections, which seem to have forgotten what a racist, sexist bigot American has elected.

On the morning after the election my daughter, Anna, wrote one of the most eloquent pieces I have read. She wrote when feelings were at their most raw - and I certainly couldn't have put sentences together like this. (I make no apologies to anyone who has already seen this - it bears repeating.) She has agreed that I can copy it here:

"For the second time in six months I have woken up to a darker, more terrifying world than the one I went to sleep in.
"For the second time in six months I am reading a feed full of anger, despair and fear for the future of the world.
"For the second time in six months I have a sick feeling in my stomach as I think about the future that we all face.
"For the second time in six months I am facing the realisation that the way I view the world is not the view of the majority of people.
"Well no more. We can't change the past but we can take responsibility for our own future. Those in charge may not agree, and we cannot stop the way they are behaving but they are not in our houses. They are not on our street. They are not part of our community - in those places we have the power.
"So, starting today, we need to be the change we want to see in the world. To help those who are suffering, talk to those who are lonely, stand in solidarity with those who are abused. To be welcoming to those who are new to our community, and to help others understand that new people are nothing to fear. To celebrate both those things that make us different and those that make us the same.
"And above all to spread the word of hope for a brighter future, and to do everything we can to ensure that the next time we get to vote, the voices that are loudest are those of hope, tolerance and inclusivity, and not those of fear and hatred. We won't get to vote again tomorrow, or next week, and probably not even next year. But we will - and we will be ready."

She is also part of a group putting her words into action: she is supporter of 'Swindon: a city of sanctuary'. It is a movement to seeks to ensure that anyone who needs a place of safely, for whatever reason, can find it there. And they aren't alone - follow the link on the site and you'll see that these groups are active all over the country. You can find out more about them here.

Here is that the change she is pleading for in action. Good things can grow from all the rage and helplessness of Wednesday morning. We must - we do - believe that. 

Sunday, 6 November 2016

The Planter's Daughter and her publishing journey.

This novel I've been banging on about - you might have gathered by now that I'm self-publishing. Why wouldn't I? I've learned enough about the technology and marketing pitfalls through the travel writing, so that bit doesn't daunt me.

But I did make a brief foray into traditional publishing - mainly in the hope that someone else would fund the editing. It was, mostly, a grim business. Not because there was no enthusiasm - on the contrary. Out of eight submissions (one agent, seven independent publishers) I was asked for six full manuscripts. Which is enough to tell me this can't be total twaddle.

It also took forever. With one exception, it disappeared into a publishing abyss for months. I'd send gentle reminders (that balance between not wanting to be pushy and suggesting that they treat me with respect). And each time, eventually, that 'we love it, but we just don't love it enough' arrived.

But I do want to highlight the exception: The Linen Press. I sent it to them because I'd read in an interview with the main editor in Mslexia, and she came across as kind and funny and honest. She responded to my query within days, asking for a full manuscript. And the rejection came within two weeks - and with it a comment about my complex sentences.

Pah, I thought. What does she know? Besides, no one had ever said that to me before, and so it was no doubt her way of being kind.

And then I looked again at the opening paragraph of the novel - and there, right in the middle of it, was a dog's dinner of a sentence.

It was one of many back-to-the-beginning moments. I went back to the manuscript, and unpicked it line after line. I knew what I was trying to say - but would anyone else? So I owe them a huge thank you.

It has, since, been through a number of readers (and countless rewrites) and then I bit the bullet and found an editor. That has been another learning curve, as she asked about lost characters (I knew where they were, but had to admit that maybe they weren't on the page). Plus one character who, she felt, needed active retribution that went far beyond feeling a bit miserable.

And now I am on the home straight. My editor has been poorly recently, which has set things back a little. But, give me a week or several, and The Planter's Daughter will be ready to go!

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Off to Australia (not me, this time!)

This is my final post about the research that has gone into the new novel. (Yes, a novel - a bit of a change from the travel writing, but no less of a journey.)

The previous posts have seen my protagonist escape the famine in Ireland and sink into the squalor of Liverpool's Irish slums. And we know she died in New Zealand. In between, she spent time in Australia.

So here I had a problem. I've spent just three weeks in Eastern Australia, and - at the time - was more interested in learning about aboriginal history than the early European settlers. Which left me no choice but to wallow in books.

I learned about the challenges faced by the early deportees - and what impressed me most was the way they soon established a rule of law. At home they were labelled at criminals, but most were  driven to theft by poverty. With the opportunity to co-operate, in order to provide a safe space to provide for their basic needs, they flourished. There was the odd vagabond, of course, and some (like Ned Kelly) have achieved cult status; but most settled into respectability.

However, I know we cannot ignore their deplorable treatment of indigenous peoples. The ripples of these early years still ruffle Australia today. History provides reasons (ignorance, the tendency of one group to look down on another) but that can never make it right.

Then came the gold rush. Which brought a whole new influx of people, driven by the lure of adventure and the prospect of riches. And it transformed the lives of many of those early settlers.

So, that, I thought, gave me all the background I needed. Until I checked the dates of the deportations ... And discovered that by the time my protagonist must have left Liverpool the only place in Australia that still accepted felons was on the west coast - thousands of miles across the desert. I've not been there, nor had I read about it. It was the biggest of my 'oh shit' moments. Could I wing it, and hope nobody checked the dates? Or go back to my storyline and rework it completely?

What would you have done?

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Refugees, and how Liverpool could teach us a thing or two.

Research - is there no end to it? I knew that Barbara Weldon died in New Zealand but was born in Ireland - and for some reason she travelled via Liverpool and Australia. (If you're wondering who Barbara Weldon is - I came across her in a bleak gold town on New Zealand. You'll have to scroll back a post of few to find out why she intrigues me!)

Once I understood the misery of the Irish famine, it was reasonable to assume that starvation had driven her across the Irish Sea. So it was time to turn my attention to life in Liverpool for those who escaped the stinking potato fields in Ireland and crossed the Irish Sea to look for work, and food, and shelter - just enough to fulfil their basic needs.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that the residents of Liverpool didn't welcome them with open arms. There was a conviction that they came to take jobs, to demand homes and so deprive local people, and they brought diseases associated with poverty - plague and cholera. (Sound familiar? Let's not allow needy people anywhere near our own doorsteps ...)

I struggled, trying to fill in the details of life of the Irish refugees in Liverpool. I suspect that, in retrospect, the city is ashamed of the squalor in which they were forced to live. However - to the credit of the powers that be (and prompted by a growing union movement pressing for change) -they did eventually realise that the solution lay in improved public health and better housing; Liverpool introduced some of the earliest public health provision in the country.

However, there is nothing left of the streets where the Irish were ghettoed; not even a blue plaque on a wall. I found only passing mentions in museums and one small reconstruction (without what must have been terrible smells).

But then I had some luck. I went to visit the city for a few days, staying in a B&B away from the centre. I got to chatting to the landlord (as I do) and discovered that he was researching his family history and knew all about nineteenth century Liverpool. He drove me round those streets that still survive, and gave me two laminated maps of the city, with the old road systems and docks - so very different from the layout of Liverpool today. (Bill, I owe you!) And from that I could find enough photographs online to give me the details I needed.

So, I knew that Barbara Weldon spent time in Liverpool, and she went from there to Australia. Why Australia? And was there a warmer welcome the other side of the world than she'd found here?