Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Fallen Women

Amherst Lodge, Ealing - now a luxury block of flats
It is still difficult for me to write that I spent the first sixteen years of my life in care. Sometimes I am still shrouded in the shame that my birth caused. I was born in 1958 and my mother was not married. This means zilch nowadays but back then my grandparents, like many other Irish Catholics, refused to have me in the house. At six weeks old I was taken from my mother who had been staying in a mother and baby home in Ealing and put into a residential nursery in Barratts Green Road, Harlesden. This was to be the beginning of a journey that took me to various foster homes, children’s homes, spells with family and too many schools for one small child to cope with. The only reason I was in care was because society had decided that if a woman became preganant and was unmarried, she was deemed unfit to be a parent. If the immediate family refused to help, which was mostly the case, the baby would be put up for adoption. And even though help was available, financial help, as well as housing, this was very rarely offered, due to the adoption market that was predominant back then.

When I was taken into care, ‘bad blood’, was bandied about because my mother suffered from depression, possibly bipolar, although in those days the psychiatrists weren’t as knowledgeable as they are now. If the parent of a child had any history of mental illness, a 
baby would not be put up for adoption. 

A couple of years ago I made contact with Phil Frampton, whose story was very similar to mine. His mother was also unmarried and Phil was placed in a children’s home. But the reason he wasn’t adopted was not because his mother had a mental illness but because he was mixed-race. I found Phil through a website that listed children in care who had made a success of their lives. It has always been important to me to succeed in life, and not to end up as a prostitute, in prison, homeless, a drug addict or an alcoholic – I am too familiar with the negative stereotypes that children in care have to grow up with. I think possibly I was close to being an alcoholic at one time in my life as the friends who used to carry me home would probably tell you.

At around the same time as meeting Phil, I met Josie O Pearse at an event hosted by Lemn Sissay, another successful child of the state. Josie had been in care as a very young child and was then adopted. When I was much younger, I would occasionally meet someone and immediately feel some sort of bond – this was the case with Josie. Whatever her experiences, we clicked and became friends. Phil, Josie and I started the https://www.facebook.com/UmbrellaMAA. We are campaigners, activists, supporters of direct action. Back then the mother group, the Movement for an Adoption Apology did not seem to include children who had been in care and we felt that our voices weren’t being heard, so we set up our own organisation. We met in Parliament and sat in a room with other mothers and children who had been affected by the social policies of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. 
Our aim was to get the government to apologise to the women and children who suffered and who continue to suffer from the impact of the forced child adoption practices in the UK during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Phil and John Leech MP for Manchester Withington, created an early day motion EDM92 Forced Child Adoption. Early day motions (EDMs) are formal motions submitted for debate in the House of Commons. However, very few EDMs are actually debated. What EDMs can do is create publicity around the motion so that more MPs will sign and become involved.

There has been a lot of publicity about the apology made by the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to people affected by Australia's forced adoption policy between the 1950s and 1970s. Tens of thousands of babies of unmarried mothers, were thought to have been taken by the state and given to childless married couples. Speaking in front of hundreds of the victims, Ms Gillard said the "shameful" policy had created "a legacy of pain".

An UMAA supporter got Lord Greaves to "ask Her Majesty’s Government what response they have made to the government of Australia regarding its apology for the past practices of forced adoptions of children of unmarried mothers; and whether they plan to issue a similar apology on behalf of past United Kingdom governments."

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Nash): “The United Kingdom Government have not made any formal response to the apology issued by the Australian Government. The Government have no plans to issue a similar apology.”

As mentioned, the EDM has created publicity, apart from the many newspaper stories of mothers and children being reunited, and shows like ‘Long Lost Family’, there are now two films that are being shown in the UK this month. The first is 'Philomena'. After falling pregnant as a teenager in Ireland in 1952, Philomena Lee was sent to the convent of Roscrea to be looked after as a “fallen woman”. When her baby was only a toddler, he was whisked away by the nuns to America for adoption. Philomena spent the next fifty years searching for him in vain. The film stars Steve Coogan and Judi Dench. The premiere is Wednesday 16th October. 

MAA issued this statement: 

"MAA has tried indirect action over the past three and a half years to no avail, now is the time for DIRECT ACTION. PROTEST DEMONSTRATION FOR AN ADOPTION APOLOGY AT 'PHILOMENA' PREMIERE. We intend to stand outside the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square on the 16th of October at the premiere of the film 'Philomena’ with placards demanding justice for the birth parents of the past (many of us are still alive but getting older all the time). Thousands of women of our generation, were pressured by the authorities into giving up our babies, just because we were not married…What good would an apology do? It would be an acknowledgement, a recognition, of what so many women suffered. Many of us never had any more children and many suffered serious mental health problems for years afterwards." 

Many people say things like, that was then or what's the point of an apology. My mother died when I was 13, and I believe that the way she was treated by those in authority as well as her own family contributed to her depression and subsequent death. So I am campaigning for my mother, for all the women that were forced to hang their heads in shame and were cruelly treated and had their babies stolen. Babies whom they would have loved with a deep passion and who, children and mothers, were never, ever the same after the separation. And I'm also fighting for myself, Phil, Josie, and many other children whose lives were damaged, lives that were interrupted, lives that were stolen. I hope that like the Australian mothers and children, we will one day gather in a large hall somewhere and listen as our government takes responsibility and gives us an apology.

Ann Fessler, author of The Girls Who Went Away and director of the film 'A Girl Like Her' - both about mothers in the US who lost children to adoption in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s - is coming to London to screen her film A GIRL LIKE HER. It's a special one night screening at THE FOUNDLING MUSEUM (what a perfect setting) in London on Thursday October, 24th. Ann will be doing a Q&A afterwards, so please spread the word. She wants to meet fellow adoptees as well as moms from the UK and Scotland at the screening (Marion McMillan who started Origins Scotland will be there). 

I will be attending both the premiere, where I’ll be standing with my head held high, outside the cinema in Leicester Square, in the appropriate colours like a true Sufferagette! And a week later I’ll be at the screening of ‘A Girl Like Her’, at the Foundling Museum

I have written a story called ‘Fallen Women’, that has autobiographical moments and that is published in the Greenacre Writers anthology. To see an extract click on the Stories link at the top of the page.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Writers Retreat

I remember the last writing workshop I attended was at the Jane Austen's House Museum and run by Rebecca Smith, Author of Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life’s Dilemmas, A Bit of Earth, Happy Birthday & All That and The Bluebird Cafe. Rebecca teaches at Southampton University.

It was a freezing day and had been snowing. Walking through the snow-covered park in the early morning I did wonder if I was wise to be travelling at all. But travel I did all the way to Alton in Hampshire. Rebecca was an excellent facilitator - calm, interesting and interested. The workshop, ‘But intricate characters are the most amusing…’ was of course linked to Jane Austen's writing. Elizabeth Bennet was a studier of character, and so, of course, was Jane. Rebecca spoke about all sorts of relationships – romantic, friendly and difficult. With examples from Jane Austen’s work and contemporary fiction, we looked at creating and capturing the sort of convincing characters and relationships that are at the heart of all good fiction.
Jane Austen's House Museum
What did I enjoy most about this workshop? Not having to do the preparation myself! And I even wrote the beginnings of my autobiographical novel, Homesick about a 16-year old girl who is leaving care and setting out into the world. So, it was a fantastic experience for me. What may you ask (quite rightly) has this to do with a writer's retreat?

Well I organised the recent Greenacre Writers writing retreat at St Katharine's, Parmoor, Oxfordshire. And although there was some organisation involved, researching places to stay, as well as negotiating with St Katharine's and the writers, I pre-warned the writers that I would not be doing any workshops, or tutoring. All I did when people first arrived was a sort of reflective exercise, that asked a few simple questions along the lines of what the writers were hoping to get out of the weekend. And in fact none of the writers except me bothered to do the exercise so I won't waste my time with that in the future. We were all there to write and write and write is what we did.

St Katharine's, Parmoor
The first thing that happened was an amazing piece of luck. We were told that we would be inside the house rather than in the annexe St Joseph's which is a little cheaper, and that it would be at no extra cost. My room was lovely - old rickety furniture, comfy bed, my own shower and the most amazing peace. No cars anywhere near the beautiful old house.

The estate, in the Chiltern hills above the lovely valley of Hambleden, was in possession of the Knights Templar originally (says Langley), was probably surrounded by wild open moorland country, and must have been an isolated place in those days. The magnificent cedar tree in the grounds was reputedly grown from a seed collected from the Lebanon during the Crusades.

The amazing Cedar tree where I sat and enjoyed the amazing peace of St Katharine's

In 1995 the Sue Ryder Prayer Fellowship took over Parmoor, now a Grade 2 Listed Building. The Fellowship was conceived by Lady Ryder to be a "spiritual powerhouse" for the needs of others. In the grounds, the walled garden is being brought back into productive use and supplies vegetables and fruit for the kitchen. The outline of a formal garden has been uncovered and is being made into a sensory garden by Lane End Elim Centre Oasis Project while a large sunken garden awaits restoration.

Lady Ryder cherished frugality, compassion, respect for the contribution of volunteers, and the spiritual dimension of charitable work. Her loss is keenly felt but her memory lives on in Parmoor.

It was this frugality that I most admired about St Katharine's as well as the amazing sense of peace I felt the whole weekend. However, there was nothing frugal about the food, home grown and home cooked, it was delicious. The writers were an interesting bunch and I learnt many things during the course of the weekend. Including all about Fracking from Irving, which apparently causes mini earthquakes - so not good for the environment and well done the protesters in Sussex. Find out more here. 

A few of the writers: me, Mark, Irving and Lianne

The view outside my bedroom window

Irving was convinced he was sleeping in King Zog's room!
I managed to get lots of writing done, as well as a quick trip into Marlow with Lianne and Mark where we treated ourselves to some new clothes! And returned with chocolate and wine for the evening spent chatting in the spooky old library. The food was excellent and my fellow writers told me over and over again what good value the weekend had been. We will definitely be booking another retreat!