Alison McQueen

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Writers tell it like it is

Posted: April 16th, 2015

Lying around in bed drinking coffee I had that nagging feeling that I was supposed to be somewhere. A bit of backstory: I had been in transit the day before, airplane mode, blah blah (insert various excuses here).

As the coffee kicks in, the mist clears and I remember that I am still off radar, fumble around with settings and lo and behold, there’s a message there saying “You still on for this morning?”

Cue Clive Dunn running around shouting “Don’t panic! Don’t Panic!”, because I suddenly remember I made a date with someone and my only option right now is to send some awful excuse because she’s probably already on her way to the venue. And I’ll be buggered if I’m going to admit that I’m completely rubbish with trying to run a diary on anything except paper. The kids forced me into using iCal about 2 years ago, and it’s not been going particularly well.

I text back, all nonchantly, Why yes! Of course! thinking to myself, right woman, you’ve got precisely seven minutes to get your act together and get out of that door.

Judith Allnat is a wonderful writer. We did an event together way back in 2006 and ran into each other again recently at a conference – no time to speak – hence the arrangement that had escaped my goldfish memory.

What started off as coffee soon drifted into a long lunch and a G2 Summit on the general state of the nation for professional writers. (By which I mean those of us who do it for a living with no other job.) We have no one else to talk to about this stuff except other writers like us.

When professional writers get together, boy, do they dish it. Our shared experiences are an incalculably valuable pool. We learn so much from each other, because we are generally pretty isolated and our experiences happen within a relatively limited microcosm. (Our agent, our editor, the publicity department, that kind of thing.) It’s hard to know if other writers are going through the same kind of good/bad/indifferent experiences as us.

The thing is, when we start talking to each other, all kinds of common patterns start to emerge. Whatever issue you’re dealing with right now, there’ll be another writer who’s been there/done that and can give you the whole nine yards. It’s great. You can get right down to the nitty gritty and hear the kind of things that you need to know about which your publisher sure as eggs isn’t going to tell you.

So I throw out a general reminder to all us writers… Let’s talk to each other more. Go out for lunch and tell the family to piss off and make their own dinner. Remind each other that we are fabulous. Because we are.

I will mention here that brilliant writer Rachel Zadok, who selfishly lives in Cape Town which is no good to me at all, is great at these writerly chats which we do over Skype with a bottle of wine (each) while we dish the dirt and laugh our heads off… ergo: distance is no excuse.

Publishers could learn a thing or two if they sat in on those conversations. But for some reason I just don’t think they’d want to hear it.

Buckingham Palace

Posted: September 6th, 2014

The Public Accounts Committee has criticized the Royal Family for mismanaging its finances. Tut tut. British taxpayers contribute around £31m into the Queen’s coffers to pay for her official duties, but the books are looking distinctly untidy.

The Committee has suggested that Buckingham Palace be opened whenever the Queen is away rather than for the current 78 days a year to rake in more funds.

I went for a wander around Buckingham Palace last summer and you know the first thing that struck me? I thought to myself, if this were my place, I’d rip this lot out and start again. Granted, some of the state rooms are very impressive in a BBC costume drama sort of way, but the rest of it? Hideous.

It feels like a place that is clinging on to the past simply for the sake of it. Sure, some the wallpaper’s been there since heaven knows when, but Queenie, it’s horrible. Get the decorators in. And some of those sculptures really ought to go to the Oxfam shop, or shove them in the back of a museum somewhere if you must.

A palace is supposed to fill one with a sense of awe, to impress upon its visitors the value and status of the occupying monarch. This is Great Britain, land of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, stamping ground of Kelly Hoppen and David Hicks. Come on, your Maj, we can do better than this.

Teach your kids to read

Posted: September 6th, 2014

A news headline caught my eye this week. The UK government is insisting that all schools in England use the phonics system to teach kids to read. Synthetic phonics is described as “a method to decode simple words, as well as some made up words”. It supposedly encourages children to sounds words out, rather than recognizing them as a whole and reading for meaning.

They want to use this system because so many children arrive at school unable to read, and many of them still haven’t cracked it by the time they finish primary education. If I were dead I’d be turning in my grave. I have no doubt that it will turn thousands upon thousands of children into anti-readers.

We have some serious problems here with our education system, and indeed with the swathes of parents who point blank refuse to engage in their children’s basic literacy and numeracy.

If you haven’t given your kids a general heads-up about words and numbers by the time they reach school age, then that is a very poor show indeed. It’s not rocket science. It’s fun. Maths is done with Smarties and macaroni. It’s a piece of cake. (In fact pieces of cake will also do just fine.)

Words are everywhere, like little keys that unlock everything. Kids love puzzles and games and they are very, very clever. It’s not schools that teach kids to read, it’s parents. This is the way it has always been. You don’t have to do it all yourself. You can pull in the assistance of Big Bird, Cookie Monster and the rest of the Sesame Street gang. Your 3 year old will be singing the alphabet in no time.

Forced marriage is a criminal offence

Posted: June 16th, 2014

It is June 2014, and only now has forced marriage become a criminal act in England and Wales. It’s way overdue. Forced marriage is an appalling crime against the basic human right to choose who you marry, when you marry, or if you marry at all. Over 80% of forced marriage victims in the UK are women and girls who are essentially being trafficked into slavery. Many of them are subjected to physical, sexual and mental torture. Some are even killed.

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of both parties” and the UN Convention on consent to marriage states that “No marriage can be legally entered into without the consent of both parties.”

The UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women says that “A woman’s right to choose a spouse and enter freely into marriage is central to her life and dignity”. The Convention imposes a duty on the state to take all appropriate measures to stop ill-treatment.

Forcing someone to marry can now carry a jail sentence of up to 7 years. The crime also applies to those who force someone to travel abroad to marry, whether or not the marriage takes place.

Latest figures from the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) state that each year, they “provide advice or support” in around 1300 possible cases of forced marriage, with many more going unreported. The FMU has been involved in cases in 74 countries, with the highest figures coming from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

Forced marriage must stop, and we must do everything we can to raise awareness and to promote education on the issue.

What can we do?

If you, or somebody you know, are in danger of being forced into an unwanted marriage – do not suffer in silence, do not turn a blind eye. Say something. Get help.

Forced Marriage Unit: 0207 008 0151  9-5pm Monday to Friday.  Outside working hours contact the Global Response Centre: 0207 007 1500  Or if you are in immediate danger dial 999. And if you are a concerned friend or neighbour, for heaven’s sake speak up. Forced marriage is a secretive crime and it is happening to someone somewhere right now while you are reading this.

If you are at an airport you can speak to police, airline or security staff. If you are overseas and you have a British passport, call the Forced Marriage Unit on +44 207 008 0151 or +44 207 007 1500, or the British Embassy or High Commission.

The UK Government has issued a booklet which you can download Forced Marriage – A Survivor’s Handbook

The right to choose: spotting the signs of forced marriage.

Forced marriage must stop

The British High Commission in Islamabad has commissioned short animated documentaries on the issue of forced marriages in Pakistan in an attempt to raise awareness of this human rights violation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uh8F-XYBSfY

 

Forced marriage is NOT the same as arranged marriage, where families are involved in match-making and both individuals enter into the marriage willingly. (My mother was quite keen to match-make me with the man who is now my husband, and she wasn’t wrong.)

Winner of the 2014 East Midlands Book Award

Posted: May 20th, 2014

Emba

I am thrilled beyond words that Under The Jewelled Sky has won this year’s prestigious EMBA Prize, announced on May 15th at Canons Ashby House in the beautiful Northamptonshire countryside, ancestral home of the Dryden family. The shortlist featured a raft of wonderful titles and I was genuinely stunned by the win.

Really wish I’d gone to the hairdresser that day…

You can read an interview with Nottingham culture magazine Leftlion here.

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US BOOK TOUR – THANK YOU!

Posted: March 11th, 2014

In the real world with REAL books!

I would like to say an enormous THANK YOU to everyone who hosted me during the book tour last month. It really was a whirlwind tour and I had seriously underestimated some of the distances which meant that some cities rushed by in a matter of hours before I was back at the airport heading for the next venue.

It was marvellous to see such a vibrant scene going on in bookshops and libraries up and down the country, particularly when we in the UK have been watching the sad demise of so many over here. Yet what are we to expect when our libraries and bookshops keep to the old-fashioned traditional opening hours and fail to adapt with the times?

Were I not a writer, I would have been inspired to come home and open a bookstore immediately, modelling it on the wonderful examples set by Books & Books in Coral Gables, or Bookbar in Denver, where people can gather to eat, drink, hang out, enjoy themselves. These are not just bookshops, they are destinations.

So thank you America for a superb tour, filled with great experiences and wonderful people.

Flash Fiction

Posted: February 16th, 2014

Calls may be recorded

Victor had never seen himself working in a call centre. They hadn’t even existed in his day. He’d been a bigwig in management thirty-something years ago, but what had once been considered vital skills turned out to be of no use at all when he retired. He painted the house inside and out while his wife sighed at the mess, then sat watching it dry, wondering what to do with the rest of his life.

His wife suggested he take up a hobby, something to get him out of the house, but his attempts to fill his days felt contrived and he formed the opinion that Brenda didn’t want him hanging around at home muscling in on her well-trodden routine either.

The first job had been a fluke. Victor nipped down to the hardware store one day to buy some nails and Mrs Gunnet told him Mr Gunnet had been carted off to hospital with a hernia, and she was going to have to close the shop for month because she wasn’t a miracle worker. It had felt like a holiday, people popping in and out, stopping for a natter, asking what kind of glue would be best or whether he could match a particular screw. He’d worn a brown overall that smelled of sawdust. Two years he’d stayed.

By the time he got the job in the call centre Victor was seventy-three. He was good at chatting, putting people at ease, and it was nice to be surrounded by youngsters although times had clearly changed and there were days when he felt like an old fossil. All the girls looked like they were about to embark on a big night out and the lads did bizarre things with their hair and thought nothing of it if someone was homosexual.

They taught him lots of new words and showed him how to make signs with his fingers to flash silently around the office while they were on calls – a W, a heart shape, an L on his forehead. Some even came to him for advice now and then. Nobody at home had asked for his opinion in a long time. He clicked through to the next call.

‘Hello this is Victor speaking, can I take your customer reference number please?’

‘I don’t have one.’

‘No problem,’ said Victor, thinking to himself why can’t people get their act together before picking up the phone? This would no doubt turn into one of those calls where she goes off in search of pen and paper as though it’s come as a huge surprise that she might need to write something down. Victor prompted the caller through the rigmarole: name, postcode, address, a security question she didn’t know the answer to. A memorable place? She said she had no idea. ‘Not to worry,’ said Victor. ‘Mother’s maiden name?’

‘Jelly,’ she said, after a moment’s hesitation.

Victor tapped his keyboard and smiled. ‘I did my national service with a Jelly. His name was Frank. He changed his name to Smith when he came out of the army because everyone took the mickey out of him. Sorry. Bear with me. My computer’s being a bit slow.’

In truth, it wasn’t the computer that was slow, it was Victor. He had big hands which were fine for digging up parsnips but not so good for entering data. ‘I fell in love with his sister but she threw me over for a bloke who looked like Paul McCartney.’ Victor hit the return key. ‘Here we go. Mrs Sharman. Gas and electric was it?’ The line had gone silent. ‘Hello?’

‘Victor?’

‘Yes?’

‘Victor Anthony Payne?’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s Cynthia. Cynthia Jelly.

Cynthia?’ Victor felt his heart turn over. He stood from his seat, pressing the headset closely to his ear, his eyes fixed on the grey partition. Stacey in the booth across from his glanced up. She looked at him with concern, finger shapes quickly made – are you okay? Victor turned away from her, concentrating only on the voice.

‘Cyn. Don’t cry. It’s okay.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry. There’s nothing to be sorry for.’ He heard her at the end of the line, sniffing hard, and pictured her pulling herself together, remembering how she would stand so straight, squaring up to her brothers on the days when they all went for each other. You know what big families are like.

‘I should never have let them do that to us,’ she said. ‘I should have run off and married you anyway and it would have been too late for anyone to stop us.’ The years opened up between them.

‘Is Frank still around?’ There remained a deep scar on Victor’s shin where he’d fallen over the spiked chain outside the King’s Head during the terrible fight with her brothers.

‘He emigrated to Australia in the seventies. We haven’t spoken since.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘Don’t be. I’m not.’

‘So you’re living in Sheffield now?’

‘Yes. We moved here to be closer to the grandchildren.’

‘Grandchildren,’ Victor said, as thought unable to comprehend it. ‘How many?’

‘Seven. You?’

‘Just three, but that’s quite enough.’

‘I can’t believe it,’ she said. ‘Oh, Vic. What happened?’

‘I don’t know.’ He heard himself sigh. ‘Things were different back then.’

‘Yes, they were.’ The line went quiet, a million things unsaid. Victor stared at the computer screen. His Cynthia, a grandmother, and him two hundred miles away taking meter readings over the phone. ‘You were the love of my life, Vic.’

Victor sank into his seat, his head filled with images of a different life, a life spent with her.

For a long while after the call had ended Victor sat, deeply shaken. The supervisor passed his booth, sliding Victor a look, tapping his wrist. Victor straightened himself, took a deep breath and replaced his headset.

 

“Calls May Be Recorded” was published in The Sunday Express Magazine

Shortstory

Travels with my mother (Part 2)

Posted: February 5th, 2014

The Taj Mahal really is a sight to behold. It also has very little seating, which is not something I had taken into account. Besides, I was too busy being overwhelmed by its beauty and feeling my throat close. Such a monument to love, and what a love that must have been. Ah, well. We can’t all be the favourite wife of a mogul. The Taj Mahal holds a certain melancholy about it, a streak of tragedy, and there is something quite awkward about seeing the tourists lining up to replicate the Princess Diana photograph, hogging one of the few benches.

Outside the monument, the assault by hawkers is brutal. My mother is tired. She also took a tumble a short time ago when she misjudged a stone she was planning to sit on. I was standing right next to her when it happened but I hadn’t anticipated her move, and she hissed me away when I tried to check her over and told me not to make a fuss while she blushed scarlet beneath brown skin. Nobody else had noticed and that’s the way she intended to keep it. But still. Must have hurt, and I wished she had said that she needed to sit down rather than going off-piste like that, because now she’s gone and hurt herself and I feel really bad.

It’s all very well to have a crusading spirit of adventure as you hurtle into your eighties, but my mum can be pretty belligerent and it’s no tea party trying to make sure that she stays in one piece. She can get downright difficult sometimes too, particularly when she’s tired, which she will also never admit to. I’ve told here there’s no shame in granny naps. I actually love a good granny nap myself. We almost came to blows in an Indian airport once, when she (tired) insisted upon ‘helping’ with the luggage and promptly rammed a fully-loaded trolley right over my bare foot.

The hawkers outside the Taj Mahal are possibly the worst I’ve ever had to deal with, and I’ve dealt with a lot. They drive you mad, and they don’t care. That’s the whole point. They’ll wear you down until you part with some money, at which point the floodgates will open and you’ll be lucky to escape with your shirt. After the incident with the mother, I was in no mood for any of it, my only concern being where the bus had mysteriously disappeared to and whether she had done herself any serious damage. The hawkers did not take this well. Before I knew it, I had two or three men jabbing cheap souvenirs at me and shouting in my face, one of whom was getting way too aggressive for my liking.

Never in my life have I been more relieved to find us on the receiving end of a huge American tourist wearing a Hawaiian shirt with an enormous camera swinging from his neck. This man saw what was happening, came barging over, bellowed at the hawkers “what part of no don’t you people understand?” and got us out of there. It didn’t escape my notice that the hawkers had no intention of starting an argument with a man, but that us women had been seen as easy prey. Make no mistake. This is a country where female travelers have to be very careful, no matter what age they are, and not once in well over ten years have I ever had cause to revise that opinion.

Travels with my mother (Part 1)

Posted: January 23rd, 2014

They say you need three things to travel in India; a good vehicle, a good horn, and good luck. All timings are approximate which translates roughly to: don’t hold your breath, it may never happen. If you are travelling with an aged mother who’s not much bigger than a doormouse, you also need the patience of a saint.

I first went to India with my mother in 1999 after she made a pointed comment over Sunday lunch that she thought I might have been by now, to which I said that I was waiting for her to take me. After all, she’s the Indian and without her I’m just a tourist. So off we went on the first of many sorties into her homeland.

It was easier then. She was a bit blind but everything else was in reasonable working order, give or take. By this particular trip however she was a lot more blind and came armed with a couple of Tupperware boxes stuffed to the gunnels with her daily meds. This time, we had decided upon an organized tour. It was the only way we could get travel insurance for the mother, and my initial plan to drag her all the way up to Darjeeling then into Nepal hadn’t gone down well with Norwich Union at all.

Davindra, our tour guide, picked us up from Delhi airport, a small group of eight, among them me and my sister, and mum. We weave ourselves, our luggage and Slow Doris through the traffic, and are quickly aware that Davindra has no intention of checking that we are still in tow.

Anyone who has experienced Delhi’s domestic airport and immediate surroundings will realize that negotiating the crowds is no mean feat. We dodge cars and painted lorries and a line of clapped out coaches before arriving at a tiny, ancient minibus with “Indian air conditioning” and no spare wheel. The vehicle jerks into the chaotic traffic.

Davindra suggests a tipping kitty, that everyone should contribute, say, fifty or sixty quid into, and from which he will tip whoever needs tipping so that we are not having to worry about it. My mother and I look at each other and hold onto our purses. The truth about tipping kitties is that they are tipped straight into the tour guide’s pocket, save the odd few rupees here and there when he thinks he is being watched. We don’t mention anything to the other tourists. They’ll get the hang of it sooner or later after being fleeced a few times.

Without warning, Davindra (armed with the bulging kitty), opens the door, says “see you tomorrow”, and steps off the moving vehicle directly into the busy roadway. The eight travelling companions, none of whom have met before today, exchange glances. We are now alone with the driver, who doesn’t speak a word of English and seems to be having trouble holding the decrepit bus in a straight line. We appear to be driving on the wrong side of the road too, heading directly into the oncoming traffic. My sister and I are not worried. Nor is my mother. We are used to it, and the old girl can speak Hindi.

bus-empty

My affair with India

Posted: January 23rd, 2014

Today, another shocking story seeps out of India. The headline: Woman gang raped on orders of ‘kangaroo court’.

I first visited India in the late nineties, and returned every year thereafter, travelling around the country, often with my Indian mother. I fell in love with India instantly. It was as though I had found the piece of me that had never quite belonged here. Like most love affairs, I spent the early part of it utterly smitten, yet the more I saw over the years, the more despairing I became.

I am sad to say that my feelings towards India have soured considerably in recent times. I was last there a year ago, and I was not sorry to leave. As one of the fastest growing economies and the largest democracy in the world, one would have hoped that India might have at least tried to drag its attitudes towards women into the 21st century.

I have always been vigilant while travelling in India. I dress conservatively in loose cotton trousers and long shalwar, but still men think nothing of openly staring or behaving in a deliberately intimidating manner. (It was a lot worse during my thirties.) I keep my eyes facing front and never, despite being sorely tempted, have I ever responded. I keep my mouth firmly shut and walk on quickly, knowing that women are attacked often in India, with little or no provocation. As if that isn’t bad enough, victims of rape are sometimes killed by their own families for bringing shame on the family for having lost their purity.

These are the things you have to deal with mentally if you’re going to travel around India as a woman, and I had to get my head around it long ago, which meant pretty much putting it out of my mind otherwise I would be filled with such bile that I would never set foot there again. Then there is the endless pestering, not just from a sexual harrassment point of view, (which is euphemistically called Eve-teasing), but also with everyone being on the make, whether it’s the taxi driver who wants to take you to a particular shop or hotel and just won’t let it go, or the swarms of traders who push and pull to sell you things when all you want is a few vegetables from the market. It’s exhausting.

Racism is rife in India, and I’m talking about between the Indians themselves. Cast, class, outrageous snobbery, attitudes towards servants (everyone with any money has servants). Even amid the servants, there are class tensions – this servant for that, another servant for the other, and they won’t do any job they feel is below their rank. Trying to get anything done in India can be intensely frustrating.

Villages in the more remote rural areas are like going back in a time machine. All the work seems to be being done by women while the men sit around talking and smoking and drinking, sometimes tea, sometimes feni, probably before going home to give their wife a beating. I have spoken to a lot of poorly-paid hardworking women in India, and their husband’s fall into two general categories: the ones who drink, and the ones who don’t. It amazes me how good-natured the women are, particularly the ones whose husband’s hit them. It makes my heart clench.

My mother has always said something about India that sticks out in my mind, which reflects a deep vein of dislike she has for her own country: “I am very angry with India. She keeps her people down.” Corruption is rife, from the highest public officials down to the single-buffalo families who water down the milk before selling it. It’s every man for himself.

There is no getting away from the bad things in India that are being openly allowed to continue with the laws of statute ignored. Religious “crimes” being judged by the elders of a village, who are invariably men. Children being sold into illegal marriages. Women and girls living in fear, and for very good reason. This is a country where mind-bending fortunes are being made, yet where millions are living hand to mouth, many working in atrocious conditions and being paid a pittance while making fortunes for the few. The imbalance in inequality is hard to stomach, and it’s created a toxic, dangerous atmosphere that is getting worse.

I have no plans to travel to India this year. I feel sad about that, as I have traditionally gone there every winter to write in peace for a while. But I can no longer keep a lid on just how appalled I am by what goes on there and the widely-held attitudes towards women.

It makes me so angry that I want to throw bricks through windows and demonstrate alongside the people who have taken to the streets in India and around the world where women are in constant danger simply because of their gender. But I know that that is not what I am.  I am not a political activist. I am a writer of stories, and I believe that stories can be devastatingly powerful.

We all know the story of the girl on the bus, and the boy she was with. That is the kind of story that has the power to turn the world’s head and make it face up to the unacceptable.

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