Books in prisons

I make no secret of the fact that books are the most crucial non-animate element of my life. I can’t remember a time when my life didn’t revolve around books and reading, nor imagine a time when it ever will. When I am sad, angry, ill, tired, bored or scared it is to books I turn, and reading has never failed to comfort me.

I remember being taught Heinrich Heine’s famous quote – “Where they burn books, they will also burn people” – in a GCSE history lesson, and that I was powerfully struck by its fundamental truth. Books contain the very essence of what it is to be human, and it is inarguable that to destroy books is to damage the whole of humankind. I believe that the same also goes for denying people free access to books.

One of the great achievements of this country is our public libraries. I would say that, wouldn’t I? Both my parents were librarians, my holiday job as a student was in my local library, and now I’m a writer. But it seems like a great hallmark of civilisation that anyone, no matter what their personal or financial circumstances can walk into their local library and read whatever they want, for free. Current austerity measures mean that many public libraries have been closed, and funding is severely restricted. This angers and saddens me, but I can see that when local authorities are being forced, often against their will, to make stringent cuts, that the decisions are tough. Free access to books is crucial, but so too are Meals on Wheels, child protection, the fire service, and so on, so choices have to be made.

However, the news which has emerged this week, namely that Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, has introduced a ban on parcels being sent to prisoners, and that this ban will include books, is iniquitous and utterly indefensible. The excuse that it is too time consuming to put parcels through security checks doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny, meaning that the policy can only be seen as petty and malicious. Government sources point out that prisoners are able to earn money which they could use to buy books, but £8 a week doesn’t go very far. I’m a fairly devoted reader, but even I would baulk slightly at spending 100% of my disposable income on books, which is what this would amount to for prisoners who want to read a modest paperback book a week. Yes, there are prison libraries, but given the cuts to which which ordinary public libraries have been subjected, I find it very hard to believe that prison libraries have particularly extensive resources. And there is also an emotional significance to books – a book received as a gift from your partner, parent, child, friend is doubly precious.

Denying prisoners free access to books makes a complete mockery of the notion that prison is about rehabilitation as well as punishment because books are a cornerstone not only of education and learning, but also of spiritual and emotional nourishment. Of course, this ban is not only on parcels of books, but parcels fullstop, meaning that prisoners are also to be denied the consolation of a small gift from their child or basic necessities such as changes of underwear or socks. The punishment aspect of prison is the deprivation of liberty and the separation from loved ones.  Extending it further than that, denying prisoners basic human rights such as free access to books, is immoral but also self-defeating. Almost all prisoners will be released at some point. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in their wellbeing, it is surely basic common sense that sending someone back into the community when they are angry and resentful at the way they have been treated, have had no opportunities to enhance their employability, and are nursing years’ worth of crippling boredom into the bargain is asking for trouble.

I feel angry and ashamed that I am living in a country in which this can be introduced as serious Government policy. However, I am also proud and happy to live in a country with fantastic campaigning organisations such as Liberty and The Howard League, and one in which over forty eminent writers, including Alan Bennett, Sir Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Carol Ann Duffy, Mark Haddon, Philip Pullman, Irvine Welsh, Nick Hornby, Ian Rankin, Joanne Harris and Caitlin Moran have formed a coalition to urge the Justice Secretary to rethink his policy. You can add your voice to theirs by signing the petition at

I know not whether Laws be right,

Or whether Laws be wrong;

All that we know who lie in gaol

Is that the wall is strong;

And that each day is like a year,

A year whose days are long.

‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’

Oscar Wilde





A romantic evening

I may have mentioned a while ago that I was lucky enough to have Two for Joy shortlisted for the RNA Contemporary Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Monday just gone was the big night where we discovered who had won in each category (Contemporary, Historical, Comedy, Young Adult and Epic), and who had won the overall Romantic Novel of the Year Award.

This meant a big glitzy award ceremony in Central London, of the kind I’ve never been to before. Just planning what to wear was exciting – I don’t have many chances to dress up like that. In the end I settled on a black silk dress which I’ve had for years. It’s slightly fifties style with a very full circular skirt, the top layer of which is sheer, floaty tulle. I felt pretty sure that I’ve read numerous magazine articles over the years assuring me that you can’t go wrong with an LBD. I also have a narrow, emerald green belt which looked good with it, and I successfully (miraculously) bid for a  pair of patent leather high heels on Ebay in the exact matching shade of green. My final bargain was a £3 necklace, from the BHS sale of all places, a Y shaped one with delicate pale green crystal flowers and leaves which looked perfect in the deep v-neck of the dress.

One of the casualties of my post-child life is time to get ready. I remember as a teenager that the getting ready was the best bit of a night out. My group of friends would all get together, usually at Julie’s house, and we’d do each other’s make-up and borrow each other’s clothes while singing along to the radio and gossiping about who might pull who. It’s been a while since I did that, but until Anna was born I used to enjoy a long soak in the bath, carefully blow-drying my hair, painting my nails, experimenting with make-up before I went out. Now, not only do I not go out that often, but when I do I normally have to get ready in about ten minutes flat while simultaneously reading Anna her bedtime story and feeding the cats.

I was determined that this time it would be different. The event started at 6pm, and I’d arranged for my friend (thank you Haf!) to pick Anna up from school and give her tea. I’d booked an appointment for 3pm to have my hair blow dried, and then I could spend an hour or so pampering and preening and trying out my new Benefits make-up. Ha ha ha.

The day didn’t start particularly well when I came home after the school run and supermarket shop to find Percy (the black catten) playing with a dead mouse in the hall. I’m not unaccustomed to dead mouse disposal, but am a little out of practice, and Percy wasn’t particularly keen to relinquish his new toy. Playing tug of war with a dead mouse is pretty grim. And then afterwards I noticed that our mail on the doormat was rather bloodstained. I picked it up gingerly and contemplated throwing it straight out, but then noticed one of the items was a new cheque book, so that had to be de-enveloped and disinfected. I then felt rather unsettled because I wasn’t sure whether this had been a visitor mouse, an outdoor mouse or, most disconcerting possibility, a resident mouse. I had to go on mouse patrol, Dettol spray in hand, checking for ‘signs’ as the disposal people euphemistically call them. They mean droppings. When they say have you noticed any signs, they mean check behind your fridge and along the worktops for mouse poo. Thankfully there were no ‘signs’ on Monday, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this was a one-off mouse, and that his fate will filter down the mouse rumour mill to deter others. In medieval times traitors’ severed heads were stuck on spikes over the gate into the town as a dire warning. Maybe that’s what I should have done with our dead mouse…

Anyway, after this I wasn’t feeling particularly glamorous, so I decided to go for a walk and have lunch in a cafe to try and recover my equilibrium. It was while checking my emails that I saw the one from my publicist checking that I was ok to be at the venue for 4.30pm for photos and interviews before the main event. Arrgghh! Given that, a) This was the first I’d heard of a 4.30pm start, b) It was now 2.30pm and I was in jeans and a possibly-mouse-bloodstained-tshirt with unwashed hair and no make up, and c) It would take me an hour to get to the venue, I could say with a fair amount of confidence that a 4.30pm arrival was not going to be ok.

Feeling rather stressed I quickly got in touch with the event organisers and explained there’d obviously been a mix up, and managed to get my deadline moved to 5.15pm. I then raced home and got ready in the twenty minutes I had to spare before my hair appointment. I then painted my nails while my hair was dried, and booked a taxi to take me straight from the hairdressers to the station. And made it just on (the revised) time.

I’d been so stressed by the time problem that at least I’d forgotten to be nervous, which is probably just as well. Suddenly I was plunged into a very glitzy, chandelier bedecked room, with views over the river and the London Eye, and uncomfortably aware that I knew no-one. Within seconds I was having my photo taken with the other shortlistees, including Lisa Jewell, who is one of my alltime favourite authors. Afterwards I got chatting to her, and Jenny Colgan (as you do) and was completely charmed by how lovely, and nice and normal they were. And how patient they were with my starstruck babbling. Over the course of the evening I also chatted to Veronica Henry, Chris Manby, Katie Fforde and lots of other lovely and talented writers. And drank quite a few glasses of bubbly.

I didn’t win the award. Veronica Henry won both my category and the overall award with the fabulous A Night on the Orient Express. I’m thrilled that a book I really love won, and, cliche though it may be, just felt so honoured to have been there, to have been shortlisted, to be a part of it all. And in one of the best bits of the evening, I discovered that if you want to turn a roomful of (mainly) female authors who are (mainly) over thirty into what seems like a group of ten year old girls at a One Direction concert, then you need to give Helen Fielding a lifetime achievement award and let her make a speech. She’s just as funny as you would expect, and hearing her talk really was the icing on the cake of an amazing evening for me.

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer

For one reason or another the first part of this week felt like slightly heavy going. Perhaps just a comedown after a lovely weekend away in Yorkshire celebrating my dad’s 60th birthday. Or maybe the chaos caused by redecorating the spare room (still), and preparing to have new carpet fitted on the stairs and landing, meaning that all the upstairs furniture has had to be moved round, and there seem to be piles of random stuff everywhere. Whatever the cause I felt a little bit low and in need of metaphorical comfort blankets. Generally in these situations I turn to chocolate and books, and, once again neither let me down.

I started reading a book my editor at Hodder gave me last year, Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer, by Jane Brocket, and I made a large mug of hot chocolate and melted some chocolate buttons left over from Anna’s birthday into it. The combination was sheer bliss, and I’ve started to cheer up straight away. The sunshine of the last couple of days has helped hugely as well.

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer is part recipe book, part discursion on classic children’s literature. Enid Blyton is very well represented – Famous Five, Secret Seven, Five Find-Outers, Malory Towers, St Clare’s – and there’s What Katy Did, Ballet Shoes, Swallows and Amazons, Little Women , Anne of Green Gables  – all the books, in fact, that I grew up with. The recipes sound lovely, and I can’t wait to start making them, and it’s going to be a wonderful book to read with Anna in future if, as I hope, she continues to share my twin passions for reading and baking.

Slightly ironically given I’ve been feeling a bit blue, I’ve recently signed up to the #100HappyDays project. This challenges you to take a picture of something that makes you happy every day for 100 days. You can either publish this via Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, or just keep it privately. Apparently 70% of people fail to complete it, but those who do report improved mood, enhanced optimism and a new sense of contentment with their life. I’m going to give it a go, and record my attempts on my website. Can you be happy for one hundred days in a row?

Curiouser and curiouser

Well, the three weeks since I last blogged has flown by in a blur. In fact the whole of February passed in a flash. One minute it was the end of January, next thing it’s practically mid-March, the trees are covered with blossom, daffodils are in the flower beds and it feels like Spring is very definitely here.

I had a lovely relaxing half term week staying in Liverpool with my parents – including dinner with two school friends, and a whole day of catch up with another, courtesy of Nanna and Grandad’s babysitting service.

When we got home again it was time to turn my attention to Anna’s 5th birthday. Her present was the first dilemma. We’d had a previously junk-filled space at the back of our garden completely cleared, and we really wanted Anna’s present to be something she could enjoy in the garden. A trampoline seemed the obvious choice, and my guesstimate measurements suggested we could fit one in. Luckily my husband, possibly with the wisdom which comes from 14 years experience of my guesstimates on anything related to spatial awareness, insisted we measured properly, and we discovered that there wasn’t room after all. Suddenly it was only 10 days to go, and we had no present and no ideas.

Then in a flash of inspiration I decided that I would turn the shed at the bottom of the garden into a playhouse for her. It’s a fairly large shed, and has nice big windows, light, electricity and even a heater, so it had always seemed a shame we only used it for random bits of storage, but we’d never got round to doing anything else. There’s nothing like an immutable deadline to encourage productivity. First I had to remove the built in desk and shelves which were already there. I got quite proficient with a screwdriver during that process, and my hands are covered in scabs from where I go impatient and just yanked. Then a very thorough clean to get rid of all traces of the spiders and snails who had clearly been making it their home. I painted the walls a pretty primrose yellow, and the window frames white for contrast, discovering as I did so that painting wooden panels is really irritating. I got a local carpet shop to fit a cheap and hopefully hardwearing carpet for half nothing, and then indulged (myself more than Anna) in the purchase of a child-sized armchair in a Cath Kidstonesque print. I sprayed one of the panels with blackboard paint so that there’s a permanent large chalkboard, and a kind friend-with-car took me to Ikea where I picked up a rug, some cushions and various other bits. Finally I was ready for the really fun bit – setting up Anna’s toy cooker, kettle, toaster and so on to make a home corner, arranging soft toys and books on the shelves, framing some Flower Fairies postcards I’d tracked down on Ebay, ransacking the house and loft for any undiscovered bits and bobs which could be called into service and generally creating my concept of the ideal space for a little girl to play, read, draw, pretend. I really enjoyed doing it, and Anna loves it, so it was worth all the effort, but it was incredibly time consuming and demanding. 

Toadstool cakeAnd that’s not including the party plans. Somehow a temporary insanity in January, when I let Anna choose her own guest list, had led to us expecting 24 children in addition to the birthday girl for a two hour party. This insanity also caused me to let her choose her own birthday cake, so I had a fairy toadstool to construct as well. I’d booked an entertainer for an hour, then the night before we were seized by overwhelming panic and booked her for another half hour. Best decision we ever made. The entertainer was fabulous, but the second she’d finished the children decimated their carefully packed ‘party picnic boxes’, mainly inhaling the hula hoops and chocolate mini muffins and ignoring the cheese sandwiches and raisins, and then they were on the rampage. A friend arriving to collect her son described my husband and me as looking shellshocked. That’s how it felt. None of them were naughty really, it’s just that there were so many of them. And they moved so fast. And our house suddenly felt so small. My husband had queried the cost of the entertainer originally; afterwards he said he felt she deserved every penny and more besides. I’ve always felt that primary school teachers should be canonised, and Sunday afternoon has totally re-enforced that. It’s fair to say that the bottle of wine we opened later that night was very much appreciated.

All these excitements meant that nothing else got done for ten days, and I’ve spent the last few days playing catch up. Oh yes, and a few manic moments this morning constructing an Alice in Wonderland costume for World Book Day. I’d originally told Anna she could go as a fairy or a cat (costumes we already have) and she’d opted to be Socks from Julia Donaldson’s ‘Tabby McTat’. However, over the past few weeks my mother-in-law has been reading Alice in Wonderland to Anna, and she loves it. Over half term my parents took her to an exhibition on magic and fantasy at Liverpool Museum, which included some Alice-related exhibits, and that made her even keener. Over breakfast this morning she was chatting nineteen to the dozen about Alice, all excited because Granny was picking her up today and so she’d get the latest instalment. It suddenly occurred to me that, of course, she should go as Alice. 7.55am on World Book Day is perhaps not the ideal time to change costume from cat to Alice in Wonderland, but Anna and I were undaunted. First I managed to cram her into an old summer dress (age 3-4!) which happens to have a sticky out net petticoat and a sash. Then I sacrificed a large white cotton napkin and cut it into something which vaguely approximated an apron shape. Obviously there was no time for hemming (what a shame), but I cut a small hole in either side and threaded the dress sash through to hold it on. I wrapped a ribbon around her red velvet Christmas Alice band, and then wrote ‘Drink Me’ on a luggage label and tied it round the neck of a small plastic bottle. The crowning glory as far as Anna was concerned was that she was allowed to take her favourite soft toy, Rosie the white rabbit, to school with her. It was a very long way from being the best costume at school today, not even in the top half probably, but I felt it was pretty good going for a 2o minute quick fix.

And I now feel that, having spent the past fortnight doing my best impression of a perfect mummy, I’m now granted a considerable period of putting Cbeebies on and my feet up. Aren’t I?