Taking part really does count

A couple of months ago I entered the first chapter of my nearly finished novel into the Writers & Artists Working-Class Writers’ Prize and don’t ya know I am one of the shortlisted five!

I don’t enter any competition with the desire of winning, I do it for the practice of meeting a deadline, staying connected to my work, the discipline of adhering to the submission requirements and to know that someone, somewhere is reading my work. To be shortlisted for anything is a bonus, one that I thoroughly enjoy of course, but its definitely a bonus. So anyways, my work was shorted listed and that has made me happy.

There are so many ways to stay connected to your work, I’m excited to learn new ways, what do you do to keep rooted in your development as a writer?


What is kindness at work?

We have seen unlimited kindness from our communities in recent times. 

photo @chriscurry92 via unsplash

“If you can be anything, be kind”

“If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all”

“Work hard, be kind”

The internet is littered with posts and pictures about #kindness which is a wonderful thing. I want more of it. Lately though, as we creep towards buildings reopening and employers beginning to ask staff to come back to work, I have been asking myself, what does kindness in the work place really look like and what steps do organisational leaders need to put in place to foster a culture of kindness? 

As so many of us return to work, either at home, in our workplace or a combination of the two, or maybe we never left the work place, kindness is an underrated quality I think many of us would like to know was a priority at work,  along with other values like honesty and fairness – but what does this actually look like?  

My colleagues are gloriously kind – I REALLY LUCKED OUT – they welcomed me into the team with a mug with a “D” on it that matched theirs. We have tea breaks together, we smile and laugh and I think we are pretty honest with each other and do a lot of listening.

My question really is what does kindness look like across a whole organisation? Is it pockets of people being nice to each other, is it the leadership of an organisation walking the floor, reading the room, giving everyone the afternoon off because its been a really busy week? Is it changing all the new all staff coffee break on Zoom to a kindness break where we can chat about things that have made us smile that week?

What is kindness at work and how do we bring the kindness we have shown our communities with us into our workplaces?

Yep, I enjoyed lockdown

Bus drivers are brilliant

On 4 July, a very important day as we know (it’s my birthday), the lockdown will be eased even more, although some people have already completely given up on it. This whole period has been difficult, being in the same four walls, not being able to spend time with the people we love, homeschooling the best we can, the loss of jobs and income. Its been a lot. I’m not even ready to talk about how the Black Lives Matter movement has filled me with hope. But within the stress of living through a global pandemic, for me there has been some enjoyment. I think, just as we had to adapt after 9/11 we will be transitioning at breakneck speed into another new way of living and staying safe now that Coronavirus is living with us.

Being safe at home and having a safe place to call home is a privilege. Yes being inside the same walls every day is definitely sometimes difficult but when so many people don’t have that security it’s a privilege. I have enjoyed and had even more gratitude for my home during this time, so much so I’ve upped my donations to Shelter and Refuge. I’ve also noticed a lot of things in the house that have had their day or need switching up. More about that another time.

So, five things I really enjoyed during lockdown in London.

Writing. I don’t always have the time in my day to write….. well that’s the excuse I have become very comfortable with! But now I’m working from home and even though most of the staff at the theatre I work for have been furloughed and my days as incredibly busy and some days quite difficult emotionally, I have time. Real actual time where I don’t have to rush for anything and its liberating. I’m writing nearly every day now, girl has a deadline and publishers waiting for a first draft, and it is delightful. Being able to write regularly, in the spaces I have made my own for writing makes me so happy, I guess I am doing what my soul actually wants me to do. I need to remember this when life tries to go back to a million miles an hour.

my tbr pile is a meter high

Sports bras. Seriously, sports bra manufacturers and retail outlets need to prepare for the upsurge in women buying comfortable bras, I’m not sure anyone is going to return to an underwired ever again.

Reading. I am reading loads, my tbr pile is a meter high, I don’t always read novels because I love the format of a short story and I’ve given audio books a try too. I don’t usually enjoy them but being sprawled out on the sofa listening to a book is a new luxury for me. At the moment I’m listening to The Dutch House by Ann Prachett, read by Tom Hanks and it’s glorious. I’ve got a copy of the book too so I’ll read it after I’ve finished listening to it. This interview with Ann is the best, I listened to it on my state sanctioned walk. For the first time ever I brought an interiors book recommended by a youtuber! I know, whats wrong with me!! Maison: Parisian Chic at Home is old (which means you can get a used copy super cheap) but it is so good, especially when you want to redecorate and need to save up for new flooring and new curtains – nothing about beautiful big windows is cheap but oh how I love them. Our old house had horrible dark rooms and I was miserable every day we lived there. I don’t want to re do our living room bit by bit, it needs doing in one hit so active saving is in motion. I’ve not got a copy yet but I’ll be getting The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett when my bookshop gets a new delivery, I’m looking forward to this read. I have this new world emerging where it is possible to read and write and work along side it all and its a world I can get used to!

Ines de la Fressange's Parisian Chic at Home Book - Tour the Home ...
picture from @elledecor

Not commuting. I do not miss taking the train, the tube or the bus. Not one little bit. I miss people. I really miss the smile of a stranger, faces being covered is so horrible, not seeing laughter lines as is really hard and so sad, but do I miss the 8.15 am to Liverpool Street, hell no. I am loving being able to get up at 8.00 am and have a slow and intentional start to my day. I look out the window, tend to my house plants, have a cup of tea and all at a slow leisurely pace – it’s bliss.

Online yoga. I’m sad it has taken a global pandemic for my first yoga teacher who made me love yoga to take her practice online, but oh boy am I happy that she did. I set up my space, I burn some oils and I go to yoga in my living room. I’m hoping that as we merge into life with Covid-19 as threat to our health and well-being that my weekly online class remains because this is something I really want to keep. I’m not sure how I have survived life in general without hearing and seeing Hayley from my yoga mat. When I’m rich I’m we’re going on a yoga retreat to Tanzania so we can do yoga with giraffes.

So life in lockdown has not been all bad. Even though I’ve not made a single loaf of sourdough bread I have enjoyed my walks, reading, writing and living a slower more intentional life and this way of living is for me a keeper.

In the right conditions everything can grow

The Spiderwort in my room of my own

This cutting is a cutting from a spiderwort plant which I grew from a broken stem picked from the dusty floor of the Lidl in Surrey Quays. This cutting is thriving in good old 100% London Tap Water.

In the right conditions everything can grow, be strong, beautiful and healthy. Nature is the teacher I think we should all tune into a little bit more carefully, she shows us the way when we stop resisting. If she can renew and find space to grew and be glorious then maybe there is still hope for humanity.

Lets all find our inner spiderwort so we can all grow and thrive together.

Mostly, safe from discrimination and street crime at home

Every situation has a flip side. For all the pain this global pandemic is chucking at us I am grateful for the gifts it is giving us too.

Many of us have been able to slow down and, outside of living through the horror of the fragility of society and an underfunded safety health service, have adapted well to spending all our time at home and spending that time with our families. Some of us have even enjoyed it.

I am one of those people.

I thought I was more relaxed because I wasn’t commuting, wasn’t having to navigate time, nor deal with the lack of it. But these new ways of living are not what is making me incredibly calm, work is harder from home without the support or company of a brilliant team, I have realised I am totally calm because above all else my 13 year old son is home. He is not going or coming home from school by himself, he is not exploring his new and very limited freedom with his friends, he is not going to park to shoot basketball or the cinema or to Nando’s. He is home where I know he is safe.

In the old days I worried about him constantly. I was worried about him looking older than his 13 years and being jumped by hood rats or the police.

In the old days he had a basic GPS watch that he could make emergency calls on and that enabled us to see where he was. It’s not that we don’t trust him, we do, we don’t trust that he will be safe from people who think that mugging kids, or worse, is a normal thing to do. Before the boy started secondary school I went in all the shops on his route home and asked if they had a plan in place for if someone was attacked?  Not many of them did, which for a place like Hackney with a massive rate of street crime was a disappointment, but a couple did and my son knows where the safe places are on his route home from school. He knows to sit downstairs on the bus and to always be under a CCTV camera. He knows to always stay aware.

In the old days we reminded every time he went out that if he was stopped by the police that he said nothing other than his name, address, age and that they should call his parents. We have repeated that mantra out loud and in ‘stressful’ conditions so that if it ever happens, he will have heard himself say those words and hopefully repeat them to any officer who stops him.

Every year around 34,000 children in England are victims of gang related violence. 56,000 children go missing from home linked to gang related crime and 350,000 children say they know someone who is a member of a gang.  These are not good numbers and we know they are grossly underestimated as there isn’t the capacity in safeguarding teams to report a true picture. And we know that as a young black boy he is 40 times more likely than his white counterparts to be stopped by the police. 40 times!

My child is not a statistic, I have a c-section scare to prove it, and while we can do everything within our control to give him a well-rounded life and a secure one I know it takes just one incident outside of our control to change everything. And that means I worry constantly worrying about his safety.

When the boy was little he was cute, not considered a danger to anyone, now he is a massive man-child with facial hair and a deep voice, he is growing into the independent young person we’ve spent all our time nurturing. We are proud of our boy, he is kind, has empathy, is bright, funny, articulate and well read, but as much as his family and those who love him know all of this strangers don’t. To them he is just another black teenage boy in a hoodie, many strangers won’t see a happy go lucky teenager embarking on life, they will see a threat or a target.

So the other side of this global pandemic is that my son in the house, yes it is robbing him of exploring his independence, of stretching his world beyond is parents coat tails but it has also suspended the fear that I and probably many parents of black boys live with every day, for once in our lifetime, our kids are safe from discrimination and street crime at home.

Safe at home

Pretty orange house

What a privilege is it to be able to say you are safe at home.

In these lockdown times I can’t help but think about all the people who are going to work, in addition to NHS staff, there are the refuse collectors, the postal people, lorry drivers, shop workers, supply chain workers, cleaners, teachers, nursery workers, maintenance and facilities people, bus drivers, engineers, insurance assessors, social workers and so many others all going work, putting themselves at risk. And then there are the people who are at home but not safe, be that because they live with someone who has demons or they have their own demons or their home just isn’t safe. The amount of substandard accommodation in this country is appalling. Back in September the The Guardian reported that more than 8 million people, the equivalent to the population of London, are living in unsuitable housing in England. 8 million people – how is that even possible? How are we not ashamed of that?

I hope the massive spotlight currently being shone on the equality of this country is something we don’t forget when we are through the worst of this pandemic. The lowest paid in our society are the ones holding it together and then going home to their often overcrowded, substandard, overpriced accommodation where if they are lucky they can enjoy a less than healthy meal.

I can honestly say I have never been more ashamed of this country.

How we treat our vulnerable people, the elderly, the sick, the poor, is a reflection of us, those that can make a difference and a change. We may not be responsible for the pandemic but we are responsible for how the people facing it, fighting it, fearing it everyday are treated every day, not just during a pandemic.

We need to do better, much much better.

Yeah – and I have time to update my blog, for if not now when?

White people, its time to start owning your history

A bit of a long read but as we approach Black History Month in the UK and start talking about the contributions black people have made to British society I wanted to politely suggest that the majority of white people need to start owning their history and that black history month is not the time to talk about slavery or colonialism.

It seems to be consistently inconvenient to remember the UK’s industrial wealth was built on the backs of the black and brown people who inhabited the British colonies. The wealth that came from this dark history funded the growth of British cities and communities as well as the development of industries that have since boomed into multinationals that dominate the global marketplace. 

The people and countries who toiled the hardest for the benefit of the British industrialists have never seen a shred of the unimaginable wealth that has transformed communities and families across the UK. As a result of slavery and post slavery forced labour many white people with humble beginnings benefited from the trickle-down economics and philanthropy that would change the life chances of their future families forever.

Industrialists poured wealth into education for their children and then because the owners of the cotton mills and sugar plants had so much new money they funded schools in their towns, they funded universities, they started charitable organisations for the poor (white people), they brought houses, became property developers, developed new workers housing, built themselves huge mansions of which many are now in the hands of the National Trust. It’s not surprising that at home Industrialists were celebrated, that they became the landed gentry and members of Parliament who could, in their new positions of power, determine the life chances of others while their wives became campaigners fighting for (white) women to have equal rights.  

The opportunity to travel and streamline the processes in the Colonies for the benefit of a company’s bottom line enabled Industrialists to take treasures from these faraway lands.  These treasures are now worth a fortune and changing the lives of the people who inherited them; all of whom promise when they hear the valuation on the Antiques Roadshow ‘to keep it in the family’.

These Industrialists didn’t pay tax in the British colonies and they certainly didn’t invest into the lands of the people where the raw materials were coming from. No money for schools, hospitals or housing. It’s no surprise then that the generations that came after slavery continued to be oppressed, abused and tortured. These people did not thrive, they received no compensation, they were forced to work in slave like conditions for meagre wages. They had no legacy of wealth, just more pain, poverty and continued racism.

The biggest manufacturing plants on Jamaica are still owned by British companies and the tourism industry is mostly owned by Spanish companies; neither industry reinvest their profits into Jamaica. Even now the commonwealth countries who gained independence from Britain still pay the British government a penny in every pound they make as a tax in exchange for freedom. These taxes are supposed to provide access to funds, including from Europe and security particularly during and after hurricanes but we’ve seen how that plays out.

A good example of an Industrialist who grew a multinational organisation off the back of the colonies is Lord Lever, the ‘hulme’ came later. While Lord Lever built the globally celebrated Port Sunlight village to provide his workforce with good housing and campaigned for better welfare for all he supported the expansion of the British colonies. After being unable to access forced labour in the British West African colonies he brought into the forced labour of the Belgian Congo instead. His huge investment supported a period of history that was responsible for more deaths than the Nazi holocaust. This relationship with the Congo did not end until the country secured its independence in 1960.  Today the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the poorest counties in the world with 80% of it’s population living on less than $1.50 a day. In contrast, Lever Brothers became Unilever and is one of the richest conglomerates in the world.

To me this is more Britain’s history than it is African but you won’t often read about the dark side of Lord Lever because he was a billionaire Industrialist who is celebrated as a liberal, who gifted Lancaster House (an actual palace) to the British public, invested in schools, universities and grew one of the most successful businesses in the world. He is also responsible for the death of millions of Africans and for stripping the Congo of its natural resources and leaving nothing in return.

Yes, it’s uncomfortable to think about but white people, by not taking ownership of what your ancestors did during your colonial past, you are standing still and prolonging the healing that needs to take place. My ancestors had no power to dismantle the structural racism they endured during slavery and post slavery colonialism. These periods of history and their legacy belong to you and a few kind words during black history month is not owning your history or doing anything to re-balance the outcomes of it. If you think your pain is too huge to bear imagine for a moment the life of the people your people abused. If you think I should just get over it, my response is that is easy to say while standing on the privilege colonialism afforded you. Your people were poor you say, indeed they may have been but they were poor within a booming economy that eventually funded a welfare system, free schooling, healthcare and a first rate travel network. Being poor in Britain post the Industrial age was due to political arrangements not because of structural racism. By comparison even desperately poor white people had better life chances than their counterparts in the Commonwealth and that is British history that should be taught all year round not just mentioned along with some kindly words of recompense during the month of October.

“If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.”

Sir Terry Pratchett

The reliable comfort of no surprises

I used to think people who went back to the same place on holiday year after year were really, really boring – now I have become someone who goes back to the same place on repeat, I’ve had to ask myself a couple of questions; what make a holiday destination a keeper and am I boring?

We have been going to Gennadi, a village in the south of Rhodes, Greece for ten years! Ten whole years of going back to the same place and loving it a little bit more every time we go. It’s an actual village where people live, there is a school, a police station a Post Office and all the shops a village needs with bonus points for the very slow ten-minute stroll to the sea and all the gorgeous tavernas that sit on its shore.  There are hotels of course, huge ones owned I think by Scandinavian corporates, tiny ones owned by local Greek families and a glut of Airbnb rentals.

Somehow all the different visitors and the local community manage to rub along together and the village doesn’t change. Its slow, laid back, lots of things don’t make sense and I think this is why I love it. It’s not exciting, its predictable and reliable.  The moment we land on Rhodes we know exactly what to expect and we slow down immediately, we don’t think, we don’t work, we eat our weight in watermelon and we soak up the vitamin D. Best of all I take too many pictures that look exactly the same year after year.

I’ve had to think about sharing the village details with anyone coz you know I don’t want crazy people going there and spoiling it but like the rest of Greece, Rhodes is struggling financially since the crash in 2008. So many people rely on tourism that Rhodes does need as many people as possible to visit and if staying in a hotel, particularly all inclusive ones, to get out and explore and spend a bit of money in local shops and restaurants. Exploring is so easy to do on Rhodes. 

The bus service is really good, its regular, its cheap and you can ride up and down the length of the island in air-conditioned comfort for about €5.00. We just hire a car now, its cheaper to get a car when we arrive for our whole stay than it is to get a taxi transfer to the south of the island – like most things Greek, that doesn’t make sense but that’s how it is. Lindos is too cute, if visiting use the car parks, the first time we visited we drove down the uber steep hill and our little car barely made it back up the incline.

So I’ve concluded the reliable comfort of having a holiday with no major surprises in a familiar environment that requires no emotional labour together with lovely people, sunshine, empty (pebble) beaches, gallons of iced coffee and handmade ice cream is what I love about Gennadi and what will be keeping me coming back for many years. If that makes me boring, I’m so good with that. Gennadi, Rhodes is my utopia, my happy place and I’m already excited about visiting in 2020.

Safe solo travelling according to your mother

A few days ago I responded to a tweet about practical advice for solo female travelling and my response has been saved loads so I thought I’d put all my thoughts into a blog post.  I have travelled lots on my own, mostly for work and to very safe places across the US, Europe and West Africa but the practical things, I think, are the same no matter where you go.

Because my child has a horrible independent and stubborn streak, that she could only have inherited from her father, this is the advice I wish she had taken when she went on her travels. She too went to mostly safe places but let me tell you, it doesn’t stop you worrying, especially when in your circle you have young women who while travelling have been kidnapped, lost all their money, passports and plane tickets and in one case broken her neck. Yes travelling is full of wonder and there is only ever a very small chance that anything will go wrong, but if it does there is plenty you can do to mitigate the stress and get home quickly.

In no particular order, here is my advice:-

Make sure someone has your schedule and make sure you have a copy of your passport in the cloud and with you, not with all your paperwork obviously. Make sure someone at home who you trust has a copy too. Get the right vaccinations in enough time for them to be effective or you may not be admitted to your destination.

Know where your Embassy is and save the local phone number and email address. Most Embassies have a team who have pretty much seen it all before and if necessary they can get a new passport to you quicker than anyone else as it can be sent via the Diplomatic bag not the regular post, if of course they are not able to produce an emergency passport themselves.

Store emergency numbers in your phone and in the cloud.

Book your flights with ABTA and ATOL members, if anything happens, they are insured to get you home. The UK government do not have a duty to get you home, if they have to they will charge you for it and its not easy to organise at all. The FCO regularly update travel advice, read it!

Get adequate travel insurance – the youngster I know who broke her neck didn’t have insurance, her parents are still paying the bill for having her transported to a hospital on the mainland and her treatment.

Use the safety features on your phone, and give someone access to those features just in case they do need to track where you are. My friend who was kidnapped in South America (for her organs) would have a very different story had her friend not managed to get away.

There are loads of apps and digital solutions that are brilliant for travelling, I have no idea what they are cause I write down everything but the one thing I always do is upload my photos to my cloud storage because I’d be heartbroken if I lost any of my pictures.

Don’t keep all your money or your cards in one place. Spilt your money across two bank accounts too just in case someone does clone your card, that way they can only access one account. When I go away I always transfer enough money for a couple of days into the account I use for travelling so the most I’ll ever loose is a couple of hundred pounds.

Leave anything your really value at home, things get lost and stolen, the simplest thing to avoid disappointment is to leave really precious items at home. Boring but sensible.

Be nice to the domestic staff where you are staying – these women know everything and they will look out for you and keep an eye on you.

Of course be a good visitor, learn the local does, don’t’s and customs and for the sake of my last nerve please don’t turn up in a village with your massive camera taking photos of people with a humble lifestyle like they are in a zoo. Poverty tourism is not cool.

Obviously practice safe sex and don’t get married. I don’t care how cute they are, do not come home with a baby, an infection or a spouse. If it is love (I met my husband on holiday) you’ll make it work beyond your travels and when you are dealing with the humdrums of reality.

My favourite, no one should be travelling anywhere without knowing how to knock someone out and protect themselves. Seriously, self defence training means you are aware of your surroundings, you engage your spidey senses, you are confident and you know that DNA sticks to your nails and your keys should you have punched someone out. The Suzy LamplughTrust has great advice but it isn’t hard to find a local self-defence class.

Finally, call your mother regularly (if she is in your life and not dysfunctional). You may be a grown woman with your own apartment, a string of degrees and a fabulous job, but that is all irrelevant when your little girl, who will always three to their mother, is going travelling. Yes of course we want you to have fun. We also want to know you are safe and if for any reason we think you are not we will happily ensure the local army comes to find you and deposits you on the first international flight home so you can be grounded until you are 40.

What have I missed?

I’m sure there is loads but in short, stay safe, have fun, call your mum and your travels will be amazing.

The other side of overwhelm

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Breakthough Writers Festival thoughtfully put together by Kerry Hudson to support and encourage more writers from working class backgrounds. I’ve not read it yet but her memoir, Lowborn reflects on growing up poor and with a mother who struggled. Two experiences I know very well. I am saving the book for my holidays, who doesn’t love a good cry on the beach! I have listened to Kerry read an abridged version of her book for Radio 4 and even though it made my eyes water when I was walking down Stoke Newington High Street it also made me happy, listening to Kerry’s voice is a lovely experience on its own. Anyway back the the festival. So much good information was shared that I was totally shell shocked for a good week while I processed everything. I’m not usually overwhelmed but I went to a The Psychology of Writing workshop with Vicky Newham and she got me, within ten minutes she simply asked what was I scared of? How I didn’t burst into tears I dunno. And I have a new shero, Sam Missingham she refreshingly speaks as she finds, a rare quality in current times. Follow her on twitter, she’s brilliant.

All the speakers and the wisdom they shared with absolute passion was something new to me. Everyone who spoke on the panels or delivered a workshop genuinely wanted all the writers in the room to finish their projects and send them out into the world. I think this was the first event I’ve been to where the speakers were 100% there simply to encourage those watching and following their footsteps. It was an absolute joy. So the other side of overwhelm I have been writing, plotting, thinking and day-dreaming – I’m comfortable claiming day-dreaming as a creative activity – I haven’t quite got to 1000 words a day but I’m joyfully working on it!