Jan Woolf is a playwright, writer and reviewer. Pic: Roelof Bakker.
Jan Woolf reviews the latest children's book from Culture Matters
In homage to Raymond Briggs’ classic book and animation The Snowman, this is a charming tale about snow. But whereas Briggs’ theme is loss, the Gallagher/Stewart one is diversity and unity. Aimed at early readers, it’s also enjoyable to read aloud to those younger. Like good panto, there’s always something for the Mums and Dads.
Satnam, a little boy from a Sikh family in Britain, sees his first falling snow through the classroom window, and is joined excitedly by his twin sister, Simran. This is magical stuff. Who cannot be moved by the sight of falling snow at any age? The language is gorgeous: ‘White flakes were falling FASTER and FASTER, they were like tiny pillows.’ The teacher takes all the children (small class size I note!) out to roll a snowball and build a snowman. The twins, helped by the other children, turn him into a Sikh elder, with a snowy beard (turning overnight into icicles) and a scarf used as a turban. Satnam’s own topknot is hidden by his warming bobble hat, and other children’s head coverings reveal their own cultural backgrounds.
The narrative departs from Briggs in an interesting way, as this is not about solitude. Neither is there a culturally anchored character like Santa. But there is dancing, singing and melting, and an excited, transformative expectation of return. Clear, poetic writing from Owen Gallagher and fine artwork from Fiona Stewart, inspired by, but not ripping off Raymond Briggs. The cultural references slip down nicely, and there’s nothing didactic here, with this haiku style foreword –
They fall from the sky
one flake at a time
to be put together.
The four year old I read it to said ‘I love it. So nice of you to give it to me tomorrow after you have told the others what you think.’ He also wants to draw little faces in the snowflakes on the inner covers.
by Jan Woolf
A winter’s day in 2008, in Dalston, London
Zeina wakes, and, remembering, keeps her body as still as she can. She lifts her hand to snap on the bedside light, gently turning her head towards the photograph in the thin green frame. There they are, David and Roseanne on the beach, Roseanne sitting on her father’s shoulders, clasping his hands, her chin resting on top of his head, grinning at the photographer – at Mummy. ‘See you both later,’ she whispers, sliding her hand under her white cotton nightshirt. Her fingers find the wad of bandage on her abdomen, just under the place where the ribs part. She presses gently. Not as sore as yesterday. Good. The Doctor was right; a drugged sleep would help her heal enough to get through the day.
‘The painkillers will knock you out Zeina, you will not even dream.’
‘I have not dreamed since the accident, doctor.’
‘If you can call war an accident.’
‘But it is an accident that I was born where I was – no?’
‘And at that time.’
An accident too that she was not with them when it happened, but out buying fish for dinner, red snapper to go with the aubergines growing on the balcony. It was raining at the time.
How considerate of them. Here, have a bomb but we will save you the bother of putting out the fires. Maybe the Americans told them, OK bomb, but check the weather. Be as kind as you can. Remember their human rights. Remind them we are only after terrorists – so nothing personal.
It looks like a scorpion, she’d told the doctor as she studied the row of stitches. ‘So it does,’ he’d replied apologetically, ‘I am sorry we don’t have the most up to date equipment.’
‘Never mind, it will heal well enough and for long enough.’
The last time she’d been cut and sewn was Roseanne’s birth five years ago. A big baby, flopping out of her like a fish in a swoosh of blood and water, David catching her, wearing his mask and scrubs. ‘Welcome to the world Roseanne,’ he’d cried in his joy. Clever David, a nice old Lebanese name they could agree on, but with a nod to Rose, his English mother. Then he’d laid their baby gently on the place where the scorpion now lurks.
She checks the time on her wristwatch. Half past six, a while yet before the winter dawn lightens the curtains of David’s boyhood bedroom. She presses another painkiller from its pack, sending it to the back of her throat with a sip of water, then slips into a doze, one that has her here in London, and there - in the milk – white air of a Beirut morning. For chosen people can be in two places at once.
She opens her eyes and covers the bandage with a cupped hand, as if helping something hatch. But it hurts now, hurts like hell, and she takes her attention into the pain. She feels feverish too, but never mind, God wants her work, just as He’d wanted David’s as he’d laboured over the flesh of her countrymen. Mother-in-law, or Rose – as she’d never managed to call her – will be knocking at the door soon asking why she isn’t up and off to the day centre. You’re lucky to get free health care, she’ll say, with that look on her face. Mother-in-law! That comfortless woman in the baggy flowered skirt and brown cardigan, her mouth turned down like a cod’s, eyes cold, the hair a pile of artificial brown curls. If it wasn’t for you, she’d accused her. The old conversation loops in Zeina’s head.
‘My son was a fine doctor’.
‘Yes, he was.’
‘He would have come home.’
‘But he was bound to meet someone. We are in love.’
‘He could have loved somebody here, in England.’
‘We have a child. Your granddaughter.’
‘Not any more.’
Mother-in-law would have felt better in Beirut, wailing with the others, not suffering in silence with knotted lips.
‘Zeina?’ The voice from the other side of the door is harsh, still accusing If it wasn’t for you.
‘Go away, I am ill.’
‘You’ll lose your place at the daycentre.’
‘Good.’ As Mother-in-law’s steps recede, Zeina laughs, but her laughter makes the scorpion dance, so she drags her hand from forehead to chin to wipe the smile from my face as David used to joke when he made funny faces for Roseanne.
She closes her eyes again, the better to imagine everything in their tiny Beirut flat. The ottoman by the wall where they used to sit in the evenings, the shadows pouring down the walls like water as night fell. That painting they argued about. But at least it’s gone now – ha. She sees the corner where Roseanne played with her dolls, can almost smell the lamb simmering with spices and okra, the perfume of flowers drifting in through the windows. Not like Mother-in-law's house with its whispering judgements and stale air.
She’d spent months here, drifting through the city like dust passing through open fingers. She thought she would feel better with Mother-in-law, that shared grief would make them closer. But Mother-in-law could not hold her, could not even touch her and sent her to a doctor for the pills that made her feel buried alive. And then she’d met the other doctor at the daycentre, the man who’d given her life purpose. She takes another painkiller and settles as comfortably as she can, to wait for the day, to turn into the evening, that will take her to her darlings. And finally, she sleeps.
There were no dreams, but there were voices.
It was regrettable that civilians were caught up in this.
He could have stopped it!
Thank God you were together when the shell found you. I know that you would have been holding Roseanne.
He prolonged it.
That she had her face pressed against that warm place by your neck.
He delayed the ceasefire.
That you had scooped her up and made it a game.
He too has children – does he not?
That Roseanne felt no pain. Or fear.
Time to get up and start the business. Her body feels heavy, so does her head. She’d been told there might be infection; but that she'd be OK for long enough to do her work. She looks at the photo again, which seems to shimmer, become more vivid: her daughter’s eyes brighter, her husband’s smile broader. See you soon, they say.
She moves her legs to the side of the bed and stands as shakily as a colt, then walks slowly towards the mahogany dressing table. She rips the nightshirt at the neck and it falls at her feet. The low mirror reflects her drooping breasts, strong thighs, the dark triangle of hair – and the pad of dressing above her navel. A curious picture, obscene really, she thinks, as she lifts the edge of the dressing. The ridged flesh beneath the stitches is pink and puffy, darkening in the centre like a piece of crackling. She takes a new dressing from a pack, sticks it in place and reaches for the neat pile of clothes on the chair. First the underwear: black pants, and the matching bra that David liked, make a bizarre frame for the dressing – a surrealist picture that no-one will see, not even the forensic scientists.
For there will be just be a mess of flesh, bone and pieces of fabric, just like there were in the block of flats. She thinks back, remembering old Mother Ghulab weeping, and turning what looked like a piece of red pottery over and over with her fingers. It was a part of her son’s skull. How she envied her that part of her child. She had none of her’s. Roseanne is dancing with the atoms. Mother Ghulab told her that she’d stopped believing in God.
‘I never used to,’ she’d replied. ‘But it’s different now – for if there is no God how can I see David and Roseanne again? Of course I believe in God.’
Just like he does.
She picks up a light blue shirt and eases it on as she might a coat. Buttoning the cuffs, she notices how fine her hands are, the nails beautifully pared, the blue veins fanning out over the back of her hand in a fine delta of blood. Then she bends – carefully – reaching for her socks, but the stitches pull. No socks then, she'll save the effort for her trousers, a pair of loose black ones, not too tight. So no, she won’t be looking fashionable, more like someone who got on the guest list through the – what did they call it? – community arts inclusivity policy. How pleased they will be to see her at the important Multi-Faith Reception, especially in the scarf. She drapes a black cardigan across her shoulders and checks that the invitation, to Zeina Baker, Daycentre is in the shoulder bag hanging on the hook behind the door. She takes a lipstick from the dressing table and turns it over and over in her hands. Sugar Plum, the one David told her looked so sexy with her heavy black hair. And then she brushes it, the way he liked, back from her forehead, behind her ears. Dropping the lipstick into her bag, she decides to put on the scarf, presently coiled in the cardigan pocket, later. Then she sits on the bed and taps a number into her phone. She'll grab her bag and slip into the loafers waiting by the door as she leaves. It doesn't matter that she has no socks. Doesn't matter at all.
She turns to pay the driver.
‘You alright love?’
‘Yes, thank you,’ she says, smiling at the man, whose face looks strangely like a potato. He might say to the press tomorrow, it was me that brought her. And to the police, yes, she did look ill.
‘Your invitation madam?’ says a young man at the door. Zeina dips her hand into her bag and she shows the invitation like a pass at a checkpoint, which is where she supposes she is. Doctor Anwar had told her she was a soldier.
‘No plus one?’ says the young man.
‘I’d have died and gone to heaven to get one of my mates in here tonight.’
‘Sure would, can I ask you to step through security?’
She manages to walk graciously enough through the high metal arch, a wedding arch she feels, for she is soon to be joined with David. A woman with a wand waves it around her body. Zeina winces as she pats her down, but she keeps the pain out of her face. The woman smiles and nods her through.
‘Thank you, where is the toilet?’
‘Over there, madam.’
Other women are fixing their hair, freshening their lipstick. Zeina looks into the mirror, her face is grey and clammy, her lips as pale as the flanks of the dead. Her fingers search for the Sugar Plum. They find it, and she caresses the small metal cylinder with her thumb. But it stays at the bottom of her bag. For inside the blob of pink wax is the detonator that will explode the tiny bomb planted in her abdomen. One twist, and boom. She takes the scarf out of her pocket, the scarf that Mother-in-law had given her – the only thing she’d given her – a shiny one, with pictures of London landmarks: Big Ben, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace.
She dips her head in homage to what she is about to do, then drapes it over her head and around her neck, making tiny sparks of static electricity as the cheap fabric reacts with her hair. Of course he will want to be seen shaking the hand of a woman from a day centre, wearing a scarf. Then she will reach into her bag for the Sugar Plum. He’ll think it’s for the photo that she wants of them together. One twist and —
It should kill him and a few others: advisers, press, hangers-on, so yes, she will hurt some innocent people, maybe one of these women here at the mirrors. Just as the innocent, like David and Roseanne, die everywhere else in wars he either starts or cannot stop.
She slips slowly into the chatter of the reception, looking for the man with the suntan, before the septicemia gives her a mundane death, the wrong death. But whichever it is to be, she knows, not one more day will she feel the fat toad of grief squatting on her heart. No more pain in her body or in her mind, or ever again in this world. ‘David, Roseanne, I am coming,’ she whispers, taking the canapé she cannot swallow.
Marx Memorial Library is delighted to announce a series of readings from fiction writers considered on the left. Creative writing has always mirrored and energised our movement, from Shakespeare to AL Kennedy. Each month a fiction writer, dramatist or poet will read from current work and discuss their writing processes with the audience. These sessions are ideal for avid readers as well as writers. Do bring along questions and an open mind.
In February we will be joined by writers Jan Woolf and Anne Aylor. Jan Woolf is currently writer in residence at the Marx Memorial Library. Her first collection of short stories Fugues on a Funny Bone was published in 2010 with Muswell Press, and many others with New River Press and International Times. She is working on her first novel, Hannibal and the Masked Girl, set in Tate Modern in 2003, where a painter plans a citizen's arrest of Tony Blair.
Her plays Sphinx and Porn Crackers were produced at the Hackney Empire, and You Don't Know What You Don't Know at the Royal Court in 2013 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Her latest play The Man With the Gold was started on an archaeological dig in Jordan 2013, and being prepared for a run in 2019, the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles that divided the Middle East.
Jan also has a campaigning history: a leading member of the Free for All museums campaign, founder-director of the recently re-launched Left Book Club and cultural coordinator at noglory.org where she has many articles and reviews.
Anne Aylor is a professional writer and teacher who has had short stories and poems published by the Arts Council of Great Britain, Oxford University Press, The Literary Review, London Magazine and Stand Magazine.
Her first novel, No Angel Hotel, was republished in 2012 in a new revised edition. Her second novel, The Double Happiness Company, was published in 2011. She is 90,000 words into her third and is working on a fourth.
A number of her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio. In 2008 she was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and in 2011 for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2014 she was the winner of the Historical Novel Society Short Story Award.
Her stage play, Children of the Dust, won a playwrighting competition and was co-produced by the Soho Theatre and Theatre Warehouse, Croydon.
She worked in post-war Bosnia where she practised Chinese medicine and taught ballet. She taught ballet at Morley College in London and is a member of PEN and 26. In 2007 she was a shortlist judge for the story competition held by the Wimbledon Book Fest and in 2011 she was the judge in the Peter Barry Short Story Competition.
Marx Memorial Library is hosting a series of readings from left-wing fiction writers. Each month a fiction writer, dramatist or poet will read from current work and discuss their writing processes with the audience. These sessions are ideal for avid readers as well as writers. The writers in February will be Jan Woolf and Anne Aylor. Here is one of Jan's stories, The Baton.
We make our way along the Sidmouth prom, two feet and four wheels: a warrior queen in her chariot, me her slave. A Happy Birthday banner covers her knees, the red felt tipped lettering percussive against white. ‘Happy birthday,’ strangers say. But my mother ignores them, looking resolutely ahead, the beach to our right, stalls to the left. Selling joss-ticks, jewellery, vegan curries, fish and chips, ice cream: and hippy clothes like there’s no tomorrow.
‘Bloody hot Mum,’ I shout.
‘Even for August.’
‘Aye, the sixth, and dinnae shoot.’
Fuck off, I mouth. ‘Sorry,’ I say.
We pass a young man crooning into his ear with cupped hands. Morris dancers skip and lurch; a woman in a leather dress decorated with spoons, feathers in her high black hat sings at the sky. ‘Barmy isn’t it?’ I say, leaning over her, trying not to shoot.
‘As ye said, bloody hot.’
‘No Mum, barmy, bonkers, not – ’
‘Wit d’ye expect, it’s Sidmouth not ma darlin’ Clydeside.’ Another pop at me for bringing her down here.
I push her on, into the glare of the sun. ‘Put your sunglasses on, you’ll hurt your eyes, you’re friggin’ ninety.’
‘Och.’ But she does.
We reach the end of the promenade’, where the river Sid flows into the sea. There are railings and a bench. Briny, mineral smells dominate. I position the chariot, pull at its brake, and sit beside her: an audience for the water theatre, as fresh meets salt – swirling and whorling – warm meets cold, silt meets sand, working out how to be together. Like me and Her. My mother looks mesmerised, almost content, her hands folded, nestling between the Y and B of her birthday banner. I look up at the great Jurassic hill, its dorsal hump turning to cliff face as it zigzags into the sea, a shed squatting precariously on the edge. I point it out. ‘Hanging on for dear life, eh Mum?’
‘Aye, like me.’
I change the subject. ‘That hill, so dramatic, like a ginormous humped back whale.’
‘Tha’s twee,’ she snaps.
Not as twee as that daft frizzy perm you just got yourself. ‘Monstrous, then!’
‘Aye, tha’s better, yir a writer, remember.’
She called me a writer. She called me a writer. Oh Mum. I pat the stiff white hair kept in shape by the aerosol glue she calls lacquer. ‘When I was your age,’ she says, ‘I was rattlin’ the fence at Greenham, while ye were jus’ writin’ aboot it.’
She’s been picking fights all morning. ‘Journalism is action Mum,’ I say, ‘and anyway, Cruise Missiles have gone.’
‘Aye.’ That edge in her voice.
I know we’re both right – as usual. But that I have allowed her the last word – as usual! ‘What about Faslane!’
‘Ye dragged me doon here.’
‘You’re too old to get arrested, Mum.’
‘Bin arrested before, ah know what to do.’
‘You were only 79.’
I put my arm around her, my mother the heroine. She pats my hand, her daughter the writer. She checks her watch. ‘It’s time,’ she says.
I turn her around, wheel her back a few metres, then cross the road, into an empty car park, a Mr Whippy van lurking at the edge.
‘Nothing doing, Mum.’
‘Will yir just wait.’
A trim, bearded man in Birkenstock sandals, not yet old enough to be called sprightly sets up speakers and a microphone. A couple of middle-aged women slide poles and black flags from canvas bags. Another grey beard, balding with a ponytail sets up a stall with pamphlets and papers. Something is about to happen, something the middle aged would call a happening, the muddle-aged a pop-up. The flags unfurled, reveal CND symbols. They are attached to poles, placed in each corner. It is as if pirates are capturing a ship in dry dock. Mr Whippy starts his bells. He’s asked to turn them off. He does, halfway through Lily Marlene. A rack of chairs is pulled apart like vertebrae. Up goes a banner:
HAPPY 60th BIRTHDAY CND
A gaggle of teenagers turn up, a few children with their parents. But it’s mostly the middle-aged: people in linens, cottons and defiant denims. Good people. People who talk about integrity to the young, as their elders talked about character to them. People who played in woods, crawled through hedges, camped in fields, watched Pinter plays, laughed at Morecambe and Wise, loved the NHS, wept when their children went to university, sang in choirs, marched on demos, picked blackberries, bought stationery, felt the seasons change, went to evening classes, posted letters, picked up grant cheques, wept again as their first grandchild was put in their arms. People who knew the old fear; wise enough to know it could be the new. Who’d lived through the old Cold War, worried about the new hothead in the White House.
An old man arrives, also propelled by a carer/daughter. The caught‘er and I exchange empathic glances. As she tucks a bottle of water down the side of her father’s wheelchair, my mother gets out of hers – insists on standing as she does every year. She lays her birthday banner on the ground, then, taking my arm, stands as tall as she can. It used to irritate me when her wee claw as she calls it, poked through the crook of my elbow, but now I’m pleased to see it, a sign she’s still here. Maybe I’ll have it chopped off when she’s gone – get it wind dried like those ducks in the windows of Chinese restaurants. I could put rings on the fingers, paint the nails scarlet and fold my arm around it when I miss her. I laugh out loud.
‘Whit yir laugin’ at Hen?’
‘Nothing Mum.’ I squeeze her wee claw to my side.
‘It’s open microphone time,’ says a henna haired woman in a white linen dress.
‘Open mic, Nan,’ corrects a Young Person in shorts and tee shirt, looking all of sixteen.
‘Sorry Molly, open mic.’
The woman resumes. ‘Seventy three years ago today, August the sixth 1945, the day I was born, the Americans dropped an atomic bomb called Little Boy on Hiroshima. Two days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. 380,000 were killed.’
The facts hang in the air like ghouls.
‘And now Molly will read something written by one of the survivors of Hiroshima,’ she says, handing the mic to her granddaughter. Molly takes it in her right hand, a piece of paper in her left – her voice clear and strong.
Through a darkness like the bottom of Hell I could hear the voices of the other students calling for their mothers. I could barely sense the fact that the students seemed to be running away from that place. At the base of the bridge, inside a big cistern that had been dug out there, was a mother weeping and holding above her head a naked baby that was burned bright red all over its body, and another mother was crying and sobbing as she gave her burned breast to her baby. In the cistern the students stood with only their heads above the water and their two hands, which they clasped as they imploringly cried and screamed, calling their parents. But every single person who passed was wounded; all of them, and there was no one to turn to for help. The singed hair on people's heads was frizzled up and white-ish, and covered with dust – from their appearance you wouldn't believe that they were human creatures of this world.
She steps back, into the silence she has created, her grandmother’s hand out for the mic’. But Molly doesn’t let go – holds it tight. A breeze, as if an oven door has opened, carries sounds from the beach: the hawing of gulls, kids running into the sea – and a lone female voice; ‘Put some cream on sweetheart – you don’t want to get burned.’
Jan Woolf was at Sidmouth Folk Festival, 6 August 2018, for the 60th birthday of CND.
Marx Memorial Library is hosting a series of readings from left-wing fiction writers. Each month a fiction writer, dramatist or poet will read from current work and discuss their writing processes with the audience. These sessions are ideal for avid readers as well as writers. The writers in February will be Jan Woolf and Anne Aylor.
Jan Woolf is currently writer in residence at the Marx Memorial Library. Her first collection of short stories Fugues on a Funny Bone was published in 2010 with Muswell Press, and many others with New River Press and International Times. She is working on her first novel, Hannibal and the Masked Girl, set in Tate Modern in 2003, where a painter plans a citizen’s arrest of Tony Blair.
Her plays Sphinx and Porn Crackers were produced at the Hackney Empire, and You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know at the Royal Court in 2013 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Her latest play The Man With the Gold was started on an archaeological dig in Jordan 2013, and being prepared for a run in 2019, the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles that divided the Middle East.
Jan also has a campaigning history: a leading member of the Free for All museums campaign, founder director of the recently re-launched Left Book Club and cultural coordinator at noglory.org where she has many articles and reviews. Further details of her work are here.