Monday, 31 August 2009

Marmite books - love them or hate them?

I happen to love damaged men abusing each other, not to mention hopeless passion, sobbing lovers, floggings and lashings of revenge. Fictionally speaking anyway. So I was curled up on my sofa  wallowing in ITV’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights last night - and it was very well done, except that Heathcliff and Cathy grew up too quickly, and I'd  prefer a 20 part serial not two.  Looking forward to

 more tonight.
I read Wuthering Heights when I was 13 and instantly fell for it. But I know other people who can’t stand it. It’s definitely a Marmite book – like the breakfast spread, you either love it or hate it.
I love Marmite - yum - and I love Wuthering Heights. But I hate Lord of the Rings, Wind in the Willows and - most of all –Watership Down. It’s not the talking animals because The Horse and His Boy is one of my favourite books. There’s just something about these books which repels me – and strongly attracts others.
Twilight - which inspires total passion in its fans, and contempt among others - might be a recent example, except there is a middle group which celebrates Twilight for reasons not dissimilar to a junk food binge.

I don’t know if I’d want to write a Marmite book (maybe I’ve written one, who knows?) Could I take the hate alongside the passion? Would the sales figures be high enough to blot out the viciousness?
Any other ideas for Marmite books? And where do you stand on the ones I’ve mentioned?
Update: About a week after I wrote this, Marmite announced a new advertisement campaign -  using Francesca Simon's Horrid Henry characters and offering audio books as an incitement to buyers. Spooky...but what a fabulous campaign, because if ever there was a series that inspires strong feelings for and against it's young Henry. The Marmite book personified! But what if you love Marmite and hate Henry?

Update 2 - Sad to hear reports of the death of JD Salinger today. I loved Catcher in the Rye, but it's a true Marmite book, loads of people loathe it.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

On reporters and realism

‘Anne Fine deplores ‘gritty realism’ of modern children’s books’ was the headline in The Times, and deep into the traditional silly season (yes, that’s why there are pages of fluffy animals in today’s Guardian) what a great story it was. A former children’s laureate, slagging off depressing modern fiction? While sitting next to a master of the form Melvin Burgess? Cue frenzied blogging debate and tongue-in-cheek newspaper follow ups.

Except, that’s not quite how it was. Anne Fine protested (in a comment on an excellent blog post by children’s crime writer Anne Cassidy) that her quote was taken out of context. She wasn’t deploring unhappy endings, nor calling for a return to the middle-class values of the Fifties. She pointed out that she was addressing an audience of social workers responsible for caring for children in care. “I was simply asking if these bleak endings had any effect on their young clients, and if so, what it was (if they indeed read the books at all). I was not advocating any particular sort of endings.”

Melvin Burgess was quoted by The Times as saying “I have had letters talking about the humanity of my books, even when the situations the characters are in are very dark and difficult. Just the fact that they are still making jokes and falling in love. Perhaps the light of hope comes from the reader and not the story.”

On his blog he said perhaps the furore was more about journalism than children’s writing. ‘The fact that the angle wasn’t Anne’s wasn’t something the journalist probably even thought about, any more than the fact that the whole thing was presented as some Great Statement by the ex laureate, rather than what it really was - an answer to a question from a social worker in the audience, about the effect dark stories might have on vulnerable readers.’

And he adds: ‘There’s a new story if I ever saw one, a real one abut real people and how they really feel. I wonder if any of the journalists involved would be wiling to run a story about that … or are they too chicken to subject themselves to the same kind of scrutiny they put the rest of us through?’

Now, as a journalist and a writer I found that a fascinating question. In my experience most reporters don’t give too much thought about the power they have - mainly because they feel too powerless in the face of slammed doors and cut-throat competition - but contrary to general opinion, most do care about accuracy and fairness, if only because you won’t have a very long career if you collect too many complaints and libel writs. Why would an arts journalist want to mis-represent Anne Fine? Was the fault with the reporter at the meeting, or the editors in London? (by the way many people tend to blame sub editors for this kind of thing, although it’s really the page or section editors that should be asking questions about context and meaning).

Anyway the reporter at the meeting was Jackie Kemp, and she told me: “I guess it was taken out of context - that is the nature of the beast. It was a small part of a 90 minute discussion in answer to a social worker. It seemed to me that she was really asking herself the question, how do we offer children hope and how do we encourage their aspirations without retreating from complexity?”

As someone who has written a novel that could be described as ‘gritty realism’ - although I don’t really think it’s that gritty myself, if gritty means uncomfortable – I became aware very quickly that ‘hope’ was a quality that both agents and publishers looked for and commented on. It surprised me because it wasn’t something I’d given a minute’s thought to in writing the book - I was more concerned about keeping things exciting, interesting and real - oh and funny too – while not losing sight of the serious moral and philosophical questions thrown up by the plot. I still don’t really know where ‘hope’ comes from, unless it’s hanging on somehow to the idea that things might get better.

One person I’d have loved to hear from in this whole debate was the third writer on the panel at the meeting, Rachel Ward whose debut novel Numbers has been very successful. (UPDATE: See comments below!) It tells the story of a girl who sees numbers on people’s foreheads, and then realises that they show the date of their death. It’s a taut emotional read, with well-drawn characters and memorable prose – but ultimately I was depressed at the idea that we are all slaves of destiny. Reviewer Philip Ardagh  -  probably a jollier person than me -  found it 'life-affirming'.  There you go. Hope is in the eye of the reader.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Get your tickets now..

My first literary gig  is on Sunday September 13, 11am at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival. Gaby Halberstam and I will be talking about drawing on real life events when writing teen novels. You can book tickets here -  and take a look at the other events too, it's a great programme with people like Adele Geras, Jenny Valentine and Joe Craig.
The organisers asked me to sign books afterwards but  I can''s not published yet. Oh well. Maybe it won't be my last chance.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Last train from Southport

It’s not often you see a naked man on a train. But then I’d never caught this particular train before. Maybe naked men are commonplace on the last train from Southport to Manchester on a Saturday night. Certainly the ticket collector’s face had a weary seen-it-all-before expression.

We should never have been on the train in the first place, but after a day out at the seaside – crazy golf, a pier with an old-fashioned penny arcade, ice-creams and my first ever victory at ten-pin bowling - we headed back to the car park at 10pm. And discovered that it closed at 6pm. We felt like the stupid city-dwellers we are. Then we ran to the station and jumped onto the last train, six minutes before it left. We had no time to buy tickets, but we struck lucky - the ticket collector’s machine was broken, so our unscheduled journey was free. The unscheduled journey that was going to take 90 minutes to travel 34 miles.

The first interruption was a screaming row between a man and a woman. Lots of swearing and shouting. She accused him of ‘womanising all week.’ He rushed along the carriage and locked himself in the toilet. She followed, a few minutes later, flushed, unsteady on her feet and glazed around the eyes. ‘Did he get off…did he leave the train?’ she appealed to us. The train rocked and rolled on through Lancashire.

It stopped at Wigan. A flock of teenagers got on, male and female - each one with hair that had been dyed, sculpted, teased into sleek and shiny styles. They looked like exotic birds. I guessed they were hairdressers’ models, but maybe all teenagers look like this for a night out in Wigan. ‘London is dead, dead, dead,’ they sang. ‘We’re not going to vote Conservative.’

In the next carriage things were getting rowdy. A group of women on a night out, cheerfully harassing their menfolk. ‘Get your kit off for the girls,” they chorused, “Get it out…” And the men were only too happy to oblige. Bums waggled in our direction, to shrieks of joy from the bawdy ladies. Cameras clicked. And then one lady – magnificently dressed in a tight blue leopardskin mini, eyeshadow to match – headed for the loo. And a man decided to follow her. With no clothes on. Screams from her. Gales of laughter from the naked man. The atmosphere was like the final scenes of The Full Monty - earthy, female, hilarious. My 9-year-old son looked on, as disapproving as a middle-aged vicar.

The train stopped at Bolton. A small panic as leopardskin woman tried to break down the toilet door to rescue a mate who had locked herself in. The flimsy door rattled as two hefty ladies threw themselves at it from either side. It burst open. The girls and their male playthings - now fully clothed - disembarked.

Then the football chants started. Four men in our carriage, still celebrating Manchester United’s victory over Wigan. The chants were tuneless and tasteless and frequently very funny. They were particularly virulently anti-Scouser – the traditional rivalry between Manchester and Liverpool. One Liverpudlian passenger felt moved to protest: ‘Don’t give up the day jobs,’ she told them. ‘At least we’ve got jobs,’ they retorted.

The ticket collector walked through the train again, making no attempt at all to inspect tickets. ‘And you wanted to pay for this!’ he said to us.

We were lucky. The drink-fuelled behaviour on the train was inappropriate, but completely good-natured. It's not always the way. While we were enjoying crazy golf and bowling 300 people were arrested in Manchester in a crackdown on violent drunken crime. Apparently it is one of the biggest problems in the region.

We walked back to our hotel making plans to rescue the car the next day. ‘You were too old to be looking at that man with no clothes on, Mum’ said my daughter. ‘Yes,’ said my son. ‘And too married.’

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Seven Things About Me...

Kind Alissa at has nominated me for a ‘kreativ’ blogger award, which is great because I never ever get nominated or win anything. So I am putting aside my severe disapproval of the mangling of the word creative to say thank you Alissa, you are a star and I love your book reviews.

Here are the rules for the award:1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award.2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting. (see below)5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated.

Hmmm...sounds more like a Facebook game than an award, but never mind, still fun and gives me a chance to tantalise with some Almost True facts. Here they are:

1. I have nearly been shot three times

2. I jumped out of a helicopter in mid air as it flew over the North Sea.

3. I had a panic attack on top of a Cambodian temple.

4. A near-death experience in When I Was Joe involving a sofa was autobiographical (crucial details changed though)

5. I used to go to wrestling classes

6. My first flat in Amsterdam was in the same street as Gestapo headquarters (not at the same time, obviously)

7. I was interviewed on the ITN lunchtime news when I was the first journalist to interview a government minister's mistress.

Here are some recommended blogs:

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Summer Reading

One of the best things about writing YA books is that it gives you every legitimate reason to read them. There are so many good books for teenagers out there, that it’s a shame that more older readers don’t give them a chance. They might learn something, and they’d certainly enjoy themselves.

Anyway, here are my top recent reads, recommended to everyone.

1. Crossing the Line by Gillian Philip. Let’s get this one out of the way first, because it's given me a severe case of book envy made worse by the fact that it shares one theme with When I Was Joe. It is completely brilliant, a very clever, beautifully written story of a Scottish boy whose sister’s boyfriend has been stabbed. All the characters spot-on accurate, the portrayal of first love makes you shiver, and it doesn’t really matter if you guess one of the twists before the end because there are so many and they’re so well told. There is a spooky similarity in one scene to a bit in When I Was Joe, which made me feel ill with inferiority, but there you go. It’s wonderful. Buy it, read it and then please try and forget it before you read mine.

2. Bad Faith also by Gillian Philip. Look, the woman’s a star, what can I do? Also she’s set her book in an unnamed Glasgow, which is my favourite city in Britain. Scotland’s been taken over by religious extremists and there’s a dead bishop to account for. Great stuff and an absolutely beautiful cover.

3. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Deservedly won trillions of awards last year. Imagine a world where you could hear men’s thoughts out loud. Patrick Ness handles this idea so deftly that you forget what a hard task he’s set himself. Really exciting and followed by a sequel The Ask and the Answer which asks hard questions of readers about terrorism and torture.

4. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Clever, funny, exciting, moving book, about teenage hackers in San Francisco which comes under attack from terrorists and is taken over by security services who set about stripping citizens of their rights. A fast-paced plot, real breathing characters and a great examination of the issues of freedom versus security.

5. Guantanamo Boy by Ann Perera. Tackles similar issues to Doctorow’s book - a complete coincidence that I took both of them out of the library on the same day – Perera tells the story of a Muslim boy from Rochdale who goes with his family to visit family in Karachi, and is kidnapped and handed over to American forces as a potential terrorist, then shopped to Guantanamo Bay. She tells his story so well that I was breathless with anxiety until - thank God – a lawyer arrives to help him. My only slight niggle was that some of the characters are just there to provide their viewpoint, then they disappear, but it’s well worth reading.

6 Rowan the Strange by Julie Hearn. Another boy imprisoned, but a very different story. Rowan is suffering from schizophrenia in 1930s London and at the start of the war is sent to an asylum in Kent where he undergoes experimental electro-convulsive therapy. What I loved about this book was its ambivalence – you’re horrified by the treatment and yet you can see that Rowan needs help, you start by hating Rowan’s doctor, you grow to understand and sympathise with him. Really great story-telling too, and against the odds an up-beat ending.

7. The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. I’d never read any Sarah Dessen books before, although I knew she was a hugely successful writer of YA books and I love the beautiful UK covers of her books. I wasn’t sure about The Truth About Forever at first - too much backstory I thought, too much introspection as she established the story of Macy Queen, who wants to be perfect as a way of dealing with her father’s death. But then the story sucked me in, especially because she creates the perfect love interest - Wes, artistic reformed bad boy with a tattoo. It compared very well with most adult rom coms I’ve read recently, and I’m definitely going to read some more by Sarah Dessen.

8 The Ashleys by Melissa de la Cruz. Not at all my usual sort of book and I was all set to sneer, except that it was recommended by my daughter who said it was excellent. And it was - very funny, sharp writing, a good eye for the rich girls’ world of San Francisco private schools and characters you hate just enough to still care what happens to them.

9 The Red Dress by Gaby Halberstam. Strangely enough Gaby and I were friends when we were 15, and now here we are, both writing YA books. When I knew Gaby she had just moved to England from South Africa and it’s this background that she’s drawn on to write her first two books Blue Sky Freedom and The Red Dress. The dress in question is given to Rifke, a Jewish girl living in Johannesburg in the 1940s but her mother disapproves. On the spur of the moment Rifke runs away, catching a train to the middle of nowhere and ending up staying with the Van Niel family, poor white farmers The clash of cultures, and the feeling that anything could happen is completely compelling.

10. The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan. How could I have forgotten this one? Great fantasy book. At first I was comparing it unfavouably with The Amulet of Samarkand which is also demon-based, but the story of two brothers - kind quiet Alan and angry Nick sucked me in. And the ending was stunning - I really didn't see it coming.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

An unfinished story, part two.

I’m coming home from work on a sunny summer’s day, and I call my husband to tell him when I’ll be back. He’s in the park with the children. ‘We’ll be back around the same time as you,’ he says.

I’m just at the road at the top of our hill when I see him. He’s standing at the side of the road, talking on his phone. Next to him crouches someone with long hair - my daughter? And then my heart gives a huge bump, because she’s leaning over a body lying in the road. Is it my son? What’s happened?

And then my eyes focus properly and I realise that it isn’t my daughter and it isn’t my son, it’s a middle-aged woman and an old man. For a moment I’m completely confused and I think it can’t be my husband after all. But it is. And he’s on the phone to emergency services. The children are nowhere to be seen.

I run up. The old man is flat on the ground, nose to the tarmac, blood flooding down his face, staining the road red. He’s mumbling, trying to move. The woman has her hand on his shoulder, and she’s murmuring comforting words to him. ‘He’s just waking up,’ my husband is saying. ‘He fell down and whacked his head.’ The woman looks at me, ‘Drunk,’ she hisses, ‘Lost his footing. Fell flat on his nose, poor love.’

What a contrast to the week before, the young man unconscious on Upper Street, ignored by cars, buses, passers-by. People start appearing, stopping, offering water and tissues. A man on a bike. A girl walking by. Two men in a van pull all the tissues out of their tissue box - but keep the box because it’s got important numbers written all over it. Another man on a bike seems to be a doctor or a nurse. ‘What’s your name?’ he asks the man, still lying with his bleeding nose on the hard ground. ‘Do you know your name? You look like you’re going to be fine.’

The ambulance dispatcher gives permission for us to try and sit him up. It takes four men to roll him over, prop him against a lamp post. I spot my children, staring from the car. They don’t know whether to look or not.

‘My name is Jack,’ says the old man. His nose still drips scarlet, and it’s a strange knobbly shape, like it’s been made by a toddler from purple plasticine. It’s probably broken, we agree, and it’s probably not the first time. Another woman has joined us. ‘You know, when they say ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ this isn’t what they mean,’ she says. We all laugh. Jack manages a little dazed smile. ‘Your wife’s going to hit you on the nose with a frying pan when she hears about this,’ she tells him.

I take the children home. ‘What happened to the man?’ ask my son. ‘He was drunk,’ I say. ‘He fell over. I’m sure he’ll be fine.’ My husband comes home twenty minutes later. ‘The ambulance turned up and they thought he was OK,’ he says. ‘They’re doing some checks.’

So, for the second time in two weeks we’ve been involved in a little London drama. We’ve both called an ambulance, we’ve helped two strangers. With poor old Jack there aren’t so many unanswered questions. He’s probably done this before. It’ll probably happen again. What makes his story different is the way that everyone tried to help. No one passed Jack by. Every person who went past wanted to do something. The lovely ladies who held his shoulder and tried to make him laugh, even mopped his bloody nose. London suddenly feels like a friendlier place. My little bit of it anyway.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

You couldn't make it up...

Awful for the victim, but I would love to have thought of this and put it in a book. But no one would believe it...From The Times website (still free, thanks so much Mr Murdoch)

Gang held down boy, 14, while they forced snake to bite him

A teenager required hospital treatment after being attacked by a gang brandishing a snake.
In what police suspect may have been a racist assault, the 14-year-old boy was held down by his attackers in Bristol before one of the group forced a python to sink its fangs into him, leaving him with two deep puncture wounds.
Paramedics identified the type of snake after showing internet pictures to the victim on a mobile phone.
The boy is believed to be of Afro-Caribbean descent. Two other boys aged 16 and 17 were being interviewed by police yesterday about the incident.
A spokesman for Great Western Ambulance service said: “Ambulance staff consulted Google and Bristol Zoo experts after a teenager was attacked by a group of youths brandishing a snake.
“The 14-year-old was bitten on the hand after being pinned against a wall by his attackers in Bradley Stoke on Saturday afternoon. Michael Howells, an incident support officer, added: “In order to try and identify the type of snake, I googled ‘snakes’ on my mobile to show the patient. He was reasonably sure he could identify the type, so I sent the image to our control room.”
Oliver Tovey, the duty control manager, said that a snake expert at Bristol Zoo had told him that the description of the snake indicated it was a type of python, and so not venomous.
The teenager was taken to Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, for a precautionary check.
Mr Howells added: “Although the patient was suffering breathing difficulties after the attack, this was probably due to panic rather than a reaction to the bite — I would probably be panicky if that happened to me.”
Avon and Somerset police last night appealed for witnesses. A spokesman said: “The teenager had been subject to racist comments and then reportedly held down as a snake was held in front of him, which bit his right arm. Experts have confirmed that the snake, described as green-coloured and about four feet long, was not venomous. Police would like to hear from anyone who was in the Merryweather Close at the time of the incident to contact them.”
It is believed that the boy is now back at his home in Bristol.
A 9-year-old boy who had been playing with the victim before the incident said that the attack had been terrifying. The younger boy, who lives near the 14-year-old victim, said: “I was playing in the park with my friends when a group of older boys came up to us with some snakes. They pushed a 4ft-long snake towards [my friend] and it wrapped itself around his arm before biting him.”
The younger boy’s father, who did not wish to be identified, said: “My son was absolutely terrified and I am not letting him play out on his own until police find out exactly what happened.
“I want to know where these young kids got these dangerous snakes from in the first place.”

Friday, 7 August 2009

A day in the life of a reporter

How often do you get to meet truly amazing people who inspire you, teach you, and move you in the space of a conversation? Not that often - but this week I managed it twice in a day.

I trained as a news reporter, but hadn’t actually worked as a reporter for nearly twenty years, I moved on to editing, which I love. But recently I’ve started working part time at my very first paper, the Jewish Chronicle, which I joined as an 18 year old messenger girl, quite a lot of years ago, and I’m reporting again. It's a cliche that journalism makes you cynical. Sometimes it's true. But some days - and I've seen this happen to ancient old hacks, it's not just me - your head is turned around by the people you write about.

First we were covering the aftermath of the tragedy in Tel Aviv, where a gunman went in to a youth club for gay teenagers and killed two people. I talked to a man who had discovered the club when he was a student at a college for strictly orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. He would wait outside the club for hours, to be sure that no one would see him go inside. Once there he’d found a haven, somewhere he could be himself. His battle to accept himself, to find a way to make a balanced and true life was incredibly moving. Read it here.
And then I wrote about Sarah Ezekiel. Sarah suffers from Motor Neurone Disease, which leads to weakness and wasting of muscles, increasing loss of mobility in the limbs, and difficulties with speech, swallowing and breathing. It’s what Stephen Hawking’s got. It’s the kind of disease that makes you think that assisted suicide might be a good idea. It’s the kind of disease that people find so horrifying that they shrink from imagining it.

Sarah got involved in making an advert to raise awareness of MND. The ad is shocking, and demands to be seen. It’s been deemed too strong for television, although it’s been shown in cinemas with a 15 certificate. Now it’s possible that it may be altered and shown on tv.

Sarah sunk into a deep depression when she was diagnosed with MND, her marriage collapsed and she was left a single parent, increasingly disabled and reliant on helpers for the most basic things. But she found the strength to learn to live with MND. She goes to the gym. She has a website full of beautiful pictures of herself and her children, and she says ‘I believe that I've achieved more in my 10 years with this illness than during my life before MND.’ I defy anyone to look at Sarah’s website and not be changed by the experience. I'm furious at what life’s done to her, and stunned by how she’s transformed the experience.

She quotes Andy Warhol: "They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. "

Sarah reminded me a little of Ellie in When I Was Joe who is a disabled athlete – someone who’s dealt with the trauma of becoming a paraplegic, moved on, is fiercely determined to achieve as much as she can and somewhat impatient with people who don’t make the most of their potential. I wanted to write about a disabled person without making their struggle the central story – to show that they are part of society like everyone else.

Sometimes I feel that my work as a journalist slows me down as a writer - it uses the same headspace, disrupts my flow. But some weeks I do an interview, write a story and I feel I’ve got material for a whole novel. This was one of those weeks.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

My first review...

Sam at the You online reading group has read When I Was Joe and thank goodness she liked it...
She'll have got a very early copy through Amazon Vine, which I'd never heard of before - apparently if you do lots of reviews on Amazon you can be picked to get early copies of books to generate reviews. I didn't realise people would be reading it now - it's a very odd feeling - but anyway, thank you Sam from County Durham - you totally made my day. first review on Amazon! Thank you Ian and your 11-year-old son.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

An Unfinished Story

So we’re walking back to the car just before midnight, down Upper Street, Islington’s main thoroughfare. We’d been to see an action movie, full of blood and sweat and desperation, not a great film, but one that makes you think about how much you care about strangers. What would you do to help save the life of someone you’d never met? How much do we care?

When we walked this way earlier, we pushed past crowds of people. The street smelled of cigarettes, curry and beer. Now we’re walking along, past closing restaurants and bars, avoiding the last drunks weaving down the street. It’s a little bit eerie,there's a touch of menace. ‘It’s dodgier round here than usual,’ I say to my husband, and he points out that it’s quieter because it’s a Sunday.

We walk past a bus stop with a queue of people waiting for the last night bus. And then we see him. A young man, stretched out on the pavement. He looks like he’s asleep. But his phone is on, cradled between chin and shoulder.

We’re looking down at him. His eyes flicker open and closed. ‘He’s probably just drunk,’ we say. He's about 20, wearing loafers and jeans, a woolly jumper. ‘He’ll get up in a minute.’ But nothing happens. So I get down and shake his arm. ‘Can you hear me?’ I ask. ‘You’re going to lose your phone.’

We’d seen other people up ahead walk straight past this spot. The bus queue are all looking the other way. We call to them: ‘Did you see what happened? How long has he been here?’

One lady approaches. She doesn’t come too near. Her English isn’t very good. But we think she says that she saw him stagger along then collapse. Maybe he was trying to call for help on his phone.

‘I’m calling an ambulance,’ I say, and I pull out my mobile, looking around for a clue which will tell me where we are on Upper Street. A sign on the bus stop says ‘St Mary’s Church’ - just as my husband says ‘We’re opposite the Nag’s Head.’ Suddenly the scene is filmic - the sprawled body in front of the grand church’s pillars and steps, the brightly lit pub. And a red London double decker pulls up and the lady gets onto her night bus.

Just as I’m telling the ambulance operator where we are, the young man’s phone rings. Confusion. We don’t get it in time. So we stuff it into his pocket, and follow the operator’s instructions: place him on his back, check his breathing, tilt his head backwards. I’m suddenly terrified that I’m going to be asked to resuscitate him. ‘His breathing seems to be OK,’ I reassure the operator, placing my hand on the man’s chest, feeling it moving up and down. His eyes flicker and close, a small smile on his face.

‘If he vomits,’ says the operator, ‘Place him on his side and check his airways are clear.’ I pray silently that he won’t vomit. Just yesterday I’d been joking with my sister about how useless I am when family members are ill. ‘I’m the last person on earth who would be a nurse,’ I’d said. Now I’m wondering how would I clear the airways of a vomiting stranger? Could I?

Another couple stop and ask what’s going on. They think we’re with him - can they help? We explain that we just stopped and helped and we stand and tut at all those others who just walked past. ‘You can’t just leave people lying there,’ we agree, united in our self-regard. ‘OK, he’s probably just drunk, but even so. What if he chokes on his vomit? What if he’s a diabetic? Maybe he’s had a brain haemorrhage?’ The man says: ‘He ought to be on his side,’ but I tell him that the ambulance operator has told me to put him on his back, head tilted back. He looks dubious. He leans over the man and says loudly; ‘Can you hear me?’ A slight flicker of the eyes. ‘Help is coming soon, says the operator.

And then a paramedic arrives, all alone in a car not an ambulance. ‘What’ve we got here?’ he asks, pulling on some grubby-looking rubber gloves. ‘Thanks for this,’ he says. We’re dismissed. We walk away. I feel deflated, unsatisfied, curious. I want to know what happens next. I want to know what happened before.

We get into the car. ‘Have you ever called an ambulance before?’ I ask my husband. No, he hasn’t. I have. Twenty years ago, my flatmate was having an asthma attack. We called an ambulance. It didn’t arrive. So I drove her through the empty streets of early morning London, listening to her gasp and wheeze, terrified that she was about to die in my car.

I know the end of that story - we got to hospital, her breathing was stabilised, she was fine. But the young man in the street – what was his story? And how much do I care?