Here’s what it’s like to step out of the Lantern Room at the Belle Tout lighthouse near Beachy Head in Sussex, in the South Downs National Park, and walk around the platform on the outside of the tower. Yes, the outside. A long way above the ground, and beside a four hundred foot drop. I’m afraid of heights – my children still laugh at the way I clung on to the inside wall of the Eiffel Tower for dear life, genuinely scared, so this was a challenge. The heavy breathing is because I was frightened! Worth it though, for the astonishing views. Enjoy! It’s the setting for The Light Keeper, my first novel, published this August. If you want to know more about the book or read the first three chapters for free, just let me have your email here. You’ll automatically get the chance to win a night in the lighthouse.
Hello you. How’s it going? Last night we stayed at the Belle Tout lighthouse. This is a Georgian lighthouse on the edge of a four hundred foot drop on its own hill near Beachy Head in East Sussex, The Lantern Room is a wonderful space with 360 degree views of the South Downs, the Seven Sisters and the sea. Here’s a video, taking you around the room.
Gorgeous, isn’t it? David and Barbara Shaw bought the place a decade ago and they’ve spent more than a million doing it up, so it’s a really beautiful bed and breakfast. Here’s the website. It’s not like that in the story, which takes place when the lighthouse is still semi-derelict, as it was for a while before they took over. Next time I will show you what it was like to go out on that balcony, on a windy day. Brace yourself.
As you may well know by now, this is the setting for my novel The Light Keeper, a story of love, hope, faith and longing, which comes out on August 15. I’ll be telling stories from it and singing songs inspired by it at the Greenbelt Festival over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Then I’ll be doing the same in Alfriston on September 14 thanks to my friends at the wonderful Much Ado Books and at an exclusive, very-limited-numbers performance inside that same Lantern Room, the one in the video, on September 15. Do you want to be there? I’d love you to. Only a dozen people can come, but for the chance of a pair of tickets – or even, separately, the chance to win a night for two staying at the lighthouse – sign up here.
I’m also up for telling you stories and singing you songs wherever you are, if you can get some other people who want to hear. Let me know firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it for now, thanks for reading. I’m going to try something new and write a little note every Friday to share what I’m up to and how you can get involved too, if that’s okay. Get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.
I was so moved to turn on the television and see Panorama telling the story of a little boy who was badly burned by napalm in Iraq many years ago, reunited with his long-lost mother at last, having grown into a man. That boy was the subject of the first piece I ever wrote for a national newspaper, back in 1993. I was an idiot desperate for a break then and running out of time: having given myself six months to get something in somewhere, this appeared on the last Sunday of the last month. Baroness Nicholson was kindness personified, including showing her steely side when I managed to accidentally, foolishly sell the story to two papers at once. I sent a fax retracting it from one of them, but they used the fax to brief one of their own feature writers, who went round to try and get an interview. The good Baroness turned them away, for which I will always be grateful. This, then, is from The Independent on Sunday, for which I was then able to write as a freelance until I joined the staff in 1997. I wrote for the Sindy, on and off, until its closure 20 years later.
AMAR had survived napalm bombs that wiped out his family and friends. He had horrific burns, and was utterly still as he sat alone on a wooden bench in a home for the wounded. ”It was terrible to behold,” said the Conservative MP Emma Nicholson, who discovered the nine-year-old refugee in a village on the border between Iran and Iraq. ”He was a fortnight off death when I found him.”
Surgeons at Guy’s Hospital have operated on Amar 12 times since then, saving his life and his face. Today Amar has a new home in the Devon countryside, living with Ms Nicholson and her husband.
The Conservative MP for Devon West and Torridge went to southern Iraq in 1991 to document the worst of the suffering caused by the Iraqi government’s persecution of the Marsh Arabs, and has launched an appeal in Amar’s name, supported by the Prince of Wales and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to provide food and medicine for the one million people devastated by the systematic drainage of the marshes. Since Saddam Hussein began his campaign to depopulate the area, following the uprising there by Shia Muslims, 65,000 people have fled across the border to refugee camps in Iran, leaving an ancient land whose way of life is being destroyed.
Ms Nicholson encountered hundreds of suffering children during her visits. It was ”the very stillness of his despair” that made Amar stand out. ”On top of that, he seemed to have no family at all. The other orphans were within the refugee camps: they didn’t have this extraordinary physical problem.”
Amar had fled with his family into a grain silo as Iraqi bombers flew over their village, she said, but the pilots saw people hiding there and dropped napalm and phosphorous directly on to the shelter. Nearly all the 300 people inside were burned alive, but Amar escaped and ran to a nearby river, covering his eyes as the flames attacked his body. The water saved him.
Found by soldiers, he was saved by Iranian surgeons, but was still scarred, bleeding and racked with pain when the Ms Nicholson came across him. ”It was clear that unless someone intervened, any life that remained in him would be extinguished very soon, psychologically if not physically. But I also saw that this was a very remarkable child of great bravery, with immense character. This was no easy ride, no trusting little girl looking up at you. This guy knew what the score was. He’d been smashed, and was stuck.”
Thanks to the intervention of the Iranian government, which provided a diplomatic passport for Amar, she managed to get him back to Britain. It took five months to bring him here to receive specialist medical treatment, and Ms Nicholson planned to find an Iraqi family to care for him.
”I’ve never been an exponent of inter-cultural adoption. It didn’t occur to me to plot a course for Amar that included permanent residence in the UK and, indeed, within my own family, so I never discussed it with my husband.”
Iraqis living in Britain offered homes for Amar, but he chose to stay with Ms Nicholson and her husband, Sir Michael Caine, former chairman of Booker plc, at their home in a Devon village. He was made a ward of court, with the couple as his guardians. ”We thought of sending him to school in London, but Amar understands village life naturally.”
Ms Nicholson, speaking in London before the launch of her book, Why Does The West Forget?, which combines Amar’s story with a plea for further intervention on behalf of his fellow Marsh Arabs, said: ”The hardest thing for me has been the knowledge of my inadequacy in the face of such profound trauma. What can you say? What can you do? How can you heal that?
”It’s the knowledge that you can’t make it right that is the hardest to bear. The troughs are huge, but the roller-coaster is at least upwards.”
Amar has responded well to his new home, becoming a child again – complete with prized black jeans, football boots, even a passion for Terminator II. When he first arrived, he could communicate only by gesture, but his English improves daily.
While Sir Michael works from home, Ms Nicholson makes sure she is back from Parliament at least two days in seven. ”Whether he wants me there or not is an irrelevance. I’m there, cooking, doing fiddly domestic chores rather badly, because they’re not something I’ve ever been good at.”
Amar has not technically been adopted, for legal reasons, but she described their relationship as that of a mother and child. The former Tory party vice-chairman has had to be tough to overcome deafness and make an impact in the Commons, but she visibly softens when talking about the boy.
”I can’t pretend to be Amar’s real mother, and it would be a miracle if she were to be found alive. I know how much he misses her – if I could make that happen, by God I would. Every child needs parents.” With no children of her own, she has four stepchildren and sponsors four other children overseas.
Amar has made many friends, and was even voted form captain in his second term at his new school. ”He had no schooling in Iraq. The essentials of civilised life there have gone, crunched up and spat out by Saddam and his thugs.”
His new family try to find a balance between his new life and his roots – for example, banning pork in deference to his Muslim upbringing – ”Although Michael sneaks in a pork pie if Amar has been drinking too much Coca-Cola.”
The operations continue. ”Plastic surgery has to keep on until a person is fully adult, as the skull grows behind the skin. Now that he’s here on a permanent footing, the surgeons can afford to slow down to a snail’s pace, rather than cramming in as many operations as possible, as we had to do in the first six months, because we didn’t know whether the Home Office would allow him to stay.”
She became involved in the plight of the Marsh Arabs as a personal response to the trauma of the Gulf war. A lifelong charity volunteer, she visited the marshlands with film crews and brought back stories that reduced the Speaker of the House of Commons to tears during one debate.
Her visits sparked the AMAR appeal, which has already sent tons of food and medicine to the marshlands and has commissioned a scientific survey of the area. It supports Iraqi and Iranian medical staff working there, and will benefit from sales of her new book.
”The wonderful thing about helping Amar is that he is no longer a victim,” said Ms Nicholson. ”He’s looked life in the face, been smashed to the ground by forces completely outside his understanding at the age of nine, and he’s back up and bouncing again. He’s a challenge at home, at school, and in every other way, but he’s a wonderful challenge.”
The next Poet Laureate Simon Armitage went on a walk, leaning on the hospitality of strangers and saying poems out loud for his keep. I went with him.
The wandering poet is exhausted. “It’s hot out there,” says Simon Armitage, his famously boyish fringe plastered to his forehead by sweat.
His cheeks are red with the effort of walking and his day-old beard is smeared white with sun cream. He has come 11 miles today, through a heat haze that suits the surfers and sunbathers but is not so great for a 50-year-old Yorkshireman in hiking boots, long trousers and a polo shirt, with a pack on his back.
“I am a bit knackered,” says Armitage, in a soft lilt familiar from the documentaries he presents for the BBC. He is one of our most popular and admired poets, the creator of verse that is subtle and deep but direct and immediate. He has a knack for connecting with people, which is good because his well-being over the next weeks depends upon it. Armitage is halfway through a trek along the north coast of Devon and Cornwall designed to test his body, his mind and – more unusually – his calling as a poet.
I live on the coast. I can hear French radio on the car stereo. Ferries leave for France every day. The fishermen here are related, way back in time, to families from Normandy and Spain. We’re nearer to France here than we are to Westminster … yet my town voted for Brexit, by a large majority. The same goes for other towns all along the edge of England, for people living by the side of the Channel. I was fascinated by that and wanted to explore what was going on, in real life, way beyond the headlines and the B-word balls up. I do believe, in general, in the words of the late MP Jo Cox:
“We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”
I wondered if that was true here and now, in this fraught and divisive moment. And I was lucky, even blessed, that the perceptive Mohit Bakaya at Radio 4 was prepared to commission radio on this theme.
So I got together with my partner in radio, the producer Jonathan Mayo, and we devised a two-part documentary that would take us walking through Calais first then Dover, talking and listening to people who live, love, work and play beside and on the stretch of sea that the French call La Manche and that can seem like a bridge on a beautiful clear day, but is almost as often a barrier.
The model was the programme we had done for Radio 4 called The Walk: For Richer, For Poorer, walking through Kensington meeting the very rich and those who were struggling.
The Walk: Across The Water was floated, if you will forgive me, in the Autumn, just as the first reports began to come through of migrants trying to cross the Channel in small boats, having been told by people traffickers that they should try to get here before Brexit closed the doors for good. Men, women and children nearly died in the attempt, but they were rescued by the admirable servants of the Coastguard, the RNLI, the Border Force, the ferries or the fishing fleet. Even as we were researching the programmes, the Home Secretary Sajid David sent more boats to the Channel and declared the migration a national emergency.
I went across to Calais in early January for a research trip with my son Joshua, who has good French. We went to the top of the Calais lighthouse on a terrifyingly windy day, saw the White Cliffs of Dover and met Sebastien, the guide, who turned out to be a fan of Doctor Who and as a cosplay enthusiast who dressed up as David Tennant’s Doctor. On the way back I got terrible toothache as the result of an infection under a tooth on the lower left side of my mouth, which screamed to be taken out. I didn’t dare do that though, for fear that having it removed would make me sound like Daffy Duck right in the middle of making two radio programmes that were increasingly coming to mean a lot to me, personally. I waited until after they were made before having the tooth out, which meant suffering the pain for a couple of months. It’s gone now, which is a relief.
Anyway, I returned to Calais with Jonathan later in January and we met up with Sophie Tritz, a French journalist who turned out to be a brilliant fixer and great company. You can listen to the results here, but let me just say that the love story between Beatrice and her partner is extraordinary. So are the jaw-dropping, hardline things the Deputy Mayor of Calais says about migrants. Dover proved equally full of surprises. If you’d like to read more about either programme, I wrote a piece about Calais for the i newspaper and another about Dover here. The Walk: Across The Water was made by TBI Media on behalf of the BBC, with excellent sound work by Andy Partington. Thanks for your interest. I’ll post some photos of the trip below.