Popping Up at the Foundling Museum: thinking about left behind children

A still from Coram Boy, as played on Broadway. More pics here
I read Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin many years ago: the story of an age when single motherhood and children born out of wedlock created such a stigma that abandoned babies were a common feature of the London streets. More about Coram Boy in this Reading Matters review.

Thomas Coram, a retired ship captain, was so upset by the sight of uncared for children that he spent his lifetime trying to find a way to rescue them.

The result was the Foundling Hospital, built in 1739. Read a quick history

Being of a very soft, indeed, mushy disposition, I was slightly apprehensive coming to the Foundling Museum for my event for the Pop Up Festival of Stories.

I had found the play version of Coram Boy utterly heartbreaking.

There's a scene with a forest of trees and a howling begins. And the light changes and one by one the trees are revealed as mothers crying for their lost babies. I took some fairly edgy teenagers along to watch the play and when the lights came up there was not a dry-eyed teenager in my row.

A row of school shirts greets you at the entrance to the main exhibit. I was ready to howl right there. 
I was supposed to give a talk to a group of Year Six children from City of London Academy and I was slightly concerned that my usual Tall Story presentation about volcanoes and giants did not connect too well with the setting.

Luckily, I arrived early enough to wander around the exhibition before the children came.

Gulp! A nightie worn by one of the babies who lived in the Foundling Hospital
Love tokens that were left by mothers with their babies.
Although many of these were kept in archives it was
hospital policy not to show them to the children in
order to preserve the mother's anonymity.
I thought I would find nothing in Tall Story to connect with the exhibition - but I'd forgotten that my main character was himself a left behind child.

My eight foot tall character, Bernardo,
is a left behind child! How could I forget that?
Art by Sarah McIntyre

Bernardo's mother takes a job as a nurse in England thinking she can easily send for him later. But it takes sixteen years of bungled paperwork to get his visa.

Annette McCartney, learning and access manager of the Museum, was on her feet for  three hours  taking the children around the museum

How could I forget that much of my journalism here in England has been about Filipino migrant workers - women who leave their children behind in the Philippines for the sake of a better wage abroad as cleaners, maids, and other menial professions?

I had also completely forgotten that I'd written and presented a Radio 4 documentary five years ago titled 'Motherless Nation' - about the children left behind by the migration phenomenon in the Philippines.

The children's solemn faces reflect how how heart-rending some of the stories were. 
So when it came time to talk to the children, I skimmed through my usual talk and delved into my memory banks for the stories of very real people that I'd met ...

... about the mother who, on the night before she left to work in Hong Kong, pinned up homework schedules for her children

... about the families who only ever saw each other via Skype, and how the little ones hugged the computer screens as if they were hugging their mums

... about the cleaner who regularly shipped groceries from London to her kids in Manila - because when she shopped for groceries, it felt like she was really mothering them.

The Court Room - this is where the hospital Governors decided which babies to take and which to reject. When the old hospital was demolished this room was preserved and then rebuilt in the building where the museum is now housed. Many of the works of art were donated by wealthy patrons.

The Court Room., The Foundling Hospital

Using real case archives, children re-enact a selection scene. The rest of the class play the governors and must choose which baby to accept knowing that the baby rejected is likely to die. 
This boy (in tricorn) is playing the widowed father of a six week old baby
with other young children at home.
Later, they learn that the foundlings had to do their own laundry using
huge bars of smelly carbolic soap. Here, a boy smells a sample of the soap.
The foundlings rubbed dirty clothes against
these washing boards. The school children
run knuckles over the board to see how it feels.
This boy tries out a washing dolly which
children manipulated in large tubs of

One of the shocking facts that Annette revealed was that
wealthy ladies  used to pay to watch the drama of governors
interviewing the unfortunate mothers. They also
took their children to watch the foundlings
eat their meals (which were conducted in total silence).
Sounds barbaric but doesn't it sound like X Factor-type entertainment?

A list of Foundling names. The children were renamed by the governors as soon as they were accepted into the  hospital. 
Sometimes they ran out of ideas, as in the case of Sam Foundling.

Sometimes they were feeling creative (and rather cruel), as in the case of Hopegood Helpless 

Illustrations by hospital patron William Hogarth reveal the terrible conditions of the time, magnifying lenses on the display emphasize the plight of children.

Maria Connolly, Development Manager of the Pop Up Festival of Stories came along for the event. She also volunteers at the Foundling Museum. Maria helped transcribe the interviews for Foundling Voices.

There was a new exhibition documenting the stories of foundlings, now very old, in recordings. I didn't have time to explore this bit of the museum and was pleased to discover there was a website devoted to the recordings - Foundling Voices Online.

I was struck by the story of Ruth, sent to a foundling hospital as a five year old in 1942, who recalls fantasizing about mothers:

As children we always played out this game of who our mothers were and they were always beautiful, important . . . they weren't ever ordinary people. Listen to Ruth's story

This was an evocative, sometimes painful, visit to times long gone by.

But much of it still resonated with me. That was London of the 1800s, but children are still being left behind all over the world - children of immigration, of refugees, children in all kinds of situations.

I hope there are still Thomas Corams in the world to rescue them.

Thank you to Annette McCartney and her helpers at the Foundling Museum, Maria Connolly and the organizers of the Pop Up Festival of Stories, and the librarian, teachers and children of City of London Academy for such a lovely and thoughtful day!

Here is a slideshow of my photos :

If you can't see the slideshow, view it here

Jose Rizal: Philippine hero, picture book writer

Jose Rizal, Filipino martyr
Yesterday at Chalk Farm Library, I was the speaker on a subject that was most unusual  - how colonialism, calamity and environment impacted storytelling for children in my native Philippines.

Plus I had to tie the whole thing in with the work of Filipino hero Jose Rizal - we're celebrating Philippine Independence from Spain this week.

Heavy? Not too bad but I had to make sure I really did my homework.

My pal Lou Ramos, cultural officer at the Philippine Embassy, came up with the idea for the event and I always find it hard to say no to Lou.

I was expecting an all-Filipino audience and not very many people.

Instead, it was possibly the most diverse audience I've ever had - with plenty of people from the Filipino community, Primrose Hill locals,  Friends of the Chalk Farm Library, a big gun from the British Museum, and direct descendants of Philippine heroes ... uh oh!

So these are Jose Rizal's direct descendants. How would YOU feel if you were about to give a talk about someone really important and it turned out the audience was crawling with his DNA? HP Langer (left) and Sarri Tapales are Rizal's great grandchildren. So very kind of them to attend.
Chalk Farm Library's Nick Durant, Lou and on the right, Brenda Stones of the Friends of Chalk Farm Library
I was dismayed to find out that this beautiful library in the midst of Primrose Hill is scheduled for closure in the coming week. What??????? Please show your support by liking Friends of Chalk Farm Library on Facebook!

I did a little video spot decrying the closure of the library
Rey Catapang, deputy head of mission at the Embassy, introduced Rizal and then me. You can see the apprehension on my face. What if nobody believes what I have to say?

I was quite taken aback by the turn-out. Had dinner later with Angel Arrando, second from left in black shirt, who told us about how as five year old in the second World War he was interned in San Augustin Church and also how as a teenager, he and a bunch of other boys met Emilio Aguinaldo

Here I am trying to sound credible

Because of the diversity of the audience, I had to start with a potted history of the Philippines:

Bunch of islands (7,107), 175 languages. Along comes Spain. Wham bang. We were a country.  Three hundred years of Spanish Rule. Revolution. Then 50 Years of Hollywood after the Americans decide they need a colony ostensibly to Christianize Filipinos (though we'd been hardcore Catholics for 300 years).

Then I talked about the sorts of books I read as a child growing up in the Philippines. A child who had fallen in love with reading.

Me (left) as a short person and my sister,  Joy
Typical reading matter for children of my generation. When I showed this, the Filipinos my age in the audience waxed nostalgic about Dick and Jane.
While I LOVED the stories that I read, they were populated by blonde blue-eyed happy children who did not resemble me.

Most stories for children in the Philippines belong to an oral tradition - stories handed down by mothers, fathers, nannies and grandparents.

The first time I encountered written-down Filipino literature was in school.

Much of written-down Filipino fiction was epic, lyrical and difficult originally written for adults, and usually translated to the majority dialect Tagalog from one of our 175 languages. Growing a written-down literature is problematic, with so many languages ... certainly for a child like me, whose original native language was not Tagalog, the school texts were unloveable and painful.

FYI: Oddly enough the one unifying language was a colonially imposed one: English. Upon the arrival of the Americans, schools across our islands were conducted in a combination of indigenous languages and English. Later Tagalog was required in schools as well, to the disgruntlement of speakers of other languages. But it did help improve literacy across the board. Today, a version of Tagalog has been recreated and taught as a national language - called Pilipino.
Sixteenth century epic hero Lam-ang (with thanks to the Clark Monding blog for the image). Lam-ang looks hunky and exciting but studying him, in difficult Tagalog (translated from Ilocano!) was another matter.  I'm sure the best I got was a C-. 
It was only with the publication of the magazine Liwayway (in the majority language Tagalog) in the 1920s that fiction aimed at children began to emerge.

A 1930s cover from Liwayway. Note the Norman Rockwell style adopted by Tony Vasquez, the illustrator. The magazine took its inspiration from the Saturday Evening Post
What was brilliant about Liwayway was that it published comics (known as komiks in the Philippines) and short story series (Mga Kuwento ni Lola Basyang - The Tales of Grandmother Basyang), that launched the beginnings of published children's fiction in the Philippines.

The cartoon character Kenkoy from the1930s continues to appear in Filipino cinema, comics and short fiction.
Komiks blazed the trail for publishing truly targeted at children.

Today, the proliferation of publishers producing picture books and short fiction for children continue to contend with issues of language and distribution.

Though the marketplace is awash with expensive imported Harry Potters and Twilights from the West, I take comfort in the thought that these today only occupy part of the menu for young readers in the Philippines.

Filipino edition of Tall Story,
 Cacho Publishing 
It was so important to me that when Tall Story was published, I excluded the Philippine rights so that a Filipino edition could be published by  a Filipino publisher.

I know that for the great majority of Filipinos, books are a luxury. Even though the imported US hardback is now available in Manila book stores - I am so happy that readers have the option of an affordable local version.

It is still the same English but with some Pinoy words added in - and it's got illustrations! (available in Power Books and National Book Store)

During the event, I also described how calamity tends to influence storytelling in those parts of the world that sit on the Ring of Fire and how I used these folkloric elements to bring a Filipino sensibility to Tall Story.

Which brings us to Jose Rizal whose writings were influenced not by natural calamity but by political calamity.

Jose Rizal was no brawny revolutionary. But it is a tribute to the power of books that he is commemorated as a hero of the Philippine Revolution against Spain.

His novel Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) and its sequel El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster) sparked off the revolution that led to the end of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines.

During his travels, he contributed a Filipino fable to a London magazine - The Monkey and The Turtle. It's one of the few examples of Rizal's writing in English.
And it was an animal trickster story!

Funnily enough I wrote a small anthology of animal trickster stories for Oxford University Press's Treetops series last year.

Rizal's simple tale  - of how a lumbering turtle outwits a far stronger and more agile animal - resonates with outrage against the abuses of the Spanish colonial regime.

Rizal sketched out illustrations for his book in a now lost guest book that belonged to a family friend.  It would have been the Philippines' first picture book! 

I ended the evening with a reading of the Monkey and the Turtle.

It may have been written in the 1880s, but in cadence, page turns and economy of language, it's a perfect picture book.

Thank you to the Philippine Embassy, Chalk Farm Library and the lovely audience who turned up for my talk!

I'm an Artist, Let me Into the Green Room: Hay Festival Photos!

I'm back from the Hay Festival and I survived! Just.


I'm not usually nervous about author appearances but I was nervous about the Hay Festival where I was appearing on a panel with Geraldine McCaughrean (above, right), with my pal, illustrator Sarah McIntyre (above, middle) moderating (as if there was a risk of us suddenly jumping at each other's throats).

(In fact, Sarah beat me to the blogging draw and has posted lots of cool photos from Hay - check out her blog for details of how she totally got in with Camilla Parker Bowles!)

Here's how Sarah does it (that's lovely Anne Cottringer, author of When Titus Took the Train, which Sarah illustrated)



When we arrived it was a bit rainy and the deck chairs were forlorn on the grass

The day after was gloriously sunny!

Warm enough to need a refilling station!

It was my very first time at Hay and I was such a beginner -  I booked £38 worth of tickets only to find that performers and their groupies got free tickets to events! Don't worry, the Box Office refunded my tickets, no questions asked (thank you, Box Office!).

It didn't help that I was so busy, I failed to read the information the Hay Office sent. I arrived without knowing where to park, where to go, what to do.

My minders, Random House publicists Kelly Tapper and Louise Vallant laughed and said all I had to do was say "I'm an artist" ... and I'd get parking, coffee, tickets and what have you. And they were right!

My daughter Mia at the car park entrance to the Green Room ... perhaps now I've convinced her that deep down, under all the embarrassing clothing, I'm cool.

Welcome to the Green Room!



Attached to the Green Room was this beehive of activity - with signs everywhere giving everyone # tags for tweeting. Everywhere, there were small groups of people who sounded like they were brainstorming the script of a new film.

The problem of course is, once one gets into the swing of declaring "I'm an artist!" it's very hard to stop. My husband wasn't amused when I couldn't be bothered to pass the salt. I'm an artist!

Random House put us up in a hotel in Crickhowell, 45 minutes drive from Hay-on-Wye (45 minutes too far, you say? No problem! One of the festival sponsors is Land Rover and artists get shuttled to and fro in luxury, easy peasy).


Random House likes to fatten up its authors before performances - at the dinner were publicists Kelly Tapper and Louise Vallant and that there on the right is uber award winning illustrator Mini Grey.

Imagine ME hanging out with Jonathan Stroud (Bartimaeus), Mini Grey(Biscuit Bear) and the Etherington Brothers (Monkey Nuts)!!! What's that you say? Oh yes! I'm an artist!>
Clowning around with Jonathan Stroud (left) and Robin Etherington (right)
The following morning I watched the fans swoop down on the Etherington Brothers and wondered how a nobody like me would cope seated next to Geraldine! I could pretend that I got sat next to her by mistake.


Rob and Lorenzo sign copies of Monkey Nuts for adoring fans. I overheard someone say, "They must be the most popular speakers at Hay. They are so noisy!"

In fact, my event with Geraldine McCaughrean wasn't too bad, even though the Starlight Stage (it had a dark drapy ceiling sprinkled with a gazillion stars!) was packed!

While my minders weren't looking, I nipped out to take a photo of the queue to our event


I asked the queue to wave and some of them did (you can tell from their expressions that they are wondering who this bonkers woman was)!


Here we are on stage. I look like that because I'm trying to conquer my nerves by imagining the audience naked.


That cartoon of Tall Story is fan art by Sarah ... how lucky am I to have a friend who can draw like that!


And look, Pinoy peeps, I brought Bernardo Carpio to Hay!


You can just see the stars in the ceiling above this further away shots.



Now I make it no secret that I just love, love, love Geraldine McCaughrean's writing, as does Sarah. Sarah and I kind of slobbered all over her during the event. Geraldine politely managed not to request a towel during our gushfest.

Geraldine McCaughrean
The book Geraldine was promoting was Pull Out All the Stops (to be called The Sunshine Queen in the US), which is in the same world as Stop the Train, the very first book I ever read by her. Pull Out All the Stops is a magnificent book - check out my review on Amazon. It deserves to be read and everyone deserves to read it!

I had reserved tickets to watch Fiona Dunbar do her Ghostorama act (her latest series is the Kitty Slade ghost mysteries) but I'd forgotten I was a speaker and would have to do signing and meeting and greeting at the bookshop. Thankfully, I had my retinue of Fiona Dunbar readers to send to her event.


And thankfully, we managed to meet up for dinner later so at least we have this picture of the two of us at Hay! (And thanks to Hatty Bayly, OUP publicist, for organizing the magic expanding dinner)... this is Hatty (also known as publicist of the Children's Book Nation) below.


Later, in the Green Room, who should walk in but Michael Morpurgo. He got chatting to Geraldine so I gave Sarah my camera so I could sneak behind him for a photo. But he caught me!

Stalking Michael Morpurgo

He asked me who I was and I said, I was a beginner author. To which he said, "Oh, that deserves an arm around the shoulder!"

Look! Me and Michael Morpurgo AND Geraldine McCaughrean.

The next day, we watched Michael in action on the Barclays Wealth Pavilion which seats 2,000. And he was awesome.


I still had one more event to do and I'm afraid Michael Morpurgo gave me a severe inferiority complex.

So I was feeling a bit stressed when we then watched Malorie Blackman dazzle a huge auditorium full of teenagers.

Hay's lovely Sophie Lording (who invited me to my events!) did Malorie's introduction:


Here's Malorie talking about her new book Boys Don't Cry.


Afterwards, panicking about my coming presentation, I told my daughter: "I've got to make my talk more like Michael Morpurgo's!"

She replied, "Didn't you hear what Malorie Blackman said? BE YOURSELF!"

So that's what I did. And it was good.

Later, I had to have my trophy picture with Malorie.

IMG_7173 (2)

Illustrator Layn Marlow arrived with her daughter Tegan ("It's Vegan with a T") ... do check out Tegan's cool blog Tegan on Toast.


And we managed to rope librarian Ferelith Hordon - who was there to represent the Greenaway Prize at Oliver Jeffers' event - into joining us for supper. By that time we'd run out of Artist's ("I am an Artist ... feed me!") food vouchers so we used Ferelith's to obtain bottles of wine - thank you, Ferelith!

Ferelith, Tegan and Sarah.  Marcus Sedgwick named his character Ferelith in White Crow ... I'll bet he did that to wind Ferelith up.

These were the last of our vouchers.


Performing artists got a lunch voucher, a morning snack and an afternoon snack. The lunch was steak, salmon, lamb shank, that sort of thing. The snacks were cheesecakes, tortes, mousses. And all you could drink. At one point we managed to negotiate ordering simultaneous morning and afternoon snacks. It was a bit fattening, the festival. But happy. Definitely happy.

At the end of the day, we caught Jo Brand's event in which she talked about her life as a psychiatric nurse, her feminism and what happens when your daughter comes home from school and incredulously asks you, "Mummy, are YOU Jo Brand?"


Why have I never been to Hay before? Even without the Green Room, it's an amazing experience. The slogan this year was:

Ideas may blossom

With my 12 year old daughter, I've seen Michael Morpurgo telling stories and entrancing small children, Malorie Blackman talking about her struggle to become a writer, Jo Brand's down-to-earth compassionate comedy; we've met many extraordinary and creative people we don't see everyday. And yes, we bought books.

Ideas may well blossom.