Writer of children's stories, passionate about writing. Author of Black Water.

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Our Refugee Returns

In my previous blog, I told you the story of the refugee, Mohammed, who came to stay with us over Christmas, but what I didn’t say was that, within seven days, he had found himself a full-time job in a service industry. He was delighted and so were we, that he had been so successful. However it meant that he had to leave us and move in with another family somewhere closer, and that made us all very sad.

In seven days we had really grown to love him. He had told us his story and we had told him ours. We had laughed and cried together and he filled our house with his great energy and enthusiasm.

He promised to stay in touch, but it was six weeks before we saw him again. And the reason is this: his life has taken off.

Though still in the same old clothes, he looks better fed and more relaxed than at Christmas. With the help of volunteer teachers, he is now studying for three GCSEs and because he has covered much of the ground before in his own country, he is being fast- tracked with a view to doing A-Levels next year; he wants to go to university and study medicine or something like it.

We talked far into the night and he told me that, though in theory he could look for a room of his own now, he worries about being alone and would rather stay with a family and contribute to his up-keep financially. In his culture people live communally and help each other. ‘I don’t know what I will do by myself. Who will I talk to? What will I have to talk about? Nothing.’ And he crosses his arms and looks glum. ‘I need to work out what my way of living will be, what the rules are; I don’t even know what the money here is worth.’

He demonstrated this confusion over boundaries when, in a moment of wild exuberance on a bike ride, he started whooping and freewheeling with no hands in a series of zig-zags in the middle of the road as a van speeded up behind him and threatened to knock him off his bike.

I screamed, the van past safely and I told him firmly that he had to stay on the left, which he did more or less, from then on. It was just one way in which he and others in his situation, have lost their boundaries: being outside their cultural homes, crossing all the borders in Europe, breaking rules in order to survive. When you have clung to the axles of a lorry for four hours because there was no other way to reach safety, passing through a forbidden sign and climbing the steps of a stately home to get a photo of the ornamental garden (which he also did) must seem like nothing.

Now, in a new country, he must learn a new culture with new rules and it’s a painful process. The only way he can do it, is with the help of other people.

‘I think community is very important,’ he says, and despite being desperately busy working and studying, Mohammed still volunteers several nights a week, teaching refugee children and helping to run a youth club. ‘In my country it is not a choice whether you help other people, it is an obligation. If I know English and you don’t, then I must teach you.’

I had to explain that in England, community has really broken down in many places. Extended families rarely exist as they do in many other countries and while in the past, the state has stepped in to plug the gap, now with so many cuts, many people have no one to help them when things go wrong.

As all of us struggle to understand how to live in our socially impoverished world where neighbours don’t know or care about each other, let alone care about beggars on the street, I realised that Mohammed and other refugees have a lot to teach us, about how to care for each other.

A Very Special Christmas Present

We agonised over the decision to have a refugee stay in our house. What would we have to give up? Would we be able to trust them? Out of sense of guilt at the desperate plight of so many refugees as well as a desire to help, we signed up with some trepidation.

Just before Christmas we got the call: could we offer emergency respite for someone over the Christmas break? We said ‘yes’.

The night before our guest was due to come, we went to a carol service in our predominantly middle class village, where a neighbour told me at great length about her stress at moving to a bigger house locally. It took her five days of solid work to move all her stuff, and her family absolutely couldn’t throw away any of their books, so now they needed to build more bookshelves.
However they did have a Christmas tree up to their vaulted ceiling and anticipated a great holiday.

Next day, our refugee arrived looking anxious. He was dishevelled from sleeping rough, with one tiny bag of belongings and the clothes he stood up in. He was very polite and grateful for everything we offered him.

I expected him to stay in his room, but instead he came downstairs and made a big effort to get to know each one of us. He told us about his longing for education as his had been disrupted by war. He asked us to sit close to him as he showed us puzzles and told us jokes.

‘I could stay in my room,’ he explained in his broken English, ‘but that will be a missed opportunity and I want learn everything I can.’

Over the following days, he gradually told us his story:

He escaped the threat of death in his own country at a moment’s notice through the use of people smugglers, for whom a relative paid, to facilitate his journey. ‘You cannot cross borders without them because security is strong and you will get shot. You do what they say. They say stand, you stand. They says sit, you sit. If you do not, you put their lives in danger and they shoot you.’

The journey was terrible. ‘I am so happy now, because nothing can ever be that bad again,’ he said. ‘Even when I was sleeping on the street, I knew that I was better off than at home.’

He walked five days without food or water in great heat across two borders. ‘I love my sisters but they could not have done the journey. It was too hard and they would be raped everywhere. Better they die at home. I saw terrible things.’

Finally he was put in a lorry with many other people including children. They had to crouch beneath a container in the lorry for five days without food and water. They could not move or make a sound, even to cough, because if they were found they would be shot. Some people died in that lorry and because of the great heat, and the smell was terrible.

When they reached the sea, those who had survived, staggered out, including the children.

They paid more money to the traffickers who put them on a little rubber boat and cast them out to sea. ‘If no-one had the courage to steer that boat, we would have drowned.’

Fortunately, someone did take charge and they arrived in Italy. ‘We were so lucky. So many have died. In Europe you think how many refugees come to your countries, but you don’t realise that for every ten people who start that journey, only two survive. Everywhere I went, on every part of my journey, some people died – walking through the desert, in the lorry, in the camps…’

From Italy, he walked across Europe, often with nothing to eat or drink. He befriended people who were with him one day and gone the next, until finally he arrived in Calais.

There he lived in The Jungle – the makeshift refugee camp where refugees live among rats in the mud and squalor, in shacks they build themselves out of whatever they can find – until one day, he managed to jump a lorry. Clinging to the axles, he arrived in England, where he sought asylum and gained refugee status.

What saved his life, he said, was the strict religious discipline imposed on him during childhood. Rising at four am to chant, cold water showers if he slept in the wrong position, grim food, fasting and so on – made him able to endure hardships that others could not, and to always, always persevere.

He told this story with so much humour and lightness, that it was almost possible to miss the absolute horror. When he finished, we were all very quiet. I think we were all humbled; I know I was.

It made me appreciate the comfort of having a home and each other and enough to eat. But most of all, it made me appreciate this man.

Despite everything he had been through, he brought so much warmth into our house this Christmas. We laughed and talked and played games. And when he left, I cried. He has become part of our family.

Far from having to give things up, he has really enriched our lives. And that is something I really did not expect.

Jaw Not War

I have now completed the first draft of my new book, but this is not what I want to tell you about. There is something much more important that should concern us all right now, and that is the prospect of war.

David Cameron is pushing for our Government to drop bombs on ISIS, but if bombs were the answer to terrorism, why hasn’t the 14-year old war against terrorism already worked?

The US, France, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE are already bombing ISIS. Yet ISIS terror attacks have increased dramatically.

‘According to the US military, their air campaign against IS has so far struck over 7,000 targets, killing 1,000 IS fighters every month. However, Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford says that IS ‘has not only survived these attacks but in many places is thriving, attracting up to a thousand new recruits from across the region and beyond’. This is because Western airstrikes themselves act as a recruiting agent for IS.

James Comey, the director of FBI, told congress in September 2014 that the US bombing of ISIS in Iraq had increased support for the group.

It is widely acknowledged, even by Tony Blair, that the US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent occupation, was crucial in creating IS. The New York Times reported in 2014 that the leader of ISIS spent five years in the US prison in Iraq, which acted as a central recruiting ground for ISIS fighters.

An expansion of UK airstrikes on IS would play into IS’s overall expansionist strategy. ‘Its strongest recruiting tactic is to present itself as the one true guardian of Islam under attack from “crusader” forces,” says Paul Rogers. He argues that, ‘the best advice, as with al-Qaida over more than a decade, is not to do what it wants you to do.’

As well as feeding the ISIS strategy, extending British attacks to Syria is likely to increase the risks of terrorist attacks on British people. They will certainly create more refugees. And also, they are highly likely to be illegal under international law.

Better solutions
* Britain should massively increase aid to the region. There is a humanitarian crisis going on in Syria at present, and it is imperative that we avoid the increased bitterness that people may feel resulting from loss of life and homes, lest they too are tempted to join IS.

* Pressure the British Government to broker a deal that would secure a political settlement and stop the key players fighting, bringing an end to the chaos in which ISIS thrives. Hugh Roberts, the former head of the North African section at the International Crisis Group, says that the US and UK have ‘sabotaged the efforts of the UN special envoys… to broker a political compromise that would have ended the fighting’.

* Pressure all our Governments to stop selling arms to the Middle East. The British Government has arms deals worth £6 billion to the Middle East which is very possibly falling into ISIS hands.
Indeed President Putin claims that 40 countries, including G20 countries, are funding ISIS directly or indirectly.

* Don’t panic. Going about our normal life happily, is the best way to stop terrorists winning.

Nine reasons why we should not bomb Syria:

1. There is no evidence that there are sufficient troops on the ground to finish the work of the bombing; the 70,000 are very disparate & in the wrong place.
2. Britain risks being drawn into putting troops on the ground.
3 The risk of escalation is very high.
4 Terrorist attacks internationally have increased with military intervention by the West suggesting that military attacks are recruiting insurgents.
5 The Paris attacks were by hoemgrown terrorists not Syrians, so attacking ISIS in Syria will probably precipitate more attacks in Britain, making us less safe.
6 Bombing will create more refugees, and we already cannot cope with the ones we’ve got.
7 There is no such thing as a war with no collateral damage. Tony Blair promised British planes were highly accurate when they bombed Iraq and they killed millions.
8 This war serves Tory interests by distracting attention from problems at home and providing a big market for weapons. It does not serve the interests of British people as a whole.
9 ISIS is the product of Western intervention in the Middle East and we should leave well alone. Instead, we should stop selling arms to the Middle East and pressure other countries to do the same whilst working for a diplomatic solution

Desperate for Safety

I started this blog ostensibly to write about my passion which is writing, but I can’t ignore what is happening in the world today, so I want to tell you a story.

Almost 100 years ago, a little Jewish girl with red hair escaped from Stalin’s pogroms in Lithuania and fled with her parents to Berlin. The girl was six years old, her name was Bronia and she was my grandmother.

Bronia was strong-willed. She hated being a Jew, coming as she did from a very orthodox family. She hated the ritual and constraint; she didn’t believe that she was any different from other people.

As soon as she was old enough, she left home and moved in with a Gentile – an unemployed writer and divorcee 20 years her senior, called Kurt.

This was a scandal in the 1930s. Bronia’s mother, Susan, refused to speak to her daughter for many years, until Bronia gave birth to a little girl called Hannah, my mother.

Suddenly Susan became a regular visitor to their home again. She brought Hannah presents and took her for walks and told her stories. Susan and Hannah adored each other. My mother often recalls things her granny said and times they spent together. The small gifts Susan gave her are among her most treasured possessions.

However things were changing in Germany. Hitler was coming to power.

My grandparents invited their artist and writer friends to their home for ‘coffee mornings’, to discuss what to do: it had not escaped Bronia and Kurt’s notice that they had a very unpleasant neighbour. Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the final solution, was living in the same street as them, just a few doors down.

Finally they made a decision: they would put little Hannah on the Lusitania and send her to America. At least there she would be safe.

By the time they got to the ticket office however, all the tickets had been sold. Soon afterwards the ship was torpedoed with the loss of over 1000 lives and Bronia and Kurt made a fresh decision: whatever happened, they must stay together.

Life was becoming increasingly difficult for them. There were restrictions to the occupations and movements of Jews. Growing numbers were being murdered or disappearing, and one morning Bronia woke up and found Juden scrawled on the walls of her house.

Shortly afterwards, on the nights of November 9th and 10th in 1938, rampaging mobs attacked Jews in the streets throughout Germany, smashing their shop windows and burning synagogues down. Over 96 people were killed in what became known as Krystallnacht: ‘the night of broken glass’.

At this time Bronia’s cousin, Beate, was studying to become a doctor in Liverpool. After many desperate enquiries, Beate managed to persuade a businessman to sponsor Bronia, Kurt and Hannah to come to England.

One misty morning with only five pounds between them and a battered suitcase of belongings and no English, the three caught the boat to England, promising Susan that when they arrived, they would find a way for her to join them. My mother was six years old.

They were lucky: they escaped. Every night I turn on the TV and see stories about refugees who have not. Men, women and children are setting out in their thousands across the Mediterranean in battered overcrowded boats; over 4,000 have died already this year trying to make that crossing.

These people don’t have the possibility of sponsorship as a route to a safe haven: most of Europe has turned its back on them. They have nowhere left to turn and only their lives to lose. Last week over 70 suffocated in the back of a lorry as they tried to cross into Austria. Their scratch marks on the walls are the only testimony to their last terrible moments.

One has to assume that remaining at home is a far worse option for these people, or why would they resort to such desperate measures?

As for Susan – Bronia wrote to her regularly, about sponsors she had spoken to who had turned her down, and those whom she still had yet to meet. And Susan wrote back with her hopes and fears – until one day, her letters stopped coming.

No one ever found out what happened to her. Maybe she tried to go back to Marianpole where she had grown up. Or perhaps she perished in one of the concentration camps. We don’t know.

She is one of the disappeared; just a number, like the thousands dying daily as they try to reach safety.

We must open our hearts and doors to these people; they have nowhere else to go.

* Countries much poorer than Britain, take far more refugees. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees alone make up one third of the country’s population

* A recent study found that the trauma to holocaust victims changed their genetic structure and the changes have been passed down to their children and grandchildren. One can perhaps assume therefore that the trauma happening to the refugees now, will also be passed down through their genes to future generations.

Three Cheers For The Man With A Plan

I saw a girl begging yesterday. She was maybe 17, but it was hard to tell because she was so dirty. Her hands were stained with nicotine and she had her arm around a big dog.

I was with my 14-year old daughter, who gave her some money. Then we walked on.

It reminded me that this could be my little girl in a few years time, if things things go wrong. It got me thinking back to when I was young.

I lived in a squatting community in North London to which my friend and I fled after the heroin addict we were sharing a house with, had a knife fight with his brother.

It was during the time of Thatcher, the miner’s strikes and the Cold War and lots of young people were squatting. It was cheap and surprisingly fun. We made a cafe and had our own entertainment, including a hilarious annual dinner and dance with cabaret. My mother was dismayed.

It might not have been aspirational but it was an option to side step extortionate rents and bad housing, in a way that it’s not today. Rents are higher but state benefits are less, if available at all, and squatting rights have largely been removed.

The girl I saw yesterday was one of many I see quite regularly in the city where I live now. They wander aimlessly around with their homes on their backs or sleep rough in the streets. What a shocking waste of potential it is.

My daughter will come out of university saddled with debt. How will she afford to buy a home, assuming there are any affordable houses to buy? It’s not fair to expect young people to live with mum and dad into their 30s. They need to be building lives, having families of their own. These should be their most productive years.

The darkest cloud on our horizon was probably the Cold War. We grew up in the shadow of the bomb.

During the Cuban Crisis my mother went to classes to learn how to paint her windows white and hide under the stairs in the event of a nuclear attack. She didn’t believe it; she knew we would all die and she bought some poison to make sure our end would be quick. That’s why, in my twenties, I joined the Greenham Common women to campaign against Cruise Missiles.

We thought we had a lot to contend with, but looking around now and I see young people having their futures stolen. There are fewer jobs, paltry wages, almost no pensions. Health care is galloping towards the US model where the rich get treatment and the poor die. All this, against the backdrop of climate change. It’s a pretty crap inheritance.

So when Jeremy Corbyn stepped forward to lead the Labour Party, my heart rose. For one thing, he was my MP for 13 years, and jolly good he was; like few politicians, he’s a man of principle.

He is making the case for a society that will not just benefit the top two per cent, but everyone, including the young and the poor. To many people’s surprise, including his own, he looks likely to win the leadership contest. And why? Because he is addressing issues no other politician has the courage to do.

If he does win, we have five years to change people’s minds and get him elected. If we want it, we are going to have to work for it, but I think it could be fun.

The Courage to Speak Out: the Case of Raif Badawi

I have been worrying about Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian condemned to 1000 lashes and 10 years imprisonment for writing a blog which criticised senior religious figures. He suffers from hypertension, and his wife, Ensaf Haidar, says that the sentence will be a ‘slow death’. The first beating made him really ill.

Raif is paying with his life for expressing a point of view publicly in writing, a right that we in the West take for granted. He is not alone either. Amnesty reports that in Saudi Arabia recently ‘there have been investigations, arrests and short-term detentions of journalists, athletes, poets, bloggers, activists and tweeters’.

To speak out is a an act of courage in many countries around the world, not the right that we regard it as here in the UK. I don’t know if I would do it, given the consequences someone like Raif is facing.

It is through the actions of people like him, that discussion is generated, ideas are disseminated and change happens in some of the most repressive countries in the world. That, of course, is why the Saudi Arabians are coming down on him so hard. They are terrified of criticism and scrutiny. Like bullies in the school playground, they want to silence debate at any cost.

I want to use my blog entry this month, to ask you to sign Amnesty’s petition to free Raid Badawi. It will only take a moment of your time, and if enough people protest about his treatment, it might work. People like Raif are on the front line defending the freedom of expression. One day, times may change and you or I may be forced to choose between staying silent over something we feel passionately about, or face hideous consequences.

As it is, we have the good fortune to live in a time and place where we are able to say what we want, a freedom that was paid for in the past by other people’s blood. I think Raif deserves our support.

To Sum Up

I have been labouring over my synopsis, which I find the hardest thing to write in a book. Because I’m a seat-of-my-pants writer, I have been happily writing scenes without knowing how they fit together, just trusting that they will. It’s a bit like travelling by instinct instead of a map!

Sometimes I think I’m mad to write this way; it gives me vertigo. However I was gratified when I heard Philip Pullman say at the Oxford Literary Festival this year, that his advice is to write a story first and plot it afterwards, because plotting beforehand is death to a novel.

It doesn’t mean he’s right, but it does give me confidence that I’m not a total fool, although I often think I must be, because what if I spend all that time on it and I can’t make it work?

The real benefit of writing this way in my opinion, is that you find an order in what you’ve written, rather than imposing one on it before you start, and this makes the writing itself a true act of discovery. I am permanently open to what I will find and it’s an electrifying place to be.

These last few days however, I reached a critical point where I couldn’t go on without a bit of joined up thinking because I didn’t know how to decide what to write next. So I forced myself to sit down and think: What is this story about? Where is it going? How is it going to get there?

I’ve found it really painful, so much harder than the real writing. (Although it is of course, just as real.) All the time at the back of my head is a mean little voice saying, ‘You can’t do this. You don’t know how.’ Over and over. Fortunately there’s a stronger one saying, ‘I can and I will’, otherwise I would just give up.

I do know people who love plotting. They sit down and plot before they’ve written a word. I couldn’t do this because my ideas come to me either when I’m writing, or when I’m walking across a field reflecting on what I’ve written. It’s like falling in love. It happens when I’m not looking, and when it does, it’s heaven. Or maybe when it doesn’t, it’s hell! Anyway, it feels like a massive relief.

Anyhow, today, I finished my synopsis. Now I can get back to crafting the story, which is what I do best. More to the point, I can do it ith the security of knowing where I am heading this time, in more than the vaguest sense.

Pushing Through the Block

I’m struggling with what to write about next. In fact I’m struggling with being able to write at all. I’ve got a writer’s block.

Or rather, I did have one. It stopped the day I made a decision to write something every day, until something worthwhile emerges.

I’ve kick-started my imagination through an effort of will, the way being put on an insulin pump recently kick-started my pancreas.

As a type 1 diabetic, the pump has the potential to revolutionise my life. It will enable me to go swimming or running without the constant fear of hypos, which have plagued me for the past three years, ever since I was first diagnosed.

Before reaching that sublime state however, I have to learn how to use it. A couple of nights ago I had a series of hypos which lasted for hours. I’ve never had anything like them before. They probably happened because being on the pump somehow forced my dying pancreas to force out a few drops of insulin, before falling silent again.

Hopefully my imagination has a bit more life in it than my pancreas, although for a few weeks now, I have wondered.

Today though, I felt a shifting inside me: I had an idea. It’s small and fragile as a foetus and it may come to nothing. But what is significant, is that this time I haven’t rubbished or discarded it. I’m being kind and accepting its imperfections, letting it shift and turn below the surface of my mind as it takes shape.

I have made a decision. All I have to do is keep doing my writing practise and trust that sooner or later, something will come…


I wake every night at about 3.30 am and I don’t know why.

My mind is often so clear I feel I could sky dive without a parachute and land safely. Or I’m worrying: did I do my job well enough today? Did I say the right thing? What happens when you die?

At other times I wake, with the next section of my book fully formed in my mind: I hear the dialogue and see the characters, I live the action, I’m part of the scene. These moments are breathtaking for their clarity and immediacy. I lie there unable to move, watching the story unscroll before me; replaying it over and over until I’m conscious enough to hop out of bed and type what I’ve observed into the computer so I don’t forget. (Pity my long suffering husband.)

Sometimes I get stuck with the plot – I don’t know what happens next – so I ask my unconscious to solve it for me and 3.30am is invariably the time it picks to deliver my answers. Like falling in love, it happens when I’m looking the other way.

I used to see insomnia as a curse, draining me of energy and befuddling my brain, but over the years, I’ve made it my sometime friend. It comforts me to know that it has afflicted many famous writers, from Wordsworth and the Bronte sisters, to Franz Kafka and Charles Dickens; maybe it’ll give me the edge.

I know that insomnia and depression have a close link; when you think about it, the sort of person who is drawn to sitting alone for hours pushing a comma around a page, is probably melancholic. Or maybe it’s just that, once you’ve trained yourself to patrol your thoughts for quirky ideas, your mind keeps on doing it, even while you sleep.

I kept a dream diary once, and after my unconscious cottoned on to what I was doing, I used to wake up automatically straight after the dream; it was amazing what I recalled. As soon as I stopped the observation, that particular bout of insomnia stopped also.

For me, writing like insomnia, is closely linked to my fear of death. Whether I’m awake or asleep, that fear travels with me and writing is my immortality project, binding fleeting moments of terror into a coherent narrative which is comforting and safe; some of my best ideas come in the dark, when my children are gone and there are no phones ringing; when I’m observing the breath of my life.

Cilnging On By My Fingernails

How do you write a book that will make an exciting read?

The answer isn’t obvious when you are at the beginning stage, sifting through the possible options.

I took a number of ideas to my writer’s group and asked them what they thought. Most said that the harder idea would be impossible: write the simpler one.

So I went home and thought about the opportunities for the plot and the different ways the characters could develop, within that simple scenario. And the answer to my question became clear: I had to take the harder option, because it offered not only my characters more room for development, but also me as a writer.

I deliberately bit off more than I could chew, and started chomping.

So far, it’s proved a surprisingly delicious meal, full of unexpected flavours and textures – with that special Zing! Can I make it work?

The answer is, I have to. Somehow.

On every page my characters find themselves in places I never imagined they could go; we are all clinging by our fingernails to a crumbling crag, hoping for a way out. Because though I have a sense of the direction, I don’t know the detail of the story, or what is going to happen next.

This is a dangerous way to write, and it may be the wrong one. It’s certainly time consuming, because it takes me up a lot of blind alleys and means large amounts of rewriting. But I’m living on the edge trying to create this new world, and make my characters live – and die – convincingly within it.

And it is thrilling!

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