One Picture, Three Stories: A Funeral, Cesar Climaco and Zamboanga


I saw this wonderful blog post by illustrator Jane Heinrichs last year in which she shared one photo that meant something to her, and told three stories about it. The photo she shared was the one on the right, click on the badge to read it.

If you follow me on Facebook you might have noticed that I'm something of a shutterbug. I love taking photos ... and I love looking at them too. There is so much story in a photo.

I so enjoyed Jane's idea that I'm going to take up her challenge to do a One Picture, Three Stories link up. If you're a blogger and want to have a go, let Jane know.

Here's my first picture.

Story #1. I was 24 years old when I took this picture. I know I was 24 because it was taken during the funeral of assassinated mayor Cesar Climaco in 1985.  You can just see the faint typewritten caption 'Zamboanga 1985' bottom right.

I was a young journalist working for a political magazine opposed to the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, who had been president since I was aged three. I had just purchased a heavy 300mm lens from my friend Jaime Unson.

The streets of Zamboanga were packed with tens of thousands of people for the funeral. Traffic was at a standstill and I could see nothing. So I climbed to the top of a stalled bus. My new 300mm lens could see a long way and I spotted this tableau of townspeople with an expressionless soldier.

It would have been a perfect way to illustrate the militarisation that Climaco had fought against. But as I snapped the photograph, the little girl smiled. Which kind of ruined my story.

Story #2. When journalists wrote about the murdered mayor Cesar Climaco, they always attached the word 'colourful' to his name.

He swore he wouldn't cut his hair until Marcos fell from power. So he marched around with mad, flowing grey locks. He put up a scoreboard in front of City Hall keeping a tally of violent crimes, and had a tempestuous relationship with the military and police who he accused of these crimes. And yet he travelled everywhere on small motorbike and was sniffy about bodyguards.

In 1984, he was shot in the  nape by an assassin while supervising operations at a fire. Nobody's ever been convicted of his murder. Before he died, Climaco said that if he was ever assassinated the military would be sure to blame a particular Muslim group. Climaco's wife accused the military of masterminding the killing. The military, as Climaco predicted, blamed the Muslim group.

Story #3. Zamboanga. It's a city in the Muslim south of the Philippines. There's a terrible racist song that came out of the American occupation in the 1900s - 'There are monkeys with no tails in Zamboanga ...' How I hated it.

I have not been back since I took this photograph.

I remember a hotel by a beautiful sea, with an outdoor restaurant. Huge crabs and giant prawns, in garlic, ginger and coconut sauce. Men in boats rowing up to your hotel table to sell gorgeous woven mats.  I still have quilts  made from fabrics that I bought at the fantastic market nearby. Their language is Chabacano - which sounds a lot like Spanish.

I wonder what Zamboanga is like now. I would like to go back.

You might also want to read these posts on my other blog:

The Invention of the Teenager

Social Media: Eight Things We Can Learn from Old Style Journalism

The Writer is YOU, Whoever You Are.


Last year, I met the young girl pictured below when I visited a school outside Manila in the Philippines.

Photo: Zarah Gagatiga

She said she loved writing. She wrote every chance she got. But people around her were always telling her she couldn't write. So, she asked me, did that mean she shouldn't write?

I met a Filipino cleaner here in London. She loved reading so much that she decided she'd like to write crime fiction. She joined a writing group. But she gave that up very quickly. Because whenever she turned up for meetings, the members turned their noses up at her. They made her feel like someone with her background and accent could never write a book.

Many years ago when my children still needed diaper changing, someone asked me what I did for a living. I said I stayed at home with the children but I was working on a children's book in the hope of being published someday. The someone rolled his eyes and said, 'Not another one. Everyone thinks they can write.'

No Entry.
People, stop it already.

Why do you say YOU CAN'T when it's just as easy to say YOU CAN?

Nobody starts out knowing how to do anything. You've got to work at learning a craft. It takes courage and self belief.

(My friend KM Lockwood recently wrote a beautiful essay about self belief The Unwanted Guest)

If we allow the NOs to win, this world will end up without books.

And not just books but television, news, cinema, the internet, junk mail, magazines, Wikipedia, anything and everything that involves writing.


Neil himself
I saw a video recently in which a young fan asked bestselling author Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book) if there was any point writing since there were so many great writers already.

I thought Gaiman's reply was quality. He said when you're starting to write, it's not surprising that you would tend to start with other people's voices - you've been reading other people for years:

But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell ... there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you. 

Judy at the NAWE conference
What makes every story unique is the author.

Last November, my lovely friend Judy Lawson and I got together to deliver a presentation called The Hero Is Me before the National Association of Writers in Education conference.

The Hero is Me is about the need for children to see themselves in the books they read. I talked about the journey I had to take to believe I could become an author. It was also about the work Judy has done in literally putting the children she was teaching into books that they could read.

I've known Judy since our two boys were best friends in kindergarten together. But I only discovered her amazing work recently.

Judy as a young teacher
As a beginning teacher in the late 1970s, Judy cut her teeth on the theories of Shared Reading by Don Holdaway. Basically, Shared Reading is the idea that reading together connects young readers through shared emotions and shared experiences. I found this explanation of Shared Reading on ReadWrite Think:

Shared reading offers rich instructional opportunities as teachers share in the workload while students access the text too. Embedded in the middle of the gradual release of responsibility, shared reading has elements of a read-aloud and guided reading, but it’s most valuable for explicit demonstration opportunities with shared text.

Shared Reading uses big books like this one.

Over the years, Judy began to create her own big books for Shared Reading with her pupils.

They would take a popular text like say, George's Marvellous Medicine (Roald Dahl), The Very Hungry Caterpillar ( Eric Carle) or the excellent Handa's Surprise (Eileen Browne) and create their own big books - with the children themselves playing the characters.

At one special school, she even managed to involve and engage the children in Shakespeare, creating their own big book of A Midsummer Night's Dreeam! The children loved it.

This particular version of Handa's Surprise uses pictograms  

When I leaf through Judy's wonderful books, often handwritten with cut and paste photos of the children acting out the roles, I am moved and amazed. They are not just reading, nor are they just writing, they are living it. For once, they get to be the heroes!

The hero is me. Judy doing shared reading with her big books.

 (Barbara Davenport kindly wrote about our Hero is Me presentation at NAWE on her blog)


Once a month, I climb out of my writing cave and meet up with fellow writers. We read and critique each other's works-in-progress.

Critique, mind you, not criticise. Criticising is about tearing down. Critiquing is about building up.

When my new novel Shine was launched last September, I had a brainwave. Why not invite some young people to experience a critique session? So many author friends were coming to my book launch, I could promise the young writers a roomful of authors to respond to their writing!

My 300 Word Challeng

On the day, the event was great fun. We couldn't read all the submissions, so there was a lot of tension in the room as the young writers waited to hear which of them would have their writing would be read out.

The Shine book launch was at Archway Library so most of the kids were from
Mount Carmel School, across the road. The writing was luminous.
Photo: Ann Giles

What was wonderful was that the authors didn't necessarily agree with each other when they were critiquing the work. So the young writers saw what a subjective thing reading is. Here I am flanked by Teri Terry (Slated) and Jane McLoughlin (At Yellow Lake). Photo: Ann Giles

After the authors commented on the work, the writers were invited to reveal their identities if they wanted to (They all did, to thunderous applause because the writing was so fine - isn't that amazing? Being applauded for your writing?) In fact, my roomful of authors was gobsmacked. This was the future of books - and it looked good.

I was so pleased with the 300 Word Challenge I've since tried it at school visits.

Responding to the work of children at Bishops Stortford School. I love the tension as they wait
for their works to be read, and the looks on their faces as I talk to them as  fellow writers.
Photo: Ian Taylor
I love reading the writing of young people. The ideas are so fresh, the voices so true. I am going to try to make the challenge a part of my school visit repertoire from now on!


The thing about writing is: you WANT to be read. You don't want to write in a vacuum. Having someone read and respond to your work is a treat. Now you know why authors love fan mail.

I've been invited to speak at a conference organised jointly by Lend Me Your Literacy and my publisher Random House on 24 January 2014. You can find out more about it here.

Lend Me Your Literacy is a platform for sharing children's writing created by teachers. What a great idea! The testimonials are glowing.

LMYL reminds me of a US-based platform called Figment (interestingly owned by Random House) - which describes itself as "a community where you can share your writing, connect with other readers, and discover new stories and authors" - but without LMYL's exclusive focus on schools.

While Figment feels more like a platform for any and all writers, it is trying to attract the educational market too, describing itself as a 'natural teaching tool' and offering a way to create a virtual writer's workshop for the classroom. More about Figment in education.


I started out this blog post talking about the forces of NO, all those unbelieving naysayers who plant doubt into the aspiring writer's heart.

But I hope I've also shown that this is also a world full of YES.

Yes, you can write.

Yes, your story matters.

Me at six, the year I fell
in love with books and