Friday, 16 June 2017

A round trip with many tracks from despair to hope.

This article is dedicated to the late Jo Cox MP and her vision of a just, equal and more united society. Her words will always walk with me.

'We are far more united than the things that divide us.' 

The dedication in the front of 'Tender Earth'
In the world of fast reaction, tweeting, facebook and sensational headlines I find myself drawn to reading longer editorial pieces that are not sound bites, but offer a deep consideration of someone's point of view and experience. I hope that if you stay with me to the end of this article you feel it is worth the read whether you are a young person, parent, teacher, librarian, publisher or fellow writer.

One of the questions that young readers often ask me is -

 'How do you keep going writing a book when it takes so long?'

The word 'motivation' always features in my answer.

It's why, when I have so much else to write I find myself HAVING to write this. For me, as with so many authors I know, writing is a compulsion. It's the way I express some deep elements of what I'm feeling and thinking, it's the way I attempt to distill and find some truths about some of the things in our world that sometimes seem to be too complex, too horrific, too painful to express in words.

Taken at the Vigil following the terror attacks on London Bridge
Over the past months with the terror attack on Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge and now the continuing horror of the fire in Grenfell Tower I have heard many people say the phrase... 'There are no words to express....' but it is a writer's work to try and find words, to offer narratives and stories that may help people find a way to move forward in their lives.

A personal journey 

Journey:  London to Telford as part of Pop Up National Festival 

Yesterday, at just after sunrise I left my home and walked to the station. The local park was empty of people but full of crows. I, like so many others, felt and feel deeply troubled and saddened by the suffering taking place in Grenfell Tower.

My first employment out of university was with Kensington and Chelsea Council, in a job that spanned community work and expression through writing, I was seconded by the council to work with young people in the borough to give access to resources of The Royal Court Young People's Theatre (then located in Ladbroke Grove). I worked on community projects in youth clubs, under The Westway and in and out of school centre at the bottom of the famous high rise Trellick Towers. I remember fondly many of the young people I met there and their families. These same people and people like them are now experiencing the trauma of the hideous fire that took hold so violently in Grenfell Tower this week.

On my walk to the tube I wrote these words:

Sunrise on charred dreams
Embers float through London skies
Crow shrieks questions to the dawn
Hearts and prayers.

On my early morning tube journey people were reading the papers with the image of the burning tower block printed large on the front page accompanied by the words 'hell' and 'fire' as headlines. There was silence in the carriage.

I love visiting Telford normally as it's a place I lived for some years and went to sixth form college. It's where my community minded dad, who died 2008, had his GP practice working with my mum as practice nurse, but yesterday I felt heavy-hearted. Asking myself 'What would Dad have made of the world as it is today?'

In 'Tender Earth' the young people have to find a way to live with the images that they see in the news as well as what they experience day to day.  Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst Carl Jung talked about the role of artists in tapping in to 'the collective unconscious' and that is what my journey with 'Tender Earth' is beginning to feel like.

'Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will control your life and you will call it fate.'
Carl Jung

On the tube I was reflecting on the last time I had visited Hadley Learning Community in Telford which was just after the Brexit vote when teachers at the school had spoken of how they feared the referendum, greater division and the way leaders and those in public life speak,  would impact on social cohesion and morale and the way they can teach in schools. Of course that was a whole general election away in the past!

It caught the 6.20 train from Euston carrying a bag of objects to share with young people with ' Kite Spirit' the name of one of my books embroidered on it. Much of that book is set in The Lake District where I went to Primary school.

I have practiced mindful meditation for some years and our ' homework' this week from the group is to focus on the visual world - what we see.

As part of this I was looking around the station in a way that I might not normally do. If I had not been doing my homework I would probably not have noticed the name of the train!

It cheered me because the Lake District has always been a place of great peace and comfort to me, as it is for Kite in my story ' Kite Spirit'.

I had a brief idea that I would get on the train and stay on....  I smiled to myself and in my mind's eye saw my Dad's smile. I could see him shaking his head at me!  I began to focus on the children I would be meeting in Telford.

On the train I had an email correspondence with Dylan Calder, founder of Pop Up Festival - an organisation with 'a vision of a more literate, creative society where reading, writing and storytelling are widely valued, enjoyed, practiced and celebrated.' We discussed the power of stories to tap into the collective unconscious and to find something there that might serve to provide hope.

I fell asleep on the train and had a nightmare that Pari (the child of Iraqi refugees who lives in a dilapidated tower block in 'Tender Earth') was stuck in the Grenfell Tower and a woman was screaming for the child to come down. I walked towards the woman and she turned to me. She had my face.

Dreams are a big part of the creation of stories... the conscious and the unconcious and how they flow together have throughout time always been a rich seam in all forms of art, and after I awoke and started thinking about my dream I realized that what I had done was imagine myself to be one of the mothers who are searching for their lost children.

Why am I telling you this? I am not that mother. Those are not my children. I am safe. I have my family. They are safe. I have a home and garden I can walk out into, breathe and plant flowers in. I am privileged, educated, I have a voice. We all have nightmares... mine are no better or worse or more worth sharing than anyone else's.

My point is this  - I am an author for young readers who tries to write stories that can help them navigate their way through this world with a sense of hope, warmth, laughter, imagination and joy. I hope my stories give young people a sense of agency, purpose and potential. I have lived a good few years on the planet. I have experienced many things, met many people. I have a safe home, a close and loving family and a voice to speak the words i want to say... and I am struggling to find a place of equilibrium. How then are young people coping?

There is a crisis in mental health among young people in this country and resources are woefully limited. I awoke from my nightmare with these pressing questions running through my mind.

What will be the impact of these international and national traumas on young people feeding on fears both real and imagined?

What legacy are we sowing for the future?

Street Wishes inspired by the children in 'Jasmine Skies' The wish words showing through are ' I wish for a home'

I find working with young people a truly joyous aspect of my work. I began the session by putting on my hat and introducing them to the voice and character of Grandad Bimal in 'Jasmine Skies' and I was away on another storytelling journey.... we travelled to the orphanage in Kolkata to where Mira volunteers and the students from Hadley, Telford with their diaspora roots and tendrils from all over the world, became those children, took on their roles and parts and stepped into their shoes. They showed me the wishes of the street children encased in re-cycled rubbish, and in those wishes they expressed their own hopes for the world. We explored together reading and writing as a treasure hunt of the imagination.... and, as so often happens when working with children and young people, my sense of hope returned.
A still from the patchwork of storytelling animation by Grace Emily Manning - a creative writing resource based by
 Sita Brahmachari for Pop Up Festival

On the way home at Wolverhampton I was feeling much more light-hearted as I remembered  Diwali and Durga Puja festivals we attended there as children. My mind was full of the wonderful children and inspiring dedicated educators I had met.

I got on the train from Wolverhampton to London, found my seat and then heard the announcement that I was heading for Oxenholme and The Lake District! (I clearly by then had forgotten my mindfulness homework!)

'Perhaps you should stay on!' The woman sitting next to me suggested.

The next available stop to return me to my family, friends, safe home and community - was Crewe. Instead of giving myself a hard time for being such a day-dreamer, I looked out of the window and enjoyed the unexpected re-routing of my journey. The evening sunshine and the countryside opened up in front of me.

Eventually... back on the homeward track and the tube I read articles about how members of the multi-faith  Kensington and Chelsea community had spent another day in a communal outpouring of support and common humanity as they face the still unraveling tragedy of the fire in Grenfell Tower.

I tweeted this:

Moving away from politics of immigration. What we see in #GrenfellTower humane, multi-faith community response is what makes Britain great.

Being an Amnesty Ambassador and conscious thoughts...

In the schools in and around Kensington and Chelsea  and Manchester educators are now having to work with young people ...  to  help them to cope with their unfolding trauma. I hope that some of the funds collected and most importantly - public funding - will go towards desperately needed increased resources for mental health provision in schools, and ensuring that the investigation that takes place after #GrenfellTower will address that young people, like my character Pari, will never have to live in sub-standard and unsafe housing or go hungry at school again.

I was honored to be invited to be one of the Amnesty Ambassadors and to speak up for the universal human rights of young people.

When I met with Kate Allen, Director of  Amnesty International UK and Nicky Parker, Human Rights Publisher to talk about how I might explore this role, I spoke of my wish to highlight: poverty inequality among young people and poverty of opportunity.

These are the universal human rights that the young characters in 'Tender Earth' their families and teachers are struggling to uphold in today's world. These are the hard fought for, precious rights enshrined in the United Natiions universal rights of the child that must be upheld.

Tender Earth is endorsed by Amnesty International UK '
because it illuminates the importance of equality, friendship and solidarity, and upholds our right to protest against injustice.'

Some more tracks to follow! Who knows where they will take you!

On activism

On empathy

In celebration of the life of the late MP Jo Cox

Stories of hope to reach children

I will speak more on this subject at The Guardian Teacher Conference.

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