The J.K. Rowling Index

List of all J.K. Rowling's writings.

Please read our read Frequently Asked Questions if you have any doubts.

JK Rowling on how she unearthed the tale of The Ickabog during lockdown

Index ID: STICK — Publication date: Novemeber 8th, 2020

Note: "The Harry Potter author explains how a story that lay unfinished in her attic finally came to be published — with a little help from young artists around the world." Published on The Sunday Times to promote the release of The Ickabog.

There’s nothing like being married to a doctor during a global pandemic to give a writer a healthy dose of humility. As the severity of the crisis became clear, I felt a sense of impotence and inadequacy as I watched medics and other key workers shoulder immense burdens on behalf of all of us.

When the UK went into strict lockdown, I thought of all the families facing the hourly challenge of entertaining and educating younger children, who’d been abruptly deprived of school and playtimes with their friends, and it struck me that there might be something meaningful I could do to help — not life-saving, unfortunately, but hopefully lockdown-improving.

I had the idea for The Ickabog more than a decade ago, while I was still writing the Harry Potter series. Having written a lot of the story, I read it to my two younger children at bedtime. They knew how the tale ended, because I told them the part I hadn’t yet written.

However, I decided against publishing a children’s book next, so The Ickabog went up into the attic, still unfinished. My youngest daughter said to me more than once, “I wish you’d finish it properly, that was my favourite story,” but for me the moment had passed. I came to think of The Ickabog as something that belonged only to our family. Yet over the ensuing years the family sometimes talked about the story, especially the various towns of Cornucopia. I’d feel a tug back towards the box in the attic, but I was busy with other projects, so I resisted.

One night in early lockdown I tentatively raised the idea of finishing the book, putting it online for free and asking children to illustrate it. My now teenagers were wholeheartedly in favour of the idea, so I got to work. As I neared writing the end of the book, I started reading chapters to the family again, which was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my writing life. I was amazed how much detail my children remembered from when they were very small, and I reinstated a couple of bits I’d cut because they liked them.

The reaction as the chapters went online, and especially to the illustration competition, was beyond my wildest imaginings. We received more than 18,000 entries from the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and India, and more in concurrent competitions run in the US and Canada. The talent, inventiveness and sheer delight in paint and story were astounding. As readers predicted how the story would end and speculated on the true nature of the Ickabog, I felt the pure joy in storytelling that’s unique to writing for children.

I’ll be donating my royalties from the physically published book to help medical and frontline charities support vulnerable groups who have been particularly impacted by Covid-19, in the UK and internationally.

The 34 winning illustrations will be included in the book. I’m so grateful to the winners, and to everyone who submitted pictures, for lending their talent to this project. It couldn’t have happened without them.

Previous writing: «

Next writing: »

Isn’t it time we left orphanages to fairytales?

Index ID: ORPHFT — Publication date: December 17th, 2014

Note: Published in The Guardian.

It was a black-and-white photograph in a newspaper. It showed a small boy, locked in a caged bed in a residential institution. His hands clutched what appeared to be chicken wire containing him, and his expression was agonised. There would be no Lumos – the charity dedicated to closing child institutions and so-called orphanages – if there hadn’t first been this picture. I knew the immediate shameful impulse to turn away, to hide the page, not to look.

I could try to justify that impulse by saying that I was pregnant at the time, feeling vulnerable and hormonal. The sad truth remains that my instinctive reaction to that picture could stand as a metaphor for the attitude that has enabled the unjustifiable incarceration of 8 million children around this world to take place with little outrage or comment. Ashamed of that reflexive refusal to look, I forced myself to turn back to the picture and read the article. It told of a nightmarish institution where children as young as six were caged most of the day and night. I ripped the article out, and the following day I began writing letters to everybody I could think of with influence in the matter.

These efforts led quickly to the establishment of Lumos, named for the spell I created in Harry Potter to bring light to some dark and frightening places. Part of our work in Lumos is to shed light on the lives of those millions of children separated from their families for reasons of poverty, disability and discrimination.

The shocking truth is that the vast majority of these children have parents that could care for them. They are not orphans. Most are placed in institutions by families who are too poor to provide for them, or because of a lack of local education and health facilities, especially for children with special needs. The minority who do not have parents, or for whom staying at home is not in their best interests, are often placed in institutions because there is no alternative.

The idea of any child being taken from their family and locked away, all too often in atrocious conditions, is particularly poignant at this time of year. For children in institutions, life too often resembles the darkest of Grimms’ fairytales. Georgette Mulheir, CEO of Lumos, tells how one Christmas she took sweets to the 270 children in a particular institution. What she discovered there was nightmarish. It was minus 25 outside, the heating was broken, children lay shivering in their beds, dressed in all their clothes, wrapped in threadbare blankets.

Again and again, when I quote the statistics to people who are not familiar with the field – 8 million children separated from their families worldwide – they are aghast and disbelieving. “How could that happen,” they ask, “without the whole world knowing?” The answer is really quite simple: who is easier to silence than a child? Especially a child with mental or physical disabilities, who is taken away from a family that has been convinced that it is for the best, or whose only alternative is watching that child starve.

There is now a wealth of scientific proof that institutions cause children measurable and sometimes irreparable harm. Institutionalised children are far less likely to be educated and to be physically or mentally well. Malnutrition is all too common. They are many more times likely to be abused or trafficked. The effects on infants are particularly chronic, with many failing to thrive, or dying.

The impact of not having the love and attention of a dedicated carer is profound. It can cause stunting, developmental delays and psychological trauma. I have seen babies who have learned not to cry because nobody comes. I have met children so desperate for affection that they will crawl into any stranger’s lap.

Damage is done very early, and it is lasting. Cut off from society, institutionalised children return to the world with their chances of a happy, healthy life greatly impaired, often unable to find employment, excluded from the community and more likely to enter into a lifetime of poverty and dependency.

A crucial point is that these dire effects apply to children from all kinds of institutions, including those that are well resourced. The solution is not pretty murals, or comfier beds, or teddy bears. The solution is no institutions.

The good news is that this is an entirely solvable problem. Based on the successes already achieved in several countries, Lumos estimates that the institutionalisation of children can be eradicated globally by 2050 – in our lifetime.

Where there is investment in inclusive education and health, where vulnerable families receive support for poverty, employment and social and medical problems; where there are fostering, adoption or other family-based care alternatives for children who cannot be with their parents; and where the culture of institutionalisation is replaced by one that prioritises keeping families together, children can thrive within their own families and communities.

International donors play a vital role in this regard. The issues they choose to fund, and the principles they promote, greatly influence what support is available to children and families.

Ending the practice of keeping children in institutions isn’t just a moral imperative: it makes excellent economic sense. It is far more cost-effective to support a child in a family than in an institution – and this also reduces long-term costs, since these children are far less likely to become dependent in adulthood. We know our model works. Since Lumos began working in Moldova in 2007, there has been a 70% reduction in the number of children in institutions nationally, despite chronic political instability and Moldova’s standing as the poorest country in Europe.

In the Czech Republic, while the numbers of children being admitted into institutions has dropped by 16% nationally in the past year, in Lumos’s demonstration area they have achieved a 75% fall in admissions. It is eminently possible that by 2020 there will be no more children in institutions in the Czech Republic.

Since Lumos began working in Bulgaria, the number of children in institutions has reduced by 54%. New admissions to institutions in Bulgaria have fallen by 34%, and the number of foster carers has increased by 440%, from 357 to more than 1600, providing the much-needed family environments for children who would otherwise be in institutions.

This is a critical time for getting children out of institutions. The commitments made by the EU, the US and the Global Alliance for Children – a grouping of public and private aid donors, and NGOs, of which Lumos is a key member – have set an important precedent for other donors. There is now a critical mass of expertise and evidence on which we can all build.

Many millions of people around the world want to see an end to the harmful and unnecessary practice of institutionalisation. Everyone has a role to play in that regard, which is precisely the idea behind the social media campaign #letstalklumos launched last month. Keeping this issue alive and creating awareness is a vital part of changing the future for these children.

I recently committed to becoming president of Lumos for life. It is my dream that, within my lifetime, the very concept of taking a child away from its family and locking it away will seem to belong to a cruel, fictional world.

Previous writing: «

Next writing: »

Anti Scottish independence statement

Index ID: ASCTIND — Publication date: June 11th, 2014

Note: Published in The Telegraph.

I came to the question of independence with an open mind and an awareness of the seriousness of what we are being asked to decide. This is not a general election, after which we can curse the result, bide our time and hope to get a better result in four years. Whatever Scotland decides, we will probably find ourselves justifying our choice to our grandchildren. I wanted to write this because I always prefer to explain in my own words why I am supporting a cause and it will be made public shortly that I’ve made a substantial donation to the Better Together Campaign, which advocates keeping Scotland part of the United Kingdom.

As everyone living in Scotland will know, we are currently being bombarded with contradictory figures and forecasts/warnings of catastrophe/promises of Utopia as the referendum approaches and I expect we will shortly be enjoying (for want of a better word) wall-to-wall coverage.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I am friendly with individuals involved with both the Better Together Campaign and the Yes Campaign, so I know that there are intelligent, thoughtful people on both sides of this question. Indeed, I believe that intelligent, thoughtful people predominate.

However, I also know that there is a fringe of nationalists who like to demonise anyone who is not blindly and unquestionably pro-independence and I suspect, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve lived in Scotland for twenty-one years and plan to remain here for the rest of my life, that they might judge me ‘insufficiently Scottish’ to have a valid view. It is true that I was born in the West Country and grew up on the Welsh border and while I have Scottish blood on my mother’s side, I also have English, French and Flemish ancestry. However, when people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste. By residence, marriage, and out of gratitude for what this country has given me, my allegiance is wholly to Scotland and it is in that spirit that I have been listening to the months of arguments and counter-arguments.

On the one hand, the Yes campaign promises a fairer, greener, richer and more equal society if Scotland leaves the UK, and that sounds highly appealing. I’m no fan of the current Westminster government and I couldn’t be happier that devolution has protected us from what is being done to health and education south of the border. I’m also frequently irritated by a London-centric media that can be careless and dismissive in its treatment of Scotland. On the other hand, I’m mindful of the fact that when RBS needed to be bailed out, membership of the union saved us from economic catastrophe and I worry about whether North Sea oil can, as we are told by the ‘Yes’ campaign, sustain and even improve Scotland’s standard of living.

Some of the most pro-independence people I know think that Scotland need not be afraid of going it alone, because it will excel no matter what. This romantic outlook strikes a chord with me, because I happen to think that this country is exceptional, too. Scotland has punched above its weight in just about every field of endeavour you care to mention, pouring out world-class scientists, statesmen, economists, philanthropists, sportsmen, writers, musicians and indeed Westminster Prime Ministers in quantities you would expect from a far larger country.

My hesitance at embracing independence has nothing to do with lack of belief in Scotland’s remarkable people or its achievements. The simple truth is that Scotland is subject to the same twenty-first century pressures as the rest of the world. It must compete in the same global markets, defend itself from the same threats and navigate what still feels like a fragile economic recovery. The more I listen to the Yes campaign, the more I worry about its minimisation and even denial of risks. Whenever the big issues are raised – our heavy reliance on oil revenue if we become independent, what currency we’ll use, whether we’ll get back into the EU – reasonable questions are drowned out by accusations of ‘scaremongering.’ Meanwhile, dramatically differing figures and predictions are being slapped in front of us by both campaigns, so that it becomes difficult to know what to believe.

I doubt I’m alone in trying to find as much impartial and non-partisan information as I can, especially regarding the economy. Of course, some will say that worrying about our economic prospects is poor-spirited, because those people take the view ‘I’ll be skint if I want to and Westminster can’t tell me otherwise’. I’m afraid that’s a form of ‘patriotism’ that I will never understand. It places higher importance on ‘sticking it’ to David Cameron, who will be long gone before the full consequences of independence are felt, than to looking after your own. It prefers the grand ‘up yours’ gesture to considering what you might be doing to the prospects of future generations.

The more I have read from a variety of independent and unbiased sources, the more I have come to the conclusion that while independence might give us opportunities – any change brings opportunities – it also carries serious risks. The Institute for Fiscal Studies concludes that Alex Salmond has underestimated the long-term impact of our ageing population and the fact that oil and gas reserves are being depleted. This view is also taken by the independent study ‘Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards’ by Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher and Guy Lodge, which says that ‘it would be a foolish Scottish government that planned future public expenditure on the basis of current tax receipts from North Sea oil and gas’.

My fears about the economy extend into an area in which I have a very personal interest: Scottish medical research. Having put a large amount of money into Multiple Sclerosis research here, I was worried to see an open letter from all five of Scotland’s medical schools expressing ‘grave concerns’ that independence could jeopardise what is currently Scotland’s world-class performance in this area. Fourteen professors put their names to this letter, which says that Alex Salmond’s plans for a common research funding area are ‘fraught with difficulty’ and ‘unlikely to come to fruition’. According to the professors who signed the letter, ‘it is highly unlikely that the remaining UK would tolerate a situation in which an independent “competitor” country won more money than it contributed.’ In this area, as in many others, I worry that Alex Salmond’s ambition is outstripping his reach.

I’ve heard it said that ‘we’ve got to leave, because they’ll punish us if we don’t’, but my guess is that if we vote to stay, we will be in the heady position of the spouse who looked like walking out, but decided to give things one last go. All the major political parties are currently wooing us with offers of extra powers, keen to keep Scotland happy so that it does not hold an independence referendum every ten years and cause uncertainty and turmoil all over again. I doubt whether we will ever have been more popular, or in a better position to dictate terms, than if we vote to stay.

If we leave, though, there will be no going back. This separation will not be quick and clean: it will take microsurgery to disentangle three centuries of close interdependence, after which we will have to deal with three bitter neighbours. I doubt that an independent Scotland will be able to bank on its ex-partners’ fond memories of the old relationship once we’ve left. The rest of the UK will have had no say in the biggest change to the Union in centuries, but will suffer the economic consequences. When Alex Salmond tells us that we can keep whatever we’re particularly attached to – be it EU membership, the pound or the Queen, or insists that his preferred arrangements for monetary union or defence will be rubber-stamped by our ex-partners – he is talking about issues that Scotland will need, in every case, to negotiate. In the words of ‘Scotland’s Choices’ ‘Scotland will be very much the smaller partner seeking arrangements from the UK to meet its own needs, and may not be in a very powerful negotiating position.’

If the majority of people in Scotland want independence I truly hope that it is a resounding success. While a few of our fiercer nationalists might like to drive me forcibly over the border after reading this, I’d prefer to stay and contribute to a country that has given me more than I can easily express. It is because I love this country that I want it to thrive. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 18th September, it will be a historic moment for Scotland. I just hope with all my heart that we never have cause to look back and feel that we made a historically bad mistake.

Previous writing: «

Next writing: »

Inspiration (the story of three charm bracelets)

Index ID: INS3CB — Publication date: December 2013

Note: Published on Harper's Bazaar.

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.

Previous writing: «

Next writing: »

I feel duped and angry at David Cameron’s reaction to Leveson

Index ID: ANGDCL — Publication date: November 30th, 2012

Note: Published on the The Guardian website.

If the prime minister didn’t want to implement the report, why were people like me asked to relive our painful experiences in public?

I am alarmed and dismayed that the prime minister appears to be backing away from assurances he made at the outset of the Leveson inquiry.

I thought long and hard about the possible consequences to my family of giving evidence and finally decided to do so because I have made every possible attempt to protect my children’s privacy under the present system – and failed. If I, who can afford the very best lawyers, cannot guarantee the privacy of those dearest to me, what hope did the Dowlers, the McCanns and the Watsons ever have of protecting their own children and their own good names? Those who have suffered the worst, most painful and least justifiable kinds of mistreatment at the hands of the press, people who have become newsworthy because of the press’s own errors or through unspeakable private tragedy, are those least likely to be able to defend themselves or to seek proper redress.

My understanding is that Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations would give everybody, whatever their degree of celebrity or their bank balance, a quick, cheap and effective way of holding the press to account. They would also protect the press against frivolous complaints and reduce costly lawsuits. At the moment, only those of us who can afford the immensely expensive, time-consuming and stressful services of the legal system are able to take a stand against serious invasions of privacy, and even this offers little or no protection against the unjustified, insidious and often covert practices highlighted by the Leveson inquiry.

Without statutory underpinning Leveson’s recommendations will not work: we will be left with yet another voluntary system from which the press can walk away. If the prime minister did not wish to change the regulatory system, even to the moderate, balanced and proportionate extent proposed by Lord Justice Leveson, I am at a loss to understand why so much public money has been spent and why so many people have been asked to relive extremely painful episodes on the stand in front of millions. Having taken David Cameron’s assurances in good faith at the outset of the inquiry he set up, I am merely one among many who feel duped and angry in its wake.

I hope that those who share similar concerns will speak up now and sign the Hacked Off petition. Cameron said that he would implement sensible recommendations: it is time for him to honour that commitment and join the other political leaders by supporting the Leveson recommendations in their entirety.

Previous writing: «

Next writing: »

The single mother’s manifesto

Index ID: SGMM — Publication date: April 14th, 2010

Note: Published on The Times.

“I’ve never voted Tory before, but…” Those much parodied posters, with their photogenic subjects and their trite captions, remind me irresistibly of glossy greetings cards. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more general elections have in common with the birthdays of middle life. Both entail a lot of largely unwelcome fuss; both offer unrivalled opportunities for congratulation and spite, and you have seen so many go by that a lot of the excitement has worn off.

Nevertheless, they become more meaningful, more serious. Behind all the bombast and balloons there is the melancholy awareness of more time gone, the tally of ambitions achieved and of opportunities missed.

So here we are again, taking stock of where we are, and of where we would like to be, both as individuals and as a country. Personally, I keep having flashbacks to 1997, and not merely because of the most memorable election result in recent times. In January that year, I was a single parent with a four-year-old daughter, teaching part-time but living mainly on benefits, in a rented flat. Eleven months later, I was a published author who had secured a lucrative publishing deal in the US, and bought my first ever property: a three-bedroom house with a garden.

I had become a single mother when my first marriage split up in 1993. In one devastating stroke, I became a hate figure to a certain section of the press, and a bogeyman to the Tory Government. Peter Lilley, then Secretary of State at the DSS, had recently entertained the Conservative Party conference with a spoof Gilbert and Sullivan number, in which he decried “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list”. The Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood, castigated single-parent families from St Mellons, Cardiff, as “one of the biggest social problems of our day”. (John Redwood has since divorced the mother of his children.) Women like me (for it is a curious fact that lone male parents are generally portrayed as heroes, whereas women left holding the baby are vilified) were, according to popular myth, a prime cause of social breakdown, and in it for all we could get: free money, state-funded accommodation, an easy life.

An easy life. Between 1993 and 1997 I did the job of two parents, qualified and then worked as a secondary school teacher, wrote one and a half novels and did the planning for a further five. For a while, I was clinically depressed. To be told, over and over again, that I was feckless, lazy — even immoral — did not help.

The new Labour landslide marked a cessation in government hostilities towards families like mine. The change in tone was very welcome, but substance is, of course, more important than style. Labour had great ambitions for eradicating child poverty and while it succeeded, initially, in reversing the downward trend that had continued uninterrupted under Tory rule, it has not reached its own targets. There remains much more to be done.

This is not to say that there have not been real innovations to help lone-parent families. First, childcare tax credits were introduced by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor, which were a meaningful way of addressing the fact that the single biggest obstacle for lone parents returning to work was not innate slothfulness but the near-impossibility of affording adequate childcare.

Then came Sure Start centres, of which there are now more than 3,000 across the UK: service centres where families with children under 5 can receive integrated service and information. Unless you have previously grappled with the separate agencies involved in housing, education and childcare, you might not be able to appreciate what a great innovation these centres are. They link to Jobcentres, offering help to secure employment, and give advice on parenting, childcare, education, specialist services and even health. A National Audit Office memorandum published last January found that the overall effectiveness of 98 per cent of the childcare offered was judged to be “good or outstanding”.

So here we are, in 2010, with what promises to be another memorable election in the offing. Gingerbread (now amalgamated with the National Council for One Parent Families), keen to forestall the mud-slinging of the early Nineties, recently urged Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg to sign up to a campaign called Let’s Lose the Labels, which aims to fight negative stereotyping of lone parents. Here are just a few of the facts that sometimes get lost on the way to an easy story, or a glib stump speech: only 13 per cent of single parents are under 25 years old, the average age being 36. Fifty-two per cent live below the breadline and 26 per cent in “non-decent” housing. Single-parent families are more likely than couple families to have a member with a disability, which gives some idea of the strains that cause family break up. In spite of all the obstacles, 56.3 per cent of lone parents are in paid employment.

As there are 1.9 million single-parent votes up for grabs, it ought not to surprise anyone that all three leaders of the main political parties agreed to sign up to Gingerbread’s campaign. For David Cameron, however, this surely involves a difficult straddling act.

Yesterday’s Conservative manifesto makes it clear that the Tories aim for less governmental support for the needy, and more input from the “third sector”: charity. It also reiterates the flagship policy so proudly defended by David Cameron last weekend, that of “sticking up for marriage”. To this end, they promise a half-a-billion pound tax break for lower-income married couples, working out at £150 per annum.

I accept that my friends and I might be atypical. Maybe you know people who would legally bind themselves to another human being, for life, for an extra £150 a year? Perhaps you were contemplating leaving a loveless or abusive marriage, but underwent a change of heart on hearing about a possible £150 tax break? Anything is possible; but somehow, I doubt it. Even Mr Cameron seems to admit that he is offering nothing more than a token gesture when he tells us “it’s not the money, it’s the message”.

Nobody who has ever experienced the reality of poverty could say “it’s not the money, it’s the message”. When your flat has been broken into, and you cannot afford a locksmith, it is the money. When you are two pence short of a tin of baked beans, and your child is hungry, it is the money. When you find yourself contemplating shoplifting to get nappies, it is the money. If Mr Cameron’s only practical advice to women living in poverty, the sole carers of their children, is “get married, and we’ll give you £150”, he reveals himself to be completely ignorant of their true situation.

How many prospective husbands did I ever meet, when I was the single mother of a baby, unable to work, stuck inside my flat, night after night, with barely enough money for life’s necessities? Should I have proposed to the youth who broke in through my kitchen window at 3am? Half a billion pounds, to send a message — would it not be more cost-effective, more personal, to send all the lower-income married people flowers?

Suggestions that Mr Cameron seems oblivious to how poor people actually live, think and behave seem to provoke accusations of class warfare. Let me therefore state, for the record, that I do not think it any more his fault that he spent his adolescence in the white tie and tails of Eton than that I spent the almost identical period in the ghastly brown-and-yellow stylings of Wyedean Comprehensive. I simply want to know that aspiring prime ministers have taken the trouble to educate themselves about the lives of all kinds of Britons, not only the sort that send messages with banknotes.

But wait, some will say. Given that you have long since left single parenthood for marriage and a nuclear family; given that you are now so far from a life dependent on benefits that Private Eye habitually refers to you as Rowlinginnit, why do you care? Surely, nowadays, you are a natural Tory voter?

No, I’m afraid not. The 2010 election campaign, more than any other, has underscored the continuing gulf between Tory values and my own. It is not only that the renewed marginalisation of the single, the divorced and the widowed brings back very bad memories. There has also been the revelation, after ten years of prevarication on the subject, that Lord Ashcroft, deputy chairman of the Conservatives, is non-domiciled for tax purposes.

Now, I never, ever, expected to find myself in a position where I could understand, from personal experience, the choices and temptations open to a man as rich as Lord Ashcroft. The fact remains that the first time I ever met my recently retired accountant, he put it to me point-blank: would I organise my money around my life, or my life around my money? If the latter, it was time to relocate to Ireland, Monaco, or possibly Belize.

I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug.

Child poverty remains a shameful problem in this country, but it will never be solved by throwing millions of pounds of tax breaks at couples who have no children at all. David Cameron tells us that the Conservatives have changed, that they are no longer the “nasty party”, that he wants the UK to be “one of the most family-friendly nations in Europe”, but I, for one, am not buying it. He has repackaged a policy that made desperate lives worse when his party was last in power, and is trying to sell it as something new. I’ve never voted Tory before … and they keep on reminding me why.

Previous writing: «

Next writing: »

Gordon Brown

Index ID: GBROWN — Publication date: May 11th, 2009

Note: Published in TIME Magazine.

Back in the mid-1990s, when he was new labour’s brooding, intellectual heavyweight, I was a lone parent struggling to get by. He said he was not interested in stigmatizing the poor but in finding solutions for their predicament. I was tired of hearing government ministers lambaste the likes of me as irresponsible scroungers. I wanted Gordon Brown in charge.

He went on to become one of the longest-serving Chancellors of the Exchequer that Britain has ever seen. While our economy grew strongly, he could have stood back and done nothing; on the contrary, he brought in and continually drove up the minimum wage, and 600,000 children and a million pensioners were raised out of poverty. Brown believed the wealthy would always be able to look after themselves; it was people at the other end of the economic scale that government ought to be helping.

When capitalism shuddered on its foundations last year, Brownite words like responsibility and morality started issuing from the unlikeliest politicians. Global financial regulation, something Brown had advocated long before last September, shot to the top of the political agenda. Now Prime Minister, Brown took a lead among European leaders in setting a course for economic recovery. He hosted the most important meeting of the world’s major economies in years. In doing so, the British press said, he had become “Chancellor to the world.”

The son of a Presbyterian minister, with a formidable intellect and a work ethic to shame a nest of ants, the 58-year-old Brown is frequently dubbed “dour.” I know him as affable, funny and gregarious, a great listener, a kind and loyal friend. These are strange and turbulent times, but issues of fairness, equality and protection of the poor have never been more important. I still want Gordon Brown in charge.

Previous writing: «

Next writing: »

The first It Girl

Index ID: ITGRL — Publication date: November 5th, 2006

Note: Published in The Sunday Telegraph.

Jessica Mitford has been my heroine since I was 14 years old, when I overheard my formidable great-aunt discussing how Mitford had run away at the age of 19 to fight with the Reds in the Spanish Civil War: ‘And she charged a camera to her poor father’s account to take with her!’ It was the camera that captivated me, and I asked for further details. My great-aunt, who taught classics and approved of a thirst for knowledge, even of a questionable kind, produced a very old copy of Hons and Rebels, the first volume of Jessica Mitford’s autobiography.

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford gives, as letters usually do, a much fuller picture of the writer than either of her own autobiographies, and I finished reading feeling even fonder and more admiring of her than before (it would have been what Decca calls ‘rather narst in a way’ if I had not, given that I named my first daughter after her).

The letters span a life that was remarkable by any standards – the teenage aristocrat who fled England, eventually becoming a Communist in America; the runaway wife turned war widow who became a civil rights campaigner, campaigning journalist and, finally, author of the huge bestseller The American Way of Death, an exposé of the corrupt practices of the funeral industry. And all this was quite apart from her membership of that band of prototype ‘It Girls’, the Mitford Sisters.

Decca was characteristically amusing on what she called ‘The Mitford Industry’. After the success of the US bestseller The I Hate Cats Book, she wrote, ‘”The I Hate Mitfords Book” might go well here – followed as in the US by “100 Ways to Kill a Mitford”‘. To Katharine (‘Kay’) Graham, publisher of the Washington Post: ‘The Mitford Girls [the musical] folded in London, so that’s ONE chore you can avoid. (Is said to be possibly opening in GERMANY, serves those wretched Krauts right if so.)’

Previous writing: «

Next writing: »