Begin Again

It’s been a sombre start to the year, with the loss of the AirAsia plane on 28th December and the horrific news from Paris yesterday.   Somehow when the clock strikes midnight on the 31st December, there’s always the hope that the New Year will somehow magically usher in a change for the better, but of course that’s rarely the case.   In some ways, New Year is only an arbitrary marker in the endless continuum of time, and yet we seem to have a strong need to draw a line under the past at regular intervals and give ourselves permission to start afresh with renewed optimism and purpose.

A fresh start or same old, same old...?

A fresh start or same old, same old…?

I have to confess that I didn’t write as much as I would have liked last year – a few short stories and a few short screenplays is all I managed to get down.  Starting a new job in the summer didn’t help, and it’s taken me a while to adjust and still find time to write along with work and family commitments.   So I aim to be much more productive this year, and much more disciplined too.  I have plans for a new feature script, and am determined to try and complete it over the next few months.

One boost is that a director has taken on one of my short scripts – a comedy about a flat-share that goes wrong – and with any luck, it will be produced and filmed over the next couple of months too.  I have to say that the prospect of one of my stories actually appearing on screen – or at least youtube – is vastly exciting and it’s also encouraged me to think getting some of my other story ideas actually down on paper.   I have a whole list of them…

While I enjoy writing, especially when it’s going well, I find the whole marketing side of it really hard.  It goes against the grain to talk much about myself or my writing.  Part of me just wants it to be miraculously discovered, but of course without me actively trying to promote my work, this is about as likely as seeing a flock of pigs sailing overhead.

Deserving winner of the Costa newcomer award

Deserving winner of the Costa newcomer award

What sticks in the mind is a comment from the winner of the Costa Book award for best newcomer, Emma Healey, who said that she rarely spoke about her writing while she was working on her debut novel, ‘Elizabeth is Missing’, because it was kind of embarrassing admitting to being an aspiring writer.  I have every sympathy for such sentiments!   So I guess my main resolution for this year is to be more confident about myself as a writer, but to make sure I put in the hours too.  Wish me luck!

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Filed under Books, Film, Screenwriting, Writing

A Child is Born – a Christmas story

A child is born.

A child is born in snow and squalor in a makeshift tent in Arsal in the Bekaa Valley. The tent is constructed from plastic sheeting and splintered wooden pallets. The floor is made of flattened cardboard boxes laid over a morass of black, squelching mud and raw sewage. As the mother labours, the door-flap is torn open by the wind and gusts of needle-sharp sleet barrel around the tent, snatching away her moans. Oblivious, she grips the midwife’s hand and pushes with all her might. The lamp goes out; as the father fumbles for his lighter, the baby’s first wail is heard above the buffeting of the gale. A son. Al hamdu lillah!

A child is born in the Holy Land. A land of rare beauty, the hillsides are fragrant with thyme; in summer apricots, almonds and olives bend the branches of the trees down to the ground. They say the earth here was made fertile by the blood spilt by succeeding generations of invaders and insurgents. This is where history began, where faith and dreams collide with cold, hard facts on the ground. A promise was made here, but to whom?

The child’s father is Samir. This is not his native land; he was born in Aleppo across the border in Syria. Until the war came, life was good for Samir. Talkative, good-natured, clever with his hands, he had high hopes of taking over the car repair shop on the corner, when his Uncle Faruq finally hung up his spanners for good. The repair shop no longer exists, and neither does Uncle Faruq. Also numbered among the dead are Samir’s father, Ziad, and his brother, Rifat. Another brother is somewhere with the rebels; his sister, Fatmeh, is alone in Turkey with three children under six and no husband.

This time last year, the family was still together and Samir was celebrating his wedding. Childhood sweethearts, he’d known Zohra from when they first started at school. She lived in an apartment across the street and they used to walk home together, dawdling in the park or hanging around Ali’s cake shop in the hope of cadging some chewing gum or a sweet, sticky mouthful of homemade baklawa. Now only Samir’s mother is left among the ruins of Aleppo.

A child is born into a world of strife. Be that as it may, for now at least, the baby has no allegiance save to himself. From time to time, Zohra pours out her grief and anguish. “Those animals! If they were here now, I’d gouge out their eyes and tear the limbs from their bodies! May they never have a second’s peace! May they die writhing in unbearable agony! May their children fall ill with horrible diseases and perish before their eyes!” Samir feels for her in her impotence and rage. His people have long endured prejudice and disadvantage, but for all that, he’s no soldier. He’s listened to the hot-heads calling for blood and vengeance and holy war, but in truth, he has no desire to swap one tyranny for another. He has no desire to wage war on his neighbours. All he wants is a quiet life. All he wants is to look after Zohra and the baby.

A child is born into a cold and timeless universe. A tiny scrap of humanity, he is helpless and wholly destructible, just one of thousands of children in this camp alone. Not even his birth is unique in this godforsaken place on this bitter December night. Many kids are still wearing sandals. Most lack winter hats and coats. None is at school. They make the best of it as children do, fashioning a football from string and a discarded piece of sack-cloth. On his way to the distribution tent, Samir pauses to join in the game and for a moment is himself a child again, jubilant as the ball sails over the keeper’s head and lands between the pebbles that stand in for goalposts. He marvels at the resilience of these kids, at their unconquerable capacity for joy.

The aid agencies are stretched to breaking point; the scale of human need is beyond all calculation. They do their best, dispensing rice and dried pulses, jerry-cans of water and cooking oil. It’s not enough, never enough: each day brings a further flood of mouths to feed, new injuries to treat, dozens more to clothe and care for. In richer, luckier places than this, appeals go out – spare a thought, give a little, make a difference – but the world is weary of conflicts too complex to comprehend and someone else’s crisis is always more pressing or more photogenic. There will always be those that have, and those that have not; it’s part of the natural order of things like the turning of the tides or the phases of the moon. There is nothing to be done.

A child is born into a community. The neighbours gather round and word soon spreads. A woman from along the way drops in with a packet of Pampers. Another has dried milk. A man from two tents down turns up with a bail of straw and big grin. “Let me see him, the little one.” Zohra opens the baby’s blanket a little and a shrill cry breaks loose. The neighbour nods in approval, “He’s a strong one. I can tell.” Together, he and Samir stuff the straw into a pillowcase and squeeze it into the bottom of a cardboard box. “Now he’ll have somewhere to lay his head.” Samir thanks the neighbours. All the next day, the battered kettle boils and endless cups of tea are drunk. To Zohra’s relief, the baby sucks eagerly at her breast. The neighbour’s right; he’s a strong one. He knows what to do.

A child is born into love. As Zohra’s son gazes up at her, her heart swells with an emotion more powerful than any she’s felt before. She knows without question she’d give her life for this heedless, mewling bundle of flesh and pencil-thin bones. For all the hardship of her pregnancy and their current life, she cannot regret the baby’s arrival, not even for one second. She takes Samir’s hand and squeezes it. As he gazes at his wife and son in the wavering gaslight, he realises he’s never seen anything more beautiful or intense than Zohra’s face in that moment.

“We must choose a name,” she says.

“Let him be Ziad like his grandfather.”

“No, he should have a name that belongs to him alone. Don’t let him carry our sorrows for the rest of his life.”

“So what should we call him?”

“Let him be Kamal, because he’s perfect in every way.”

A child is born and with him, the hope of the world to come.

A child is born.

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When We Were Young

“I sigh that kiss you,
For I must own
That I shall miss you
When you are grown.”

That little rhyme by WB Yeats was brought sharply to mind as I was watching the infants’ nativity play at the local primary school where my children began their education, and where I am now a governor.  It’s all too easy to be overcome by nostalgia.  In a few short years, my adorable tots have been transformed from innocent little angels dressed in white pillowcases, with tinsel halos falling over their eyes into…teenagers!

Nursery NativityAs they have forgotten the words to Away in a Manger, they have learned every swear word in the book and developed a well-honed skill in delivering crushing put-downs to each other and their long-suffering parents. Instead of making gingerbread stars or sticking sparkly spangles on cardboard crowns, they now enjoy texting people they’ve only just parted with, instagramming embarrassing photos of themselves to all and sundry and watching X-rated TV shows on the family tablet when they’re supposed to be asleep in bed. How did this happen?

Amid the tantrums and exam angst (the daughter is doing ‘mocks’ as I write), it can be easy to overlook some of good things about living with teenagers. Without them, I’d be more intolerant, less well informed (particularly about music) and definitely more set in my ways. Every day, I’m getting a clearer picture of the mature adults they’ll soon be, and while yes, I miss the little children they once were, I’m also looking forward to what I hope will be a wonderful friendship between grown-ups just a few more years down the line.

Some of the conversations I’ve had with my teenagers recently have been amazing. The things they come out with are not only surprising but often profound and incredibly thought-provoking. It’s hard not to feel privileged to be able to share their thoughts and feelings as they learn about the world and their place in it. Politics, celebrity, freedom of information, the nature of justice, why slavery still exists… we’ve discussed all these things and many more over the past year. You name it – they have a view on it.

Periodic table of texting

While they like to parade a veneer of world-weary cynicism, not far below the surface, you’ll find a pair of idealists and dreamers, two young people full of potential who genuinely want to learn and make a difference in the world.  As I enter the middle stretch of life’s journey, I want to tell them to enjoy every moment, live life to the full, and not be afraid to reach for their dreams, while all of life’s choices are still open to them.  In sharing their hopes for the future, they remind me that, if I can borrow a little of their optimism and good faith, it’s not too late for my dreams to come true either.

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Filed under Children, Family, Teenagers, Writing

Let there be music

If you actually think about it, making and listening to music is one of the more bizarre things that the human species does. It’s an idea that’s explored in depth in Oliver Sacks’ book, Musicophilia. As he suggests, aliens arriving from another planet would be utterly bewildered if they somehow found themselves at any sort of concert. What exactly is it about a stream of apparently unconnected sounds that captivates us and produces such a powerful emotional response?

Piano playing

One of my favourite things is listening to my daughter practising the piano in the room next door. First of all, it’s lovely hearing her gradually improve. For some reason, I never get bored of listening to the same pieces again and again; each one always sounds a little bit different with each new rendition. I really like having someone playing live music in the house – it feels like a real privilege.

Most of all, though, I love the way the sound of the piano takes me back to the time when I was growing up myself. Scales and arpeggios invariably remind me of my mother cooking onions in the kitchen and my father coming home after a hard day’s work and the sense of being part of a busy, bustling household.

It wasn’t me that learned the piano way back then, however, but my brother and sister. My brother still plays regularly; music has remained a life-long passion with him. I was supposed to be learning the violin, but was never terribly good at it. As a result, I gave it up fairly soon after leaving home, something I’ve always regretted.

These days, my attempts at music making mostly consist of singing in the shower and warbling at the back of the Alto section of a local choir. It has to be admitted that we’re not exactly on a par with BBC Symphony Chorus or any other professional musicians, really, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s just nice being able to share music with a roomful of likeminded friends.

Warming UpWarming Up

Perhaps if I’d practised my violin a bit more and been a bit more dedicated, I could have made more progress with it. I decided I wasn’t very good, and so stopped trying. If only I’d known then what I know now about making the most of your opportunities!

I struggle to make my children understand that the chances open to them now may never return and that they should make the most of what life offers them. I don’t want to pressure them into doing things they don’t want to. I want to give them the time and space to think, reflect and make up their own minds. But despite that, I also want them to realise how easy it is to let your chances in life slip away and to make sure they grab them with both hands!

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School Days

It’s not surprising that education causes such a raucous political debate; next to healthcare, it’s probably the thing that matters most to most people.  If you’re a parent, there’s a good chance it’ll be number one on your list of public policy preoccupations.

When I’m not at my computer, one of the things I do is act as chair to the governing body of a local primary school. Being a governor is a great way to find out what’s really going on in your child’s school and I have to say that I personally have learned a vast amount about current educational practice as a result.

Keen to learn

Keen to learn

What soon becomes very apparent is that the information about school results published in league tables will only give you a very partial view of a school’s capabilities, not least because many schools are adept at making sure their results look as good as possible, even if it means preventing less able pupils from taking exams they might very well have passed. To me, that’s the opposite of what a school should be doing.

In contrast, the school where I’m governor has devoted hours and hours to ensuring that a small number of children from chaotic backgrounds have been able to stay in mainstream education. The chances are that such children will only pull down the school’s average attainment levels. But nevertheless, for some individual children, having adults in their lives that care enough and are skilled enough to provide the support they need to stay on track at school is literally a life-saver.

Neither the school, nor the teachers will get much credit for it and parents looking at the raw data will only see that a certain cohort has undergone a dip in its results. All the same, as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what I want our schools to be doing.  Of course exam results are important, but they’re only a part of the picture.

School children in Afghanistan

School children in Afghanistan

The education of our children matters hugely to society at large. The ultimate well-being of all of us depends on well educated, well socialised young people emerging from the school system. For individuals, education is the one thing that no-one can take away from you. I’ve never ever regretted the time I’ve spent learning new things and the ability to analyse and think is probably the single thing I value most. Education is what sets us free.

It’s easy to grumble about the education system in this country. All the same, things could be very much worse.

This is what a superhero looks like...

This is what a superhero looks like…

I was hugely delighted that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who was shot by Taliban militants for insisting on her right to go to school. To me, she’s one of the greatest beacons of hope in the world today. If humanity is serious about tackling the very many problems we face – from fundamentalism and superstition to climate change and incurable diseases like Ebola, we need as many people as possible to have access to good quality education. For girls, this is particularly important if they’re ever to achieve real equality. Three cheers for Malala and her campaign to ensure that every child on the planet can go to school; you definitely have my vote!

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Green Fingers

Where has the year gone? I can’t believe it’s October already and the time has come to plant spring bulbs, mow the lawn for the last time this season and generally put the garden to bed. Having said that, there’s still plenty of colour – magenta and orange dahlias, plumbago, Michaelmas daisies and a few late flowering roses.

Roses in my garden

Roses in my garden

A few days ago, we went to visit Christopher Lloyd’s garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex. The garden was created during the early part of the last century and was steadily built up over the succeeding decades, a true labour of love. It really is magnificent at this time of year – the proverbial riot of colour – and we spent a very happy couple of hours admiring it. The exotic garden, replete with banana plants, clematis, cannas and purple verbena bonariensis, was my particular favourite. Afterwards, we strolled around the nursery, and I couldn’t help indulging myself with a few acquisitions for my own small plot.

The exotic garden at Great Dixter

The exotic garden at Great Dixter

I find the garden a great source of consolation amid the stresses and anxieties of daily life. When my writing isn’t going too well, it’s wonderful to be able to step outside with a cup of coffee for a five minute break. Very often, I find myself stopping to do a little bit of pruning or weeding and before you know it, an hour has passed. Although we live at the edge of the city, we have a multitude of birds that visit us and their songs give a profound sense that the natural world is near at hand, and that I too am part of it.

When I was growing up, on Friday nights my mother would always make a point of stopping whatever she was doing and sitting down on the sofa in time for Gardeners’ World. It’s definitely from her that I get my love of all things green. Moreover, gardening has given us a life-long common interest.

Monty Don - presenter of Gardeners' World

Monty Don – presenter of Gardeners’ World

As a youngster, I used to think Gardeners’ World was painfully old-fashioned and uncool, but now I find I’m an increasingly avid convert. There’s something timeless and comforting about Gardeners’ World. It’s a place where you can easily convince yourself that nothing truly terrible could ever happen. It’s always gentle and unhurried, a real bastion of civility with its knowledgeable experts and self-deprecating presenters. It’s deeply redolent of English country life at its best – enduring, tranquil and essentially good.

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All Change, please

Whichever way Scotland votes today, I hope this country will never be the same again. The amazing debate that’s been taking place north of the border and the incredible level of public engagement, with 97% of those eligible to vote registering to do so, is the most heartening and revitalising thing that’s happened to our democracy since, well, forever.

PollingDemocracy in Action

For decades, participation in elections and in political activity generally, has been declining across the UK. Membership of political parties has plummeted and there’s a widely held belief that all politicians are as bad as each other. Even more dangerous, there’s a strong sense, reinforced after the 2010 election, that whichever way you vote, nothing will ever actually change. Whoever’s in charge, privilege becomes more entrenched, the poor get poorer, social mobility declines. No wonder so many of us simply decide not to bother.

As we watch Scotland being intoxicated by a new passion for politics, more and more people south of the border are beginning to ask, why not us too? Why shouldn’t we too have more say over how we’re governed and how our taxes are spent? We may all live in one country, but that doesn’t mean to say that a decision that’s right for Basingstoke is also right for Birmingham or Bradford. In fact it very probably isn’t.

               London         Cumbrian lake

What’s good for London isn’t always good for everyone else

It’s high time we had a much less centralised political system. It’s time we had regional assemblies that are much more responsive to local issues and that have control over a high proportion of the revenue raised within their area. The government at Westminster could then be substantially scaled back and would focus exclusively on issues that genuinely are best managed at a national level, such as defence and foreign policy.

A new political settlement is the only realistic way to tackle the growing disparity between London and rest of the country and the only way overcome growing perception that the south-east is sucking in all the resources and talent at the expense of other parts of the country.

We desperately need change, not just in Scotland but throughout the UK. No doubt, if the Scots vote ‘yes’ to independence, David Cameron will be pilloried for losing a third of the country. The truth is, if what happens in Scotland today makes the rest of the population wake up to the idea that a top-to-toe rethink of the political settlement in this country is both possible and desirable, he’ll have done us the biggest favour imaginable.

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Filed under politics, Scotland