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A very big bad society

MALORIE BLACKMAN: Fighting for our children’s future

IN THESE times of economic hardship, we are all feeling the pinch and with more imminent government cuts along with the threat of a possible triple dip recession our fiscal future looks bleak.

For some the recent cuts mean a tightening of the purse strings but for many they also mean the difference between getting a higher education and improving their career prospects or remaining in poverty.

Malorie Blackman is one of Britain’s most illustrious authors. Having written over 70 books, plays and television scripts, she has built an incredible career as a writer and is considered to be one of the best children’s author in the UK.

But during a recent interview, the Noughts & Crosses novelist admitted that she was, at one time, a struggling student who relied on a government grant to help her pursue higher education. Considering the recent governments cuts Blackman said that it is much harder for a young person to build a successful career in the arts.

“It’s shameful the way that the government is cutting back on the people who really need funds and facilities to pay for tax cuts for the rich,” said the 50-year-old. “Stopping stuff like the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is outrageous! When I was doing my A-levels we were stonily broke and I got a grant which was £122 per term but that is what enabled me to stay on into the sixth form. Even then it wasn’t a lot of money but it meant I could buy books and that I had money to travel to school.”

Many people have said that the current cabinet lacks real understanding of the daily lives of everyday people. And it is no wonder; there has never been a collective decision-making body of Her Majesty’s government with so many millionaires in it. But the author believes a little empathy can go a long way.

“I think there are too many people in the government that don’t appreciate the significance of the EMA because they have never been in a situation where £40 makes a difference. They don’t understand that it is make or break for some families and it’s the difference between continuing to go to school or going out to work in a dead end job which would be really hard to get out of.”

“They talk about the big society but they don’t want to put a penny piece towards it. What they think is that people should step up and volunteer, which is all good, but volunteering doesn’t pay your bills or your mortgage and it doesn’t put food on the table. So to expect people to work for free, when they wouldn’t themselves, is really hypocritical,” she said.

The London-born writer is also fiercely opposed to the closure of public libraries that have been sweeping the country due to local government cuts. At least 157 libraries have closed across the UK, with a further 225 under threat since 2011.

This figure is strenuously denied by Ed Vaisey, the minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. He also said both he and the coalition were “not currently minded” to intervene or prevent library closures. For Blackman, her local library was a haven that introduced her to a world of literature.

“The first time I went into a book shop I was 14-years-old but I was in my local library from the age of six. The library wasn’t just a place where I could go to get some peace and do my homework, it was a place where I could go and be surrounded by books, because I couldn’t afford them. If it wasn’t for libraries I wouldn’t be a writer.”

“It makes me angry when people say we have to balance the books and have to cut costs or close the libraries down because it’s such short sighted blinkered thinking. They always talk about the failing educational standards but they are the ones creating the situation,” the Checkmate author said.

Still, the novelist is doing all she can to ensure that children have access to the books and education they need. She also admits she is honoured to have her books, which deal with issues of race, social and ethical issues, taught in schools as part of the national curriculum. This is a far cry from her school days when there was only one type of experience taught in classrooms – the white English experience.

“It’s lovely that some schools are teaching my books because when I was at school it was always a white experience being taught, which is why I absolutely hated subjects like history. I wasn’t reflected in anything I was being taught, I didn’t know anything about my history until I was in my twenties.”

Recalling a particularly poignant and hurtful experience in school, Blackman spoke about a time when she wanted to learn more about black history in school.

“I had never learnt about things like black inventors, scientists or black achievements and I remember asking a teacher in my history lesson why they didn’t teach us about black scientist and achievements and she said ‘because there aren’t any’. She said it in a really patronizing way and at that time, I didn’t know any better. Even though I thought she can’t be right.”

This complete denial of all positive black history had such a profound effect on the mother of one that she included it in her award winning novel Noughts & Crosses.

“In my book I throw in some names of black inventors, and I give an author’s note at the end of the book to confirm they are all real people I never learnt about any of them.”

But that didn’t stop Blackman from reading and teaching herself everything she could about black history and the achievements of black people. Now she is heralded as a black British pioneer in her own right and was officially recognised in 2008 when she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). Believing herself to be ‘nothing special’, the Pig Heart Boy creator is just happy enough inspiring the future generation of writers.

“I wrote a book called Whizziwig which was on the TV and when I went to a school it was mostly white children I was talking to but I remember there was a black boy who put his hand up and asked ‘you wrote Whizziwig?’ and I said ‘yes, that’s right’ and he said ‘you wrote Whizziwig?’ and I said yes, then he said ‘so it was on the tele and then you wrote it? And I said, ‘no I wrote the book and then it was on the tele’. And I could see the wheels going around in his head, and I thought good now you can look at me like that and say ‘God if she can do it, so can I.”

For more information on Malorie Blackman go to www.malorieblackman.co.uk

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