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Has our understanding of courage been highjacked?


When on a trip to London yesterday, my husband and son took a tour up the Orbit tower, in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I’m not a great one for heights so my daughter and I ducked into a nearby cafe to await their return. After settling at our table with the drinks, my daughter began indulging in some soul searching. Apparently, they’d had an assembly the week before about ‘courage’. She lamented how she should really have possessed the courage to climb the tower and clearly felt it a personal failure to have ‘wimped out’.

This got me thinking. I immediately told Shona that courage didn’t mean quite the same thing to me as it did to the teacher leading the assembly. She agreed, suggesting  that abseiling off a building might constitute courage to one person and stupidity to another. It has certainly  become fashionable in recent years to encourage youngsters to take part in high adrenaline activities, viewing them as ‘character building’. Indeed, my daughter will be going on her year six residential trip in May, which is an adventure holiday including a ‘leap of faith’ on the final day.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great. The kids will love it, just as I enjoyed riding roller coasters and diving from high boards when I was a teenager. But where I become uneasy, is in the redefining of thrill seeking, adrenaline pumping acts as synonymous with courage. Fearlessness is only one aspect of the OED definition of being courageous. It is also about having fortitude, being brave and gallant, even heroic. To me, a courageous act is to stand up for what you believe in even if all those around you disagree. To stick up for someone who is being bullied at the risk of a backlash against yourself is courageous. To make the trip to a war zone in order to provide medical care or assistance to those caught up in the violence  is courageous.

When I hear about those individuals who seek greater and greater artificial thrills by walking tightropes between tall buildings or climbing rock faces without support ropes, I always wonder how those who live with real difficulties view this strange occupation; those who trek for hundreds of miles and embark upon dangerous sea voyages to escape torture and persecution with their young families must marvel at why people would actually seek the stress that those dreadful  situations bring.

The answer, I suspect, is that ordinary life bores some people . They’ve sought out every available activity to stimulate the endorphins and have become addicted to the buzz. This isn’t what courage means to me and I wish we would stop telling our children that it’s what they should aspire to. Courage is the ability to recognise the true value in what we have before us right now. It might take more courage to stand still and face our responsibilities than to rush off in search of the next big thing.

So, I had no intention of forcing my daughter to go to the top of that tower – to face and overcome her fear. Because we all have a different interpretation of being brave. For some people, travelling any distance away from their home requires a courage that others may not fully  appreciate. Who am I to judge what another individual’s capacity for stoicism might be. I’d rather my daughter stood up for her friends when it mattered most and was a person who put their head above the parapet at work to point out an injustice. Because that is what true courage means to me and it is possible to achieve it on either  a small or a large scale.


Calling occupants of a 1970s birth date.


Several things this week have reminded me of my late 70s/early 80s childhood. On Monday evening’s University Challenge, one of the teams completely failed to identify ABBA’s ‘When All Is Said And Done’ in the music round. And why on earth should they? The song is from the album ‘The Visitors’ and was released in 1981, long before any of those students were born.
Being a baby of the 1970s, I recognised it, and was humming the tune for the next couple of days. It reminded me of long car journeys from the south east of England to Scotland, where my parents grew up and my Gran still lived. This was before the M25 was built and it took us three hours to even get past London. My sister and I were too young for the Sony Walkman, which certainly played a significant part in my life later on. During this particular era of the family car journey, we were all listening to the tape player and it was ABBA and The Carpenters who reigned supreme.
We must have thoroughly worn out those poor cassettes. We appeared to play the same selection of three or four albums over and over again. Each recorded from their crackly vinyl original, of course. And there was singing. Oh yes. Loud singing.
We had some particular favourites; ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’ by The Carpenters was one. In fact, the song is being used in the trailers for the CBeebies channel, currently running on BBC1. It was another thing I heard this week that got me reminiscing.
In this age of Youtube and iTunes, it’s very easy to track down the songs of our childhood. In a way, it brings the past closer to us than it’s ever been. Until the last few years, I probably hadn’t heard any of these tunes for decades. They were a dimly recalled set of notes or a lyric here and there. Now, I can properly revel in every one of them. ‘It’s Yesterday Once More’, as The Carpenters would say.
I’ve got a birthday coming up too. Which is undoubtedly another reason for my nostalgia.
Whatever the trigger, I really want to warble out some ABBA songs in the back seat of a car – preferably one without upholstered seats and rear belts and certainly without an iPod dock or Bluetooth connection.
Just once, you understand. Simply to remember what it was like. Then, I’ll happily come back to the present day, where everything is in reality so much better than it was, but perhaps that communal sharing of music isn’t quite what it used to be.

Where do you write?


I’m having one of those weeks when I’ve got itchy feet. It may be the change of season, but my little office just isn’t enticing me to sit down to proper work.
So, I unplugged the laptop, gathered together my notes and shifted the whole book writing operation down to the living room, where the sun was occasionally casting a warm glow through the patio doors onto the sofa and it simply felt like a much more pleasant place to be.
The move got me thinking. Where do us writers work best? I suspect that this is something very personal to each individual author. For me, it depends on the circumstances. Most of the time, I work more efficiently at my desk. I have my dictionaries, notepads and IPad close to hand and it feels as if I’m embarking upon a proper working day.
But every so often, when I’ve just finished a novel and I’m pushing myself to get going with the next one, I need that extra boost.
With my earlier books, when my family weren’t quite so used to the lengthy writing process I had to adhere to, I tended to take my laptop out to coffee shops and worked there. The bustle and noise of such a public place being less of a distraction than the children asking me endless questions and refusing to defer to their dad if they knew I was still on the premises.
I’ve even done an Agatha Christie a couple of times, going away to a hotel for a weekend to finish a novel. I did this two years ago with The Only Survivor and ploughed through about forty thousand words in a handful of days. Now, I am less compulsive about writing. I’ve got eleven books under my belt and know there will be many more. I still enjoy the process, but the burning desire to complete isn’t quite as strong as it was.
Holidays are another occasion where my writing seems to flow with greater ease. If we go away somewhere with my parents, my family are happy to leave me in the cottage or lodge, tapping away at the keys whilst they go sightseeing. It often only takes a couple of really focussed days’ work to get fully into a new book. This is often all it needs to get me kick started.
Some writers need alcohol to fuel their writing, others have survived on the steady inflow of nicotine. But I think a slavish adherence to these habits doesn’t really represent the modern author, who writes as a business, in order to support their family and doesn’t much like the idea of becoming an addict in the process.
For me, the periodical stimulant required to keep going has to be gained from something less harmful than drugs, however mild they may be, and a change of scenery seems like a perfect way to achieve it.

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