My friend Jan died today. I think of him as a friend although I had not seen him in about a decade and I knew him best when I was a teenager and he was a minister in an Anglican church in Belfast. But he was a friend then, and I have never thought of him as anything else. I think I must have ended up hearing Jan preach on some kind of youth group outing. I really can’t remember. What I do remember is feeling totally out of place in the church. A feeling that I never grew out of. And I remember listening to him and thinking, wow, there is somebody that is a bit odd, like me, and yet feels totally comfortable with the weirdness and even appears to be celebrating it somewhat… I wrote him a letter. I always write people letters if they’ve said or done something that has been meaningful to me. It doesn’t matter if they’re very famous or not at all famous. I like feeling that they know how grateful I am. So I wrote to him- I’m pretty sure I looked him up in the phone book. And he wrote back. A wonderful, funny letter, including a poem he’d written about stepping in dog poo in the church. I was, of course, delighted. The official address stamp he used had an image of a square peg being hammered into a round hole. This was someone I wanted to know. Over the next few years I did get to know him. I met many friends though him who were very kind to me- all of them the sort who celebrated weirdness. Suddenly being an odd-looking kid who wrote terrible poetry and enjoyed silliness in a way that was deeply uncool with others, was acceptable and fun. Jan was an inclusive person and the little gang that he introduced me to was made up of people of many different ages and backgrounds and it took us to solemn places like church, where Jan would be the person to give me my first communion, and crazy places, like the Giant’s Ring where we once went in the middle of the night in pitch darkness to join with a huge gang of people who stood around the ancient tombstones to pray (sorry Mum- she is still freaked out by that story).
(I’m not sure who took this one. It was on St Dorothea’s Facebook page)
Jan taught me how to say ‘give us a snog’ in Romanian. He is the reason why I wear DM boots on a daily basis (he loved his DM’s so much that he staged a funeral for a beloved pair, and he persuaded my mum to let me have my first pair). He came to the house to introduce himself to my Mum and turned up on a motorbike dressed head to toe in black leather with a guy called Pete, also dressed in black. My mum nearly fainted- I think she thought it was the cops. He was possibly the first person to ever read my poetry and he was always positive about it, even though it was dreadful. He made toffee onions and gave one to his brother pretending it was a toffee apple. He played in a band and looked like one of the Village People (it was the 80’s). I have so many memories of this practical joker who was so clever and kind.
(That’s Jan in the Kylie t-shirt)
The last time I saw Jan I was grown up. It was lovely to see him again and we asked each other how life had been. I had been to university and got married. He had been to Afghanistan as a padre with the RAF. ‘Wow!’ I said, ‘What was that like?’ ‘Brilliant!!’ he said, ‘I became a Muslim!’ That was just like him. You never quite knew if he was joking. But what was clear was that he had gone out there and met people and listened to them and enjoyed their difference to himself. He never struck me as a person who was afraid of things like that, and that is something really special in our wee country. I am so sorry he has gone, but I am so glad to have known him for that brief time years ago. I wish I had kept in touch, but I get the feeling that he would have been happy to call us friends too, even after all this time. I am thinking also of his family this evening, and what a great loss they have to face. I am sure that over the next few days they will meet many people whose lives were touched by Jan as mine was. I will certainly be holding them in my thoughts as I remember him. Te iubim, Jan!
I haven’t updated the blog for a long time. Apologies! I have been busy trying to remember how to work a baby. In writing news; since I posted about the Undiscovered Voices excitement, I have signed with Jenny Savill of Andrew Nurnberg Associates (I have just noticed that ANA take care of Harper Lee, author of the first book to ever make me cry and a life-changer for me in some ways. *swoons*). Jenny is lovely and if you’re interested in the world of Children’s and Young Adult books then follow her on Twitter, here. I’m really happy about this decision and I am now editing A Good Hiding in the hope that eventually a publisher will take it on.
I haven’t had time for much else. The festival season has passed me by this year and I have really missed doing writing workshops and readings. Hopefully next year I can join in again. I can’t complain though, exhausted though I am. We’ve been having our own festival of sorts. Hope you are all doing well. Here’s a picture of our cat, Ibid, enjoying the sunny summer.
Grey morning garden.
I carry you, sleeping,
Among a congregation of weeds;
Dandelion in wet grass,
The white of new daisies,
Dock leaves and nettles,
Briers that promise dark fruits.
Blackbird, starling, house martin;
Their mad hymn moves beyond the beat of a woodpigeon,
And the breath that carries them breathes on us.
At the door to our house I take one hand from under you,
And as I reach to turn the handle
Three raindrops fall on your face,
Cold as light.
On the day of the first same sex marriages in England and Wales, while we in NI still wait for equality, I thought it might be a good time to share this short note which I received last year.
I had been to see Simon Callow in ‘The Man Jesus’ at the Lyric in Belfast. It was a moving play offering a very human interpretation of the life of Jesus and ending with an appropriate critique of what his followers had become. As people stood to applaud at the end I looked around the room and thought about how many people were Christians. Probably quite a few and, if not, then there would at least have been many there who were familiar with the Jesus story; there aren’t many people in this country who go through their lives untouched by religion in one way or another.
I felt compelled to write to Simon Callow when I got home. I wanted him to know that, to me personally, it meant a lot that he had brought that rendition of Jesus to Belfast- the human Jesus, the one that I think is missing here sometimes, the one whose love was not a victory march but a cold and broken hallelujah. I think we could use more of that Jesus and less of the one who is obsessed with winning, obsessed with power, obsessed with control. I told Simon how difficult it can be for people here who wait and wait for the equality that some followers of the control-freak Jesus would deny to them, and how I was glad for a couple of hours to consider that there are many people here who are in favour of the other Jesus- the man Jesus.
Here is the letter he sent back to me:
‘Dear Shirley, Thank you for your lovely, touching letter. I’m sure eventually all those taboos and prejudices will disappear- the improvement is already extraordinary. Such changes in my lifetime. And think of how other stigma- illegitimacy, for example- have disappeared. That doesn’t help today’s victims, but it’s a sort of comfort. All the best, Simon C.’
Apologies for the lack of recent updates!
Gratuitous picture of Bruce. A Brucey bonus, if you like.
For the past number of weeks I’ve had this line from Bruce (Brooooooce!) Springsteen’s ‘The River’ in my head constantly;
Then I got Mary pregnant, and man that was all she wrote,
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.
I have to tell you, I am a huge fan of The Boss (incredibly huge at the minute), but this line gets on my wick. A union card and a wedding coat? Diddums! Mary got stretch marks, heartburn, whacked in the belly from the inside and the unique joy of having to pee every couple of hours during the night. I’m not surprised she had some complaining to do, especially if you’re going around bemoaning the demise of your days having fun ‘down at the river’.
In writing terms I’m enjoying a lovely period of chatting with agents and publishers and getting feedback on my novel, thanks to the Undiscovered Voices competition. It seems that everyone involved in children’s publishing is completely lovely. Who knows where it will all lead; at the minute I am delighted that some industry professionals are reading my work and giving me some really helpful feedback. Meanwhile I am turning over an idea for a new story in my head, and I’m really glad that there appears to be room for it as the baby shrinks my brain to approximately the size of my bladder (think ‘walnut’). Hopefully, unlike poor Mary, my pregnancy won’t be all I have written by the time bubs gets here.
I’ll leave you with Bruce.
One of the things that I think is really brilliant about writing is that, if you like doing it, it’s something that you can enjoy right from the very start. I learnt the violin when I was wee. I hated it for YEARS and then I went to a new school, joined the orchestra and it started to be fun. And I fell in love with Nigel Kennedy. Yes I did. Don’t judge me.
The Morrissey of the violin. Shut up.
But writing has been fun for me since before I knew how to do it. Just like my daughter, I loved making my mark, learning first how to write my name and then other words and it all got mixed in with drawing like there was no difference (because there wasn’t). Later I liked making up stories and then poems and songs (unbelievably dreadful. I pray to God that nobody has any of those tapes I made….), but I always loved doing it.
When I started wanting to be published, about twenty years ago, I didn’t enjoy sending things off. I don’t like writing letters to agents and worrying about whether I’m saying the right thing. I don’t like the feeling that it’s probably going to be another rejection. And I don’t like the rejections. But I still love writing and it always feels worth doing for its own sake, for me. It is the thing I do that makes me feel most like myself and I imagine I will always do it, whatever happens, or doesn’t happen. But I want other people to like it too…
So it’s really wonderful to get the odd bit of encouragement, whether it’s from family or friends who genuinely like what I wrote, or a note from a stranger who comes across it, or entering a competition and getting longlisted. The other great thing about writing is that everyone sees it as a solitary occupation, and in some ways it is like that- there is nothing but you and your mind. But in other ways it also opens up a world of social interaction that is a bit different and a bit similar to making friends- you put yourself out there and sometimes people reach back and let you know that you’re alright. Without that element it would be very lonely indeed. Thanks, then, to those people who reach back to me. It means more than you know.
For those who write and illustrate for children, I can highly recommend joining SCBWI. They’re so friendly and full of wise advice and opportunities for us to put ourselves about a bit.
C’mon, how could you not love him?
This afternoon I am holding a writing workshop for ages 14+ in the LGBT centre in Belfast (2-4pm, Waring Street) as part of Outburst Queer Arts Festival. Details here (you might need to scroll down and find my mugshot to click on it- the title is ‘Imagining Ourselves’).
While you’re on that webpage take a look at the other events. Outburst is such a lovely, inclusive, fun festival. It is an absolute privilege to be part of it and I can’t wait to get there today. I took part last year when I did a reading from Widows Row followed by a discussion panel about LGBT issues for young people in education in NI today.
At today’s workshop we’ll be doing some general writing exercises (one of which will involve a banana) and we’ll also have a chat about LGBT representation in Young Adult fiction. How many novels for young people have LGBT characters from Northern Ireland? And if we can’t think of any, maybe we should write our own! It will be a fun and relaxed couple of hours and I can’t wait to meet everyone. Please drop in if you’re interested. The session is free.