Wednesday, 12 November 2014


I was privileged to spend Armistice Day with a group of young people from Fortismere school as part of my Patron of Reading partnership. We wanted to make the day one to remember. I took my dog Billie along and he became our remembrance day dog.   

Billie being with us reminded us of all the animals who have also died in warfare. He was so well looked after. There are suggestions that he may become the Fortismere Patron of Reading dog!
One hundred years on from WW1 it felt so important to mark that moment. But how do you bring an understanding of respect for a moment's silence to young people in our age? Perhaps for this hyper-technically-connected generation the concept of a minute's silence may be particularly alien. It also occurred to me that the concept of commemoration may seem rather faraway and abstract. The task of the day was to bring the story home to these young people.

At the beginning of 'Red Leaves' my character Zak reacts violently to the idea of a school visit to Flanders Fields. He has his reasons. His mother is a war journalist in Syria and he sees no point in thinking about an old war when there 'are wars raging all over the world every day.'

Zak's journey through 'Red Leaves' is to meet a soldier from WW1 who built the house in which he lives. Zak steps into his shoes, but the journey of the young people in my story is also to meet each other and to try to understand how war has impacted on contemporary lives.

A group of twenty students, teachers, librarians, myself and Billie headed for the woods to see the very air air shelter that gave me the idea for the young people in 'Red Leaves' to shelter inside. In this place Zak meets Aisha a Somali Refugee girl and her contemporary story of loss through war is also remembered and recognised.

There were many activitites as part of the day including quizzes, talks, readings discussion, teachers and students shared stories and artifacts dating back to WW1 and through all this there was a keen consciousness of how war is still impacting on the lives of so many people today. 

Just as is the case in most schools in world cites some of  the student's families will have come to this country seeking shelter and protection to escape the ugly face of war in their homelands.

There were two moments when we walked through the very wood in which 'Red Leaves' is set that I shall personally never forget. We discussed the fact that many wars are caused because people are forced to flee their homes when boundaries are crossed and territory taken. I asked why the youngest of children build dens and the answers came thick and fast ...'for protection' 'to feel safe' 'for shelter.' It was a wonderful moment for me when two young boys who could have been young Zak, sat in the shelter of a woodland den and read his story to the rest of us.

Omar and Casey reading the character of Zak in 'Red Leaves' with Billie listening too!
Of course a writer's trade is to weave words... and many were written and spoken during the day, but I shall never forget standing in an ancient wood listening to bird song with twenty young people for a minute's silence. 

The word 'respect' is often used by and about the young... often referring to 'lack of respect.' However, at that moment the young people, many of whose ancestors will have fought in WW1 and WW2, many of whom will have come from contemporary conflict and war... stood together in silence on the edge of a woodland conservation zone in their local wood...

The aim of the conservation zone in which my young characters hide in the fiction of 'Red Leaves' is to nurture the diversity of the trees, flora and fauna. It seemed so fitting to be standing with twenty young people in this wood holding together all their diverse and shared histories in a moment of communal remembrance of all the tragic loss caused by past and present wars and conflicts.

This sort of peace is to be cherished.  

Students created beautiful memorial leaves now on display at Fortismere Library

' My Grandpa went to fight in the war and I think he should be remembered because he fought for his country and never gave up...' Beth

With many thanks to all the wonderful staff at Fortismere who created such a beautiful remembrance day walk in the woods that I, for one, will never forget.