Introducing Ed Itor, bully and critical friend…

…or more correctly her* multiple personalities, Copy Ed, Structural Ed and Picture Ed. They work as a team although as in all teams not all of them are always fit to participate.Sometimes they’re benign, and can’t find much wrong. That’s not such good news as it sounds – it only means they’re having an off day or they’ve lost their specs. They’ll find plenty to mutter about next time they look.

*You thought Ed was a man didn’t you? Ha! Ed is short for Edwina.

Ed Tracking 3

Sometimes their advice is straightforward. With an airy swipe Structural Ed points out the end of a paragraph would be better at the beginning, (or indeed the start of the book better at the end). Or not there at all. They monitor my daily allowance of telling not showing, telling me to dramatize more or change everything to dialogue. I love interior monologue, but neither Copy Ed or Structural Ed agree with me on that one so if you’re one of my exclusive group of readers you have the Eds to thank for pruning my neural suckers, and also for weeding if not wholly zapping my more clumsy metaphorical parasites.

If Structural Ed can’t find fault with anything major, such as the setting, characters, time scale, tone, or theme, Copy Ed, who has a more antsy persona, zooms in for a good old nitpick of my commas, m and n dashes, indents, and ellipseez (is that the plural of ellipsis?) She loves nothing more than a session of semi-colonic irrigation. The semicolon is, for me, the writer’s third gear. (When I learnt to drive, cars had only four gears and my favourite was third. You could start in third if you had to – downhill in my ancient Mini I often did – and complete whole journeys, up to quite a speed.) Ed tracking 1Often I’m not sure whether to continue with my sentence or leave it at that; at such times the semicolon is my friend. Copy Ed performs a regular purge; Structural Ed, meanwhile, is on immigration control. She’s spotted too many Points Of View (POVs to the initiated). Slipping in and out too often, with no legitimate reason to be in the text and frequently incorrect usage. They’re unreliable, multiple, I should insist they get entry visas or ban most of them altogether.

Picture Ed is quieter. Maybe I’ll make him male since we all need a consistent pronoun (Copy Ed told me that). He turns up fairly reliably every week with some copyright free photos I can use for the blog. Sometimes I’m short of ideas and if it wasn’t for the inspiration from his photos there wouldn’t be a post at all (for example when I corresponded from Leyton High Road). Sometimes he goes AWOL, off on some research assignment or just looking for a battery, and then I have to do a drawing, or create some sort of montage to illustrate my post that week. To that end, while I was busy taking photos of my keyboard in the bin (What? See below…) some gremlin stuck two sets of brackets in that paragraph! How the Eds are shaking their heads! And all those exclamation marks… Tut Tut.

Recently the Eds have taken to turning up when I’m reading the work of other authors. They sneak up behind me to point out that J K Rowling…really does use…far too many ellipses…when she wants… to show people …breathlessly…running away.. (and why not just say “they” instead of “Harry, Ron and Hermione” every time? She might have cropped a few pages that way.) Louis de Bernières gave a child two different ages within one page early in The Dust that Falls from Dreams, spoiling the rest of the book for me so much that I can’t find the exact reference because I gave it to Oxfam. Do read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. It’s a mostly brilliant book, great setting, characters, themes – but what’s with all the would’ve and must’ve let alone she’d’ve and he’d’ve and the extraordinary he ought to’ve in an otherwise formal literary tone? The Essex Serpent‘s Ed must’ve’d a bad day because the ending is disappointingly inconclusive, I might add… However Linda Grant in The Dark Circle can’t be blamed for inconclusiveness (inconclusivity?). She wraps up an otherwise sympathetically told, well paced, interestingly researched story of diverse believable characters with a brief part three information dump, as though she resented having to spend any more time with the reader.

 

Less recently, James, Faulkner, Woolf, Proust and Joyce wrote such long sentences they collectively traumatised all the Eds they knew, causing them to bluster hysterically and go off to find a pier to jump off before changing their minds because after all it really was a question of style or perhaps only a passing thought and such thoughts come and go never knowing which way they’ll lead a protagonist next on the great despairing journey through a world without the comfort of religious certainty full of railways and Guinness illegitimate children shame haunted governesses colonial unfairness mint juleps charlatans snobs and magic in the shrubbery? These past traumas may account for why the Eds of today are so keen on brevity, so down on adverbs and so fixated with colonic purging.

13732457(I’m a few chapters into the dense and beautifully written On Golden Hill by Francis Spufford though, and even the Eds can find nothing wrong yet. So as the best fiction should, it really is helping me escape into a different world.)

When the Eds mess with my reading mind I tell them to go off duty. Can’t I even read a book just for enjoyment any more? But I wish they’d turn up for emails, facebook posts and notes to the window cleaner. They seem to think that’s beneath their notice and yet I can assure them, I make plenty of errors then too.

But to a writer of course the Eds are helpful, really. I wouldn’t be without them, really (were those reallys really necessary, given that I’m not writing dialogue here…reallys seep from my neural byways along with actuallys and of courses and justs. They must be stopped! We don’t need my authorial interior monologue as well as interior monologues from all those jostling POVs.)

The only one I (really) can’t see the use for is their dark shadow, Mess with the Ed. (Copy Ed: Your readers won’t get that unless they read it aloud with a London accent. Me: Who cares? Nobody reads my stuff anyway. But since you insist I’ll add an apostrophe and change the e to lower case to show the dropped h. And if anyone notices maybe they’ll comment and then we’ll see who’s right! Structural Ed: Less interior monologue here, please. Get on with it!)

So – Mess with the ‘ed is the author’s equivalent of live-in emotional abuser. Isn’t your writing crap? Who cares what you have to say? Your characters are unbelievable (not in a good way); your themes pointless; your setting blurry; your ideas out of date; your prose over/underwritten; your dialogue banal, your plot – what plot? You think you’re an author? You think it’s worth even revising this so called first draft? You think the Eds don’t have better things to do?

Ed keyboard in bin 2I came across this article by William Ryan. I waved it jauntily at Mess with the ‘ed. But this week, even Ryan’s clarity and common sense ain’t working. I gaze at the first draft and really just want to give up. It’s uncanny but the keyboard has gone on strike in sympathy: despite changed batteries it’s skipping letters, disconncting, takng th sense frm my words even if I bang it like a high stepping typewriter.. Copy Ed’s refusing even to pick up her red pen until I invest in a new one…my inspiration is draining fast…Dementors loom on the horizon…letters n spaces dispersng… wht’s hppning….where are Harry, Ron and Hermione when you need thm?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Fictional, factual, feminist!

Last week I posted two days late for World Book Day, this week two days late for International Women’s Day. So what? Every day should be international women’s day, until the ridiculous imbalance between two types of human being is resolved.

That’s a big ask, so I’ll start with a few examples you can show your daughters and your sons. Stand by for two heroines from my childhood reading, two from that of my children, and a couple of adults. Some fictional, some factual, all pointing in the right direction though the route may look circuitous to some of you.

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Photo from South Dakota State Historical Society, reproduced in “Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder” by John E Miller, University of Missouri Press 1998

The American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder fictionalised her own pioneer childhood. In the second half of the 19th century , Laura, the second of Pa and Ma’s four daughters,  travelled in a covered wagon from Wisconsin to South Dakota, encountering meteorological and man made hazards all the way. I read her books as a child in suburban North London. Her family were (had to be) independent, tough, adaptable and with four daughters, Pa lacked the help he needed to tend the farm they eventually settled. So Laura persuaded her mother to let her help him, and as he said, it was just the ticket. We learn that if a man gives a woman an opportunity, she’ll repay it manifold. Along the way, we learn how to clean a gun and make bullets (as clear a description as any Boy Scout manual, perhaps Trump should ban it as terrorist training), how to build a log cabin and all the necessary furniture, how to cross a river in flood or survive a blizzard on the prairie, teach a class of students when both teacher and pupils are the same age (sixteen), treat malaria, break in a horse, and make a poke bonnet. Without transgressing the politics of her stratified and conservative society, Laura Ingalls Wilder makes the strongest of social, business and emotional cases for girls and boys to be educated and valued equally.

Dido Twite is entirely fictional. She’s the heroine of Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series but first appears in the second book. A neglected London waif with an eye for the main chance, innate crafty intelligence and a yearning for affection, Dido is  resourceful, fit and adaptable from day one. She needs to be: over the course of seven books, she survives a burning shipwreck, comes round from a coma on a whaling ship in Nantucket, foils at least four treacherous plots against the king including one where a giant gun is to be fired across the Atlantic to displace the UK (sound familiar?) overpowers a tyrannical queen who practises human sacrifice, escapes an overturned coach with a drunken driver, a plague of spiders, and various poisoning attempts, stops St Paul’s Cathedral rocking on its foundations, shines a light on hypocrisy and privilege, cares for the sick and frail, rescues children trapped labouring down mines, puts an end to dangerous sects and stands up against injustice and cruelty. (This potted biography may be muddled; the books are complex and I’m due a reread. Anyway, she’s a helluva role model.)

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The only edition of any Harry story I could find with Hermione on the cover

My children read these, took them in and then along came Hermione Granger and Lyra Belacqua. You all know Hermione: the ambitious want-it-all student who got a bit tired and stressed when a spell helped her attend several classes simultaneously to beat timetable clashes, thus enabling her to learn enough magic to get hapless Ron and dull Harry out of their latest dilemma all while juggling the two different worlds she lives in. (Dull Harry? Yes, I’m afraid I can only ever think of him as a plot dump with very little character of his own. But Hermione, Ginny, Luna Lovegood…J.K Rowling to my mind writes better female characters.) And both Emma Watson and J K Rowling have since put some of the Harry Potter money where their mouths are, promoting women’s rights in various practical ways. I can’t be bothered with the carping about the dresses they wear while doing so: nobody criticises the way men dress when they’re trying to better their world (all the time, since the dawn of it).

114982The only one of these heroines created by a man is Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua, due to resurface soon, I’m delighted to hear. Time travel? Pah! This heroine does inter galactic travel (I think – my grasp of physics is less good than Pullman’s). She’s feisty (aren’t they all?), a bit uncouth (shades of Dido there), an incredibly fast learner and again like Dido, in need of a loving family. Instead her mother is Mrs Coulter, surely a magical version of Mrs Thatcher/Theresa May with her love of good accessories and her twists into sheer evil. She’s not pictured on any of the covers I found (strange: the iconography of women’s beauty is all over the place, but put an intelligent heroine on a book cover?) However, here’s an earlier Philip Pullman heroine, the wonderful 19th century detective Sally Lockhart. Who needs Holmes and Watson with her around? There are four Sally Lockhart books, all quite gripping.

 

IWD SdeBThis article would be too long if I went into the writers for adults who inspired my feminism, so I’ll just cite the first and the most recent. In the 1980s I studied Simone de Beauvoir’s fiction and how it related to her life and philosophy; I haven’t read it since but suspect it would still stand up, in a good translation. At university my path crossed very briefly with an author whose work was published two days ago on International Women’s Day 2017. How about this for an in your face title and cover, by the co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party which now has twice as many members as UKIP. Catherine Mayer is of course not fifty feet tall in real life, but history may well see her as a giantess. I bet she was brought up on  Laura and Dido.

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©Jessica Norrie 2017

A Word About World Book Day

I support everything World Book Day stands for. Who wouldn’t want to support reading, advance literacy, encourage authors and readers, swell the book borrowing and buying audience of all ages and races? Do you sense a BUT coming? It’s only a small one.

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Ginny and Ron Weasley, 2002

The schools I taught in and the ones where my children went celebrated World Book Day. One way to do this was by inviting the children and staff to dress up. (Fortunately for you, ex colleagues, I’ve lost the photos.) For me as a parent it was, mostly, fun deciding with the children who they would dress up as, how to put together the costumes, working out the inevitable challenges (Babar’s ears, Pirate Pete’s parrot). Some of that time I was working from home as a translator; at others I had access to my own school library and stationery cupboard which clearly did make my challenge easier. Even so, making a costume at home, if the school gives you enough notice, is not usually difficult.

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Babar, 1998

It’s creative, collaborative, and involves exploring the story, characters and illustrations in more depth than you do by “just” reading the books where they feature (I put “just” in inverted commas because learning to read and continuing to want to read are incredibly complex processes – but that’s for another post).

Making a costume together promotes all the following skills: gross and fine motor skills; listening; decision making; art and design; interpretation; acting/role play; compromise; language – receptive and active; imagination; mathematics (measuring, perception, shape, calculation); sense of humour (yes, humour is an innate skill but if it doesn’t get practice, it withers). And it promotes parenting skills and the right to a childhood. All that, just from making a costume! (Oh, and thrift, as ideas can be reused – Babar can be adapted for Jill Murphy’s Mr or Mrs Large, or for The Elephant and the Bad Baby. Meg can grow into Ginny Weasley, the Worst Witch or witchever you prefer.)

So I was saddened to read this year, that by 27th February British people had spent at least £386,000 on World Book Day costumes. If you DO want to take the quick and easy route, of course you could buy next year’s costumes in the Tesco sale now. When I was trying to consult the Asda cheap costumes page a BMW advert kept driving over it: perhaps you could wear officially licensed Dorothy Deluxe Red Slippers available on Amazon for £80.45 as you go for a spin. But if parents are going to spend £80.45, or £386,000+ for World Book Day, shouldn’t it be on books and literacy projects, not in supermarkets and online giants?

There’s a way of getting ahead of the game for next year, spending just £1 and benefiting Book Aid International, by using one of their 18 costume templates. The World Book Day site’s inspiration page also refers you to Book Aid International, and has plenty of other ideas. Book Aid International aim to equip and run libraries in sub-Saharan Africa: a better cause than Tesco, surely, at 25% of the sale price of their cheapest item today? (I’ve added the link to show I bear no grudges). Tesco do at least manage one black child model out of 20+ (unless they’re all hiding under the superhero costumes), but Book Aid International – sadly, in view of their aims, but in fact in view of everything – none at all. Whoops, I’m going off post again.

The photos on this blog post, rather dog eared and faded now, from pre digital days, are not intended to be smug. I was a good parent in this respect because it appealed to my own interests, but inadequate in others (nutrition, sport, and patience come to mind). What my photos illustrate are happy memories of joint parent/child projects, inspired by books we read together. I’m now milking the experience by writing in the novel in progress about the relationship between parents and schools and the everyday pressures and joys involved for both – the first rough draft went to the agent this week which is a milestone of sorts. March 2020 update: that novel became The Magic Carpet. It took off successfully and got some great feedback, but you could help me celebrate this year’s World Book Day by buying, reading and reviewing it – please! I do have some review copies available (ebook or paperback with UK postage only). Please comment below if you’d be interested in reviewing it.  

I’m quoting from the Manchester Evening News now: With the … finding that 28 per cent of children will choose to dress up as fictional characters that aren’t even from books, and a further 33pc as a character from a book they have never even read, the company is reminding people to not lose sight of the real meaning of the event

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The Artful Dodger, 2001

We used to have a poster at school, in the library, which we showed to parents who asked about tutors and workbooks and extra homework. Often they were stressed themselves and were stressing their children and the poster was intended not to criticise but to help. It looked more exciting than this but all it said was:

Ten Ways to improve reading:

1.Read. 2. Read. 3.Read. 4.Read. 5.Read. 6.Read. 7.Read. 8.Read. 9.Read. 10.Read. 

I would add: 11. Enjoy! (See my post from 2016 for some more ideas – and they don’t involve dressing up.)

No children were hurt in the making of this post and we all continue to live happily ever after.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

The world in four short blocks

printerApologies for more infelicities than usual this week. I lost two hours to a petulant printer which didn’t welcome my novel’s complete first draft, grinding out crumpled disordered sheets and requiring intense therapy every ten pages. A charming (no, really: I requested and value her knowledge) Gujarati friend then pointed out everything that was wrong with the chapters featuring a Hindu family. Ten percent of the 300 hard won pages is effectively waste paper.”See?” crowed the printer.”I said you should wait.”

kwikfitWell, wait I did last night after a puncture revealed contemporary repair kits are a poor substitute for a spare wheel. Three hours later the efficient Turkish breakdown man arrived; then there were three more hours at Kwik Fit this morning. It was my turn for petulance. Friday mornings are my blog writing time!

The charms of the Kwik Fit waiting room are limited (despite the cheerful efficiency of the Afro Caribbean manager) so I wandered along Leyton High Road, which I hadn’t explored since it was tarted up for the 2012 Olympics. And you know what? We writers should get out more. Immediately I found enough material to keep a modern Dickens in business. My quick photos tell a story of their own, just waiting to be peopled with loves, misfortunes and human warmth.Please read it, if possible in conjunction with my posts Peace and about teaching in multicultural areas. This scruffy corner of a soon to be gentrified corner of London deserves to be recorded, and I’m only sorry I did it in such a hurry.

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The peculiar hair salon and the monstrous fruit

Peculiar Hair and Mush Turkish Traditional Barbers both looked welcoming, although I avoided Mermaid Massage (special services available) in favour of the Chinese acupuncturists:

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Our household now has the shoe rack, door handles, green nail polish, and banana sweets we didn’t know we needed courtesy of the “Carnival” cornucopia, where I was served by an Irish lady while the cashiers chatted in Urdu. Sadly I couldn’t see anything in Blackwell’s window to tempt me, since I don’t need any old toy cars or dusty Tower of London souvenirs.

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Zoom in for the Mama Afrika Kulcha Shap and Cleopatra’s, to the left

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For the first year in many, I’m told no new Eastern European children were enrolled where I used to teach. Here, three miles west, Romanians and Polish seem to enjoy mixed fortunes: this van certainly wasn’t delivering to Sainsbury’s, and “Gaska” is moving up and down the parade.

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I didn’t get photos of the Muslim Cultural Centre, the Al-Jazira cafe, the yam and plantain displays or the (excellent) Portuguese restaurant but I did discover where in East London Malaysia meets Mogadishu…

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…and where you can find Somali, Romanian and Spanish food sharing a block with a more traditional tyre provider than KwikFit.

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For a breath of relatively fresh air I could have walked around Coronation Gardens but the cricket ground was in use, unlike (apparently) Billy’s wooden workshop by the gates:

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A bar whose name I forgot to record (sorry) provided some great street art:

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…and I now know where to take clothes for repair:

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Last came the moment that may even make a three figure bill and the loss of six hours worthwhile. I didn’t stage this juxtaposition. It was just waiting for a writer to use, outside another empty shop relocating along the parade.

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I ♥ London too. Please keep the connection, everyone.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Getting it right

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My attempt to sketch my Somali mum. Her story is not all as depressing as my bad drawing makes it look!

I posted recently about how well an author must know their characters. Much of my time since has been spent trying to make mine authentic. I’m nearing the end of a first draft of a novel set in multicultural London. My story follows five families, but only one reflects my own heritage. I’m pressing ahead with this, because although there are increasing numbers of wonderful books exploring the experience of specific individuals and communities, there are not yet enough that show us together, looking at how we all participate in and contribute to our institutions, our schools, hospitals, local government, commerce,the arts, sport, the media. Post Brexit, it’s essential to depict our cities as the relatively successful melting pots they had begun to be. By that I don’t mean to belittle the disadvantages experienced through racism, class or poverty. But in the UK, compared to some parts of world, I think we were, pre Brexit, tentatively moving in the right direction in terms of rights and opportunities for all. (If you don’t have a right in the first place, how can you defend it?)

But – please don’t say I told you so – I’m now realising how much more I have bitten off than I can perhaps chew. It’s all very well thinking I can write about a Punjabi heritage family because I taught classes with at least 25% such pupils for over twenty years. The difference now is that instead of them entering my classroom (and as we all know, everyone sheds something of themselves when they enter a classroom, for their own self preservation), the direction is reversed. I want full access to their homes and their thoughts.

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My businessman dad

It’s quite a leap. For example, consider their back stories: content I may not end up even putting on the page but which must be verifiable if my characters are to be rounded and believable, more than just stereotypes or caricatures. I can imagine the childhood of my white UK character, and that of her parents and even grandparents, through a lifetime of my own cultural knowledge.I know enough about everything from which magazines each generation read, what the biscuit tin looked like, to what would have been a special treat or horrendous setback. I know so much I have the luxury of discarding most of it, selecting only what fits best.

But of my Punjabi family’s back story I know very little. I can trace their route to the UK. I can work out roughly at what point they were able to take on a mortgage, the location of the nearest gurdwara, and which generation received what in way the way of education. But in what ways does their daily lived experience differ from or match my own? Their choice of furniture, the way they move around their homes, how much privacy their children have, how they feel about Brexit and Trump, Bake off and Bollywood? It’s as though they had drawn their window curtains to stop me peering in.

A place of very little knowledge isn’t a bad point of departure. It means everything I find out is a bonus, could influence the plot, colour my decisions and the reactions of my eventual readers. It also means BEWARE! I’m tempted to use every small fact that comes my way. But I must pick and choose, when I have enough material, just as I would for the others. I mustn’t get fixated on one website, read just one book, ask only one person. I need a cross section, to check and cross check, and maybe, as I would for any character, go for the fact that’s atypical, the feature that doesn’t follow the crowd. My characters aren’t going to be interesting just because they’re Punajbi, Somali or born in Hong Kong.They still have to be eccentric, lovable, martyred, in poor health, artistic, bigoted, comical and sometimes unpredictable.

61ploihpwxl-_sx363_bo1204203200_The alternative path, with less risk of getting anything wrong, also risks making them too bland. Michael Rosen, in an otherwise very positive review of Peter in Peril, about a Jewish child growing up in Nazi occupied Budapest, says: “my only slight quibble is that the family are de Jewified.They have nothing cultural or religious marking them out.” But what marks them out must be correct. I received a lesson today, when in answer to my question a helpful Punjabi reader told me my Punjabi grandmother would be “very unlikely” to have behaved as I said she had as a young girl. My first reaction was irritation: now I have to alter my plot, dammit. It also affects my grand finale. Second reaction: whew! Thank goodness I asked. There are only so many mistakes an author can make before a book sinks into the one star mire.

Therefore I’m humbled by and grateful for the offers of help I’ve had from Punjabi and Gujarati people, some known to me from work and others complete strangers, alerted to my needs following a chance remark to a helpful book blogger – please do look at her Bookalicious-traveladdict blog here. Yes, by all means, said the friends she contacted on my behalf, do email us your questions! Here you are – the answers by return! Anything else you want to know, just ask! heroine-with-suitcase-2The generosity with their time and thought is very, very much appreciated – all to help out an author they hadn’t heard of two days ago. Book bloggers have received a bashing in some places recently: let me put on record that to a woman (they’re mostly but not all women, and unpaid) the bloggers I know have given practical, prompt, generous and efficient help whenever I as an author have asked them for anything.

So onward we march, my heroine and I. The word count hasn’t increased much, but the quality of the words has. I think I’m ok now for sources to flesh out my Indian heritage families, but if there are any UK born Somalis out there, or anyone who is of Hong Kong Chinese heritage and bringing up a child in the UK now, I would be very pleased to hear from you. Who knows what havoc you could play with my plot?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

Northern Lights

Here’s a very short book quiz:

  1. In which country is 10% of the population a published author?
  2. In which country did 4 million adults not read a single book for enjoyment in 2013?
  3. And in which of the two above did more than half the country’s population read at least eight books a year, with the most popular Christmas present a book?

The good news, on behalf of the British book trade, readers, non readers, children, adults, English speakers and others, Christmas celebrants and those with other faiths or none, is that the Jolabokaflod Book Campaign aims to learn from Iceland, represented by numbers 1 and 3 with the UK in between. The campaign says: Essentially, we want to inspire people to discover – and rediscover – a love of reading for pleasure.

Last night it was my pleasure to attend their gala party at the Café Royal. First, I learned how to pronounce Jol – a – bok – a – flod, more or less as written, the faster the better. Even in Brexitland familiarity gets our tongues round Djokovic, Pocahontas and tagliatelle bolognese with ease, so I disagreed with the guest who said it was too complicated. Especially once we unpack the meaning which is, roughly, Christmas Book Flood.

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Icelandic author Hallgrímur Helgason describes the tradition thus: Jolabokaflod … is the nicest of Icelandic traditions. It may always have existed … since we have been saga-nerds for a thousand years, but it acquired its current form in the Post-War Years. When people had little money and even fewer things to buy … locally made books became the perfect Christmas present. Publishers went with the flow, a tradition was born, and ever since, almost all Icelandic fiction and most of the non-fiction is published in the month of November.

For the authors, it’s a bit of a horse race. You can almost hear people calling: ‘Let the games begin!’ and ‘May the best book win!’

“Saga-nerds!” Eat your heart out, Dr Who!

jola-catalogTo quote the website: “every year since 1944, the Icelandic book trade has published a catalogue – called Bókatíðindi (Book Bulletin, in English) – that is sent to every household in the country in mid-November.” (Meanwhile we get flyers from Tesco.) “People use the catalogue to order books to give friends and family for Christmas.…gifts are opened on 24 December and, by tradition, everyone reads the books they have been given straight away, often while drinking hot chocolate or alcohol-free Christmas ale called jólabland.”

Jol(a?) – Yule. Bland – a drink without alcohol. Icelandic’s a doddle. You can practise huddled on your sofa during those Icelandic noir series on BBC4 – Case, or Trapped.

A feature I especially liked is the emphasis on books as a personal gift. In Iceland, when giving a book you give something of yourself, and subsequently it’s expected that you’ll ask how the recipient got on with it. The UK JBC (sorry to abbreviate, my heroine wants me to save my typing strength for the novel) has its work cut out. “Oh, aren’t books lovely! What a shame you can’t really give them as presents!” When I overheard that in Foyles recently, the assistants and fellow customers were all too British and discreet to shout: “Oh yes, you CAN!”

The JBC issues a Book Bulletin, funded through Crowdpatch. You make book recommendations with a donation, and at the same time inform JBC of any URL you wish to promote (for a book, product, service, blog etc). They feature your recommendation and promotion together. You can also start a “patch” to fund any “campaigns that encourage people in communities … to buy books to give to friends and family for reading during a special event...”. The scope reaches way beyond the book trade to education, activism, chaitable and cultural provision and more.My understanding is that it continues year long, not just at Christmas.

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Christopher Norris

How did I get involved? Well, book traders have always been networkers. One of first and best was Martyn Goff, Booker Prize administrator and National Book League director, who died in 2015.I went to represent my late father Ian, also a “bookman” as they were once known, at his memorial service, where I met Christopher Norris, who was instrumental in setting up World Book Day and now JBC. Martyn was still networking from beyond the grave, getting me invited as a result to the sort of book trade event he and my father used regularly to attend. (It was a special pleasure to meet Suzanne Collier from Book Careers who remembered them.) Christopher was an efficient, genial and informative host and my agent Bill and I had a wonderful evening for which many thanks are due.

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The Lumio lamp

Drinks flowed and delicious canapés were served in traditional style, but there was also state of the art photography (not my pictures here!) by Christina Jansen, glorious husky singing by Eckoes, and a draw for two extraordinary book lamps by Lumio, JBC’s sponsors. They’re stocked in London at the British Library and the Conran Shop, and I need to write a bestseller fast, because I didn’t win one. (If you have friends in Australia, you could help crowd fund my book lamp by telling them my own first novel The Infinity Pool is on an Amazon monthly deal there until February 28th.You can read about the ups and downs the first time it went on Aussie promotion here.)

Another sponsor, The Cuckoo Club, provided generous hospitality for an after party, but this Cinderella needed to be fresh enough today for blogging and lip service to my demanding heroine-in-progress. She kept me on track last week; that lamp is in my sights.

For the last word, back to Hallgrímur Helgason: Thanks to the Jolabokaflod, books still matter in Iceland, they get read and talked about. Excitement fills the air. Every reading is crowded, every print-run is sold. Being a writer in Iceland you get rewarded all the time: People really do read our books, and they have opinions, they love them or they hate them. At the average Christmas party people push politics and the Kardashians aside and discuss literature. ‘His last book was so boring, but this one’s just great!’

In Iceland book lives matter in every sense of that phrase: The shelf-life of the book, the lives in the book, the life of the writer and the life of the reader. 

 

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Achievements and deletions

A spate of ideas had spated. A flow of words had flowed. I thought all that was needed was to continue at roughly the same rate and in a few weeks a final first draft of a second novel would spew out. But my heroine‘s been delayed again.

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My heroine asked me to reuse an old picture, to save time drawing a new one.

The reasons this week? One was a stand alone story for children that sprung unexpectedly from the novel a few months ago. A publisher showed a glimmer of interest, if I could adapt it to be suitable for a wider market. I spent time tinkering. My heroine didn’t mind, she’s a mother herself.

The local bookshop advertised for part time staff. Could be fun, could keep me off Facebook. I spent hours compiling a CV, before realising, though I sympathise with the difficulties of a tiny independent bookshop trying to stay afloat, the rate of pay and terms were so poor I would end up enemies with the owner. My heroine was drumming her heels. So in lieu of fresh ideas I made corrections to a previous section of the novel that I’d printed off.

This week I had appointments with the dermatologist, dentist, hygienist, and at the eye clinic. No, they didn’t keep me waiting long; no, there was no devastating news to put me off my stride. But it gave me the chance to research ideas for a novel about our wonderful NHS. I might make some money to donate to the poor old behemoth (the scriptwriters for “Casualty” must be laughing all the way to the blood bank). I also tried to participate in the online Mslexia Max Monday forums with authors, editors and publishers. But my internet was on a go-slow (in solidarity with my heroine?)

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What a planning document!

On Tuesday morning I worked out how A would lead to B and  C result from that. I wrote the episodes (2,000 words – hooray!) and added them to my structural plan (a table with columns for chapter numbers, characters involved, location, how the action moves on, page numbers, themes highlighted, and any national/local/historical events that ought to be referenced). Then I had fun colour coding it with contrasting pastel backgrounds, one for each week of the narrative (spread over five weeks). Now it looks like a block of Neapolitan ice cream.I spent some time admiring it. My heroine sniffed.

On Wednesday I wrote the synopsis, for sending to a mentor I’m meeting in March. It eventually emerged coherent.Then I edited down my first 6000 words to 3000, because that’s the limit she’ll look at, and managed to fit a list of key questions for consideration at our meeting to one page. A reasonable day. My heroine lost quite a few calories/words in the course of it.

On Thursday I looked at my emails before starting work. How fascinating – one involved an invitation to a Gala Dinner to celebrate one year of the Jolabokaflod campaign in the UK. I can’t not go to that! It’s at the Café Royal, and there will be networking opportunities and canapés. Or should that be canapuneties and opportés? Either way, jolly good book trade fun. Acceptance entailed looking at their crowdfunding campaign and book promotion possibilities for The Infinity Pool. I shall report from the field next week. It reminded me I must get some new business cards, so I spent a happy hour designing those (book one side, blog the other). Anbook-launch-invite-small equally fascinating email concerned a book launch (see left) and a course to be run by Writers & Artists, From First Draft to Final Draft, with William Ryan. I once took a Guardian Masterclass he ran with  Matthew Hall and it was excellent. I look into details; I note I’ll be abroad during some sessions; I consider it anyway. At least the dreaded synopsis is written, and the 3,000 words are ready!

Then there were two free video courses to investigate.The first was from The Write Success, about writing a catchy blurb, and the second from The Writers’ Workshop. I probably won’t watch them unless there’s a transcript so I can skim the introductory rhetoric such videos tend to feature. I spend enough time in front of a screen as it is. But there may be gold within. There was the Authors’ Licensing and Copyright Society newsletter, less dry and more useful than you may think, and some correspondence with my German translator, about publishing possibilities there. My heroine shrugged. She’s not in the right book.

With a birthday just before Christmas and a family of bookworms, I have an enviable TBR pile. I’ve got through a lot of them – an author has to read, to see how others achieve results. My heroine is also a reader, so she’s resigned to that.

All this before the window cleaner pinned me to the doorstep. In five minutes I discovered he loves Del Shannon, runs the Del Shannon fan club, went to LA once on his way to Australia and called on Del Shannon, took Del Shannon jogging, then went with Del Shannon to watch a studio recording session but found it boring as he doesn’t like music. Eh? Do not pinch this character, folks, he’s mine, although he won’t fit into the current WIP. However he could be somebody’s dad (not my heroine’s).novel

Today is Friday, when my blog post takes priority. So as far as the WIP goes, heroine, I make that approx 2000 words added, 1000 deleted. Not bad for a week’s work.

Finally, I spent time thinking about an elegant, hilarious, informative writer who has been around all my life and has continued regularly to produce fine words in the face of illness. I’m so pleased there’s another Saturday Guardian column by Clive James today (updated 28th January) and I’ll always treasure this one from last week which I feared might be the last.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

The heroine now arriving at platform 1

Last seen through a glass of Prosecco, my heroine returned this week. She flickers a bit, but she’s coming to life. This week she’s made cakes with her daughter, had the courage to oppose a demo against her right to be in the country, and rewarded herself with an ice cream after it had gone past.

heroine-with-suitcase-2Who knows what mysterious alchemy transforms a character in an author’s mind, sketched in outline, conceived but not yet three dimensional, into a creature of flesh and blood? I don’t, but like passengers on an erratic train service (though better than Southern) my characters turn up in an unscheduled way. They leave the train at the far end of the platform and gradually become substantial, walking towards me as though they were there all the time and don’t understand why I’ve only just got to the station to meet them.

My heroine is a tactful traveller. Unlike her author, she brings an overnight bag only, which she carries herself.The episode she’s packed today may involve another member of her family, her current mood or perhaps her state of health. It may appear trivial (that ice cream) but lead to something important (what if the ice cream van driver were a serial killer?) Her one bag is significant: full of essential documents and the wherewithal to survive: perhaps her immigration status has been revoked, she’s lost a job or her child has been injured and together we must find a solution by the end of the book (if all goes in her favour).

Look, she’s brought her friends with her. They’re taking shape too: the neighbour, the child’s teacher, the man in the flat downstairs. Helpfully, my heroine is telling me what the weather’s like that day, what clothes she’s wearing, even that her net curtains need a wash. (Can I possibly turn that into an interesting plot point? You just watch me!)

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It’s a strange feeling when your characters come to life. When I was working on the last novel, I remember lying in the bath one day (bare with me), vaguely thinking about people I used to know. I wondered what happened to W, whether X’s marriage lasted, if Y ever managed to stop drinking, and if Z’s career turned out as brilliantly as it looked likely to do…and then, I started wondering what happened to Adrian? What was he doing now? With a shock I sat up. Nothing would happen to Adrian, unless I made it happen, heroine-with-suitcase-1_newbecause I’d invented him. And yet for a moment he’d become so real to me he’d joined the flesh and blood ranks of people I’d happened to lose touch with. How strange – but what a good sign. It must mean I’d invented a rounded, interesting, believable character.
Next week: will my heroine stay in the shadows, blaze in all her glory, give away so many plot secrets it won’t be worth writing the book – or will she hide in the siding of my mind while I write here about something else entirely?

Watch this space (please).

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Prose and Prosecco

Sadly, “Prose and Prosecco” isn’t a newly unearthed Jane Austen novel whose intelligent heroine triumphs over a bubbly rival. The two words describe a more mundane dilemma: how to take up the pen (well, mouse) again after Christmas and New Year?

hibiscus-2Rich food has clogged my plot, chocolate stuffed my characters, and I certainly wasn’t inside the head of my devout Muslim heroine while glugging snazzy cocktails. This year there was an unexpected and beautiful present on Christmas Eve: a jar of hibiscus flowers and a bottle of Crémant de Loire to start us off in style. I thought I deserved it – I’d posted off a seasonal article that very day and another the day before on this blog.

The label on the hibiscus flower jar said “average contents 11 flowers” so in order to waste not and want not we also tried them with Prosecco and pink champagne (too sweet, crémant is best). I’d promised myself the week after Christmas off (though I hankered after escaping the clutter and decorations for the quiet of my study), and since my blog posts oil the wheels of the Great Second Novel, it too ground to a halt. prosecco-1I spent days sofabound, reading. Reading is essential for any author and these books were gifts: Margaret Drabble and Somerset Maugham and a new Austen biography, tales from and of establishment figures happily received despite my having been rather preachy about diversity just before the Prosecco season began. Such reading is not helping the Somali mum take shape. The plot, never very distinct, has receded altogether and the characters gone on leave. The world looks fuzzy…

When I remembered to make a resolution, it was to spend less time on social media. Authors are supposed to use social media for marketing, but with only my debut novel still to market, and that now identified with the year before last, I need to produce Novel Number Two more than I need to faff about on Facebook and Tweet to an unlistening world. Although, perhaps one of the Facebook book groups would give me the stimulus  I need? Maybe in the form of a review to investigate or a discussion of writing methods and procedures? I broke my resolution in five minutes.

How depressing, to be honest. The main thread in the first, usually supportive, positive group I visited was about the objectionable behaviour of a self-styled reviewer/blogger who gets as many books as he can free and doesn’t bother to review them. I agree this is dastardly behaviour – no, seriously, I do – but by comparison with all the dishonesty, violence and abuse the world has seen recently the length, outrage and personal sniping of the comments thread did seem excessive. (Fortunately the threads were very soon back to their normal sense and sensibility.)

I tried another group, also usually helpful. This was even worse. More outrage, some justified, this time aroused by a tactlessly written, poorly researched Huff Post article about how bad indie authors are, on the lines of “If you can’t sell to an editor how will you ever sell to the public?” As I begin to note ideas for this post (Monday 2nd), the writer has issued an apology and claims to have received threats of rape and death. Her initially enraged critics have variously commiserated with her or disbelieved her, and the argument has set off again. The indie writers stake their claims to respect (rightly, though some would aid their cause by checking their spelling and grammar first). The traditionally published writers weigh in, one so aggressively I couldn’t work out whether the post was intended ironically or to be taken at face value – if the latter, just imagine you’ve been knocked out cold. Whichever side they’re taking, these people are all so FURIOUS! Happily it’s Friday now and either there’s a ceasefire, or everyone’s just worn out.

Those were books, authors and reviewers you were talking about, folks. People can discuss them in a light hearted way or a scholarly way. People can enjoy them, dislike them, ignore them, be mystified or delighted or amused or frightened by ambiguitythem, but they are only authors telling stories or reviewers of stories (most of the books referred to were fiction. I agree non-fiction has a different range of influence and importance.) Fiction is written and published via various economic models, one of which is currently threatening the market share of the other. How that will pan out is not yet known. But nobody is getting killed (except in fictional ways); nobody’s home has been bombed, nobody has been forced into hiding or tortured or lost their families. In every culture and every market, the majority of authors have always struggled to make a living, and that matters, but it won’t be solved by a mass throwout of toys from the pram.

The world has huge problems. No point listing them, we all know what they are. In 2017 we’ll need intricate, complex, long lasting, multi faceted diplomatic conversations and careful, damage minimizing action to resolve even a small number of the political, environmental, and economic difficulties we face. And we can’t even talk about book reviewing and publishing without flying into a rage?

It makes me wonder whether it’s even worth writing my Somali mum, supposing I can beckon her back from the shadows? The Prosecco tastes sickly in the light of so much anger: I need to find a more serious drink to divert my attention. If the new book ever sees the light of day, please don’t use it, me, the publisher (if any), the reviews, the price, the genre or any other aspect of its existence as ammo in a slanging match.

(Update January 2021: I just re-read this post. The Magic Carpet – link above and on my home page – was published in summer 2019. In other respects the world has got even worse. I still stand by everything else I said here, but I’m learning to use shorter words and sentences.

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Happy New Year!

©Jessica Norrie 2017

How well do you know your characters?

An author of fiction must inhabit the world of their characters convincingly. But how far may they travel from their own experience to do so?

Clearly, authors of fantasy and science fiction have the most leeway. Nobody can know what it’s really like to be an imaginary creature, an alien or someone/something from the future. Authors of historical novels must make an imaginative leap fuelled by as much accurate research as possible. But how about those of us writing contemporary fiction? Can men write as women, gay people as heterosexuals, white people as Asians or Africans, the British as Poles or able bodied writers as those with a disability? Can Ian McKewan write as an unborn child? (Of course that is an experience we’ve all had, and it seems from the reviews  that he can.)

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A fellow author recently posted in an online forum that she had been taken to task in an Amazon review thus: “You are unbelievable as an adolescent black girl from the South“. It’s one of only 2 poor reviews out of 66 excellent ones for a prize winning book that involved many years of research, but it concerned her. It’s clear from her Amazon page and other reviews that she had thought deeply about her right to tell the story, but the reviewer’s complaint worried me too, as I’m currently writing my second novel set in East London (UK). It would hardly reflect the location if I didn’t include many different ethnicities, so I have to speak in their voices. Previously, in The Infinity Pool, I didn’t find the voice of a young girl from a rural Mediterranean community a problem and no one (yet) has suggested I’ve got it wrong. But are a Punjabi grandmother who grew up in India, a Hong Kong Chinese father and a Somali single mother who came to the UK as a toddler steps too far for this middle class, solvent white woman? Having taught in multicultural schools for 33 years, I thought I knew their user groups well, but now I’m stepping inside their homes and their heads, and there is a scary amount of scope for accidentally giving offence, misrepresenting or simply promulgating stereotypes. At times I think I’ll give up, but I have my story, and my teaching experience, and I don’t want to waste either of them.

In one area I looked at, I found at least two YA authors who’d overcome my reservations. Here’s a 51ch1bjotslmale author in the voice of a Somali girl who is about to be cut, and a white female author in the voice of one who manages to avoid it. Do they sound authentic? It would take a Somali woman to tell you, but the stories were vivid, compelling and exciting. Cutting is not a major theme in my novel, but in the course of checking assumptions about my own Somali character, I did background research and found UNICEF reports showing the almost universal prevalence of FGM in Somalia has only dropped by 2% in recent years despite all the efforts to oppose it. (In other countries campaigns have been more successful, as they have among Somali families in the UK.) I asked one such campaigner whether white western authors should attempt to speak in the voice of somebody whose experience is so far removed from their own. Her reply was that given the lack of success on the ground her colleagues now look to writing and journalism to change hearts and minds. Fiction may put the case where other means have failed. But of course, the fiction must be well written, well researched (and available, but that’s another story).51mrzlcrrml-_sy346_

So why have doubts? Let’s consider these scenarios: men writing as women and vice versa; parents writing as childless adults and the other way round; adults writing as or for children; social drinkers writing as alcoholics, healthy people as invalids; vegetarians writing as meat eaters; humans (well obviously) writing as animals? Some of these sound ridiculous: of course writers should tackle such challenges. If we only write about ourselves, there would be even more navel gazing white dinner party novels than the indigestible number there already are. But may I, a solvent, educated white middle class woman write in the voice of a refugee on an overloaded boat somewhere off the coast of Greece? May I write in the voice of a prisoner despite a parking ticket being my biggest ever brush with authority, or in the voice of a doctor even though I failed chemistry O level? I think I’ve decided yes, if I write convincingly, do my research, avoid stereotypes and above all if those people are necessary to my story. (Although they could also be bystanders, mentioned just to acknowledge they exist, so the default model for fictional characters isn’t white, middle class, able bodied, hetero…) There, problem solved. I’ll get on with it.

But then I read The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by BAME writers in the UK, recently featured on BBC Radio 4. This is timely, entertaining, angry and should be compulsory reading for…everyone. Do you get stopped at airports? Searched when waiting at a bus stop? Have you had a headscarf ripped from your head as you go to buy a sandwich? Won all the school prizes, graduated with first class honours, and still not been shortlisted for a job unless you change your name? Do you never see yourself reflected on a screen or in a book, or if you are, only as a stereotype (minicab driver, terrorist, arranged bride)? You probably know actors no longer “black up” to play Othello nowadays, but did you know “yellowface” is still in common use? These writers are angry with reason. They want to be portrayed in all kinds of media, but they don’t want to be portrayed as stereotypes (I must take very good care) or with tokenism (I mustn’t use “namaste” as a shortcut to showing how well I understand people of Indian ethnic origin). Above all they want to be portrayed as everyday characters whose ethnicity is incidental and who do not have to win Olympic gold medals or have their skins lit like Beyoncé’s to be an acceptable part of UK society.

61twx2rf9vlI saw what they meant about stereotypes and authenticity when I looked at the time scale for my novel. A digression will illustrate the point. I do not follow any religion (an idea the children I taught almost unanimously found appalling). But my family celebrate Christmas, in that we eat special food and drink a lot, buy presents, spend £35+ on a pot plant that we throw away two weeks later, and give more money to charity than at other times of year. Now imagine a novel with my family in it, set in December, that didn’t mention Christmas. Or imagine one that does, but gets fundamentals slightly wrong: Midnight Mass on Boxing Day, for example, or Father Christmas driving a sleigh pulled by ponies. These are the pitfalls I face if I write about “other” cultures – which I have been conditioned to think of as “other” even when I mean third, fourth generation “immigrants” who speak English better than I do. Mistakes that wouldn’t be noticed by some readers could well be offensive to others, and add to the pile of examples of “host country” ignorance. For that reason I’ve moved my six week long story to a year when it doesn’t fall during either the important Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha or the important Hindu festival of Diwali (and yes, I do know Eid moves around the year). That way it makes sense that I barely mention them AND I avoid the pitfalls of getting details wrong. Of course, much other daily background detail remains and must be researched and referred to, both in the sense that it’s the same as for the majority community and for where it differs. But what do I mean, majority community? The parents of over 90% of children I taught in East London ticked a box other than White UK on their entry forms, and among that 90% around 25 different languages were spoken. There was no clear majority.

What if I get something as fundamental as names wrong? Somali women do not take their husband’s surnames (although now, in the UK, some do). Bhangra is not the only music Sikhs enjoy (and maybe some Sikhs don’t). Hong Kong has rural areas as well as the twinkling skyscrapers we all associate with it. Is Gulab Jamun a Bengali sweet or a Gujarati one? (Perhaps it’s both.) And the grandmother – what will her grandchildren call her?

Will every moment of every day be informed for my characters by their ethnicity? Here’s Bim Adewunmi In The Good Immigrant: “Here’s what black people do: we breathe air, we drink water and we fart noxious gasses, just like other people. Our hopes and dreams are similar, and alongside the various hardships we may suffer because of the way we look or where we come from, we largely do the same things – and that includes all the frivolous things too.” On the other hand will it not be? Himesh Patel writes: “In discovering so much about how my family arrived here in the UK, I discovered how rich their story is with the culture and traditions of their homeland, but at its core it’s a universal story about love and life.” In the shoes of my characters, would I be in fear of racism, or hate and despise it, or fight back against it, or not actually experience it much? globe-1There is one way I can respond. It’s true I’ve never experienced racism, but, having lived and travelled abroad, I have come across xenophobia – not so serious, but it may give an inkling. And there’s a better parallel. I am female, so I do know what it’s like to walk into a public social place and not see anyone else like me there (less so nowadays but that used to be true of all pubs and bars, and it was very intimidating). I do know how it feels to walk down a dark street and hear footsteps behind and think they may be those of an attacker. I have been on the receiving end of hatred and aggression, derision and disgust, purely because of the body I was born with.

And so I’m going to take the plunge, and write my Somali single mum, my Punjabi grandmother and my father born in Hong Kong. They will, after all, only be characters in fiction. They will not represent the entirety of their culture, any more than I represent the entirety of mine. The story is about family relationships and relationships with the school the children go to, before it’s about ethnicity. It’s just that – hooray! – I can’t write a London based story nowadays, with an all white cast, or even with a white majority. (I wonder what Dickens would have made of it?) I’ll give Himesh Patel the last word: “My heritage, while inherently linked to my ethnicity, only makes up part of the role I play in society – day to day I’m just another face in the multicultural population of twenty-first century Britain.”

©Jessica Norrie 2016