In Carnaby, my thirteen-year old heroine – and to me she is a heroine – lives on an imaginary estate, called Shepherd’s Way, which is nothing like the rural idyll its name conjures up. It’s gritty and urban, and largely abandoned in preparation for demolition. In the midst of horrible conditions, Sarah tries really hard to keep her family together, even when a terrible murder threatens to tear them apart.
When I first imagined Sarah Carnaby, I knew very little about her, but I did know that she lived just south of the River Thames. Some of the research I did with my feet on the ground, walking for hours between Waterloo and Elephant and Castle, and round and round the vast and ghostly Heygate Estate which is the kind of place that Sarah lives. Adjoining the Heygate Estate is a shopping centre that became the model of the Eagleton Shopping Centre which features in Carnaby. London is one of the wealthiest cities in the world, but Sarah lives in a pocket of deprivation, and is excrutiatingly aware of what people think of her and her family. She is bullied at school because of the way she lives, and she burns with embarrassment when people look at her with contempt in their eyes.
Carnaby is fiction, but I used to be a journalist, and I can’t shake the need to write about how people really live. I can’t help it, vampires and zombies leave me cold. I want to write stories that people want to read, and I hope they’ll laugh as well as cry, but I do want the stories to have the feel of reality, and to be true, in a broad way, to young people’s experience. So although I knew I couldn’t get the letter of Sarah’s life perfect, I wanted to get the spirit of it right.
Because I don’t live in Britain (although we’re all moving back next June), I had to find other ways to do my research, and of course the internet opens all sorts of windows. I read blogs about life on the Heygate Estate, for instance, and had pictures of the estate plastered up all over my walls. But at the end of the day it was actually two books that really made an impact on me when I was trying to discover the real Sarah.
First was a book called Shattered Lives, by Camila Batmanghelidjh, who is a fierce advocate for and defender of children who live in poverty, and in catastrophic family situations. She founded the charity Kids Company in East London, where young people can find support of many different kinds. I had heard her speak on the radio, and had been very moved by the lives she described. Lives like this one: ‘When the door opened I wanted to cry…It was a drug den, the duvets black, dirty, the sofa scarred with burns. No toys. No comfort. No wonder you held on to the therapy room toys with such wistfulness.’After a drug raid, the child’s pet dog is shot. The descriptions, although they are of the lives of children, are not actually things I would want my children to read…
What stands out, when Camila Batmanghelidjh speaks, is that she does not see the children as passive victims, but has huge admiration for the bravery with which they face the huge challenges that life has placed in front of them. I wanted to write about Sarah in this way, not as a victim, but as someone who tries, repeatedly, to do the right thing, and who holds firm to what she knows to be right.
In Carnaby, Sarah ends up giving evidence in court. I went to the Old Bailey, and spent hours watching criminal trials. (Anyone over the age of 14 can spend an afternoon quietly sitting, watching and listening – just do exactly what the clerks say, or they’ll chuck you out.) The Old Bailey is a surreal world, in which the elite of the country, its lawyers and judges, come face to face with the starkest and most brutal realities. What I didn’t see, at the Old Bailey, however, was any trial involving a young person.
For this, I went to a book called In their Own Words, describing fifty young witnesses, and their first-hand experiences of the courts, published by the NSPCC. It’s clear, from this, that many people are trying to make the courts a less frightening place for young people, but that Britain’s adversarial system means that some young witnesses still feel confused and even bullied. That’s what happens to Sarah when she goes to court.
I was wondering whether I had overdone it. Could anyone be as cruel as the defence barrister I had created?
Then I read the Guardian’s account of a girl called Abby being questioned as part of the trial of men involved in a child exploitation ring in the West Midlands. She was questioned aggressively by seven barristers every day for three weeks, before the client of this particular barrister was convicted of multiple sexual offences with children, including the rape of a thirteen-year old:
"I want to ask you once more why you are telling lies?" demands defence barrister Tayyab Khan. He is cross-examining a witness on her evidence relating to the multiple violent rapes she suffered at the instigation of a child-grooming gang operating in the West Midlands.
"No," she says. "I'm not telling lies." She breaks down, but the court transcript shows the barrister pressing the point. "You're a compulsive liar," he states. She's shouting and crying now. "Was you there? Was you there?" she asks.
"You're telling lies," Khan insists again. "No, I'm not, shut up, shut up!" she shouts. She's clearly distressed, but this seems not to bother him as he continues with his line of questioning regardless.
Honestly, some people have been shocked by the things that happen in Carnaby, but reality is, in many cases, far, far worse. I hope that readers will respond to Sarah’s story, and that they will see her as the heroine that I intended, and they’ll see other heroines around them in the real world and look at them not with contempt but with admiration.