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The Writer's Life

You were right about the yellow



I remember when Fourth Estate first showed me the paperback cover to AGE OF CONSENT. I really hated it. I mean, I still think it’s awful. It may come as a surprise to you but authors have disturbingly little power of the appearance of their books.

This is true even if you’re super famous. I could give examples but I won’t. It happens even when you and your editor team up in order to veto a cover that has arrived from the art department on a bad day and is so ugly you think it ought to have a smell.

Or maybe she loves the cover – you both do – but the marketing people hate the cover. Or maybe you reluctantly agree on a cover but the sales people propose a change that makes the cover just so much worse but there is not thing you can do now. ,

Oh well. It will be good enough, you think. And they say they’ve had covers like this before on books that have done well. Why argue with success?

The first time Fourth Estate (Harper Collins, UK) showed me the yellow cover I about threw up. It was then rejected for another cover. Crisis avoided.  But the following year when they were publishing the book in a different format back came that same yellow cover you hated before.

Oh no, you think. Not THAT cover. Yes, that cover. Like a dress my mother bought for me in 1978 and that I never wore but thought maybe I ought to wear because it was expensive. The dress that got hauled from apartment to apartment until, at last, I could afford and house and then it went into the attic and was later (I am so sorry to admit) devoured by field mice. Sorry, Mom. 

Anyway, there it was, a cough drop yellow cover with some sad girl on it in a plaid skirt that made no sense to me.

“Do you love it?” they asked.

“I told you last time you showed it to me that I don’t love it.”

“Well, we love it. We ALL love it.”

They all love it. That means, I am not allowed to hate it.

“It’s fine,” I grumbled. 

“We knew you’d love it!”

They knew I’d hate it but that I’d agree to it, which I did. Everyone remained friends and the book went to print in it’s bright yellow jacket. Like a stinging insect or a banana or a yellow crayon. I mean YELLOW.

But now, years later, I think I’ve changed my mind about that jacket. It’s like I finally pulled out the yellow dress, the expensive ugly dress my mother lovingly purchased and that was later consumed by mice.  But this time I think it’s okay.

The cover can never be beautiful but the publishers were right about one thing. It stands out. The photograph you see is the bookcase in my bedroom, or rather one of my many bookcases. Don’t worry, I would never read one of my own novels again. I have no idea why it is shoved in there near Paul Watkins and Mary Oliver but there it is, still bright, shouting “pick me.”

I don’t ever look at my old books again, not on the inside anyway. But I did think to myself today that it wasn’t so bad. And that, yeah, they were right about yellow.


Coronavirus & Supermarket Workers

I collected my groceries by “Click and Collect” this morning, arriving on time. 8 am. For this venture, I wore gloves and a mask and kept my disinfectant at hand. I sprayed each bag before putting it in the car, trying to ignore the person in the car behind who probably thought I was obsessive and crazy.

The guy who who worked the kiosk wasn’t old. Maybe twenty five, maybe thirty. His job was to open a cupboard in which my groceries were being kept, then present me with a big plastic tub of grocery bags. One tub, two tubs, three tubs. We had a kind of system going. He placed the tub in front of me, then went to get the next tub while I removed the groceries, bag by bag, into my car. But I was a lot slower than he was because I sprayed each bag with disinfectant before placing them in my car.

Me in my mask and gloves. Me in my first moment out of the house in 2-weeks.

The thing is, this young guy had no gloves, no mask, nothing. He wasn’t able to stay at home, either. No doubt he needed the money. He said he had people in his village he did shopping for, too.

But the awful thing was this: He told me people weren’t all observing the 2-meter rule. People came right up to him to get the groceries, their hand next to his hand. He said older people were the worst. The older generations just didn’t want to be told what to do, didn’t want to be part of some “silly” notion about the virus. They didn’t think all this caution was needed.

But it is needed. A friend whose husband works at Tesco is now ill with Covid-19. Chills, fever, sore throat, the works. I hope he recovers soon. When I say that, you know what I’m really saying. I’m saying I hope he doesn’t die. And that my friend doesn’t die.

I put the bags in the car, thanking the guy at the kiosk over and again. I drove only about 50 feet, then parked again and sprayed inside each bag and all over the bag, completing my mission of disinfecting as best I could. I had already removed my gloves, putting them inside a plastic baggie to throw away. Now, I rolled the windows dow and drove home, still wearing my mask. I’m not sure if the open windows was a good idea or not. It may have just circulated whatever virus I couldn’t kill into the air around me. Or maybe there wasn’t any virus on the bags. Given the tiny size of this virus it’s possible that even with all my efforts, it was all over me.

Who knows? The Tesco worker greets how many of us every hour? And is at the mercy of customers who don’t take precautions, who stand too close, who don’t really think they are going to get sick. It baffles me.

At home, I put on a 2nd pair of gloves and removed each item individually and washed each in soapy water. I didn’t order much that came in cardboard. However, anything that was in cardboard was removed, the cardboard thrown away (or recycling system is on pause here in the UK) then washed. A tube of garlic paste, a can of tomatoes…

I did this with every piece of fruit and every vegetable. I washed every biscuit packet and every salad packet and every Tetrapack. With the potatoes I just put them in a box in the garage for now. Same with onions.

I washed each strawberry, each clementine, each spring onion. I soaped everything I could, then dried it all with towels, then found somewhere in the house to store it all. Apples will last a month in the fridge. Oranges, too. You aren’t supposed to wash grapes before putting them in the fridge but I did.

It took hours and hours. During that time I thought over and again how the people at Tescos were risking their lives for me.

Last night, we stood at our windows and doors, clapping our appreciation for the herculean efforts, the true bravery, the amazing effort of our workers in the NHS. Every doctor, every nurse, every orderly, every technician.

I think the people behind our food supply are also courageous. They deserve a hand clap, too.

The Writer's Life

Writers and Their Anti-Fans (from my article in

Writers and Their Anti-Fans

Marti Leimbach

Writers are used to rejection and criticism, if only because the ones who can’t cope with it stop being writers early on. We have in common, too, a feeling of celebration whenever we hear of successful books that were initially turned down by reputable publishers. The story of J.K. Rowling’s twelve rejections for Harry Potter passes down generations of new writers like a seminal myth, providing living hope that great books win in the end. In truth, twelve rejections isn’t a big number in the publishing world.

Rejections from publishers are discouraging, but not unduly so. Reasons vary from “We’ve recently bought a book on a similar topic” to a vague “enjoyed it but it’s not right for us.” They can be genuinely apologetic, with the editor almost begging forgiveness for not having room on her list. Some are even funny. One December, I watched a fax arrive at my agent’s office from the then-editor at Ballantine, Bob Wyatt, whose rejection was handwritten and seasonal. “Ho, Ho, No!” he wrote.

If it were only this kind of rejection writers experienced, we wouldn’t lose so many important voices early on. But the rejection process begins well before publishers are involved and has a ruthless presence from the very beginning of a writer’s life. Professional rejection comes so late in the process of becoming a writer that, while it matters, it isn’t always as damaging as the earlier discouragement we may receive from friends or family. Destructive responses from those who I call “anti-fans” can hurt us fatally. Like twelve rejections of a manuscript, the existence of anti-fans is not unusual. In fact, it is normal. If you are aware of this phenomenon, perhaps you won’t be one of the many talented people who has fallen by the wayside because of them…(to continue to read this article, click here)

The Writer's Life

Postcard of My Life


Writing at 6.00 am and I suddenly need reminding of the coldest of cold for this scene. I want to hear another writer’s description, what they chose to pick out among the myriad of details available.

Normally easy: I’d rush upstairs and retrieve Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams from my bookshelves. Lopez is a writer I return to for any reason at all, and Arctic Dreams remains among my favourites. It’s an enchanting exploration of the arctic.

But my husband isn’t feeling well and, even though he’s the reason I was up at 5.30am, fetching a hot drink and some painkillers for his sore throat, I’ll be damned if I will wake him. So instead, I read what I can of Lopez’s stunning book off the Amazon “Look Inside” feature. I get about six pages of it with Amazon, mostly about whaling.

However, even within six pages, I am reminded of the rest of the book, and of Lopez’s means of weaving story and discovery, of the place and people he describes, of the history that has been.  I feel the cold now; can write about it, and I’m where I need to be to continue my own chapter.

Something about this situation — it’s odd hour, my earnest efforts, the make-do nature of everything despite having what anyone would describe as abundance — is kind of what my life is like, but in miniature.




Night At The Theatre



My son’s illness arrived abruptly one evening with every sign of stomach virus: vomiting, exhaustion, sweating, terrible bloating and pain. I said, Ring the café and tell them you’re not coming. I said, Stay in bed, don’t worry. I’ll bring you soup when you’re better.


He got better; he got worse. I had that feeling every mother knows: a sense that we hadn’t reach the bottom yet, that things would worsen, that my child was very ill.


I talked myself out of it. Why did I always assume the worst? What was the use to listening to all my think-positive podcasts if I couldn’t even weather my grown son’s ’flu when it arrived?


Then we noticed this virus was missing a few important features. Where was the fever, the diarrhoea? Why did we find him suddenly drenched in sweat? His pulse felt small and too deep inside his large wrists. I couldn’t keep up with its rhythm. His veins were disappearing; his skin yellowing. He was in wrenching pain, a violence within him that was mysterious and terrifying. No, he didn’t want food, nor water even. We urged him to drink, and then chased him to the toilet as he vomited again.


Rule out the appendix. Like American astronauts, the boy has no appendix. It disappeared in the middle of the night years ago, flying across four quadrants of his abdomen before being suctioned by the surgical staff of the same hospital where we finally arrived, weary from two days of our son’s violent illness, worried that he can barely walk now. We show the receptionist’s our doctor’s referral. We usher our son into the crowd of emergencies and tell him he’s going to be okay, not to worry, as he collapses into a chair and is sick between his knees.




You don’t need Becket. You don’t need Ionesco. Just spend the night in the annex off of your local hospital’s A&E and imagine you are in the theatre. You are in the theatre.


Your patience and tenacity are the price of your ticket. You pay first in the waiting room where you sit – that is, if you can find a seat. A&E queues feature a deceptiveness evidenced also in lines at Disneyland. You think your turn is coming, that finally you will gain entry through the big wooden doors that separate you from the doctors (the stars of this theatre), but you aren’t anywhere close. There is a whole other room that you hadn’t seen until now, as you angle yourself carefully in front of the receptionists’ thick glassed walls and assess just how long this may take.


There are ways around long waits: a head injury will do it, but also my son’s savvy manoeuvre: vomiting three litres of green bile in full view of dozens of horrified members of the public. Suddenly, the wooden doors open and he is ushered into a quieter corridor in which people with clipboards and stethoscopes busily attend those lined up in beds and chairs along the walls.


He is moved into an observation annex adjacent to where the paramedics park their ambulances, a room the size and shape of a Victorian factory workshop. The hours deepen into midnight and beyond. Spotlights from behind thick curtains light up one by one. From the dark recesses of the long room come voices. An old man with dementia calls from behind the blue curtains.


“Is there nobody to help me? Does nobody pay any attention?” He grows louder as the nurses pass him, bellowing at the top of his lungs, “HELP ME!”


When they don’t stop he tells them they weren’t worth saving, that the good men who went into Poland to save them should have left them to die.


“Does nobody here speak English?” he yells into the darkness. “Are you all a bunch of monkeys on vines?”


Across from him is young man he calls “soldier”.


“Soldiers like you,” says the old man, and then mutters more about the war, about Poland, about those who would be speaking German if not for the British. “You’re a good lad,” he tells the young man.


The young man doesn’t mind being called soldier. He must sense that the old man has no idea what is going on and he addresses him in a patient voice, trying not to contradict him lest the old man start yelling again. But the young man has had a seizure and is, himself, confused. I can see him under the spotlight, his buzzed hair revealing scars on his scalp, his teenage acne that has persisted into adulthood. He looks underfed and anxious, sitting unsteadily on the mattress with his big feet hanging off the edge. He asks the staff why his girlfriend hasn’t arrived. Where is his mother, too?


“Can someone tell my girlfriend, Jaz, where I am?” he says to any nurse who will listen. “I’m sure she is here. She is probably in A&E. Can someone go to A&E and ask for Jaz?”


He can’t call her because he has lost his phone and he can’t remember her number. He can’t remember when he last spoke to her either. After much persistence, a nurse goes to A&E and asks if a Jaz is waiting, then returns and tells the young man his girlfriend is not in A&E.


“Then can you call her?” he asks.


“What is her number?”


The young man says he doesn’t know, can’t remember, lost his phone. “Has anyone seen my phone?” he says. “Can you ask if someone has seen my phone?”


Hours later the paramedic who picked him up after the seizure wheels in another patient strapped onto a heavy gurney. The young man recognizes him, calling him over. “Have you seen my girlfriend?” he asks.


“Your girlfriend?” The paramedic is in a forest green uniform, his heavy belt stocked with medical equipment. He has black boots, thick arms, a dense moustache and a resonating voice that seems to fill the cavernous room in a way that all the people within it cannot. I love this voice; it has a workingman’s quality to it. It’s the voice of the guy who starts the car, fixes the pipe, stops the leak.


“Jaz,” says the young man. “My girlfriend, Jaz.”


“That the woman with you when we collected you? You told her not to come.”


“I never!”


“You specifically told her not to come to the hospital.”


“But she’d want to be here,” says the young man.


“You told her, Son. You told her not to.”






The old man begins bellowing again. He calls out that he is dying, that he wishes someone would come and give him a needle and end his life because that is how much pain he is enduring. “Not that you lot care!” he says.


He has a bacterial infection on his lower leg. I know this because I overheard the conversation he had with the doctor about it, a conversation the old man can no longer remember.


“That looks awfully sore,” the doctor had said.


“Yes, it’s bloody sore! That’s what I’m telling you!”


“We’ll clean it up for you—”


“I don’t want to get contaminated by these nurses! I might catch something from them!”


“—we’ll clean it up and get you some antibiotics.”


The doctor had moved along to the next bed and the next. The antibiotic was taken as a tablet and the cream ordered from the pharmacy. Now the old man can’t remember that he’s been seen at all. Perhaps he also can’t remember that he is too young to have fought in the war to which he is referring.


“Is nobody ever going to help me? HELP ME! Does anyone – anyone at all – speak English?”


The nurses try to tell him he’s seen the doctor but he won’t hear it. “Does nobody help anybody around here? Who is the General? And I mean the tip-top. I want to speak to the General!




Those who are very ill say nothing. My son exhibits a dangerous quiet while we hover around him making sure he is responsive to his name. We count out his pulse to the stopwatches on our phones, gaze at his chest as it rises and falls with each breath. His pulse is 127. His respiratory rate is just above 20. His hair stands with sweat. His skin beads with it. I am thinking sepsis and ask specifically about that. I am told no, it isn’t sepsis and not to worry about sepsis because they are very clued up about it.


“But you haven’t really seen him,” I say with as little accusation as I can muster. “And if you don’t get him an IV I think he will collapse.”


We get the IV. We wait for the doctor. We watch the drip and our son’s face and we listen as people from across the far ends of the room argue and explain and plead. We hear the nurse ask a woman to tell her what her name is, what her date of birth is.


“What’s the difference?” she says. Then, “Helen.”


On the other side of the thin curtain is a small, balding older man who looks perfectly harmless so it is a shock to hear him speak to his wife, who has dementia. He paces her bed, wrings his hands. He stares out at the doctors then back at his wife. She is doing something to annoy him.


I hear him say, “Don’t touch that! Don’t be so stupid!”


I hear him say, “Now look what you’ve done! That’s a needle, you know!”


She has removed the cannula in her hand. He hisses to her that she is a silly bitch.


“You fucking stop that, you silly bitch!” he says.


She answers as though he has just told her she’s baked a beautiful cake. “I know what I’m doing!” she says brightly.


“Yeah, you know what you’re doing!” He thinks nobody can hear him but his wife’s pillow is only a few feet from where I sit on a plastic hospital chair on the other side of the curtain. “Don’t listen to me when I tell you not to touch it! What do I know? Silly bitch!”


She tries to reassure him that nothing is amiss. “Nothing is wrong,” she says. Again, the bright voice.


“What do I know? Don’t listen to me.”


“I know what I’m doing!”


The husband emanates hatred and despair in equal measures. His wife, the one who once did bake cakes, who once really did know what she was doing, has been replaced by this new wife, who carefully strips the tape from her hand.






The old man with the leg is taken down a hallway. The soldier who is not a soldier spends the night where they first put him, near the arrivals by ambulance. He continues to fret over his girlfriend. We pass by him, curled anxiously on the gurney, looking buggy and confused, so thin he might have been admitted for any number of causes beyond his seizures.


Now we are in a windowless annex room with four yellow walls and no call button waiting for our son to be properly admitted to a ward. Once again, we can hear the old man. His bed must be just down the hall. He is apologising to the nurses, telling them he is sorry his has been yelling so much, that he is in pain. He sounds bewildered, lost. He begins to cry and I feel sorry for him. But even when he’s nice, he’s nasty. To one of the nurses he says, “Be a good girl or I’ll cuddle you as punishment.”


Ten minutes later he is back to his old self, insisting they take him for a wee. “I am desperate! I am going to burst, not that you care!” he yells to no one in particular.


Minutes pass; no one arrives. “I need a wee! HELP! HELP!”


The nurses come, but not in a hurry. It turns out the old man is incontinent. He has no idea if he needs to pee or not. “Get me to the toilet!” he yells. The nurse explains that he has already peed into the pad they provided for him and nothing is left, which is why they haven’t taken him to the toilet.


“We’ll clean you up and get you a fresh pad,” says the nurse.


He tells them they are hurting him, that they are stupid and Polish and ought to have been left to the Germans. “We lost good men!” he growls, then apologizes again.


“Sorry,” he says. “It’s not you. Not you, exactly anyway.”


His voice carries down the dark hall, croaking out his complaints: that he is being neglected, injured, ignored, left to die. That everyone here is foreign. “Good men!” he says. “They were a brave lot.”




My son’s condition worsens and he lies in quiet agony. We will later learn that his problem is an obstructed bowel. We will eventually watch as he is taken through x-rays, then CT Scans, then as he endures a nasal-gastric tube that is inserted into his nose. We will watch as he lies unmoving for the x-ray, nods consent to the scan, swallows the tube in painful gulps.


We hear the footsteps of the night staff that scramble to cope with the numbers arriving. We hear cries and shouts from people who are angry nobody is bothering to help when they are in so much pain. A broken hand, an ear that has been split on the rugby pitch. Many have chronic conditions that have flared up overnight: breathing, blood sugar levels, lymphodoema. The yellers are often not in terrible condition, not physically, that is.


I walk down a dark corridor and am stopped by a woman with wild hair moving stiffly along in her walker. She wants to know how my son is doing. “I saw him in casualty when you came in. He looked very serious.”


“He’ll be fine,” I tell her. I don’t know that this is true, but why not say he will be fine, that his gut will one day function again? It can’t hurt to believe he will be okay, can it? And he will be okay, won’t he?


The old man has started again. But now his inane shouts feel almost comforting. They distract me from my growing fear. I understand that the old man has dementia, that his racial slurs and ugly words toward anyone female are the result of his tangled mind. I can’t help wondering if this was always who the old man really was, however. That the dementia has simple removed a veneer of politeness that once hid his deeper self.


This is my own prejudice evidencing itself against old people, sick people, feeble people. I admire the nurses who ignore him as he tells them they weren’t worth dying for in battle. Who persist with his body, which is falling slowly apart as his mind dips and wanders.


His leg is the least of his troubles – I knew that from the beginning. But here is what I did not know: he is a regular visitor here. He must be because I now hear one of the nurses call him by his name as though he is familiar to them. Is that you, Roger? I hear. How’re you doing, Roger? Their voices are Polish, Portuguese, Irish, Australian, English. And they all know Roger.


A doctor arrives, a young guy whose bicycle helmet attaches to his knapsack and whose glossy hair is combed just like my son’s hair. He says an x-ray suggests an intestinal blockage but they are not sure. They need more tests and, yes, he will be admitted.


All night Roger continues, and I almost welcome his song of complaint because it helps keep me from thinking more darkly about my son’s condition. The nurses indulge Roger, “Thank you,” they say as he tells them good men died to save their blasted country. Or “How could we look after you, then?” when he tells them to go back to wherever they came from.


My son says nothing. I say nothing. We wait in the yellow annex. I make sure the drip is working. My son closes his eyes against the harsh light above. The woman in the walker offers a little wave as she passes by once again. Roger starts bellowing just as the doctor comes to tell us that we need to go to the surgical assessment ward.


“Are you trying to kill me?” Roger screams. Then, “Are there any English here? Are there any English?”









Pet Sheep? Sure, what could possibly go wrong?

I began keeping sheep as pets because I had almost four acres of very hilly pasture studded with trees and bushes. Even a tractor struggled to mow it and very few of the farmers thought it worth their while to try.


The previous owners of our property had tackled the pasture using a quad bike with a mower attachment, but they also kept big horses that could eat grass year round, while my native cob and her small pony friend were on restricted grazing more often than not. While the ponies’ patch of allowed grass was eaten down to stub, the rest of the field grew wild with coarse, stemmy grass, docks, nettles, buttercups and other weeds. By the edges of the stream that flows weakly along one side, bull rushes grew on the bank beneath a growing crop of blackberry bushes. Trees became choked by ivy and prolific, flowering vines. The ancient Perry tree dropped its fruit in autumn where it rotted, killing a circle of grass that was replaced in spring with fresh weeds.


Occasionally, I’d venture out with my favourite gardening tool—an Austrian scythe—and mow down bind weed and thistles and stinging nettles as high as my head. Or I’d get out a petrol-powered strimmer and knock back the thickening brambles. A circumference of mad growth widened around the trees and bushes with every season until a jungle of thorny vines crowded out all but the most intrepid gardener.


Along the borders, branches pushed against the fence lines, the woods threatening to push in. Come winter, the ponies nibbled on the long, browning grass that bent over new growth, but it wasn’t a satisfactory solution. The hillsides gathered a greater number of docks and thistles, growing impervious to my scythe. Herbicides could sicken the plants, making them droop yellow and brown where they stood, but they did nothing to decrease the numbers come spring, and something in me became unwilling to poison the land I’d volunteered to care for.


The farmers laughed at me when I suggested they could use my land for their lambs through the summer. Four acres turned out to be either four too few or four too many—it wasn’t worth their while to keep lambs on such grass and, by the way, what was the condition of my fencing?


I considered getting my own sheep I was told this was a terrible idea. Sheep would exhaust me by constantly pushing their way through fences, or jumping clean over them. I would race through woods with a feed bucket looking for them or, even worse, charge down the road by night hoping to persuade them to follow me before headlamps appeared and an accident occurred.


Anyway, the sheep would all die. I was assured that only farmers had the necessary knowledge to maintain a healthy flock. Farmers understood how to round them up and keep them in, how to dose, drench and, bathe and pour-on all the potions necessary to ward off such killers as liver fluke, foot rot, lice and scald. Only farmers could shear and crutch and dag in order to prevent the inevitable fly strike that killed in numbers in spring and autumn.


Even if I could figure out what they were talking about and stay on top of all the requisite managing, I was told that chances are the sheep would die. Sheep have a million inventive ways to die and they are reputed to regularly practice their death wish, dying by misadventure or fright or pneumonia. They would get bloat—a build-up of gas inside their gut that must be carefully reduced lest the sheep suffer an internal explosion. They would get worms that would require chemical treatment and strict pasture rotation to keep under control. They would contract any number of diseases, a few of which can affect humans. They would get fly strike, a condition in which flies laid eggs on their wool and the resulting maggots ate through the sheep’s flesh, emitting fatal toxins.


They weren’t only passive recipients of death, but active pursuers of it. My sheep would eat poisonous plants, actual garbage, get caught in fencing, become “cast”—that is unable to get up from the ground—until their organs failed and corvids plucked out their eyes. This could happen in a matter of hours, I was assured. I would come back from dinner party to find the remains of my sheep laid out in pieces on the ground. What the corvids left, the badgers would have.


They would die quickly and in agony, ill-suited for the natural surrounds that I had hoped they would manage.


Besides which, they made terrible pets. Pet owners did not know what to do with sheep and ended up with sick and dying animals in breach of every regulations set out of by the government with regard to farm animals. Sheep are food, not pets. Put lamb in your freezer, not your little pony paddock. Pet owners were too soft, misguided and inexperienced to even consider taking on sheep. You will be miserable, I heard over and over. You will regret it!


It was a bad idea, perhaps the very worst of ideas, to put them on my property.


And yet, I did.


The lamb in the photo at the beginning of this blog is the youngest of four that arrived a week ago. And below is a photo of me with some sheep from the first flock I bought, nine years ago. They came to as “shearlings” (year-old ewes) and we’ve been pals ever since. If you happen to want to keep sheep as pets, you’ll be delighted to know that this greenhorn managed somehow, though not without some trepidation. I’ll write a few blogs to give you an idea of what is required, and maybe persuade you to give it a try.


Photo by Jane Starnie


What’s not on your CV?


My CV is a long list of publications, teaching gigs and speaking events. It is barely more informative than the business card I never use, one that lists my name, phone numbers and the word “writer” where others would put their job title.


Wanting to be a writer is a pursuit whose success is unlikely. It’s like wanting to be an astronaut. So few people survive the final cut or make any kind of living doing it that the job sounds fanciful, like something a child invents. I want to be an astronaut. I want to be a writer. Both sound the same to me: improbable and babyish.


Okay, some writers are journalists and that is a real profession, attainable if competitive. But mostly, I am a novelist. That’s just kooky. Astronauts and novelists exist, however, and while our careers may sometimes be short-lived, we certainly see things others do not.


But what isn’t on my CV? What other things can I do that are never mentioned to anyone? We all have hidden talents; some of them grow into actual businesses. My friend, Lone Hudson, is a qualified architect but she is also an amazing artist who made the pot in the photo above. Lone’s ceramics are not only beautiful but inhabit a kind of Buddha calm within their pale aquatic colours and soft geometry. They bring an energy with them, and their presence in a room seems larger than their size should permit.


Lone’s CV will tell you she has been an architect, and it is true. She even built her own large, airy eco-house with slate floors and giant glass doors and a tall, open staircase as wide as my entire downstairs hall. But I think she only built the house as a backdrop to her beautiful stoneware. Lone is almost always in the garden or near the kiln. She’s either sculpting or planting or cooking. What wasn’t on her CV—artist, potterer—has finally been added, but it is late in its announcement. She has a rare gift. I am determined to buy yet a few more of her pieces before they become too expensive to consider.


What’s not on your CV? I bet there is something important, if not awesome. My friend, Simon, has a very high-level job with a major accounting firm, but you’d never know from his Facebook page. There you see what isn’t on his CV, that he is an ultra-marathon runner. His wife and he travel the world, rather swiftly it would seem, running for days at a time. He’s not just a little good at this; he is remarkable.


I’m not sure if there is any feature more outstanding about my life than the words I produce. I have a few small talents: I am a competent hoof-trimmer. Bring me a pony with terrible hooves and years of laminitis, and I will sort it out. I am a careful shepherd, managing my sheep so that they are friendly, cooperative, and live long lives. I am a gifted teacher. If I had taken up high school teaching there would now be hundreds, even thousands, of kids who would have benefitted. As it is, I only teach small numbers on course that is a bit of a sideline for the University of Oxford.


My brother wrote me recently and said something so nice I am going to repeat it here. I hope this isn’t bragging. He wrote, “You’ve always been a person who would help someone if they needed help.”


It’s true. If I think I can help someone, I generally do so without even having to be asked. This trait isn’t on my CV, but I think it ought to be. It may be the best thing about me.



How I Win (& Lose) for My Son With Autism


Since Nick was diagnosed with autism in 1999, various education caseworkers have been assigned to him. There was a gentle man with a white goatee who retired to Yorkshire. Then we had a disheveled, overworked woman who was genuinely kind-hearted but always on the brink of a heart attack. I think she may have quit. There have been many with brief careers at the Local Education Authority’s Special Educational Needs Department whose names I barely learned before they disappeared, along with whatever progress we’d made in negotiating an arrangement for my son’s education.


I’ve fought with them all, it seems, even the ones I liked. Their job was to grant Nick the minimum he needed to continue in school while my job was to make sure he had everything to which the law entitled him. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat in meetings and repeated these words: I will not make deals, nor negotiate away, my son’s rights.


Nick has an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan. EHC plans identify educational, health and social needs for kids with disabilities and set support to meet those needs. Theoretically, the plan stays in place until the child reaches the age of 25. However, the latest LEA caseworker seems determined to remove Nick from her roster. Let me explain.


Nick was nineteen when he interviewed for a place on an introductory IT course at a local community college. He was accepted. Several months into the programme, a caseworker emailed me to say that Nick could not continue with the course. Apparently, because Nick had achieved 2 A-level grades at Level 3 (one in French and one in Greek) in secondary school he was overqualified to take the IT course at the local community college. The IT course was for Level 2 and Level 3 students. This level was at or below his previous level of education and therefore the education authority had decided he must leave it.


I wrote back, explaining that while Nick had indeed achieved two “C” level grades in French and in Greek in secondary school, he’d done so because he has an obsession with foreign languages. Obsessions are part of the collection of traits associated with autism.  Nick studies languages for hours every day using his phone or computer to access websites and verb tables. His obsession is so extreme, we have to interrupt his drills to get him to answer us.


As obsessions go, this is a good one. He speaks with a beautiful Parisian accent, talks like a Greek when in Athens, and charms everyone at our local Ethiopian restaurant with his attempts at Amharic. It also means he has a couple of A-levels. It does not mean he can do IT.


Nick’s languages are a splinter skill. They do not reflect a high level of academic achievement generally on his part. He was dragged through his GCSEs, achieving very few on first try. His GCSEs were so bad in fact, that when he applied to study languages at A-level, he was refused. The only reason he ended up studying for those A-levels in French and Greek was because I begged the secondary school—literally pleaded—until at last they begrudgingly allowed him to study French and a few other languages there. “We’ll try it,” they warned me. “But we won’t continue if we feel he can’t succeed.”


What a luxury to be able to drop a person because they won’t succeed. Parents of autistic kids can’t do that.


But back to my current argument over the IT course at the community college. The local education authority (LEA) would not support him in IT because he wasn’t able to begin at Level 4. Or even Level 3. Months into the computer course (one he loves), Nick was struggling to pass at Level 2. His teachers liked him; he got along in class; he went to college with pride every morning, and he tried his hardest. But the Local Authority was now refusing to fund him. Unless I could convince them otherwise, Nick would have to leave the college mid-term.


You might be asking yourself a few valid questions. First, why isn’t this kid with A-levels going to university and studying languages?


I have to admit, I had once greatly hoped he would apply for a university place. But it was a dream of mine, not his. Anyway, the requirement for language students may too high for him right now. He can’t write long essays. He can’t speak for lengthy periods, which is why he didn’t get higher grades at A-levels. The oral exams required him to talk for three solid minutes in Greek when he can’t even speak for two minutes at a time in his own language. Even if he lived at home and commuted to university, he could not cope with the pressure. It’s autism—you know, the disability he has. It gets in the way.


Here’s something else you may be thinking: If university is too hard for him and the LEA won’t fund him at the community college, why not pay for the course out of our own pocket?


A great idea. Here’s why: they wouldn’t let us. And when I found out that his Education, Heath and Care Plan meant he couldn’t just purchase education like any other private citizen, I went a little crazy inside.


And finally, you might be asking this: What does one’s ability to speak a foreign language have to do with one’s ability with IT?


A great question. I kept asking that. I was told he had to demonstrate that he was showing “stretch” and “progression.” Of course, taking a course in a subject you’ve never done before is showing stretch and progression but the LEA didn’t see it like that. They wanted him at Level 3 as a minimum. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t achieve Level 3. His teachers told me there was no chance. And while, they were happy to have him at Level 2 (other kids in his class were doing Level 2) they LEA would not agree. Because Nick had achieved Level 3 in two foreign languages, he was expect to study at Level 3 in IT. That was that.


I won’t bore you with all the events that transpired to enable Nick to stay in his course. They took days, weeks, phone calls to lawyers, meetings, assessments, and the kind of tenacity that wrings you dry.


More recently,  I’ve spent hours with Nick, pouring over textbooks and websites and blank screens at home in order to help him pass the course even at Level 2. It’s hard for him, but he’s doing it. He has remained in class. It’s worked out  reasonably well. But I am still recovering from the trauma of convincing the LEA to keep him there.


What do these kinds of events to a person over time? And now I am speaking of myself, not my son. What does it take from a person to have to constantly argue, cajole, convince, beg, and threaten? It is painful enough to have a child with autism, to watch as he struggles with things other children find easy, to know that the future is (at best) uncertain, to fear that at the time of your own death, your adult child will be in real danger. Must the people who are supposed to help thwart your every effort?


The woman at the LEA wrote long, horrible emails to me. I wrote long horrible emails back to her. She wanted him out of that classroom. I wanted him in.


I guess you can say I won, but it didn’t feel like winning.


How did it feel to this new young woman at the LEA to capitulate at last and allow a young man she has never met remain at a community college? It must gall her that he is now attending college against her will. It must anger her that someone with an A-level in French is doing a lower level course in Information Technology. Imagine how difficult it must be for her. Imagine how hard.


I bet she goes home at night and complains to her partner about parents like me: autism parents. Who do they think they are, standing up for their kids like that? Being willing to argue for as long as it takes, being willing to spend every waking hour, as though their whole lives are about helping their children?


Who are we? A significant minority, if we stick together.














The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting — Sun Tzu


It started with The War For Talent, McKinsey’s 1997 announcement that the world of commerce was now at risk. With increasingly emotive language, McKinsey described a “severe and worsening shortage of the people” resulting in unfilled jobs, failed business objectives, skyrocketing compensations packages, and CEOs who could not sleep at night. All are vulnerable, they wrote in bold. And while it would be possible to win the war for talent, this could only happen if you “elevated talent management to a burning corporate priority.”


Did you hear that? Burning.


The problem was unlikely to resolve, not during the tenure of our working lives anyway. The forecast, grim and uncompromising, promised that “companies (were) about to be engaged in a war for senior executive talent that will remain a defining characteristic of their competitive landscape for decades to come.”


Why such an apocalypse? The reasons included a shortage of 35-44 year olds to replace the baby-boomers who were retiring, competition from smaller companies, and increased job mobility. Oh, there were people around, but not enough good people. Anyway, good was the enemy of great; good was the new bad. You had to get rid of good, explained Jim Collins in his 2001 book Good To Great; you had to rinse the cottage cheese (make tiny changes that add up). And you had to do it now. Don’t forget the sleepless CEOs, striving to heed Collins’ advice and get the best people on the bus. They could have fatigue-induced cardiac arrest—and who on earth would replace them?


Firing was as important as hiring. McKinsey was bold enough to state it outright: “Our research suggests that taking action to deal with poor performers is…the least exploited talent-building lever for any company.” Building talent through firing concentrates the talent, you see, increasing productivity of those remaining if only through necessity.


Letting go, constructive discharge, downsizing, there is no nice way to describe firing. But the important thing was to get rid of unwanted talent-blockers, even whole departments (blockages) through whatever legal means possible. Use velvet gloves; trot out executive coaches and outplacement advisors. Make a note that you have fired them so that you don’t accidentally re-hire them again in your effort to recruit the best talent. Rinse that cheese…


So how are we doing twenty years past McKinsey’s critical call to action? Is the war for talent over? It is, sort of. But all wars leave casualties. As Josh Bersin from Bersin of Deloitte explained, “The war for talent is over. The talent won.”


In case you are not aware, companies moved from the war for talent to a crusade for engagement. The word crusade sounds lofty, but it is important to remember that crusades are just wars with passion. In this new crusade, companies must become charismatic, irresistible magnets for the best people (not good, not even great anymore, but the best). Luckily, Deloitte can help a company become irresistible. After two years of research and discussions with hundreds of clients (where did they find the people to do this?) they uncovered five major elements and underlying strategies that makes organizations irresistible.


Compensation is part of it, sure. Breathe easy: you can still buy people. But salary is just “a hygiene factor”, not an “engagement factor.” You have to make the best and brightest happy, not clean. Work has to be self-directed, dynamic, creative, all the things we don’t normally associate with the word work. In fact, let’s not call it work anymore. Let’s call it mission.


How do we get people to join our mission? Of course, training and support, autonomy, “clear and transparent goals”, but you also need to create a “humanistic environment.” Admittedly, I don’t know what a humanistic environment is; Deloitte seems to have borrowed the term from studies run by dental schools, but I believe it means having respect and compassion for those around you.


Google’s idea, and one that could only come from this extraordinary thinktank, was to give engaged people time “to think, create, and rest” and, frankly, I’m already feeling the draw. But you can only give such time to the best people—those with passion and mission and purpose, those given to moments of brilliance and inspiration. There is no point in allowing people time to think if they can’t think. Those people have to go.


Luckily, automation is helping companies get rid of people who shouldn’t be given time to rest and think. Companies may still be losing the war for talent, but they are progressing on the firing front. Advancements in data allow companies to tag individual employees in various ways to predict whether they will be useful five or ten years down the road. Through a series of complex algorithms and predictive analytics, companies are able to sift through their mission-supporters and deselect those they wish to exclude from their flexible, person-centric, humanistic environments. With the removal of the good (enemy to great) and with a closely focussed digitally enhanced eye on the great, it is possible to clear the way for the best.


Or so we hope. Recently, McKinsey launched a new look at the war for talent (see The New War For Talent), explaining that many of the old problems haven’t gone away, and adding more challenges to the mix. It would seem that the talent is still not cooperating. The new soldiers on the talent-front are millennials and, according to Forbes, “Millennials don’t want jobs. They want lives.” If companies seek to recruit them, it isn’t enough to be irresistible and woo them. If you are lucky enough to succeed in wooing them, you have to convince them the whole enterprise is their idea. To that end, companies are striving to create an entrepreneurial culture, as 72% of millennials want to be their own boss.


What have all those managers and C-suite leaders actually achieved since 1997? Their expectations on employees were so high, their standards so rigid, their firing so efficient, they’ve convinced the new generation of talent to self-exclude. Maybe the talent didn’t want predictive analytics that value them one against the other. Maybe the talent preferred to make their own luck than be subject to constant evaluation. While recent graduates struggle to find any work at all, millennials are stepping away from opportunities. In an interview with McKinsey, Ann Robie, global head of Human Resources at StubHub said, “The future of talent is that people are not actually wanting to be employees.”


And so it evolves, as war often does. Perhaps we can no longer call it a “war for talent” or a “crusade for engagement.” The landscape has changed, the battleground no longer defined by its original architecture. What we see is that command control originates from the opposing side. We’ve reached the age of “talent at war”. Or talent@war, if you prefer. #NotInterested