Kindness in the Soul - by Jan Needle

Having been recently forced into close proximity with the section of society that keeps the rest of us from going under, I’ve been pushed to wonder, not for the first time, what writing is actually for.

Without going into too much detail, I have been meeting carers, cleaners, bum wipers and suchlike unregarded, ill-rewarded members of our Big Society. All but one of them, so far, has been black, all of them have been on the minimum wage, all of them have got degrees.

I have been, ridiculously, too polite to ask them how much they might earn, or if indeed they are on zero hours contracts. I do know however, that they are not paid for their driving time, have to provide their own cars, and pay for their own petrol. This, incidentally, in a rural area far from town, in a village that does not even have a shop, let alone a bus service. It does not even have a public telephone.

The oldest of these people is perhaps twenty-eight, from Zimbabwe, and highly qualified in computer sciences. She is the soul of kindness, and insists most convincingly that she loves the job. Mark you, she only does it until she can find a post more suited to her qualifications. If I were a cynic (and you all know I am not!) I might mutter "best of luck with that, love."

'that simpering disgrace who leads the Kipper clan'
When I say the soul of kindness, I don't think that I'm exaggerating. We've all done what they have to do now and again, I imagine. Showering with my mother when she was in her 80s, as the only way to get both of us clean again, is the sort of thing I mean. But that was a one-off, after an ‘accident.’ These good people wade through it more times than you want to think about. They smile, they comfort, they even have a laugh. Call it love in action, call it a massive generosity, call it what you will. I'll settle on the soul of kindness.

When I was younger, when I first started writing children's books, this sort of thing – imagined and observed; I am from a pretty rough part of town – was what fired me. My first published book was called Albeson and the Germans, and if not autobiographical was pretty near it.
My Mate Shofiq by Jan Needle

The second was called My Mate Shofiq, written when I had left the soft south (that's irony, by the way) for the dark satanic mills of Oldham. In my first month in that wonderful town (and that isn't irony) I actually met old women wearing clogs and shawls, with the famous local legs – damn near circular, from early rickets. In those days, incidentally, the place was still known in Lancashire as "brave Oldham" because, of all the cotton towns, it had suffered most in times of hardship. Many of the mills had gone cooperative, owned by workers' shares rather than by companies. Great idea until the slumps came.

After that, apart from mad dashes into other areas because I have an irrevocably butterfly-type mind, I wrote children's books that some people still didn't entirely think were suitable for children. My revered editor at the time, Pam Royds, did try to guide me in the direction of not leaving young readers without hope, as she put it, but she didn't always win. And it's an argument I'm still prepared to have.

Poverty and race played a part in many of my stories, as the titles might indicate. Piggy in the Middle, about a young woman who joins the police and finds herself struggling to survive the attitudes and behaviour of her colleagues. A Sense of Shame, about the blighted love affair between a Manchester girl (white) and her Manchester (Muslim) boyfriend. Given To Tears, about a forced adoption. My hope, I guess, was to mirror and portray things. And help to change them.

I've sometimes been accused of looking down on more conventional children's books, which was, and is, the most egregious baloney. I was weaned on Ransome and still devour books so soppy that they make your fingers wet. I think Enid Blyton is the best reader-bait there's ever been. Some of my children adored Harry Potter. Yippee!

So what am I talking about? This, I suppose. I haven't written specifically for children for some good time, and the thrillers and historical nautical novels I enjoy most doing now are challenging (if at all) in a rather different way. We’re being driven as a nation by an ever rolling torrent of feelgood propaganda in which people like Cameron, Osborne, Chris Grayling and that one who's out to wreck the NHS get away with almost anything, almost unchallenged. The great white hope, God save us all, is that simpering disgrace who leads the Kipper clan.

Our children, by and large, get books that fortify the status quo. It shames me to say it, but I think that might be all there is. Children are our future. Must they all grow up called Gideon and Samantha?

      PS. After I'd written this, I read Polly Toynbee's piece about housing in Britain today in the Guardian. 
      If I said it was a happy coincidence, I'd be insulting the word happy. Here's a tiny extract:

     The England’s Lane hostel was intended to provide temporary accommodation for homeless families; however, once they move in here, “temporary” can mean years. The hostel is a modern day version of Dickens’s Marshalsea prison from Little Dorrit, a reluctant community with its own hierarchy of suffering, where years are ticked off by unlucky people who have run aground for one reason or another.
     Janice has been here for five-and-a-half years, with her husband and two children now aged nearly two and five. In one corner of her room, on top of a small fridge, stand a couple of electric rings to cook on. That’s the kitchen. There’s a shower room in a cupboard and all the family’s possessions are stuffed into a stack of suitcases squashed by the door. There is only just enough room for the double bed which they all share, the four of them sleeping together restlessly.
Smashing, innit?

Albeson and the Germans:


JO said…
The way we treat those that so many don't want to think about is shameful. The needy, the poor, the disadvantaged. And when they do appear in children's books it tends to be to show a triumph over adversity (good Tory values!). So it's not surprising when many of these children are reluctant to read - where ca they find anyone to reflect the sheer drudgery of so many of their lives.

And how can we teach our more fortunate children to be compassionate without being patronising if we sweep so much under the literatary carpet?
Dennis Hamley said…
Jan, I shall write a longer comment on the amazing, eloquent post later on. At the moment, I just don't know where to start. We're going out now and I'll write it when we get back. So the great Pam has been mentioned in two consecutive posts. That shows yet again her amazing influence. We'll never ever forget the things she said to us.
Lee said…
We can best teach our children to be compassionate by example, as with everything else we teach them. And I can think of a zillion ways to help the disadvantaged above and beyond writing (which probably has minimal impact, if I'm frank). What about volunteering for literacy work amongst immigrant or refugee kids, for example? There are few of us who can't spare an hour or two in the week.
Kathleen Jones said…
It's a wonderful post Jan. The situation is so utterly shameful. And DC etc go on about immigrants? I am grinding my teeth with anger and frustration.
Lydia Bennet said…
a timely and passionate post Jan. I can't believe what's happening to the country and how people can give any credence to UKIP I just don't know. even self-interest, if they have no ethics, should rebel at his planned 30% tax rate and total NHS destruction. as writers we bear witness, and that's important, what else we may do in charitable work or volunteering or anything else is nobody's business but our own of course.
julia jones said…
I've been reading Denis MacShane's Prison Diaries this week - I hope Grayling and the judges come to rue the day that he was sent to Belmarsh and Brixton instead of some comparatively 'nice' open prison. No prison is nice but I hope you know what I mean. The stories MacShane tells of the folk he meets in B & B are so infuriatingly wasteful unjust and WRONG. He wasn't allowed proper paper and pens but here is an example of writing certainly being used to give a voice to people who don't have one. (by the way - those of us who signed the petition against the Grayling punitive books ban after my blog post earlier this year - there has been some small movement ...)
julia jones said…
and back to the bum-wipers YES Jan thank you so much for writing this. I am grateful almost every day to the people who do this work for small reward. Where my mother is they are almost all lovely Suffolk types - a few men but almost all women and I hope they are getting decent conditions and more than the min wage. The most satisfactory thing is to employ directly, build a relationship of supportive friendship and be clear that the ££ is going directly to the actual bum-wiping carers, not sliced off by agencies who too often seem to make matters worse by inefficiency and exploiting their employees.
(I could go on ...!!)
Dennis Hamley said…
Lee, I know that what you say is right and to be seen to be compassionate is the example which will help our kids to be compassionate after us. After all, we reject the reasoning of those who ask why they should sometimes not use their car all the while the Chinese and Americans are turning the air black with fossil fuels. But it's just pissing in the wind when the power of governments, corporations and the market which we're told we can't possible buck steadily eat up every right and privilege which was won after the second world war. My bibles are now written by Harry Leslie Smith and Owen Jones. I sometimes thank that little short of armed revolution will shift the rough hide which chokes us. In Spirit of the Place, Nicholas Fowler 'has seen the Great Chain of Being, and it cannot work. Because if each succeeding gradation looks down on the rung below it must all fall away into chaos. Dependency and contempt cannot go together.' Though I say it myself, I think Nicholas Fowler was about right.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you for this thought-provoking post, Jan.
glitter noir said…
Let me add my thanks, Jan, for this deeply moving and beautifully written post.

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