I’ve learned a lot from books. I learned my first French and German phrases from the Chalet School; the Swallows and Amazons taught me how to sail a small yacht, should I ever find myself in one in the middle of my Belfast housing estate; and like many poor-but-proud pony book heroines, most of my equestrian knowledge came from books.
Personal qualities too. How many times did I thrill to Ma Ingalls’s quiet ‘For shame, Laura!’ and try to be the kind of girl Ma would approve of? (Actually, never: I was always on Laura’s side.) How earnestly I strove to be an anti-Soppist; an adventurer; a tomboy; the sort of person Enid Blyton described as ‘first-rate’!
Later, as a politically active teenager, marching to ban the bomb; to support the women of Greenham Common; against sectarianism, I hoped I was channelling something of Vera Brittain, whose Testament of Youth was one of the first grown-up books I fell in love with. And Vera, of course, was real! Not that I ever thought of fictional characters as any less real: they were just real in a different way.
Real, too, are the characters we write about. When I’m writing, which is pretty much all the time, I often feel a kind of disconnect – I’m existing in the real world, functioning like a normal person, doing the shopping and the ironing and making cups of tea, but there’s part of me inhabiting the imaginary world of my characters. That’s one of the great joys of writing for me: that sense of living in two worlds at once.
Stella, the heroine of my work-in-progress, a historical teen novel, wants to change the world. She’s brave and impetuous. She sees the 1918 election, the first time women voted in parliamentary elections in this country, as her chance to do something real. She has to adjust her expectations of herself: there’s a limit to what a sixteen-year-old girl in rural Ireland can do, but when the day dawns she does something. It doesn’t change the whole world, or the country, or the outcome of the election, but it changes it for someone. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
Like many people I’ve been feeling a bit small lately. A bit overlooked. A bit not-countingy. I vote, and my vote doesn’t seem worth it because I’m in a minority. My own Northern Ireland, not for the first time, has gone belly-up, and it looks like another election is imminent. Easy to sigh and roll one’s eyes, and say, it’ll all end the way it always does. People will vote along the same old entrenched lines. The whole world is frightening and out of control; just bunker down and look at cat videos and read some old Bunty annuals.
But Stella wouldn’t do that.
And the sixteen-year-old me didn’t do it either. She marched and protested. She was naïve and hot-headed and often wrong, but she cared. And so do I. So I’ve joined a political party, the small, non-sectarian party I’ve always voted for and agreed with. I’m going to a meeting tonight. What’s the point? the cynic in me says. You’ll meet a lot of nice middle-class people of the sort you already know; and nothing will actually change.
But the part of me that wants to learn from my sixteen-year-old made-up character, says, You never know. Go for it. Sometimes change for the worse; but sometimes they change for the better. Books have taught me that too.