Tag Archives: stories

Listening to Refugee Tales


Rave in the nave, Kingston-on-Thames

I’m in a church in Kingston-on-Thames, dancing to the joyful sound of a steel band playing Bob Marley. The group I’m with laughs and claps, snaking in a conga-line around a politely-seated audience. I met these people only two days ago. How did I get here?

My story is simple: six months ago I saw a tweet about something called Refugee Tales. It sounded interesting; I went to the website and signed up. I more or less forgot about it until it was time to head for Runnymede (site of the signing of the Magna Carta) for the start of a winding walk along the Thames to Westminster.

For many of my fellow-walkers, this walk was part of a much longer journey, which started much further away, on other continents. Many of them had been through barely-imaginable hardships and dangers, and carried with them the grief of losing country, family, friends, the future they had planned. Their treatment on arrival in the UK was in some cases soul-destroying.

Except their souls had not been destroyed. Indeed, their souls were in fine shape, as witnessed by the laughter, singing and dancing all around me in that Kingston church.

Refugee Tales is a walk in solidarity with those held in indefinite detention by UK immigration services, while seeking refuge in this country.


Reflecting in a garden in Walton-on-Thames

It’s a profound and simple way of offering a welcome and perhaps forging a path through what has become hostile territory, creating our own welcome for those who have been denied that basic human dignity. Some of the walkers were detention visitors; some were people who had themselves been held in detention. Some were supporters of the cause, or people like me who’d simply heard about the event and liked the sound of it.

We walked together along the river Thames, getting to know each other, hearing each others’ stories, enjoying the tranquil surroundings, the freedom that comes from making our way unimpeded, on foot, to our destination. We ate together, and after the evening’s events, unrolled sleeping bags to fall asleep together in church halls offering hospitality.


Blue-shirted Refugee Walkers on the move

Patron of the charity, writer Ali Smith (one of my favourite authors) puts it beautifully, when she says: “The telling of stories is an act of profound hospitality.” She describes storytelling as an “ancient form of generosity” – and to emphasise the point, when she met us en-route, she read from the Odyssey, one of the oldest of old tales, describing how the lost and weary traveller was met with hospitality when shipwrecked on an island. There are many people shipwrecked on islands these days, including our own. The welcome is not always so generous.


Ali Smith reads from The Odyssey

One of the many things I learned on the walk was that the UK is the only country in Europe to hold those seeking refuge in indefinite, arbitrary detention. It’s a flagrant denial of their humanity, and one that directly contravenes the rights set out in the 13th century Magna Carta, let alone the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Refugee Tales project is an offshoot of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, a tireless and dogged charity that visits, supports and campaigns on behalf of people being held at in detention at Gatwick by the immigration service.

As well as organising the walk, Refugee Tales engages writers including Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Helen Macdonald and Neel Mukherjee to work with detainees to write stories based on their experiences. The stories are collected in two volumes and are wonderful. They are even more electrifying when read aloud, by the writers or by actors, as they were during the evening events.


Dinner over, time to chat

In Kingston, I had a chat over dinner with a gentle and courteous young man whose story was being told that evening. Later I tried to imagine how he had survived the shocking experiences relayed in his tale, and remained so gentle. The previous night, an amazing young man told us his harrowing life story directly.

Both of these men wanted, above all, to finish their studies and be able to work – one as a social worker, the other as a doctor. The UK is lucky to have people of this calibre in our country. It’s about time we stopped treating them like criminals.

The first step in recognising someone as a human being is to listen to their story. The second, perhaps, is to share your own. Stories break down the barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Before you know it, you’re all part of the same gang, on the same journey.

If anything can save the human world, I think it will be stories.

To find out more about how you can help, see the website http://refugeetales.org/getinvolved/



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A taxonomy of story


Books, books, books

Famously, there are only seven stories*, but we keep re-telling them. (Or five, or nine, depending on whose book you read). In my writing class, we were asked to think about the different types and forms of story, then consider where we would place the story we want to write.

I started to make a list. It got long.

Types of story:

  1. romance
  2. quest
  3. morality tale
  4. shaggy dog story
  5. literary short story in which nothing happens but someone changes, a little
  6. best-selling novel in which everything happens but no-one changes much (except for the ones that are dead by the end)
  7. tall story
  8. fantasy novel, set in the seething dystopia of the author’s mind, with elves, possibly at war
  9. pot-boiler, which is never done but bubbles along, emitting enticing or repulsive odours, according to taste
  10. news story, with intro, exposition, speculative quote from an expert, photo of a child and a tight word count
  11. literary novel, set in the seething dystopia of the author’s mind, with disaffected, educated protagonists instead of elves, also possibly at war.
  12. magical realist story, in which anything might happen, and probably will
  13. translated literary magical realist fiction, in which the unsuspecting reader is led into a labyrinth without a map and expected to find their own way out, and serve them right
  14. a good read, in which likeable people go through troublesome times in atmospheric scenery, the bad ending unhappily and the good happily.
  15. commercial fiction, in which the female relative of a person with an interesting profession is required to prove her resourcefulness or independence, perhaps by demonstrating that she possesses the skill required by the profession herself. See light house keepers, taxidermists, undertakers, French lieutenants, time travellers.
  16. story of my life, which is spent at a keyboard, typing, while the sun shines outside and the sea glistens.
  17. adventure story, which is what I write while looking at the glistening sea and imagining myself on one of the yachts heading into the blue yonder
  18. funny story, which is what I make out of the times I do go sailing, which involve throwing up over the side and forgetting how to tie important knots
  19. dark psychological thriller, in which everyone including the reader is left questioning their own sanity at ungodly hours of the night
  20. children’s story, which is like a story for adults, but with fewer words, better pictures and more story, often involving anthropomorphic animals
  21. classical fiction, written 100 years ago or more, which almost everyone agrees is good, but is only read by English students and BBC drama producers
  22. your story, and you’re sticking to it
  23. true story, which is a fiction constructed out of half-remembered events that may or may not have happened in the order in which they are related
  24. based on a true story: no longer a version of events which any of the protagonists would recognise
  25. historical fiction, in which we all try to imagine how we’d have coped without dentists and loos and wonder whether poor hygiene would be an impediment to romance
  26. the only way we have of understanding and making sense of our experiences.

*These are: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth. From Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, published by Bloomsbury.


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Bloomsbury Tales

More than 2 years ago, I went for a walk that would change my life.

I’d been re-reading my favourite sections of The Canterbury Tales, and took it into my head to recreate the journey, over the Easter weekend, walking from Southwark to Canterbury, stopping off en route in Dartford and Sittingbourne.

It was a fascinating walk, from the bustle of London Bridge out through the wilds of south east London, into the bleak Medway flatlands of north west Kent and finally the picturesque hills and orchards around Canterbury itself. It left me with two legacies – an injured achilles tendon, still giving me trouble, and more positively, an idea for a story.

The story worried away at me, inspired by the literary heritage of the route. I had expected to find signs of Chaucer, but I kept coming across the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, who lived everywhere in London before settling in Rochester, Kent, and the 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe, born in Canterbury and buried in Deptford.

Two and a half years later, the story has become a first draft of a novel, whose action unwinds along the London to Canterbury route. Last Friday I was anxiously working on how to end the final chapter. Inspiration came back where I started – with Geoffrey Chaucer.

The British Museum was hosting an evening event, Chaucer and the Medieval Pilgrimage, organised with the charity Poet in the City. The event complements the Treasures of Heaven exhibition, which looks at sacred art and relics from the Middle Ages.

The hugely enjoyable event encompassed readings from the Canterbury Tales, in both modern and Middle English; lectures by three academic experts on Chaucer, pilgrimage and the development of language in England at the time, plus some wonderful new poetry by poet Patience Agbabe, inspired by the Tales.

Stories, I suddenly realised, are time travel. Listening to vivid readings of original Chaucer, I felt tugged back in time, to a world where almost everything was different, except the ability of words to hold us spellbound, listening to a story. And Patience’s gripping, thrilling poetry drew on those same sources, that same impulsion to share an experience, make us feel and taste and see it. All the writers in our history, piling words upon words, a lexographic archeology for us to uncover.

Without wanting to give anything away, that’s where I found the ending for my own pilgrimage, the walk that turned into a story, that turned into a novel. In the words of every X Factor contestant, it’s been quite a journey.

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