Micka loves drawing and wants a pup, but with older brothers into violence and petty crime, and a mother who can’t read the notes his teacher sends home from school, neither he nor the pup stand much of a chance. Then a new boy, Laurie, starts at Micka's school. The two boys both have vivid imaginations, but Laurie's fantasies are of magic and revenge, and he soon pulls Micka into a dangerous game where the line between make-believe and real life -- and, ultimately, death -- is increasingly blurred. Written in direct, uncompromising yet compassionate prose, and with a breathtaking clarity of insight, Micka is an astonishingly assured debut -- and an unforgettable story.
Interview with Frances Kay on
THE STORY BEHIND ‘MICKA’
K: How do you come to know the bleak, deprived landscape you describe in Micka?
F: First, from my own childhood. I grew up in Notting Hill in the early fifties, when it was mostly mentioned in the papers in connection with race riots, Rachmanism and Christie’s grisly mausoleum at 10, Rillington Place. In my [40 strong] class at primary school were Irish, Polish and Italian kids and later on, the first West Indians to arrive in London.
We lived in a crumbling Victorian three-storied house off the Portobello Road –not the whole house, just the a semi basement flat with use of a small, uninteresting back garden through which I could and did, frequently escape into the seemingly limitless communal grounds, to have unsupervised and often unwise adventures. In those immediate post war years there was no money to spare for municipal gardening. The ‘keeper’
had a basic shed with no tools except a rake and a spade. His job was mostly to walk about with a wheelbarrow, smoking Players, the butts of which were eagerly collected by bad boys, or run wheezily after us ‘juvenile delinquents’, shouting and waving his fist. It was a mad jungle with its own laws, where the grass grew tall, the stunted hawthorn trees survived us climbing them [not allowed by the bylaws] and the huge plane trees were just asking to have our initials carved on their barks [the rumour was that if we got caught, we would end up in juvenile court]. Children of all ages ran wild and had lives their parents knew nothing about. This square was just down
the road from Ladbroke Grove, the favourite territory of Rachman type landlords -slum properties rented by refugees and the poorest families, the ones whose kids got free vitamins and nit inspections at school, ready to be
K: Did that jungle scare you?
F: Yes and no. I still think kids should have secret lives where they can play and have adventures their parents don't know about. I feel I am in a minority saying this, and of course, it has its down side. I loved the Big Garden, but there were some boys I used to dread encountering. They moved in packs. Most of them had viciously short crew cuts and knees armoured with scabs [even teenagers wore short trousers then]. They
talked in a fast low Cockney monotone and thrust their head down in my face, far too close for comfort. Once one of them took my treasured two wheeler bike [a family hand me down, painted bright blue by my Dad, with solid tyres that gave a bumpy and unreliable ride]. This boy, probably called Roy or Paul, wobbled a hundred yards and back, watched by his gang, their expressions unreadable. I knew that if he wanted the bike, he would take it. I had no idea where he lived. But in this garden, he was King.
K: How did you survive?
F: By learning to shut up and run fast. When I was ten, we moved to Chiswick. I’d been away [and miserable] at a boarding school for two years, and to come back to a London playground and have a bullet head thrust in my face and the words‘You’re a fucking cow, what are you? ‘ was familiar and avoided only by refusing to answer and running to the safety of
teacher-on-duty and the infants holding her hands, hiding behind her comfortable large overcoat.
K: But didn't things change when you grew up and left home?
F: Bizarrely, no, and it was all because I fell in love. After restful interludes at a girls’ grammar school and the delirious pleasure of university where
boys were for the first time not out to bash me up, do me in or punch me up the bracket, I ended up with the boy who was the most fun, one who unfortunately had a compulsion to change the world for the better, which of course involved finding an urban black hole to live and work in. I managed to dissuade him from taking a job as adventure playground leader on a project in the Falls Road, Belfast – vacant because the previous leader had been shot in the face in his own flat, by men whose kids he had worked and been friends with for two years – and we came to live off the Soho Road in Handsworth, on the edge of Enoch Powell territory, with its parallel strands of cultures, never seeming to meet, Asians, Africans, Caribbeans and deeply depressed, mostly unemployed Brummies whose kids played out their parents tribal posturings on the supposedly neutral territory of Handsworth Adventure Playground with two young, idealistic play leaders to
keep the peace. Nights were enlivened by police hammering on our door [we had no phone, like most people in and around the Soho Road], to tell us that the ‘hut- ’ the space built by and dedicated for use of all the local children - had been set on fire again, most likely by those whom John had spent the day talking and listening to, doing activities with, intervening in knife and bottle fights with.
K: And you worked on the playground too?
F: Occasionally, as a volunteer. I listened to the kids talking. They were so alienated from society all they wanted to do was destroy, even something like the hut, that was nominally theirs. It was here that I first met children –well, boys – whose actual ambition was to go to grown-up prison. Here, I heard about the two thirteen year olds who had walked into the terraced house of a wheelchair bound elderly local woman, so used to neighbours popping in to help with her shopping and cleaning that her front door
was always on the latch, had demanded money, threatening her when she said she had none, and finally suffocating her with a plastic bag over her head, before stealing the one and fourpence they found in her purse [this was just before decimal coinage came in]. They were caught and sentenced. We heard about it because some boys who were playground regulars were excited that they now knew someone famous, they’d been in the papers, they were MURDERERS, and wasn't that great?
I was just a Saturday volunteer, and a girl, so what chance did I have to get them to feel some vestige of empathy for the victim, about whom they said nothing except she was a stupid cunt to leave her door open and a stingy cow to have an empty purse.
K: And did you stay in Handsworth?
F: God, no, I couldn't wait to leave there - it was too like my childhood, whereas John had been to a public school and had a detached palace in a leafy suburb to call home. After two years, he'd had enough to need a break too. I went to York and did a postgraduate diploma to try and give me some framework about social policy, and straight after that I got a job
in Perth, working with travellers [gypsies].
K: So when would that be?
F: Scotland was 1972, then I continued my ramshackle career during the seventies -more travellers in the West Midlands, community projects in York and Edinburgh, sink housing estates in Newcastle and Tyneside. I thought nothing could surprise me, yet every week I was surprised.
By the poverty of some of their lives – not only financial, of course, but the
poverty of culture at home, parents too depressed by unemployment and social stigma to engage even in free entertainments like conversation, larders empty of food except for the next basic meal, parents whose spare cash was spent forgetting their misery down the pub, and poverty of ambition and aspiration – who did they ever meet in their lives who would lift up their horizons, give them practical hope, something to work towards? The ‘heroes; in Newcastle were the fifteen and sixteen year old
school dropouts who managed to sign up for the army and who boasted about getting their hands on machine guns and going berserk on the streets of Belfast.
K: So do you still do this kind of work?
F: No, thank God. I only had the energy for it during my twenties. Then I escaped into running a theatre company to perform for the same communities, plays I wrote for them, about their lives.
K: Do you think your work made any difference?
F: No, and that's the tragedy. Briefly, for the few people who knew John and me, there was a flare of hope. But Thatcher's government utterly crushed it. All those community projects, playgrounds, theatre companies, relied on public funding. It vanished - but by then, my husband was very ill and all we wanted was to escape for his last year. We also had a baby and we needed peace.
I needed to write a book like 'Micka' because nothing has changed. There is a whole layer of society at the bottom of the heap that most people don't know about, don't want to think about. When I read in the papers about babies being killed in their own homes or the terrible actions of child criminals, I realise over and over again that nothing has changed for some
families. Born into low expectations, ignored for the most part by the media
until they hit the headlines in court cases, some brutalized, abused and
murdered by those very parents in whose care they are forced to live, who’s
going to speak up for them?
K: So would you like your readers to feel guilty they aren't doing more?
F: Absolutely not! Reading a book is about diversion and entertainment, as well as challenging set beliefs. It so happens that I love dark fiction, and I hope my readers do too. I didn’t write Micka to accuse anyone. I wrote this story in hope. I hope that one day more people will wish for change, believe it can happen, and work for it to happen. Change in our present preoccupations that make celebrity and wealth the only measure of a
person’s worth to us, and a change in the individual so each child and adult is able to feel empathy and treat others as they would like to be treated. We need a fundamental change in a society where the top layer has no idea, really no idea, how the bottom layer is surviving day by day.
Micka is available on Amazon.co.uk
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Macroom, Co. Cork
Since the recession and my temporary contract in the county library system ended back in 2009 I’ve had the pleasure of teaching painting to some people in my local town, Macroom. Ironically, I was asked to take over the class at the library counter when a woman I knew was checking out a book (the Englishman who’d taught had become too elderly). The timing couldn’t have been better.
Though a little anxious (did I know enough to be able to teach them anything?) I attended the first class after taking every book on painting out of Macroom library and the village library. Research, research, research. What can I say? It’s the historian in me and I can’t escape it. Though I probably didn’t learn an awful lot from going through these books, the act gave me the feeling that I was creating some expertise. In the end I needn’t have worried. They were so friendly, so grateful for someone to just lean over their shoulder and give them a few words of advice or encouragement, it wasn’t long before I relaxed.
It was at the tea break (of course there’s one of those) that I realized that this experience would contain more than art. As I listened to these people talk and discuss various things about what was going on in Macroom I realized how much they knew of the history of the town, how much a part of the town they were, some from birth. Some of the laughed and reminisced about how much things had changed I realized the huge changes they had witnessed locally, changes that represented those Ireland had experienced. Macroom cloaks for example (18th c. origin) were worn up until the 1970s by some women, especially to mass. It was something you could wear to mass everyday and no one would be any the wiser if you had your old pinny on underneath. The choir I’m in wear replicas sometimes when performing.
Macroom cloak replica
Another person in the art group remembered leading the family cow from their house, down the road in town to graze in one of the nearby fields. There’s still a mart twice a week in the town where cattle, sheep and miscellaneous animals are auctioned off (farming is king in this country). And of course nick names. With Marys and Seans in abundance there had to be ways to distinguish one from another. One woman in the art group, Sheila, grew up just near the bridge going into the town and, to distinguish her from all the other “Sheilas” was called “Sheila the Bridge.”
I just itched to record all of this information, conscious that so much of this social history would be lost. While trying to beat down the compulsive historian in my head, the writer rose up and started musing on all the wonderful stories each reminiscence generated. You can never tell what will provoke a “novel” thought. A headline, a TV bit, an overheard exchange in a café. You never know. For my friend Frances Kay, her highly acclaimed novel, Micka, was inspired by her drama work with troubled youth in Newcastle. The novel’s power comes the voice of the two main characters, two ten-year old lads, whose awful family backgrounds contribute to the terrible choices they make.
See Frances Kay’s blog, www.FrancesKaywriter.wordpress.com. Her book, Micka, is available from Amazon.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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