It has been a tough few weeks in the UK. The irony of a rare heatwave, the bright blue cloudless skies and strong sunshine bathing everything in an Instagram worthy light, has contrasted desperately with the horror that seems to unfold daily.
Rather than our tabloids hosting the usual front pages of bikini clad girls frolicking in the waves or children licking melting ice creams, we are bombarded with images of death and destruction. Pictures we are more used to see coming out of war torn countries. The husk of a burning tower, the by now all too familiar sight of yet more people mown down by vehicles and interviews of survivors confused and battered. The season of horror has even displaced our obsession with the weather.
So what role does fiction have in extraordinary times such as this? As a reader I use fiction both as escapism but also to make sense of the world. During my A-Levels I became obsessed with Mills and Boon novels. Couldn’t touch one now but the formulaic world of romance, handsome heroes and simpering women provided me with a quick hit of escapism. This was in between studying Chaucer and Shakespeare, so intensely that the actual stories became almost lost in the relentless analysis of imagery, themes and language. In the same way now I devour books about beach cafes and happy endings, the pastel covers and uplifting blurb promising me a few hours of holiday reading, even when I am no-where near a sun lounger.
It seems apt that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale, on many a curriculum has recently reached the small screen. Many of my friends and contemporaries have found it a difficult, yet necessary watch. Although set in a dystopian future, Atwood has famously set the story using events and situations that have already happened. If we had seen this drama a few years ago we would have all enjoyed it yet reassured ourselves that this could never happen in our world. Sadly the reason we find it tough watching now is how easily it could happen in the world of terror and the measures being taken to combat the threat.
Fiction has also taught me so much. I used books like guides to steer me through the confusion and angst of puberty. Long before social media allowed sharing of worries, thoughts and emotions, writers such as Judy Blume delved into sex, mental health and relationships. Allowing us to realise that we do all go through similar things. We are not alone. Moving on, Orwell, Heller, Dostoevsky, Golding, to name a few taught me more about how the world worked. Allowing me to absorb different world orders, Animal Farm taught me far more about Capitalism than a whole pile of textbooks. Disturbingly you can almost imagine a sequel with a burning hay barn full of the Common Animals. While the Elites sit and drink port and discuss leadership in the farm.
I am now craving new stories to take me outside of my bubble, where my majority of friends are shocked by terror, the right-wing government and the tragic consequence of poverty. How can I begin to understand what has happened in any of this year’s terrible events if I don’t know the why? The questions are complex. Why do people feel the need to blow themselves and many innocent people up? Why would someone hate so deeply that they would drive a car into a group of people? What are the reasons that people would vote for a leader who is doing all she can to destroy a welfare system and the NHS? Even worse, why would a country welcome a president who wants to ban an entire religion from entering his country or build a wall to protect from a supposed enemy? It is all very well being angry or shocked about all these situations but we need to understand why this is happening, why people are feeling this way.
The mainstream media is one way of learning about the world but I find that I am becoming a little desensitised by the rolling news. As an ex-news producer, I have seen this first hand. It is the brain working to protect the mind, quite rightly. On long news shifts as I spooled through and edited news packages of yet another natural or man-made disaster I used to find myself watching dead children and horrific injuries with little reaction. I wasn’t there and I know actually experiencing disasters such as Grenfell Tower and the Manchester attack must of had a horrific effect on those exposed. However, I do think that the more you see or are part of something the less of an impact it makes. I think back to the child in Aleppo who had been pulled out of wreckage. Most papers shared the photo of him, looking shell shocked in the back of an ambulance. In many ways this was the image that broke through after years of seeing injured and displaced people in Syria. However, his face also told of a child who is so used to being surrounded by bombs and chaos, he no longer reacts normally.
One of the interesting things about the Grenfell fire and the latest mosque attack has been the long stream of young, black men speaking to the media as contributors. They are angry, yet they are also proactive and knowledgeable. The mainstream media often perpetuates many stereotypes and usually when we see angry young black men it is in the role as perpetrator, not victim. This is again why fiction is just as important as factual coverage. We need to give people voices. Diversification attempts in the media, have generally focused on race, gender or disability but we need to encourage difference in circumstance and social background also. Similarly our bestseller lists are still dominated by middle class white people, writing about the issues faced by white middle class people.
So as a writer should I be trying to inform or simply entertain? My current book, The Girl Who Just Wanted to Have Fun is based on the financial crash of 2008 but is an imagined story of the struggles this caused for many. The book I am writing now started off as a big What If? Examining how it might affect the protagonist, with an unhealthy reliance on technology and social media if this was taken away. However, as I have written I have become distracted or maybe inspired by the terrible events we have all witnessed. So terror, politics and fake news have all forced their way into this story. Of course, I am still a bystander. I haven’t been personally affected by anything that has happened, apart from the fact I am a mother and live in the same city that has been the scene for much of the tragedy. I am also a middle class white writer. However, I did grow up in poverty. I lived in council houses for most of my childhood and remember vividly hiding behind sofas when various people came to collect money. Recall my mum having to work literally day and night to feed us and also her desperation when there wasn’t food on the table and she had to cook up nettle stew, before the days where foraging was a hipster activity. I can still picture temporary accommodation we were placed in, which was a damp and freezing mobile home. Nowadays this would be a B&B in most areas but the disruption on family life was the same. This means as a writer this is something I can genuinely write about and I do think this is a duty amongst the poverty porn that is peddled out on all sides. As someone with a severe and enduring mental health problem I also feel that I need to talk about the reality of trying to stay well and stay safe in a crumbling system where crisis services are being cut, again this is actually a case of life or death in many situations.
We do have a prevailing attitude of fighting back, carrying on and staying strong in the face of horror in the UK. We express our horror, stand in solidarity and then continue with our lives. This is important, we have to look forwards and rally together but we should also be analysing, examining and questioning why this is all happening before we leave it to one side and await the next horror. Fiction is one way we can do this, fiction is also one way we can allow our brains to move away from the trauma. There has never been a time where we have needed a good book more.