Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Call of the Wild

An argument in eight parts:


January is the time of year for soul-searching questions about one's life in the future, yet questions like these are asked constantly by teenagers all the year round: Why am I here? Why am I not more popular? Why am I not more beautiful/fit/clever/likeable? How will I pass these exams? How can I bear to go to school tomorrow knowing that those people detest me so much? What can I do about my enemies? Why does nobody understand me? Why am I so alone?


Things get too straight
I can't bear it
I feel stuck, stuck on a pin
I'm trying to break in
But I know it's not for me
And the sight of it all
Makes me sad and ill
That's when I want - some weird sin
Just to relax with
Yeah, some dumb, weird sin
For a while anyway
With my head on the ledge
That's what you get out on the edge.

 Some Weird Sin – Lyrics by Iggy Pop

The song describes the feeling of alienation, when all the choices available to you are no good. The pressure's too much, you need an escape, a way out, otherwise you will explode.

What could it be?


Self-harm, eating disorders, poor mental health, suicidal feelings, porn addiction, the huge obesity problem, alcohol and drug abuse, mobile phone/screen addiction. The list goes on. Pressures on children and teenagers are greater than they ever have been. The effect of this is seen in statistics on the increasing prevalence amongst children and teenagers of damaging behaviour.

In a UNICEF study released in 2007, the UK came bottom of a list ranking industrialised nations in terms of child wellbeing.

Yet despite all of this, many youngsters still courageously manage to achieve higher grades than ever before and are opting for healthy diets.

But whichever choice they make, the need for an escape is crucial when children and teenagers feel powerless and under pressure, as they too often do.

Where can they go?


"How has childhood become so unnatural? Children are enclosed indoors, caged and shut out of the green and vivid world in ways unthinkable a generation ago.

"[Seeking the answer to] the riddle took me to the spirit of childhood... the importance of woodland for the psyche; the secret world of a child's soul where the stories of childhood are whistled with a deft and fragile panache of poetry."

– from Jay Griffith's introduction to her incredible book about childhood and the need for the wild, of which Philip Pullman said: "Kith could have been written by no one but Jay Griffiths. She has the same visionary understanding of childhood that we find in Blake and Wordsworth. Her work isn't just good - it's necessary." (It's also published as A Country Called Childhood.)


"I used to love reading to my children at bedtime. The song about Mike TV's fate in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a favourite. In it, Dahl vents his wrath on the hated television: 'They sit and stare and stare and sit until the hypnotised by it.' ... What would Roald Dahl think now?

"The need to be close to nature is in our DNA... Wildlife Trusts work with many children to reverse the trend of young people not having access to the wild: in schools, in parks, in wild places. A wild childhood is good for health, well-being and nature. We want every child to be wild."

Stephanie Hilborne, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts in her editorial in the latest issue of the publication Natural World. (Coming events for children are listed here.)


If you are a teenager, what do you think about when you're lying in bed trying to sleep? What kinds of thoughts go round and round in your head when you are waiting in queues, walking, commuting? Would they be your worries, your troubles, the demons of self-doubt? How can you avoid their persistent nagging?

One way that is not self-damaging is to escape into stories you are reading. You imagine yourself as the protagonist of a great adventure, misunderstood, vilified, ignored or even obstructed by authorities, but determined to overcome every obstacle with your special powers to achieve success. So much more empowering, distracting and fun than to be dragged down into the dark, hopeless swamp of your own psyche.

Some of the children doing this may even make up their own stories and become the writers of tomorrow.

The Awakening of Childhood Heroes by Charlotte Soileh


When I am lying in bed trying to sleep, or when I am waiting in queues, driving, cycling or commuting, I spend hours solving the problems that my writerly life has set me: problems of plot, research, character, tone and structure. If I did not do this I do not know what would occupy my mind except the interminable, grotesque treadmill of self-doubts.

And when that fails, too, you can find me in the woods at the end of my garden, in the hills, by the sea.

In the wild.

Me kayaking in the stunning Mawddach Estuary
This is why I wrote The One Planet Life and why my kids grew up in and love the Woodcraft Folk.


“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.

"This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.”
― Jack London, The Call of the Wild

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.

Monday, January 11, 2016

In Memory of David Bowie

David, I loved you so much.

He was the chameleon
Changed with every day
He was the one I liked to remind me of
He dreamed himself up, came from Mars
Fell to Earth with a Venusian woman
Sold us the World and made it his home
And we all fell in love
With Aladdin Sane and the blinding white Duke.

The odd eyes had it, Supercreepy
He uplifted us, we were all Stardust
We only danced Outside, lovers by the Wall.
He sped through life, not all Hunky Dory
Low times hit, we were scared by the Monsters
The stranger from suburbia became a Young American
Reality rusted the Tin Machine
Post the Last Day it's Ashes to Ashes

But Major Tom orbits on.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

We need more writers who can make us feel

In November, fellow author Dianne Hofmeyr posted her response to the Paris terrorist attacks with a picture of bicycle locks.

The repercussions of the attacks led to the following Sunday's planned marches about climate change in the city being banned.

The organisers of the march instead asked people to place shoes where they would have marched. This led to the following image, one amongst many photographs that were taken on the day.
“The shoes are marching for us” @nicoleghio via Twitter
In the context of the loss of life caused by the terrorist attacks the sight of these empty shoes takes on an added poignancy.

Children and teenagers were either directly or indirectly affected by these attacks. Children and teenagers are also affected by the war conducted by and against ISIL. They are affected by climate change too.

To say that writers and artists cannot address social issues like these in their work is pointless. Social issues affect children in as many ways as they affect adults but children lack the conceptual apparatus to contextualise and understand them.

Both of the above pictures remind me of artwork by Ai Weiwei that I saw at his Royal Academy exhibition, which I visited after I went on the climate change march in London in December.

For example this piece contains hundreds of steel reinforcing bars, straightened after being mangled and twisted in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the number of bars corresponding to the number of victims, whose names are listed on the wall behind.

And, continuing the bicycle theme begun by Dianne Hofmeyr, this is a chandelier made from bicycles:

In all cases, repetition serves to reinforce the message, adding weight to the impact.

There was controversy surrounding the choice of David Almond's novel A Song for Ella Grey for the Guardian children's fiction prize, just as there often is for the Carnegie Medal children's book prize, because the winning books frequently address social issues.

Anyone who thinks that books for children that address social issues should not win literary prizes does not appreciate what it is like to be a child these days.

Whether directly – at home, on the streets and in the playground – or indirectly – on their screens – children are exposed to violence, drugs, crime, sex, exploitation, commercial pressures, manipulation, pollution, ugliness, danger and a whole Pandora's box of other pressures.

What should children do?

Most children strive to understand what they are experiencing. Unfortunately they don't always get the opportunity to discuss what is troubling them with either their friends or adults.

At least if they see that writers and artists are addressing these issues, this can help them think about them in new ways. They can find catharsis by empathising with stories that make them cry and laugh. Reading these books can provide a jumping off point for discussion too.

Children, and teenagers especially, worry more than anything else about whether what they are experiencing in their minds is "normal" or if there is somehow something wrong with them.

Again, art and books can help them to find an answer.

Even in fantasy and so-called escapist fiction, true to life characters can be found who struggle with problems that their readers can and do relate to. Often it's easier to relate to characters in fantasy novels or films, because they are removed from close-by reality.

At the rally in Westminster at the culmination of the climate change march, the enlightened organisers put poets and singers on the bill. But of course.

It was incredibly moving to see and hear Kate Tempest reading her new poem ‘Europe Is Lost’. Hundreds of young people were there to hear her. It actually made me cry. She is a poet for the new generation.

pic from @KateTempest

Almond's books move me too. His latest is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was the greatest poet of his time who had to suffer enormous loss in order to find poetic truth. It is probably my favourite myth.

Now, more than ever before, we need writers and artists to articulate what we feel.

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.