Impossible is Not French

My friend Olivier works for an organisation that finds and returns trafficked and exploited children to their families. Olivier is used to talking about it, but even though he is used to it, his flawless English isn’t that fluent when he tries to describe this work.

Olivier is Swiss. He likes mountains and running and therefore running in mountains. Sometimes he runs a long way. Days in fact. At the end of August he will run 166 kilometres, through three countries, France, Italy and Switzerland, climbing then descending 9,500 metres and he will (in fact, he has to) do this in less than 46 hours. He is doing this to raise money.


Chamonix - Switzerland

When he is not running or in his office in Geneva, Olivier goes to West Africa where the land is flat and, in just about every way we could imagine, is the opposite of Switzerland. Mostly, he is at his desk in Geneva, but West Africa is where the work happens.

Olivier runs the international programme for the Swiss Foundation of the International Social Service (SSI).

When I ask him about his work he is not sure where to begin. He cannot find words to describe the environment, the conditions in which these people live, he can only call it “crazy”. In the very poorest countries, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, the poverty beggars belief. This year too, there have been terrible droughts which means the rain now coming is washing everything away. Not just farmland and livestock – houses, entire villages. He calls it “crazy”.

“Half the population of Niger are malnourished,” he says, “Half! It is really, really crazy. No one talks about it.”

Many families in West Africa entrust their children to people who say they can provide an education, employment and a secure future. It sounds like the best future they could imagine for their children. The children will leave home to grow up in an environment that is safer and healthier than their families can provide.

But these children are not schooled or looked after, they are taken away from their countries and trafficked. They are put on the streets in big cities as organised beggars or they are sold into domestic service and much worse. Many do not ever return. Some leave as young as 2 or 3 years old.

The SSI supports street workers and local social services who find these children and return them to their countries and their homes. The SSI takes responsibility not only for repatriating them but working with them for two years after they are returned home in order to ensure that they are safe and that they stay. As Olivier says, working in Africa, you can’t tackle just one task – you have to work on many issues to combat one. The communities need food, they need tools and education, solar phones, regular contact from local workers. Community leaders need support and resources. They need hope for the future.

Olivier explains this and then he stops. This is the litany we always hear about Africa, I think he is thinking, and he has made this speech many times in his job – and haven’t we all heard it so much we can’t hear it anymore? Then he says: “It’s also – you know – a region full of potential. Human and natural resources. You know – the children of Africa are the future (this is so obvious and frustrating to him he laughs) so we need to focus on them. They are half the population of the continent! We can’t let them down. We don’t want Africa to stay where it is now. Left over. Isolated.”


So that is why Olivier is running. He says that the scenery and the sensation of running is so wonderful he will truly enjoy the first few kilometres. He means the first sixty or so. He talks about trees and Alpine peaks and mountain goats and other animals whose English names escape him. I know he will see two sunsets. He will probably arrive at the finish just after the second sunrise. The race starts in Chamonix on the afternoon of Friday 27th August and finishes there on Sunday morning.

“Will you finish?” I ask.

“Yes!” he says and then he laughs a lot, as though it is a very naive question. “Impossible is not French!”

Then he says, “It helps to think of the number of people who trusted you.”


“Yes,” he says, “the people who, you know, trusted you. It helps to think of all of them.”

Please visit Olivier’s site:


On Not Frotting the Dusty Image of a Very Dead Thomas Chatterton (1)

Chatterton - Poet

I don’t often write about writing – but here we go. Not so much getting it off my chest as doing a little literary tombstoning.

This is what I have to say: Don’t tell me writing is a lonely, isolated business.

Anything is an isolated, lonely business if that’s what you want it to be. Accounting. Basketball. Gardening.

I am an actor (too) – I could choose to spend years touring a one-woman show. I know people who do. I don’t. But it’s an option. I could video myself and post on Youtube – never even see an audience. It’s an option. Some writers choose to write alone. Some don’t. Some make it work when they don’t have a choice.

None of those jobs (accounting/ basketball/ gardening) is any more lonely than they need be.

Just because you can do it in the nude at 3am does not mean writing is isolating. A writer has choices. Write in the nude. Or write in overalls and gas mask. Something in between. No-one cares. They’ll care when you come up with the writing and then they will only care about the writing. Not your gas mask.

The 19th century romance about the wasting, tubercular, attic-living, candle-eating fringe-dweller is a ROMANCE. It is useful for people who want to “be a writer”. It is easy to confuse wanting to “be a writer” with “writing”. Don’t tell me I need to live in an attic. I just want to write. I am wishing for time – not a hermetically-sealed writing-bunker.

I tell you this: I would kill for lonely and isolated. Not because it fits the image – but because I am desperate to write. But there are kids and family. Then there are the summer holidays. Then there is the world. Mostly, the world.

Mum working - photo by Joey, 9.

I applied for a grant recently, one established to assist women writers, which would have given me uninterrupted time to write. I was very, very eligible for this grant. I was recommended by a friend in the right place. All boxes ticked. Except one. For reasons I won’t go into here – but largely procedural, historical and nothing to do with my work – I was finally ineligible for the grant. Well, that’s how it goes.

But – there was a long time on the phone listening to how the grant was set up to address exactly the issues that Virginia Woolf addressed in the 1920s – conditions which still dog and disable so many female artists (the inequitable burdens of children, elderly parents, wider social expectations). I listened. I did a lot of agreeing and recognising of the issues. Finally, the CEO administering the grant asked me:

‘…and how many children do you have?’

I said: ‘Three boys. 5, 7 and 9 years old.’

‘Oh…,’ she said, ‘…you make the most of them!’

And she terminated the conversation and with it my hopes of a bubble of time which would have made an enormous amount of difference to my work. Immeasurable. The sign off “you make the most of them” is: “wait your turn – you’re not finished your day job yet…” it was: “Three kids? What are you thinking? And who is going to look after them?” It was: “…go and stick to what you know. I’ll decide when you’re ready to leave your kids.

And she knows as well as I do that she wouldn’t have said it if I had been the Dad.

Mum working (2)


a toilet

The Latitude Festival is apparently not what it was but I wouldn’t know. I was there when it is what it is. That was a few days’ ago. I still have my bracelet because Jonathan promised he could get it off with a tool he has – then he went to Liverpool and I don’t want to chisel a hole in my wrist while he is not here to look after the kids so it is still on my wrist.

I have cleaned it.

This is the first time I have been to a Festival with no children. This is the second time I have been to a Festival.

I did not pay £120 to go – I went with the Factory. I was a Performer. (Actually I stood around taking a lot of notes.) So my wrist band was yellow and I was allowed anywhere I wanted. In theory. I found out moments before I left that the Performer’s toilets were the only toilets on the entire site that were not… what is the word? …let’s say confronting.

Although the toilets are not a headline attraction and we are a very laid back and hip band of theatre people who are happy in our bodies and everyone here at this Festival is here to let it all hang out and pursue both relaxation and stimulation on a level not possible in normal life, we are all a bit obsessed with Festival toileting issues.

The festival latrines are basically troughs with benches suspended over them. Being entirely made of metal they ring. Yes: every step, every door slam, every shift of weight, every event that occurs on or in them is accompanied by some level of chime. This adds a certain level of Wagnerian drama to the moment.

A relative of mine by marriage (I’m being coy on her behalf) tells me that where she grew up, toilet paper was rare. Let’s just say it was East of Dresden. Her grandmother would tear up strips of newspaper and hang them near the loo. When you went to the toilet you would use as few of these as you could, obviously as they were not in great supply. She describes how you would roll them into a ball and spit on them and them rub a lot, unravelling them then screwing them up again repeatedly to make the paper as soft as possible.

Another conversation I had recently, and this was quite a posh conversation, veered suddenly into the fascinating territory of the Loss of the Squat. We are designed, it is asserted by those who know, to squat. In those areas of the world where toilets require squatting (or indeed, those areas that are toiletless and therefore demand squatting) heamorrhoids are rare. As are other related bowel and digestive issues.

There is also the matter of the flush. Toilets should not require water. The world is short of water. We use an awful lot. Yet we insist on flushing rather than composting toilets, even though the composting toilet is superior, does not smell, and is also immeasurably less wasteful.

A friend of mine, let’s call him Jethro but he might also be called Jesus, was listening to a lot of us actor’s thinly disguised uptight conversation about the toilets at Latitude. He said: ‘I was at Glastonbury a few years ago. I’d done a lot of mushrooms. I don’t know how I got there but I came to one night in the latrines. I was on the floor with all this mud and poo,’ he describes great slow circles with his arms so we can see just how vast and deep was the sea in which he sat, ‘and I decided to accept it. Just become one with the poo.’

He takes a drag and when he speaks again he tries not to lose too much smoke.

‘I’ve never had a problem with it since.’

Alan Morrissey atop the Lats @ Lat

Alan Morrissey atop the Lats @ Lat