Call Me Auntie: My Childhood in Care and My Search for My Mother by Anne Harrison

Anne Harrison was brought up in care. She was a shop assistant before she joined the Warwickshire Police. From there she became a residential social worker and social care manager for local authorities in the West Midlands and Warwickshire. She lives with her husband in Coventry.

Anne’s story is a compelling account, not just of her search for her birth mother but of her extraordinary journey from being a child in care, then qualifying as a social worker and finally becoming a magistrate…I read it at a sitting and could not put it down. Her account of life in a children’s home in the 1960s and 1970s deserves to find a place on every social work training course‘– Retired Judge Robert Zara.

Call Me Auntie: My Childhood in Care and My Search for My Mother is a truly original story of life in and after care. The author’s own account of being left behind by her mother as a one year old and her life in foster homes and institutions. When eventually traced, ‘Call Me Auntie’ was the best her mother could offer, but this was just the start of a bizarre sequence of events.

Call Me Auntie is a telling account of abandonment, ‘Heartbreak House’ care homes, family history and survival. It is also one of resilience and personal achievement as the author discovered she also had a brother left behind in the same way, forged a professional career, searched for her long lost relatives in Barbados and eventually came to understand that she ‘may be a princess after all’.

A story of survival, Call Me Auntie charts the resilience and changing attitudes to racism and ethnicity as the author forged a successful career beginning as a Woolworth’s shop girl before joining the police, then moving into social work.

It is an absolute pleasure to welcome Anne to the blog. I’d like to thank Anne for writing about her memoir Call Me Auntie – which I am sure will be a fantastic contribution to care experienced literature.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.

Because I was brought up in care, I didn’t have parents or family to tell me stories about my childhood. Unlike other children leaving care, I was not given my care file when I left care, and later I was told it had been destroyed. So I had lots of blanks.

I had my own memories, as well as some letters and photos. I’ve always had my own stories to tell about my life in care and afterwards. I had no plan to write a book. Then, when I was already in my late fifties, my care file turned up with hundreds of pages of records. With the urging of my family, I decided to put into order all the stories that I thought I knew and match them up to my records. I wanted to fill the blanks and correct my own misunderstandings. For the first time I was able to put it all together. So, the reason I wrote my book was in order to know my own life story.

What made you choose to write about care experience?

I wrote about my childhood in care because my story is my own, and it is different. It doesn’t play out in the way that anyone would expect. It pulls together so many issues. I was an African-Caribbean baby, abandoned by my mother at birth, eventually fostered by a very loving white family, but then abandoned again when they emigrated and left to the mercy of a depersonalised and brutal care home regime. In the middle of all this, my mother was found, but the most important thing she had to tell me was: “Call me Auntie.”

Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

For the first months of my life, my mother made a private arrangement for me to be looked after by an unregistered foster carer. After that I was taken into care. After a short spell in an orphanage, I was placed with white fosters carers, and I stayed with them until I was nine years old. When my foster family emigrated to Australia, I was moved into a children’s home, where I stayed until I was 17.

Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst writing your memoir?

These are things that I understood long before I began to write. In my foster home I was just treated like a member of the family. I became more aware of my “looked after” status in the children’s home. How we dressed, how we were treated in the home, at school, or at church, we were the kids from the children’s home. We were not treated as individuals. We were not expected to amount to much in life. We were just required to conform.

For me at this stage, being black was an unwelcome complication. I understood that I was different, but not in a good way. I didn’t want to stand out in that way; I would rather have been white. I also understood that being black was one reason I couldn’t accompany my foster family to Australia. I was full of denial about being black. While my social worker could see this, no one helped me with it.

What is the meaning of the title?

My mother was found when I was 12. She wrote to me at the time, but we were not to meet for another twenty years. In her first letter, she probably realised she would have to sign it somehow, and she did not want to acknowledge that she was my mother. So, she signed it with her given name, adding: “Call me Auntie.”

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

Now that I know how, I might write a book about the funny and memorable things that happened to me or that I did after leaving care, briefly in the police, then over many years in social work.

If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I can’t help adding Lemn Sissay, My Name is Why.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

As a child I loved to lose myself in Enid Blyton’s “Famous five” and “Malory Towers” stories. These are the exciting adventures of white middle-class children; Malory Towers is a fictional girls’ boarding school. Like me, the girls at Malory Towers had to negotiate an institutional environment that was imposed on them. But in every other way their lives could not have been less like my own. Today these stories are rather disdained, but for me at the time they were the perfect escape.

What advice would you give young people leaving the care system today?

Learn about your history – who were your parents, how you came into care. This is part of who you are. Don’t trust everything to memory, because sooner or later, you will forget. Write it down or get someone to help write it down.

Find a buddy.

You will move accommodation many times. Find a safe haven or a trusted keeper for your most precious belongings, so that you do not risk losing them with every move.

Learn to cook and learn to budget.

Find a hobby – especially one that involves others.

 

Call Me Auntie was published by Waterside Press in October 2020.

 

Follow Anne on Twitter: @anne4harrison

 

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Bea’s Witch by Daniel Ingram-Brown

Book Review by Jane Teather.

Daniel Ingram-Brown is the author of The Firebird Chronicles series for children aged 9-12, published by Our Street Books. He is the recipient of the Taner Baybars award for original fiction in the field of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Magical Realism, awarded by the Society of Authors Authors’ Foundation. Daniel is currently undertaking a PhD at Leeds Beckett University exploring adoption through creative writing and is also part of the university’s Storymakers Company, who seek to develop creative, artistic, child centred learning opportunities for young people through story making in educational and community settings.

Daniel is a First Story Writer-in-Residence for secondary schools in Yorkshire, he chaired the Leeds Big Bookend Festival from 2013-16 and is on the committee for the Society of Authors, Authors North. He is also a theatre director and playwright and is Artistic Director of Suitcase and Spectacles Children’s Theatre. Daniel has overseen a number of community writing projects, including The Leeds Story Cycle (2014) and Stories from the Forests of Leeds (2015/6), both of which resulted in the publication of a book of short stories. He lives in Yorkshire, UK.

The future can be rewritten.

Aimed at a young adult readership, Bea’s Witch is adoption fiction crossed with magical realism and historical fiction. On the eve of her twelfth birthday, Beatrice Crosse runs away from her adoptive home only to encounter the ghost of England’s most famous prophetess. The witchoffers her treasure, but can she be trusted? Bea must wrestle her past to discover the witch’s secret and find her way home.

A deft blending of historical, fantasy, contemporary and adoption fiction. I was genuinely transported. Dr Rachel Connor, Novelist and Dramatist

Bea is 11 going on well 12 and is struggling with big changes in her life. She has gained a new mother and a new school but feels she has to leave all her old life behind because Bea has just been adopted after several years in care. On a trip to see Mother Shipton’s Caves with Denise, her new mother, Bea has a strange experience and thinks she can hear a voice talking to her. Unthinkingly she takes a coin from the wishing well and feels a strong connection to it. But is Bea being haunted by Mother Shipton or her own demons?

I didn’t want to put this down. I felt so much of Bea’s pain, her unwillingness to trust because she has been let down so many times and her own certainty that because of things she has done in the past, that she is unlovable. I really liked the glimpses of the past that have brought Bea to this point: Nelson, the poster and the warm day on the dock. And ultimately I liked Bea and like Denise, just wanted to give her a hug.

Although this is clearly a standalone novel I would now like a story about Bea and her new and old circle of friends, where she just is adopted, not that that is the centre of the story. I want to know more of what happens to Bea next. Nicely done, Daniel!

Follow Daniel on: Facebook or Twitter

Jane Teather, is an adopted child and parent to two unadopted children of her own. She is a member of Hatfield Book Club.

Bea’s Witch is due to be published by Lodestone Books 30th July 2021. Pre-order here.

Thank you to Lodestone Books for the review copy.

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Beyond the Orphanage by Deborah Dzifah Tamakloe

Book Review by Dee Michell

From the age of 11, Deborah Dzifah Tamkloe lived in a Baptist Orphanage in the Eastern Region of Ghana.  She is the founder of Charis Touch Foundation, an NGO which provides practical support and training programs for children in orphanages or on the street, and she received an Amazing Woman Award from the International Women Association in 2020.

In November 2020, Deborah Dzifah Tamkloe published her book, Beyond the Orphanage.

Beyond the Orphanage tells Deborah’s story from when she first went into foster care. Deborah was born into a Catholic polygamous family in Nkawkaw, south Ghana, which means, as she says, she had “three additional mothers”. One day, her life changed inexplicably; her mother took Deborah to live with a friend in a nearby village, supposedly because school was closer and Deborah would not be punished for arriving later than 7am anymore. Deborah returned to her mother on weekends and for holidays.

In January 2005, about a year into this new living arrangement, 11-year-old Deborah was taken to the Baptist School Complex and Orphanage (BASCO). She thought she was going to boarding school …

As Deborah Dzifah Tamakloe writes in one of many thoughtful reflections on what is needed to improve the lives of children in care and care leavers, “the child should be well informed of why they are being taken [to the home], the harsh realities among others even if at that time their mind cannot process the information.” Without this information children are confused and may grow bitter, as she did, not reuniting with her father for 11 years.

Although Deborah felt homesick, she also writes with fondness about the bonds she developed with other children, the sense of community in The Home.

What we learn from Deborah’s book is that a free secondary school education—something I take for granted in Australia—was not available in Ghana until 2017. This meant that even though Deborah passed the requisite exams, she needed to wait until she had a sponsor who would cover the costs of her education at Ghana Senior High School.

Similarly, when it came to tertiary education, Deborah knew she could not afford it. And yet eventually she made it to the University of Ghana by dint of desire, persistence, determination, intelligence, and the help and encouragement of others.

As Deborah rightly says, institutions should offer scholarships and awards to those who are in financial need “such as care leavers and not only those who produce the best/excellent grades. That way, care leavers would benefit more.”

In August 2016 when she had concluded her degree and a year of national service (a program in Ghana where graduates work with a variety of organisations “to help build the nation”), Deborah, with the help of 2 partners in the project, founded the Charis Touch Foundation. She began small, raising funds to buy shoes for the children in BASCO and continued with that work while returning to university to get her Masters.

Reading Beyond the Orphanage is a wonderful opportunity to witness life in a different country, and to understand that Care Leavers around the world have similar experiences—of wanting to understand the circumstances they find themselves in, of needing to be treated with respect and dignity, and of—with support and encouragement—having the ability to make important contributions to their societies.

I finished Beyond the Orphanage with considerable admiration for Deborah Dzifah Tamakloe; she is a role model for Care Leavers everywhere.

Beyond the Orphanage is recommended reading for Care Leavers and social workers internationally, and for policy makers, those who can influence change in a positive direction for the most vulnerable in all communities.

 

Thanks to Deborah Dzifah Tamakloe for a review copy of Beyond the Orphanage.

 

Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell

Follow Deborah on Twitter: @DziDebs

Follow Deborah on Instagram: @dzifahtamakloe

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Care Experience & Culture

Press release: For immediate release
For more information contact:
(UK) Rosie Canning / (AUS) Dr Dee Michell
Email: careexperienceandculture@gmail.com

Care Experience & Culture, a Digital Archive, the first of its kind will feature care experienced literature, spoken word and academic material.

Dr Dee Michell and Miss Rosie Canning are delighted to announce a new digital archive Care Experience & Culture. The website will launch 11th April – via Zoom – which will coincide with Care Experience History Month. Invitations to the launch will include an invitation for people to let us know their favourite care experienced characters represented in foster care, adoption, kinship care or residential settings.

‘We’d like people to join in and advise us on care experienced literature, film, theatre, television, radio and academic material that can be included’ say Rosie and Dee. Contact them if there are books, people, film and televisions you want to make sure are in the archive.

Children and young people in social care, and those who have left, are often subject to stigmatisation and discrimination. Being stigmatised and discriminated against can impact negatively on mental health and wellbeing not only during the care experience but often for many years after too.

Although there are occasional ‘success stories’ in the media about care experienced people, in the main a single story is told about this group, ie, that they are over-represented in the prison, mental ill-health and homeless populations.

The project aims to contribute towards changing community attitudes towards care experienced people as a group. Instead of only being seen through the current single lens (that they are over-represented in the prison, mental ill-health and homeless populations), they will be seen as a creative group, despite (and/or because of) often experiencing hardship and trauma.

Rosie Canning (UK) and Dee Michell (Australia) are scholars with lived experience of care and a lifelong passion for books. They have experienced many benefits from reading as a pastime and are aware of the historical representations of care experience over time. Both are influenced by Lemn Sissay’s Origin Stories and Superman was a Foundling exhibition at The Foundling Museum in London. Rosie and Dee are collaborating to develop a Digital Archive, a one-stop accessible site with information about Care Experienced characters in fiction and on-screen, as well as Care Experienced writers, artists and actors.

For children and young people in care, and their carers, social workers, teachers etc, Care Experience & Culture will provide a significant source of material to which children and young people can be directed for characters they can relate to. As Ryan McCuaig who was in care has said, characters like Harry Potter are for those who’ve left care too. He was in his twenties when a conversation with another care experienced person about Harry Potter made him realise that he “was already part of something bigger” whereas he’d often struggled with not fitting in.

There are many other care experienced characters the sector may not be aware of but which will be found in the Digital Archive.

Care Experience & Culture will be a boon to educationalists and researchers too. Researchers could, for example, select characters other than Harry Potter and run research projects to find out how children and young people are affected by them. They can also analyse representations of care experience over time and in different fora.

Jamie Crabb, Psychotherapist and care experienced, will advise on the design and maintenance of the website.

Rosie and Dee would like to thank the The Welland Trust, a charity founded by Jan Rees OBE in 2019, for the financial contribution they have made which has enabled Care Experience & Culture to be launched.

Sarah Saunders, a Trustee from the Welland Trust said “We are proud to support the development of such a creative and exciting project that we believe will be of great benefit to many people”. Welland Trust supports projects and initiatives that benefit adults who have experienced care.

How to find us:

Email: careexperienceandculture@gmail.com

Twitter: @CareExp_Culture

Facebook: Care Experience & Culture

Website: Care Experience & Culture

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The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of several novels, including The Kommandant’s Girl, which was a finalist for both the Quill awards and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal. Pam draws inspiration for her books from her service as a diplomat for the State Department in Europe working on Holocaust issues, and her experiences as the politically-appointed Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon. She also practiced law at a large firm and in-house, and is on the faculty of Rutgers School of Law. Pam received her bachelor’s degree in international affairs from The George Washington University, her master’s degree in history from Cambridge University, and her juris doctor degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children. Pam’s latest novel, An Orphan’s Tale is based on real events.

In Nazi-occupied Holland, seventeen-year-old Noa snatches a baby from a train bound for the concentration camps, fleeing with him into the snowy wilderness surrounding the train tracks.

Passing through the woods is a German circus, led by the heroic Herr Neuhoff. They agree to take in Noa and the baby, on one condition: to earn her keep, Noa must master the flying trapeze under the tutorage of mysterious aerialist, Astrid.

Wonderfully compelling… The story grips from the very first page, and the atmosphere of the circus is entrancing – you feel all the terror and thrill of the flying trapeze.’ – Margaret Leroy, author of The Soldier’s Wife

Soaring high above the crowds, Noa and Astrid must learn to trust one another or plummet. But with the threat of war closing in, loyalty can become the most dangerous trait of all.

Pam says of the book:
A few years ago while researching I came across two remarkable stories in the archives of Yad Vashem. The first was a heartbreaking account of the “Unknown Children” – a boxcar full of babies, ripped from their families and headed for a concentration camp, too young to know their own names. The second was a story of a German circus that had sheltered Jews during the war. There was a rich history of Jewish circus dynasties that spanned centuries, and other circus families which had ten or more siblings performing and/or running the circus. Sadly they were largely annihilated by the Germans. Reading the remarkable histories of the Unknown Children and the circuses, I knew that they somehow had to come together. 

I have taken great liberties with the nature of the circus acts and the ways in which they lived and performed during the war. But I was so inspired by the real people I’d met in my research. When the circus owner Adolf Althoff received the honour of being named Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem in 1995, he said, “We circus people see no difference between races or religions.” I consider this book to be a tribute to the courage of these people.’

Tell us of your journey as a writer

My stories come out of my years in Poland working on Holocaust issues for the State Department. I was profoundly moved and changed by those experiences and knew I wanted to write a book about them in novel form. But while I had inspiration, as well as the childhood dream of becoming a novelist, I never quite got started. The turning point was 9/11. I had gone to law school and began practicing as a lawyer on September 4, 2001 – exactly one week before 9/11. That day was an epiphany for me: I realized I didn’t have forever to fullfill my novelist dream. So I took a night course and began writing. It wasn’t a smooth path from there. I was an attorney and had to write from 5-7 in the morning each day. Also, it was 5 years and 39 rejections before a publisher accepted my first work.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

Most of my books center around World War II. I consider them love songs to the people who lived through that era and I feel a great responsibility to tell a story well, accurately and with respect.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

I often write dislikeable characters. I find them more interesting. The question is to see what motivates them. For example, I once wrote a book about a Nazi Kommandant and then wrote a prequel exploring how he had become that person as a result of the Great War.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

One thing I love is to explore the gray areas in people. So, for example, if I am writing about the war, my German characters are not all bad, my Jewish characters are not perfect and my ordinary folks (Poles, etc.) are somewhere in between. Some readers are not comfortable with diverse characters who are drawn in more complex and nuanced ways, but I think it makes for better storytelling that is more true to life.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

That’s a tough question. I have written in palaces in Europe and in mountaintop retreats in Banff. But I have also written in my doctor’s waiting room and in my car and I can tell you which coffee shops in my neighbourhood open at 6am on a Sunday. Being away is great but ultimately I prefer being close to loved ones, in an ordinary day’s routine and writing in my office.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Many! But of late, All The Light We Cannot See. Just such beautiful prose.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Be disciplined. You have to carve out and protect your writing time really zealously. You make the time to do it. Be tenacious. Don’t give up. It took me a long time to get published and I think that the only thing that stands between me and lots of other really more talented writers who are not published is that I just kept going.
I also think the ability to revise makes a huge difference. The ability to take feedback from an agent or an editor or a peer group and incorporate that into your work makes all the difference.

What can we look forward to reading?

The Orphan’s Tale, has been described as The Nightingale meets Water for Elephants. Inspired by two true stories, it tells of Noa, a young Dutch girl who has been cast out by her family, and who finds a boxcar of unknown children, taken from their parents by the Nazis too young to know their own names. She takes one of the infants and flees and finds shelter with a German circus that has rescued some Jews. She must learn the aerialist routine in order to fit in from a Jewish trapeze artist in hiding. The question is whether they can save each other or whether their secrets will destroy them both.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Huge fan of Mary Poppins from the P.L. travers books. Those books inspired my desire to travel, which has led to my whole career and life.

Thank you to HarperCollins for the review copy

Follow Pam on Twitter @PamJenoff.

 

*First appeared on Greenacre Writers 1st March 2017

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A Conversation with Katharine Norbury

Katharine Norbury trained as a film editor with the BBC and has worked extensively in film and television drama. She is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA programme at UEA. The Fish Ladder was her first book. It was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and was a book of the year in the Telegraph, Independent and Guardian. Katharine was chosen by the Observer as their Rising Star in non-fiction for 2015. The book was longlisted for the 2016 Wainwright Prize for nature and UK travel writing and nominated as a National Reading Group Day 2016 real life read. She lives in London with her family.

 

Katharine Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent. Raised by loving adoptive parents, she grew into a wanderer, drawn by the beauty of the British countryside. One summer, following the miscarriage of a much-longed-for child, Katharine sets out – accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Evie – with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source. The luminously observed landscape provides both a constant and a context to their expeditions. But what begins as a diversion from grief soon evolves into a journey to the source of life itself, when a chance circumstance forces Katharine to the door of the woman who gave her up all those years ago.

“What a delight! The Fish Ladder is a luminous sort of book, beautifully written, darting here and there like a kingfisher over a stream. A beautiful, strange, intoxicating and utterly unique story ” –  Philip Pullman

Combining travelogue, memoir, exquisite nature writing, fragments of poetry and tales from Celtic mythology, The Fish Ladder has a rare emotional resonance. A portrait of motherhood, of a literary marriage and a hymn to the adoptive family, this captivating story of self-discovery is, most of all, an exploration of the extraordinary majesty of the natural world. Imbued with a keen and joyful intelligence, this original and life-affirming book is set to become a classic of its genre.

“There is much to learn from The Fish Ladder about how the memoir can tell a story as well as be a meditation; how language can be both profound and sensuous. It’s an unsentimental but extraordinary exploration of how we use narrative to understand our place in the world” –  Amit Chaudhuri

(A Conversation with Katherine Norbury first appeared on Greenacre Writers in 2016.)

Tell us of your journey as a writer

To be honest, I don’t think of myself as a writer. I have written – one book, published when I was 50. I am writing. But I don’t define myself by the medium. Rather, I am interested in certain things, and in communicating thoughts and ideas. In the case of The Fish Ladder, creating a work of prose/life-writing seemed to be the best way of realising what was happening at that time. It began as a very private project, an account of one summer spent with my young daughter in Wales but, as the summer progressed, it became apparent that the story might have a wider “reach” than that of my immediate family. The reason I was keeping a notebook that year was because I find digital photography difficult to master, believe it or not, and so when pharmacists stopped developing photographs I was obliged to find another way to “capture the moment”. Moments of joy – when a cloud passes over the sun, or a fish leaps out of the water. Or moments of transcendence – when your child smiles at you from a rock pool, bucket and net in hand, an orange crab wriggling on a nylon line. And so it was that I picked up a pen. The Fish Ladder is an “origins” story borne out of the notion of following a river from the sea to its source and this journey eventually became a metaphor for a more personal quest to discover who my natural family are and to contemplate the role of the adoptive family, with the landscape providing a counterpoint to the human story.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

To bear witness? To explore the world. To ask questions. And I wouldn’t necessarily say I like the role though I find it rewarding and consider it essential.

Anything written has the potential to withstand millennia – the clay tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey, Beowulf. More recently, witness accounts such as Anne Frank’s diary have adjusted the moral compass of whole nations. There is an inherent moral weight on the writer.

Much of what we, as a reading public, know about environmental debate comes to us not through scientists or politicians but through writers such as Bill McKibben and Al Gore in the United States; Tim Winton, Verity Burgmann, Tim Flannery in Australia; Mark Cocker, Rob Cowen, Melissa Harrison, Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane, Michael McCarthy, Richard Kerridge and George Monbiot in the UK. So writers are at the forefront of disseminating knowledge.

Freedom of expression is important to me and I have watched it being enthusiastically and voluntarily forfeited – in university “safe spaces” and in ideas about “cultural appropriation” to name but a couple of recent examples. The writer must therefore be robust, with a rhinoceros skin, and they must reserve the right to offend in order to articulate the ideas that motivate them. And we must all trust our readers to be the judge of whether what is written has any value or not, and not forget to disentangle the views of the writer with those expressed by their characters. And accept that, as with Pandora’s box, this position opens the lid on all kinds of demons!

The role of the storyteller has been central to human experience since we first sat around the fire entertaining and reassuring ourselves through the long dark nights, questioning our actions, and learning from them. It is with good reason that stories have been elevated and safeguarded throughout the ages by librarians, parents, teachers, priests and shamans. However, it is important that we don’t lose sight of the true role of those guardians of “story”. The stories are there so we can learn from the experiences of those who have gone before us, so we can think about complex moral issues in a truly safe environment, and also, to be entertained. That isn’t necessarily the impression that you get when you look at the atrocities committed in the name of certain books today and throughout the ages.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

This question had been crossed out although I think it is relevant to the life writer. There is no imperative for the reader to like a character in a work of memoir or biography. Some readers have loved the “I” of The Fish Ladder, others have taken against her/me. But I don’t think it matters. One of the least likeable characters in literature is Emma Bovary, but who among those of us who have met her hasn’t put their fingers to their lips, and read through tears and gasps as Emma stuffs her mouth full of arsenic powder after reducing her family to penury over curtains she couldn’t afford and the bills of her student lover? (I think it was the draper’s bill that finally tipped her over the edge!). It’s the human condition that we empathise with – the “there but for the grace of God go I”.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

The Fish Ladder is, at one level, a travelogue and there is a tradition in travel writing to respect the privacy of your fellow traveller. The people I met along the way ranged in age, class, religion, race, nationality and I simply presented them all as they appeared to me, while respecting their relative privacy. (So I didn’t say so-and-so had a nose like a melon, for example!) As a rule of thumb I don’t say anything about anyone that I wouldn’t be prepared to say to their face and in company! This is obviously a very different state of affairs to that of the fiction writer – think of Dickens’ character studies for example – where the writer can wallow in characterisation.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Oh. That’s two different questions. If I could go anywhere in the world I’d very much like to go to Australia. But as to where I would like to write? Proximity to mountains and the sea are ideal, as I think best when I am either swimming or walking. The Llyn Peninsula, the English Lakes, Catalonia. But I agree with Tim Winton who says that because he spends so much of his time outside, he writes in an austere room that doesn’t even have a picture on the wall, because a picture is a kind of window. Writing, for me, is an interior experience and the less distractions the better. But I do need to walk and swim in the gaps between writing so London (where I am now) isn’t the best place for me to work as it is packed with distractions!

What is the one book you wish you had written?

My goodness. That is impossible, forgive me.  Wishing you had written something by someone else implies a desire to get the credit for having done it! I think any kind of artistic endeavour is about paring down the ego, not inflating it. I’m just glad there’s a wealth of good stuff out there to enjoy! The book I read the most is the Odyssey of Homer translated by Richmond Lattimore, and it is always at my bedside, but I have no desire to lay claim to it!

What advice do you have for would be writers?

To work hard. To heed the lived experience of writers you admire. To listen to Samuel Beckett, on failure, for example: “No matter, fail again. Fail better.” Or Hemingway: “The only kind of writing is rewriting”. To learn to accept criticism and see it for what it is. Your work can always be better. And your critics can be wrong. So don’t ask a member of your family to give you notes! Find someone you trust, a former school teacher, not your friends who are simply going to say: darling it’s marvellous! It probably isn’t! And also, to know when to walk away, and when something is finished.

Exciting news, Katharine’s new book WOMEN ON NATURE is finished. It is a landmark anthology which collects together the work of women, over the centuries and up to the present day, who have written about the natural world in Britain, Ireland and the outlying islands of our archipelago. Alongside the traditional forms of the travelogue, the walking guide, books on birds, plants and wildlife, Women on Nature embraces alternative modes of seeing and recording that turn the genre on its head.


Katharine has sifted through the pages of women s fiction, poetry, household planners, gardening diaries and recipe books to show the multitude of ways in which they have observed the natural world about them, from the fourteenth-century writing of the anchorite nun Julian of Norwich to the seventeenth-century travel journal of Celia Fiennes; from the keen observations of Emily Brontë to a host of brilliant contemporary voices.

Women on Nature presents a groundbreaking vision of the natural world which, in addition to being a rich and scintillating anthology that shines a light on many unjustly overlooked writers, is of unique importance in terms of women s history and the history of writing about nature. It is available in Waterstones and on Amazon for pre-orders (as the copies on Unbound’s site are sold out) Hopefully the indy bookstores will look out for it! Published: 13th May 2021

You can follow Katharine on Twitter: @KJNorbury

 

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A Conversation With Alex Wheatle

Born in 1963 to Jamaican parents living in Brixton, Alex Wheatle spent most of his childhood in a Surrey children’s home. He returned to Brixton in 1977 where he founded the Crucial Rocker sound system and performed his own songs and lyrics under the name of Yardman Irie. He spent a short stint in prison following the Brixton uprising of 1981. Following his release from prison he continued to write poems and lyrics and became known as the Brixtonbard.

Alex’s first novel, Brixton Rock, was published to critical acclaim in 1999. Many more novels have followed including East of Acre Lane, The Seven Sisters, Island Songs, Checkers, and The Dirty South, and more recently Home Girl, and Cane Warriors, all highly praised.

His books are on school reading lists, Alex takes part in Black History Month every year, works with Booktrust and the Children’s Discovery Centre to promote reading. He is representing English PEN. He teaches in various places including Lambeth College, holds workshops in prisons and is frequently invited to schools to speak to students, inspiring in them with his own story a passion for literature.

Alex also appears regularly on BBC1’s The One Show and on radio. He wrote and performed his own one-man autobiographical show for Tara Arts, Uprising, and took the performance on tour in October 2012 and in 2013 all over the country. His play, Shame and Scandal, was performed at the Albany Theatre. Brixton Rock was turned into a short film and also a play performed by young care leavers with the Big House Theatre.  Crongton Knights was on virtual tour! Alex has appeared at many festivals including Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, Hay Festival, Bristol Festival of Ideas, Edinburgh Book Festival and some years ago at the Finchley Literary Festival.

Noel Clarke of Unstoppable Films is adapting the Crongton series into a TV series. In Autumn 2020, Steve McQueen based one episode in his six-part SMALL AXE series for BBC on Alex’s life.

A new stage adaptation of Alex Wheatle’s Home Girl is to be staged at Derby Theatre through a “unique and exciting co-creation and collaboration” between Wheatle, the theatre, Derby’s Cultural Education Partnership, professional writers, care-experienced young people and other young theatre-makers.

He was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for services to literature in 2008. A favourite of reading groups and libraries, he is the UK’s most read Black British author.

Awards include:

2020 – Shorlisted for the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature
2017 – Winner of the Renaissance Quiz Writers’ Choice Award for Crongton Knights.
2016 – Winner of the Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Award for Crongton Knights.
2008 – MBE for services to literature.
1999 – London Arts Board New Writers Award for Brixton Rock.

He lives with his family in London.

The following conversation first appeared via Greenacre Writers in 2016:

  1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

My journey as a writer began in my mid teens when I used to write lyrics for performances on reggae sound systems. I dreamed of becoming the next Bob Marley, Barrington Levy or Dennis Brown!  The discipline I gained from producing something every week for performance moulded and honed me into the writer I am today. From a sound system MC, I progressed to poetry and short stories. I performed my work at poetry jams and venues like the Brixton Brasserie and Under The Arches near Brixton train station.  My first novel, Brixton Rock, was published by Black Amber Books in 1999. For the themes in my debut work I used much of my own real lived experiences and those of my friends too.  I repeated the trick with my second novel, East of Acre Lane.

  1. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

Primarily, I see my role as a writer to tell a good story and entertain. If within that story I can educate, show readers a narrative and a slice of life that they are unfamiliar with, bring a certain truth to the setting and theme of a story and make people reflect about the characters in my tale that might challenge their preconceived views, I’ll take that as a bonus. I really don’t see myself as any different from the story-telling sound MCs of my youth or the griots of my ancestral past to what I create today.

  1. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

I created Noel in The Dirty South who initially I disliked. He had a foul mouth, was rude to women and could be very violent. As my story developed I became very fond of him.  He had aggressive traits but possessed a tender core. He was very loyal to those close to him. In the end he simply craved his mother’s love.

  1. Last October, GW organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

The diversity debate has been raging on both sides of the Atlantic with the furore about the Oscars are so white controversy and the writers of colour I know who feel excluded from the major literature festivals within these shores. When I was a kid one of my heroes was Mark Lester who played Oliver Twist in Carol Reed’s multi award-winning film musical. I cried on his low points and cheered on his successes. Although Oliver Twist was white I could totally engage with the character and I was desperate for him to consider myself as his friend. My point is (and this is for any film, drama and fiction gatekeepers out there) all we writers of colour are asking is for you to love, appreciate and value our narratives, themes, characters, heroes and villains as much as we love, value and appreciate yours.

  1. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I have been very fortunate to have developed ideas for novels in the South of France (a beautiful place called Vauvert near the Carmargue) Jamaica, Washington DC and Miami.  I’d love to write somewhere like Hawaii – one because of its people and culture and two because I was a huge fan of Magnum, the series starring Tom Selleck and three because I’d get away every day with wearing Hawaiian shirts, three-quarter pants and sandals! I probably wouldn’t get any work done!

  1. What is the one book you wish you had written?

The book I’d have loved to have written is Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, a phenomenal author and essayist. In fact I’d be extremely proud to have written any of his work.

  1. What advice do you have for would be novelists?

My advice for aspiring novelists is to try and produce something every week – even if it’s a page or so. Develop your discipline not just to create but to edit and improve. My next tip is to write the book that you want to buy – be passionate about your subject matter.

You can listen to Alex Wheatle speaking with Nihal Arthanayake, via The Penguin Podcast. In this episode, Alex chats to Nihal about his latest YA book ‘Cane Warriors’, based on the true story of Tacky, a slave who led an uprising on the plantations of Jamaica in the 18th Century.

You can follow Alex on Twitter: @brixtonbard

 

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Highlights of 2020

It’s been a difficult year. One that will continue to be challenging both personally and generally for some time yet. There is though a lot of hope shining through the clouds today. Yesterday, the University of Oxford welcomed the news that the UK Government had accepted the recommendation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to authorise the emergency use of the coronavirus vaccine in the UK. This means more people can begin to be vaccinated and at the very least see loved ones.

Here are some highlights:

In January, the boyfriend asked if I’d seen what was happening in China. I hadn’t. We found videos of people collapsing on the streets of Wuhan from some sort of virus. Initially people returning to the UK were quarantined on the Wirral. I worried if the UK would close its borders in time. My anxiety was increasing. I watched as an Italian scientist waved his hands in the air at an English professor going on about Herd Immunity. By then Italy was in the clutches of the pandemic. There were daily reports of people arriving in the UK without checks, surely not. Help!

February was a stormy month. Cancelled trains and plans, missed coaches, but somehow I arrived at Southampton University on time! Some hours later, I emerged from an examination room as a fully-fledged PhD candidate.

March was when Lockdown proper began. Suddenly we were in some weird post-apocalyptic world. Streets and roads were deserted. Shops closed. Aeroplanes grounded. Central London was empty!

Less traffic meant cleaner air meant fewer fatalities from air pollution. In the UK, 2 million people with respiratory conditions experienced reduced symptoms. There was clear evidence that smog over Wuhan in China reduced dramatically and for the first time in decades residents were astonished to make out Mount Everest in Kathmandu, Nepal. The benefits were felt almost immediately and animals began to take over the streets!

Great Orme Kashmiri goats on the streets of Llandudno, Wales. Credit: Andrew Stuart

During April I was still a Research Assistant at Oxford but due to Covid-19, future plans were put on hold. We held a special Care Convos on Twitter at the beginning of Lockdown. We checked in with each other, shared coping strategies and pooled the many resources that exist out there to support the care community. It was after this that we began discussing a new project. Care in the time of Covid-19 explored the day to day lives of care experienced adults in the UK during COVID-19. We wanted to know how the care community was coping and what helped them. We also wanted to record their experiences in history.

In May, Care in the time of Covid-19 was approved by ethics and we launched the project. I also started a Memoir and Autobiography section on the blog written by authors with care-experience. An exciting guest was Kirsty Capes whose novel Careless will be published in May 2021. Kirsty was recently featured on BBC’s Books 2021.

June was a month of extreme sadness. People witnessed the unlawful killing of George Floyd by police in America. George captured the hearts and anger of the world. Black Lives Matter protests were held internationally in spite of Covid-19. My nieces attended the march in Bristol where the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was thrown into the Bristol Harbour.

June was also the 72nd anniversary of the arrival of Windrush. William Saul, father of my sister Jayne and brother Gary, travelled from George Town, Guyana in the mid 1950s. Jayne wrote about this and reflected on the current Windrush scandal and recent protests.

A devastating lowlight wa the deterioration of  the mental health of one of my sons’ to such a point that he was sectioned, I was totally floored and my own MH severely compromised. Coupled with this was not being able to see him because of Covid-19 and the rest of the family.

I found lack of connection, hugs, like many others, particularly difficult. I thought about how to get some PPE and had a lightbulb moment. I ordered some an old fashioned rain-macs! They arrived brightly coloured to mingle in with the gleaming June sun. The joy and healing of that afternoon will stay with me.

July saw some of the stewards from Greenacre Walks, meet for the first time in months. We were all wary but the sun was shining, it was gloriously hot and we had such fun.

Ratty, Otter, Mole, Mr Toad and Me (with chipped tooth as no dentists were open)!

August saw the exciting launch of the Alliance for Care Experienced People in Higher Education (ACEPHE) an international organisation for those working and studying in HE. And a trip to the seaside, well estuary really, Maldon and the first sighting of Northey Island. It was so nice to get away if only for a one day holi-day.

September I finally saw my son which was both sad and a relief. I’d been stuck for years with images of my mother being over-prescribed with drugs and ECT and consequently was myself very anti-anything to do with sectioning or medication. I learnt about mental health in today’s world and communicated with psychiatrists, nurses and social workers. I knew that for my son, anti-psychotic drugs were the only way forward. He’s a bit better but will remain in hospital for some time. He and I are lucky that he has a good team supporting him.

September also saw children returning to schools after 6 months off with parents stepping in as teachers. My daughter found this very difficult to do whilst juggling looking after a lively six month old.

Revising the PhD novel was very much in mind and I began a brilliant course Psychology of Character designed by Stephanie Carty, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, which was all about really getting to know your character’s patterns of behaviour based on childhood attachment and whether they were believable. The value-added of this course was getting to understand my own behaviours even more.

October was the month we published some of the findings from the Care in the time of Covid-19 project and the end of my time at Oxford! Results showed anxiety and depression were high. The similarities between people coping/not coping with Covid-19 and the general difficulties experienced by care experienced people both leaving care and post care was again apparent as more research about Covid-19 and mental health were published. Experts say COVID-19 is the worst hit to mental health since world war 2, the impact is likely to last for years. Fingers crossed that the research into the impact of Covid-19 trickles down and reaches those in care and those with care experience to access the help some so desperately need.

Also October was National Care Leavers Week and the launch of a project I had been discussing with Aoife O’Higgins and the Widening Participation team at University of Southampton: A Portrait of Care. This amazing project linked with the representation aspect of my PhD but in this instance those often stigmatised were free to define themselves. We also held a draw and asked some care experienced artists to do some portraits of the winners.

Nic by Millie

Reena by Yusuf

November saw the first public meeting for ACEPHE where we welcomed those with care experience who are studying or working in HE as well as those working with them. From this meeting, Deputy Director of the Rees Centre, Dr Neil Harrison will run an event about academic publishing.

December A Christmas like no other, but for whom? Every year behind the public scenes of a wonderful Christmastime are people working their butts off to improve the Christmasses of those less fortunate. This is often includes Care Leavers and Care Experienced people who for a variety of reasons have often had family connections severed from a young age. Sometimes it is those very reasons that means reconciliation is just not possible or maybe fails. Again there is a parallel between Covid-19 and Care Experience – for the first time ever, some of the nation will have experienced a little of what it is like to feel isolated and alone at Christmas (not that I would wish this on anyone). Whilst the happy-ever-after adverts play out on TVs, Christmas for care leavers has always been difficult. Often without a place to call home or sense of belonging all care experienced people can do is window shop. This of course is not the whole story, many go on to create their own families and homes bringing about change for themselves.

And so, as we zoom into 2021, what now?

Something I didn’t mention above is a project Dee Michell from University of Adelaide and I have been working on. I can’t say too much at this stage other than it is of course something to do with care experience…and that it has received approval and funding. We are very excited and more details will be announced in February.

This just leaves time to say some special thanks yous:

Aoife, for making my experience at Oxford a fantastic one.

Rebecca, for being a fab supervisor.

Annika, for her support re mental health of my son.

Victoria, my daughter for being so lovely and level headed too.

Dee, for the fab convos in this and the coming year!

Mike, for being there.

And the many friends (Saira, Jamie, Lisa, Yusuf) who’ve been there in one way or another.🧡

I wish you ALL a healthy, peaceful and creative New Year. See you on the other side…

Here’s hoping that 2021 is the first one without any Tiers! 😉

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Lowborn by Kerry Hudson

Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns

In many ways Kerry Hudson is lucky to be alive. She starts Lowdown with a happy ending when she tells the reader:

I escaped poverty. I escaped bad food because that’s all you can afford. I escaped threadbare clothes and too-tight shoes. I escaped drinking or drugging myself in oblivion because…I escaped Jeremy Kyle in a shiny suit telling me my sort was scum…I escaped hopelessness. 

So we know there is going to be a happy ending of sorts but not before we have been dragged through the emotional mangle of her past, that of an impoverished, working class life. It is a life she has had to leave behind, and this includes most of her family and in particular her mother.

Over a decade ago I made the painful but wholly necessary decision to estrange myself from my mum. Perhaps inevitably this has meant I have become estranged from the rest of my close family, too…In the end, I removed myself because I could not live with the rages and denial of the past.

The book is the outcome of questions that Kerry had about her transient childhood. She wanted to find out if the towns she lived in had got better. Or why she sometimes woke up screaming with the night terrors. Kerry decides that the only way to find out is to go back.

I decided to go back to Aberdeen where I was born into a clan of matriarchal fishwives and follow the staggering, itinerant route of my childhood down the country: Aberdeen, Canterbury, North Lanarkshire, Sunderland, Great Yarmouth…I would be casting my net for stories and facts, then I’d cut them open and see what the guts told me.

This is a fierce, brave and outspoken memoir. Kerry is a traveller who takes the reader back and forth both in her mind and in reality. Each chapter either takes place in her childhood memory, her present – which is often a relief from the trauma Kerry lived through and a reminder that the girl done good – or physical travelling on coaches or trains back to the many places she had lived as a child.

Early on Kerry tells the reader in recipe style she attended nine primary schools and five secondaries, living in B&Bs and council flats. She was sexually assaulted twice, raped once, had two abortions as well as a couple of stays in foster care. This is where Kerry slips through the net and we realise that it is only by luck that she didn’t end up on the front page of the press like so many poor children failed or just missed by social services.

I don’t know why, of all the things I’ve felt ashamed of as an adult, having been in foster care is the one that felt most taboo to speak aloud…there’s a particular sort of family where children are taken away from their mother and I didn’t want to think that my family, for all its complexities, was one of those families.

Family loyalty like family secrecy explains Kerry, is very hard to voice, but that writing it down in a book which will become public is even harder. Like having to learn to write with a different hand, so she decides to get some help in the form of a therapist.

It seemed this strange process was splitting me in half. I was an archivist of my dead life. I was a private investigator digging my way through my own deeply buried secrets, both desperate for answers and fighting to keep them hidden.

Kerry Hudson is proudly working class but she was never proudly poor. The poverty she grew up in was all-encompassing, grinding and often dehumanising.

Twenty years later, Kerry’s life is unrecognisable. She’s a prizewinning novelist who has travelled the world. She has a secure home, a loving partner and access to art, music, film and books. But she often finds herself looking over her shoulder, caught somehow between two worlds.

Lowborn is Kerry’s exploration of where she came from. She revisits the towns she grew up in to try to discover what being poor really means in Britain today and whether anything has changed. But more than this, if Kerry didn’t go back, did not face the past, her life would always be haunted by the blank bits of her memory, that unknowing many children with traumatic pasts have.

I realised that I could only really answer these questions if I went back. If I looked my monster in the face in the hope that it would be a shadow, after all.

This is not an easy read but it is a necessary one. Those of us who scraped through our childhoods and somehow escaped our pasts will identify with much of the writing. The haunting from ghosts past that take work to exorcise, the constant not fitting-in and the many moments of love and kindness that splatter through the pages. As somebody in my book group said ‘We don’t often hear from people who have been through this sort of childhood, it is an important voice and one we can all learn from.’

Hatfield Book Group was one of several reading groups that won 10 paperback copies of Lowborn from Vintage Books in return for an online review:

‘Incredibly brave’

Reading the book was as good as a tv programme. I love the fact she’d travelled despite the problems she had as a child, haven’t gone away just learns to live with it and get on with her life.’

‘Compelling, couldn’t put it down’

‘I googled her afterwards, I never do this and discovered she’s expecting a baby.’

‘Brutal but gripping’

‘So many terrible experiences horrific to live through. Difficult to express that – how do you survive that horror? Incredibly brave to go back. Also a kind of healing, when she went back and revisited – a way to let go.’

Kerry Hudson was born in Aberdeen. Her first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust First Book Award and was shortlisted for an array of prizes including the Guardian First Book Award and the Sky Arts Awards. Thirst, her second novel, won the prestigious prix Femina etranger. Lowborn is her first work of non-fiction, and her journey has led to a highly successful column for the Pool. She currently lives in Liverpool.

Thank you to The Reading Agency and Vintage books for the complimentary copies.

Follow Kerry on Twitter: @ThatKerryHudson

 

 

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