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From literary to historical to …

This is the End of the Story is, amongst other things, a literary novel for Teesside. Cassie and Miriam are immersed in the politics, weather, music and mores of the 70s; the culture and geography of 1970s industrialised Teesside, but they are also Quixotic – Cassie playing Sancho to Miriam; a ‘Quixote’ who pursues truth and justice even when the fight cannot be won, and who insists on the power of perception, imagination and dreams.

There are other literary and artistic influences in this first novel in the trilogy – from Dostoevsky to Madame Bovary; from Elisabeth Bourton de Trevino’s Casilda of the Rising Moon to the Canadian folk music of Gordon Lightfoot. The literary novel is a melting pot of ingredients, and so too is the historical novel, which A Remedy for All Things is, at least in part.

The last month of Attila József’s life is well documented and the ‘forradolam’, the ‘boiling over of the masses’ in the twelve days of uprising in 1956 has inspired many books, both fiction and non-fiction.

So once again there has been lots of research, this time involving not only delving into Cervantes, E.M. Forster and poets like Endre Ady as well as Attila József himself, but also into articles, interviews and works of non-fiction, from Thomas Kabdebo’s Attila József, Can you take on this awesome life? to Victor Sebestyen’s Twelve Days, Revolution 1956. All of the reading has been essential, but unlike 1970s Teesside, Budapest, in any era, was completely outside of my frame of reference.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATravelling there made a real difference, thanks to a generous grant from ACE, but even that would have been less effective without some key conversations with people who are part of the place. Conversations at the Hungarian House of Photography, and at the Attila József Museum were crucial. Similarly, meeting Lászlo Kunos, Director of Corvina Press, not only gave me a much more nuanced perspective on life in both 1950s and 1990s Budapest (something I wouldn’t have picked up from books or even from visiting merely as a tourist) but also helped me make key decisions about how my character, Catherine, thinks about Attila József’s final days and state of mind. And meeting the novelist and poet, Gábor Schein, again enriched my perspective on this remarkable city, which has been through so much, and yet is a relatively young city, with Pest in particular becoming populace only at the end of the nineteenth century.

There is an element of writing that is essentially solitary, especially working though draft after draft of a novel or sifting through other novels, essay, interviews, non-fiction works and newspaper reports to find exactly the right details. But there is another element that demands not only activity, but immersion. A Remedy for All Things is part literary novel, part historical novel, but above all it is a novel of characters – of people and of a city that lives and breathes and to write it has demanded that I share a tiny bit of that breath.

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An Extraordinary Tour

The six weeks of travelling and researching have been exceptional – discovering new places, meeting writers and publishers in Europe, particularly in Budapest, and having intense time to write completely away from work and from my normal environment have enabled me to put lots of creative pressure on the next novel, which follows on from This is the End of the Story. It takes place during the timespan of the first novel, during one month in 1993 (a month we don’t hear about within This is the End of the Story even though its last chapter is set in June, 1994). It follows the protagonist of the first novel, Catherine, and is set in the early days of post-Communist Hungary, specifically in Budapest, where Catherine is researching the poet Attila József for a novel based on his life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut during her time there, her sense of confused identity comes back to haunt her. Having worked to establish her perception of reality as linear and quotidian, she begins to dream the life of a young woman imprisoned after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Moreover, in alternate chapters, this woman, Selene Solweig Virág, dreams Catherine’s life. Selene’s life is further complicated by a relationship she has on only one day in each of six successive years, a day when she slips through time to find herself with Attila József. (Whether the dreams — either Catherine’s or Selene’s — are ‘real’ and whether Selene (if she exists) actually moves into another time period or only imagines it as part of a stress breakdown in her life is of less concern than the interweaving of periods of political turmoil and personal perspectives on reality.)

It’s not a novel about time travel or reincarnation (is Catherine merely dreaming about Selene’s life or did she once live it?), but about alternative notions of identity as a metaphor that challenge insularity and the institutions that imagine they can crush people. Running under the narrative is an insistence that governments and power brokers cannot crush the soul of life and humanity and all that connects us. It’s also about alternative perspectives on time.

Einstein wrote that the ‘past, present and future are only an illusion’ and in Greek there are two words for time — Chronos is the everyday, linear sense, the time of clocks, but Kairos has a more qualitative sense — it is the right moment, the Now. In this vein, the existentialist philosopher, Kierkegaard, distinguished between living temporally and finitely and those rare moments when we suspend finite living and become aware of existing so that for an instant we are outside of time and ‘stand in relation to the eternal’. And Spinoza similarly talks of ‘timeless moments’, as John Berger points out in his brilliant book of radical essays, Hold Everything Dear. These are moments when the ordinary is made luminous, not in some showy fireworks-and-flashes way, but by providing a transcendent vision of the everyday so that eternity breaks into the present.

Such moments can be found in mediation, on a walk in a beautiful place, or simply in some unlooked for instant going about routine tasks and they can also be found in art and literature. Proust and Joyce both wrote about epiphany in this way and Proust’s notion of an involuntary memory containing the past has this sense of the eternal breaking in, of another kind of time that is qualitative and belongs to an eternal present. The best poetry contains this transcendence — as Berger points out, every pause in an Emily Dickinson poem is redolent with eternity.

The impulse to write something in which the transient and the contingent becomes one with the sublime and numinous, with all that connects us and all that takes us beyond the illusion of past, present and future, occurs constantly — and if anyone achieves it there will be nothing left to say. What more can be added to such epiphany? But, as exquisite and profound as some literature is, no one has yet taken us to this place of silence and so writers keep writing, keep circling the Kairos.

It’s something I’m striving to negotiate with in A Remedy for All Things — how do we make the life of poet who despaired enough to kill himself, the lives of those who took on an unwinnable fight in the Hungarian Uprising (many losing their lives), the life of a writer who struggles with personal loss and grief, the lives of anyone who resists living the life handed to them by institutions and powers, matter? One way is perhaps to use fiction and imagination to mess with the notion of linear time, assert with Cervantes’ Quixote that ‘The unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction’ and we will resist the unreasonable, limiting, conventional world in favour of timeless moments.

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Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards – On Writing a Trilogy

This is the End of the Story is a novel that germinated for over thirty-five years before it was ready to be written. Writing it was an act of memoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAry and imagination in equal measure and it was a fascinating journey. It wasn’t until I went to Toledo to do some final research on Casilda, an 11th century Moorish princess who became a Christian saint, an antecedent for the protagonist Cassie (later Catherine), that I began to realise that it really wasn’t the end of the story, making the novel’s title all the more resonant, but rather was the first part of a trilogy.

I have a tendency not only to dream about my characters, but also to dream on behalf of my characters once I’m deep into the flow of a narrative. This is the End of the Story was no exception and I also began to dream a new character, somehow linked to Catherine, but not obviously so. All I knew about her at first was her odd name, Selene Solweig Virág, and that she Hungarian and in prison after the 1956 uprising.

It wasn’t much to go on, but, in addition to layering in details from what I found in Toledo, I had time to add a few tiny details that would forge links between the first and subsequent books and also to highlight objects that would carry forward a freight of memories for what might come next.

Writing the second book has been a very different experience. I’ve been constantly aware not only of the need to ensure that the A Remedy for All Things maintains continuity with The is the End of the Story, but also of how important it is to plant seeds that will come to fruition in For Hope is Always Born, the final book in the trilogy.

When I was a child I used to plait my hair and can remember learning to do the long braids for myself. Getting each section of hair even and straight so that the final plait would be neat and not pull on my scalp was a bit of an art, something that gradually became second nature. Writing a trilogy feels a bit like that and, like plaiting hair, there is also a degree of happenstance as well as planning. Some days a plait just knots, or one section of it is too thin and the whole thing twists unevenly. Other times it flows perfectly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWriting the middle book, it wasn’t until I got to the second draft that I realised that the hand of Miriam pendant that Catherine wears after her visit to Toledo in search of Casilda could become a vital link between the characters in A Remedy for All Things. Catherine realises that Selene carries an identical talisman in Budapest in the late 1950s. Getting events to synchronise so that hamsa could be in the right place at the right time took lots of juggling with dates and characters from the 1920s to the 1990s across Europe, but the act of retrofitting allowed me to ‘discover’ a familial link that tightened the narrative and that I hadn’t previously thought of making. A wonderful piece of happenstance. The hamsa will have further importance in the third book, but it’s been easier to sew the seeds for that now that I’m aware of the possibilities.

Maintaining a Chekhovian cohesiveness to a narrative in which everything has a part to play, whether it is to create mood, authenticity, character or move on the story, feels much more complex with three novels to juggle, particularly as the whole narrative will range from the 1920s to the present, and take in England, Wales, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Spain and France along the way. Yet it’s an exciting and rewarding way to write, making me question every detail, how it might be used in future, what possibilities it opens up or shuts down.

In planning A Remedy for All Things I had one key character who I was certain would not make it out of this section of the narrative alive. I wrote the first draft that way and it was working. I worked on the second draft, adding scenes, filling out details, strengthening links between this novel and the previous one, setting up threads to be played out in the next and whilst the death scene changed it was still there. Then I discovered that if I allowed this character to live I could add another familial bond into a new strand that is planned for the third novel and that this would be much more convincing and also much more in keeping with the tone of strange events that underpin the story, raising questions about perception and the nature of reality, a vital theme in the trilogy. The problem was that if this character lives, then crucial events that needed to stay the same at the end of A Remedy for All Things couldn’t happen – the death set off an important chain reaction and without this catalyst my story might have been left hanging.

How was it solved? You’ll have to read the novel, of course, to find out, but I can reveal that I was able to keep the character alive AND have the chain reaction by introducing another ‘Chekhov’s gun’ – in this case a letter. So now I’m beginning to look forward to how that character will reappear in For Hope is Always Born.

I’ve just completed draft three of the middle novel and it’s taken three full workings to feel confident that the continuity is right with the first novel and that sufficient details are in place to give rise to the third novel, but there will be more drafts to follow in order to ensure that this novel is as rich and as tight as I can make it. I’m also hoping soon to do a full outline for the third novel so that I can once again revisit this pivotal middle narrative of the trilogy with an eye to detail …

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The Objects that Speak of Us

Researching A Remedy for All Things in Budapest, I’ve been aware of how vital artefacts can be in communicating something about a person. The thought struck me sharply on a walk along the Danube, confronted by a simple and heart-breaking installation along the bank — pairs of shoes in memory of the Jewish citizens who were herded to the river in 1944 and 1945, made to take off their shoes by members of the fascist Arrow Cross party, and shot; their bodies washed away by the river while the shoes remained, empty.

Another author, Nigel Hutchinson, who is an artist as well as poet, remarked that shoes are particularly affecting because of the way a foot shapes a shoe to itself, so that each one bear the unique imprint of the wearer. This is certainly the case and other artefacts can also speak volumes as I noticed when I visited the Attila József Museum. Not only were examples of his hand-writing on display, but other personal objects, like the retractable pencil that he wrote with; a facsimile of a rocking horse that was his only toy as a young child and which he gave to his mother for firewood when they had none; and a small change purse.

The purse has gone into a scene when Attila first meets Selene:

No, don’t think that, she reassures. I can’t explain how I’m here, but I am real. I was about to make dinner for my mother. I sat down for a moment and thought I was getting a migraine, but then I heard a train and … I heard a train last time too.

You are still feeling sick?

No, the pain didn’t come. I get this phantosmia — of oranges usually — then lights and darkness over half my vision, but both times I’ve met you … the symptoms have started, but no headache — I hear a train and … here I am.

Phantosmia, Attila repeats, as though savouring the word. You are hungry? There’s a taverna on Szoladi útca with good food. I might even have a few worthless pengő with me.

Selene smiles, reaches into a pocket for her small purse. If we eat it will have to be you who pays, she says, holding out coins — forints and fillérs. My currency that will be meaningless in 1937.

He pulls a well-fingered, small, square change purse from his pocket. It’s stiff brown leather creaks a little as he eases the flap from underneath the cross-strap and peers inside. He nods and smiles. So, I will buy you dinner.

But you … I don’t think you can afford …

A special occasion, he insists.

He holds an arm and she links it as though they are old friends.

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And other objects have assumed even greater importance in communicating themes or threads through the novel. Catherine wears a small necklace that first appeared in This is the End of the Story when she is searching for traces of the 11th century Casilda and dreams that her friend Miriam is with her:

When I step out of the shower, the flow of blood has ceased.

Here, Miriam says, enfolding me in a white towel. And this, she adds. She holds out a white knitted shawl that I’ve never seen, but know from the pages of Casilda of the Rising Moon, pulls it around me. It’s a cold night, she says, get under the blankets. I’ll make you some mint tea.

I slide between white cotton sheets, drowse.

When I wake, the sky is dark, sharp stars dazzle through open shutters. On the bedside table of dark wood and mother of pearl, a silk cord of palest blue, strung with a tiny hamsa: the hand of Miriam in damascene black, silver, gold. Beside it a turquoise glass of mint tea has cooled.

The hamsa becomes not only Catherine’s link back to Miriam and to a time of a more visionary sense of the world, but also a link to Selene, who, imprisoned at the end of the 1950s, seems to be in possession of the same talisman, carefully hidden.

I never saw the enchantment, only story and facts aligned. Miriam was my Ben Haddaj. I was Casilda. I was not Cassie (Catherine Anne McManus) from the Lawn’s Estate. Miriam was so certain that in this lifetime Ben Haddaj would save me and that we would be together forever. And I clung to her until an incident so small, so brutal, sent my world spinning apart. And then I rationalised it all away. … I survived Liam and the first miscarriage, convinced myself that life was beginning to make sense. And it was, even through the shock of Miriam’s death, even through the strange experiences in Toledo — the sense of Casilda with me at the tiny mosque, the inexplicable certainty of Miriam comforting me after the sudden flow of blood, the mint tea that I found, cooling by my bedside when I woke, and the hamsa that I wear always, that Selene carries always, that I remember seeing Judith wearing the last time I saw her …

I have lived without the facts and the story conforming to one another for years. I have learnt the art of ambiguity, but the intrusion of this other reality, this fragmented sense of identity and perception is straining my ability to function,

Objects anchor us. Objects can signal how people identify themselves and how they want to be perceived by others. Objects become the repositories of memories, reminders of events. There’s an antique pen in the current novel, which Catherine gives to Simon after a visit to the artists’ colony at Szentendre, and which will re-appear in the third book in the trilogy, For Hope is Always Born. It’s personal, says something about the user, adds texture and depth to the narrative, shows the reader some vital detail without bluntly telling her what to think or see …

There’s a sketchbook that Catherine is given in Paris that once belonged to Selene’s father and which becomes not only a symbol of a life that Selene has lost, but also a possible motif for the future:

My father worked for Sándor and Marie Virág. Marie was Parisian, they both knew art and had met at school. Sándor had a particularly good eye. He could draw too — a very good sense of line, but he was a gregarious man, they were good with people, good at finding homes for art works and good at spotting whose work would sell. They lived above the shop here with their daughter. All was going well, but then …

The Nazis?

It was before they arrived, before their foul ‘Ordances’, but by the late Thirties even so-called liberals were denouncing Jews, blaming them for luring us into a war with Germany that was nothing to do with ‘real’ French people. The rhetoric was more and more violent. Sándor decided they should leave. He could see what was coming. My father, Charles, wanted to buy the gallery, but he didn’t have the savings. They hoped to return and they liked him, wanted to make him a partner. So my father paid what he could, nothing like the worth of the gallery, but they drew up their own agreement — when they came back he would use the profits from the intervening time to make it a full partnership.

But they never returned.

My father tried to find them, but in Hungary …

Jews were forced to move into ghettos, it would have been hard.

Yes, and then Communism — but it’s preyed on him all these years.

He’s still alive?

Yes, eighty-eight and in failing health, but his mind is sharp.

I can’t imagine they’d think anything other than what good hands they left the gallery in.

The granddaughter — Miriam you said? — if she could write to my father, even visit. I know he’d want to compensate her, there is still a clause in his will…

She’s another missing person at the moment, my friends are trying to locate her, but if we find her …

Thank you. Marcel hesitates, lifts the package from the tray. If you find her, could you give her this or pass it on to relatives?

Catherine unfolds the carefully layered brown paper around a sketchbook, dark brown card covers, a taped binding in burgundy. Inside, thick sketch paper, each page a study of a person —

They are all of Marie or his daughter, Marcel offers. He leans over, stares at the open page. You look like you could be the Selene as an adult, he says. You are also related?

Catherine shivers. No, she says quietly, just … a coincidence, I suppose. They’re beautiful, very delicate.

Yes — so few lines, so much expression. You will take the book for Miriam?

Well, I —

For my father to know they are on their way to Sándor’s family — even if you don’t find her for some time — it would give him great peace.

Catherine nods. Thank you.

And there’s a book that Catherine is shown by Szuzsanna Makai, Attila József’s niece, on which the plot might turn, but you’ll have to wait for the book to be published to learn more about that object…

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Of Terror, Memory and Controversy

Writing in an unfamiliar place where the language is impenetrable (I’ve mastered ‘thank you’ – kösönöm) is giving me a huge amount to process and making the second draft of the novel much richer in detail and atmosphere. But information is never neutral and it’s a difficult and fascinating exercise to sift for particular perspectives in a culture that I’m an outsider to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of days ago I visited the House of Terror at Andrassy utca, 60. This infamous building was the home of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross. In power for a relatively short time, this fascist national socialist party with ideals of racial purity benefitted enormously when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 after losing patience with their allies for being too moderate. In just over a year the death toll and deportation of Jews, Romanies and other ‘undesirables’ soared, with atrocities mounting. After 1945 and the Soviet regime, the building was taken over by the indigenous arm of the communist secret police, the AVH, and became the nerve centre of purges and terror campaigns against the population.

In my novel, Selene is briefly held in the basement cells of this building (where many were tortured, sometimes dying of their injuries) so it was somewhere I wanted to visit, but it’s a controversial ‘museum’. Péter Apor argues:

The Budapest House of Terror is one of the most notorious examples of abusing spectacular new media audiovisual technology to exhibit a politically and ideologically biased historical narrative. … the institution is not only an eloquent example of how the careless use of ‘public history’ is able to manipulate the ‘consumption’ of history, (but) … represents another important agenda: many new ‘public history’ museums call themselves memory museums. Such claims often contain an epistemological distinction between ‘object-based history’ and ‘collective-mentality-based memory.’ As the case of the House of Terror demonstrates, it is however a dangerous strategy: the idea of an ‘alternative epistemology’ based on ‘collective memory’ is basically a denial of any rational way of obtaining knowledge about the past.

Whilst agreeing that memory is a slippery concept, I wouldn’t wholly follow Apor’s argument. Memory can be a tricky and fraught concept, but is also ‘existentially rich’. Like Christian Karner and Bram Mertens in The Use and Abuse of Memory, I think it possible to find a theoretical position in which memory is neither co-terminus with nor inimical to historical ‘fact’, not a compromised middle-ground, but a genuine dialogue that allows a new perspective between ‘evidence’ and ‘experience’.

But, whatever the epistemology we adopt in examining past atrocities, those that attract cultural tourism whilst also being laden with the political stances of their current creators and curators, are particularly difficult places to interpret. Moreover, the House of Terror has been highly involved in political controversy. Its wholesale backing by the right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán, especially its opening during an election period in which the socialist opposition was subtly linked to the extreme Soviet past, so warning voters not to vote socialist. Additionally, whilst the house (and its highly effective joint logo that unites the Arrow Cross and Soviet star symbols) claims to examine both Nazi and Communist atrocities, the balance is much more skewed to room after room on the evils of Communism. Clearly the terror and suffering in that era was considerable, but they are not the whole picture and Jewish communities have objected that in massively concentrating on the Soviet era the Holocaust is down-played. (see Tamara Rátz, ‘Interpretation in the House of Terror, Budapest’ in Cultural Tourism in a Changing World, Melanie K Smith & Mike Robinson)

A further problem is that the exhibit not only makes it appear that there was no ‘normal, daily life’ in Hungary in the Communist era, but also locates the ‘evil’ as ‘other’. Whilst those who collaborated with the two regimes or worked for them are named with photographs on a ‘wall of victimisers’ (itself controversial given we don’t know the level of involvement from names and photographs and given that heritage sites do not normally set themselves up as judge and jury) there is nonetheless an overall sense that ‘evil’ came from outside the indigenous culture.

I’m glad to have experienced this first hand and been exposed to the controversies and questions, but most of all the visit was ‘fruitful’ for simply walking through the largely empty basement cells: chilling and inhumane, the atmosphere there was palpably horrifying without need of interpretation boards or video screens.

In the meantime, I’ve got lots to think about as I write a novel in which terror is not a spectacle, but an everyday fear for at least one of my three main characters, and in which memory and it’s slipperiness is central.

 

 

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Meet Me in Budapest

Hand of Miriam on the wall of the Toledo Museum of MagicCharacter is endlessly fascinating. When I’m writing fiction I can get lost in the people I’m writing, even begin to dream their dreams. The mysteriousness and opaqueness of others is endlessly intriguing, but so to is their context. Who we are, the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us, arise from a matrix of particular factors, amongst them time and place. In This is the End of the Story, Cassie comes of age in 1970s Teesside and her context helps to shape her: the industrial landscape, the decline of employment, the cultural expectations of a class, time and place, are all issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.

Cassie shares my own background in large measure, though heavily fictionalised, but memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research – songs I thought I’d heard at one time often turned out to be from a couple of years ahead; fashions and news items similarly. Despite that, there was a familiarity of place that informed me and gave the writing a significant grounding. When it came to Toledo, though, another main setting in the novel, I was on very different territory.

There was no way to visit eleventh century Toledo so I had to rely on archival material, translations of texts about Toledo at the end of a cultured and flourishing Muslim rule, and a novel I’d read as a child, Casilda of the Rising Moon. Books and the Internet were invaluable, but it was only after I was given a trip to Toledo as a birthday gift that I felt really confident of this part of the writing. When I stood in a tiny mosque (later made into a church, Cristo de la Luz) that Casilda might conceivably have stood in 900 years earlier or when I visited The Museum of Spanish Magic, housed in a tenth century Islamic cave-house, complete with an ancient hand of Fatima (or hand of Miriam) talisman imprinted on the wall, I felt a sense of place that I hadn’t experienced from any textual research.

I was recently corresponding with Cinnamon Press novelist, Landeg White. Landeg was lived and worked in the West Indies, Malawi, Sierra Leone, has been a professor of African Studies and has lived for a considerable time in Portugal, where his poetry output has included a translation of Luís de Camões, published by Princeton University Press in 2008. He is someone who knows a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place, and remarked that going to a place to do in situ research is ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola, admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of just sitting in her attic making it all up.

Places are characters and to some extent we can fictionalise them and imagine them, but if the real place is to be the jumping off point, complete with an atmosphere, a history, a complex culture of food, sounds, smells, rivers, architecture … then immersing ourselves in it can only enhance the writing process. Moreover, moving ourselves as writers so that we are out of place, out of our small comfort zones as we write, pushes at our boundaries, makes us more porous to influences larger than ourselves.

In 2012 the ‘Writing Britain’ exhibition at the British Library captivated me. There is something so powerful about an original manuscript or early proofs spattered with corrections; something intimate and epiphanic at once. All the books in the exhibition were united by a strong sense of place. I saw the hand-written last page of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm; Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (one of my favourite books from childhood and still one of the most powerful retellings of the Blodeuwedd story from the Mabinogi), a first edition of ‘Little Gidding’ — ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started‘ — and Kathleen Raine’s Northumberland journals in her own hand, ‘those abiding essences, the rocks and hills and mountains’ raising their voices to ‘utter their wild credo’ next to a bit that reads like my own journal, talking about cold rural houses in winter with no central heating and managing the logs.

I came out awed, dazzled and dazed. I had entered a trance in there among runes and spells, within the song lines of connection. When I left, the world felt too bright and sharp. This is why we write — surely — for this extraordinary intimacy with strong magic, the reverie of words that make worlds. And in this enchantment, why is it that place features so dominantly? Because location — whether it is the ‘nowhere’ of utopia, the precise smells and sights of a Paris street, a Welsh mountainside, an Indian market, or a Birmingham canal — and story are essentially linked. Writing takes us to a place – real and visceral, imagined and strange, dream or nightmare, anchored on a map or found only in the interior of a mind. Good writing takes us ‘somewhere’ even when the place is called ‘nowhere.’

Because it is in a place that we begin to narrativise our lives, and the lives of our characters. We tell stories to reconcile ourselves to time — to the huge events of cosmology, to the big and small and hidden events of history and to our personal journeys — and in doing so we inevitably locate those stories — somewhere, someplace.

Travel for research or to write in another location seems to me vital, but it can also be difficult to achieve – busy lives, constraints of time, money and commitments make such ‘writing away’ time incredibly precious, so I feel immensely privileged to have the opportunity to do some writing in Budapest for the sequel to This is the End of the Story.

In A Remedy For All Things, Cassie, now using her full name, Catherine, will be undertaking her own research and writing trip to Budapest in the footsteps of the 1930s poet, Attila József, who died in what may have been an accident, though is generally thought to be suicide. Set in Budapest in November 1993, one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine’s will interweave with the story of Selene Solweig Virág, a woman who, if she ever lived, took part in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and was subsequently imprisoned in horrific conditions; a woman who seems to have had her own strange connections to Attila Jozsef.

I can’t travel to the Budapest of the 30s, 50s or 90s, but I’ve been given the chance to soak up a sense of place for a month, writing, talking to writers and archivists in Budapest, visiting museums, walking the streets that my characters walked, in fact and in fiction. Place and political context make a huge difference to personal stories. The stories we tell ourselves and allow others to tell about us are shaped in no small measure by where we find ourselves. Meet me in Budapest as the story unfolds…

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Hey, Welsh Assembly, Leave those kids alone

One of the loveliest things about living in this remote corner of Wales in a small village is that whilst neighbours might be curious about each other, they don’t think it’s their place to interfere or judge. Being the only home educators in the village has often sparked conversations, but never hostility, which I know from other home educators is quite rare. Sadly, the Welsh Assembly have just produced a ‘consultation’ document (one which makes clear they’ve already decided on the outcome) that is about to change all that for the worse. I’m grateful my children are through this stage, but I want the same freedoms for future grandchildren or other families in Wales that we enjoyed.

The consultation document begins by wrongly assuming that section 436A of The Education Act 1996 so amended is aimed at discovering home educated children – it’s actually aimed at discovering children who are not receiving ANY form of education and it was never the intention of this clause to lump home educators into that category, as the statutory guidance issued for England makes explicit. Local Authorities (LAs) have a role to play in home education, but the exact nature of that role is not a clear one. It has become commonplace to hear LAs talk about monitoring or assessing home education, but the language of monitoring or assessment is not found in any of the legislation applying to home education and even the duty to make enquiries is phrased in the negative – ‘If it appears that a child is not receiving a full time efficient education,’ then LEAs have a duty to take some action.

So how is it likely to appear that a child is or is not receiving a full time efficient education? What case law has provided is that LAs cannot be expected to judge the issue unless they are first allowed to ask some questions of the family, so informal enquiries are generally the first step.

A positive and collaborative relationship will not be achieved if the Local Authority takes on a duty that does not currently exist in law, but this is precisely what the Welsh Assembly intend to do by issuing statutory guidance that makes them the arbiters of whether parents have permission to home educate or not. In law as it stands parents don’t need permission to home educate. (Except for some special cases with children in special schools all other children can be automatically deregistered, including children with statements of SEN who are attending mainstream schools.) It is the legal duty of parents to ensure that their children receive an education which is efficient to their age, ability and aptitude by attendance at school or otherwise. The intended changes in Wales would make a mockery of this parental duty, which will continue to exist in law.

A LA can only expect to establish cordial and professional contact with home educating parents if the parents’ primary duty to decide on the place and manner of education is respected. There are several key issues that need to be thought through before an LA sets about assessing provision.

The first is to keep the emphasis on the education that is being provided and not on the outcomes. When assessing home education there is an important distinction to be made between assessing the education on offer and assessing the child.

In 2000 the alternative school Summerhill went to court on just this issue and they remain in business because they made the point that being an educator is about making an offer an education – about providing something. Similarly in state schools inspectors look at the teaching and at the attainment being reached on average as a result of the education offered, rather than focussing on individual children. Any assessment should focus primarily on educational provision. In home education this provision will be targeted to meet the specific needs of one or a small number of children in a family, but this does not mean that you need to assess the child directly.

Do the parents have a broad idea of what they want to achieve? Do the parents have ideas about what methods of education they are going to use and why?

A LA is looking at what’s on offer – whether its textbooks and timetables or conversations and visits – and why it’s on offer – perhaps because the parents want to encourage more natural lifelong learning patterns or because they want to provide a specialised music education or because they want to provide learning that conforms to a particular lifestyle or belief system. To be efficient education only has to be capable of achieving what it sets out to achieve.

What a LA should be is asking is –

What are you providing?

How do you see what you are providing as full time and efficient?

How does what you are providing relate to age, ability, aptitude and any special needs?

In asking such question an LA needs to be mindful that there are a vast range of educational philosophies out there. There is often a concern expressed by home educators that LA officials are likely to misunderstand any but the most school-like notions of education at home. If a family can in some way present their provision as education in their own terms, then the likelihood is that education is taking place unless there are very compelling reasons to think otherwise.

Those following an autonomous educational approach can present particular problems to assessment, but nonetheless have the right to educate in this way. This philosophy relies on the child’s intrinsic motivation so its methods might change all the time – six months of nothing written down might be followed by a period of intense workbooks, followed by investigations based on a series of visits or some mixture or something else entirely. An LA will need to look past what is being done at this moment in time to what is being aimed at. What are the ideas holding it all together? How does it relate to the individual child? More conventional notions like a balanced curriculum or learning set skills at set ages will be completely inappropriate to an autonomous educational philosophy. Or again there are families that centre their education on an important lifestyle or belief choice – from ecological living to Hasidic Jews. The freedom to follow very specific philosophies and creeds in education is enshrined in both the Human Rights Act and in case law, so it pays to stay open minded. Although the consultation document pays lip service to different styles of home education, including the informal, the fact that they are following this up with imposed annual home visits in which the child is ‘assessed’ by a stranger completely belies any mutual respect.

The assumption that the best way to assess home education is by a home visit is completely inimical to several educational philosophies. Going so far as to suggest that this is the only way to assess home education is draconian and disastrous and urgently needs to be re-thought.

There is currently no provision in law allowing an LA automatic right of access to home educator’s homes and nowhere in law are home visits currently presumed. Case law has allowed home visits as the principle assessment tool only in extreme cases – for example a case with disabled and isolated parents with several children at home.

Some home educators are comfortable with home visits and there’s certainly nothing wrong with making the suggestion. By the same token, others do not welcome home visits and this doesn’t need to be a sign that the family has something to hide. The parents may be following an autonomous philosophy, which includes the idea that privacy is basic to a thriving educational environment. Or the family may simply like to keep their private space private or may feel that their home is not the best venue for a professional exchange.

This can raise alarm bells for caring professionals, but it doesn’t have to. The concern is with educational provision. That doesn’t mean that an LA should have no regard for general welfare issues, but unless there is a real reason for welfare concerns there is no reason to go hunting for evidence where none exists.

There is often a general anxiety about home educated children being ‘seen’, but the real fact is that home education is a high profile life style. Neighbours notice when children don’t go to school. Doctors and dentists are much more likely to be aware than not. Leaders of children’s activities or of faith groups will know who the home educators are. Hiding children at home is not easy. We all know that hiding abused children in the school population under cloaks of silence and family secrecy is more than possible and that taking a child with problems out of school is likely to alert attention. Every cross section of the population has problem elements, but children out of school who have welfare problems are likely to be known to their GPs or social services for reasons other than education and if they are not it is highly unlikely that a home visit will be the saving of them, no matter how tragic a fact that is. The best abusers are the most plausible people and the idea that an hour a year is going to give you detailed welfare information about children just because you see into their houses is more than wishful thinking. It’s not a fair way to treat families and it is a grossly unfair expectation professionals assessing education. It could even be that professionals who are put under pressure to make serious welfare assessments while doing another job and in a very limited space of time are going to be reduced to making judgements on spurious issues.

Welfare issues aside why should we assume that a home visit is more likely to furnish evidence of education than any other method? It is one option, but it’s not the only or even necessarily the best option.

The law talks about evidence which, on the balance of probabilities only, would convince a reasonable person that education is taking place. Quite rightly, an LA is not asked to come up with definitive proof that is beyond reasonable doubt but only to make a reasonable, open minded, informed judgement. To do this it is possible to consider evidence of provision in many ways and the more reasonable and flexible an LA is about this the more home educators are likely to respond reasonably and flexibly. Evidence can be supplied in many ways. Using children’s work to assess what is being provided as an education may be a method some parents are happy with. On the other hand if 70% of the education is purposive conversation and another 25% is educational visits, leaving only 5% or less written down in a formal way, then what you learn about the educational provision from ‘work’ samples is meaningless and flawed. The point is that if an LA attempts to dictate what form the evidence has to come in, then it is much less likely to get a true picture of the education being provided. What is important is that the type of information you are given should be of a kind that helps you look at the particular education on offer.

It might be a home visit; it might be a meeting at the library or at local café; it might be a visit that includes the child or it might not; it might be a video or a report containing an educational philosophy or an extract from an educational journal; a project or other samples of work or a file of mind-maps covering recent educational investigations. It might be something completely different.

The consultation paper stresses the right of the child to have his/her views taken into account, but this is not license for an authority to interview a child. Children in school are not routinely monitored to ensure they wouldn’t rather be home educated because this is fundamentally a parental decision and the suggestion that any child who no longer wanted to be educated at school should be followed through by the government would be treated with derision. Moreover, a child may not want to meet with an LA official and coercing her to do so should not be legally required of parents who are often following child-led educational philosophies.

The question is simply whether the evidence offered (of whatever kind) gives an appearance that no suitable education is taking place on the balance of probabilities only. In answering that question an authority needs to bear in mind several things. ‘Suitable’ is a very broad concept – one case has defined it as equipping a child to take part in society, but case law also upheld the right of parents to educate their child in a strict Hasidic Jewish tradition cut off from mainstream society and noted that in this case ‘society’ is the child’s particular sub-culture. So the fact that a child’s education might seem narrow or biased isn’t sufficient for the education to appear not suitable.Similarly the law has resisted pinning down a definition of education – it is such a broad concept that judgements about what is ‘efficient’ have to be couched in terms of the goals the family has set itself.

An LA should also be mindful that if it refuses permission to home educate (perhaps because the parents refuse access to the home, but offer lots of reasonable evidence of their provision) and a School Attendance Order is then issued (an intimidating action causing enormous stress) this will not only lead to worsened relations with the family, but will not guarantee a child’s return to school. In court a family only has to show that on that day they are home educating. The judge will not visit the home. The judge will certainly not want a child appearing in court. The parents will only have to present evidence that on the balance of probabilities only they are educating sufficiently at that moment in time.  This makes a nonsense of setting up a new regime that demands so much more than a parent would need to supply in court and which is designed to create conflict and stress for families and professionals alike.

Home education can remain a pleasant and positive choice for professional, parents and children if the Welsh Assembly avoids statutory guidance that antagonises honest families delivering excellent education and instead opts for models of good practice that are respectful of the primary rights and duties of parents. In short – leave those families alone so that more home educated young people can learn in all sorts of alternative ways and go on to be wonderful young adults.

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