A letter from Simon Callow

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.

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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.’

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‘That was all she wrote…’

Apologies for the lack of recent updates!

Gratuitous picture of Bruce. A Brucey bonus, if you like.

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’.

Anyway :-)

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.

Undiscovered Voices.

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.

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?

Imagining Ourselves

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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.