Activism and government

Fridays For Future press conference on Africa and the climate crisis

In today’s press conference about the climate crisis and Africa organised by Fridays For Future International, one of main concerns was getting the message about climate change across and creating wide-spread awareness. Activists do not seek to govern, especially not the young. They see their role as using actions like strikes and demonstrations to force those who govern to act appropriately. In addition, putting their faith as they do in science, their activism seeks to shift scientific knowledge from the laboratories to the hands of activists and policy makers in a quest for urgently needed solutions. The fact that some elected leaders refuse the idea of climate change and deride science is just a further indication that we need to revise forms of government including the way leaders are chosen, how decisions are reached and how policies are put into practice.

Much was said in the press conference about the way mainstream media sidelines the discourse of all but the few. This raises the question of whether effort should be put into convincing the media to cover such subjects or if other relays might be appropriate. This ties in with a comment by Naomi Klein in a webinar also organised by Fridays For Future about developing multiple channels of communication so as not to be dependant on a limited number of media platforms that don’t always have our interests at heart.

At the same time, the very nature of this multimedia press conference and the discourse of the young people taking part underlines the need to have the best possible narrative. In other words, not only do the neglected stories need to be heard, but also the narrators need to present their stories in a way that can be heard and adhered to.

Both my books, Stories People Tell and the sequel, Local Voices, are traversed by these themes. The following extract from Local Voices illustrates that, even when you’ve got the ear of those in power, many factors conspire to make action difficult. Annie, the young head of a nation-wide movement of girls and women, is talking to Underwood, the Prime Minister, and Dillinger, Deputy Prime Minister. Alice, mentioned at the end of the extract, is a surrogate grandmother, an elderly professor who acts as Annie’s mentor and friend.

Extract

Dillinger took a seat next to Annie and looked expectantly at Underwood who in turn looked at Annie. She took a deep breath. She had started this, so maybe it was up to her to end it. “You want to know how to abandon your healthcare initiative without losing face.”

Underwood winced, saying, “As direct and to the point as ever.”

“I don’t see how we can abandon one of our main manifesto promises without losing face,” Dillinger said. “The opposition will slaughter us.” If the news on TV was anything to go by, the opposition had them backed into a corner and three-quarters done for already.

“Go on TV and announce you have heard the concerns of the healthcare community. Invite the unions to London for talks. Channel their energy into official discussions. At the same time, send all your MPs out to their constituencies and have them talk to the people. Send out civil servants. Send scientists. Send everybody.”

“Hold constituency surgeries, you mean?” Dillinger asked.

“No. That would be too limited. Not just your voters. Everybody. Find out what difficulties people are having with healthcare. Include mental health and social services. Explore local initiatives, collate findings and begin to look for ways to help without necessarily intervening. Leave the initiative to the local community, wherever possible. Talk publicly about your findings, praise what people are doing locally, but promise nothing.” Halting to catch a breath, she added, “And brace yourself to cease your drive for austerity. It’s hurting the poorest and weakest worst of all and will undermine any effort you make to improve local healthcare.”

Underwood looked alarmed. Dillinger whistled between her teeth. “I wonder why we bother. We might as well just hand you the keys and let you get on with it. At least you’d take the brunt of the blame and recriminations from the rich and the conservatives.”

“Even if my replacing you were remotely possible,” Annie replied, remembering a discussion she’d had with Alice, “I wouldn’t be interested. I’m the ideas at the periphery, the person who stands astride worlds, who bridges the gap between widely different communities, not the prime mover at the centre of things who gets things done.”

Learn more about Local Voices

The dangers of contradicting someone’s feelings

Shutting the door

Sarah, Eloise and Peter are lying on Eloise’s bed. Peter is grappling with guilt about having been in Sarah’s arms when his soul-mate, Kate, contacted him. Sarah challenges his words. In this short extract Eloise sets Sarah right.

“Let him speak,” Eloise said. “He’s telling us how he feels. You might see things differently, but you can’t deny his feelings. Only he can know what they are. That’s where my parents got it all wrong. They thought they knew my feelings better than me. They had me doubting myself. There’s nothing worse than being unsure about your own feelings. It’s as if you are cut off from yourself. Their interference left me painfully shy and insecure. Only when I got away from them, did I gradually realise how misguided they were and how damaging their attitude had been.” We Girls Show the Way.

Homelessness

Tiles for the homeless

It’s all very well telling people to stay at home to combat the Corona Virus. But what about those who have no roof over their heads? Those who have no home to return to?

Extract about homelessness

In Stories People Tell, amongst other things, Annie sets out to publish the stories of those whose voices don’t get heard, using video and the Internet to enable people to bear witness. In this extract she is listening to a homeless grandmother forced to look after her granddaughter, Pet, who has ceased to talk since her mother died.

“My daughter had a flat and a job. It wasn’t well paid. The place was a dump. But we got by. The three of us. The father was supposed to pay. But he never did. Then my daughter lost her job. Cutting back on cleaners the supermarket said. We got benefit for a while. Then that ran out. Some hitch in the system. They have no money either. The landlord threatened eviction. My daughter took to the street. She was desperate. The money was good. Sometimes. It paid the rent. And we had something to eat. But one of the blokes got violent. Exploded in a frenzy. Roughed her up. Couldn’t stop punching and kicking. The ambulance arrived too late. Pet was there when her mother died. Saw it all. I remember it so well. She sat there like a doll, frozen, her eyes blank, not understanding. How could she? It was too much. She was just five. That’s when she stopped talking. Hasn’t spoken a word since. The police never caught the guy. If ever they tried. The landlord kicked me and Pet out. Didn’t want such sordid people in his house. Folks give us food. From time to time. Or a bit of money. Like this afternoon. I was to get a fiver. For taking part in the demonstration. We muddled by. Then Pet got ill. There was nothing I could do. Doctors don’t want to treat homeless beggars. The hospital wouldn’t have us. Thank heavens she recovered. On her own. Sometimes I wonder why. But the worst is not having a place to go. When evening comes. People are hurrying home to a good meal. And we have nowhere. And nothing to eat. It kills you in the end. I’ve seen loads of people give up. They find a quiet corner. So as not to disturb. Then just lie down and never get up.” 

Find out more about the novel Stories People Tell.

Silence is more than the absence of sound…

Silence of snow

Silence had fallen, a thick blanket of snow masking all sound. Snow had been extremely rare in her world, so the texture of silence that accompanied heavy snow was new. Rather like wading through snow, silence resisted movement. Her meditation master had taught her the value of silence, but never had she had such tangible proof that there was so much more to silence than the absence of sound… Kate in We Girls Show the Way.

Greta the Great!

Greta

Greta the Great. No irony is meant by the title. Few adults can claim to have been such a powerful advocate for social change confronted with the climate crisis. Few people have been capable of mobilising so many, in particular the young, in such a short time. She has captured people’s minds and hearts and inspired many. The way she cuts through the misleading if not dishonest discourse of many politicians is both admirable and urgently necessary. Her actions move me deeply. Not only because she has pitted herself against the powerful in a struggle that our survival depends on, but also because she reminds me of the girls who are the heroes of my novels, Kate in the Boy & Girl Saga, Annie in Stories People Tell and Local Voices, Sally in The Storyteller’s Quest or Sami in Chimera.

All my books are about the self-empowerment of the young, girls in particular, in a world that tends to curtail their opportunities, belittle their abilities and discourage them from doing great things. My goal in writing fiction is to imagine inspiring ways forward, despite the difficulties thrown in the way of these young people. I began writing these novels long before Greta came on the scene, but to see a young girl manage so much is encouraging and heart-warming.

That said, the treatment of Greta by the media, in particular those that are favorable to her and her cause, raises questions that I evoke in my latest novel We Girls Show the Way. The elevation of a young person to ‘saviour-like’ status is troubling. As Kate suggests in the following extract, the media capitalise on the glorified image they portray of her. What will be the impact on her and the cause she defends? Will Kate’s strategy, just like that of Greta, attempting to deflect media attention to other actors in the struggle, be enough.

Extract from We Girls Show the Way

Twelve year-old Kate – head of the Lost Girls choir, a group of some twenty girls that escaped from dire conditions in a convent-run orphanage – is being questioned by a young journalist about her reactions to the escape of another group of mistreated orphans girls…

“But as leader, surely you have an opinion,”  the journalist asked.

The word ‘leader’ brought Kate up short. She was indeed the leader and it was only right she be recognised as such. Yet she’d already seen how the press singled out an individual as a figurehead and glorified that person, repeatedly talking of her and only her, shaping her public image till she became a currency they could cash in on. That said, there was probably little she could do against it, less it be to push other members of the choir into the spotlight as she planned to do with their pamphlets. Thinking of which, she turned to Suzanne who was busy sorting dried herbs.  “What do you think?”

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

We Girls Show the Way – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

Stories People Tell – Sample chapters

Catch a glimpse of the new cover of Stories People Tell and read four sample chapters here. On sale early 2018.

Stories People Tell

Annie, a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, wasn’t looking for love or notoriety when she got swept up in ‘London Whatever’, a grassroots movement offering support and healthcare to gay girls and women. Yet in the struggle to end violence against women she stumbled on the love of her life and grew to be a key public figure. The movement bore the brunt of homophobic attacks from Nolan Kard, Lord Mayor of London. Rich entrepreneur turned politician known for his off-hand attitude and tasteless humour, he campaigned to ‘Keep London Straight’. Annie became his number one target and that of his rogue police, not to mention his sinister gang of ghostwriters, the nightmare of all his enemies.

Video: Jake on the verge of flight

Extract People of the Forest

Jake on the verge of flight. This reading from the draft 1st chapter of People of the Forest by its author, Alan McCluskey, was filmed in the forest which inspired the novel. The forest is situated in the hills above the village where the author lives in Switzerland. In this extract, Jake, in thinking of the forest, says; There was an inner peace to the place, like an insistent silence that called to him. There are several such places in the forests of Neuchâtel, but this setting is one of the most potent. It’s a joy to sit there just listening to the silence that rises and falls beyond the twittering birds, the squabbling squirrels and the wind rustling through the trees.  The full text of this extract can be found in The birth of a new novel. And more about the draft novel, including other extracts, can be found here.

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Video: Isla and the boy she bit

Above is a video filmed in the forest that inspired the novel People of the Forest. In this clip, the author, Alan McCluskey, reads an extract from the second chapter of the draft book.  The text of the extract can be found here: …and what about the girl? And more about the draft novel, including extracts, can be found here.

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Jake and the challenge of a new language

I’m up to chapter 22, that’s 27,000 words, of People of the Forest. I make a point of halting each day in the forest during my long walks to write for half an hour seated on a rock surrounded by trees with only squirrels and the occasional roe deer for company.

But you will no doubt want to know about the story itself. If you have been reading the extracts you will know that Isla briefly met Jake before each of them was flung into the other’s world. In the extract below Jake is in Isla’s world having been rescued by a band of dissidents who live in the relative safety of the forest. He is not enamoured of their lifestyle and takes off alone into the nearby woods.

From a writing perspective, one of the challenges in this extract was to portray how Jake was able to understand a page of a book in a language he hardly knew and thus to offer a glimpse of the history of that world. Another challenge was the compression of time in an otherwise continuous narration.

Extracts

Jake half expected Kody to run after him, she did shout, but no one followed as he strode deeper into the forest. The sun’s rays were slanting closer to the horizon and his stomach growled. He swung his bag from his shoulder and slid the book inside before pulling out his hunting knife. Time to find something to eat.

The tinder was dry and the fire caught without a hitch. Soon,  the skinned and gutted rabbit was balanced over the red hot embers. The wild greens Jake had uncovered in a nearby glade would serve as an excellent salad. There was even a handful of blackberries for his desert.

He licked the meat juices from his fingers and popped the berries, one after another, into his mouth. Leaning back against his bag, he sigh with pleasure. The shadows were creeping between the trees. Time to prepare for the night. He would have preferred a cave, but finding none, he’d built his fire in the middle of a tight ring of saplings not far from a fast-running stream. He’d woven branches and ferns between the trunks forming a screen against inquisitive eyes.

The stream was surprisingly cold for a summer’s day, but Jake stripped off and had a thorough wash. Just because these people didn’t care about cleanliness, he wasn’t going to imitate them. His mother aways insisted that keeping clean was the key to a long and healthy life. He also rinsed his clothes and hung them out to dry on the lower branches inside his makeshift bower.

The screen he’d fashioned offered little resistance to the breeze that rose as the sun set. He shivered. Pulling a rain cape from his bag, he wrapped it around his shoulders and drew closer to the fire. Time to look at that book. He flicked through the pages eyeing the pictures in the firelight. Although many of the scenes made no sense, he gathered it was some sort of history book.

In one picture, a massive fleet of silver vehicles, like the one they’d stolen, was driving past a man on a raised platform saluting with an upraised hand. In another, a catastrophe must have struck because houses lay in ruin and the streets were littered with bodies. One picture depicted a child’s ankle with a flesh coloured bracelet around it. Had that been what the man was looking for when he rolled up Jake’s trouser legs?

Turning back to the beginning of the book, he tried to read the first and only paragraph which spanned most of the page. It was hard going. Few of the words were known to him. When he reached the end, despite having understood next to nothing, there was a familiarity about the words that intrigued him. He ran through the text again. If you replaced the soft ‘sh’ and ‘h’ and ‘ce’ with harder sounds like ‘tsh’ or ‘tch’ or ‘kk’ the similarity with his own language was striking. Reading it was like untying knots in his brain, although there was a trick to it.  You couldn’t force it. You had to let the knots unravel on their own.

He read the paragraph a third time, slowly, letting the spelling of words blur into his own language. To his amazement, the meaning of the text sprang out at him. It was a summary of the whole book, the history of a world in one paragraph. Some terms still escaped him, like ‘multinational company’ which he guessed was a powerful group of people making and selling things although he could not understand how they might be found guilty of causing bad weather.

From what he read, ‘bad’ was too weak a word for it. Violent storms had rolled in off the sea while in other places there had been severe droughts. Whole towns had been the victims of tornados. Elsewhere there had been massive flooding. The situation became so disastrous, people had been forced to take shelter deep in caves in the mountains. And there was the ’nuclear bomb’, whatever that was, which, despite being very small, terrified people and caused so much death and destruction.

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The rain uninvited

My daily walks in the forest have been marked by heavy rain which even invited itself into the book I am writing: People of the Forest. Here’s the extract.

Isla was startled when Amelia grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to the window. She dug in her heals and tried to resist, but Amelia was strong. “Look,” the girl said. Isla peered round the window frame, trying to remain unseen. Jurgen was balancing along ropeways with all the grace of a ballet dancer. The sight of the brute engaged in such nimble steps, his hips swaying from side to side, had her giggling, much to her annoyance.

The forest abruptly darkened as if someone had flung a hand in front of the sun and Jurgen was lost in the gloom, his clothes blending with the trees. A jagged flash outlined his form for an instant, then the building shook as thunder rolled through the forest and the storm broke. Giant drops bounced off leaves and branches, the rattle of rain ringing like the staccato beats of an army of dwarf drummers gone mad.

A window, one of those that reached to the floor, burst open, glass shuddering as it did, and the storm shoved its way into the room with a great gust of rain closely followed by a dark form. The fighter stood in the entrance, not bothering to close the window, rain dripping from his boots and soaked clothes, his long hair plastered to his head and shoulders as he stared unblinking at Isla.

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