Sarah Roberts is a freelance writer and blogs at “Don’t Be Sorry”which she started to raise awareness about Down Syndrome after her eldest son was born with the condition. As well as promoting positive awareness about DS, Sarah spends a great deal of her time talking to new parents online whose babies have recently been diagnosed too. She gives talks to healthcare professionals about the impact that the language they use can have (because there really isn’t anything to be sorry about when delivering a diagnosis of Down Syndrome) and she’s also in the process of writing a book. Sarah lives in Woking, Surrey with her husband Chris and their three children, Oscar, Alfie and Flo.
When I fell pregnant with you, I had all these hopes and aspirations about what it’d be like to be a Mummy. In my naivety, I thought it’d be a walk in the park if I’m honest. I thought I’d know exactly what to do and I didn’t for a single second, ever expect to feel so completely out of my depth.
Five and a bit years ago you made your grand entrance into the world. A distant fuzzy memory now but when I allow myself to think back to the “us” then, there’s flashbacks of alarms screeching, monitors beeping, a rushed Caesarean section under general anaesthetic, to waking up and meeting you for the first time. There you were, completely unaware of the impact your arrival was about to have, cradled in your Daddy’s arms, peeping back at me through the bundles of towels you’d been wrapped in.
Your Daddy told me everything was ok. In fact he told me that everything was perfect. Except it wasn’t was it? 20 minutes after you were born we were told that you had Down Syndrome and right there and then, in the deathly silence of that hospital ward, it felt like my heart had been ripped out.
It took a while you see. For me to really love you. The real, all encompassing love I feel for you now. In those first few weeks and months I resented you. I hadn’t wanted different, I had wanted normal…. I’d always imagined I’d have the perfect baby.
What would having you in our lives mean for your Daddy and I now? Were we strong enough to be special needs parents? Did we even want to be? But here I am five and a bit years on and I wanted to write to say, I’m so, so sorry. Sorry that I didn’t give you a chance back then. I made an assumption about what our life would look like with you in it and how I saw you and my goodness I was so very, very wrong.
I didn’t see back then how with each milestone you achieved, albeit at a slightly slower pace to your peers, how much it would make my heart swell with pride each time. I didn’t see back then how you would bring our family even closer together, for at the centre of that family, is you. I didn’t see back then, that for however many imperfections there are in your Daddy and I’s relationship, the one thing that we both stand united together on, is you.
I also didn’t see back then the bond you’d have with your brother and sister. That’s right, (for the benefit of others reading this), I went on to have your siblings Alfie and Flo. They may be siblings by blood but they are your most adored and bestest of friends. I didn’t see any of it. The strong willed determined little boy you’d become; that you’d always make us laugh; the health related hurdles you’ve taken in your stride and overcome. And that even though you’ve been a man of few words up until this point, you’ve always made yourself understood… there has been no stopping you.
I had had an image in my mind of who Oscar would be… and the little man standing here today is more than I could have ever dreamed of. You’ve taught me so much. More than you’ll ever know. And now that I’m a Mummy of two more children, of Alfie and Flo – the two “typically developing” children and the ones that are supposed to have been the perfect babies I’d always imagined having – I realise that all three of you have brought me different challenges as a Mum and I now know there is no such thing as perfect. You’re all so imperfectly perfect to me.
And some days when I get you out of the bath Oscar and I wrap you in your towel, I look you in the eye and see the same baby I saw wrapped in his Daddy’s arms five and a bit years ago. It always brings a lump to my throat, because I wish I could go back and reassure myself back then, that right now, here today, we’re doing just fine.
Right Now I’m…. Watching – Call The Midwife Reading – I never have the time to read but I have been meaning to read The Unmumsy Mum’s 1st book since it came out 3 years ago Listening to – The Greatest Showman… Can’t get enough of the soundtrack
Pass it on: Who would you most like to see featured on this blog? Please suggest 3 people with their Instagram or Twitter handles.
My favourite Instagrammers:
Katie Southgate is the founder of Happy BobKat studios. She designs and sells prints with life affirming messages for children which she launched this year.
Mother of two children Dexter (7) and Hattie (4), Katie has become what’s called an ‘Oncology Mum’ since the diagnosis of Hattie, then 1, with a rare blood cancer. In 2014 Hattie became unwell with an ear infection, then a little more unwell with a chest infection, then sleepy and pale. 3 months before her second birthday, she was slowly filling up with Leukaemia. It took 2 full years of chemo treatment at Great Ormond Street to rid Hattie of the cancer. Katie and her family live with the reality that it could come back at any day.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month and special limited edition prints will be available throughout September from http://www.happybobkatstudios.co.uk to raise money for Hattie’s Heroes, the charity that was set up in Hattie’s name during her treatment.
This is a letter to Hattie from her mum, to read when she is 18.
A Letter To My Daughter, Hattie in 2031, aged 18
I write with the pure hope that this letter reaches you at age 18, healthy and lively, but with the full knowledge that this could easily be taken away. So I write every word with “hope” sandwiched in-between each letter.
You won’t know how brave you were. Or how damn hard you fought for your life. Or of the many little friends that passed away around you. What I can guarantee you will know though, is how loved you are. You seemed so small when they told me your body was filled with cancerous blood cells. Doctors told me it was in every organ in your body, yet at times in those early days of diagnosis, it was hard to believe, such as those days when you were screeching ‘DUCK’ at the top of your lungs for a plastic toy that was in fact a chicken!
Since that day, when I pressed Start on your first of thousands of doses of chemo, fear has filled me. I want to tell you something about fear. Living with an enormous level of fear can have two outcomes. It can cripple you, it can make you hide, run and bury your true self. Or, my darling daughter, it can enable you to become more you than you’ve ever felt. It can wash away grey areas and make things feel so clear. The answers become yes or no. The tasks and trials you face are more easily and lovingly overcome. The sun can shine more brightly, because of the fear inside of you.
In times of true and painful fear I find it can be just a small sentence that can change the outcome of how you begin to cope. I just hope I have equipped you with those words, those phrases. I hope that when something big comes along, and at some point it will, you can stand in the face of whatever it might be and feel the power swell inside you. Because my mighty little girl, you were born ready to fight. You are so fiercely tough. All I hope for you is your health, because the rest I know you will excel at – regardless of what path you take, what decisions and roads you wind down as you grow up – you have a greatness in your tiny body that is entirely extraordinary.
I am proud to be your mother.
Lovingly, yours forever.
Find the signs and symptoms for childhood cancers on http://www.bechildcanceraware.org if you know the signs a child will have a better chance of early diagnosis and potentially life saving information.
Limited edition prints will be available throughout September to raise money for Hattie’s Heroes. The story behind these special prints is based on the quote “Even the tallest oak in the forest was once a little nut that stood its ground”. This quote is perfect for Childhood Cancer patients, they really do have to stand tough against the odds. Happy BobKat Studios has collected beautiful illustrations of acorns from incredible artists who have all exclusively donated their designs for Hattie’s Heroes.
Abbey is freshly 40 and preparing to move back to Scotland with Barry the husband and Stanley that cat (after 17 years in London) so that they can share happy times with family. Abbey and her dad, Rikki, are writing and illustrating stories for children with life limiting illness, drawing on Abbey’s experience of having terminal breast cancer as well as her lifetime of working with children through drama. Abbey hopes to create stories in which children can recognise themselves and their medicalised lives but through fantastical, magical tales that will give light to darker moments.
A Letter to my 11 year old self
Dear Concorde (me),
No one is going to remember that type of aeroplane by 2017. No one will have called you that for YEARS, you’re not going to be defined by your big nose. Or your buck teeth. Or your long face. Or your fat arse. Or your cellulite.
You won’t be defined by any of those things because I’m giving you this letter with this almighty tip, the best tip you’ll ever get…
Be kind to yourself.
Don’t be your own worst bully, don’t call names at yourself in the mirror. Please don’t start because you’ll never stop, not until you realise you’ve wasted so much time and now your time’s nearly out.
Right now, you’re 11, you’re at the top of your game, about to be school sport’s champion, fabulous story writer, muscular, a dancer, a keen learner, honest (ish), confident, chatty, popular and a ribby tangle of big teeth and jagged bones.
The school is going to allow a book company to come and sell books to the class and without having to get parental permission you’re going to sign yourself up for some Judy Blume books. That’s when it’s going to start in earnest, the total preoccupation with being sexualised and alluring.
Don’t buy the books, or the Sweet Valley High ones, don’t instigate the BBP CLUB (Boys, Bras and Periods). Keep winning the races against the boys and giving them kiddy backs. You really don’t need to wear that bra you’ve been given by your older friend. Stop hoping the boys are going to notice it and don’t be thrilled when one of them does and gives it a ping.
Don’t see the other girls as competition. They are your sisters.
I’m not trying to deny your burgeoning adolescence, but please listen to me, don’t turn your back on that plucky pre-teen, she’s the better woman.
You are a better woman at 11 years old than I am at 40. Nearly 30 years of telling yourself that you’re not good enough takes its toll.
If becoming a woman is like emerging from a cocoon, you are the vibrant, bright green, juicy caterpillar and I emerged, a drag queen of a butterfly with antennae extensions and streaky tanned wings. I suspected I was a fat moth but I wanted to be a pretty butterfly so badly!
If someone bullies you everyday saying the same things over and over again, you’ll start to believe them, without question. So why didn’t I ever grow out of bullying myself? Why didn’t I stop judging myself as if I was a pubescent boy, obsessing over the biggest breasts and the prettiest face?
I feel such a fool for falling for the beauty myth that I told everyone else to be wary of!
When I got married (yes, that happens, but he’s Barry, not Morten Harket), I had fake hair added to my own, I had eyelash extensions, a padded bra, a corseted dress. Nothing natural was good enough. I wanted to look natural, but with the help of fake things. I wanted to be able to dance with abandon but I didn’t want my ankles to look fat, so I got heels. I battered my skin with an onslaught of sunbeds to get a tan, I got acrylic nails. I dieted, I got thinner.
Then, just a few months later, I got cancer.
Overnight, everything I’ve spent my adulthood cultivating, went.
My hair, that I’d always thought was my good feature (although not good enough for my wedding day), all fell out. Then ALL my hair, head to toe.
A childish, hairless landscape but with lumbering, adult curves and waves.
The eyebrows I’d thought were woeful and my long, thick eyelashes had enough of the insults and left too.
Without hair for coverage I noticed my vagina seemed to have acquired a ledge over the years. My face puffed up and I looked pale, undefined and ugly.
My breast was taken away, the good one that had always been bigger than the other one, “Not so smug now Mrs Left” said Mrs Right. All my very expensive and hugely padded bras were made permanently redundant, push-up only works when there’s something to push.
Lots of scars from complications. Radiotherapy tattoos, crispy, scorched skin.
Then keyhole surgery and my belly fell onto the mattress that night for the first time in my life and it’s never got back up.
An instant menopause and weird comfort eating has made things rub and chafe and I waddle.
But guess what? I don’t care.
I asked everyone to avoid putting photos of me getting married on social media because I suspected it would kill my happy memories of the day. When I got in from having my first head shave I put the photos on Facebook.
I presumed no one would find me attractive anymore so I didn’t care about trying.
I decided I didn’t want to medicalise my body any further and I didn’t have reconstruction on my breast.
I took myself right out of the running and I gave myself freedom and honesty for the first time in a very long time.
For one whole year as my body recovered from the acute treatment I rejoiced in the feeling of being alive and unburdened of the black cloud of regret and bitterness at not being good enough.
I had to be brave and face the world feeling completely naked and plucked. You haven’t started to build all those layers of self consciousness yet, so don’t!
I am sad for what I’ve lost, the body that I couldn’t tolerate before but that I’d love and cherish now. I miss flashing some cleavage, I miss squashing one breast up to the next.
I miss wearing necklines lower than my clavicle.
I miss being trussed up in ‘sexy’ underwear.
I miss my thick eyelashes that never grew back. I miss long hair.
I miss the body that was able to conceive.
I miss having no scars.
But I love being free from that need to be seen as attractive, sexy in particular.
I was so proud of myself for getting to this point, I planned how far my new outlook could take me in life.
Then after a year of the new me, the new me that reminds me of you, I found out that I’m not going to get the opportunity to make this more than just a test drive. The cancer is back but this time it means business.
But it’s not a waste, it’s a realisation and awakening that I’m so glad happened. I feel more fulfilled and open to happiness than I have done since I was you.
So please learn from my mistakes and be bold, like you are now.
Wear flat shiny shoes that can keep up with your strides into adulthood.
Let yourself off the hook, don’t sweat the small stuff. Be well, be healthy, be happy and be free.
It’s the hardest thing to do, but tell yourself you’re brilliant as you are and you’re more than good enough and then make sure that’s true. Live! Make me proud to be me.
If they call you Concorde then fly with it.
With all the love I have,
P.S. I should tell you, because I forced myself not to care, I now smile and pose for photos and I laugh at the bad ones and keep the good ones. Everyone around me is thrilled I want to record our moments together with a photo. I still see the things I didn’t like but I also see good things and I focus on those, instead of beating myself up. I’m no longer ashamed, I actually like what I see, a happy photo is always a good photo. A clever photo might be a pretty one but nothing can beat a happy one.
Abbey and her dad
Abbey and her dad
Abbey and her mum
Abbey is currently writing books, which her dad is illustrating, for children with life limiting illnesses.
Until recently she has also been running children’s drama workshops in London: http://www.stripeysocksdrama.co.uk
Nadia Shireen mainly writes and illustrates children’s picture books, (although she does write and illustrate other things as well). She lives in London.
1) How did you end up doing the job you do?
I took a very long-winded route to get here. I’ve always loved drawing and writing, but when I went to university I thought I should be sensible and get a law degree. My English teacher was furious. She glared at me, shook her head and angrily whispered, “That’s it… you’re going to be a bloody lawyer!” (Mrs Aldridge, if you’re reading this… I’m not a bloody lawyer.)
It became clear about half an hour into my law degree that I hated it. But I pointlessly slogged through it. In fact, I carried on and did an MA in Criminology… which was even more pointless!
I eventually moved down to London, rented a very cheap room from a kindly relative and started working in the magazine industry. Everyone told me it would be impossible to get a job, but I just kept turning up to the same office, trying to make myself useful and essentially refusing to leave. I wore them down in the end.
I worked as a sub editor and production editor on a variety of magazines for the next 10 years. I had a lot of fun… but eventually it had become a bit of a drag. The work was unsatisfying and I was bored. I started doing evening classes in illustration to perk the week up. Then I found an illustration course in Cambridge where I could study part time, allowing me to continue working four days a week in London. It took two and a half years. At the end of it there was a degree show, where I displayed my end of term project – a dummy of ‘Good Little Wolf’. To my utter shock and disbelief, some publishers liked it and offered to publish it. I can’t tell you how surprised I was – it was a bolt from the blue – but it was fantastic and it changed my life.
2) What are you working on right now?
My next picture book, which is about a plucky young girl with black curly hair who challenges a big, horrible, powerful monster… Any similarities between any persons living or dead, etc etc…
3) Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration to date?
Music has always been the thing that takes my brain to new and unusual places, so I’ll go for the pop stars that formed my musical foundations: The Beatles, ABBA, David Bowie and The Pet Shop Boys.
4) Who would you most like to work with?
Well, it’s not something that can ever happen, but I always loved those ridiculous Monty Python annuals. I think I liked them more than the tv programme. I love all the funny annotations, the way they’d mess around with layout and type and all that. And obviously Terry Gilliam’s drawings and collages are brilliant. I wish I could have drawn a few bees and hedgehogs for them way back when. It might be fun to collaborate with some funny writers and create something similarly silly.
5) Where do you feel most inspired ?
I get really inspired by being outside, ideally in wild, quiet places… places far away from noise and humans, where the sky feels huge and open. That’s when I feel relaxed and insignificant. It’s liberating to remember how little we matter, in the grand scheme of things. I grew up in Shropshire, and you can get to the Welsh border in about 20 minutes. I think about the places we would go to when I was a kid, like Lake Vrynwy, Church Stretton, a little place called Inwood. Now I live in London and don’t really get out into the open much, and I miss it. The closest I get is having a very slow jog around Hampstead Heath. I hate running but also secretly quite like it. I like it when my legs get muddy and achy, and the wind stings my cheeks. It’s good when I can allow my brain to drift into a different gear, so that creative ideas can breath and move around a little.
6) What did you want to be when you were little?
I wanted to be a cartoonist and then I wanted to work for Smash Hits magazine. I’ve sort of managed both, so I’ve got nothing to complain about.
7) What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Always start with the strongest colour, or the most extreme idea. You can tone it down later if you need to.
8) What has been your career highlight to date?
I never thought I’d have a job that would take me into schools, but now I do. When I see children getting enthusiastic about drawing or writing stories, it gives me a huge buzz. Once I watched a class perform a play based on one of my books, where they had winningly adapted ABBA’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ into ‘Honey, Honey, Honey’! How good is that? I feel privileged to do what I do, and meeting young readers has been a hugely rewarding aspect of this unexpected career.
9) What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?
I procrastinate a lot, which feels like an even bigger sin now my working hours are mostly dictated by childcare.
10) Who is your favourite fictional female character?
It’s a toss-up between Rizzo from Grease and Darlene from Roseanne.
Right Now I’m….
Watching: Hey, Duggee and Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom (not entirely my choice, but they are great.)
Reading: The Sellout – Paul Beatty; The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole 13 3/4 – Sue Townsend; Head On – Julian Cope.
Listening to: I typically start the day with the Lauren Laverne show on BBC 6 Music. And then I play around on Spotify for the rest of the day. There is so much music, and not enough time to listen to it all, and that makes me anxious and annoyed. At the moment, my most recently played albums are by: Solange, The Blue Nile, Eluvium, Julianna Barwick, Childish Gambino and Anna Meredith. I also enjoy making comforting playlists full of the same old songs in slightly different orders.
Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?
Rachel Cathan is a writer from Bedfordshire. In 2001, a mutual friend introduced her to a part-time pub DJ in Southend-on-Sea. A month later, they had moved in together, around seven years later they tied the knot, and a little while after that – just like so many couples before them – they made the exciting and terrifying decision to start a family. And then, like a growing number of couples today, well…not a lot happened.
Throughout the subsequent years of fertility investigations and failed treatments, Rachel kept a diary of her experiences, and it’s from these first-hand encounters in the world of infertility and IVF that her first book, 336 Hours has been adapted.
Dear Speck of Dust (for that was the size of you when we met five years ago),
You might never know how we used to talk about you, even wave to you on occasion as we drove past the turnoff for the fertility clinic where you lived.
‘Hello, little one’ we would call out, and just for a moment my heart would lurch in recognition of the life that could one day be mine. But then I would check myself, realise my foolishness, and feel the searing shame of knowing that this was as close as I could get to calling myself a mum.
Six months had passed since the day you were conceived, and finally the day had arrived to thaw you out from your frozen state and bring you back to your home.
You won’t recall any of this, of course. And nor will you recall the trusty weekend staff who had given up their Sunday morning to perform your transfer; a compassionate gesture since your mother had (typically) ovulated on a day that was not conducive to normal opening hours. But I can see them gathered around us still, the embryologist holding out a miniature straw, no bigger than a sewing needle, containing our last embryo.
‘Mrs Cathan’ he told me, ‘I need you to confirm this is yours.’
I can feel the sweat trickling down my arms and prickling the skin behind my knees, as your transfer was performed to the sound of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 in D-Minor. As we laughed uncomfortably at the dramatic choice of soundtrack, I attributed my sweat-drenched self to the uncharacteristic 32- degree heat outside. But we were in a state-of the-art, fully air-conditioned laboratory, and the truth is I was as scared as I had ever been.
I feared so badly that you were destined to be only a dream, like a beautiful town, glimpsed from behind the closing doors of a train, whose imagined possibilities would haunt me for a lifetime.
Is this what you would come to represent? The road untravelled; the opportunity missed; the one that got away?
The next two weeks passed in an agonising time-warp that seemed to last for months. Like Schrödinger’s cat, you were hidden out of sight, arguably both dead and alive. I analysed every twinge, every pulse and every pinch. Even quantum physics could not bend my mind like the days that would determine your fate.
But that was five years ago. It’s 2017, and I now know the result that those two weeks would bring.
All I can say is it’s just as well that the embryologist couldn’t tell us too much when he introduced our embryo in a straw. He couldn’t tell us that what he held between his thumb and forefinger was a time-travelling collector of dinosaur relics, a superhero fanatic, and a swashbuckling leader of a mutinous pirate crew: the infamous Caption Walrus.
He omitted to mention that, if successful, this embryo would be leaping from armchair to sofa by day, a cutlass whistling through the air above his head. And then sprawling diagonally across our bed each night, a tattered blue rabbit fiercely tucked under one arm.
I’m so grateful that there was no information sheet explaining how the contents of our straw would grow. Because how could I ever have borne the responsibility? How could I have survived the two weeks before the pregnancy test, and indeed the nine months that followed, knowing the scale of catastrophe if I didn’t get you into this world?
You had to be here; it’s so obvious to anyone now. How could our planet ever have been complete without that miniature John Travolta dimple in your chin? How could I bear to be awoken without your face a millimetre from mine, demanding I answer an urgent question about the dubious superpowers of Popeye?
It’s just as well, too, that our embryologist was at a loss to share the less enchanting traits of your character: your stubbornness, which would turn every remaining dark hair on my head a solid grey, and your night-time alertness of a bat.
They offered me no advance warning on that fateful August day that you would be a plunderer, not only of treasure, but also of sanity and sleep. I didn’t realise that the world and its many failings would soon be solely my fault, or that I would so often be walking the plank.
But just as you have no idea of your beginnings, you are probably also unaware that I am secretly enjoying these things to which you drive me each day: every eye roll, every coffee, and every sigh.
I will be forever thankful that you pulled me through those closing doors and on to the other side. And that, whatever happens from here on in, I would every minute choose the reality over the dream.
Rachel’s first book 366 Hours is available now from Amazon and all good bookshops.
Right Now I’m….
Watching: Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures on CBeebies and Catastrophe on Ch4 (not with the same viewing companions, I should add)
Reading: The Unmumsy Mum Diary and Hurrah for Gin (must-have reads for bad parenting days)
Listening to: BBC Radio 2 (I’m no longer fighting the fact that I’m old)
Pass it on: Who would you most like to see featured on this blog? Please suggest 3 people with their Instagram or Twitter handles
Rachael Rogan: @RogansBooks Rachael owns a fabulous independent bookshop in Bedford and made a trip to London to meet with Lucy Mann and Sophy Henn last year. She would be a great contributor to The Muse!
Rosanna Slade: @RosannaSlade Rosanna runs her own yoga practice in Bedford – inspiring woman with a great outlook on life and now a new mum.
Delyth Johnson: @Thischangedme
Delyth is the co-creator of the app, This Changed Me – an inspirational way to use technology to create a better work/life balance and achieve personal goals.
Last week I asked my four-year-old what he’d like to be when he grows up.
‘A SPACESHIP!’ he cried.
‘You mean a spaceman?’ I asked.
‘No! A rocket launcher!’ he replied.
‘Okay . . .’ says I, ‘anything else?’
‘A caroderodontasaurus!’ he exclaimed, before running off.
‘Okay,’ I said again, before Googling the above and calling after him ‘It’s carcharodontosaurus!’ (but 10/10 for even knowing what one is).
Aside from the fact it’s physically impossible for him to be either of these things, I like his enthusiasm. As my parents wished for me and my brother, I wish for him to be whatever he wants, as long as it makes him happy. Though not a drug addict. Or a criminal. Dream big, little one, and see where it takes you. Because you never know, one day, that thing you loved so much as a kid could become your career, if all the necessary ingredients fall into place to make your dream happen.
In these increasingly fathomless and downright scary times we face whenever we see the news, I’ve been thinking about dreams a lot; specifically, escapism. I’ve deleted the Twitter and Facebook apps from my phone because the bombardment of incomprehensible news is too much. And when it comes to escapism, I’ve realised how fortunate I am. I deal in escapism on a daily basis, for I am an avid, ardent, hopelessly devoted lover of books and reading. I thank my lucky stars this is the case. On the day things here began to seem so weird and uncertain, June 24th 2016, I found myself sitting on our sofa clutching this pile of books with an ice-cold G&T in my hands. I held them and concentrated very hard on what they represent. On this day that was so fuelled by lies and scaremongering, to me, these books stood for imagination and magic and humour and kindness and charm, wonder and adventure.
It helps to seek comfort in what you love, so I found reaching for the bookshelves a natural thing to do. But where did it begin? I have my parents, my English teachers and professors, and without a doubt, my school library and our local village library to thank for fostering and encouraging in me this unconditional love of stories and words (and spelling. Oh, spelling!). The hours I spent in that old Grade II listed building, with its nooks and crannies perfect for curling up in, with a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys or Point Horror, Sweet Valley High, Adrian Mole, Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton to name a few, are immeasurable. I didn’t know it then, as a frizzy haired kid with crooked teeth, but one day, my access to so many authors and illustrators and their imagined worlds would very much become my reality.
Because now, it is my pleasure and privilege to not only be a lover of books, but to have made books my career. For ten years, I worked at Penguin Books in London, moving from Penguin to Puffin and what is now Penguin Random House Children’s. When I see that Penguin or Puffin on book spines’, I see in my mind a place where book magic is made. A place where I spent hours surrounded by books, thinking about books, writing copy for and talking about books. When I read picture books with my son, I don’t just see the names of certain authors and illustrators; I remember a train journey I took with them or seeing them draw live at an event (yes, it’s Quentin Blake I’m thinking of here and it will forever be a Total. Life. Highlight.).
As someone who adores books, you can guess what a special place it was to be. Since becoming a freelance creative copywriter in 2014, I have delved into the wonderful world of Harry Potter via Pottermore, I’ve discovered How to Train Your Dragon, written about motherhood for Ladybird and how to celebrate World Book Day. I’ve happily revisited the worlds of the BFG, Matilda, Charlie et al, amongst many other delightful projects, for both adult and kids’ books. I’m not throwing these names around lightly either, please know that. I’m more than a little overwhelmed to know that this year, my blurbs will feature on some of Enid Blyton’s most iconic series’; stories I still have the bumper hardback editions of, complete with sellotaped spines and inscriptions from my family wishing me luck in my 1988 ballet exam. For that little girl, whose recently rediscovered 1988 school report notes ‘Sarah is a keen reader. She always has her nose in a book’, it’s a childhood dream come true.
It is a special and privileged thing to be able to do what you love, and love what you do. I know that. This is why, taking all of the above into account, it’s so unbelievably sad and frustrating that libraries up and down the country are faced with cuts and closures. Talented and dedicated librarians are losing their jobs and future generations of readers are being punished. And it truly is a punishment, when these community spaces are not valued enough for what they offer everyone who steps inside and into a room filled with shelves of life-enhancing information and imagination enriching stories. Beyond that, they are being denied the experience of these books; yes, an eBook is convenient. But what about the smell and feel of the physical book? Beautiful, enchanting illustrations that sweep you away? You can’t lovingly smooth the pages on the Kindle app. Tap vs touch; it doesn’t compare.
Yesterday this quote by Professor Stephen Krashen, illustrated by Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell, made me stop and stare. So simple, and so true. ‘Reading for pleasure, reading for life.’ It strikes such a chord because I am a case in point. I was, and still am, lucky enough to have access to so many books, as does my son and our new baby will too. I cannot imagine my life, or my children’s lives, without books. I’m so delighted when I see my little boy independently sitting with a book in his lap, gazing at the pictures and ‘reading’ the words he knows well, or when he asks me at 6.30am for a story. Well, obviously not delighted straight away because I’m so bleary-eyed, but once I’ve had coffee the answer is yes. It could never not be.
When it comes to reading, the doors it opens can’t be underestimated. And a love of reading cannot be supported if library doors are being slammed shut. ‘Ssssssshhh, we’re in a library!’ is a fond and familiar refrain, for these are places to be treated with respect and love. But there’s nothing to be quiet about when it comes to saving our libraries. Never mind ‘Sssssshhh!’. It needs to be a deafening roar.
Right Now I’m… Reading: Most recently I loved Little Deaths by Emma Flint – devastating, mesmerising and I’ll have to read again, and Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough – can’t stop thinking about the ending.
And when it comes to children’s books, the top five picture books we return to time and again are Kicking a Ball by Allan Ahlberg and Sebastien Braun, Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants by Giles Andreae and Korky Paul, Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, Something Else by Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell and Captain Jack and the Pirates by Peter Bently and Helen Oxenbury.
Listening to: The ‘Hypnobirthing Relaxation Audio Colour and Calmness’ app with Katharine Graves.
Watching: The last series I binge-watched was The Missing series two, v chilling. And over Christmas we watched Hunt for the Wilderpeople on Netflix and I’ve been recommending it to anyone who’ll listen ever since.
Pass it On… Nominate up to three women that you’d like to see featured on The Muse: Katya Shipster @chaletdesoie
Katya is Deputy Publicity Director at Michael Joseph, mother of two small boys and co-owner of the stunning Chalet de Soie in Morzine, which she and her husband renovated from the ground up in 2013, whilst living and working full-time in London. Blog: http://chic-happens.net/
Helen King @hegsking Helen is the former Head of Education at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre and Head of Campaigns for the National Crime Agency. Helen is now Director of External Relations for Pause, which works to help women who have had multiple children removed, as well as being mum to four young children. That phrase ‘I don’t know how she does it?’ Totally applies to Helen.
Shannon Cullen @imwreckedmother Shannon is a Publishing Director at Penguin Random House Children’s, mother of two and her brilliant new book, I’m Wrecked, This is My Journal, which she recently wrote on maternity leave with her newborn son, publishes in March.
Sheila lives near Chelmsford in Essex, and has been writing avidly since childhood. For most of her life she worked as a medical secretary, retiring early to concentrate on her writing, Sheila is the author of 11 contemporary novels. Part 1 of Sheila’s brand new digital series ‘The Vets at Hope Green’ will be released by Ebury Press on 19 January, followed by the paperback of the complete story on 1 June 2017. http://www.sheilanorton.com/
In at the deep end: How a failed swimmer finally overcame her fears
I’ve occasionally been asked, in interviews or on questionnaires, to talk about my proudest achievement. Without wanting to be mawkishly sentimental, my personal response is always ‘my family’ – because, well, obviously bringing up my three daughters was the best (and sometimes the most challenging!) thing I’ve done, and I’m not afraid to say how proud I am of them all. But the interviewers have usually wanted a writing career-based response, and there have been lots of possible answers, from winning two short story awards, to selling my first novel to a publisher, to writing so many of my earlier novels alongside working at a busy full-time job in the NHS. But there’s another answer, that has no connection with writing or even with my family, and it’s this: I’m ridiculously proud of myself for learning to swim!
I was never what you could call an active child. I spent most of my time with my head in a book, or dreaming up stories in my imagination. True, I did at least have to walk everywhere – I didn’t learn to drive until my mid-thirties – and that, together with the lack of junk food available during my post-war childhood, might have kept me from an early obesity-driven grave. I did take up cycling at one point before I passed my driving test, mainly to get to and from the shops more quickly. But I gave up after the massive humiliation of being overtaken on a hill by an eighty-year-old acquaintance, who waved and called out to me as she passed, while I could only manage a wheeze and a puff in response.
School PE lessons were, for me, the devil’s own torture device. You know the stories about the child who nobody wanted to pick for their teams because she was so totally useless at every game? I was that child. I suffered that mortification on a regular basis. I never learned the rules of netball. I hated hockey with a vengeance, scared stiff of being hit by the ball or clouted by someone’s stick. In tennis lessons, I’d actually sit down on the grass court and pick daisies. And in gym sessions, I’d wait for as long as I dared in the line to vault over the bloody horse, letting other girls go past me when the (strident, bossy, scary) gym teacher wasn’t looking, and then run up to the thing and pretend to fall over or hurt my ankle at the last minute. How did anyone actually get over it? I watched all the mega-popular sporty, athletic girls with a strangely detached feeling of awe and wonder. Detached, because I didn’t even want to be like them. I wasn’t interested. It all seemed such a profound waste of time and effort.
Swimming, of course, fell into the same category. School swimming lessons when I was a child consisted of being coached enthusiastically for galas if you were one of the best swimmers, and being pretty much ignored to hang around in the shallow end holding a float and feebly kicking your legs if you weren’t.
However, when I was eleven, my dad taught me to swim in the sea. The sea and I have had a lifelong love affair. From toddlerhood, I’d always trot into the shallows enthusiastically, despite not having a clue how to survive if a wave knocked me over. I was, of course, too much of a coward to go out of my depth. But on one family holiday, Dad decided to show me how to float, and then how to throw my arms around in a rough approximation of the front crawl. It couldn’t have been pretty – Dad wasn’t a great swimmer himself – but it worked. I was thrilled. I could swim! Well, after a fashion. By the time I was a teenager, I could just about flounder across the width of the shallow end, often putting my feet down halfway. To all intents and purposes, I was still virtually a non-swimmer.
When my three children were born, all within less than four years, I decided to take them all for swimming lessons, and was thrilled when they all learned to swim at a young age. Not only that, but (because they were being taught properly), they were confident in the water, learned their strokes correctly and all became very good swimmers. I was extremely proud, if a tad envious – but it never occurred to me that I could have done the same. I’d long come to terms with my limitations with regard to anything physical!
And that was pretty much how I remained until a holiday in Australia in 1997. One of our trips was to the Great Barrier Reef. On the boat out to the reef, a marine biologist told us about the amazing sights we’d see by snorkeling in the sea above the reef. I guessed I’d have to miss out on that. But then, she added that if anyone was a nervous swimmer, she could tow them along with a lifebelt and point out the marine life.
‘I’m going to do that!’ I decided, carried away by the moment.
I hadn’t quite thought it through. When it came to being fitted up with my snorkel, mask and fins, I panicked.
‘I’ve never swum with my face in the water before!’ I blurted out to the marine biologist.
I suppose, in my naivety, I’d kind of hoped she’d feel sorry for me, give me some advice, or somehow devise a way I could see the life below the surface without actually getting my head wet. Instead, she gave me a slightly supercilious look and said:
‘So what makes you think you’ll be able to do it now?’
And I reacted in what was, for me, a very uncharacteristic fashion. I sat up straight on the edge of that boat, squared my (shaking) shoulders and retorted:
‘Because I want to!’
The first few minutes were very scary. For a start, I didn’t like not being able to touch anything with my feet. I held onto that lifebelt so tight, my knuckles hurt.
‘Now just rest your face on the surface of the water,’ the (young, fit, sporty) marine biologist instructed me and the other wimps she was towing.
Just like that, ha! But – I did. Surprise, surprise, because of the mask, nothing went up my nose or into my eyes. I could see below the surface! Wow!
‘Just relax and float,’ she went on.
And, yes, I did. I experimented with breathing (having up till then been holding my breath in fear), and it worked. I could do it! Breathe in, breathe out, nothing happened – I didn’t choke, I didn’t sink, I didn’t drown. It was amazing! I saw some fabulous sights during the next half hour – brilliantly coloured coral, huge fish who gazed back at us with disdain, shoals of tiny bright fish who darted backwards and forwards in front of us – but none of it compared with the excitement I felt at the very fact that I’d done it. I didn’t let go of that lifebelt for a single second, of course, but that was beside the point. I’d snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef! Me! It was an experience I’d never forget.
But back home, back in my real life as a wimp, the excitement soon wore off – until one day soon afterwards, my friend Geraldine told me she fancied going to adult swimming lessons.
‘But you’re already a good swimmer!’ I said.
‘No, I’m not. I want to improve my strokes.’
Improve them? I’d just be satisfied with getting some. After a few moments of deep breathing to control my nerves, and before I could change my mind, I said:
‘OK! I’ll join up with you.’
We both started in the beginners’ class. On the first lesson, our instructor asked us to show him what we could do. Geraldine set off powerfully across the pool. What the hell was there to teach her, I wondered? I followed, gasping my way untidily along for a few metres with my head held high. Needless to say I wasn’t expecting applause, but unlike school swimming lessons, there were no scornful titters. The instructor asked me whether I could try putting my face in the water. I shook my head. What, without a snorkel? You must be joking!
‘Just try, for me – duck down very quickly,’ he encouraged me.
Right. I was conscious that everyone else was waiting to get on with the lesson. I ducked my face in and out within a split second, coming up with my hair all over my face, spluttering and rubbing my eyes.
‘Two pieces of advice,’ the instructor said. ‘Tie your hair back. And get some goggles.’
It’s no exaggeration to say those words changed my life. Within weeks, kitted out with my hair band and goggles, I was learning to swim – properly. Within months, I was joining Geraldine in the ‘intermediate’ class (she’d been moved up straight away). Within a year, we were two of the select group of four adults who made up the advanced class. At the age of 49, I could finally say I was a swimmer. I’d learned the correct breathing for front crawl. I’d learned breaststroke, which had always been a complete mystery to me. I’d learned back crawl, and had even had a go at butterfly. I could swim lengths – several lengths – more lengths the longer I learned, the stronger I got. I could pick up a brick off the floor of the pool, jump in at the deep end, and swim wearing pyjamas for survival training. I was finally doing all the things I’d admired my children for doing when they were a fraction of my age.
Despite my excitement, I knew I’d never become a really good swimmer. I’d probably left it too late for that. Sometimes I regret never learning properly when I was young – I missed out on so much enjoyment. But then again, the thrill of having overcome my fears and lack of ability later in life has never worn off. At the peak of my (admittedly still limited) fitness, I undertook to swim a mile for charity. I didn’t find it easy. But every time I felt like giving up, I remembered that scary gym teacher at school, and thought: If only you could see me now.
Nearly twenty years further on, I tire more easily and accept that I have to stop frequently during my thirty lengths, to take a few breaths. Ironically, I find now that I can’t swim without my face in the water – it hurts my neck too much. But yes, I still swim regularly and with asthma and arthritis among other things, I know how good it is for me, and it’s still (apart from walking) the only active pursuit I’m even interested in. I’ve realised it suits me because I’m not at all competitive. I swim alone, the only contest being with the constraints of my own body. When people ask me if it’s boring, just swimming up and down the pool, I reply that it’s my thinking time. Many a plot twist has been devised during a few lengths of crawl!
And of course, my love affair with the sea is still going strong. I might not be so keen these days to fling myself into the freezing waters of the English Channel at all times of year, but give me a warm ocean, a snorkel and the chance to jump off a boat moored in a beautiful blue bay, and I feel as close to paradise as any ex non-swimmer could possibly be.
Right Now I’m….
Watching: ‘Game of Thrones’
Reading: ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’ by Bill Bryson
Listening to: ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ by Coldplay
Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?
Fenella J Miller @fenellawriter Prolific and very successful self-published historical novelist .
Emily Yau @EmilyWhyy My editor at Ebury Books, who also performs in musical theatre.
Jojo Moyes @jojomoyes One of my all time favourite novelists
Part 1 of Sheila’s new digital series ‘The Vets at Hope Green’ will be released by Ebury Press on 19 January, followed by the paperback of the complete story on 1 June 2017.