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

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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.