Random trigger songs

It’s that moment when you have one ear on the radio and the other – well, it shouldn’t be on anything at all. You should be writing. IN SILENCE. Often, if asked to remember a song that reminds us of a specific moment or puts us in a certain mood, we can raid our memories and come up with something.

But what about those ones that take us completely by surprise? You hear the first few notes and you are thrown back to your childhood or a forgotten moment? You never knew that you remembered it? I use music a lot in my YA books – Blondie rules the soundtrack in Indigo Donut.

What are random trigger songs? These are mine.

Firstly, this. My Aunty Flo who lived above my foster mum took me to see this at the cinema. It must have been a re-show because I was only one when the film came out. I LOVED this scene. My primary school laid on a production of ‘Oliver’ – child abuse, prostitution and domestic violence, what’s not to like? My best friend, Lucy, was Nancy.  Me? I was the flower seller, of course.


This one – I have no idea why. I think it’s because my daughter was little and we put together a little mixtape and this was on there. Luckily, I have no cool to lose by singing along. (Just any friend who may be in close vicinity to witness it.) What became of 3 of a Kind?


When I was little, we spent summer holidays in Ceriana, near San Remo with my stepdad’s family. The first time I went, two English-speaking songs were big. One was Don McLean’s Vincent aka Starry, Starry Night. The other was this. It throws me back to wandering down La Strada stopping for ice cream at Antonia’s and eating watermelon and tomatoes and olive oil on San Remo beach.


Now over to the calypsonian, Lord Kitchener, known to anyone who has seen the news clip of the SS Empire Windrush docking in Harwich. I must admit, I had no idea he was on it until recently. I discovered him through my Aunty Baby in Arouca, in the mid-70s. I loved this. Though, to be honest, the casual mention of slapping his wife really does bump me. Oh, that golden era way back before women demanded equality.


And, finally. ‘Do I know where hell is? Hell is in ‘hello’.’ This. I can not remember a time before this existed. My mum had the double album. I think the film was long and either Clint Eastwood or Lee Marvin were in long johns. Still, rediscovering this is what You Tube was invented for.

What songs shape your stories?

20160205_095020I was asked to write a blog for World Book Day Teenfest, by coincidence on the day it was announced that Maurice White had died. I know some Earth Wind and Fire songs, but Marlon, in ‘Orangeboy’, is one of their biggest fans. So I wrote the blog about the music we inherit and the music pass on… (It is also a snapshot into hairstyles past.)

Check out the blog here.

What are your inheritance tracks?

Who’s that boy?



Four blokes stand in the ruins of a 1930s building.  They are be-suited and flat-capped.  It is 1936 and they are part of the demolition team taking apart the Alhambra Theatre in London’s Leicester Square.

The Alhambra underwent a few transformations in its 82 years of life, including a rebuild after a fire.  In 1936, it was finally demolished and the site is now occupied by one of the eye-wateringly expensive cinemas that host the occasional red carpet do in central London.

I found this photo on the fab Arthur Lloyd website that tells the story of Victorian music hall and theatre and tracks the buildings left behind.

But…  but…

In the middle of this picture, bold as brass, is this little boy of African or Caribbean heritage.  Sure, I know that there were many black people in London before our official history apparently starts in 1948.  But doesn’t this just make you want to tell a story?  Was one of those men his father?  Had he meandered in for the photo?  Has someone’s grandad pointed to that pic and told them about the day the Alhambra came down?

I seriously wish I knew.


PS. Three months gap!  Ouch, sorry.

        My grandfather, Paul Lawrence – the start of the Lawrence line


This is my grandfather, Paul Lawrence – the start of the Lawrence line as I know it.  There were generations of Lawrences before, but I know so little about them.  I was born in Brighton, England, brought up in Sussex by my mother.  Her parents, seven sisters and three brothers lived in Trinidad and for many years, the family stories and intrigues rarely made it to my ears.  As I look at this picture now, what so i see?  A bit of me.  Alot of my mum.  And – grief – are those my daughter’s eyes?

My grandfather died when I was six.  The first time my mother returned to Trinidad after coming to England in the mid-60s was to go to his funeral, taking me with her.  It was a time when banks were reluctant to lend money to women, so a black, single mother, underpaid nurse was hardly going to tick their boxes.  My mum borrowed money somehow; I borrowed summer clothes from my best friend – and we were off.

Forty years or so, I still hold strong memories.  There’s the scary stuff – the enormous flying cockroaches and their plump, shuffling larvae.  There was the long drop latrines – which I’ve heard are making a comeback at festivals. (Seriously?) I refused to use one until my mother described a colostomy in graphic, buttock-clenching detail; that was apparently my fate unless I let it all go.  (Why let that nursing training waste, huh?)

I also remember the plane door opening after an eternally long flight and the hot, scented air.  And the moment I threw open my grandma’s door on to the rush of morning green.  Massive mango trees, banana trees, sugar cane, palms, avocado, a forest of fruit I’d never seen before.  Add in one mangy cockerel and chicks that bobbed away on spindly legs when I chased them – oh, yes.

The strongest memory, though, is meeting my grandfather.  He was in his coffin, in my grandma’s front room. Apparently, I wasn’t phased.  My mum says I thought he looked like a nice man.

That was a recurring theme – he was a nice man.  I know only fragments of his life, but my mum and her siblings talk of him with great affection.  I believe he was one of nine children and his father disappeared.  There is a story that my great-grandfather and his brother may have rowed a boat down a south American river.  There is also a story that drugs were involved with great-grandfather Lawrence’s disappearance.  Of course, I wish those stories are true.  I’m a writer.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve been shown the land we used to own but got lost in family feuds.  In the Palm House at Kew Gardens, my 80-year-old Aunty over for her visit to the UK pointed out the ‘red fig’ tree.  My grandfather used it to pound flour when rations were tight during the Second World War.  I think now how he lived through two world wars, Trinidad independence, the migration of many people from the Caribbean to the UK and US.  I wonder if his life became easier or harder.  Unlike many in the Caribbean, other than my mother, his family wasn’t scattered between lands.  Three of my aunties still live on the land where his house was.  No relatives of mine were on the SS Windrush and only one followed afterwards.

My Aunty sent this photograph for me and I am grateful.  As a second generation black British woman, I have sometimes felt caught between two cultures.  I am not a Trini, no matter how many Kitch lyrics I can quote.  Growing up in the UK, there are many times I have not felt I’m the right kind of British.  But I am lucky.  I know my heritage.  And it is many of those stories passed down to me  that now inspire me to write.

Is ‘multicultural’ a brand?



Is ‘multicultural’ my brand?  If I have to position myself in the market, would that be it?  Am I consigned to ‘right on’, ‘niche’ and box-ticking?

Few are the people who can sustain a living wage from fiction writing, so as writers, we must now learn how to promote ourselves.  The  problem is, the idea of ‘writer’ and ‘good business mind’ have not traditionally been seen as compatible – though thankfully, there are some very savvy/or well-advised writers who’ve bucked the trend.

I’ve thought hard about this.  Why my compulsion to tell stories and what stories do I want to tell?  

I am heavily influenced by my family, the older and the younger.  The ‘Granny’ in my book ‘Granny Ting Ting’ is based on My Aunty Baby in Trinidad, who has been a strong presence throughout my life, even though she has only been to England once – three years ago, aged 80.  When I became a mother, though, I wanted to find at least a few books that resembled our family.  I wanted pictures that chimed with my daughter’s perception of the world, with stories that were strong, funny, lyrical and compelling. And preferably, set in the contemporary UK.  Not much to ask for, was it?  Was it?

We didn’t find many – most fit into the picture above.  I’ll be giving a run down of some that we came across in the next few weeks.  As the last Census shows, we are a country formed from many stories and if that’s what ‘multicultural’ means – I’m happy with that.



60s soulboy, 70s disco or 80s Britfunk?



Time to get the music books out.  My 16-year-old protagonist has inherited his dad’s beloved record collection.  He’s lying on spit-smeared mattress in a police cell, his heart thumping double speed, his brain like mush.  He’s trying to build a playlist in his head, old tracks from his dad’s vinyl.  What’s he listening to inside his head?  I need to know.

In another part of my life, I’ve been editing a Tumblr blog, http://mastersoftheairwaves.tumblr.com/ , promoting a book on the history of UK pirate radio in the voices of the people who were there.  It has been a steep learning curve for me, but a useful tool for my research.  Having had help from a coroner, Met police officers, people working with gangs and those willing to disclose the secret lives of teenage boys… You Tubing soul, Britfunk and sparkling 70s disco has been a serious relief.

No funny sex, but a hit of myth


I was intrigued by Authorprofile’s assertion at the London Book Fair that Rick Riordan has, to resurrect the spirit of  the X-Factor judging panel, made myth his own.  The presenter pondered  how any other YA writer could encroach on this rich territory.

Myth and legend is a constant influence on the popular arts.  It threads through pop-culture, from glam-funk 1980s groups like ‘Imagination’ to the Coen Brother appropriation of the Ulysses myth in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ through to Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ and the Marvel magazine’s Thor stories – though my daughter greatly resents the films’ erroneous pairing of Thor and Loki as brothers!

My particular interest is Caribbean myth and legend.  Although I grew up in England, my world was filled with the tales of female devils, poltergeists, wolfmen and the souls of unbaptised babies.  At primary school, in the pre-video age of BBC school TV programmes, I remember trooping off to our little television room with my English friends and seeing a programme about Anancy.  I took the news back home and my mum proudly claimed him as our own.  But I preferred our own family tales – the time when the obeah man was called to stop ghosts throwing stones on to the corrugated metal roof, or when my aunty saw a la diablesse by the mango tree in Victoria St.

In the Authorprofile branding exercise, I thought hard about what powers my writing.  Caribbean stories rates highly, central to both ‘Granny Ting Ting’ and ‘Wild Papa Woods’.  Now I just have to hope that Rick Riordan’s eyes haven’t turned to Trinidad.

Multiheritage stories…

Multiheritage stories…

Purloined from Saturday’s ‘Guardian’, the peer Oona King talks about her multi-heritage family experiences.  African-American, Jewish, London, Italian – her family stories span the globe, rather like mine.

Families in the UK are incorporating increasingly diverse national histories, ethnic identities, skin colours, hair types.  Do our children and young adult books reflect this?