Dear Catherine Smith, Labour MP Lancaster and Fleetwood

Dear Catherine Smith,

I have just moved to Lancaster, and am now one of your constituents, as well as lecturer at Lancaster University. This is an email to implore you to pressure the government into concrete action in accepting more refugees. Now, I am sure you are about to say that of course you will do this. But as someone who worked with asylum seekers for a number of years in Manchester, I know what the asylum process in this country entails, and how this dehumanising and brutal legal process positions an asylum claimant as a liar till she proves herself as truthful, and often locks her and her children up like criminals. This process has worsened under the Conservative government with huge cuts to legal aid, but prior to this the Labour government also treated asylum seekers terribly. Cameron’s current position is legitimised by this legacy. The recent increase in refugees has highlighted that the UK’s approach to those fleeing war, conflict and persecution needs to urgently be reassessed.

In any case, I hope that you will do your best to pressure Cameron into concrete action, and remind him that the electorate is not only the Daily Mail. Every utterance seems directed at placating the tabloids. He explained that any aid to refugees in this country would be taken from the foreign aid budget, but when Osborne spoke about bombing Syria, he didn’t mention where money for military action would come from.

I am sure you are gladdened at how the news is full of stories of everyday people helping refugees, whether it is in Germany or people here sending aid to Calais. But you have political power, and I hope you use it well,
best
Zoe Lambert

33 Bullets

I’ve just moved to Lancaster and been asked to stand in at the last minute for tonight’s North West Literary Salon, organised by Lancaster Universities Yvonne Battle Felton, and PhD graduate Naomi Kruger.

It’s a while since I read my story ’33 Bullets’ but it seems fitting with this week’s refugee crisis. If there is any wonder at the UK government’s response to the crisis and refusal to take in refugees, then a look at their general approach to asylum applications and the baroque and Kafkesque legal system will show this attitude as coming at no surprise. How the Home Office deals with asylum applications is inhumane and degrading, positioning the applicant as a liar, who has to prove she is legitimately fleeing persecution.

In ’33 Bullets’ I explore the horrors of the legal system and the detention of asylum seekers as if they are criminals through the eyes of a Kurdish academic. Despite being imprisoned in a detention centre, he continued his work writing about the Kurdish poet Ahmed Arif, and his poem ’33 Bullets’. But at the same time, his cell mate is plotting something more radical.  The story includes excerpts from the Devrim’s imagined court proceedings, and when I first read the story out, I found that the voice in the proceedings took on a voice of rather small minded and nasty official. It’s the space between the awful legal language used to prove someone is ‘lying’ and the voice of Devrim that for me, is the conflict in the story.

Of course, Devrim is not a real person. But there are still many asylum seekers locked in detention centres in the UK. And they are often forgotten.

This is the original poem, ‘33 Bullets‘ and the translator, Murat Nemat Nejat authorised the quotations in my story.

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Saluting the Young Carers of Manchester

It’s Carers Week, and though this doesn’t mean that all carers get a free holiday with their loved ones, it is still a good event for raising awareness about the wonderful work carers all over the UK do. They don’t just care for one week a year, they care day in, day out. They care for a spouse, a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, daughter, a son, and a friend.  They care with joy, with love. They care in isolation. They care in poverty. And none of this is rewarded or appreciated by the state. Carers Allowance is a slap in the face, and carers, like millions of others, are suffering under the current cuts to Welfare. Many carers, like my dad, have had to stop work, or take early retirement. Caring for someone with a chronic illness, such as Multiple Sclerosis, is not always possible around a full time job.

So, raising awareness is great, but what actually matters is the actual, real, support for people with chronic illness and disabilities, and for their carers. But many are currently living in fear of the Government’s promise of further cuts.

There’s also a lot of young people who are carers for their mums and dads, or their siblings. They grow up very quickly, having to spend their days helping their loved one with washing, dressing, maybe getting a younger sibling ready for school, instead of playing football or hanging out with friends. Being a young carer is a loss of childhood.

Charities like Family Action and Carers Trust 4 All support young carers on shoestring budgets for days out, activities and just having fun. They were both very keen when I approached them with this project. They taxied our young carers to The Powerhouse Library in Moss Side from all over Manchester and from Cheshire. In particular, Shay Garry from Family Action has worked really hard to make sure this project happened, providing a limitless supply of crisps, chocolate and toast for everyone.

Lancaster University funded my eight week creative writing course, and the wonderful folk at Writing on the Wall festival are going to produce an anthology of poems and stories by our seven young carers aged between 14 and 19. We started off with a bigger group, but despite my best efforts, sometimes caring responsibilities mean it’s too hard to sustain this kind of project. But we are going to include work from Tobija, Chrissie, Amy, Chloe, Britney, Reko and Arron.

Before the course, I was nervous about working with teenagers. I was worried my approach would just be too academic and boring. But these teenagers are fantastic. They have thrown themselves into writing  and have worked hard to develop their poems, and to attend the workshops. They are very very excited about being published. Shay and Neil from Family Action took part in the writing exercises too. (see a photo of them below).

During the course, the wonderful author Michelle Green and poet Mike Garry ran workshops. Both have a lot of experience in community writing, and they were excellent. (See my earlier post on what I learnt from them). Here is Michelle in her workshop, enjoying the sound of young people writing:

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We also went to a workshop with Marvel comic writer Tim Quinn, hosted by Writing on the Wall. We all had a go at creating our own comic characters, and we will have illustrations in the anthology too. Here is Tim Quinn in action:

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It was also a fun trip for us all to Liverpool. I was heading to a wedding afterwards, so was overdressed in a huge polkadot frock. I turned my character into Polkadot Grril. Here are Amy, Chloe and Tobija drawing: 

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Each week we practiced performing the new stories and poems. Michelle Green was brilliant at showing us breathing exercises to help with nerves and how to project your voice, and she is going to take a final workshop in preparation for our anthology launch. 

The work in our anthology isn’t really about being a young carer. I didn’t push their writing into autobiographical terrain, or demand that they write about this aspect of their lives. Primarily, the work is about being a teenager, like any other teenager. The writing explores varied and sometimes difficult subject matter: there’s poems and stories about becoming a criminal, the pain of exams, loneliness, grandparents’ secret love lives, suicide, as well as a love song. 

Here are some excerpts:

‘School is where her body is used like a football.
Kicked to the ground and thrown
against the lockers in the corridors’

from ‘School Is’ by Reko

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‘Yeah she’s dead, she’ll live.
It wasn’t my fault, honest,
She was just there and it happened.
The whole situation started when I came downstairs
Looked in the fridge and my chicken was missing.
I asked my girlfriend where it went,
She said it she ate it!
That was the turning point
No one can prove anything, so yeah I’m safe
I only killed my girlfriend over chicken,
Jamaican Jerk Chicken,
Honestly.’

from ‘Yeah, she’s dead, she’ll live’ by Britney

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‘Yo Shak,
My friend!

Rolling along like
A chain… chain?
Bicycle: you break it, you fix it.
Like a necklace, links between one END to another

Down at the 101 bus stop at McD’s brav! The smell of oil like 20 year old sweets!
(But) “narr Man”
Girls are deceiving; he spoke within the strength of pedals
… Being pushed
Like the chain? Being stretched out as far as it could.’

from ‘Yo Shak’ by Tobija

What I learnt from Mike Garry

I’ve know Mike Garry for years through literary events in Manchester, and he’s given some inspiring talks when I worked at Bolton University, so I wasn’t disappointed with his workshop with my Young Carers

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I’ve taught creative writing in a number of guises at universities over the past few years, and this kind of teaching tends to foreground ‘workshopping’ students’ writing rather than focus on generating writing in the session. Workshopping is as you probably know, when a group of students and a tutor discuss a piece of writing, and give feedback on it. Though this is an often disputed method, it still dominates most university courses. This might be because they mostly started at MA level, when a writer is expected to have some experience of writing. This has been replicated at BA level, and at places such as Lancaster, used even in Year One. Students are expected to be ready for workshopping even at the tender age if eighteen. It is a gruelling process, and my memories of it at BA level are of avoiding it. I actually stopped attending my workshops because they upset me. I was an overly sensitive soul. So the past couple of weeks of having a completely different approach have been a refreshing change. I have some experience of community workshops, and I veer away from workshopping in them. The focus is on producing writing, and enabling people who have had little experience of writing gain confidence in themselves.

Mike Garry’s approach draws the participants in by foregrounding his own experience of literature and writing, and why writing gives you a voice.

‘I don’t think poetry has to be about abstract things. It can be about real lives and central to us. When we write a poem we say here’s a bit of me.’  Mike Garry

Mike also draws the YCs in through his poems. He performs in the workshop and asks them to engage with what he’s trying to write about. His poem ‘Signify’ nicely drew us into thinking about our favourite teacher at school. I called her mam once.

 I tend to shy away from sharing my own work in workshops. I sometimes feel I’d be showing off, but after watching Mike’s session, I think this could be wrong. In fact, sharing your own writing can be the opposite of this. Mike’s openness about sharing his work with people is very encouraging to new writers. I’m just like you, he infers, and your can do this too. Literature is not owned by adults, by the rich, by others. Words are yours too. When you know words, and learn more words, this gives you power. You’re able to articulate yourself. You can do this too.

‘Writing poetry isn’t a job, it’s something I’ve got to do. If I don’t do it, I get poorly. I write to understand things. If something makes me feel strange, I want to write about it. When my head’s battered, it’s questions bothering me. Writing makes me explore those questions.’

Mike’s method involves asking the YCs to write down words during his readings. I think this helps to listen and focus on them, and they write down the words they like or that ‘sound good’ to them. What I liked was his way of breaking down the process of writing a poem to a list of words.

‘Words are very important because they help us express and communicate how we feel. When we have words and collect words like this, it makes writing easier. When I say the word red, what do you think of? Everyone will think of a different word because we are all unique and special.’

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This was Mike’s writing task:

Think of either a tragic or joyous situation that either you or someone else was involved in.

think about the situation and what the story is. Most poems are tiny stories, tiny narratives.

Write down ten words about that situation.

write them in order

‘What’s good about poetry is its a way of saying something but subtly. You can use subtle words to imply what you are saying.’

What does writing this story make you feel? Write down ten words.Can you find a narrative in the words you have written down?

Write these words in order, in a story or narrative.

Two hours is never enough for a workshop (though three always feels a little too long). Mike finished with some breathing exercises, which the YC’s really loved. The exercises helped to  slow their readings down, give them confidence and gave a sense of fun to reading aloud. He got us all breathing slowly and stretching our arms. The following week, Michelle Green developed these exercises much more, and I realised where I’d been going wrong all these years  with my own public readings.

The key to reading a poem is not being embarrassed. Stand up tall. Everyone listening wants you to do well. Read slowly. Don’t rush. Pronounce your words clearly. And make sure you practice. It really makes a difference.’

In my next post, I’ll share Michelle Green’s approach, as well as tell you more about the awesome young carers involved with the project.

On the pain of losing your cat

‘I feel like the McCanns’

I’m supposed to be writing this morning, but instead I’m sitting on the couch with a big pot of worry in the base of my stomach, peering out the window, because maybe, maybe, maybe my cat will appear there.

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She disappeared on Tuesday night. We’d only moved to our new flat six months ago, and it’s taken her a while to go outside. She seemed to be getting back to her old self after two house moves in the space of a year. Before that, we lived in Chorlton for years, and she was pretty confident about Going Outside. She is a nervous cat, jumpy, and will dart away when you walk past her. She was a stray, found years ago by a neighbour of my parents in Eccles. She’d been living under his shed. She was emaciated when he found her. She’d got her front leg stuck in a cruel pink and diamante studded collar, and it had bitten into the skin under her arm. When she was found, the word was septic and smelt awful. The neighbour came over and told us about the thin whit cat he’d found, so my dad and I took her to the RSPCA. They couldn’t track her owner, and the rest is history. I’ve no idea about her early life, but she wasn’t socialised well; she will always be fearful, but she is also a lovely, cuddly and gentle cat. She loves a duvet more than anything. She also loves lying on books.311650_10151119675671281_2092125306_n

I’m not normally someone who sleeps well, but on Tuesday I was shattered. At bedtime, she miaowed at the door to go out, so I let her outside, but went to bed, took my sleeping pills and forgetting I’d just let her out. I went soundly to sleep. I didn’t remember till the morning, and in the morning Tinkerbell was nowhere to be found.

I feel like the McCanns, leaving their child in an apartment. How could I forget my little cat had gone outside? Even in the morning, I didn’t at first realise she was still out. What kind of pet owner am I?

She’d also got lost last summer, when I lived at a different address in Chorlton for a few months. That time she jumped out of the window, and just disappeared, only to return three days later, covered in dirt and ecstatic to be back. She was not so happy when she had a bath afterwards though (which still didn’t remove all the dirt).

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I had no idea where she had been. She was so dirty it was as if she’d been to a Cat Festival for three days. In the meantime Tinkerbell almost trended on social media, with so many people in Chorlton posting about her disappearance. I haven’t started the social media thing yet because I’m still hopeful she is just hiding somewhere nearby, and will return again in the next day or so. Maybe that’s also what the McCanns thought.

This morning I had to phone my vet and the microchip company, who both accusingly said, ‘Didn’t you lose her last year?’ I didn’t tell them how this time was basically my fault for leaving her out all night.

There is another player in this story. A neighbour’s cat called Harry. We call him Dirty Harry because he’s been trying to evict Tinkerbell and install himself as our new cat. He is a real character, super confident and trots around like a little dog. Once he chased her away from our doorway, and then mooched over to me, rolling on his back as if to say, ‘You don’t need her. I’m much better.’

Wednesday night, I woke up at two am to go looking for Tinkerbell. At night, when it’s quiet, seems to be the best time to look for her. I called her name, up and down the street, like a lost ghost, ‘Tinkerbell!’ while shaking her bag of treats. The problem was Dirty Harry was out (his owner lets him out a lot) and he started following me around as I called for her in the dark. He even followed me right down the street, jumping on fences and walls to see what I was up to. It was like in Columbo when the murderer follows Columbo around, trying to distract him.  I realised, ‘It was YOU, Harry. You chased her off the property.’ But Harry just rolled over, wriggling his soft Machiavellian tummy.tinkywet

Today, I am putting up posters around our flats in Fallowfield, and later, I’ll post flyers through letterboxes, guilt and anxiety inside me, like two raging ogres.

Young Carers Project in Manchester

Recently started a creative writing project with young carers in Manchester and Cheshire. I’ve got a new website dedicated to the project here, hosted by the University of Lancaster, who is kindly funding the project. All of the participants are aged between 14- 20 and live in Greater Manchester or Cheshire, and I am developing their writing to produce an anthology. This will republished by Writing on the Wall festival.  I’m working with six young carers from Family Action, and seven from CarersTrust4all, based in Cheshire. That’s a lot of teenagers!

Our first workshop was a full afternoon at Proctors Youth Centre in Hulme. Lovely Vicky from literally spent all morning from 8am picking up everyone from around the North West in a van. She is made of stern stuff.

I provided the sandwiches. I have never bought food for 13 teenagers before. How many loaves of bread does it take? My guess of four was actually correct! As an introductory workshop, I wanted the writing exercises to be open and about content rather than form. I was initially worried that I wouldn’t be able to get 13 teenagers to write. But by half way through there was the wonderful silence of people writing contently. I’ll upload some of the exercises we did in a later post.

Our second workshop was help in the Power House in Moss Side. The support worker from Family Action is called Shay Garry, and if you are a writer based in Manchester, you may think, hmmm, I know the name Garry. And yes, it’s a small world. Shay is Mike Garry’s brother. Because of this, and the fact that Mike is a wonderful facilitator, I invited Mike Garry to run our second workshop. The support worker from CarersTrust4U as well as some of the young people were ill, so we only had five Young Carers there. This was a real shame. Mike was really inspiring, and did some wonderful work in getting the young people to read their writing aloud.

Tonight is our third workshop with wonderful Michelle Green, who is  short story writer and poet. I’m really looking forward to it.