Monthly Archives: September 2016

Society of Authors management committee elections

I’ve added my election statement for the Society of Authors management committee below. There are some very good other candidates and I look forward to a fair election.

Because of space I wasn’t able to include details of my committee and campaigning work. I am a member of English Pen and the NUJ. I am also a long-time co-ordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, and have served on a number of expert committees arising from my investigations into violence against disabled people. They include an expert committee advising the Equalities and Human Rights Commission on its inquiry into the same crime; the Crown Prosecution Service National Scrutiny Panel on Disability Hostility and the National Police Chiefs’ Deaf and Disabled Forum. 

Here’s my statement for the Society of Authors – if you are a member, please consider voting for me. I would like to serve to support the Society of Authors in its important work lobbying those in power to help creators carry on writing; in being an outward looking organisation, as free as is possible from internal disputes and supporting writers to become better at what they do through training and networking.

“The Society of Authors is well-placed to campaign for the power of stories – and the authors who write them.

 

I have written or contributed to twelve books, ranging from three non-fiction books based on campaigning journalism (one of which has not yet been published in the UK), books for children and Kindle Singles, both fiction and non-fiction.

 

I became a member of The Society of Authors soon after my first book, Fussy Freya, Frances Lincoln) was published in 2008. I’ve attended some fascinating talks and the SoA has suggested useful changes to draft publishing contracts. It also provided me with a much-needed Authors’ Foundation grant in 2012 to finish my second non-fiction book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld, 2013). That grant enabled me to drive to isolated Traveller sites, visit families bereaved by hate crime and witness horse fairs and religious meetings. Most importantly, it gave me the time I needed to put down on paper some of stories about which I feel very passionate – those from people whose voices are not often heard or who are wilfully misunderstood.

 

For me, the core mission statement for the SoA is all about getting stories published, voices heard. The Society has reformed itself and become more responsive to its members. Now I think we need to work together and face outward, because stories and authors are vital and must be protected – from politicians and even those in our industry who do not always treat us fairly. The Society of Authors needs to build on its reputation for safeguarding and defending authors’ rights. We face continual challenges – from changes to copyright and unfair contract terms, lower revenues and pirating of our books on the Internet and new threats such as Universal Credit for many low-paid writers. As a long-term union member, in the NUJ, and as a former parliamentary researcher, I believe we are stronger if we work together, using a range of tactics, from lobbying to deploying social media tactics and other forms of peaceful protest.

 

However, we must be positive too. Globalisation has brought disruption to our industry, but it has brought opportunities too – self-publishing, for example, and a range of new stories from refugees and others. If that much used word, diversity means anything real, it means a commitment to communicate a wider range of stories. Those include narratives from older and disabled people, younger people, or people who have arrived from abroad, as my mother and grand-mother did, post-war from Yugoslavia, carrying one book of fairy tales in the one suitcase they could bring with them. James Baldwin called writers ‘disturbers of the peace’ who revealed society to itself and made freedom real. That’s a daunting, if exciting challenge – but one for a management committee that is looking outward – to create a broader, fresher literature.”

 

ENDS

 

 

Review of Cash Not Care (Mo Stewart, New Generation Publishing, 2016)

Mo Stewart (a pen name) wrote this book, Cash Not Care, as an impassioned, critical response to what some might call ‘welfare reforms’ – and many, many others would call the austerity measures that have tightened since 2010, when the Coalition Government came to power in the UK. This administration was followed by a Conservative Government in May 2015.

cashnotcare

Mo Stewart, a veteran, has researched the effect of those benefit cuts, in particular, on disabled people. She pays generous tribute to the many other disabled people, and allies, who have supported her in this painstaking piece of work which, in the end, was self-published. Benefit cuts are not an immediately sexy subject for publishers, unfortunately. When corporate giants involved in administering welfare reforms are criticised, as they are here, which increases legal risk, publishers may be cautious. This does not mean, however, that this painstaking piece of work should not be read, or discussed. I think this hard-won book, over which Stewart has laboured for six years, should be debated, scrutinised and read.

Stewart examines the roots of the benefits reforms in the UK, linking them back to previous reforms in the US (which haven’t yielded much, in truth, except more poverty). She then goes on to look at the rise of new welfare benefits here in the UK over the last five years. She provides a clear account of the history of the new benefits which have been introduced, how they were received, the way in which some parts of the media promulgated the worst parts of the benefits reform message (scrounger, skiver, need I go on?) and the effects of such poisonous rhetoric on disabled people themselves.

She looks at the resistance to the new reforms, as disabled people started to oppose them – on social media and on the streets. She pays tribute to the brilliant journalism of John Pring, from the Disability News Service, who has exposed a number of suicides after benefits were denied – with one coroner giving a ground-breaking verdict of a suicide being ‘triggered’ by a ‘fit for work’ test in January 2014 (Story by John Pring on the verdict, 18 September, 2015).

Stewart ends by writing that disabled people “have tolerated an unprecedented political attack against them in recent years”. This book is her “voyage of discovery”, which has taken her, like Odysseus, the best part of a decade. Disabled people aren’t home yet, either, and whether or not the current Labour party leader will lead disabled people safely into port is moot (although Stewart writes in her conclusion that he may do). Sadly, it is important to note that Labour started the welfare reform process, rather than the Conservatives.

Cash, Not Care is not an easy read – there are many Appendices, footnotes, and it could have done with some editing although this is a common issue with self-publishing. Traditional publishers may need to work harder to support those with a cause and a burning, important story to tell in the future. Cash, Not Care, was published by someone who felt the information had to be out there, no matter what the personal cost (and that cost was pain, financial and personal). This was set aside for the greater good. I urge you to read it. It is available on the link above. Please click…

 

 

 

 

Inside the story tent

On Sunday our road held its annual street party and we did something new – a story tent which I was lucky enough to put together, with help from some other lovely neighbours, most notably Dorothy Newton.

 

You can hear the recordings here:

There were several strands behind the story tent, but I think the seed was planted several years ago, when my daughter had to do a school project on the Second World War and we thought it would be interesting to interview all her grandparents about their memories, which she recorded on the tape recorder I used at that time for my interviews for my own journalism. My mum came from war-time Yugoslavia as an eight year old girl after the war with her mother with just a suitcase, which I wrote about in the recent anthology, A Country of Refuge. She remembered the Allies bombing Belgrade, where she and her family lived during the war. My dad grew up in Yorkshire, and had vivid memories too. Her other grandmother lived in Brazil during the war, and grandpa Gordon in London. We also interviewed Amy and Dave, our neighbours, who had excellent recall of the war in London, and of the railings in our road being taken away for the war effort, and of the bombing in the area.

That led me, years later, to think of howe we could tell an intimate history of our area, perhaps through the memories of older people. But there were other threads too. One was the sense of separation after the Brexit vote. Nicolette Jones, another neighbour, wanted to bring people together again, and asked in our local newsletter, which she edits, how many nationalities lived on our road (she’s just published the results and there are 43 countries represented). We live pretty harmoniously together here. Then there’s the present-day of Islington people, celebrated through the Islington Faces Blog, written by Nicola Baird – an amazing archive of over 200 interviews.

I worked with my neighbour, Dorothy Newton, to find people who would be willing to share their stories of where they came from, why they left and what it was like to arrive here. Many of them take tea on Thursdays at St Thomas’s Church, just around the corner, and we chatted about their stories before the street party. Many contributors said that there was nothing particularly interesting about their story – but there was.

Sunday came, and we put up the gazebo, with sides, and set up the recording equipment – all the contributors have agreed to be recorded, as we would like the recordings to be available for local school-children for school projects in the future. I have uploaded them via Soundcloud on this website (see above).

There was Dorothy herself, who talked about the early history of Plimsoll Road, which was once just a cornfield, without a name. She gave a fluent explanation of how this area was urbanised and talked about the main owner or developer of the land, Mr Rock. She thinks that the houses in this area were then built on by a great number of different builders – small firms who maybe did at the most one terrace at a time.  In just 25 years, between 1864 and 1895 this area went from being fields to the inner city. The pace of change must have been dizzying.

Then came Nicolette, talking about our own local hero, Samuel Plimsoll, after whom our road was renamed – he saved the life of thousands of sailors, after inventing the Plimsoll Line on ships, so that they were not overloaded.

Malcolm then talked about a local World War One sailor, a man of 45, who enlisted and died after just a few weeks service after being torpedoed. He lived in the neighbouring road.

Then we heard some stories from further afield – John talked movingly of his mother, who was born in what was then Prussia, and who had just given birth at the end of the Second World War. Her German husband was missing in action, presumed dead. The Russians were advancing and were raping and killing. Her father, a local dignitary, tried to reason with the troops as they entered the place they were staying. They beat him to death. She survived, and fled with her newborn, in terrible circumstances, and eventually got to Hamburg, to the relative safety of an Allied area controlled by the British. She met a British Army major, who fell in love with her. After a period of time, and after her German husband was declared dead, they married. John, the baby, as he was, came to England at the age of about four. Life was not easy for a German woman, who was spat at in the street, and he was not allowed to play with other children at first. A spell-binding story (and a true Plimsoll-roader – he has lived in the same house twice over).

Then Uli spoke of growing up in Vienna, around the same time, and her life in very difficult circumstances during the Second World, complicated yet further as her family was partly Jewish. Uli also gave a vivid account of living in Barnsbury in the ’60’s as a young married woman. ‘We were the only ones without lace curtains’ and therefore they got knocks at the door. Uli moved to Plimsoll Road in the ’70’s and has lived here happily ever since – she decided to move here because of the nice long gardens, chosen with the help of Ordnance Survey maps.

Then came Mickey, who described coming over from Trinidad, in the ’50’s, and gave a vivid description of the ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ signs outside boardings house. But, for Mickey, it stiffened his resolve to make the best of his life, and he joined the British army and did well for himself, later joining BT and also doing well in that company too, and buying and selling houses so that he did not have to abide by the rules of racist landlords.

Lastly, Nicola, from the Islington Faces Blog, gave a great description of some of the characters she had interviewed over the many years she has spent, writing the blog – over 200 interviews and counting. It is a great resource for local people – and well worth a look. There is a  huge amount of content there.

I summed up the very moving story tent session, with a thank you to all the wonderful participants. Oral histories are a very special way of sharing memories with the community, and we are lucky to have a really great community on Plimsoll Road. This is a way of looking at history at the micro level. People have come and gone from this area – the builder himself, Mr Rock, may have had Hugenot, (refugee) roots, with a name anglicised from Roche. This is one of those areas that welcomes people from different races and communities – it’s one of its strengths. This mini-project, I hope, will start to build up an archive of voices of those communities.