Tag Archives: walking

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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Going rural: walking Shakespeare’s Way

Poppies and churches

Poppies and churches

It was a romantic idea. We’d pack our rucksacks and walk through the heart of England, dallying through the picturesque Warwickshire and Oxfordshire countryside that William Shakespeare would have passed on his commute from Stratford-on-Avon to the London playhouses.

A couple of things got in the way of this idyll. Firstly, I’m now unable to think about that journey without picturing David Mitchell complaining about carts being derailed and replacement donkey services, in the peerless BBC comedy Upstart Crow. Secondly, we set off three days after the Brexit vote, and I wasn’t feeling that fondly towards the heart of rural Britain. It felt like entering the belly of the beast.

So it was with trepidation that I boarded the train from Marylebone. By the time we arrived, the train was 90% foreign students heading for Shakespeare’s home town (51% leave voters). In fact, about 90% of Stratford seems to live off overseas pilgrims to its literary shrine. You don’t mind taking foreigners’ money, I muttered to myself, eyeing the  locals with suspicion.

Drama at Shakespeare's birthplace

Drama at Shakespeare’s birthplace

Naturally, everyone we met was lovely, from our briskly friendly B&B owner, to the volunteers in Shakespeare’s family home, to the staff in Hathaway Tea Shoppe (yes, really). The town is preserved in aspic, its black and white Elizabethan houses sleepy in the afternoon sun. Perversely, we chose to see a Ben Jonson play at the Swan Theatre, which was excellent.

After paying our respects at Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church, we set out along the path beside the river. (If you visit, check out the eye-popping scenes of medieval debauchery on the misericords). The path wound through ridiculously picturesque villages, taunting us with mill ponds and watermills, wildflowers and skimming dragonflies. Our first lunch stop was on a village green complete with maypole. That was when it started to rain.

I should have known better than to book a UK holiday for the first week of Wimbledon. The next couple of days can best be summed up as rain, mud, fields, cows, wheat, fields, mud, rain. It’s not the most exciting countryside – if I didn’t know where all our wheat and barley came from, I sure do now. There were lots of ancient churches to visit, though, and the hedgerows were full of poppies.



After a hard day wading through mud, a comfortable bedroom and decent dinner become particularly important. We stayed at a couple of funereal pubs, where rooms came equipped with carpet moths, silverfish and the world’s smallest bathroom. We found a few nice places to eat, the more ambitious marked by stuff served on slates and chips in little metal baskets. (Guys, plates are fine.) We also ate some of the nastiest food I’ve tasted since the 1980s, served with a mixture of indifference and outright hostility. Not enough cheerful migrants around to raise standards, clearly.

So yes, I’m a spoiled Londoner who’s fussy about my food. But what about the politics in these pubs? Were they shaking their pitchforks and celebrating their victory over the metropolitan elite? The main difference was that no-one was talking about Brexit. Unlike London, where we’d been unable to talk about anything else, people were getting on with their lives and ignoring the seismic change in our political landscape. Rants about humiliating exits from Europe turned out to be about football. I heard one political conversation – a red-faced Tory endorsing Theresa May with the observation:  “Better than Gove. He’s not just a shit, he’s an unprincipled shit.”

That was in Woodstock, just up the road from Churchill’s grave, which I’d visited earlier in the day. What would he have thought of the shenanigans, I wondered, getting the uneasy feeling he’d probably have backed Boris. The day before we’d been in Chipping Norton, fabled home of the Cameroons, although they were not in evidence. The Cotswolds mostly voted remain – indeed, I had the one Brexit conversation of the week there, with the owner of the lovely Jaffe and Neale bookshop, who said book purchasing in the town had been down since the vote.

We made it into Oxford (a strong 70% remain vote) on Saturday afternoon, shocked by the plunge from hazy water meadows into its noisy, crowded streets. We sought out the site of a pub where Shakespeare had supposedly stayed. It’s now a Betfred, which wasn’t very romantic. It took a while to acclimatise to the roar of a big city, but Sunday morning found me ensconced in the terrace cafe of the Ashmolean Museum, sipping perfect coffee, planning the day’s cultural tour. I’d gone rural for a week, and survived.

Recovering in the Ashmolean

Recovering in the Ashmolean

Recommended places:

Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Henley Street, Stratford on Avon. I was cynical about this at first, assuming I already knew everything there was to know about Shakespeare. I was an idiot. It’s fascinating, especially John Shakespeare’s glove-making workshop, which would probably have stunk the entire house out.

The George Townhouse and White Bear in Shipston-on-Stour. We liked a lot about this charming village, and dinner at the nicely-refurbished George was a highlight. Breakfast at the White Bear was jolly good too, and they were very kind about the amount of mud we brought in from a wet day’s walking.

Jaffe and Neale bookshop, Chipping Norton. Friendly bookshop with a good selection of books and gifts, and a nice cafe. A great pitstop in this pretty but rather pleased with itself little town.

Turl Street Kitchen, Turl Street, Oxford. Great, local food in a relaxed and friendly bar/restaurant. Good selection of wine and beer. An excellent place to recover from a taxing week’s holiday.




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Walking and writing

Crossing the sands, Lindesfarne

Crossing the sands, Lindesfarne

Dickens did it, Will Self does it. Wordsworth was famous for it. Baudelaire did it in Paris, Thoreau in Walden Woods and JK Rowling does it at night.

Walking and writing go together like bread and butter. Walking refreshes my mind with new sights and sounds, uncurls my spine from writer’s hunch, loosens my shoulders and gives me the time to let ideas mature. Writing feeds off walking, channelling the thoughts fizzing around my brain.

This last fortnight has been a walking festival. I’ve indulged my appetite for walking until my feet hurt. Back at the desk, I’m energised and refreshed.

Accompanied by friends, I walked the length of Saint Cuthberts Way, a cross-border path from Melrose Abbey in the Eildon Hills of Scotland, to the remote priory on the Holy Island of Lindesfarne. From there we walked up the Northumbrian coast to Berwick-on-Tweed, then ambled by bus back south to Newcastle, where I made one final walk from the city centre along the banks of the Tyne to the sea.

Long walks take you through different flavours and textures of experience. Days start with chatty, companionable walking, exclaiming over views and charging up hills, fuelled with eggs and bacon. Then you settle into rhythmic, quiet, meditative walking, steadily eating up the miles. Later, as physical weariness kicked in, it becomes a trudge, energy directed inwards to keep on keeping on. Finally, the joy of the last mile. As evening cools the air, you get the first glimpse of the final destination – a village, a church spire, a castle. Fatigue adds zest to the anticipation of boots off, feet up, kettle on. And you’re there, righteously tired, deserving rest and food.

The parallels with writing are obvious. Neither process can be rushed. You set down word after word, step after step. You might have a general idea of where you’re going, but you don’t know exactly how it will be. Sometimes you go wrong and need to retrace your steps, or lose your way and can’t see the path. You get bone-tired, wondering if you will ever finish. The excitement of setting out is a distant memory – until that grateful realisation you are near the end.

A long walk (London to Canterbury) seeded my first novel, Unlawful Things. I had hopes of similar inspiration from this northern walk. So did it work? Well, a conversation with a friend prompted a not-too-serious idea for a cross-dressing historical romance. I dreamed the kernal of a plot for a murder mystery one night. But it was when we shared snatches of remembered poetry as we walked one day that I suddenly felt that shiver of recognition, the hairs rising at the base of my neck. A short verse that repeated itself with the tread of my feet. Maybe it will come to something, given time.

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A morning mini-holiday

Coffee by river‘This feels like being on holiday,’ said the Gentleman Caller. We were sitting beside the river, shimmering in the early morning sun, overlooking one of the world’s most famous tourist sites. We sipped strong Turkish coffee, listening to the Arabic-style music coming from the coffee stand. We’d spent a couple of hours wandering through this city already, listening to birdsong and idly chatting about this and that. It felt a lot like being on holiday – then Big Ben struck 7:45am and it was time to head off to work.

The usual reaction when I tell neighbours or colleagues that I’ve been leaving home in the leafy suburbs at 5:30am to walk the eight miles to Bloomsbury is disbelief, followed by an accusation that I’ve lost my marbles. Yet it’s been anything but hard work. The walk itself goes through some lovely parts of London (and the less lovely parts, which are still interesting). Slowing down to walking pace means you notice all sorts of things you miss on the train, or even on a bike.

For example, did you know there are ornate Royal Doulton tiles adorning the old factory building at Vauxhall? Or that there’s a VW van restorer tucked away behind the arches at Loughborough Junction? As we drank our morning coffee, we saw canoeists on the river, then I spotted the Queen’s barge, Gloriana, making its way quietly downriver.

By the time I arrived at the office in Bloomsbury I felt wide awake and relaxed, ready to take on the day. May I recommend a mini-holiday for anyone who doesn’t have the time to fit in a full one?


Royal Doulton plaque under Black Prince railway bridge

Royal Doulton plaque under Black Prince railway bridge

Gloriana emerging from Waterloo Bridge

Gloriana emerging from Waterloo Bridge

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Tai Chi in Russell Square

Tai Chi in Russell Square


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Trust me, I’m telling you stories

OtterStory-teller Yang-May Ooi has a thoughtful piece on her blog this week, explaining how she moved from writing novels to telling stories to an audience, based on her true life experiences.

She writes about the problem of including ‘innocent bystanders’ in her stories and her concern that people might be embarrassed or upset by being identified. She goes on to muse about whether changing stories to avoid identifying other people makes them less ‘true’.

Changing names to protect the innocent is an established journalistic tradition. But what about changing the setting,  conflating time-lines, swapping around who said what and when? At what point does a story stop being a faithful representation of events, and become a creative art?

Pretty much as soon as you start thinking of it as a story, I would say. As soon as you select the salient points, the details that add atmosphere, leaving out the irrelevant or banal, perhaps the inconvenient facts that undermine the drama. As soon as you imagine yourself telling the experience to someone else, or even re-telling it to yourself.

I’ve been reading Artemis Coopers’ absorbing biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the wonderful adventurer and travel writer. I was startled to read about his elastic approach to telling the story of his epic walk across Europe in the mid-1930s, published decades later in the books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. People were re-named, separate visits merged into one, a whole section on horse-back was added because he liked the romance of riding, and thought the reader might get bored with his pedestrian progress. Does it mean his books are worth less as a result?

I’m planning a long walk of my own this summer, with Yang-May and her partner Angie, and my husband Phil. We aim to walk Saint Cuthbert’s Way, from Melrose Abbey in Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindesfarne, on the Northumbrian coast. Phil is interested in the legends that arose around Saint Cuthbert, such as the story he was greeted by otters who warmed his feet with their breath after he crossed to Holy Island at low tide, and that his body was found to be uncorrupted when his coffin was opened, many years after his death.

‘Did people really think it happened, or were they just lying?’ he asked, rather starkly, as we discussed the legends this morning. I suppose there’s a gradient between telling it like it is, making up stories, and lying. But the satisfaction of telling and hearing stories means its easy to see how a little embroidery here, a few re-tellings by different people, can create a whole new legend. 

Photo: From Keith Riley-Whittingham’s photostream on Flickr, with CCL.

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