Should I stop reading? by Julia Jones

I'm readling Cally Phillips' omnibus edition A Week with No Labels at the moment. In some ways I think that this modest production may be the most significant book I've read on my Kindle this year. That's without denigration or disrespect for all the other varied, entertaining, profound and clever books that are magically stored in its flat grey space. A glance at my home page shows me that I've read about thirty epublished books, mainly novels, in the seven months since I began clicking pages as well as turning them. There've been some real treats and some exciting discoveries – books I almost certainly wouldn't have come across if I'd not been led to them by either Authors Electric or the Indie eBook Review. Thank you fellow writers – I hope you know who you are. 

However, most of these ebooks I've read and enjoyed since January 2012 could equally well have been paper-published. (As many of them previously were.) The 'No Labels' series is different. They were first published in June from a Monday to a Friday to mark Learning Disability Awareness week. This isn't something that a book publisher would do. It's actually more akin to journalism. You could imagine the Guardian or the Independent publishing some neat little A5 size 16- or 32- page booklet inserted into the main paper every day for a week. But would it be fiction? Probably not. Connected with learning disability? No. Would any commercial publisher, even in their most expansive moments, have considered bringing out these lightly fictionalised reports of a drama project involving nine adults with learning difficulties, one volunteer and a paid facilitator? Somehow I don't see it.

Back in the 1980s I published four volumes of old people's essays, selected from the annual Age Concern Essex essay competitions. They sold because of their local basis, the Age Concern network and the support of the relatively large number of independent booksellers which existed then in Essex. I was one of them, just managing to stay solvent under the protection of the Net Book Agreement. I ran the annual essay competition purely as a voluntary activity and counted the book publishing as successful if it paid back the cost of production. When I was a Child, Yesterday's Heroes, The Last All-Clear and In Those Days were labours of love and as good as I could get them (which, in retrospect, wasn't good enough. No external proof-reader means that they are as littered with irritating errors as any unchecked, self-published ebook. My punctuation has never been good and in the mid-80s there was no in-house expert to heave a sigh, sake a head and mutter sadly 'surely even you Julia would have known that should have been a colon …') They were litho-printed, with full-colour covers, using the paintings of a local centenarian and I typed the text on 5 1/4” floppy discs to save on the setting costs. They were sold through the trade with the then standard discount of 35%. For all their faults I was proud of those books. I hoped that they gave a voice to people who weren't normally heard. 

E-publishing would make it easy to produce similar volumes now, if, like Cally Phillips, one had the energy and commitment to put in the hours of writing and production time and didn't expect to make money. It's open access. The new format makes it possible for anyone (with appropriate help) to record their own life-story, or publish their own novel. Not everyone has welcomed this indiscrimination. Personally I was often sad to have to say to 'my' oldies. “No, I'm sorry, I loved your essay but I'm not going to publish the thirty chapters of life story you have in your bottom drawer. I'm sure your grandchildren will come to them one day, or you could deposit the copy in your local record office.” If people dream of publishing their own book I'm glad that now they e-can.

What the 'No Labels' series is doing is different from such self-publishing. You could almost call it un-self publishing. It's the report of a project and it's a campaigning publication. It seeks to change attitudes to learning difficulty by telling stories – simple daily stories, like the story of Annie taken to the shops to buy a present for a friend but not allowed to buy the present that she chose, then not allowed to buy the meal that she chose, then obliged to buy the meal for the person who was paid to accompany her (and who naturally chose what she wanted to eat) and then finally not allowed to go to the party of the friend for whom she'd bought the present because the care rotas had changed so there was no one available to be paid to accompany her. There are disturbing, unexplained vignettes, such as the moment Mandy sees a certain carer in the audience and freezes in terror. There are depressing moments of insight as when the narrator discovers how easy it is to organise an event for a weekend as the residents of the care homes have absolutely nothing else happening.

There's quite a lot of protest voiced directly through the persona of Kate, the narrator. She's the facilitator, she's paid and in addition to her play-writing and improvisation skills she's a shrewd analyst of conversation. Even conversations where the other person chooses to confine herself to 'yes' or 'no'. “Is that a nono or a yesno?” Kate asks, offering her interlocutor the chance to vary the pattern of communication within the rules of her chosen conversational game. If this sounds complicated, read the book. Cally Phillips is very good at re-defining what might appear to be intelligence (lack of) issues as misunderstood communications. She convinces me that the people in her group have no lack of senstivity or imagination but as their efforts to express themselves are not usually understood, they have largely given up trying. They relapse into monosyllables, they comfort-eat, they exhibit 'challenging behaviour'.

Members of the 'No Labels' drama group also campaign directly, as a group. They go to the Scottish Parliament and perform a play called Politics is Rubbish. It's about re-cyling, it's about systemic failures and it has the sad subtext that the 'No Labels' members suspect that they are seen as society's cast-outs. They have problems with 'normal' living – with reading for instance, or managing money. They accept that they need help but they long to be helped in the way that they want to be helped. Which isn't necessessarily the way the system decrees. Through drama and the comradeship of their group they are able to express themselves, entertain others and make valuable comments on the way we live normally. They have gained a new way to communicate. 

The session had ended.
Mum was still happy.
So she danced and a friend danced with her
The depressing aspect of A Week with No Labels is that it springs from a project, from more than one project (the timeframe is unclear) but projects have a bad habit of coming to an end when their funding runs out. My mother, who has Alzheimer's, was on an inspiring music and drama project earlier this year. It was called 'Turtle Song' and took place high on the Suffolk coast in disabled accommodation run by a family as generous as the owners of the disabled hotel where the 'No Labels' group go for their 'holiday' in the final chapter of the omnibus edition. I haven't finished reading yet. I'm not sure that I want to. Once a week for two months 'Turtle Song' enabled Mum to immerse herself in music, express herself in drama and join others on a communal creative project. Professional musicians, a composer, a theatre director, elderly people with memory problems and a range of other disabilities plus their carers/relatives worked hard together towards a final concert. Then it was over. The funding had been spent, the objectives achieved. We dispersed and I've been failing to help Mum come to terms with her loss ever since. Perhaps I should stop reading now and leave the 'No Labels' group enthusiastically on their weekend holiday together with the performance still ahead of them. Treat it like fiction with a possible happy ending -- instead of accepting that this humane and humourous publication is a furious polemic.

(When I wrote The Salt-Stained Book I was also pretty furious about the frequency with which the children of parents with learning difficulties are taken into care. We had seen it happen close to home and were horrified. Through the trilogy, however, I tried to develop the character of Skye as more than a passive victim. "She's steering to a different star," says Great Aunt Ellen in A Ravelled Flag. However The Strong Winds trilogy is conventional fiction so -- dream on.)


CallyPhillips said…
Blimey! I just came onto the site to rob the url link for IEBR (being too incompetent to know where I have it stored myself!) and found my work at the centre of a post. And what a post. Thanks so much for that Julia. It's nice to know that publishing 'advocacy' can work! And don't worry about happy endings. The 'life' of the real group behind NO Labels is still active and as my involvement was 10 years there are plenty more stories to tell. Next up will be No Labels doing WORKSHOPS rather than performances. But I'm heartened that this is going to prove a rich seam and an effective advocacy tool. There was a lot of hard work (my own academic and creative study to 'understand') but primarily my experience with the NON fictional group WAS FUN AND LAUGHTER ALL THE WAY. And you are right. Such projects should be ONGOING. We had to fight year on year and I've made No Labels less depressing than the REAL fight actually is - it takes a toll. But I do finally feel that it's all been worth it (not just for the participants) but as a piece of advocacy. I'd love people to BUY THE BOOK but as you point out, not because of the money but because I'd like them to meet and learn to love and respect MY FRIENDS as much as I have learned to. No Labels is my tribute to them and they have more than repaid me time and time again.
julia jones said…
Had a few extra moments in bed this morning reading the bit where Kate learns to lighten up and boogie. We do learn so much from others. I counted my Age Concern oldies as one of my best bits of education ever

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