Bangor woman's novel The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir tackles bullying and self-worth
Many lessons on humankind are to be found in Lesley Allen's highly impressive debut novel, a story of emotional abuse and survival. Jenny Lee spoke to the Bangor author
WEIRD doesn't have to be a dirty word – that's the message Bangor author Lesley Allen hopes to bring across in her poignant debut novel The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir.
Lesley, in her role as press officer and programmer for Bangor's Open House Festival, is more used to booking authors, but next year she is looking forward to being part of the line-up and delivering a reading and talk about her own creativity.
A story of abuse and survival, of falling down and of starting again, The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir is one woman's battle to learn to love herself for who she is.
Abandoned by her Traveller mother as a baby, and with a father who's not quite equipped for the challenges of modern parenting, Biddy lives in her own little world, happy to pass her time painting by the sea and watching the birds go by. That is, until she meets Alison Flemming, who isn't afraid to highlight the fact that Biddy, with her holey cardigan and frizzy hair, doesn't conform to society's idea of 'normal'.
Lesley always dreamed of writing a book before "life, work and mortgage took over and stunted creativity". Her journey to becoming a published author began 13 years ago, when she enrolled in a creative-writing course.
She is among a growing new wave of authors publishing their first novel in their 50s.
"The industry closed their doors to debut writers for a long time, but it's now so different," says the 53-year-old, whose book is published by Twenty7, an imprint of London-based published Bonnier Zaffre solely for debut authors.
Lesley reveals that a chance encounter with an old classmate in her local supermarket was influential in developing the character of Biddy.
"I hadn't seen her for many years, but on this particular day in Bangor I was stunned she didn't look much different – and not in a good way. She had the same cropped hair, same thick tan tights, same saggy cardigan and knee-length tweed skirt. We were now in our early 40s, yet she could have passed for a woman in her 60s. It started me thinking of other women, and men, I'd encountered over the years who didn't necessarily conform to norm and who seemed to be stuck in time."
While Lesley herself was never bullied, the character of the young 'bully' Alison was also influenced by witnessing some girls in her daughter Aimee's class at school bullying others.
"I also remember Aimee receiving a letter at the age of seven from these girls telling her she was horrible – I will never forget her wee face. It's really shocking to see children be so deliberately callous and it's worse now with social media."
Lesley has been overwhelmed by the response to her book.
"I've had a lot of teachers who have said it should be mandatory in all post-primary schools and one mental-health practitioner I know is recommending it to her clients."
She is also delighted that a number of women who have been left with the emotional scars of constant name calling have had the courage to share their own stories in online blogs as results of reading Biddy Weir's story.
So can fictional characters help people overcome hurt?
"I feel they can. So many people have contacted me saying you are telling my story – you have given me a voice," says Lesley, who although she wrote the book for an adult audience, has been asked to speak at a number of schools to encourage debate about the effects of bullying.
Lesley's advice to those being bullied is to have the courage to tell someone.
"If you can't say it, then write it and if you can't write it, draw it and show it to somebody. It breaks my heart that there are so many people who commit suicide or try to commit suicide as a result of being bullied."
And her message to the bullies? "It's about trying to educate and show them a crystal ball into the future and say look what you have done to this person."
In the novel, Lesley uses Beatles legend John Lennon's famous quote "it's weird not to be weird" and she hopes her readers will take a message of positivity away from it.
"The novel is a lesson in why you should be kind and why you shouldn't always turn a blind eye."
She particularly encourages parents to actively impress "the value of individuality, idiosyncrasies and oddness" upon their children.
"If they are taught that 'weirdness; can be intriguing and endearing, rather than threatening and repellent, then so many children would escape the torture of being bullied simply because they don't conform to the 'norm'. Weirdo doesn't have to be a dirty word."
Not ashamed of her own weirdness, Lesley admits to: having an allergy to bell peppers; having stolen dogs and hidden them in her parents garage until they succumbed and got her one of her own; adoring mushy peas, pea puree and pea soup, but not being able to cope with peas in their naked form and having no natural rhyhmn but dancing "her own dance" to any old tune whenever, wherever.
:: The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir by Lesley Allen is published by Twenty7 and is out now. For advice and support on bullying call the Bullying UK advice line, 0808 800 2222.