Friday, 30 October 2009

The Website Prince

‘Keren, if you don’t recognise your prince when he gallops up on his white horse, then there’s no hope for you.’ So said my mother, a good few years ago,  when I cruelly rejected an eminently eligible but sadly unattractive suitor. The white horse was purely metaphorical, as was his royal status. I laughed a lot. She wasn’t pleased

But I was right, and so was she in some ways. Sometimes you know - you just know – whether a man’s a prince, a troll or a frog with prospects. The same thing goes for homes, jobs, friends and opportunities. You get a shiver of déjà vu which is all about potential. You know you’ve met your prince, found your palace or embarked on your quest.

All of which is a slightly roundabout way to explain why I’ve just signed up to do something crazy, daunting and probably impossible. Something I had no intention of doing. Something for which I’m not prepared and have no time for.

I’m talking about NaNoWriMo. Writing a novel in a month - the month of November which starts on Sunday. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in a month . Why would I do this? Why, when I swore that this time I would stop and think and plan my next novel? Why, when I’ve got lots of things planned for November already? Well, because I know myself. And I read the website and fell in love with an idea.

Sign up on the website and you’re in touch with thousands of other people all trying to do the same thing. There are emails, events, forums and - above all - deadlines. ‘NaNoWriMo is all about the magical power of deadlines.’ It says. I love deadlines. ‘Give someone a goal and a goal-minded community and miracles are bound to happen. ‘ I love goals. I love communities. I believe in miracles.

‘Writing a novel in a month is both exhilarating and stupid, and we would all do well to invite a little more spontaneous stupidity into our lives,’ it says. I love (deadline-bound) spontaneous stupidity. That was it. I signed up.

It took a bit more than a month to write When I Was Joe. But I had 60,000 words of the first draft in two months. The combination of deadlines, goals and community on the City University workshop course gave me the kick up the backside I needed. Right now I’m at the same stage with my new idea that I was in May 2008 when I started writing Joe. I have a vague idea, the context of the story. I have two main characters. I’ve written a first chapter which needs to be thrown away and changed completely.

So wish me luck. If you're doing NaNoWriMo then I'm signed up as kerensd. I’m afraid the blog may suffer as a result. Anyone want to write a guest blog during November? I’d like to hear about your Desert Island Books - the five books you’d take to a desert island and why. Or tell us about crazy challenges and whether they worked or not.  Email me at

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Fear Factor

It’s every writer’s dream isn’t it? The offer from the agent…the publishing deal…foreign sales…rave reviews…bestseller lists…film rights…the Carnegie medal…outselling JK Rowling…

In truth it’s so hard to achieve even one of these things that it seems incredibly churlish to admit to the dark side of writing success. The fact that it's all a bit frightening.  But I suspect it’s the fear that stalks the whole process that stops many people from getting started at all.

First of all there’s the fear of rejection. That’s just something to get used to. Rejection comes at every level of the process. It’s not pleasant, it’s not nice but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Occasionally you can learn from it, but mostly you just have to shrug it off. I know people who invest so much in an approach to one agent that when that one says no, that's it. No more approaches. Even though the first agent may have had a closed list, or a bad day.
 You just have to toughen up. Tell youself it’s their loss and get on and find someone else to try.

Then there’s exposure. When you write fiction you show a very private part of yourself to the world – and that can feel as shameful as posing for a spread in Playboy. It’s your imagination that’s going on show, and that’s something that you’re taught from childhood to hide away, even from yourself. So, it can feel scary and painful to let other people get a glimpse of your private fantasies. It’s curious that one of the most special things about being human is so little used by most of us. Again – toughen up. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t put limits on your imagination, and your writing will be better for it.

There’s the readers to fear. Every writer wants readers, right? They want to reach out to the world, touch others, change people’s lives with their stories. But that potentially includes everyone you’ve ever met. Your exes. The bitchy girls at school. Your old headmistress (gulp). Your secret crush. And, of course, lots of random stupid people who won’t get your book, won’t believe your premise and won’t like your characters. Suddenly the prospect of Rowlingesque sales is horrifying and you pray for hopeless obscurity. Hmm. Toughen up. Don’t worry about it. Identify your worst reader fear - yes, your mother - and give her the manuscript. It won’t be as bad as you think. And if it is…well, at least it’ll be over. No other reader will feel so frightening.

Apart, of course, from reviewers. Strangely enough, my first venture into journalism was reviewing children’s books. I was 18 and working as a messenger girl on a national paper and Sharon, the editor of the children’s page gave me some  books to review. The very first one was about a hamster. I enjoyed writing reviews, and I loved seeing my name in print. I spared not a moment’s thought for the poor author of the hamster book, reading and re-reading my verdict on her work. I went on to review many books. I never thought about the authors. I especially liked hardback books, because I could sell them at the second hand book shop. It's only now, as a writer, that I appreciate the power that I wielded.
With the advent of the internet absolutely anyone can review your book and post their verdict for the world to see. Reviews of children’s books in the national press are hard to get - so little space – but the multitude of blogs and sites like Amazon and Waterstones mean that few books are likely to go completely unjudged. Yes, it’s scary. But any one review is only one person’s opinion, and that person may be a messenger girl, interested in her own byline and the resale value of your work of art. Anyway one bad review is likely to be balanced by a good one. Get over it. Toughen up.
There’s failure of course. What if the book doesn’t sell? What if the reviews are all bad - or there are no reviews at all? What if it never gets onto any short list, or doesn’t sell gazillions, or never makes a foreign sale…it goes on and on. Am I going to be like an X Factor competitor who goes out in the early rounds -  so near to their ultimate dream, but so far?
There are unlimited opportunities for failure once you start down this route. JK Rowling – what a loser. She never won the Carnegie did she? Philip Pullman? Totally outsold and eclipsed (clever, huh) by Stephenie Meyer -  but who'd want Stephenie's reviews?
Forget it. If you’re so minded you can turn anything into failure. Most books don't sell very many copies. There are only so many prizes to go around. So, your friends expect you to do as well as JK Rowling and will pity you if you don't become a multi-millionaire? So what! They are completely ignorant about publishing. Much better to celebrate any little success for what it is - a success! Fantastic!
But then there's the fear of success. What if the book does well? Will everyone hate me? Will everything I write be compared unfavourably to my early success?
 And what if I never think of another idea? What if these were the only books that I have in me? Get a grip for heaven's sake.

This post was inspired by Nomad who left a comment on my post about finishing two books in one day. ‘Congrats...’ he wrote, ‘This is the future I want. but it scares the shit out of me.’

Nomad, it scares me too.There are times -  lots of times -  when I lie awake wondering why on earth I thought it was a good idea to try and write books.  I just keep on telling myself to toughen up and get a grip - and there’s nothing much I can do now except enjoy the ride.
 I've lived though a lot of scary stuff. I can cope with all of the above. I know it, because I've experienced much, much worse. So -   shame, misery, derision,  embarrassment, pity, envy - bring it on. I think I'm ready.

Interview with an Author

And how strange it feels that the author is me. Tracy Ann Baines interviewed me for her blog  -  which also contains highly recommended interviews with authors like Tabitha Suzuma (whose books I cannot recommend highly enough) and Margo Lanagan, author of the controversial and well-reviewedTender Morsels (I haven't read it yet, but I will).  There is a bit of a spoiler in the interview, but it doesn't give too much away I hope. Once When I Was Joe is published I'll come clean about my two bits of creative licence.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Group Therapy

I always get slightly embarrassed about saying ‘I’m off to my writing group’. It seems to me to sound a little like ‘I’m off to group therapy’ or ‘I’m off to my flower-arranging class.’

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with either of those activities – I once spent a fabulous morning in a Dutch farmhouse learning to make a Christmas centrepiece, probably the ultimate Expat Wife experience* especially considering I don’t actually celebrate Christmas - but somehow I always feel a little defensive about our fortnightly 'writing' sessions.

Maybe it’s the way my husband raises his eyebrows and says ‘Did you do much writing at writing group?’ and then laughs. Could he be suggesting that it’s more of an excuse for a good chat?

Well, an outsider might  get the impression that Writing Group is more of a talking shop. There’s the tea and shortbread, for a start, and the way we spend at least an hour out of our allotted two catching up on each other’s news. Then we give feedback on any work that’s been sent round in the last fortnight. And then we chat a bit more. We generally go off at several tangents. If someone’s having an emotional crisis then everything else goes by the board. It can seem ever so slightly lacking in focus.

However. That is missing the point. The focus is there, because we are the focus. Quite often the group’s main purpose is to identify what’s  stopping any one of us from writing and find a solution. Or to get a reticent soul to admit that they’ve got the seedling of an idea, and then drip feed it with enthusiasm and encouragement until it bears fruit.

In the year that our writing group has been running, between us we’ve produced two YA novels, nearly two non-fiction books, a proposal for a series of non fiction books, a proposal for an animation series, some fabulous poems, a book for young children, a picture book and the start of an adult novel. One of us (Jennifer Gray! Yay!) got an honorary mention in the recent SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition.

The catch-up reports have been essential for setting our goals, celebrating our triumphs and sharing our pooled knowledge and resources. Most of all it’s helped the people with  great ideas, who are mired in work, family and community responsibilities to hang on to their creative dreams and see that producing something – however sketchy - leads to producing a whole lot more.

The feedback is ferociously constructive, encouraging but honest. We care about each other and each other’s work. We fall in love with each other’s heroes (I'm passionate about a certain Mr H at the moment). And we help to provide perspective when the writer can’t see the trees for the leaves, let alone the wood for the trees.

Amanda Swift who runs the group was our tutor on the City University Writing for Children course (the group started as a follow up to the course, but some of the members joined subsequently and didn’t do the course). She sets the tone – she’s always postitive, acutely insightful and rarely sticks to her original plan. I’ve gained more from Amanda’s throwaway remarks than I would from an entire MA course in Creative Writing. ‘I’m not sure why I come to writing group, because I never write anything’ confessed one of our group last year, ‘I think it’s just because of Amanda.’ And since then she’s started writing too.

In fact, let's face it, Writing Group is a mixture of group therapy and flower arranging - with words and plots standing in for flowers and foliage.  Who knows what beautiful bouquets (or even books) we'll create in the future.

(*Expat Wife Experience. I can feel a post coming on about being an Expat Wife, or Trailing Spouse as we were so delightfully known. For now it is sufficient to say that an Expat Wife Experience is when you find yourself doing something that you would never ever do in your home country, partly to have a totally foreign experience and partly to spend time with other people - it really doesn’t matter who, but it generally turns out to be other expat wives. Embroidering a patchwork quilt was one such EWE. I will return to this subject sometime.)

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Jan Moir and Stephen Gately: sorry borry won't do

Sorry borry is a phrase invented by one of my children to say when you’re being made to apologise but you don’t mean it. You don’t necessarily have to say the borry part to make it a full sorry borry - you can imply it by your tone of voice, or a look on your face or the fact that you’ve got your fingers crossed behind your back.

Sometimes the sorry borry is a highly qualified apology – ‘I’m sorry I hit you because you were winding me up,’ for example. Or ‘I’m sorry I spilled milk over your homework because you were kicking me at the time.’

Quite often we’ll be watching the news and hear a government minister or a company boss making an apology that doesn’t sound 100 per cent sincere. ‘Hmmm,’ we’ll say. ‘That’s a ‘sorry borry’ if ever I heard one.’

Anyway for a spectacular example of the borryest of sorries, turn to Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir. Yesterday she wrote a hideously offensive column in the Daily Mail about the sad death of Stephen Gately, the 33-year-old Boyzone star who died in sleep at his holiday flat in Spain, shockingly and unexpectedly, from natural causes. Jan Moir’s article, published on the eve of his funeral chucked dirt in all directions - including, rather stunningly, at every young person who has ever died unexpectedly in their sleep. Charlie Booker did a wonderful job in The Guardian at pointing out how vile her thinking was. And then Ms Moir ‘apologised’ (or responded, or clarified, but on the day it was being touted as an apology)

She suggested that most people making complaints had not read her article: Sorry (borry) that you are thick and ill-informed.

She suggested that most people complaining were ‘in the gay community’ (Sorry (borry) that you are over-sensitive and feeling got at) Well I’m not actually gay, but if being offended by Jan Moir’s article makes me ‘part of the gay community’ so be it.

She repeats her allegations that Stephen Gately’s death may have been caused by his lifestyle (Sorry (borry), but I was right all along) On the basis of no medical knowledge or evidence at all she challenges the coroner and alleges a cover-up.

She says she’s only  disputing the ‘happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships - a mind-boggling sorry borry this one, as she has created this myth all by herself.

And her final sentence: ‘In what is clearly a heavily orchestrated internet campaign I think it is mischievous in the extreme to suggest that my article has homophobic and bigoted undertones., is basically ‘Sorry borry because you are all ganging up on me and that’s very naughty of you because I didn’t even hint at what you think I was saying.’

Well, as to the ‘heavily orchestrated’ campaign – this is how it works Jan. You write an article for a newspaper which is read by thousands of people, and the article is posted on the internet by that paper. People read it. They post links to it on Twitter. People like me who don’t read the Daily Mail become aware of your article. We read it. We post in on Facebook, with a little comment about your stupidity. Our friends read it. We might make a few comments on Twitter. We blog. That’s not orchestrated, it’s an organic cacophony of derision and protest.

I do object to Jan Moir’s overtones (hardly undertones)  of homophobia. Even she would not think it acceptable to be so blatantly racist or antisemitic, I assume.  But,  just as much, I object to her lack of respect. If she thinks there are questions to be asked about Stephen Gateley’s death, why ask them on the eve of his funeral? Why insult his memory, his family and his partner in this way?  Why insult the memory of every young person who has ever died unexpectedly of natural causes - I know of two such cases among my friends' families?

The Daily Mail is foremost among the commentators bemoaning - correctly - a lack of respect in Britain today. By publishing articles like this - and 'apologising' in such an insincere and self-justifying way - it is only boosting the disrespect culture.

More than a decade ago I was an editor on the comment pages of The Independent. A young girl had died after taking an ecstasy tablet at a party and her parents immediately mounted a high profile campaign against drugs. One of our eminent commentators wrote her column about the case. The parents were to blame for the girl’s death, she argued, they should have educated themselves about drugs, made sure there was water available at the party.

I was unhappy about the tone of the column. It seemed to me very harsh to be blaming grieving parents for their daughter’s death. The commentator had not spoken to the parents, nor put these questions to them. It seemed a misuse of the newspaper’s power to print her attack.

My immediate boss was at lunch. So I went to the editor, and asked him to read the column. He was Charlie Wilson, a real old school journalist, with a reputation for being tough and fiery. He read it, he agreed with me. We asked the columnist to write a new article about a different subject.

I’ve seen some journalists defend Jan Moir on the basis of free speech. I’ve seen others express surprise at the fuss: ‘it’s just an article’. But why use free speech to attack the bereaved? If we accept the need for laws against libel and inciting hatred, then we accept there are limits to free speech and we accept the power of the media.

I think it's great that advertisers asked for their ads to be pulled from the internet site. It's a free country, and it's their right to object to offensive content. I'm ecstatic that the article received so many complaints that the Press Complaints Commission website crashed and had to quickly add a special 'if you're complaining about Jan Moir' button.

So, Jan Moir and the editor of the Daily Mail, I’m saying to you what I say to my children. Sorry borry is not good enough.

UPDATE: One week and 22,000 complaints later Jan Moir wrote another column in the Mail. I suppose I could pick it apart and demonstrate her small-minded confusion again. But luckily McGuffin's superb blog on the tabloid press has done it already.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009


It’s not often you get to finish writing two books in one day. Although it’s easier than you think, as there are so many landmarks in the writing of a book that feel like the end.

There’s the first draft - the marvellous moment when you write the last word of the last chapter and you think that’s it! It’s done! I’ve actually told a story from beginning to end! It’s perfect! Hurray!

Then there’s the stop-start process of second, third and infinite number of drafts where you admit that the first draft wasn’t perfect at all and you catch the weak bits and sort them out.

Then, there’s the editing process - the on-screen manuscript to read and change. The hard copy to mark up - how nice to mark up copy on paper again, I haven’t done that for a newspaper for years.

And then the final, final changes. Mine came through for Joe yesterday, everything picked up by the proof-reader, including one page which had the word ‘point’ repeated four times - argh. Thank goodness Frances Lincoln isn’t one of the publishing houses I’ve heard about who have cut down on proof-reading.

In the meantime I’d finished the first draft of Almost True a few weeks ago and sent it to my agent. She came back with her comments on Monday…generally positive, but with one problem. I spent a little time thinking about that problem, and then kazam! One hundred lightbulbs went on in my head. I knew how to fix it! The whole book would change if I re-wrote 10 pages. At 10pm I sat down to rewrite.  Three hours later draft two was done.

So, yesterday I finished two books. My agent sent Almost True to my editor, I sent him my thoughts on the final changes to Joe. Of course Almost True isn’t really finished at all - there are his thoughts and changes to come, and then the whole editing and proofing process. But the writing and inventing phase is nearly over. And now I have to face up to the most difficult question. What next?

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Why Ben?

Those of us unfortunate enough to have suffered a shockingly unexpected bereavement know that it’s like being knocked down by a juggernaut. You’re paralysed by shock and disbelief, torn apart by grief, anger and sheer horror, alienated from other people who have not had your experience.

It takes at least a year to even begin to put yourself together - longer if the loss is exacerbated by further stress. Brooke Kinsella admits that when her brother Ben was stabbed to death in June 2008 she was wrecked by the experience, almost to the point of suicide. But this young woman found the incredible strength to learn and campaign in the public eye, and she has now written a powerful and thoughtful book Why Ben? about Ben’s death and the issues arising from it.

I’ve written before on this blog about the killing of Ben Kinsella, aged just 16, randomly killed after a night out with friends in Islington, and the dignified response of his parents who called for longer minimum tariffs for knife killings.

Why Ben? is packaged as misery lit – white cover, hand-written title – and the raw honest emotion of Brooke’s account had tears dripping down my face as I read about how the family had to say goodbye to their beautiful boy in the hospital, how they watched a CCTV film of him walking away bravely after the attack, when I read Brooke’s loving letters to her lost little brother, and his own school assignments which eerily imagined his own death and arriving in heaven.

But Brooke Kinsella’s book is far more than misery. She examines the competing claims of revenge and rehabilitation. She researches different approaches to tackling knife crime - from boot camp style punishment to programmes in schools. She talks to prisoners, bereaved families, politicians and policemen.

Brooke was unwilling to be pushed into a public role after Ben’s death. She knew that as a former actress on EastEnders she was a very minor celebrity and she understood that some other bereaved families would resent the focus on Ben. She’s very honest that part of the reason she got involved in campaigning against knife crime was to keep herself busy, to distract herself from her pain. ‘I didn’t want people thinking it was just so I could get more work as an actress and presenter or just so I could look like some sort of saint or hero. I was only doing it so I could get my questions answered and get the right people to admit blame for what had happened to our streets.’

Ben’s killers – the three young men who stabbed him for no reason at all, and showed no remorse – were tried earlier this year. Many young witnesses came forward to give evidence against them. ‘The way they were treated was despicable,’ writes Brooke. ‘Many of these witnesses were young kids - sixteen or seventeen-year-olds who’d been brave enough to stand up for Ben, yet they faced being ripped apart in court, The lawyers made them feel bad for being out at a bar when they were underage, brought up silly misdemeanours such as previous fights or minor drug possessions, to try and discredit them and basically twisted their words until they almost gave up. Some of them cried, some of them, inevitably, got angry. It was really unfair seeing these trained intelligent lawyers from privileged backgrounds pit their wits against young kids.’

Many of the witnesses were allowed to give evidence from behind a screen and were promised anonymity. Yet the defence lawyers gave out their full names – ‘kids were crying in fear and threatening not to give evidence at all’ The lawyers apologised, but the damage had been done. Brooke claims her family were threatened by the defendants’ friends and family, and another witness was explicitly threatened.  Imagine being a witness in that case. Imagine hearing your full name read out when you'd been promised anonymity. I'd like to know if the lawyers responsible suffered any penalty for their mistakes.

Ben Kinsella was a bright, talented 16-year-old from a loving family, a boy who dreamed of becoming a designer and travelling the world. Mr and Mrs Kinsella are ordinary working class Londoners who obviously know how to bring up wonderful children. Their loss could happen to any of us. There are many, many things that can be done to prevent this happening to other families, but it would be a start if Why Ben? was made a compulsory part of the National Curriculum, and a copy was sent to every politician and lawyer in the UK.  In the meantime you can buy it here.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

The thoughts of a 9-year-old reader

My son's just started a book review blog. Read it here -  he's keen to add followers, gather comments and take his place in the wonder that is the blogosphere.
I encouraged him to start it to boost reading against all his other interests -  sport, more sport, lego, gogo battles, the computer and  television. He's an all-action lad and it's nice to see him slow down and concentrate on a book. I'm finding it very interesting to see why he likes a book and why he doesn't, and what he thinks is important to mention in a review.  Pace seems to be all-important, and mystery scores well too -  and a book has to be just scary enough.
My next post  is also going to be a book review. It's taking a little time because this book is making me cry - I have to ration my reading. It'll be coming soon I hope.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The 11 plus story

Ever fallen in love with a man because he’s told you a good story? But what if that story’s not true?

I met a man once - we’ll call him X - who was a great teller of stories. He had stories about his family, his friends, even the furniture in his flat. He was a good listener too. He wore big jumpers, he had skinny legs, he smelled of smoke. We both liked Elvis Costello. We went to see black and white films at the National Theatre. I liked him, and I liked the way we looked together - me blonde, him dark. And then he told me the 11 plus story.

The 11 plus story was a cracker. How he’d grown up in an area where success and failure was determined by the school you went to. At 11 everyone took an exam. He’d failed to get into a grammar school, but all his friends had succeeded. They went off to the good school, he suffered the humiliation of going to the crappy one. He was filled with determination. This failure would not define him. He studied hard, did well at his exams. And eventually he - the 11 plus failure – got a place at Oxford University. And a scholarship. He’d done better than any of his friends. He’d triumphed over the 11 plus.

As X told me the story, late one night, the front door of his flat opened. His flatmate came into the room, just in time to hear the last sentence. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘The 11 plus story.’ And he disappeared into his room. I chose to ignore the sardonic note in his voice. The 11 plus story had woven its spell.

It didn’t work out with X. His stories proved unreliable, too well-worn. He lent me some books and I found, underlined, witty phrases he’d learned and then served up as original. I began to wonder if he was always telling the truth (I was young and innocent. Of course I should have wondered right from the beginning if he was ever telling the truth).

We split up. We talked about getting together again. And eventually – months after I should have - I realised, painfully, that he was the sort of person who told a different story to every listener, and I moved on.

Several years later I met a new man. Let’s call him Y. A man with honest brown eyes and a refreshing lack of smoothness. A non-smoker, who liked Frank Sinatra and hated Elvis Costello. We went to the cinema. We ate noodles. And he told me his 11 plus story.

He came from an area where success and failure was determined by which school you went to. He failed the 11 plus. All his friends went to grammar school, but he had to go to the secondary modern, where gardening and metalwork were the main curriculum subjects. He was filled with determination. This failure would not define him. He studied hard, did well at his exams. And eventually he - the working-class 11 plus failure – got a place at Oxford University.

To say I was amazed was an understatement. The same story. A completely different man. ‘Umm..’ I said. ‘That’s extraordinary. Do you happen to know X?’

Not only did he know X, but they had studied together. For X had not really failed his 11 plus. He’d only failed to get into the Big Grand Important Grammar. He’d got into the OK Grammar up the road. He’d never stepped inside the secondary modern school where Y spent five miserable years. Eventually Y passed his O levels – all A’s - and was allowed to go into the sixth form at the OK Grammar. And he and X (and one other boy) were in a class preparing for Oxbridge entrance together.

I haven’t seen X for years. But I did bump into his flatmate one day. I reminded him of the 11 plus story. I told him I should have listened to the warning note in his voice all those years ago. The 11 plus story was used regularly, I gathered. It was a key seduction technique.
It was great seeing X’s flatmate again. I told him about meeting Y, about finding out that X had stolen the 11 plus story. ‘That’s bizarre,’ he said.

‘It was,’ I said, ‘Imagine, the same story for the second time.’

‘What happened?’ he asked.

‘I married him.’

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Three shootings, three lucky escapes

I have nearly been shot three times. Is that unusual? I’m not a gangster, nor a soldier - not even a foreign correspondent. And none of these incidents happened in an area one could describe as especially dangerous.
The first shooting was in Putney, a peaceful, up-market area of south west London. It was a weekday afternoon, I had a day off work. I’d parked my car off the High Street and was heading for the shops. It was sunny, quiet, unremarkable.
As I approached the corner of the High Street, two men walked past me. I noticed them because they were the ugliest men I’ve ever seen – two horrible faces. At the corner a policeman ran past me. I turned the corner, and I heard a bang! And everyone started running at the same time.
I took shelter in Dorothy Perkins. I called my newsdesk. ‘I’m in Putney High Street and there’s been a shooting,’ I announced. ‘I don’t really know anything else.’ The reporter at the other end was sarcastic. ‘Great eye witness report,’ he said. ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’
The men had just robbed a shop, and they shot at the policeman who was chasing them. Then they grabbed a passer-by, taking him hostage and dragging him over a bridge across the Thames. And I’ve forgotten the details of what happened next, except that I know the hostage was unharmed and at least one of the men ended up blowing his brains out in someone’s front garden in Fulham. I tried to check the details just now, but this happened sometime in the early 1990s and I couldn’t find anything.
Thinking about it now, it seems almost unbelievable that one of those men that I walked past was about to end his life. That if I’d parked five minutes later I would have been in the way of the bullets aimed at the policeman. Or ten minutes later, I might have been their hostage. I’m haunted by the faint memory of their ugliness. Did their desperate crime-filled lives mark their features? Or was it the other way round?

The second time I was nearly shot also started out as a shopping trip. We wanted to buy my husband a really nice dressing gown for his birthday. Amsterdam, where we were living, is a city of specialist shops. My 3-year-old son and I set out one summer’s day for Dam Square and the Dressing Gown Shop which I’d spotted in one of the winding lanes which lead off the city’s main square.
We got to the shop at 10am, then found it didn’t open until 11am. So we went to a nearby café, sat outside. I had a coffee, my little boy had an apple juice and a chocolate chip cookie. We chatted about the present we were going to buy his daddy. All was quiet, all was normal.
And then a bike sped past us. And then a policeman on a bike followed. ‘How Dutch,’ I thought. ‘Even police chases are on bikes.’
And then bang! Bang! Very loud. Very near.
‘Come on, quick’ I said and we ran over to the church across the lane, and sheltered behind a wall. Not a very big wall, but it was the only shelter I could see. My son was still eating his biscuit. He looked a bit puzzled, but quite happy. I was panicking. What if the gunman ran back this way? We were the only people in the street. The wall offered very little protection.
And then the street was full of people. I could hear police and ambulance sirens. Bizarrely, we bumped into a teacher from my son’s nursery school. ‘Well!’ she said, eyes wide, grinning at my son. ‘What a strange thing to happen! Now the naughty man’s got to go to hospital!’
Instantly the incident turned into a story - something to learn from, talk about. The ‘naughty man’ was an armed robber. He lay bleeding on the ground, right outside the Dressing Gown shop. If the shop had opened at 10, we might have made our purchase and been leaving just then. But it didn’t and we hadn’t and we rushed away onto a tram. ‘What a silly man!’ I told my son. ‘He’s not very well now! He did a very bad thing!’
The third time I was nearly shot was not a nice sunny day and I was not out shopping. It was night time on Halloween, and we were walking down the street where we used to live in Amsterdam. We’d recently moved to the Old South area, near the Vondelpark, but we were back in the New South for the annual trick or treat route, organised by American parents for expat children.
Every year the route was planned by an energetic mother I only knew as ‘the Halloween lady’ She’d phone me early in October ‘Hello! It’s the Halloween lady! Can I put you on the list?’ And then she’d work out which houses were prepared to have hundreds of kids knock on their doors and she’d prepare maps and lists and instructions which reminded parents that the Dutch do not celebrate Halloween, and so they should be particularly careful crossing roads, because no one would be expecting crowds of dressed up children to be thronging the streets of the wealthy New South.

Almost certainly the man who ordered the execution of lawyer Evart Hingst was unaware that Mr Hingst’s neighbourhood would be packed with children dressed as ghosts and ghouls, witches and vampires.

Luckily the corner where Hingst was killed – machine-gunned in the head and stomach by two men in a jeep – was not as busy as it usually was on Halloween. That’s because my family had moved to the Old South. In previous years we’d have been handing out sweets just a few meters from where the killing took place.

Even so, there were plenty of children around. We were just up the road when it happened, passing by the school which served as the Gestapo HQ when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam. We arrived at the scene - the corner of the Minervalaan and the Gerrit van de Veenstraat just as the first policemen arrived. There was a strong smell in the air - a fireworky smell. Children were still trooping from house to house in the Minervalaan. The police were shouting, taping off the street.

I bumped into a friend. ‘There’s been a shooting’ she said. ‘Right outside your old house.’ It seemed almost unbelievable. And what to do? We’d only just started - the children didn’t have their normal stash of sweets. We started to walk away, looking at our map, trying to work out a new route. And then I met another friend. She was flushed with excitement. ‘I think we saw them - the killers,’ she said. ‘They were walking away…we passed them on the Michelangelostraat…did you smell the Armalite…They haven’t caught them, you know..’

That was it. ‘Come on kids,’ I said. ‘I think we’ve had enough Halloween for one night.’

Evert Hingst’s death was one of a spate of gangland killings - Mr Hingst had some mafia clients, and was about to talk to journalists - and the Dutch public generally seemed to be rather pleased that gangsters were picking each other off rather than troubling the police with the expense and bother of prosecuting them.  It was a shame for the expat community that the criminals lived alongside us in our expensive suburbs.
I wouldn’t want to give anyone the idea that Amsterdam is a dangerous place to live. We felt extremely safe in our nine years there – we’d walk across the park at midnight - and we rarely heard of street crime. Executions, political killings and a little light car crime left residents feeling pretty secure. In the short time I lived in Putney though, I witnessed a violent mugging and was chased in my car. North London, so far so good…no violent incidents at all.
So, have I just been unlucky to have been so near to three shootings? Or just very lucky to have escaped unscathed? As lucky as I was when the IRA bombed Canary Wharf, as I worked on the 18th floor of the tower. But that’s another story.
(The picture shows the corner where Hingst was murdered, and it was taken by Philip Schade -  I've reproduced it without permission from his flickr stream. I hope that's OK - I think it's a wonderful picture, one where the photo-shopping has been done intelligently and with some point)