I was a plain and freckly five-year-old when I received the first and I had never been given anything more beautiful in my life. A heavy silver chain with a heart-shaped clasp, it was crammed with clinking charms including a wishing-well charm, a fat Spanish donkey and, my favourite by far, a filigree egg that opened to reveal a tiny bird.
As I sat playing with it, wholly engrossed, one of my great-aunts – I cannot remember which – spoke over my head.
They were really rather remarkable women, these great-aunts: half-French, highly educated and independent. Gladys, the elder, was an unmarried primary school teacher who spent her holidays travelling the world alone. The story is told in our family of a small boy who turned up to Auntie Gladys’ class with a swollen, bloody ear. At the end of the school day, she walked him home and confronted his heavy-fisted father with threats of official retribution. We do not run much to height in our family; Gladys was five foot in her heels. They say – and I fervently hope it’s true – that the boy never came to school injured again.
Ivy, the younger sister, was a teacher of Classics, a smoker and an atheist who had married a professor of physics. Thinking back, I have a suspicion that it was Ivy who said that no really nice woman likes jewellery. She was always very kind to me and I doubt that she expected her words to make such an impression, but what I gained that afternoon along with my new set of clinking charms was an association between wickedness and jewellery that has never entirely left me.
And yet a charm bracelet seems a very innocent trinket, really. What other piece of jewellery is so imbued with memory and sentiment? Why do we call those little masterpieces ‘charms’ if not in allusion to their talismanic properties? They have meaning beyond the mercenary. They are personal amulets.
I owned my adored and beloved bracelet for 20 years until one day a burglar broke into the flat where I was living in Manchester, emptied my old wooden jewellery box and smashed it apart for good measure. I lost not just the bracelet, but the modest collection of jewellery I had inherited from my mother, who had died a mere three months previously.
Compared to the loss of my mother, it was nothing, and yet I was devastated. Jewellery does not change, it cannot decay; it is a way of holding tight to the past. To this day, I glance through shop windows at old jewellery in the vague hope that among the tarnished silver I will catch sight of that filigree egg.
Auntie Ivy might have approved of the next charm bracelet that I owned, because it came to me by way of hard work, which is something she valued highly. On the day that the seventh Harry Potter book was to be released, my editor, Emma, and the head of Bloomsbury children’s books, Sarah, met me in London and gave me a small package to open. Inside was what would become (aside from my wedding ring) my most treasured piece of jewellery: a bracelet covered in gold and silver charms from the books. There was a tiny Golden Snitch, a silver Ford Anglia, a Pensieve and a stag Patronus. There was even a Philosopher’s Stone in the form of an uncut garnet.
Unfortunately, my personal Philosopher’s Stone did not last the night. Somewhere during an eight-hour signing session it must have broken against the table, because when I got home the following morning it was gone. Vaguely, in my tiredness, it seemed a portent. The series was finished and it was time to move on.
The Harry Potter books are full of dangerous sparkling objects, and in this, they are like the fairy tales of every culture in the world. Fabulous treasures that can destroy or heal are a staple of folk stories, as ubiquitous as the lost and abandoned children that wind their way through the genre. And this brings us to the dark part of my story, to the part that is a place where there is nothing pretty or sparkly at all.
In 2004 I was pregnant with my third child and second daughter. Leafing through The Sunday Times one day, I came across the picture of a small boy screaming through the wire of what seemed to be a cage.
It was a profoundly disturbing image and my only excuse is that I was hormonal and emotional. I made to turn the page, but shame somehow stopped me. A voice in my head said: ‘Read the article and if it’s as bad as it looks, do something about it.’ Perhaps it was the shade of my Auntie Gladys, who did not turn her back on terrified little boys. I read on.
The boy in the picture had special needs and he was living in an institution in the Czech Republic. He never saw his family. His place of confinement was a caged bed, essentially a cot enclosed with wire. Apart from having his nappy changed once in a while, human contact was virtually non-existent. The report and the picture had been obtained covertly by an undercover reporter.
The next day I started writing letters of protest.
Like many others, I had assumed that the harrowing images of Romanian ‘orphanages’ of the 1990s represented a problem that had been solved. Precisely how wrong I was can be stated best by a few figures.
Eight million children currently live in such institutions around the world. More than 90 per cent are not orphans, but have living parents. Most are separated from their families as a result of grinding poverty, or a lack of community-based services for children with disabilities.
Children who have grown up in such institutions are 10 times more likely than their peers to be involved in prostitution or to be trafficked. They are 40 times more likely to have a criminal record and 500 times more likely to commit suicide.
Eight years ago, I co-founded the charity Lumos. Its ambitious goal is to end institutionalisation, but this is a complex task – you can’t just take the institution away. However, Lumos works with experts in the field and is leading the way in transforming how governments and communities think about looking after vulnerable children.
The same money spent on poor quality care in institutions can, in fact, run all the community services needed to prevent any more children being condemned to these terrible places. What is needed is the political will, the replacement of social and children’s services, proper education systems – and of course the money to do all this.
Since Lumos began, we have helped governments to take more than 7,000 children out of institutions.
We have prevented the deaths of more than 200 extremely vulnerable children with disabilities who were not receiving the care they needed in those institutions. We have helped the EU change its rules on how it uses money to reform health, education and social services. With guidance developed by Lumos, governments in 11 countries are putting in place action plans to close their institutions and replace them with community services. We have developed a toolkit for EU governments and EC officials on how to use EU funds to get children out of institutions and into families; we have given advice on deinstitutionalisation to organisations as far afield as Haiti and Malaysia, and we have trained more than 10,000 social workers, teachers, nurses and carers to provide better services for the most vulnerable children.
One final, dreadful statistic: every year in Europe – every year – a million children simply disappear.
Fairy tales explore the darkest fears of the human heart: the terrifying possibility of losing our families, of being alone and abandoned in dark places, late at night. Fairy tales have neat, happy conclusions, but back in the real world saving lost children takes time, effort and money.
In 2008 I published The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a short book of fairy tales, all proceeds of which went to Lumos. We are now having another fundraising drive, and this time we’ve decided that, as part of our money-raising scheme, we are auctioning a unique piece of jewellery at Sotheby’s on 10 December. The first idea was a brooch, but I, of course, proposed a charm bracelet. I sketched some ideas based on my treasured Bloomsbury bracelet and took them to the Scottish jeweller Hamilton & Inches. With incredible generosity, they offered to make the piece free of charge.
The last – and the prettiest – of this story’s bracelets could have come out of a fairy tale itself. It carries a collection of unique handmade charms that allude to stories and magic, including: a winged key, a tiny spell book and (for Harry) a bolt of lightning. The most precious charm of the lot is a little jewelled butterfly, which is the logo of Lumos – a symbol of transformation and liberation, of the beauty that can emerge from dark confinement.
I don’t know who will end up wearing the beautiful sister bracelet to mine, but of one thing I am certain – whoever she is will be a very nice woman indeed.
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