Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Child in Time – the Power of the Lost Child Story

Courtesy of BBC
I loved Ian McEwan’s haunting novel and enjoyed the BBC’s adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald.

My Dad said he couldn’t face an hour and a half in a story in which (spoiler alert!!!) a lost child is not found. I agree, that is a harrowing prospect. But The Child in Time is not about the search for the child in the way that the first series of The Missing was. It is a quite different exploration of loss with its magical suggestion that time might not the be linear thing we think it is.

In this story, the man who has lost his daughter looks through a pub window in a place he has never visited, and see his mother as a young woman. He later learns that she was in that pub years ago, anxious about telling his father that she was pregnant with him. She looked out of the pub window and saw the baby inside her as a little boy, looking in. This mysterious double time-slip gives the man a strange kind of hope: that his daughter, although lost to him in a very real sense, is still ‘out there’ somewhere in time, and his connection to her will never be lost.

Why do these stories resonate so much with us? Of course the cases of Madeleine McCann and Ben Needham are etched on our consciousness – they are every parent’s nightmare.

Most of us have never gone through the agony of losing a child, and our sympathy for those who have is endless. What we experience CANNOT be compared to this. But lost child stories tug at our hearts for a different reason. If our children have grown up, or even just grown bigger, we have lost the little ones they were.

If your child is now 6 foot tall – and even if he is sitting beside you on the sofa – you have lost the child that he was. That creates an ache that we try hard to ignore. It’s irrational – the child hasn’t gone, he has grown up. You have an adult to love in his place.

But the ache won’t be denied, and Facebook has a way of socking us in the heart with it. My son was 22 this week, and up popped one of those old posts from yesteryear: a picture of him as toddler. A friend posted another picture of her child and both of mine, all tiny and gorgeous in her garden. Nostalgia is a sweet pain, but it hurts nonetheless. I have two adult sons who mean more to me than anything, but those little boys have gone forever…

Unless time slips, as in The Child in Time. And time does slip, doesn’t it? We get those Rip Van Winkle moments, like when we drop our children off at university, and can’t believe it’s not us going.
And as in the novel, the child you remember hasn’t gone completely. He lives on like a Russian doll inside the adult you love now. And the curly-haired toddler I was lives on, buried inside my middle-aged self. At times perhaps you can glimpse her.

And inside my Dad... the little boy on the right...

Maybe this is why these stories haunt us. 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Home alone parents: the empty nest

Boys you are men
And I know that
But when I get back
From dropping you off at university
You are standing up in your cot
Still needing me.

It’s that weekend again. The one when cars are loaded up, pets are petted one final time and young people are driven to cheaply built student halls to start a life without you.

It’s what you want for them, but how did it come round so fast?

When we dropped our older son off, I was bright and cheery, in brittle denial. Then I saw a Dad hugging his daughter and I was suddenly, inexplicably, in pieces.

‘Are you going?’ he said as we got up to leave. And we did, knowing his new life wouldn’t start until we had gone.

The next morning, a text arrived. He’d gone to find his new flatmates. They were brilliant. He loved it there. They’d all been up till 3am.

It’s a whole new challenge when the last one leaves. After we dropped off our younger son, I had troubling dreams. Time had slipped from its moorings: he was adolescent one moment, then morphed into an infant before my eyes.

I didn’t know what he was any more – or what was expected of me.

Eventually I recognised the feeling for what it was: a struggle to adjust – with a side-order of grief. We had been a family together for twenty years. What were the home-alone parents meant to do now?

I wrote an article about the experience for Juno magazine, and with it the poem above. I dug them out today and  they both still make me cry. That’s terrible isn’t it, like laughing at your own jokes?

If it’s you packing the car up this weekend, the poem is for you, as are these snippets that I hope will be helpful.

The way through it, I found, was to ditch the denial and let myself feel whatever I was feeling – the waves of sadness, but also the sense that, despite a full life and fulfilling job, I didn't know what I was for any more. 

If you can, avoid dumping your emotion on the ones who have departed – they need to spread their wings. This doesn’t mean pretending you’re not sad they’ve gone – but it does mean not expecting them to fix you.

On the plus side, the moment of upheaval can motivate you to make positive changes. Years of catering for the needs of others can prevent you from wondering what you want for yourselves.

Your child is embarking on a time of adventure and opportunity. You might find this makes you wistful. You have come out of the cocoon you formed with your family – and the world is still out there waiting.

I hope you’ll find a new and rewarding place in it, once you’ve got over the trauma of the university run.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Jane Austen beats me at Twitter

All authors these days must be beacons of self-promotion – but on the day that Jane Austen’s appeared on the £10 note, I made a haunting discovery. The original creaky door writer, who was famously loathe to admit to her writing habit, is more active on Twitter than I am!

And not only was she a reluctant self-publicist – she also died 200 years ago.

On Radio Five Live Breakfast this morning, Rachel Burden said that Austen would have been excellent at Twitter. George Riley, who doubted it, tried fitting her most famous quotes into 140 characters and found them wonderfully tweetable.

This spoke to me, as an editor, of the joys of brevity – there are very few raw creative sentences that wouldn’t work better shorter.

I Googled ‘Jane Austen, Twitter’ and was impressed by how much the author tweets from beyond the grave – this is just one of her many accounts.

If even dead authors are this active on social media, I am going to have to up my game in the run-up to publication of Unspeakable Things which (did I mention?) is coming soon.

Please tweet all your followers, living and dead. Please have them retweet, reblog, share and generally e-disseminate this humble post.

And a huge hurrah to all those who campaigned to have Jane Austen on a banknote. Let’s not forget that for championing the cause, MP Stella Creasey became the target of misogynist social media trolls and was threatened with rape (see Guardian article)

Austen probably never dreamed she would end up on a banknote, but she did dare to suggest that women should be educated in more than pretty accomplishments designed to attract husbands. Go, Jane! Go viral.