Author: Nick Sands

What is a Hero?

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles” said Christopher Reeve.

I like this definition, particularly the notion that a hero is basically an ordinary person, who develops extraordinary qualities. Have you ever thought about what attributes make a protagonist someone we admire and empathise with? For me, heroes, whether in real life or fiction, are characterised by their outstanding ability to overcome adversity. Such a person can inspire us to be better, in the same way that Captain Sir Tom Moore did by going the extra miles with his Zimmer frame to raise millions for the NHS.

Recently, I was very moved by a news report, which told the story of a young schoolboy who has stepped in to take classes at his school. The BBC news film, by correspondent Orla Guerin from the city of Taiz in Yemen, showed us a horrifying glimpse of school life on the front-line of a war. The country’s government is fighting Houthi rebels and recently reclaimed the area from the insurgents.

Teachers decided to re-open the school in spite of the extensive damage to the buildings. They did not want the fighting to prevent the children from continuing their education. Hundreds of infant school children make the journey each day to the ruins of a school, which has no roof or windows and few walls. Their lessons are interrupted by the sound of shelling and gunfire. Due to the war, the teachers work without pay and don’t make it into school every day.

Ahmed, a nine-year-old boy who has been blind from birth, stands in for the absent teachers some days. He likes to teach the subjects he has already studied – science and the Koran. He stands at the front of a packed classroom where the pupils are sitting cross-legged on a concrete floor. He and his sister, who is also blind, are led to school in a chain of three by a schoolfriend, who Ahmed calls his “car”. The film shows them running, sometimes stumbling, along a dusty road, strewn with rock-sized debris. During the interview, we see Ahmed twitching painfully each time he hears the bang of an explosion. He says “When I hear the noise, I think I’m going to die.”

Ahmed’s inner strength is clearly visible in his determined expression. The courage of all the children and teachers in a horrendous environment is truly incredible. Let’s hope that Ahmed’s dreams come true. That his school can have more blackboards. That one day soon it will have chairs, doors, windows and even a roof to protect the children from the rain. And that one day soon the sound of the shelling will cease for good.

Laughter with Rosie

Maybe you will recognise this experience. Recently I was watching the telly; Russell Howard’s satirical look back on the week’s news. Although I’m a big fan, that night I was not really taking it in. Then something extraordinary happened. He started to interview a fellow comedian and suddenly I was giving the show my full attention. The guest’s name was Rosie Jones. I guessed that she must be famous but I had never seen her before. It turns out that she is a very well-known, multi-talented comedian, actor and writer.

Rosie told us about her cerebral palsy, caused at birth, when she had been unable to breathe for fifteen minutes. It had been, she explained, such a short time period in the context of her whole life but with a profound, disabling effect. As she talked she bubbled over with an infectious excitement and happiness. In spite of her slow speech her wit was razor sharp. But it was what she said at the end of the talk that resonated most with me. Russell Howard asked her if she had ever thought about what her able bodied version would have been like. Rosie replied that in some ways it would have been so much easier for her to be this other person. But crucially then went on to tell us that she didn’t think she would have had the incredible life she leads now; living her dream of making people laugh. Her firm belief is that everything happens for a reason. She was meant to be disabled and she’s proud of it.

So here’s what went through my mind. How much easier it would have been for her to feel that she had been dealt a bad hand. How natural it would have been for Rosie to question why she had be singled out in this way. Instead she has turned a perceived weakness into a huge positive. I simply gasped at her unbelievable inner strength. Here is someone so utterly determined to make the most of her life and her talents. To share the joy she feels through comedy. To make people laugh and get paid for it. She also finds the time to do charity gigs to raise money for cerebral palsy. And now I’m thinking, if only I could learn to wake up each morning with just half of her positive energy, how good would that be? What an inspiration!

Walk in the Rain

Today the rain is lashing against my window, but I’m not going to allow it into the room. My head is filled with sunshine and my heart has a warm glow. What happens inside my mind is the crucial thing, not what is happening out there. If I let that affect me then that’s the road to sadness. It’s not the events in my life that really matter for my mental wellbeing, it’s how I respond to them.

I have a choice and so I am in control. If I believed that whatever I do it counts for little, that fate somehow determines my future, then I would be depressed. I would be much like one of Thomas Hardy’s characters, destined for a tragic end whatever I do, nothing more than a victim of chance. In his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge Hardy’s hero tells us that “happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.”

It seems to me a very dark view of the world if all that life has to offer is a futile struggle against fate. That no matter what we do we will be made to suffer far more pain than joy. It’s a bit like looking at things through a very dark pair of sunglasses, so that even the brightest of days seems dull. This brings me back to the present and the inclement weather. Was it fate that made it rain today when I had planned a walk? More likely it was a trough of low pressure coming in over the Atlantic. Am I going to be its victim? I could sit here feeling miserable and wish that the weather had turned out better. Or I could simply re-plan my morning and do some writing instead. After all, the rain will stop eventually, won’t it?

I have begun to write my second crime thriller. The protagonist, Matt Crawford, is an ex policeman who was invalided out of the force and is now a private detective. It would be easy for him to feel sorry for himself. After all, why was he the one that was stabbed during the raid? That one incident ended his career and led to a painful break-up with his long-time girlfriend. No, Matt is not going to dwell his bad luck and he is definitely not through with fighting crime. When he takes on a missing person case he faces the biggest challenge of his life. His search for the lost man turns into a re-discovery of his own identity.

Moon’s Day

Monday morning. What happened to that feeling? During lockdown it has been a day like any other. Maybe it’s time we made it a day we love rather than hate. A healthy breakfast of high fibre flakes and fresh fruit is a good start. Then it’s time for some reading to stimulate the brain. I am enjoying Robert Galbraith’s (aka JK Rowling’s) “Silkworm”. I think it’s because the protagonist, private detective Cormoran Strike, has many qualities I admire. He is earthy, has a dry sense of humour, rejects superficial middle class values and is reluctantly heroic.

The main character in “Leave Only Footprints” is young press reporter Paul Sears. He drives an old Morris Minor, wears scruffy clothes, has long unkempt hair (not that unusual in the 1970’s) and is an embarrassment to his mother who thinks he should get a proper job. His retention of detail and good memory for names are ideal for an investigative journalist. But his “just right” OCD and pig-headedness make him difficult to live with. Paul is resilient and brave but often insensitive to others’ feelings. His single-minded ambition to solve the murders puts lives in danger, while his emotional naivety threatens to break up his marriage.

Enough about Mr Sears, we will come back to him later I’m sure. In the meantime let’s think about some of the good things about Mondays. Here are six of the best:

  1. You can wipe the slate clean and start afresh.
  2. Shops are open longer again.
  3. Sometimes they are bank holidays.
  4. The pubs are quiet.
  5. You are full of energy after the weekend.
  6. You are back at work doing a job you love!

Monday derives from the Anglo-Saxon “Monandaeg” meaning Moon’s Day. I’ve always liked looking up at the moon. There’s something very reassuring about seeing it there in our sky. It reminds me there is more than just our world. I’m beginning to like Mondays too.

My Mind is Free

It’s early morning and ideas for the story are still swirling around my head from waking moments. I head for the study and scribble them on a writing pad before they escape. After a strong coffee, flakes and fruit, I read a couple of chapters of Rankin’s “In a House of Lies”. I read it as a writer, noting the skill and craft he uses to weave the threads of the plot together. And how he makes every little piece of detail count. And I read it as a reader, eager to turn the next page and solve the murder.

I fire up the Mac and open the file labelled “Novel”. I go through the editing from yesterday and make changes here and there. Then I get distracted by WhatsApp messages and decide it’s time for more caffeine. The chopping and changing gets underway again and I begin to slip out of the real world and into a fictional one.

“Leave Only Footprints” was born late one night long ago when I was working away from home. I was staying in a company flat in Germany, feeling nostalgic and missing my family. My laptop was on the coffee table and I’d closed my work Emails. I opened a new Word file and simply started to write. And I wrote until I saw the sun rise.

The novel has mutated a lot since then. Only pieces of the plot, the main cast, the settting and the era have survived. I didn’t set out to write a crime novel, in fact I don’t know what I had in mind. It just grew into one. Over time the characters have become my second family and I know I’m going to miss them when it’s over. Time travelling back to the 1970’s and unravelling two murder cases has been brilliant.

One of my favourite clips from the coronavirus outbreak is part of a BBC TV compilation. It’s of an elderly man with a captivating smile who tells us “My mind is free.” Yes, we are confined to our homes, but our imagination can take us wherever we want to go. We can lose ourselves in a book, in a film, art, music, a video game or even in our own story.

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