The J.K. Rowling Index

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

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Foreword: Moving Britain Forward. Gordon Brown Selected Speeches.

Index ID: FWGBSP — Publication date: September 25th, 2006

Note: Foreword for the book "Ending Child Poverty in Moving Britain Forward. Gordon Brown Speeches." Included also in the book "
Only the beginning of this text can be displayed here for research purposes. I apologize!

I met Gordon Brown for the first time in 2000, at a reception of the National…

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Foreword: Becoming myself

Index ID: FWBM — Publication date: April 18th, 2006

Note: Foreword for the book "Becoming Myself", by Willa Shalit.

When I was young, I had two teachers whom I found very inspiring — Pearl Biddle tutored me in French, and Lucy Shepherd taught me English. They were passionate pedagogues who taught me more than their subjects. Pearl was a great believer in learning for learning’s sake, and Lucy was a great role model for a teenage girl — dry, assertive, and understanding.

When we were growing up, I told my sister, Di, hundreds of stories; she didn’t complain too much. We are very close; like many children, we had a dual life, a separate, secret existence apart from my parents. It is now as though we are the only remaining members of an otherwise extinct tribe. The main female character in the Harry Potter books, Hermione, is drawn largely from my experience of being a young girl. I was very frightened of failure. I’ve got used to it since, and it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as I used to imagine.

I never told my family that I wanted to be a writer. They would have told me I didn’t have a hope. People in my family did not become writers. There was a great emphasis on mortgages, pensions, and career paths. I felt I would be taken about as seriously as I had said I wanted to be a pop star, and sternly dissuaded (not that it would have worked).

I can’t think of an occasion when I felt it was useful to be female. I can, however, remember passionately wishing I were a boy on a couple of occasions, but that was because I was dreaming of knocking out a particularly vicious male bully. The one event that, for me, triggered a deep experience of feminine power is giving birth. There is nothing more magnificent in the whole of nature. Watching my older daughter grow has been very interesting. Some of what she is going through is very familiar — the eternal difficulties of childhood. She is very different from me — an aspiring engineer and a real tomboy which I love. I am grateful that she is growing up at a time when she can pursue the career of her choice. She recently read a book about the suffragettes, and we have been having many dinnertime discussions about how their various sacrifices led, in the end, to Jessica’s freedom to study technology.

There are many things I liked, then and now, about being a girl. The friendships you make with other women are very different from the friendships men make, and I certainly wouldn’t want to swap. I like women’s perceptiveness and ability to empathize. I like their ability to juggle nineteen jobs before breakfast, and I prefer women’s shoes.

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Foreword: One City

Index ID: FWOC — Publication date: January 2nd, 2006

Note: Foreword for the book "One City", by Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh.

When I arrived in Edinburgh in December 1993, the city was snow-covered, almost dauntingly beautiful and austerely unfamiliar. I did not mean to stay here; I had come to spend Christmas at my sister’s and supposed that I would then head south, where most of my friends were at that time.

January came, the snow vanished, but I didn’t. Princes Street Gardens were within easy walking distance and entrance to the Museum of Scotland was free; my baby was growing into a toddler and loved tottering around both of them. I stumbled along in her wake, wondering what was going to happen to us, almost as shell-shocked as finding myself in this strange new city as I was to be a single mother, broke and jobless.

It was not Edinburgh’s fault that I was in this mess, but as it happened to form the backdrop for the ‘rags’ part of what might as well be called my Cinderella story, I came to know more about being poor and isolated here than in any other city. It was in Edinburgh, rather than in Paris, London, Manchester or Oporto, all of which I inhabited during my nomadic twenties, that I became most acutely aware of the barriers, invisible and inflexible as bullet-proof glass, that separate those in the affluent and able-bodied mainstream of our society from those who, for whatever reason, live on its fringes.

Most of my pre-Potter Edinburgh days were spent in a small block of flats that housed, at that time, three other single mothers. I was very glad to move in, because it was a big improvement on my previous glorified bed-sit, and in my three years there my daughter learned to walk and talk and I secured my life’s ambition: a publishing deal. But it was also there that a group of local boys amused themselves on dull nights by throwing stones at my two year old’s bedroom window; there that I wrestled a drunk man back out of my hallway as he tried to force open the front door; there that we were broken into one night while we lay in bed. And I knew that far worse happened to other people, and people not so far away either; my upstairs neighbour used to pause to chat on the stairs wearing sunglasses to hide her black eyes.

Violence, crime and addiction were part of everyday life in that part of Edinburgh. Yet barely ten minutes away by bus was a different world, a world of cashmere and cream teas and the imposing facades of the institutions that make this city the fourth largest financial centre in Europe. I felt in those days as though there was an abyss separating me from those who bustled past me carrying briefcases and Jenners bags — and, in truth, there was.

The OneCity Trust has identified this separation as a ‘”culture of contentment”, which insulates [the more affluent] from the disadvantage experienced by excluded groups and areas’. These groups may include the poor, the disabled, those marginalized due to their ethnicity or, in the words of OneCity, ‘people who feel isolated from others and from the benefits of the city’, a wholly accurate description of how I felt then.

Social exclusion affects all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, because it is on the outskirts of society that misery, despair, physical and mental health problems, and the abuse of the self and others flourish. Every city, every citizen, would benefit directly and tangibly from helping bring down those barriers that prevent children reaching their full potential, keep would-be workers from earning and isolate so many within their own homes or their own heads.

The OneCity Trust has enabled both individuals and organisations to make their voices heard, perhaps for the first time ever within a city and a society that can seem to have forgotten them. The Trust is now analysing that information and making recommendations for a more inclusive Edinburgh, so that changes can be made to make this city more completely ours — all of ours.

In the past few years, since the stunningly unexpected change of fortune that hit me with the publication of my first book, Edinburgh has often been described as my ‘adopted’ home city. True, I retain traces of my West Country accent, and I tend to keep my jumper on even while pale blue men are basting themselves in the watery sunshine in Princes Street Gardens; these are sure pointers to the fact that I wasn’t born in the old Simpsons’. But as it happens, I have never lived so long anywhere, either as adult or child, as I have lived here. Edinburgh is home now, it is part of me, and I had come to love it long before Harry Potter hit the bookshelves. I am proud to live here, and proud that my home city is committed to becoming a more inclusive place. OneCity seeks to unify: I cannot think of a better goal, for Edinburgh, Scotland, or the world.

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Foreword: Magic

Index ID: FWMGC — Publication date: June 3rd, 2002

Note: Foreword for the book "Magic", a collection of short stories published by Bloomsbury to raise money for one-parent families. It is edited by Sarah Brown and Gil McNeil.

My involvement with the National Council for One Parent Families came about either very simply, or very circuitously, depending on how you look at it.

The simple version involved Andy Keen Downs, the charity’s Deputy Director, sitting down in my habitually untidy kitchen, pulling out a sheaf of notes from his briefcase and embarking on what I’m quite sure would have been a marvellously persuasive, well-constructed and beautifully delivered speech.

“Andy,” I interrupted, in that harassed voice which lone parents can often be identified, “you’d like me to be Patron, wouldn’t you?”

“Well, we’re calling it `Ambassador’,” said Andy tentatively, cut-off mid-flow.

“OK, I’ll do it,” I said, “but could we please discuss the details on the way to school, because Sports Day starts in five minutes.”

And so we discussed the National Council for One Parent Families while watching the egg-and-spoon races, a highly fitting start, I felt, for my association with a charity that is devoted to helping those parents whose lives are a constant balancing act.

The long version of how I became Ambassador includes my personal experience of single motherhood and my anger about our stigmatisation by some sections of the media. That story starts in 1993, when my marriage ended.

I was living abroad and in full-time employment when I gave birth to my daughter. Leaving my ex-husband meant leaving my job and returning to Britain with two suitcases full of possessions. I knew perfectly well that I was walking into poverty, but I truly believed that it would be a matter of months before I was back on my feet. I had enough money saved to put down a deposit on a rented flat and buy a high chair, a cot and other essentials. When my savings were gone, I settled down to life on slightly less than seventy pounds a week.

Poverty, as I soon found out, is a lot like childbirth — you know it’s going to hurt before it happens, but you’ll never know how much until you’ve experienced it. Some of the newspaper articles written about me have come close to romanticising the time I spent on Income Support, because the well-worn cliché of the writer starving in the garret is so much more picturesque than the bitter reality of living in poverty with a child.

The endless little humiliations of life on benefits — and let us remember that six out of ten families headed by a lone parent live in poverty — receive very little media coverage unless they are followed by what seems to be, in newsprint at least, a swift and Cinderella-like reversal of fortune. I remember reaching the checkout, counting out the money in coppers, finding out I was two pence short of a tin of baked beans and feeling I had to pretend I had mislaid a ten-pound note for the benefit of the bored girl at the till. Similarly unappreciated acting skills were required for my forays into Mothercare, where I would pretend to be examining clothes I could not afford for my daughter, while edging ever closer to the baby-changing room where they offered a small supply of free nappies. I hated dressing my longed-for child from charity shops, I hated relying on the kindness of relatives when it came to her new shoes; I tried furiously hard not to feel jealous of other children’s beautifully decorated, well-stocked bedrooms when we went to friends’ houses to play.

I wanted to work part-time. When I asked my health visitor about the possibility of a couple of afternoons’ state childcare a week, she explained, very kindly, that places for babies were reserved for those who were deemed ‘at risk’. Her exact words were, “You’re coping too well.” I was allowed to earn a maximum of fifteen pounds a week before my Income Support and Housing Benefit was docked. Full-time private childcare was so exorbitant I would need to find a full-time job paying well above the national average. I had to decided whether my baby would rather be handed over to somebody else for most of her waking hours, or be cared for by her mother in far from luxurious surroundings. I chose the latter option, though constantly feeling I had to justify my choice at length whenever anybody asked me that nasty question, “So what do you do?”

The honest answer to that questions was: I worry continually, I devote hours to writing a book I doubt will ever be published, I try hard to hold on to the hope that our financial situation will improve, and when I am not too exhausted to feel strong emotion I am swamped with anger at the portrayal of single mothers by certain politicians and newspapers as feckless teenagers in search of that Holy Grail, the council flat, when 97 per cent of us have long since left our teens.

The sub-text of much of the vilification of lone parents is that couple families are intrinsically superior, yet during my time as a secondary-school teacher I met a number of disruptive, damaged children whose home contained two parents. There are those who still believe head-count defines a “real” family, who believe that marriage is the only “right” context in which to have children, but I have never felt the remotest shame about being a single parent. I have the temerity to be rather proud of the period when I did three jobs single-handedly (the unpaid work of two parents and the salaried job of teacher — for I did eventually manage to take my PGCE, due to the generosity of a friend who lend me money for childcare). There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that it is not single-parenthood but poverty that causes some children to do less well than others. When you take poverty out of the equation, children from one parent families can do just as well as children from couple families.

My family’s escape from poverty to the reverse has been only too well documented and I am fully aware, every single day, of how lucky I am; lucky because I do not have to worry about my daughter’s financial security any more; because what used to be Benefit day comes around and there’s still food in the fridge and the bills are paid. But I had a talent that I could exercise without financial outlay. Anyone thinking of using me as an example of how single parents can break out of the poverty trap might as well point at Oprah Winfrey and declare that there is no more racism in America. People just like me are facing the same obstacles to a full realisation of their potential every day and their children are missing opportunities alongside them. They are not asking for handouts, they are not scheming for council flats, they are simply asking for the help they need to break free of life on benefits and support their own children.

This is why I didn’t need to hear Andy’s well-rehearsed persuasive arguments on Sports Day. I had already made up my mind that it was time to put my money where my mouth had been ever since I experienced the reality of single-parenthood in Britain.

The National Council for One Parent Families is neither anti-marriage (nearly two-thirds of lone parents have been married, after all) nor a propagandist for “going it alone”. It exists to help parents bringing up children alone, for example, in the aftermath of a relationship breakdown or the death of a partner, when children are faced with a new kind of family and one parent is left coping with the work of two, often on a considerably reduced income. It provides invaluable advice and practical support on a wide range of issues affecting lone parents and their children, and I am very proud to be associated with it.

The proceeds from the sale of this book will go towards the charity’s Magic Million Appeal, whose funds will help maintain the broad range of services offered to lone parents who want nothing more than to pull themselves out of the poverty trap while bringing up happy, well-adjusted children. I would like to offer my very deepest thanks to the authors of the extraordinary stories that follow, and to everybody who, through buying this book, contributes to our appeal. You are offering hope to families who are too often scapegoated rather than supported — families who could do with a lot less Dursleyish stigmatism, and a little more magic in their lives.

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