The Brightness of Stars by Lisa Cherry

Lisa Cherry starts the journey of her life with a quote from Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003):

All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of the handler. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces beyond repair.

A sort of Philip Larkin for the neglected child. But a fitting quote that begins Lisa’s own fucked-up-ness childhood into care leaver story.

Lisa had a ‘burning desire’ to write a book and began her writing journey through blogging, something she loved to do. Something that became part of a cathartic healing process.

For a long time I have felt that I had many stories to tell: stories that would heal the wounds left over from years of therapeutic intervention, 12 step programmes and self help books galore.

Once started on her life story, Lisa writes for herself all too aware that her private, innermost thoughts once published become the property of others. She believes by telling her story it is not just herself that will benefit.

And when we stand up and stand out and share our story, we open up the possibility of helping another person heal too.

The book is split into two parts, the first, is Lisa’s own experiences. Each chapter begins with the time it is set and ends with a page dedicated to the soundtrack of her life, popular songs, the headlines in the newspapers, what she watched on television and a page of remembered moments.

As I ran up to the house from the car that dropped me off I used the palm of my hand to push the door open as I thought it was just pulled too, but it was locked shut and my hand went straight through the glass.

A child has been cut badly by glass there is blood everywhere, yet Lisa’s memory is of being pulled and pushed, of ‘huffing and puffing’ while Lisa apologises over and over. As the narrative of childhood unfolds, so too does the neglect, misunderstanding, the secrets and lies:

So it’s 1969, and as I understand it, my mother had been ‘dating’ someone for a few months, maybe three. His name has always been a mystery but Dave and Fred have been mentioned on the various occasions that I have tried to have a conversation about who this mystery person – my father – may be.

For children who end up in care there is always the before and after story. Even if they were a baby before being handed over for fostering, adoption or residential care, there is the mother’s life before the pregnancy and birth and possibly time with each other. There is what happened to the child before they went into care and what happened whilst in care and what happened when they left the system.

We are the carriers of the quiet stories, the silent ones, the versions of life that are often untold. I wanted my voice to be heard – and I wanted to provide a space for the voices of others too.

Interspersed between the narrative are references to policy makers and the statistics and data that measure care leaver outcomes.

What is missing is how it ‘feels’ to be a child in care – and how those feelings continue to affect children long into adulthood.

The second half of the book is a collection of brief anecdotes written by care experienced adults who in many cases are failed or even physically, morally, and sexually abused by the corporate parents supposed to protect them. In spite of this most go on to have a successful, fulfilled though obviously care-affected life.

Lisa wrote her dissertation on care leavers: how the system actively prevents the creation of support networks for young people entering into adult life and how this impacts upon them and their feelings of isolation.

Through all these stories Lisa hopes to enlighten those that want to know and in particular policy makers, practitioners and teachers. This is a clever book, put together with the knowledge of policy, the sociology of a care-experienced life and designed to complement the social science course. And she tells the reader:

This is not a sensationalist piece of work designed to satisfy the hunger for trauma and drama that may reside in some.

It’s a book that will inform social work and education. Precisely because it is so much more than a ‘care leaver’ story – that is not to undervalue those other narratives. It’s written with an intelligence and awareness that illustrates the struggle of what it means to heal the past, to survive, despite a too often familiar story of neglect in a system that is supposed to protect and care for neglected, abused or traumatised children.

The Brightness of Stars candidly explores Lisa’s own experiences and enables others to reflect on theirs in a book which focuses on the adult voices of those who have experienced the care system. Through the personal insights and reflections of those who were once a looked after child, these often unheard stories are brought vividly to life.

These are stories about love and pain; hurt and isolation; the depth of lived experience that makes up a life; the big things and the little things; how we live our lives through our relationships with others; and where we feel we fit in. Through these stories we can provide some thought-provoking information and recommendations for all those who work directly with young people.

Follow Lisa on Twitter: @_LisaCherry

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All the Good Things – Clare Fisher: Q&A

Clare Fisher was born in Tooting, south London in 1987. After accidentally getting obsessed with writing fiction when she should have been studying for a BA in History at the University of Oxford, Clare completed an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. An avid observer of the diverse area of south London in which she grew up, Clare’s writing is inspired by her long-standing interest in social exclusion and the particular ways in which it affects vulnerable women and girls. All The Good Things is her first novel.

All the Good Things is a story about redemption and hope for fans of Nathan Filer, Stephen Kelman and Emma Healey. What if you did a very bad thing… but that wasn’t the end of the story.

Heartfelt, heartbreaking, and genuinely joyous‘. – Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill

Twenty-one year old Beth is in prison. The thing she did is so bad she doesn’t deserve ever to feel good again. But her counsellor, Erika, won’t give up on her. She asks Beth to make a list of all the good things in her life. So Beth starts to write down her story, from sharing silences with Foster Dad No. 1, to flirting in the Odeon on Orange Wednesdays, to the very first time she sniffed her baby’s head.

But at the end of her story, Beth must confront the bad thing.

What is the truth hiding behind her crime? And does anyone – even a 100% bad person – deserve a chance to be good?

[This] novel will challenge preconceptions about the kind of people who end up in care; the kind of people who end up in prison; the kind of people who do terrible things. – 4* Goodreads review

I’m thrilled and delighted to welcome author Clare Fisher to the blog to answer some questions about her depiction of care leaver, Beth, the protagonist, in her debut novel All the Good Things. 

When you first started writing All the Good Things, what made you choose to write about a care leaver?

I didn’t set out to write about a care leaver as such; Beth’s voice and character came to me, I knew she was in prison and felt like a bad thing, I then tried my best to work out why that was, and her experiences in care were part of the jigsaw. At every juncture, I wanted to give a sense that things could have gone differently for Beth – as they very nearly did at various points.

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

Growing up, I saw how some of my friends and school mates who had just as much intelligence and potential as me ended up getting less opportunities and successes, largely because they had far less stable home lives (care being one factor but also others). I then also worked in schools and as a legal clerk in a family law setting, both of which gave me insight into some of the situations, behaviours and issues that can go with it.

Care leavers often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst creating Beth’s narrative?

I didn’t intend Beth to be representative of all care leavers, however, I did try to make her as individual and as real as possible. I wanted her story to ring true on an emotional and a practical level; for her to seem like a believeable and complex individual first and foremost. By developing this character in this way, I hoped that readers would see beyond the preconceptions and stereotypes that surround some aspects of the situation she ends up in, and of course her crime.

The biog at the end of the book mentions your ‘long-standing interest in social exclusion and the particular ways in which it affects vulnerable women and girls. Could you tell us a bit more about this.

Growing up in south London and then working in schools, I was interested in the ways in which young woman are so often demonised for failing to act in the prescribed ways – how it was so often seen as ok to lay into women and girls who were too loud, who got pregnant unexpectedly, who didn’t toe the line, especially when they did not have a comfortable middle class background to cushion them.

You’ve spent many years hosting creative writing workshops for women in prison. On the Penguin website, in ‘5 things teaching creative writing in prisons taught me‘, it says, being exposed to the social exclusion they face, inspired you to write All the Good Things. Have any of the prisoners you worked with read the book? And if so, have they given you any feedback?

Not yet, no – they are going to do it in their book group and I will go in and discuss it with them, so looking forward to that.

What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

So many! I think literature is still crammed with overwhelmingly white, middle class, able-bodied characters.

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

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.


Thanks to Clare for the interview and to Viking for the review copy of All the Good Things

Follow Clare on Twitter: @claresitafisher


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Brixton Rock Short Film

Last night I went to see Brixton Rock, the short film, based on Alex Wheatle’s novel of the same name. It was held in Brixton Library and apart from the title, and the location of the book, it was also there in the library that the first words of Brixton Rock were penned. One day they’ll have a plaque, if of course the library is still there, but that of course is another story.

Brixton Rock was originally published in 1999 and tells the story of Brenton, a 16 year old boy who was abandoned by his parents and brought up in care.

The story is set in Brixton, London during the 1980’s and highlights the emotional struggle of children who are raised within the social care system. In particular children who are from ethnic minority backgrounds. Brenton is of mixed racial heritage – white English and black Jamaican. The book eloquently portrays his emotional battle with abandonment, and his struggle to fit into society.

Brixton Rock throws us back into a world filled with London slang and south London humour. It also incorporates a nostalgic 1980’s setting.

Ethosheia Hylton, Writer/Director first came across the book a few years ago. Once she read it she was hooked and kept seeing the scenes in the novel as a feature film. She set about producing a script. The short has been produced as a taster of the full-length version.

Alongside Ethosheia Hylton; Producer Zoe Sailsman-Asghar, and Production Manager Laurelle Blake, three incredibly talented women, got together to raise funds to start work on this much needed story.

Last night we heard how they had been having problems casting Brenton Brown, the protagonist. That was until Calvin Demba turned up for audition. Calvin has been acting for a number of years including Hollyoaks, Youngers, (2013) and his latest Kingsman: The Golden Circle, out in September this year. Almost immediately, he became Brenton and made the role his own.

At the beginning of the short, Brenton was given the address of his mother by his social worker, excellently performed by Andrew Shire. Brenton decides to go to her house and knocks unnanounced on the door. Her shock at seeing the son, who she perhaps feared and hoped would contact her, turned to tears as he became angry and violent. Her expressions spoke many words. Played by acting veteran, Angela Wynter, her moving performance made me think of the hardly mentioned black women who also had to give up their children in the 1950s/60s/70s. That is a story still to be told.

The transition from adult Brenton to child Brenton was seamless, so much so that it’s only as I’m writing this and researching the actors, that I realise Baxter Willougby, played the young Brenton brilliantly.

Juliette is played by Lasharne Anderson, an upcoming actress who appeared in the last scene, angry and shocked to be told Brenton is her brother.

The script will be adapted to fit the film and one of these adaptations is around Brenton’s father, played by another acting veteran, Will Johnson. In the short, he appears in the scene just after Brenton is reunited with his mother, and meets his sister for the first time.

I wondered what he was doing there. He wasn’t in that scene in the book! Unfortunately that was the end of the short, so I’ll have to wait for the full-length feature film to find out.

Disaffected youth and lack of support for care leavers is frequently in the news, sometimes with devastating results. The lack of diversity in publishing and the film industry has too long been an issue. The story of being black and in care needs a narrative, the time for a film like Brixton Rock could not be better.


Alex Wheatle (MBE) is the author of nine novels. His YA novel Liccle Bit was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2016. “Wise as well as witty, understanding rather than blinkered, [Liccle Bit] is a joy to read” (Independent). In 2016 the second in the YA series, Crongton Knights won the 50th Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. His first book, Brixton Rock (1999), tells the story of a 16-year old care leaver of mixed race, in 1980s Brixton. Its sequel, Brenton Brown, was published in 2011. In 2010, he wrote the one-man autobiographical performance, Uprising. Alex was awarded an MBE for services to literature in 2008.

Brixton Rock is published by Black Amber Books

You can follow Alex on Twitter: @BrixtonBard

And keep up-to-date with the future plans of Brixton Rock, the film both via Facebook and Twitter: @BrixtonRockSF



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The Patron Saint of Care Leavers

Yesterday I attended the Royal Court to listen to The Report read by Julie Hesmondhalgh to Lemn Sissay. Lemn opened the evening by reading what he’d written on his blog:

“A few weeks ago I sat down in a beige interview room in the legal district of Leeds City Centre. I thought it was going to be easy. The man sat behind the table opposite me had been appointed by my lawyer. He was neither friendly ‘we’re going to be five hours at least’ or unfriendly ‘There’s a lot to get through.’ He clicked his ballpoint pen and the psychological interrogation of my life began. Mid way through the interview I broke down…This week I received The Psychologist’s Report  via my lawyer. It is 25 pages long. He  said it brought him to tears…I want someone to read the report to me.  I want to do it on stage so that I will hear it for the first time in front of a live audience.  One reader. One table. And me.  It will be called The Report.”

The fact that Lemn had no idea what would be in the report but decided to listen to it anyway, in public, must have taken a huge amount of courage and a risk to his own wellbeing.

All day I had felt nervous. What must he have felt? I ummed and aahed as whether to go. I had that choice. I knew it would bring stuff up for me but I also wanted to be there for Lemn in the audience so he didn’t feel so alone. There were no worries of that, tickets sold out within 24 hours, the place was packed. But more than anybody in that audience, I understood what Lemn had been through and what he was still going through nearly 50 years later. I hoped that being in the audience, and I’m sure there were other care leavers there too, would help. I hope he heard the ‘Well Dones’ when it was explained he hadn’t drunk alcohol or taken drugs to anaesthetise his feelings for three years. I hope he heard the gasps of shock every time the lies he experienced were read out. I hope he felt the love and care emanating throughout that small space that held over 300 people.

He has a counsellor and he is talking through his life, his narrative, he is claiming himself back.

The Royal Court was the perfect place for Lemn’s event. On 8 May 1956, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger opened there. The Royal Court was Britain’s first national theatre company, and has held firm to its vision of being a writers theatre. Its plays have challenged the artistic, social and political orthodoxy of the day, pushing back the boundaries of what was possible or acceptable.

The Report, would also break boundaries, those of silence and fear. Much of what I write is from memory as I didn’t make notes and I didn’t take photos of the performance. This was as a mark of respect, privacy, even though we were in a very public space.

I heard Lemn’s life story told through a psychologist’s report, much of which I’ve heard before in various places. I heard how he was stolen from his mother, how his name too was stolen and replaced with the very plain, Norman. Perhaps the original social worker, Norman Goldthorpe, had such an uneventful life that he decided to put his rather ordinary name on to an extraordinary child. Despite this, Lemn shone throughout his childhood, so much so that the children of his adopted family resented him. And eventually so too did the adoptive parents who rejected him and sent him back to care, telling him he had chosen to leave them and he would never see them again.

One day Lemn was part of a huge family, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and parents and the next he was a child in care completely traumatised and unable to understand what had happened. To say my heart broke is an understatement. I pretty much cried throughout the whole reading.

From that day, Lemn’s life changed. And throughout the rest of the evening I heard how he spent the next five years struggling in a world that was racially, physically and psychologically abusive. He was beaten, he was called racist names like Chalky White, he was spat at, the list of abuse is endless. This sensitive, upset child, was locked up in Wood End Assessment Centre, Atherton. Locked up! Lemn said: “I’ve been trying to come to terms with what happened to me inside those walls, that institution, that place of secrets.” In 2015, Police began investigating historical physical and sexual abuse at the former children’s home in Wigan.

Somewhere inside of Lemn, just as he has recognised the super-human strength of orphans in fiction, Superman was a Foundling, he found the strength to use words as a way to claim his freedom, his search for identity and his sanity.

I’m sorry that I cannot remember all the different names of all the different mental health issues that Lemn is still suffering and recovering from. There were words like Personality Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, agoraphobia, intimacy issues – the list was exhaustive. He still finds it difficult to enter a hotel dining room because of the colour of his skin. He’d rather stay in his room. He feels people don’t really want him, and so he hides away. He becomes destructive in relationships and so doesn’t have them. He is a scared, lonely man. But this is only one aspect of Lemn’s sparkling personality. I’ve worked with Lemn on the Care Leavers Christmas Dinner, and he is such a kind and loving soul. I believe with all my heart he will find the right someone to share his life.

For all his adult life, Lemn has been an ambassador for children in care. At every opportune moment he has spoken about his past often relating it to children still in the care system and how to see them as they really are. One of my favourites, is the recent Lemn Sissay’s Origin Stories where he looks at foster children and children in care in popular culture, contrasting their treatment with those in the real world. He has given a voice to those who cannot speak, the voice of the silent, the oppressed, the abused, the forgotten. For me personally, and I suspect a lot of other care experienced people, Lemn will always be the living, Patron Saint of Care Leavers.

Aida Muluneh © Addis Ababa 2013

Throughout the reading, I think of my own experience, I think of my care family, sisters, brothers and those that I’ve met over the years. And I think of those that didn’t make it. Like Paul who was sexually abused and died in the 80s from AIDS. I think of those that are still suffering everyday with their pasts. The repercussions as ‘The Report‘ reported are colossal.

The care system took so much away from Lemn and others like him. His name, his family, his childhood, his future. His chance of family life where he could learn about his heritage and have that support, that education, that annoyance, so many people take for granted. He has done so much to take the private suffering of those in care and turn it inside out, upside down, and show the world the truth. And now, finally all these tired years later, I hope Lemn’s report, will give him something back. The justification, the recognition, the breakthrough that he deserves. From what I heard last night, I think that once the dust settles and the tears stop – it will.

In some ways we are still in the early stages of the mental health journey and the consequences for care leavers and the understanding of the effects of trauma on abused and neglected children. The care services are playing catch up, often not quickly enough. As the representation of children in care, in fiction, that ‘single story’, begins to change, so too does the narrative. Lemn has ripped the lid off the can of care home worms. There will be positive repercussions throughout the whole of the ‘uncare’ system. The silence is broken.

As dusk falls, the enormity of what The Report signifies is beginning to seep through the darkness. The light is nuclear. There can be no going back. To use The Psychologist, to not only tell Lemn’s story but the story of so many others, is unprecedented. It is official. The damage done to children, the consequences of the destruction of tiny lives, is now in the public arena. As somebody else wrote, we have borne witness to something remarkable. The one and only…



Lemn Sissay is an Honorary Doctor of Letters, has an MBE for services to literature, is Associate Artist at Southbank Centre and is a Foundling Fellow.

Any profits from the performance will go towards the set up of the Lemn Sissay Foundation.

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PhD Block?

Doing a PhD is very much a self-directed, self-disciplined experience. I write words on a page hoping they will fuse and one day create a novel about a care leaver managing her life from sixteen to eighteen in the late 1970s. I read about writing, about narrative, and about care leavers. I collect books just like I used to collect stories whenever I visited my elusive family.

I’m becoming an expert in my field and with it, I learn more about the representation of society’s orphan class. I have always had an antennae for care leavers. But now it’s even more finely tuned to the news, social media, or books. I hunt through indexes and websites. I order books from the university library. Recently one came from Australia and I marvelled at my own importance and luck. And thanked the stars for the opportunity to study in a university, to use their resources and the resources of many more academic libraries that are for now, still open.

I keep journals, I fill out endless spreadsheets, I make notes and I compile lists under headings, to remind myself of the direction I think I ought to be heading.

But the truth is I’m not sure.

I’m not sure about anything anymore. I think I have PhD block.

Each time I start writing, I have to take myself through a process so that I can open the door to emotional memory, like a spacecraft docking and berthing. It’s a temporary joining that takes as long as the time I have in which to write. A snatched hour here, fifteen minutes there and endless seconds of ideas.

No, I’m not writing autobiography. But I’m writing the autobiographical and emotional truth. I hope to capture and pen down the generic care leaver experience not the statistical one. And at the end of each session, I have to find a way to be okay again.

Having read Lemn Sissay’s blog, We Are Many, about successful care leavers, where he says ‘their success…is in spite of what happened to them and not because of it.’ What happened to them, stays with me.

Later the same day, I have a conversation on Facebook about trauma. I then read a Guardian article about Erin Vincent who found writing about her parents being killed when she was 14, has forced her to relive the trauma for over six years.

I think back to the beginning of this journey or at least near the start, when I mentioned to my supervisor that I was thinking about getting myself an emotional supervisor, possibly an art therapist, so that I could explore the way I feel after writing but without it becoming a big deal. And I realise I’m tired. I have a recurring infection that just won’t go, and reading about Erin Vincent, things start to make sense.

I will find a way to write the words, the emotional truth, the journey of an ordinary care leaver. And I realise that I want to mention the care leaver writers, my muses, that I have got to know over the years. I also want to mention all the wonderful people who having experienced care, have made a success of their amazingly ordinary lives.

Care Leaver Writers 


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The English Daughter by Maggie Wadey

As an established screenwriter, Maggie Wadey is known for bringing stories to life on screen – her credits include Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, The Yellow Wallpaper, and Stig of the Dump. But it was only later in life that she discovered an equally compelling story closer to home – that of her own mother.

In The English Daughter: An Irish Story, Maggie Wadey tells the enthralling story of her search to find the truth.


As a child, Maggie was aware that her mother, Agnes, was different from her father and his family, who were very English. But she knew little of her mother’s Irish background, her family’s experience of famine and civil war – nor the secrets her mother never told her.

From the beginning, my beginning that is, I had a strong sense of my mother as different. My English family were small, compact and ginger-haired; my mother was dark, taller than average, long limbed and heavy-boned.

Maggie knew Agnes was from Ireland, but beyond that, information was sketchy: ‘I know my mother had come from Ireland, alone, on a ferry boat with only a hat-box, having left home in a hurry after poisoning her mother’s geese.’

My mother travelled with only a hatbox (though it contained no hats), having left home in a hurry after poisoning her mother’s geese. I felt I’d been born imprinted with this mental image: my mother standing in a twilit field – a very green field, for I knew Ireland was called the Emerald Isle, as green as the stone in my mother’s engagement ring – surrounded by a litter of geese as dead as pillows and scalded with my mother’s tears.  

Then, before she died, her mother finally started talking about her past, and Maggie began to piece together details of her early life in Ireland. The first part of the book is based on these memories, of family gatherings, the family home and flower garden, and of growing up and playing in the fields.

This remembering is juxtaposed with the present and Maggie’s own childhood that began at the top of a tower, Collyer’s Boys’ Grammar School in Horsham, Sussex.

I was born into a world of women. My infancy was spent in the company of my mother, my paternal grandmother and my aunt, my English aunt…My grandmother was plump and petite. With her white hair and powdered face, she was sweet and light as a meringue dipped in icing sugar.

Her father is absent. There is photograph on the sideboard. Maggie is told that he is away fighting in the war. Meanwhile, her mother strides through the streets in her trench coat, firewatching.

But I pictured her swallowing the fire. I saw her throw back her head and open her mouth wide to swallow the flames – which was why fire sometimes came back out of her mouth, fire and spittle, and angry words.

When her father returns from war, Maggie is three-and-a-half-years-old and her bed is removed from her mother’s bedroom.

Maggie reminisces and explores her parents very different natures remembering how just after he returned from the war, she consciously chooses to be like her father.

By the time of my fourth birthday I was already devoted to my father…I trotted at his heels asking questions I had quickly realised only he could answer: What makes snow? Where does the sound on the radio come from?

Her mother is spontaneous. Her father fixed. And they consistently fall out over things like when one should arrive as a guest. Her father punctual if not early, believing that if you were invited at seven o’clock, then that was when you should arrive, whereas her mother believed you shouldn’t arrive at seven, insisting they shouldn’t arrive earlier than quarter past!

As to her temper and her irrationality, they of course were put down to her being Irish as much as to her being a woman. I don’t mean that either of these points were ever made explicitly; they didn’t need to be.

After her mother’s death, with whom she had a close but sometimes difficult relationship, Maggie travels backwards and forwards between Ireland and England both physically and emotionally. What emerges is a seven-year detective story of an ordinary family living through famine, emigration, war, and poverty. Maggie gradually begins to uncover much more about the truth behind the stories her mother did share, and discovers an explosive secret known only to the women of the family.


An Irish history that finally reveals the story her mother could never tell, about Agnes’s sister Nancy, and her illegitimate child, whom she rescued from a brutal Protestant home for ‘fallen women’, delivering her into the perhaps equally doubtful care of the Catholic church, through whom the child was then adopted.

The English Daughter is a powerful family story told in an original way, through layers of discovery which invite discussion around the power of memory and the nature of truth. I thought of my own mother whilst reading it and my own place outside of her Irish family, I too was the English daughter. Lost worlds, events, and people come to life through the extraordinary vividness of the writing, ultimately bringing a sense of closure that helps the author come to terms with her mother’s death – and with a troubling incident in her own youth.

Thanks to Sandstone for the review copy.

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Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Two grand old houses, inhabited by the Nivens and the Sheringhams, who between them lost four sons in the great war.


It was March 30th 1924. It was Mothering Sunday. Milly had her mother to go to. But the Nivens’ maid had her simple liberty, and half a crown to go with it. Then the telephone had rung, rapidly altering her previous plan. No, she wouldn’t be having a picnic.

Jane Fairchild is 22, and works as a maid for the Niven family at their home, Beechwood, in Berkshire. How will Jane, orphan and housemaid, occupy her time when she has no mother to visit? How, shaped by the events of this never to be forgotten day, will her future unfold?

It is a day she will never speak or write about, it is her secret day, with her secret lover and friend.

This is an orphan story written by a writer of experience, a male author who knows what to do with words and how to make a story. He calls his character Jane Fairchild, presumably after those other great orphan female characters, Jane Eyre or Jane Fairfax.

Orphan, Jane Fairfax, in Jane Austen’s Emma, is entirely dependent on the kindness of others. She survives as the live-in companion to a close and affluent friend, but when that friend marries she must look for another way of sustaining herself.

Orphan, Jane Eyre, is treated cruelly by the household of her Aunt at Gateshead and subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school. Her only chance of survival is to become a governess, and thus dependent on, the already married Mr. Rochester, who she falls in love with. Although Jane flees ultimately she returns and chooses love and the traditional marriage route.

Jane Fairchild on the other hand, discovers a freedom through her sexual liberation, and with a Dutch cap ‘up her fanny’ rides her bike to an assignation with her lover.

The Bronte sisters, Trollope, George Eliot, Thackeray and Gaskell all positioned orphans as leading characters in their novels.

Orphans give the writer a freedom that characters with parents do not have and Swift is only too well aware of this, giving his Jane these words:

‘I was an orphan,’ she would divulge for the umpteenth time. ‘I never knew my father or mother. Or even my real name. If I ever had one. This has always seemed to me the perfect basis for becoming a writer – particularly a writer of fiction. To have no credentials at all. TO be given a clean sheet, or rather, to be a clean sheet yourself. A nobody. How can you be a somebody without first being a nobody?’

Both estates have lost sons in the First World War, both families are still grieving but there is to be a wedding between Paul Sheringham and Emma Hobday, another estate, an ‘arranged’ marriage. Mothering Sunday opens with the last sensual and intimate moments between Jane, maid from Beechwood, and only surviving son, Paul Sheringham, heir of nearby Upleigh. Their relationship is played out against a backdrop of change, both estates make do ‘with just a cook and a maid’. Jane and Paul have been lovers and friends for almost seven years.

He must have noticed the trickle. But it was part of his fine disdain not to notice it. It was like the clothes he might leave pooled on the floor, to find their way back to him, laundered and pressed, hanging in the dressing room. These were things to be cleared up discreetly by people who cleared up such things. And she, normally, was such a one. She was part of the magic army that permitted such disregard.

It is an unusually warm day in March. Time is captured in the opening scenes, time that is remembered a lifetime, time that is replayed. Images are conjured up: nakedness, the sunlight, the lattice shadows on the skin.

When Paul Sheringham leaves Upleigh, Jane is told to leave everything. She is not to be his ‘bloody maid’. He leaves her naked, to do as she wishes.

And what he’d just bestowed on her: his whole house. He was leaving it to her. It was hers, for her amusement. She might ransack it if she wished. All hers. And what was a maid to do with her time, released for the day on Mothering Sunday, when she had no home to got to?

Walk naked in the library, is what Jane does. After Paul leaves, she explores the entire house, catching sight of herself in the mirror.

Can you look into a mirror and see someone else? Can you step through a mirror and be someone else?

Like a re-birth, like an understanding of herself. Because Jane is an orphan who reads and because she is in a house of sons, it is the adventure books for boys that will become her favourites. ‘Who would want to read sloppy girls’ stuff?’ The narrative sees her collecting phrases, expressions, words for when she will find her true vocation, that of a writer.


Edouard John Mentha – Maid reading in a Library

Beginning with an intimate assignation and opening to embrace decades, Mothering Sunday has at its heart both the story of a life and the life that stories can magically contain. It is a beautifully written orphan narrative and one that I enjoyed reading and re-reading. At times like a poem, like a Pantoum, with its repeating phrases that slip and slide backwards and forwards, starting over and finishing up. Once upon a time there was an orphan who read books and told stories…


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Top Twelve Reads 2016

My plan at the beginning of 2016 was to read Orphan Lit and review it. Here are some of my favourite reads, in no particular order, some reviewed and some not, from last year and nearly all of them feature orphans!

Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days – Jeanette Winterson


I recently won a ticket to the Guardian Christmas event with Jeanette Winterson and Nigella Lawson where they spoke about traditions, recipes and memories and Jeanette red from her Christmas book. For the twelve days of Christmas, a time of celebration, sharing, and giving, she offers these twelve plus one—a personal story of her own Christmas memories. These tales give the reader a portal into the spirit of the season, where time slows down and magic starts to happen. From jovial spirits to a donkey with a golden nose, a haunted house to a SnowMama, Winterson’s innovative stories encompass the childlike and spooky wonder of Christmas. Perfect for reading by the fire with loved ones, or while traveling home for the holidays. The orphan narrative resurfaces in these Christmas tales featuring abandoned young children locked in or out of doors, trapped inside chests or treated cruelly as in Mrs Reckitt’s Academy for Orphans, Foundlings and Minors in Need of Temporary Office. Jeanette Winterson is a heroine of mine and this Christmas collection will become one of my treasured books. The perfect Christmas gift that I gave myself.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs


This is a strange book filled with old black and white photographs of peculiar children, an abandoned orphanage and a mysterious island. As the story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I felt the second half of this book works more for a YA audience. The film of the book was released in September 2016, and I look forward to watching that soon.

My Name is Leon – Kit De Waal


This book made me cry and I don’t think I’ll ever quite forget it. It is very well written and truly captures the voice of a traumatised child in care. Leon experiences what it is like to be nine years old and taken away from a mother and brother whom you love and adore. To be left alone in a strange world where all your belongings have disappeared and living with a stranger whose house rules you have to get used to.

Song of the Sea Maid – Rebecca Mascull

Written from protagonist, Dawnay’s viewpoint, the book opens onto eighteenth century life in London. We witness the terrible poverty and the way orphans, and women were treated. Ultimately though, this is a feel-good novel that re-writes the often terrible history of the neglected, nameless, and homeless orphan. This is ‘the age of sail, orphanages, the flora and fauna of islands, and even the origins of all humankind’. Impeccably researched, at times I had to wear a peg on my nose as the scenes of filthy London were so rancidly lifelike. In many ways this novel is the true definition of the ‘What if’ scenario. What if a poor female orphan was given an opportunity to become educated. What would she become? If you like stories about independent women, think Forever Amber, historical novels with a touch of romance, then this is the book for you.

The Fish Ladder – Katharine Norbury


Katharine joined us at last year’s Finchley Literary Festival where she spoke about The Fish Ladder, a beautifully written travelogue, memoir, with exquisite nature writing, fragments of poetry and tales from Celtic mythology. It explores the void, the hole, the ‘missingness’ that can quite suddenly engulf a person who has experienced trauma as a baby or a young child.

Mothering Sunday – Graham Swift


I’m currently re-reading this book and enjoying it even more. The writing is exquisite. The emotions of Jane Fairfax, the orphan, captured perfectly. Abandoned outside an orphanage at birth in 1901, this is a fairy tale about the transformation of Jane from servant to world-renowned writer. At times the lyrical waves of prose remind me of a stanza in the way certain refrains are repeated throughout the book – it’s very cleverly done. Mothers Day 30th March 1924, Jane looks back at this one perfect day that will haunt her for the rest of her life.

The Good Guy – Susan Beale


The inspiration for this novel came from Susan Beale’s adoption files. The papers included interviews with her mother, grandmother and one with her birth father. This is an extremely evocate, powerful and well-written novel that has truly captured the essence of 1960s suburban, New England and the plight and stigma of the unmarried mother.

The Mountain in my Shoe – Louise Beech


This novel is about a missing boy. A missing book. A missing husband. A woman who must find them all to find herself. But more than that it is about a young boy who has been fostered. Louise uses a Lifebook throughout the narrative – this is a book put together throughout a child’s time in care – to fill in the gaps – in this instance Conor’s past. It is a clever device and not one I had seen before. Exquisitely written and deeply touching, The Mountain in My Shoe is both a gripping psychological thriller and a powerful and emotive examination of the meaning of family … and just how far we are willing to go for the people we love.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry


This Gothic novel was birthed to amazing reviews and it was one that had been on my TBR for some time. Along with many other people I also coveted the cover. From the first to the last page, I could not get enough of this book. Set in the early 1890s, and told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love and friendship, and the many different guises it can take.

The Mother – Yvvette Edwards


Another FLF guest, this novel is about a 16 year old boy who is stabbed and killed by another 16 year old boy. The book follows the trial of the boy accused of his murder and the narrator is the victim’s mum. A truly harrowing and emotional journey as the protagonist goes through a tidal wave of emotions dealing with that worst of all parent nightmares, losing a child. Extremely well-written, the narrative explores the harsh realities facing families who have lost children to knife crime.

Butterfly Fish – Irenosen Okoji


Irenosen also joined as at the Finchley Lit Fest where she spoke about Butterfly Fish, a powerfully told story of love and hope, of family secrets, power, political upheaval, loss and coming undone. Let go and fly with the flow of the narrative of this haunting and compelling magical realism novel. The Benin scenes are particularly breathtaking. It is a story of epic proportions, skillfully held together by Irenosen Okojie, an author to watch out for in the future.

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra – Vaseem Khan


Another Finchley Literary Festival guest, Vaseem kept us all entertained with his experiences in Mumbai that were the inspiration for the series. On arriving in Mumbai he was greeted with the unusual sight of seeing an elephant wandering down the centre of the road. This vision stayed with him and a passion for elephants developed – after cricket and literature of course! A well written book, easy to read and very entertaining with wonderful descriptions of the vibrant city of Mumbai. It is the first in the Baby Ganesh detective agency series, I have the second in the series on my TBR list.


All that is left for me to do now, is wish you a very healthy, creative, and booky New Year.

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Notes from a PhD networking event

Only connect: NAWE PhD network for postgraduates in Creative Writing held a networking event at Birkbeck last Saturday, 3rd December.


The afternoon began with an introduction from Seraphima Kennedy, Programme Director for NAWE, who gave a brief overview of how Only Connect started last year. Seraphima also gave an outline of the afternoon events including thinking about what you want your future career post-PhD to look like.

Lily Dunn then spoke about juggling teaching, the creative and the critical, publishing your work and what is expected of us as an academic educating ourselves and getting the best out of ourselves with each other by networking.

We did a quick introduction to our neighbors, mine was Anne Caldwell, an experienced lecturer, poet and creative writing coach, who used to work for NAWE. We had to talk about a problem with our PhD’s, a success, and a question about our research. The time went so quickly I just about managed to mention one of my successes, a recent conference at Oxford University.

One of the problems that came up time and again throughout the afternoon was switching between a creative and critical head, and our relationship with supervisors especially those that seem to want a critical piece that is almost entirely separate from the creative.

There was also the family/friends/work difficulties, coping with those and especially if there was a crisis.

It was suggested researchers look at the NAWE PhD benchmark and to ask supervisors for a descriptor of the PhD – the course outline/requirements.

Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck, Julia Bell spoke about building a career with a PhD in Creative Writing and how to get the most out of it, say for example by publishing or taking every teaching opportunity available, as well as administration, research, funding, and one’s own writing practice. Don’t rely on the university for teaching, she said, there are other ways to get experience, for example community teaching, adult education in particular – beginners courses not covered by colleges anymore.

Julia also suggested that if all the aspects of doing a PhD were daunting, if you had difficulties fitting it all in, then go to a time management class. Be organised, she said, and it was crucial to protect your time, and to be able to say you were not available at least one day a week.

We were reminded we have free access to JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources. Julia also recommended we look up The Program Era by Mark McGurl, which looks at the effect creative writing had on the pedagogy of English.

Explore the corridors of your university, find other departments and talk to other academics about what you do. You may want to do this by attending a talk in town/university or simply just going to listen to authors talk about their books. Or networking with potential future colleagues.

Julia finished by saying: ‘Life of the mind is a luxury, pay attention and use it wisely’.

Southampton English department runs Writers in Conversation and you can see past videos here.

There was talk of the Shared Futures Conference that is taking place in Newcastle in 2017. This will be a huge gathering of 450 academics discussing the future of English studies. NAWE will be represented and taking part in that conversation. Coincidentally so will I. I will be taking part in a roundtable with Stephanie Butler, Prof. Helen Berry and Dr. Helen Limon, so I’ll be able to put into practice some of the very useful advice from Saturday’s event.

Reminders also included:

Look at NAWE essays
Celia Hunt – writing and personal development
Teacher training
Teacher practice
Find out what are the current trends in your writing
Investigate Medical Humanities re funding e.g. CW and recovery groups
To be successful in CW – pay attention and make connections
Create opportunities outside academia.

Like Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert who spoke about how the London Lit Lab was set up.

They had been offering classes for free but decided it was time to earn at least a small amount. They spoke of how they saved costs by designing their own website, a friend offered them space in a café, and how they advertised themselves. Offering non-celebratory courses at a price beginners and writers with experience could afford. They also spoke of how teaching together meant they could support each other. They describe themselves as London’s friendliest creative writing courses.

We then heard about creating opportunities from Frances Gilbert, who teaches at Goldsmiths on the newly named MA in Creative Writing and Education, which also happens to be the subject of his PhD. He simply said, ‘Do something else’. Departments, are usually quite separate, though there is a move towards interdisciplinary study, ‘reaching out’ is a good option. He also suggested a way of getting funding for research could be to look at widening participation and finding the right partners. He uses mindfulness with children in schools and has had some fantastic results, not only creating peace in the classroom but also initiating change in children’s lives. We’re living in a ‘technocratic’ time, where creativity needs to be explored.

The big idea of the afternoon was collaboration. Jocelyn Page who has a PhD in poetry said this includes something as simple as looking at past PhD’s in other universities. And what journals we could be publishing in. There is a grading for journals, that though, is something that is still not clear to me.

Jocelyn gave us some tips for the VIVA such as having a crib sheet in case the mind goes blank. And she spoke of another hot topic of the day, ‘academic language’ and finding your own voice in academia. One way of doing this was to find a book that is written in the tone that you can achieve. Finding the right language to express what you are doing in a conversational/natural way.

Keith Jarrett echoed the sentiment by saying that trying to explain what you are doing as a Creative Writer is often difficult. His PhD looks at how religious cultures are changing over time, an interdisciplinary subject with feet in Religion at SOAS and CW at Birkbeck. He said that for him it was all about maximising both sites.

The final activity of the afternoon meant looking at the content of the PhD, the research, and how this fitted in with our own interests. I discussed my ideas with Anne Caldwell and from this she asked me a very interesting question: Am I interested in the care leaver writer or the representation of the care leaver?

Both! But the question made me think about what I’ve done so far and how I just know the research is still too broad and how I will have to eventually narrow down my interests.

The final tips for the day included knowing ones priorities and being aware, for example of the exploding PhD. I feel I may be about to light the taper on this one. Apparently we’re not to panic, it’s normal, and we must just smooth it back into shape and don’t be scared – just “keep writing”.

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Gulwali Passarlay

20161129_130228Yesterday I attended the NNECL National Network for the Education of Care Leavers conference at the University of the West of England (UWE). NNECL was established in June 2013 by higher education institutions and national organisations committed to the progression and support of Care Leavers in higher education.

I knew that Care Leaver author, Gulwali Passarlay who wrote The Lightless Sky, was attending the event as we had already made contact via Twitter. As soon as I saw he had arrived, I went over to introduce myself.

Gulwali shook my hand and said how pleased he was to meet me, because I am a writer. I felt very moved and said, no no, you are the writer! He is a fireball of enthusiasm and passion and when I suggested we do an impromptu interview, he agreed. I’m very pleased to welcome him to the blog today.


Gulwali Passarlay’s memoir is about how he was sent away from Afghanistan at the age of twelve, after his father was killed in a gun battle with the US Army. Smuggled into Iran, Gulwali began a twelve month odyssey across Europe, spending time in prisons, suffering hunger, making a terrifying journey across the Mediterranean in a tiny boat, and enduring a desolate month in the camp at Calais. Somehow he survived, and made it to Britain, no longer an innocent child but still a young boy alone. In Britain he was fostered, sent to a good school, won a place at a top university, and was chosen to carry the Olympic torch in 2012.

The Lightless Sky is a heart-rending read that illuminates the plight of unaccompanied minors forced to leave their homes and loved ones. [Passarlay’s] fierce intelligence is apparent throughout… His powerful account is a testament to the courage of all those fleeing conflict in search of safety.” – The Independent on Sunday

Gulwali wants to tell his story – to bring to life the plight of the thousands of men, women and children who are making this perilous journey every day. One boy’s experience is the central story of our times. This memoir celebrates the triumph of courage and determination over adversity.

Tell us about the journey of his book:

I never imagined going to university or writing a book. It’s now been published in seven countries and six languages. I had just left foster care and was living on my own. I was in my final year at college studying A levels and was very stressed as I was a refugee and didn’t know if I’d be able to stay in the country.

I had applied to go to Manchester University and also for funding via Article 26, which works with universities to promote access to higher education for people claiming asylum. Three days before my interview I was suddenly granted refugee status which meant I could attend university as an ‘ordinary’ student with ‘home’ fees!

I went to university to thank the Article 26 people plus it was my interview day. However, on the way I met Julian, the Director of Widening Participation, then later on he got me in touch with communication people who wrote an article about my journey on the university news where I was described as “the most remarkable student”. This led to a TEDx talk and eventually an agent in the states who put me in touch with Nadine Ghouri who co-wrote the book. If I hadn’t gone into uni to thank and meet Rebecca Murray* from article 26, than I wouldn’t have seen Julian the Director, therefore no press release, no article or TEDx talk and finally I wouldn’t have been seen by the agent in the states who thought it was worth writing a book about my journey.

The moral of the story is little actions with good intentions and for the right reasons makes a difference and will have a positive outcome. I want to do what is right in life not what is easy. Sometimes we have to take a chance, and not expect anything in return. Do it because it’s a nice thing to do.

We can help and support refugees and those in desperate need. It’s our moral duty.

I am the human face to the statistics and numbers. I am a voice for the voiceless. I feel like they do have a voice but they’ve been silenced. I’ve become an unofficial spokesperson for refugees and I take that very seriously even though it’s not my job. If I don’t do it who else will?

How did you come to write the book?

I was very busy with my studies and I had been having a lot of conversations with Nadine Ghouri, co author, by telephone and via Skype. It was difficult. We decided to go to Gladstone’s Library and stay there for three weeks to finish the book. They treated us really well and their hospitality was wonderful. I still go back to visit.

The three weeks were very emotionally challenging, as it was hard opening up about my past and trusting someone. At times I wanted to stop, because of reliving the journey but there was a pressure from the publishers to submit 80,000 words. We ended up writing much more and the book has over 110,000 words.

I had to re-visit the trauma, I didn’t want to talk, I wanted to move on and forget it. It was much more emotional than I thought it would be. Remembering, the hellish – hardship – cruelty – being shot at – it was not something I thought I would talk about again.

Twice I tried to commit suicide while being detained in the UK. The immigration officials would not believe my age and wanted to send me back. They had no sense of compassion. I was seen as a liar, de-huminised, told to stop acting and eventually I thought what was the point of life.

Everything changed for me when somebody believed in me and that person was Katy Kellet, the Head Teacher at Starting Point who said: ‘I believe you’.

Anyway, back to Gladstones, Nadine and I were working hard on the book. I wished I didn’t have to write it, I wished I didn’t have to re-live the experiences. But now it is over I am pleased to be able to inspire people especially refugees and care leavers. Research has shown that care leavers who succeed often have a significant person who believes in them.

Nadine needed a lot of patience. At one point Afghanistan were playing cricket in Scotland, I was supposed to attend. I try to watch them wherever they are playing. Anyway I kept looking at Twitter until eventually she asked me to put my phone away!

I was very sad to leave Gladstone’s Library. Even though we still had the proof-reading to do, I couldn’t believe we had written a book. I couldn’t believe I was an author. It’s a big thing to write a memoir. I had a sense of pride, of achievement but mentally I was drained. At times I thought, oh no, everything is in the book! Have I done the right thing? The process was so hard.

Nadine worked so hard, she too is passionate about helping refugees. She had spent time in Afghanistan and believed in me. She had so much passion, enthusiasm and engagement, reading the text word by word.

What message do you have for Care Leavers?

When I was at Manchester University out of 50,000 students there were only twenty-one care leavers and it is not enough. The care system seems to be a societal problem. There is a system in place but it is broken. The cycle it seems will not be broken. Sometimes care leavers have children that then end up in care themselves. But by not moving them around to so many foster carers, this would give them the stability that they need. We need an outstanding care system to look after them and make them aspirational. I remember when I was in college and saw the careers advisor who, when I said, I wanted to go to university told me: ‘You should have a plan B’.

It is of course not all down to the system, care leavers too need to be inspired and empowered, to believe they can be anything they want to be.

I was very lucky that I had good foster parents who supported me. And look at me now!

Thank you Rosie for having me on the blog today.

The Lightless Sky is published by Atlantic Books

You can follow Gulwari on Twitter: @GulwaliP


*Rebecca Murray founded Article 26 in partnership with Nicholas Sagovsky and is the project’s Director. It is named after the article of the Human Rights Act which says everyone has an equal right to access higher education based on merit and not on class or ethnicity.


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