I'm delighted to have contributed an essay on travelling to the latest issue of Counterpoint Magazine, FLIGHT, which you can buy here. It's accompanied by a stunning illustration, which Liam Rotheram created in response to the piece. Counterpoint is hand-printed by Out Of The Blueprint in Edinburgh, using a risograph machine, meaning each copy is unique.
Award-winning novelist, Ever Dundas, and Robin Spinks, Innovation and Technology Relationships Manager at the RNIB, discuss access for disabled people to technology in the current face of austerity.
Dundas opened with a powerful reading from of her freedom paper, What Is To Come, fittingly set against an atmospheric backdrop of drumming and eerie sounds, which raised the tension of the audience to the level of the topic in question. “Freedom is a world without capitalism”, she read, “I will not be your martyr, I will not die on this capitalist cross.” Her articulate and deliberate words, were delivered with the expert control of one well-used to fighting for their voice to be heard: in this instance, above the din of the current capitalist regime of a conservative government. Words which were received with tumultuous applause.
Dundas shared her experience of the welfare system, having applied for both Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) due to her disability, fibromyalgia. Dundas feels the system is completely broken, serving only to punish and humiliate disabled claimants. “They were surveilling me through my entire assessment, to the point of noting on file that I was able to stand up from my chair, and lift half a cup of water from the table.” And deciding, ultimately, that she is not ‘disabled enough’.
Spinks agreed that there is no room for nuance in the current welfare system. He highlighted that disability exists on a spectrum and that our government neglects to address that, only perpetuating and reinforcing stigma. “We should not be peppering our disability assessments with assumptions, but instead make it an assessment of disabilities but also aspirations.”
Both agree that the narrative needs to change and that it must be more complex. The RNIB are running a campaign, #HowISee, which aims to address the misunderstanding of the general public on the nuance of sight-impairment, pointing out that technology is helping us to reform the narrative. “Tech is a great liberator, but understanding must be nestled alongside it – not bureaucratic questions.”
Our current system puts people off at the first point of call, and access to work becomes the first blockade to those looking to get support in going back to work, says Spinks. Yet, technology has bridged the gap for many, when it comes to living with disabilities. He and Dundas shared their own moving accounts of times when technology has done so for them, demonstrating the power of tech to do good in our society. But even good tech must re-evaluate and consider the needs of its disabled consumers, by making adaptable devices. Accessibility is also a major issue, with many adaptable devices costing too much money for those who need it. Dundas emotively described how her world shrunk when she became ill, and how something as simple as an electric bicycle would expand it enormously. Sadly the cost is simply too prohibitive.
Spinks believes that all tech developers should be legally bound to advance life for disabled people, and that the narrative would be changed by having a rolling programme of “embedded understanding” in these companies. Dundas firmly believes that raising awareness in the public sphere is the first step to changing the narrative, and for her, that’s writing about it.
The last lines of her freedom paper – a calling for the disabled to unite against austerity – resonated the quiet but determined hope of the audience, at the end of this bolstering discussion (if not a debate.)
“We hold our idealistic dreams in our hands like flames and we will raze capitalism to the ground. Out of the ashes: rejuvenation ripe with possibility, the freedom of a new beginning.”
Matt Haig, best-selling author of How to Stop Time and Reasons to Stay Alive, talks about his latest release, Notes on a Nervous Planet, in this engaging and hopeful discussion about living with mental illness in the modern world. Chaired by Richard Holloway.
In the follow-up to Reasons to Stay Alive, Haig once again talks about living with anxiety and depression; this time speculating in the wider context of our technologically advanced, fast-paced world. He believes that technology impacts every facet of our daily lives and is responsible for the exponential rise in the number of people suffering with anxiety and depression, explaining that we’re ”old hardware trying to function in a world with new software.”
Haig feels that it’s empowering for a sufferer to understand where their feelings are coming from, and he skilfully relates his own experience of living with anxiety and depression to the audience, his self-deprecating humour provoking appreciative laughter from the audience. He believes that modern technology deliberately creates a disconnect between people, largely cultivated by companies who serve to drive the population towards addiction to their devices. Whether through our phones, games, computers, e-readers, or fit-bits; we’re constantly provided with more and more opportunity to ‘connect’ through screens; rather than face-to-face. And in doing so, we become increasingly dependent on these technologies to show us our value and so we continue to exist in ever-shrinking worlds. If we’re constantly being measured, compared and told we can be doing better; we’re always going to be looking for the next thing that can help us improve – and tech companies know it.
It’s this disconnect which nurtures a state of anxiety and depression, according to Haig. He pointed out that the Aborigines have the worst record of mental illness in the world; correlating this with the colonialism, racism, and horrific loss of identity and sense of purpose they endure. When asked what he fears most in our ever-advancing world, Haig admits his concern that “we are in danger of losing our empathy”. He continued on this thread, raising the issue of online trolling, which he believes is incredibly damaging to our mental health and needs to be recognised as a health issue. He called for action from the public to raise awareness; as only then will our government take action against companies who aren’t regulating their tech and protecting their consumers.
In keeping with the tone of his new title, Haig was authentic and optimistic when asked about labels and mental illness, identifying that relief that can come with a diagnosis – relating that it can make you feel like you belong, and also make it easier to explain how your illness affects you. However he was quick to caution over-use, or familiarity with any label, given that the connotations can be heavy. After his years of self-taught mindfulness, he wisely advised that “diagnosis isn’t a life-sentence: you aren’t in a permanent state.” Reminding and perhaps galvanising the audience, to believe in the power of the self, and not of the machine.
Carnegie Medal-winning author Melvin Burgess is joined by spoken word artist and writer, Steven Camden aka Polarbear, and award-winning advertising copy-writer turned author, L J MacWhirter, to discuss writing about difficult issues in their latest books.
In very distinctive styles, each author read a selected passage from their latest title, to open the event. Camden, whose spoken-word career was evident in his lyrical, tension-filled reading, was the highlight of the event. He read from his latest title, Nobody Real, about a teenage girl whose childhood imaginary friend suddenly re-appears one day. Burgess’ The Lost Witch is a fantasy about witches and the first novel he’s published in five years, whilst Black Snow Falling, is MacWhirter’s first novel: an Elizabethan fantasy and feminist thriller. It was a little jarring to have three authors with very different reading styles in quick succession, as such, it would have been more enjoyable to hear them interspersed throughout the discussion.
MacWhirter and Burgess were somewhat nonplussed when asked about the theme of change, joking about the ‘looseness’ of the theme that tied their books together, saying neither of them had deliberately written about change. MacWhirter’s novel, although set in 1592, deals with issues faced by young women today, and it uses a privileged, educated girl to expose the multi-sexism of the time; something today’s readers are likely to relate to, to some degree. Camden has (consciously) written a great deal about change: the majority of his works, both written and theatrical, explore that specific leap between childhood and adulthood, and are inspired by his own experiences. It comes as no surprise that his latest title is another facet of this semi-autobiographical, self-exploration. On feminism, Camden said he would call himself a feminist, aware as he is of “being afforded certain luxuries” because of his gender; whilst Burgess, rather obnoxiously, said “You’d be stupid not to be wouldn’t you? It’s difficult as a man to say you’re a feminist – it’s a bit like saying you’re a girl, isn’t it?”
When the question of morality was raised, and the power of books to send a message; the panel agreed it was to be approached with caution, as no one has the answers – including writers. MacWhirter said “I don’t know about morality, but we need hope.” Camden recalled reading The Bunker Diary, saying “That book messed me up. But it stayed with me.” The panel believe that books should not serve to educate but to ask questions, and that darkness and fear create resilience in readers. Burgess reinforced that resilience comes from understanding, and that books provide an essential safe space for readers to explore various situations and responses to them.
When the somewhat meandering discussion drew to a close, the panel agreed that young people today are up against so much more than ever before – but they remain hopeful that the younger generations will be the ones to bring about positive change in the world.
The event could have been tighter, but Camden saved it with his brilliantly executed reading and thoughtful responses – I’d love to see him back next year with a spoken word show of his own, or perhaps paired with Kate Tempest, in a discussion around marginalised young voices.
Comedian and best-selling author, Ruby Wax brings her sharp-witted humour and a degree in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) together to the Book Festival via her latest book, How To Be Human: The Manual, chaired by Jackie McGlone.
True to form, Wax heavily relies on the self-depreciating humour we’ve come to expect, in order to share her message with the audience in this hugely engaging discussion. Introducing the idea of mindfulness and what it means to her personally, Wax was quick to point out that she is a prime example of the very neuroplasticity she speaks so highly of, saying “I have literally changed my brain by thinking differently.” As a follow-up to her last book, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, her latest title serves to reinforce the positive message of the first book, using the latest evidence.
This is largely provided by Wax herself, who in pursuit of truth, found herself sharing her home with a monk and a neuroscientist. She wanted to find out, if practising daily mindfulness, could actually change her brain, which she argues is still stuck in the cave-man era, whilst the surrounding world is racing ahead. “It’s like you have a Ferrari for a brain but nobody gave you the keys.” She aims to suss out how to make your ancient brain work for you without dragging you into madness. She has condensed their experiences into this book.
Calling herself a “late-bloomer”, Wax told the audience how trauma had “locked her brain” and that brains and genes can change. More than that, they can be passed down generations, something she strongly believes we should be shouting from the rooftops. In a world that exacerbates the biological feedback loop; she stresses it’s important to exercise our thoughts in order to protect ourselves from an over-stimulating world and the resulting heightened cortisol levels – which lead to many diseases. The mind is a muscle, described by Wax as a “pile of sand; shifting in whichever direction you look.”
She tells us that self-awareness and understanding are the keys to mindfulness. “I looked at my rage, my fight, my shame, and I saw that it all came from my parents, my aunt.” It was this understanding which eventually led her to compassion, then forgiveness – and finally the point where she could gain distance from those behaviours.
She believes the need to medicate for mental illness has risen so drastically because our brains can’t keep up with our over-developed world, and told the audience that the next evolution would come from the realisation that our thoughts change our brains. In a bid to promote mindfulness and provide a safe-space for frazzled folks, Wax has set up a Frazzled Café initiative across the UK, in partnership with Marks and Spencer. You can find out where your nearest café is here.
Vice-chair of the Clinton Foundation and author of two new children’s books; She Persisted and She Persisted Around the World, Chelsea Clinton shares the stories of twenty-six inspiring women who changed history across the globe. Chaired by Carol Wood, Board Director at Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Clinton is introduced as a passionate advocate for empowering young people to bring about positive change to the world, determined to close the gap in learning and literacy in poverty. In her opening remarks, Clinton told the audience of the greatest inspirations in her own life. “My Maternal Grandmother and my Mom were enduring examples of persistence, grit and determination. These qualities were crucial to their lives and identities.”
Qualities which are shared with the twenty-six women in the book, all of whom “Rose up, spoke up, and persisted.” Those included in its pages, such as Marie Curie, Sissi, and Virginia Apgar, had to overcome their various adversities in order to succeed. They changed the world for the better and their legacies live on. Many of these women are activists, for civil rights, mental health, disability and education. Nelly Bly, Ruby Bridges and Malaka Yousafzai all feature as an example to children to not give up on their dreams. “I hope you believe in being free to make your own choice. All of these women did and the world is all the better for it”. More than this, Clinton hopes that the book will “close the imagination gap – for girls and boys alike.”
Clinton went on to talk about growing up in the public eye, as the daughter of a president, and the expectations that brought. “I think it’s important to have high expectations of yourself.” Whilst acknowledging her privileged life, with “access to great schools, never worrying about a roof over my head or food on my table”, she brought the idea back to her experience at school, saying “a really great teacher will help you figure out how to make a difference.” She advised the young audience that “persistence is never losing sight of the why and the what – the how I can adapt.”
When the inevitable question finally came, from a young girl in the audience, “Will you become President of the USA?” Clinton’s inner politician clicked into action as she advised any budding leaders of what questions they must ask themselves in such a position. “Can I do a better job? Am I the best person?” However the answer, thankfully, did come. “I am not the best person to undo the damage that’s been done. I will do what I can – which for me is to be a teacher, author and to support political candidates.” In the style of a true politician, she paused to look determinedly out at the young audience, before delivering her final, pitch-perfect response. “But it’s a question we must repeatedly ask ourselves.”
Overall an inspiring event, with much for children and adults alike, however, a live-reading of a section of the book may have been more geared towards the kids in the audience, who may have struggled with the more in-depth elements of the discussion.
Best-selling authors, Cat Clarke and Holly Bourne, talk about when life gets complicated. Exploring themes of mental illness, death, love and friendship, they reveal how their characters deal with these hugely important issues in their latest books, We Are Young and We Are All Lemmings and Snowflakes. The event was chaired by award-wining author, Alex Nye.
The authors shared with the audience how important it is to them to explore difficult themes in their books, with Bourne commenting, “I like to identify an issue first, then I ask myself how I can write about it. I want to write books I wish I’d had at that age, with messages that could really help people.” Clarke said, “I don’t set out to write about issues – I write about what concerns me and I explore it.” However different their approaches, there’s no denying these authors are succeeding in engaging their audience.
“There’s a relentless negative attitude towards teens in the media.” Clarke commented when asked about their target audience. Bourne added, “The teenagers I meet are so politically engaged; there are so many teenage activists. In my books, the teenagers are kicking butt because that’s reality.” The authors went on to praise the communities that like-minded teenagers have built online through their social media.
Bourne opened onto a wider topic, asking, “How can we break this cycle, where people keep dumping on the next generation?” She went on to highlight that mental health is impacted by life events and circumstances; and our understanding that would “Make the world a happier and more accepting place to live in.”
When asked about the value of labelling, Bourne suggested that “the diagnostic system for mental illnesses isn’t reliable because it depends entirely on the individual. But there is a power and a sense of belonging that comes from having a diagnosis.”
They have both written about suicide, a sensitive subject particularly in the aftermath of Thirteen Reasons Why. Clarke advised caution, “I understand that it can be scary talking about it but it can be equally dangerous not to. We need to talk about it, but we need to tread carefully.” The authors raised the importance of writing about both the dark and the light, when dealing with these topics.
Concluding with a discussion on the rise of ‘strong female characters’ in young adult fiction, Clarke revealed, “I have an issue with that. If you look at Katniss Everdeen etc. it gives a false impression that you must be saving the world to be strong. My characters are strong in a quiet way.” Bourne emphasised, “We’re gendering behaviours, when what we want is male and female characters expressing varying masculine and feminine characteristics. We need to widen what strong means.”
Something to chew on, for parents and teenagers alike.
In the third Freedom Debate, the panel discussed the Universal Basic Income (UBI) and its potential impact. Chaired by journalist and broadcaster Liz Leonard, Stewart Lansley, co-editor of Basic Income: The Global Debate, and Annie Miller, writer of the Basic Income Handbook, were up against UBI critic Tom Kibasi, Director of IPPR, a progressive policy think tank.
Universal Basic Income has recently jumped up the political agenda, with Labour pledging to include UBI in their next manifesto and the Scottish Government allocating £250k towards a feasibility study. Lansley vigorously argued the case for UBI as the best solution to poverty and Miller opened on why the current system doesn’t work , primarily addressing difficulties faced by women. “A woman who is married to a wealthy partner has no right to economic welfare in a system designed to stigmatise and humiliate claimants. Sanctions are absolutely savage, our benefits system is cruel.” She argued “all ages and all income groups need to be covered by a Scottish UBI system”, which is not the case in the scheme being piloted in Fife.
Kibasi argued that “Our economy is no longer working and needs to fundamentally reform.” His think tank investigated the desirability of UBI, finding that “most of the gains went to those in the middle”, costing a third of the Scottish Government’s budget. He added, “The biggest risk of automation is inequality. It will change jobs but won’t abolish them. The solution is stronger workers unions to ensure fair gains.” His biggest argument was letting capitalists off the hook. “We need to push for reform on the lower end of the labour scale.” Kibasi described his vision of a UBI future: “Imagine it: 30% of the population depend on UBI. Maybe they’re students. They’ve left Uni and they’ve decided to sit and read books or watch daytime TV. It creates dependency at the lowest level of skill which is a huge political risk. It’s euthanizing those on lowest income.” Only reinforcing the stigma against those who rely on support from our welfare system, making the assumption that they will choose to not work and thus won’t be productive citizens.
He insisted that changes in policy with political party turnover would sabotage UBI, leaving thousands of dependants stranded – an argument that also shows weakness in his “real political reform” proposal, as Miller pointed out.
Lansley and Miller’s models are based on a blanket level minimum tax for everyone: the audience was asked to raise their hands if they’d pay a minimum 50% tax to support UBI, and three-quarters did. Kibasi, seemed baffled by the level of support, offering the patronising response, “oh well, all you nice Edinburgh-people with your dinner parties.”
Finally, an audience member chided Kibasi for not responding to the issue of women’s economic circumstances and quality of life. He responded, “UBI will reinforce inequality. Women will be told to stay at home and look after the kids.” This provoked a passionate response amongst the audience with most women saying that UBI would offer them more freedom.
It would have been interesting to hear the panel’s take on higher taxes for the rich, which was raised by the audience too late. It was a lively debate which left plenty to think about, it’s only a shame it couldn’t last longer.
Award-winning writer Sally Gardner is joined by debut novelist Sophie Cameron in a discussion of their latest books which explore themes of death, grief, chronic and mental illness, and sexual identity.
Gardener’s My Side of the Diamond and Cameron’s Out of the Blue, feature aliens and angels respectively and are magical-realist books for young adults. On discussing their character influences, Cameron revealed hers “reflect young people in the real world who feel screwed over by older people – just look at US gun violence and Brexit.” Cameron wanted “the teenagers to be the moral compass of the book.” Whilst Gardner, talking about her character not being believed by her community, said “There is no one truth. I find that idea obnoxious.”
When questioned about the moral implications of featuring characters of ethnic minorities in their books, Gardener revealed her fear of over-policing. “I loathe having to label ourselves. There is a rainbow of diversity – we should be able to write about it. The recent morality clauses in publishing strike me with terror. We are left very vulnerable.”
Cameron identified that “there is a danger of taking over people. But diversity can be secondary. The essence of the story doesn’t change if you change the ethnicities.” She also identified that “certain stories must be written by the minorities that are the focus of the book – Black Lives Matter for example – these books are best written by the people from these communities.” Gardner concluded that “Characters of colour should and are not a replacement for writers of colour. We need to make sure writers of colour are published and translated.”
On sexual identity, Cameron thinks things are “Getting better, more for lesbian and gay identities than trans etc. I’d like to see characters where it’s incidental and not the focus of the book; like Cat Clarke’s We Are Young. Hopefully this would see a wider readership and encourage acceptance among young people.”
When asked about the issue of boys not reading books with female protagonists, Gardner’s responded “If JK Rowling had written Henrietta Potter, she’d be sitting here with us now. But she didn’t. She wrote Harry. Men should be reading about women. Women: stop all this boy business; ‘my little darling can only read Biggles’.”
The authors advocated that change and acceptance are driven by the best stories, with Gardner saying, “I knew when I killed little Eric that it wouldn’t get published. When I made two boys kiss, I knew it wouldn’t get published. I was told to put it in a drawer. And then it did get published. I think that when the message of the story is strong enough – that changes things.”
The theme of freedom kicked off on Saturday with a discussion of the issues faced by today’s writers and publishers. Author and Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award judge Raman Mundair, board-member at Publishing Scotland, Moira Forsyth and Chair of Literature Alliance Scotland, Peggy Hughes, were joined by author Jan Carson, who was on the National Centre of Literature’s showcase last year.
The panel opened on the strength of publishing in Scotland today, with Moira citing the multitude of ways in which Publishing Scotland supports its staff and members with training courses, conferences and fellowships. Independent publishers in Scotland are thriving (her own publishing house, Sandstone Press, had to close its submissions in June after being inundated with over two hundred submissions). “It’s tough on writers these days with the big corporates insisting a writer must first be agented before submitting to a publisher. It’s driving more people to look to independents, which is great, but when you’re a small team it takes a long time to read through so many submissions.” Forsyth also raised the issue of a writer’s survival, saying “A lot of writers supplement their writing, which you have to do, because you won’t make a career out of it unless you hit the big time.”
When the discussion moved on to arts funding, Carson highlighted the importance of funding for literature, saying “The quality of writing coming out of Ireland today is the best ever.” But with harsh funding cuts, Carson worries for the future: “Community art is not about making something nice to look at; it’s integral to the peace process. Art brings communities together and it’s awful to see that being pared back.” Mundair added, “It’s the people in power who need to pitch the value of art.”
Access to the industry was a recurring theme for our panel, where Mundair shed necessary light on gate-keeping: “I’ve been in Scotland since 2002: A multi-award winning, Shetland-dialect-writing, woman of colour, and yet this is my first appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. So it’s a gate-keeping question. It took me a long time to feel my voice is valued.” In order that literature in Scotland thrive, Mundair asks the question, “How does Scotland make itself distinct from the rest of the world and Westminster? We need to have a voice. We need to reframe the narrative. We need to demand that the gate-keeping changes.”
The discussion resolved that the new writer must be tenacious and willing to trail blaze their way into the industry – and the industry needs to open the gates to them.
Publications, thoughts and reviews
On themes of mental illness, disability and YA.