Empathy, not Sympathy

Time travel is possible. I know. I know because this week I read a book that transported me back to 1963. As I read, I saw a vision of four-year-old me in the tiny back yard of our teeny tiny rented house in Hammersmith, planting sunflower seeds in large tin cans with my Mum. This was not the Hammersmith of the 21st century with the gentrified environs of ‘Brackenbury Village’, I hasten to add, but Hammersmith in the post-war years. There were bomb sites in between the rundown Victorian terraces and remnants of Peabody housing. There was a large, newly arrived immigrant population, Polish, Irish and Caribbean in our street of rented accommodation – mostly rented rooms in houses.

But before I recount that story, let me tell you about the book that gave me the power to time travel and evoked so strongly childhood memory.

Tom Percival’s The Invisible is a 32-page picturebook. It is about a young girl called Isabel, And there is no escaping the plain truth that her family are poor. The endpapers set the tone for the start of the story. It is deep midwinter, everything is monochrome, it is snowing and icy, you can almost feel the chill transmitting from the page. Sharp angular tower blocks with anonymous windows add little comfort, the landscape is unpopulated. Where are the people from those high rise apartments? Even the pale glow from the street lamps adds little warmth to this desolate scene. The words The Invisible are emblazoned in harsh black across the colourless sky.

On the turn of the page, we are introduced to Isabel. Her surroundings are cold, in fact so cold we are told

Ice curled across the inside of the window and crept up the corner of the bedpost.

Tom Percival The Invisible

Isabel is the only source of colour. She pulls on her green jumper which matches the grass green of her bedspread. A pair of socks, the colour of a summer sky, hang over the bedstead. A small puppy at Isabel’s feet indicates a caring character and evokes a more positive emotional response. We learn that Isabel’s family has no money for heating – they are very poor.

In spite of this we are told:

…her family had everything they needed…They had each other

Tom Percival The Invisible

The spread accompanying this text shows Isabel’s parents, united. The father has a protective arm around the mother. They smile as Isabel plays in the snow with her puppy.

However, things take a turn for the worse, when unable to pay the mounting bills, the family are forced to move to a tower block in the inner city. Isabel wanders the streets while city workers pass by, seeing straight through her as if she is invisible. Gradually she fades into the background, her green jumper dissolving to the same grey as her miserable surroundings.

The turning point in Isabel’s fortunes comes when she notices an old lady planting flowers in empty paint pots and a homeless man feeding the birds. Isabel joins in, helping with their endeavours and this creates a ripple across the community as more and more people get involved. The ripple becomes a wave, the wave becomes a tsunami of positive community action.

Soon Isabel wasn’t just visible she was vibrant.

Tom Percival The Invisible

Underneath the image of a single seedling in an old paint pot set against a plain white background, the text reads:

And that was how Isabel made something very special. One of the hardest things anyone can ever make…

Tom Percival The Invisible

The turn of the page reveals the transformation. It’s an intake of breath moment as we see the community in its technicolour glory coming together. People interacting across generations, across cultures, mixing with good food, music and a blossoming urban wildlife providing a space where people can feel safe and happy.

And the thing that Isabel has made that is so very special? A difference.

Keen readers of children’s books will observe that this is not a new story. There have been a number of super books that have addressed a similar theme. Notable examples include Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin’s The Promise, Linda Sarah and Fiona Lumbers’ The Secret Sky Garden, Jeannie Baker’s Belonging, Anne Booth and Robyn Owen Wilson’s Bloom. In turn, these stories riff off a theme that is present in Oscar Wilde’s classic fairy tale The Selfish Giant. What these stories have in common is the message that acts of kindness and care of the environment have the power to bring people together in love not hate. But each story has its own points of difference too and it was in the detail that Tom Percival’s contemporary fable touched me. As I read, I was convinced that this book was created by someone who had a similar childhood experience to my own, so I should return to my reminiscence to explain.

My early childhood years were spent in poverty – real poverty. In fact, Tom could have been writing about my family when he described the cold in Isabel’s bedroom. I remember that cold. So cold that the ice made patterns on the inside of the windows. So cold that in the long winter of 1963, the snow came through the leaking skylight above my bed and settled on my face. So cold that my Dad told me how he had come into my room and found that I was turning blue while sleeping and how he had spent the night rubbing me and boiling kettles of water to try and gradually bring my temperature back to normal.

I recall the tin bath hanging up on the outside kitchen wall – there was no running hot water, and kettles had to be boiled to fill the bath. We had one paraffin heater – but for me, that’s just the way it was

I didn’t know we were poor. Not then. It’s only as I grew up, circumstances changed, I became more aware of other people’s lives (we had no television to beam other people’s lives into our home). So when we hid in the cupboard under the stairs the day the rent man came knocking, my Mum made it into a game of hide and seek. And although I can remember a feeling of foreboding and sensed the threat, I thought this was part of the game and didn’t relate it to grown-up concerns of not being able to pay the bills. This was the era of Rackmanism – sub, sub, subletting and charging extortionate rent for inferior housing.

I would not swap my childhood for any other childhood because I know that I was happy (most of the time). Like Isabel, I was fortunate. My parents were not depressed, and they had advantages. My father was an art student, my mother a nurse who worked a couple of nightshifts a week and looked after me during the day. I had to play quietly in her bedroom while she slept following those nightshifts. We spent weekends in the warm library and roamed the free galleries and museums. When I started school my teachers were impressed by the general knowledge I had acquired. In the summer we went to the parks and walked along the river.

My parents were creative. My Dad made amazing toys from card and the string bags that held oranges. He made me a dolls house out of orange crates. My Mum made a hobby horse from a broom handle and scraps of material. We played and read stories all the time. And yes, we planted sunflowers in tin cans in the backyard, while the elderly lady next door, recently arrived from Jamaica to join her family, sang to me through the railings and called me a little pickney. I was enthralled by her colourful headwrap.

My Mum was approached by the local vicar who knew she was a nurse and asked her to visit some of his elderly, lonely parishioners. I enjoyed the weekly visits offering a few hours of company, probably a lifeline for some. I was lucky. I was happy. So while I lived with the deprivations of poverty, I was protected from the desolation of poverty.

It may seem strange, but I have often spoken to my family about how I am grateful that some things were a struggle and that we had to ‘make do and mend’. It taught me resilience, appreciation, care for others, a commitment to public libraries (life savers) and the fantastic galleries and museums on our doorstep (though more could be done to make them feel less forbidding and welcoming to all).

I was not surprised when I read Tom Percival’s author’s note in The Invisible to find that it chimed with much of what I had experienced growing up – though he lived in a caravan and had the countryside outside the door. In a similar vein, Tom had experiences that made life bearable he writes:

However, despite our lack of money, despite the jumble sale clothes and hand-me-down shoes, there were two things that I had plenty of – love and books.

There was a mobile library service which parked up nearby. I would walk down the road clutching my pink library slips and be GIVEN as many books as I needed. But some people aren’t as lucky as I was. Some people don’t have access to the literary lifeline and the beauty and wonder of the countryside that I had free rein over as a child. Some people don’t have love.

That is why I wanted to write Isabel’s story. As of today, there are around four million children living in poverty in the UK. That’s over four million children who don’t get enough food to eat, who are cold and tired, who don’t have the equipment they need at school, who don’t have the same chances and opportunities as everyone else. These children are often ignored, which is why I wanted to explore the idea of invisibility in this story.

Tom Percival Invisble

There are all sorts of reasons that families living in poverty are not able to escape from the trap because they don’t have the advantages that Tom and I have described. And poverty in the countryside is no less devastating than in the city – in fact, it can be worse as I have witnessed in leafy villages where social housing has been provided in areas with poor transport infrastructure making it impossible for families to get access to affordable food and leaving them reliant on more expensive local shops for essential supplies.

The significant point for me in The Invisible is the devastating effect that feeling isolated can have. Yes, there is an element of taking control of your own life and I think it is important that The Invisible gives agency to the young protagonist, Isabel. However, it is also the responsibility of society to create the conditions, that seed the hope. And it starts with making the invisible, visible.

If there is one thing the COVID pandemic has demonstrated so clearly it is the inequality of safe access to land. People, whether they live in the country or in the inner city, whether rich or poor, need space – outdoor space – where they can be in touch with nature. There is a huge disparity in how people have been affected by restrictions and we need to build a society where people do not feel trapped by their surroundings. In my 1960s London, the tower blocks were just the blink of an eye away, but they had not become the norm for city living. It is a travesty and indictment on all post-war governments that 60 years on from my ’60s childhood we should still have children living in abject poverty alongside neighbours with excessive wealth.

This week, the wonderful Empathy Lab released its Read for Empathy Reading List 2021. I admit to being a little sceptical about Empathy Lab when it was first launched. My concern was that it would be another awareness-raising initiative encouraging children to ‘feel sorry’ for others ‘less fortunate’ than themselves. (I would have hated anyone pitying me). My respect and admiration for the team, led by Miranda McKearney has increased year on year. The messages and publications put out by the organisation show a clear understanding that social justice can only be achieved through action and activism. One of the reasons that I cannot wholeheartedly trumpet the virtue of Matt La Pena and Christian Robinson’s award-winning Last Stop on Market Street, is that in spite of the well-meaning message that we should all help others ‘less fortunate than ourselves’, there is no questioning of the status quo. Why do soup kitchens have to exist in the first place? Empathy not sympathy is the starting place for action to bring about social justice. And action means change. Supporting the foodbank is a sad necessity, but we need to do more than donate a few cans of food to make a difference.

I urge everyone to take a look at the outstanding reading suggestions in this year’s Read for Empathy list. I hope that The Invisible finds a place in next year’s list. And that all the readers of these books, children and adults, will ask, what can I do to make a real and permanent difference?