What’s the difference between a story and a lie?

This comes from a book published in 1984, by the American author Paula Fox, called ‘The Servant’s Tale’:

“What’s the difference between a story and a lie?” I asked.

“A lie hides the truth, a story tries to find it,” Nana said, impatiently.

I strained to grasp her meaning.

“Don’t worry,” she said soothingly. “You’ll see it all some day.”

I understood enough to know that Nana saw what others couldn’t see: that, for her, the meaning of one thing could also be the meaning of a greater thing.


I was sad to hear that the poet Seamus Heaney died today.

I’ve long loved the mix with which he wrote…of sharp-eyed observation, challenging thinking, musical language and an almost startling awareness of the weight of each word.

He and his friend Ted Hughes were the two elder poets working in my corner of the world as I made first, clumsy attempts at writing poetry in my teens.

When it came out, in 1982, my father gave me their anthology ‘The Rattle Bag’, as a Christmas present. I was seventeen. It was quite some present – an amazing, travelling collection of poetry.

I can remember feeling new things going on inside me as I turned the pages of that book…trying to keep up with the new words, the unfamiliar names, and the range of poetic styles from all round the world and all across the centuries.

It was one of the moments when a cultural object seemed to burst open something in my young mind.

It had happened three or four years earlier when I put on the first album by the punk band Stiff Little Fingers, and dropped down into the fierce, dark guitars of the opening song.

I remember seeing Joan Miró’s strange, blue work ‘Painting’ at the old Tate Gallery as a teenager. And the world suddenly seemed bigger and bolder than I had thought.

Similar things went on as I stared my way through a season of Luis Buñuel films that was on the television around then.

I even remember a building having the same effect – the first time I looked up at the glass and bright-coloured tubes of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, aged 16.

What was bursting? Horizons? New doorways? The innocence of someone yet to leave home? I’m not sure how to put it. All I can say is that each time it felt like something opening that wasn’t going to close.

I heard Seamus Heaney reading his poems, at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2002. I remember him being refreshingly bumbling (coming on the stage with his poems in a tatty old bag) and, with it, serene and tuneful.

He read with passion and care. The most beautiful poem of the night was ‘At The Wellhead’, in which he describes his wife’s shut-eyed singing and talks of Rosie Keenan, a blind, musical neighbour in the farming community where he grew up, who opened his young mind to the possibilities of music and poetry.

At the end there were questions for him and someone asked, “How did you become a poet?” Seamus Heaney replied, “It’s a mystery to me, happily. At school I wasn’t good at English. I was good at sums.” Then he added that there were ways in which maths still felt central. He tried to remember the mathematical formula for work. Someone in the audience helped him: WORK = FORCE + DISTANCE.

Yes,” said Heaney, with sudden passion. “And it’s the distance that’s so important. It’s no good if you just dump it down. Move it!


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown, headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And find the heart unlatched and blow it open.

by Seamus Heaney (from ‘The Spirit Level’, 1996)



Childhood is

“Running our schools like performance institutes is
an outrage. Rather than instilling a love of learning
we are alienating our children and our teachers.
Let’s work to bring the awe-inspiring ‘journey’ back.”
Syracuse Cultural Workers


Three quotations about STORIES

Jewish-American author, Isaac Bashevis Singer: “When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t written, men would live like beasts, only for the day…”

British art critic and novelist, John Berger: “Stories are always taking things from one place to another.”

Nigerian author, Ben Okri: “Without fighting, stories have won over more people than all the great wars put together.”



A few weeks ago, I performed in a ‘storytelling marathon’ in São Paulo. A Brazilian storyteller called Dani Barros told this story. She heard it while travelling in Burkina Faso and Mali…

There was once a path which led through a forest. At the end of this path was a village, and the village was famous for a particular reason. People said that whoever went there was changed in some way.

It was a long way to the village. The path wound through the forest for many miles. And about halfway along it, there was a house where a widow lived with her son. This was good news for travellers on their way to the village. Many of them would break their journey at the widow’s house, and sleep there for a night.

That’s exactly what happened one day. A stranger came walking along the path and, when he reached the house, the widow went out to greet him. “It’s a long way to the village,” she said. “Perhaps you’d like to spend a night with me and my son.”

The stranger accepted. The next day, he carried on his journey.

Several weeks went by. Then the traveller came back. “How did you like the village?” asked the widow.

“I was disappointed,” the man said to her. “I thought it was going to be special in some way. But it’s just a village in the middle of a forest. The people have very little. Nothing interesting seems to happen. So I decided to leave the place.”

“Of course,” said the widow, and the traveller went on his way.

Only a few days later, another stranger came walking along the path, and the same thing happened. When he reached the house, the widow went out to greet him. “It’s a long way to the village,” she said. “Perhaps you’d like to spend a night here.”

The stranger accepted. He spent a night with the widow and her son. Then, the next day, he continued his journey.

Several weeks later, the stranger came back. “How did you like the village?” asked the widow.

“It was the most beautiful place I have ever seen,” he told her. “I couldn’t believe how colourful the flowers are and how tall the trees grow. Children run around freely, and the older ones look after the younger ones. Every night the villagers gather together to dance and tell stories. I felt so happy there, I’ve decided to go and fetch what I own, and go back to live there!”

“Of course,” said the widow, and the traveller went on his way.

When he’d gone the widow’s son said to her. “I don’t understand. One traveller came back and he told you he didn’t like the village, and you said, ‘Of course.’ Then the next traveller came back and told you he loved everything about the place, and you said exactly the same thing!”

His mother replied, “Well, that’s because everyone sees the world according to what they have in their heart.”

And the boy said, “Of course.”

Forest Burkina Faso 1

Writing secrets – FLYING CROOKED

I’ve been working on a second novel for teenagers. It’s a tough piece of writing (for reasons that will become apparent if ever I get to the end of it and it becomes a book.)

Recently there have been some days when I’ve flown along, covering lots of pages. But there have been plenty of other days when I expected to fly along, covering lots of pages, and actually found myself spending long hours on a single paragraph, or getting nowhere at all.

There’s an Oscar Wilde story I like. He said he spent an entire morning working on a poem, and all he did was put in one comma. Then he worked on the poem all through the afternoon, and all he did was take the comma out.

Oscar Wilde liked to exaggerate, for comic effect. But I find this story of his completely believable! Writing gets like that.

Some years ago, the difficulty…the stops and starts…and the getting-nowhere in spite of all the trying might have left me feeling dejected…perhaps pessimistic about what I was doing…probably frustrated with myself.

But I’ve been writing books for long enough now, to know that the bad days are intimately connected with the good days. You can’t afford to puff yourself up when it’s going well, or deflate when it’s going badly.

I’ve talked about this with my friend, the painter, Ed Gray. He’s described going through exactly the same good times and bad times when working on paintings in his studio. And he has a good little saying to deal with it: “The important thing is to show up.”

Sometimes I can ask myself if I’ve “shown up” for my work in recent days, and the answer is, “No.”

If I look back on recent weeks, the answer is “Yes.” And when that’s the case, I find myself feeling quite optimistic about the slowness, and the detours and difficulties along the way.

This poem, by British writer Robert Graves, has become a favourite:


The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
He has–who knows so well as I?–
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Robert Graves (1895-1985)



A thought from the British author, Philip Pullman: “Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”


Nasruddin and the traveller…

One day Nasruddin saw a man walking along the road. He had a heavy bag and was looking gloomy.

Nasruddin called out to the traveller, “What’s making you so miserable?”

“I’m on a trip to seek happiness,” the man told him. “And I’ve travelled far and wide, but I’ve not been able to find out how happiness is produced.”

Without another word, Nasruddin grabbed the traveller’s bag and he ran away with it. Off he went down the road, as fast as a rabbit. Then, round a bend, Nasruddin darted out of sight into some undergrowth.

The traveller, who did not know the area so well, just carried along up the road. And he looked even more unhappy, now that his bag had been stolen.

Nasruddin took a shortcut and reached the road a good bit further along. Then he put down the bag and waited.

Presently the traveller appeared. He saw his bag. He ran towards it. And, when he realised it hadn’t been stolen after all, he picked it up and shouted with joy.

“There you are,” said Nasruddin. “That’s one way of producing happiness.”




A school in São Paulo, Brazil, where I live at the moment, recently caused a stir by installing security cameras in all of its classrooms.

The students at Rio Branco (a well-known, private secondary school) were not told about this. They arrived one morning and found the CCTV cameras staring down from the ceilings. It provoked a student walk-out which led to the suspension of 107 pupils. And this has started a debate between people who think security cameras in school classrooms are a good idea and people who don’t.

The argument in favour tends to be that classroom cameras improve behaviour and offer security to students and teachers. “The walls of the classrooms are cleaner, and the teenagers are much better behaved,” says Débora Goulart, Head Teacher of another Brazilian school with classroom cameras. And the mother of a pupil asks, “What goes on in lessons that people don’t want recorded? If you’re doing nothing wrong you have nothing to fear!”

Disruptive behaviour in classrooms is a problem. And there are cases where CCTV camera footage has cleared up difficult disputes. (In Britain, where I’m from, there was a case of a boy who claimed to have been dragged from a classroom by his teacher. He used marks on his arms as evidence. But CCTV footage showed he was lying. It proved there was no contact between the teacher and the boy, and showed that he asked a friend to punch his arms to make the marks.) All the same, I have some questions for those in a hurry to put these cameras into classrooms.

Firstly, how much difference do they really make? Isn’t it a bit naïve to think that pupils who have behavioural problems are going to leave them behind just because they are being filmed? How good is good behaviour if it is just in response to a camera on a wall? And won’t bullies and others who behave badly in schools just find ways to carry on, out of sight from the cameras?

Secondly, aren’t those who are in favour of the cameras so fixed on the bad things they may prevent that they’re forgetting the good things that they may be preventing as well?

If a school puts cameras into classrooms it seems like an admission that there is something profoundly wrong with the relationships between its teachers and its pupils. Either some teachers are not managing to engage pupils effectively, or some students seriously lack faith in their teachers. (Or both.)

Are classroom cameras going to do anything to improve these relationships? And shouldn’t the school be looking to do that before anything else? After all, it is those relationships between teachers and pupils that are the very life-source of learning in schools.

If something is profoundly wrong then it demands a profound course of action. But that’s not what putting in security cameras is. It’s too easy. It’s too much like papering over the cracks.

The whole story of the cameras at Rio Branco (including the way they were installed without a word to pupils) suggests that the school is sidestepping more time-consuming and demanding ways of facing its difficulties: through human exchange, honest conversation, listening, reflection, dialogue, negotiated deals. Instead it has opted for a technological quick-fix.

What do you think? Please comment if you have thoughts on the subject. Cameras in classrooms are by no means limited to Brazil. They are increasingly used in countries around the world.

And what comes next? Computer chips sewn into uniforms to monitor where pupils are?

Well, actually, the day before yesterday I read an article in the Brazilian press, reporting that a school near to the capital, Brasília, is doing exactly that. Pupils have to wear uniforms with chips sewn in which track where they are. And other schools are already expressing an interest in the idea…


Three sayings from Afghanistan


‘Two watermelons cannot be held in one hand.’

‘What is the trumpet player’s job? To blow.’









‘They asked the fox, “Who is your witness?” He replied, “My tail.”’

(Image from a picture book – one of my favourites – called BEN’S TRUMPET, written and illustrated by Rachel Isadora, published by Greenwillow Books back in 1979 and still in print. You can hear it read here.)



A few years ago, I led a creative writing course at HM Prison Rochester, in the south of England.

A group of twelve or fourteen prisoners, aged 18 to 21, took part. We worked for a couple of hours every morning, round a big table at the back of the prison chapel. The project led to the publication of a book of poems by the prisoners. They put on a performance to other inmates. And I remember the courage, humour and honesty of the men who stood up to read their poems cutting right through the restlessness of some in the audience who had come along thinking their poetry might be a bit of a joke.

So by the end, it felt like quite a successful project. And I remember the very beginning being important.

I wanted to find a way for everyone taking part to introduce themselves, while knowing that young men in prison might not want to say anything too personal. So I suggested a sort of game.

I said we were going to send a rocket into space, and asked the prisoners to think of one thing each, to put on the rocket to represent themselves.

I started. I told them I’d put a leaf from the oak tree behind the house where I grew up. And the man next to me got the idea straight off. He said, “I’ll send my eyes…because when you’re in prison they’re the most precious thing you’ve got.”

After that, hardly anyone hesitated before chosing something to put on the rocket.

“I’m going to send the spikes off my running shoes because when I was sixteen I was the best sprinter in my school.”

“I’ll put a photograph of my son.”

“I play music and I’ve recorded stuff. So I’ll send a CD of my songs.”

The game worked. Everyone used it to say something with some truth in it.

Then it came to the last prisoner in the circle – quite a pale man, a bit smaller than the others. And he said, “My name is Sten, from Estonia. I am five months in this country and five months in prison. What I will put in this rocket is MYSELF. Then it will be a good way to get out of this prison!”