The Grim Truth – Researching and Writing about Paedophiles, and those that Hunt them …

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“My son works with one of those paedophile hunters.”

It’s enough to catch anyone’s attention, when you’re just sat on their couch, chilling.

They worked together as chefs in a County Durham pub. That was all that was said, at first, but for the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t take the idea from my mind. And the more I thought about the concept – working class people rising up, taking the law into their own hands, rooting out men who wanted to have sex with children, who were actively seeking to have sex with children – the more I understood this was a book I needed to write.

Taking them out

I got in touch with the man who inspired Billy, my novel’s main character. He invited me into his house and was honest, not only about his work as a paedophile hunter, but about his past history of abuse and how it affected him. I met him numerous times, a man many would class an outsider, part of an underclass, someone to be feared. I found a good man, striving to move forwards, honest, too honest some would suggest. I respect him hugely, I always will. I love the man, as I do the woman who inspired Stacey, the mother of his child, a beautiful woman and mother who again, was honest about her work as a hunter and her own past. They took me in, as one of their family. They trusted me.

Next, I saw the woman who inspired the hunter Michele. I’ve only met her a couple of times, but I’d trust her with my life. The first thing this woman did, except for welcome me into her home and make me a cup of tea, was to log onto Facebook and show me how many friend requests her thirteen-year old decoy girl had received in the past two days.

This was the moment things hit home. There were eighty-seven friend requests in just two days, and that was just for one of Michele’s decoy profiles.

We flicked through the profiles of the men who had sent friend requests to her thirteen-year old decoy. We read the messages they’d sent her, some a little seedy, some downright disgusting, but most of them friendly, on the surface level, reaching out to an underage girl in the hope they could strike up an online relationship, with the fantasy of something more.

All that time with Billy and Stacey, discovering their own lives, what they thought about the work they did, then half an hour with Michele and it was like I’d been punched in the gut. Yes me, a middle-aged man who’s never been abused in his life. All that previous online reading I’d stopped, because it was too horrible, because I didn’t want to believe it: about high-society paedophile rings operating for decades, preying on vulnerable children; about scum like Jimmy Saville being allowed to abuse, time and time again, despite so many knowing what he was doing. There’s a lot of guilty people about, and it’s definitely not just the abusers. And there, in front of me, as we flicked through Michele’s mobile phone, was proof that paedophilia was widespread, on every estate in every town and city.

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Michele showed me past messages of men she’d already caught, how their chats turned from trivial and friendly to pushing and perverted. I saw photographs of erect penises, watched videos of them masturbating, heard what they said to whom they believed were underage girls. We looked at their profiles and found real underage girls on their friends list. Michele confessed to feeling sick at the thought of them being groomed, that they may have been abused already. She put me in touch with Gary, the hunters’ boss.

I met Gary in a carpark where he often stung paedophiles with his team. He revealed how they operated, why he created the group and how he managed his team, then admitted they were revealing just the tiny tip of a giant iceberg. He answered my numerous questions over the following months, arranged for me to meet him outside court and spend time with him as paedophiles his hunting group had stung, were sentenced. I walked into court with him, sat down with him next to one of these paedophiles, and I realised what a strong man Gary was, doing all this work for free, incredibly long hours, seven days a week and often very disturbing. I watched the magistrate read out the paedophile’s previous offences, not only against fake decoy children, but against real children as well. Please don’t fall for the argument that these are not real children the men are targeting, so therefore we should be far more lenient. These are men actively seeking to groom and have sex with children, and they’re usually connected to real children as well as decoys. And don’t sell me that entrapment argument, not with hunting groups like these, who do not reach out to anybody, but simply wait for people to come to them. Respect to Guardians of the North, to Dark Justice, and all those hunting groups that work alongside the police, not instead of them. They are not vigilantes; they are a community service doing their best to protect our children.

When I’d written all my notes and transcribed all recorded interviews, I began to plot and write. That’s when I realised I’d have to write from the point of view of paedophiles, I’d have to enter the mindset of men who wanted to have sex with children, show their fantasies and reveal some of their previous abusing. It honestly never occurred to me this was something I would have to do. But Paedophile Hunters is similar to crime fiction, yet instead of detectives we have normal working class folk, struggling with their own lives and trying their best to catch ‘wrong ‘uns’. And instead of serial killers, whose point of view we dip into as the narrative progresses, for the purpose of depth and suspense, we have paedophiles. Thankfully, somehow, I’m able to compartmentalise in my head; I’m not sure how sometimes, but I can. I can put my writer’s head on and take it off again, just like I can usually return from a long shift in a hostel for  homeless young people and leave that version of me back there. It’s useful, most of the time.

There was no point having my hunters catch the same type of paedophile over and over again though; that doesn’t make a gripping story. I intensified the narrative as the story progressed. Back I went, to those horrible stories of elite paedophilia, of the powerful abusing the vulnerable, as they have done so in so many different guises throughout history. I researched the dark web, the mindsets of paedophiles and the addictive nature of fantasy, particularly that of a deviant sexual nature. I watched porn, legal adult porn, but I never once saw an image of child abuse or accessed the dark web. There was no way I was putting images into my head that would never leave again. And yet, the whole process must have had an impact upon me, because when I’d finished the novel, I was so relieved I pledged not to start another in the whole of 2020, but rather spend more time with my family and be creative in other ways. And when I gave Paedophile Hunters to someone to read through, she reached halfway then wouldn’t continue, asking if I’d become anaesthetised to the horrors within. We discussed this. You can’t possibly feel the impact of a novel that you’ve created, in the same way someone else, reading it for the first time, might. My friend reminded me crime novels had moments of horror, but they built towards them through suggestion and foreshadowing. I went back through my novel and played with the balance between graphic and suggestive, transforming some of the former into the latter. But the story is still terrifying and graphic in places. It’s a step up from all those crime novels we see everywhere these days, and it’s more terrifying because it has to be, because it’s real, it’s all around us. Pick up the papers. Look at social media. Corona virus dominates right now, understandably so, but beforehand, and afterwards, you’ll see articles on sexual abuse and paedophilia on a daily basis, and not just from your local estates. Prince Andrew, Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, all those Catholic priests and Muslim grooming gangs, children’s homes where sexual abuse was widespread. You’ll see headlines that talk of an older man ‘having sex’ with a fifteen year old girl, and hopefully say to yourself no, that’s not sex, that’s rape. You’ll remember articles stating 114 files of sexual abuse including politicians were somehow ‘lost’, by Theresa May or Leon Brittan. Then there’s the investigation into Child Sex Abuse, where several chairs resigned, or were persuaded to step down. And then there’s the stories many of you won’t know about, such as that of Melanie Shaw. Feel free to Google her.

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So why didn’t I get an agent or publisher for this book? You tell me; it’s written well enough, it’s topical enough, and there’s a public appetite for such stories. Paedophile Hunting teams are hugely popular on social media. Newspapers love to use the videos of their stings on their websites. Perhaps the publishing world don’t want to go there. Perhaps they’d rather turn a blind eye, like the rest of society, like all those people in Rotherham, Nottingham, Newcastle and Telford, like all those people with Saville, Epstein and Weinstein. Is this what society has come to? Is this what art is these days? So sanitised we only want something that looks nice and matches our curtains? That doesn’t reveal and provoke? This is not the purpose of art, surely, and nor is it the purpose of writing. True, there is a place for the sanitised, the safe and comfortable, but there should always remain a place for truth, however uncomfortable it may be at times. And in the case of Paedophile Hunters, the majority of the story is about the hunters themselves, rising up from their own abuse, conquering their own demons by snaring abusers. And these hunters are people we should be proud of. Read the book and tell me you disagree, I dare you.

When I finished the novel, I approached Gary, the hunters leader, and said I wanted to donate some of my profits to his group, to cover traveling costs and car maintenance. No, he said, I don’t want your money. I’d rather you gave it to real children, to charities that support abused children. That is the measure of the man, and the people in his team, and so that is what I’ll do …

Imagine: a paedophile grooming a twelve-year old girl, then going to have sex with her. But it’s a trap, and instead, he’s confronted by Billy, a twenty-five year old cage-fighter who’s been to prison three times and was abused in childhood.

Join Billy, his pregnant girlfriend and their fellow hunters, as they come to terms with their own abuse by posing online as children. Discover a community taking matters into their own hands, snaring paedophiles from all walks of life, from so-called family men and loners, to procurers working for rich and powerful paedophile rings.

Richard W Hardwick, acclaimed writer of The Truth About Prison and Kicked Out, spent a year with the most notorious and successful paedophile hunting gang in Britain. This is what he found …

Hunters Kindle Cover

Buy my book, take a photograph of it and tag me in it on Facebook or Twitter, and I’ll donate fifty percent of my profits to charities that support abused children, or adults that were abused as children. The power of story can illuminate even the darkest of places. It resonates inside us and has done so since before we learned to read and write, when oral story-telling was all we had. If you’re lucky, you had loving parents that read to you as a child and helped open your mind. Here is a story that is difficult at times, but important, and that needs telling. And here is a way to make a small difference. Thank you.

Paedophile Hunters can be bought here …

My posts are always open for discussion and debate, but not insult and slander. Feel free to agree or disagree, respectfully.

Connect with Richard W Hardwick …

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The Truth About Prison, the world’s most successful agent and a reformed murderer …

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I didn’t want to publish The Truth About Prison myself, I may as well admit that straight away. I thought it was a book agents and publishers would snap up. It’s topical, it’s revealing, it’s shocking and humorous at times, it’s important and, though I say it myself, it’s bloody fascinating.

 

If you’re interested in prisons and what happens inside them, then this is the book for you. It brings stories from inside young offenders institutes, local prisons and high security prisons, from male and female prisons, from the views of prisoners and prison officers, as well as others. If you want to know what education is offered inside prisons, hear stories from inside classrooms, and find out why prisoners are paid more for sweeping floors than achieving qualifications, then this is the book for you. If you want to know how effective the Psychology Departments and their offending related courses are, and understand how much power Psychology holds over prisoners, their categorization and release dates, then this is the book for you. If you’re interested in knowing the effect of privatisation on prisons and the Probation Service, then yes, you’ve guessed it; this is still the book for you.

And there’s plenty more too: drugs, violence and gangs; prisoners taking control of whole wings; terrorists converting others to their cause; sex between inmates and with officers; leaving prison after five, ten, fifteen years inside and having to get on with your life under the supervision of Probation and inside their hostels; looking back now and wondering whether prison changed you for the better; and the heart-breaking stories of family members left outside when their loved ones are locked up, and their experiences of how they managed to cope or not, and visiting inside.

I traveled around England and Wales for a year and a half, recording stories of all those involved. I did this quietly because I’d signed the Official Secrets Act whilst working in a high security prison and I was worried I’d be in massive trouble for revealing the truth. That’s what high security prisons do to you; they make you paranoid and feel like you’re under investigation yourself, even if you’ve done no wrong. The professionals are anonymous, because they need to be. If you tell the truth about prison, and certain things that happen inside them, then you face being disciplined or sacked. Most prisoners didn’t care about anonymity, except for the man sentenced to fourteen years for child sex offences – he understandably did – but they accepted the anonymous names given to them.

And so I approached agents. Here it is I told them; the most complete book on prison ever written. Within a few hours, one of them got back to me. ‘This looks interesting,’ wrote Andrew Lownie. ‘Who else in publishing have you approached and what was the response?’ He suggested I write a more detailed proposal. Amongst other things he wanted to know:

The five most recent competing and comparable books, giving author, title, publisher and date of publication, together with a note on how the books relate to the author’s own book but also how mine is unique.

One page on specialist marketing outlets

½ page synopsis per section/chapter – about ten pages

He wanted the final wordcount no more than eighty thousand words, and more importantly, he suggested the book be completely restructured, so that, instead of monologues one after the other, the book addressed topics in chapter format. I was unsure about this last bit of advice and engaged in e-mail conversations about it, but then I googled Andrew Lownie again, and found he was the top selling agent in the world for each of the last four years. And so I did what he wanted, and realised he was correct. I took a week off work, immersed myself in the whole manuscript and cut the text down from eighty to sixty thousand, so I could build it back up again with incoming interviewees. I cut apart monologues on the computer, printed them out and then cut them out on paper, before laying them out all over the living room floor to arrange the order.

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And every so often, I failed to contain a little tremble inside – the world’s best agent! This could be the book that finally broke me upwards into the next level, where writers can concentrate on writing instead of working part time/full time to pay the bills and put food on the table; the fabled promised land, that only the very few reach. Kicked Out was written whilst I worked full time in an emergency access homeless hostel, fitting into a shift rota, doing sleep-ins and twenty-four hour shifts, and often dealing with crisis. Andalucía and St Cuthbert’s Final Journey were written on the dining room table, whilst I worked as a teacher in prisons. A loft conversion helped with the yet to be released novel Black Streams. But then I sent the new manuscript to Andrew, and he pontificated for a while, before replying, “many thanks for this. I found it very interesting but I fear it’s not going to be sufficiently commercial for my list. Sorry but good luck with your approaches elsewhere.” I was gutted. Almost there, and then back to the bottom of the slush pile again. I sent to a few other publishers and agents and received responses such as “incredibly interesting but due to our existing commitments, this is not a project we would be able to handle at the moment.”

This is writing. This is life. You encounter hurdles, you navigate over them and keep on going. And so I decided to publish it myself, as I did with Andalucía and St Cuthbert’s Final Journey. The publishing world is a slow moving dinosaur. It can take months or years to get a publisher once you’ve secured an agent, if you’re lucky enough to get an agent in the first place. Statistics show that top agencies take on board one or two new writers a year and receive at least three hundred manuscripts every month, and most publishers only accept manuscripts from agents so you’re forced to go down that route. And then, if you sign a contact with a publisher, it often takes a year for your book to come out, because there’s plenty of others stacked up before yours. And so I published it myself, because I know what I’m doing, and I can get the book out quickly. Prisons are topical, we know that, there’s always something happening that makes the headlines. Get it finished and get it out there.

But I had to prove to myself that others would find this book as fascinating as I do. And so I sent a copy of the manuscript to Erwin James, probably the best person to make such an assessment. Erwin was convicted of murder in 1984, and it was in prison that he found he had a talent for writing. He won awards and started writing a weekly article for The Guardian. He was released in 2004 and still writes for The Guardian, and his books about prison are beautifully written and considered classics. He absolutely loved the book and wrote me the following quote:

“Different to any other book on prison. Compelling and quite breath-taking in its scope of insights, giving a voice to the only people that really know” – Erwin James

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And so here I am again; publishing myself, with a wonderful quote from a wonderful writer. And I say it again; if you want to know anything about prisons, whether they work and what really goes on inside them, then this is the book for you.

You can read the five-star reviews and buy the book on Amazon by clicking here …

Or you can visit the official website and read the first three chapters for free by clicking here …

 

Kicked Out

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A novel to stand up alongside Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, offering a window into the youth of today. A fantastic book expressing the cynicism and dissatisfaction of those on the edge of society

Waterstone’s Recommended Read

The narrative is so strong, the characters and dialogue so real, the situation so heart-breaking. This is masterful and should win several literary prizes

Patricia J. Delois, award-winning author of Bufflehead Sisters

Hardwick’s writing has the power and humanity to make you wonder about the way you see the world, and to give voice to those whose stories usually remain untold

Laura Brewis, New Writing North

A truly compelling page-turner

Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners

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Sixteen-year-old Danny is kicked out by his parents and has nowhere to go but a shelter for homeless teenagers. There he finds a friend in the more experienced Goochy, who helps him find his feet. But the other residents are every bit as troubled and complex as Danny, and with drugs, alcohol, crime, sex and violence always on the cards, the house is soon simmering like a pressure cooker about to blow. In this turbulent environment, between binges and wild escapades, Danny begins to reflect and grow. But a discovery about his family places him under a pressure he cannot contain…

Kicked Out draws on the author’s experiences of working with young homeless and young offenders and is essential reading for anyone hoping to understand today’s unwanted youth. Hard-hitting and unsentimental without being bleak, gripping, at times hilarious – you will never look at kids on the street in the same way again.

Copies now available for just £3.99 here at the Lapwing Books website. If you would like a personally signed and dedicated copy then please contact Richard at richard@lapwingbooks.com or leave a comment below

 

Andalucia

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Told with courage, humour and love, Andalucia weaves past and present with great skill so the pace of the narrative never falters. There is a zest for life on every page that I found both moving and inspiring

Pat Barker – winner of The Booker Prize

This absolutely captivated me. I couldn’t put it down. One of the best books I’ve read…breath-taking

Janette Jenkins  – author of Angel of Brooklyn, Little Bones and Firefly

Tender and potent: a beautifully crafted narrative, rich with love and free of sentimentality. A story for every family that has been menaced by cancer

Barry Stone, author of Barking at Winston

When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, every second you have left with them is precious.

Richard W Hardwick wrote about his partner’s breast cancer to help him cope, and then he wrote about their past because he was scared she might not be there to help him remember it for the children. Andalucía tells the story of a young couple falling in love in the Golan Heights and Israel, living in the cheapest hostel in Amsterdam’s red-light district and becoming homeless in Greece. Past and present is skilfully woven together to form a unique and beautiful portrait of a family facing the ultimate fear.

Gripping, heart-breaking, raw and inspiring, Andalucía is an unforgettable journey, both geographically and of the soul. It is also a life-affirming celebration of the strength of human spirit, the healing power of nature, and the endurance, and importance, of community.

Andalucia front cover

Absolutely beautiful, heart-breaking story, written with the deepest passion. I was bawling within the first couple of paragraphs

–Genevieve Graham

A beautiful piece of work, deeply moving. Your writing flows effortlessly and you are a wonderful storyteller
– Mala Iyer

Every reader will empathize with the words and wish they could express their emotion so well. So well they draw tears from strangers
– Francene Stanley

Andalucia can be bought at Lapwing Books website for £5.99. If you want a personally signed and dedicated copy then please contact richard@lapwingbooks.com or leave a comment below when ordering

Just Having a Wank? The Fantasies, Addictions and Dangers with Pornography …

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Twenty-eight girls in grid format; a Kandinsky of poses and pouts, nipples and lips, fleshy breasts and fuck me eyes. Gold Show and Party Chat. Anal and Asian. Teen and Trimmed. Girls from all over the world, and you can have your pick, you can have any of them you desire, every day of your life.

And why limit it to one? You can have a threesome, or more, participate in an orgy if that turns you on. You can do whatever you want, have this girl do whatever you want. No raised eyebrows or questions asked; just straight to action, because yes, she really is gagging for it.

porn article

 

Porn is easy. You don’t have to wonder if your screen is too tired or not in the mood. You don’t have to worry that the last time you turned on your screen, you didn’t perform to the best of your ability, that the screen wasn’t satisfied and maybe even faked it just to get it over with. The screen doesn’t care about such things; it’s always available and will do whatever you want. Any negative emotions or insecurities you have about your own body or performance simply dissolve into the brain changing beauty of sexual fantasy – until you’re finished of course, and then your reality comes sinking back in.

Porn is the most accessed content on the internet; I’ve read that numerous times over the years. And during this worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, with so many people quarantined at home, it’s being watched even more. The world’s biggest site, Pornhub, have given worldwide users free access to its Premium Service for a month of lockdown, with their figures rising almost twelve percent.  The pornography industry is enormous, raking in an estimated $16.9 billion each year in the United States alone. Twenty-five percent of search engine requests are related to sex. Every second, more than 28 million internet users are viewing porn. And yet people don’t talk about it, don’t write about it, often don’t even admit it, except for a tipsy attempt at humour in the pub or inside the safety of a WhatsApp group, and even then, it’s just met with a knowing smirk. There are stigmas everywhere; mental health, drugs and alcohol, eating disorders. It seems to me we are talking about those a little more nowadays, but yet we’re still not talking about porn.

So what is it about porn, and its grip on certain people? Why do people come back to porn time and time again, for their daily, weekly, whatever, fix? Is it just the lure of a beautiful body? An easy elevation of dopamine and oxytocin that brings feelgood factors? Is fantasy really harmless?

Fantasy in general, has advantages and disadvantages, like most things. It’s the law of gravity; that what goes up, must come back down. Look around you, at those people that get so excited, that are full of life and spontaneous fun. I’d bet you my last dollar that the same people struggle with depression, although they may keep it hidden from others. Maybe you’re one of those people and know instinctively what this feels like? You can’t have high without low, happy without sad. And when it comes to fantasy, and for the purpose of this article, sexual fantasy, those chemical changes and highs in the brain, are often followed by low, by shame, or just a sink back into boring reality, when contrasted with where you’ve just been.

Scientific studies and research agree that fantasy creates depression.

“Although a positive future outlook is generally associated with psychological well-being, indulging in positive fantasies about the future has been found to exacerbate negative mood-related outcomes such as depressive symptoms” – ScienceDirect.com.

Research also agrees that fantasies are more than simple dreaming; they are connected to our sense of self.

“Indulging in fantasies may seem like a waste of time, but they are far from frivolous. Most fantasies serve a specific purpose: they can be entertaining, distracting, frightening, or, in the case of sexual fantasies, arousing” – Psychology Today.

Fantasies are normal, this article continues, though people often wonder if they are, particularly when the fantasies are of a sexual nature.  These fantasies generally don’t harm the individual fantasising or anyone else, are about far more than sex itself and are often related to other personality traits or self-judgements, such as not feeling valued or wanted, not having emotional connections.

Should we not fantasise? If fantasy leads to depression, should we not dream of a better future? Life can be difficult and dreary. Should we just accept this? I guess that depends on the amount of fantasy you indulge in, and in this case, the amount of porn you are viewing. You could split these arguments in two, where on one side, you are wandering inside the fantasies of your own mind, then on the other, you are pulled by the lure of the screen, to an increasing awareness you can’t get aroused on your own, without pornography. This latter argument links into a much greater debate; the addiction of screen, of social media, that compulsion to check your notifications, to see who’s liked your posts. This is linked to our own sense of self, to how we want others to view us, how we see ourselves in comparison. We are creating patterns through our neural pathways, then solidifying them every time we turn back to the screen, even when it’s to focus away from the self, to see what other people are displaying on social media, to passively consume ‘other,’ to escape into television and film. The lure of screen is all around us, and if we’re honest, now we have phones to carry around at all times, it’s a fight many of us are engaged in, and often losing. Combine this with the powerful nature of sexual desire and fantasy, and here lies a constant battle for many.

Be honest. Is pornography causing a problem? Are you viewing it too much? Have you tried to stop but been unable to? Is it interfering in your daily life? Your relationships? Let’s give more thought to the claim fantasy produces depression, and let’s tailor that thought towards pornography.

Porn is more accessible than ever, has become a daily part of people’s lives, particularly young people, and refining this further, particularly young men. It’s changing the way everyone sees sex, how people expect their partners to perform, and how people, particularly males, expect others, particularly females, to look.

A 2020 Guardian survey found porn can often get out of control and affect men’s relationships with their wives. A large number of respondents said they would far rather be having a good sex life with their wife, but they feared this would never happen, now they’d been in a relationship for so long and the excitement wasn’t there anymore. Having children had drained both husband and wife of their sexual energies, or at least one of them. The lure of pornography was simply too easy. It satisfied quickly. But of course, this is only temporary, whereas what follows is often longer lasting.

Anxiety and depression can slowly seep in, and sometimes people don’t even link this with viewing pornography. Partners may not have the same body as the porn-stars, and viewers may not either (unless it’s the type of porn where some older fat bloke has his way with beautiful younger women -and then it’s just not fair; how he can have this and you can’t?). Viewers may not be able to pleasure their partners like in porn, or last as long. Their penis may not be as big, their breasts not so plump or pert. Their partner might not want to do those things. Their sex life may not be as adventurous. And how could it be? Everything goes in porn, if you search for it. You may get the feeling that everyone else is doing it more than you, better than you, and with sexier and more adventurous partners than you.

So why do people keep going back to porn if these side effects are true? The way out of boredom, of feelings of inadequacy, of frustration with current life, is to search for those highs again, those dopamine rushes. It’s the same with drugs and alcohol. It’s the reason why so many people are addicted to shopping online, when they clearly don’t need the purchases, why comfort eating is such a thing for people who desperately want to lose weight. Add the above to natural sexual urges, among the strongest urges many of us have, the need to follow them or find relief from them, throw in the power of fantasy, and there’s a very strong pull, on both body and mind.

porn on mobile

Is porn addictive? While many health and psychiatric professionals do not consider porn addiction to be an ‘addiction’ in the clinical sense of the word, the signs and symptoms are often strikingly similar to those of alcohol or drug addiction. In 2014, a Cambridge University study found that pornography triggers brain activity in sex addicts in the same way drugs trigger drug addicts.

My favourite quote about addiction is this, from the writer and teacher of spirituality and sexuality, David Deida:

“Addiction is compulsive, ritualised comfort seeking …”

I get this; it makes sense to me. Deida is writing about addiction in general here, not pornography, but if you think you do something too much, anything, I’d settle here a moment and consider that quote. The first step to dealing with addiction, or compulsive behaviour, is to understand the root of it.

And addictions don’t always come in isolation; they often come grouped together, making them harder to break apart and work on. For many, pornography is sought after the viewer has drank alcohol, or perhaps smoked a cannabis joint, or even taken both. Combine these and you’re taking your dopamine highs to a whole new level. That addiction, that high, will be more intense and have more control over you. And if you’re using porn to overcome or divert from emotional and personal issues you’re not addressing otherwise, then that could exacerbate drug and alcohol dependencies as well as these personal issues.

“Pornography addiction often arises from maladaptive efforts to use porn to alleviate loneliness and other negative feelings. In this view, pornography use is a two-phase process of arousal and euphoria during sexual stimulation, followed by relief and comfort after completion. Pornography provides temporary relief, but ultimately induces greater feelings of loneliness and isolation, disrupting normal attachment behaviour, leading to greater difficulty forming stable, satisfying relationships, and further increasing the likelihood of using pornography as a substitute for intimacy with close others” – Psychology Today.

Don’t forget; porn isn’t real, or at least the commercialised professional side of it isn’t. Yes, they’re having sex, but they’re told what to do, what to say, what noises to make. If a woman wants to be successful in commercial porn, she has to play the game like she’s told to.

“We’re just like mainstream actors, except for the sex,” says Dani Daniels, adult actress and director, speaking to Fortune Magazine. “If Brad Pitt played a serial rapist, would you believe he was one in real life? Well, I’m not a blackmailing doctor, or a horny eighteen-year-old schoolgirl, or a sex addict. I just play one.”

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Daniels recognizes the importance of drawing lines between reality and fantasy, especially when on set with other performers. “The director will call cut and I’ll baby wipe my cheek off and we’ll go back to talking about his wife and what paint colors they picked out for the new house. Shower, hugs, I go home to my family, he goes home to his. That’s normal.”

Similar to professional athletes, male performers must develop a routine. While performing, men must focus on timing, where the camera is, and what angle might be best for the camera, not necessarily what feels good.

“When we’re shooting live, I’m looking up at the monitor every couple of minutes to see what we need next,” says Dan Leal, a male porn actor. “Imagine you’re in bed and looking at flashcards.”

Can porn be healthy?  Can there be positives from watching porn?  Some people just have a higher sex drive than others, and if one partner watches porn to satisfy their higher sex-drive whilst simultaneously maintaining a healthy sex-life with a partner, then there’s something to be said for that. Or if someone watches porn whilst single, or partners like to watch porn together, where’s the harm? Another argument might state it’s the amount of porn you view that depends on whether or not it’s healthy for you. And yet it’s not just about ourselves, is it? We often focus on ourselves, whilst ignoring the welfare of others.

What about porn and young people? What’s the effect of an increasingly sexualised society on our young women, our daughters and granddaughters? What’s the effect on our young men?  Jon Ronson, creator of the Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August podcasts, claims “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every twelve year old in the world, where porn isn’t restricted, is getting their sex education from Pornhub.” Age restrictions on porn sites often consist of no more than a button to click claiming to be eighteen or older. The average age of first exposure to pornography is now only eleven years old. According to The Recovery Village, as many as 93.2% of boys and 62.1% of girls first see porn before they turn eighteen. And according to the Guardian, “British teenagers are increasingly turning to pornography as an educational tool because schools do not tell them ‘what to do’ in early sexual encounters, with teachers instead focusing on issues such as contraception.”

That doesn’t come without issues, of course. Erectile dysfunction in 2014 was reported as going up one thousand percent in sixteen to twenty-four year olds, linked to the rise in pornography.  And in 2019, NHS experts noted a further increase in erectile dysfunction in otherwise healthy young men, and again, considered excessive porn use the most likely factor. Suffice to say, failure to perform in real life, after watching excessive porn, is hardly going to help a young man at a crucial stage of his life deal with confidence and esteem issues.

Porn has also changed how many young women present themselves, and not just the increasing proliferation of lip enhancements and breast enlargements. Of course, there’s always been fashions for young women to follow, and of course young women have often wanted to appear attractive, or sexy. But now we have girls as young as twelve and thirteen being shamed by boys, and sometimes other girls too, because they’re not wearing thongs, because they have hair under their arms and between their legs. They are being told this is disgusting; they should be smooth and hairless at all times. But our bodies naturally grow hair, so where does this come from? It comes from pornography, from the shaving of vaginas because pubic hair got in the way of close-up shots. So you might be watching adult porn, you might be watching two consensual adults having sex, but the boys in your daughter’s class are watching it too, and they’ve grown up with easy access to all forms of pornography, and their views on females and sex is changing because of it. And your daughter, or your granddaughter, your niece or friend’s daughter, could be shamed at such a vulnerable emotional age, because she’s doesn’t conform to what the pornography industry has helped standardise. She may be called a ‘freak’ or ‘frigid’ and may even struggle to get a boyfriend at the age of fifteen, because she won’t send sexy pictures of herself when asked by boys.

And yeah, I know I’m taking pot-shots at males here, and I know females watch porn too. In fact, some statistics claim a third of all porn is watched by women. But it’s almost always filmed from a male point of view, showing power over women that never refuse sex and that verges on, or explicitly shows, the using and abusing of their bodies. Women are almost exclusively submissive in porn. Things are done to them that satisfy the male ego and sex-drive. Is this a healthy way to view sex and sexuality? We live in a society where men are conditioned to feel in charge, to be powerful, in so many ways other than sexuality. Why can’t a man be submissive in sexuality? Why can’t a woman take charge? No wonder all these poor young men suffer from erectile dysfunction. Porn star and producer Casey Calvert states men’s sexuality is as nuanced and varied as women’s, and that most of her requests “are from men for cuckolding and hot wife stuff, or stuff where the woman is more dominant than the man,” and the men are often apologetic about it, because they think it’s something to be ashamed of, but it turns them on.

And while being turned on is fine, as long as it’s consensual and doesn’t hurt anybody, we drift back to fantasy now, because the longer you fantasise about something, for those who have pornography addictions, the more you become anaesthetised to its allure. Over time, it fails to do its job, and so you need something else to arouse you. Again, we could compare this with drugs and alcohol. You have to delve deeper to get the same level of kicks, like the body’s tolerance rising after repeated drug taking or alcohol drinking.

And here, we’re talking about a slippery slope, often abusive, where consensual sex turns into voyeurism, where the women doesn’t realise she’s being watched. ‘Upskirting,’ the practice of taking a picture up female skirts without permission, was outlawed under the new Voyeurism Act 2019, with offenders facing up to two years in jail and being placed on the sex offenders register. And that’s not all. What about those so-called porn-stars? They’re clearly not all paid for the ‘jobs’ they do. Yes, some are also uploaded by amateur men and women, who get a kick out of showing themselves being sexually explicit, but the largest and most successful porn sites are so successful because they allow users to upload content that is varied to differing tastes. We therefore find drunken sex parties and the like. As an anonymous respondent wrote for the Guardian survey, “you find videos where the girl is clearly too drunk to give consent. I hated myself every time, but I always went back.”

And what about revenge porn? Something might have been filmed with permission, but then uploaded to a public site without consent. This Covid-19 lockdown has caused a surge in the number of people contacting the Revenge Porn Helpline, the government-funded service for adults who have sexual images and videos uploaded to porn sites against their will, often by ex-partners who were controlling and abusive.  This was made illegal in 2015, and according to the BBC website, ‘figures from 19 of 43 police forces in England and Wales show the number of alleged cases being investigated by officers has more than doubled in the last four years – from 852 in 2015-16 to 1,853 in 2018-19. However, the figures also reveal that the number of charges dropped by 23% – from 207 to 158 – during the same period.’ And that was before the pre-mentioned surge of cases that have arisen since this lockdown started.

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Mainstream porn sites allow and financially benefit from abuse. We know these mainstream sites allow users to upload content free of charge, so how do they actually check this content is appropriate? How do they check it’s consensual, and not abusive? Pornhub insists it has an extensive team of human moderators, watching every single uploaded video to ensure all are legal. But the Internet Watch Foundation has this year confirmed 118 cases of children being raped and abused on Pornhub, stating over half are Category A abuse, meaning penetration and/or sadism.

A Sunday Times investigation found “Pornhub is awash with secretly filmed ‘creepshots’ of schoolgirls and clips of men performing sex acts in front of teenagers on buses. It has also hosted indecent images of children as young as three. The website says it bans content showing under-18s and removes it swiftly. But some of the videos identified by this newspaper’s investigation had 350,000 views and had been on the platform for more than three years. Three of the worst clips flagged to Pornhub still remained on the site twenty-four hours later.”

Stop-it.be, a pornblocker app, claim they found videos of child abuse on Pornhub that had been there for eight years. A petition to shut down Pornhub  can be found at traffickinghub.com, which aims to hold Pornhub responsible for enabling and profiting from the sex trafficking, rape and abuse of women and children.  At the time of writing, more than 800,000 people have signed it, from 183 different countries.

So if you must watch porn, but feel queasy about it, what’s a safer alternative? Pornography is not going to disappear all of a sudden. If you closed all the porn sites they would simply start up again under a new name, or with new owners. Stop watching free porn on the large tube porn sites, says Casey Calvert, the porn star and producer. Go to smaller more ethical sites, where you have to pay for the porn, or go directly to the performers own sites, where you know all the money you pay is going to them directly.

All this talk about others, about how many people watch porn but don’t admit it. I know what you’re thinking; what about me? Well, I’m no expert, but I wrote this from experience and research. I’ve watched pornography, of course I have. And whilst I researched and wrote my latest novel Paedophile Hunters, I watched more pornography than ever before, because it is addictive, and I gave myself the excuse it was for my book. It needs asserting here, that I watched legal adult porn, nothing that included underage children or abusive behaviour towards adults. I would never view anything of that nature, not just because of fear of being caught, but because I believe, like the hunters in my book and the majority of society, that it’s disgusting and immoral. That’s another story, that my novel touches upon. As for adult porn, I’ve actually not watched it since I finished my novel, and I believe that’s healthier for me. Maybe it is for you too?

Richard W Hardwick is the author of Paedophile Hunters, The Truth About Prison, Andalucia and Kicked Out.

Feel free to connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  If anyone buys his latest novel Paedophile Hunters, takes a photo and tags him on their social media timeline, he will donate 50% of his profit to a charity that supports abused children.

If you want to comment on this article, but daren’t publicly, feel free to message him and he’ll post your comment anonymously. I bet many of you won’t though, because that’s partly the point. Most of you are watching it, but not admitting it or talking about it …

Borderline Books

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Teenagers these days, obsessed with smart-phones, computers and televisions. It’s not like the good old days, when they’d get stuck into a good old book for hours on end. Books are old fashioned, they take up too much space and gather dust, they’re boring.

How come then, when you take a sixteen year old girl to Borderline Books, and tell her she can choose free books, for herself and others, she can hardly believe her luck? She’s on her phone, asking others about their favourite authors, their favourite genres, so she can get books for them too. And then, the next time I travel to Borderline Books, there’s four teenagers crammed into my car. And when we arrive, they’re almost overwhelmed at the sight of all those books, and a lady called Amina telling them they can choose whatever they want, for free.

borderline-books-pic

Perhaps these teenagers aren’t used to such kindness; they’ve certainly had less of it than many of us, living as they do at Depaul House, supported accommodation for young homeless people. But some of them do have computers and smartphones, and there’s a project laptop and games machine they can use, and yet they’re still stunned and excited at the thought of free books. I guess random acts of kindness don’t fall upon some people that much, and it’s not often they’re offered things for free, no strings attached. And books still have meaning, for all ages. They hold knowledge. They take us somewhere else, into worlds of imagination and escape, back in time and forwards into the future. Books remind us of when we were younger, if we were lucky enough to have parents who read them out to us, before life became complicated and pressurised.  We turn pages and make sense of our own lives through the stories of others.

The teenagers I took to Borderline Books couldn’t have been happier, with the books on offer and with Amina’s gentle warmth. They collected books for college, books for pleasure and books to furnish future homes. And they didn’t just think of themselves either, because kindness spreads outwards in ripples. They collected books for a pregnant resident, books on childcare and stories to read to her baby. They collected books to give family members for Christmas, books on spirituality and self-help for fellow residents trying to come to terms with the hands life has dealt them. They chose carefully and indiscriminately, and were encouraged in both methods. We said our thanks and piled boxes of books into the boot of my car. And it made a difference, I know it did. In years to come, they’ll open a book and smile when they remember where it came from, they’ll tell others, and I hope they’ll be inspired to give to others as well, for the simple pleasure of it, as well as the virtue.

amina

Borderline Books collect books that are no longer needed by publishers, shops, libraries and individuals and redistribute them free of charge to organisations working with survivors of domestic abuse, homeless people, ex-service men and women, former prisoners, young offenders, children’s homes, hostels for young people, refugees and those applying for asylum and vulnerable adults and children. Based in Team Valley, Gateshead,  Amina can be contacted on 07808 704307 or books@borderlinebooks.org

Alternatively, find out more at  Borderline Books Blog or Borderline Books website

Happy Birthday! Time to Change!

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It’s my daughter’s birthday today. She came in our bed at half six this morning, cuddled in; had to wait for her older brother to wake up before she could open her presents. Fragments of that day nine years ago float back … the telephone call at work; the drive home and to hospital; Anna standing with her palms flat on the car roof, waiting for another contraction to pass, before risking the slow walk to the maternity unit; clenching teeth; beads of sweat on her brow; tears streaming down my own face when it was over, and we discovered we’d been blessed with a baby girl to go alongside our boy.

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It’s an important day – one of the most important in our family. That’s why, when I was asked to consider a date in March for writing something about mental health, I chose today. When I was younger I considered myself pretty indestructible. Looking back now, I could have died on a number of occasions; mainly through excessive drug and alcohol use, but also by putting myself into dangerous environments. I could quite easily have become more damaged, physically and mentally. These days, I realise life is much more delicately balanced than I would ever have dared imagine.

My daughter is a perfectionist. If something’s not right, she’ll rip it up and start again, or rip it up and storm upstairs, slamming the bedroom door after her. So far, she’s always been popular and a high-achiever; being very successful in all her school subjects, in her swimming lessons and her various dancing classes. She yearns to please teachers. She needs them to like her and praise her. Next year, she moves up to Middle School and things change. There’s less creativity. There’s less warmth. There’s not the same connection between teachers and children. The kids are older and there will be more bullying; more violence; more pressure to look a certain way; act a certain way. There will be plenty of kids she has never met before and she’ll want to fit in. We will cross our fingers and hope she talks to us if anything happens. We do the same with her brother but he rarely tells us anything about his school experience.

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Time to Change is an organisation whose mission is to inspire people to work together to end discrimination surrounding mental health. “Time to Talk!” they announce, because they understand that communication is the life-force that streams through everything; the stories we listen to about others; the stories we tell about others; the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I have friends who have mental health issues. I know people who judge them. I don’t think it’s my place to point out someone else’s mental health issue though – is it? It’s a tricky one. So I offer this advice – an anonymous quote:

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

Life is full of tipping points. All it takes sometimes is a nudge; a wrong turn; an ill-thought or malicious comment. A once seemingly perfect life can split apart due to unforeseen and unalterable circumstances. The news is full of heart-breaking stories. I wonder what would have happened to my children if their Mammy’s cancer had destroyed faster. I still wonder what will happen to them if it comes back. I know it will be my job to cushion the fall as best I can, but I worry if I will be up to the job. I coped last time by getting on with things and by writing it down. They coped because their Mammy explained everything to them. She talked about it and made it all seem quite normal. Interesting then, that in both instances, communication was vital.

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Now there’s a quiet and peaceful house, I will continue on my next book, provisionally titled ‘Swallows and Black Streams.’ It’s a book for all those people who feel suffocated by bureaucracy, smothered in paperwork and instead dream about living a simpler life. For the past few years, it’s been fused to the dream that exists within me; that of making my name as a writer. I sometimes wonder what will happen if I don’t “make it”, after so many years of emotional and physical effort and time. But I put that thought out of my head, because I’m lucky, I can; and it’s not a good thought. But yeah, I know the stats. And yeah, there’s history of mental health issues in my family. But isn’t there with all of us, if we’re honest?

I will also exercise because I know what will happen if I don’t. I’ve been there before. If I don’t exercise I start to get depressed and lethargic. I will drink more alcohol and likely turn back to cigarettes. When I do exercise, I feel mentally more positive. Body and mind.

And then our daughter will come home for her birthday tea and it will be lovely – I hope. She’s growing up, just like her brother. Time goes so fast sometimes. The months just slip on by into years. There will be good times. And there will be hard times. I don’t ask much of them. Be kind to others. Don’t judge them too harshly for you never know what is really happening inside someone else’s head. And it may be ‘time to talk’ but actually, one of the most respectful things you can do for anybody is to listen to them; really listen to them, without jumping in and making comment. If we’re going to help people with their mental health, if we’re going to help our own mental health, then we need to foster an environment where everyone can feel safe to talk about things that can too easily be pushed under the surface.

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Doing the Can Can

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Aluminium is the most common metallic element on earth, making up about 8% of the earth’s crust. Only oxygen and silicon are more abundant.

Heineken

Heineken

It occurs in various chemical forms in rocks and soils, in vegetation, in water and in the air, but it doesn’t occur anywhere in its pure form. It has to be extracted from its ore, a clay-like substance, which is mined and then ‘smelted’ in a very energy-intensive process.

Lilt

Lilt

Sprite

Sprite

Being so difficult to isolate, aluminium wasn’t discovered until 1807 by Sir Humphry Davy. Then it wasn’t until 1886 that an economically viable process was developed to extract aluminium.

Rockstar Energy

Rockstar Energy

Tennents

Tennents

86 per cent of drink cans sold in the UK are made from aluminium — that’s nearly 8 billion cans every year!

Fosters

Fosters

Guinness

Guinness

It takes aluminium about 400 years to break down naturally.

Coca Cola

Coca Cola

Carlsberg Export

Carlsberg Export

Why take photos of aluminium cans using my phone? A good question. Most of you probably think I’m barking mad but never mind. I took this following picture first, simply because I saw the can washed up on the beach and thought it looked like a good photo opportunity.

Carlsberg

Carlsberg

Normally, I’m the type of person who picks rubbish up and puts it in the nearest bin I pass. Too many people complain about things but do nothing about whatever it is they’re ranting about. But I liked the way sunlight reflected from the aluminium surface, or I liked the ridiculousness of a discarded can being inside a picture of a great view.

Coors

Coors

Strongbow

Strongbow

Once I’d started I found it difficult to stop. Suddenly I was seeing aluminium cans everywhere. There were photo opportunities on every dog walk, every shopping trip. I’d stop the car whilst driving over the dales or the Northern Pennines as soon as I spotted a can by the roadside.

Kronenbourg

Kronenbourg

Dry Blackthorn

Dry Blackthorn

Holidays with the family and a weekend away with the wife, free from children, provided no respite.

Carlsberg

Carlsberg

Budweiser

Budweiser

Sometimes, I went searching for aluminium cans, on occasions finding particularly beautiful spots and finding myself disappointed that nobody before me had the disgraceful nerve to drop a can into such natural surroundings.

Fosters

Fosters

My children started taking the micky out of me. Occasionally, they’d run up in front of others and say “Dad, Dad…I’ve found a can for you to take a picture of.” My wife raised her eyebrows. I got down on one knee and tried to see things from a can’s point of view.

Irn Bru

Irn Bru

McEwans

McEwans

Coca Cola were by far the most popular of discarded cans. After that was Fosters. Carling were pretty popular too. I wondered if that was because these drinks were drunk the most, or if there was something about the people who drank them that meant they were more likely to simply chuck the can rather than keep it on them and put it in the bin.

Coca Cola

Coca Cola

Coca Cola

Coca Cola

Carling

Carling

Eventually though, I simply tired of taking pictures of aluminium cans. The photographs you find in this blog are simply a small percentage of the overall number, believe me. I started dreaming of having an exhibition of discarded cans, smirked at the irony of it all. I imagined being in the newspaper, famous for pictures of cans taken on a phone rather than for the hours and hours, months and months and years and years I’ve put into writing books. But nobody would be so daft to do that would they? And the pictures are probably not good enough anyway.

Carlsberg Special Brew

Carlsberg Special Brew

Barr Cherryade

Barr Cherryade

Aluminium can be recycled again, and again, and again. As one of the few “infinitely recyclable” materials in the world, it can be recycled with no loss of quality whatsoever. In fact, over three quarters of the aluminium ever produced is still in use today.

Tizer

Tizer

unknown

unknown

So do me a favour will you? Do us all a favour please. Next time you finish slugging your fizzy pop or lager, pop the can in the bin will you? Preferably a recycling one if you can find one. I’ve had enough of photographing aluminium cans on my phone. I’ve moved onto public toilets this time. But before you call the police on me, I promise you I only ever take a picture when there’s nobody around. Perhaps, on second thoughts, I should stick to writing books.

Irn Bru

Irn Bru

Coca Cola

Coca Cola

Walking with Sheree…

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Some people deserve more time than the odd ‘hello, how are you doing?’ whenever you happen to see them, usually every few months or so, or even worse. One such person is the beautiful poet Sheree Mack. And so I asked her to come walking with me. Being out in the hills and dales of ancient Northumbria (northern England and southern Scotland)during my St Cuthbert’s Final Journey project has created a constant pull within me, a pull that tightens and will continue to tighten unless it is respected and realised. Life is so busy that we think we don’t have the time to waste walking in the countryside. Well not anymore. Sheree and I have agreed to do four walks each year; winter, spring, summer and autumn – just us and nobody else.

Today was our winter walk. Up to Rothbury in Northumberland we drove, a cliched sleepy village famous these days for being the place Raoul Moat escaped to before being hunted down and shot by the police (can I say that?). A few hundred years ago of course, Northumberland was quite possibly the most dangerous part of Britain, being the border county that separated warring England and Scotland, and then, after centuries of war savaged it so much, becoming the wild and lawless lands of the Border Reivers. How times have changed hey?

Off we went, past Sharpe’s Folly, built in the 1700’s for an Archdeacon who was interested in astrology, over fields and upwards through dead bracken and marshy grass, disturbing clucking grouse that took off and speared noisily away.

sharpe's folly

sheree smiling

We joked about it being Friday 13th and how we might not make it back down into society again and we chewed the fat about writing and writing projects, about family and what Christmas presents we’d bought for them. But our writing notebooks stayed firmly in our rucksacks. I thought I would write on this walk. I thought I might question Sheree about her writing process, about the inspiration behind her brilliant poetry books ‘Family Album’ and ‘The Properties of Silk’, the latter released just a few days ago as a chapbook for her residency at the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle, later to be made into a full collection. But honestly, I felt no desire to write at all; I just wanted to appreciate Sheree’s company and where we were.

sheree climbing

RWH windy pic

Soon we were up high and though it was warm for December the wind made its presence felt. We wondered about walking in the footsteps of shepherds, of Border Reivers and invading Angles and Vikings. The kingdom of Northumbria was once the largest and most powerful in all England, stretching from Edinburgh down to the Humber River, from the East coast all the way west to the Isle of Man. Up here was its heartland, a day’s ride from its northern capital of Bamburgh.

Up to Dove Crag we went, with its prehistoric burial cairn and rocky crag, and a sight of the sea if the coast was clear, which it wasn’t.

RWH and walking stick

christmas tree

Instead we found a christmas tree, decorated as well, two hours walking high above Rothbury, surreal in swirling cloud. Neolithic stone axes have been found up here, presumably cracked out of the beautiful rocks that stood majestically and reached up to the heavens, that would have provided great hiding places for wild animals, for robbers and raiders, saints and pilgrims, soldiers and shepherds.

rock god

rock and water

rocks on top

And then it was down again, through the forest, with the wind that rushed through the treetops with the sound of the waves, with its soft path of pine needles and numerous trees that had crashed to the ground in the gale-force winds of a few weeks ago.

Forest pic

fallen trees

And then we were on the flat again, and picking up the pace somewhat, looking up at a sky that hadn’t unleashed heavy rain on us as promised, and wondering how the five hours had gone so fast.

tree  top and clouds

two trees pic

Our next walk is springtime and it can’t come fast enough for me. No more making excuses about not having enough time. Sheree and I both know what it is to be busy, believe me. We rarely stop. But the writing and working can wait on occasion; there’s walking to be done…

The Final Journey of St Cuthbert

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A new website for an exciting new project – with Durham University and award winning photographer Paul Alexander Knox.

In 2013 and 2014 you will mainly find me here instead… St Cuthbert’s Final Journey As detailed below I’m working with students and academics from Durham University to research and travel the route taken by the Community of St Cuthbert when fleeing from Viking invasion in 875 AD, with the body of St Cuthbert,the head of St Oswald, bones of St Aidan, the Lindisfarne Gospels and other precious relics. It seems their journey, of seven years and over a thousand miles through the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, was not one of blind panic but was strategic and helped galvanise Christianity at a time when pagan Vikings were threatening to take control of the whole landmass. I’m taking Paul Alexander Knox with me when I travel the route so there will be some beautiful pictures too. I’ll see you back here in 2014 / 2015. With thanks – Richard

They came from across the North Sea

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They came from across the North Sea, sliding over waves in their graceful longships, outcasts and outlaws from the harsh lands of vast forests and mountain ranges, pushed out by overpopulation and freezing winds to seek new pastures. Perhaps the monks and islanders of Lindisfarne had received word that Vikings were coming once again. Or perhaps the sea was in their favour, giving them time to escape once they’d spotted those dreaded dragonships crashing up and down on roaring mists and foaming spray. They gathered up their most precious belongings and, taking the advice of their hallowed saint, the community of St Cuthbert left their holy island for what was destined to be a seven-year journey that helped shape England and keep alight the flames of Christianity that were in imminent danger of being extinguished.

Only seven monks were allowed to touch the cart that carried their precious belongings on the one-thousand mile journey over the hills and dales of what is now Northern England and Southern Scotland. On the back of the cart was the coffin of St Cuthbert, his body inside, still preserved after his death almost two-hundred years earlier. Alongside him; the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the most beautiful and important books in world history; the head of St Oswald, the king who brought Christianity to Northumbria, once the most violent kingdom in the land; and the bones of St Aiden, the missionary from Iona who converted Oswald’s people.

They criss-crossed all over ancient Northumbria, a kingdom that had already been dissected by in-fighting and invasion. But this was not blind panic taking hold; far from it. By 875 AD, when the community of St Cuthbert left their vulnerable island home, the Vikings had taken control of much of the landmass right up to York and had permanent military outposts along the Tyne River. This journey of the monks and the community of St Cuthbert was vital in maintaining belief in a victorious future, underpinned by a still fledgling Christianity. St Cuthbert had performed miracles around these hills when he was alive and they brought his body, almost two hundred years later and completely undecayed, a miracle in itself. They made strategic decisions at times, heading towards and right into enemy territory. In Crayke, near York, they staged a bloodless coup, saving the young Dane Guthred from slavery and helping him depose the current Viking leader. This paved the way for negotiations with King Alfred, who was using guerrilla warfare tactics down South and would eventually become known as the first king of the English nation. Eventually, after seven exhausting years, they settled at Chester-le-Street with Guthred’s blessing and were given Wearmouth and Jarrow as properties, where Bede had written the previous century. 113 years later, fears of further attack took the community of St Cuthbert on another much smaller journey, until they finally settled in Durham, where St Cuthbert’s body still lies in the great Norman Cathedral.

Lindisfarne Gospels - Durham

Richard W Hardwick, Durham University’s new writer- in-residence, is researching the route and the history around it. And then he’s taking award winning photographer Paul Alexander Knox with him, as they travel the thousand mile route in April 2013. Together, they will record the landscape, describing it today and imagining how it would have been for the monks in the ninth century. They will visit the forty-seven places the community of St Cuthbert took refuge in and, aided by students from Durham University, Richard will write a history of each place from the time of the original journey until the current day. The photography and writing will then be exhibited at The Festival of the North East and also as part of Durham’s Lindisfarne Gospels Exhibition, which celebrates the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham, from July 2013 to September 2013. Additionally, the writing and photography will be published in a beautiful hardback book, with the aim of turning the route into a national trail that people can walk, cycle and drive. And then, in 2014, the plan is to take the books and photography back around the route for a touring exhibition that will unite the communities that once gave shelter during the ninth century – and help them realise and celebrate what a pivotal role they played in a vital part of England’s history.

The Emergency Book Shelter

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It was at the Sunderland Book Project Exhibition in Durham that Dawn came up with the idea. We were wandering around, looking at all the beautiful handmade artist books.

“I’ve got an idea,” she said. “You know all those copies of Kicked Out you saved from being pulped? Do you still have all them stashed somewhere?”

“Mmmm…”

“Could I make art with them?”

I gave her one of those looks. “You can bugger off. You’re not cutting up all my books to make some art thing.”

I moved away from her, picked up an artist book, wanted to show her how beautiful it was. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer, kept following me.

“Listen, you’ll like it, I promise. Kicked Out is about a homeless kid isn’t it? You’ve got nine hundred copies. I can make a homeless shelter with them.”

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Fast forward two months and we’re spending a cold December night in Byker, Newcastle. I’m taking books out the boot of my car and stacking them on the wall. Dawn Felicia Knox, beautiful friend and artist, is arranging them in slow curves. We both agree it doesn’t really resemble a homeless shelter but we’re happy with the way it’s developing organically, and how it fits into the landscape so well that some people walk past and don’t even notice.

“It’s looking a bit like a bunker,” says Dawn, “the way it’s camouflaged into the wall. I’ve been thinking a lot about the cuts to art funding and the scheduled closure to libraries, I keep thinking we need to take a stand against it all. Perhaps those ideas crept into your homeless shelter….”

When it’s completed, Dawn’s camera and tripod alert most people walking past that something different is happening. They follow its direction, frown or smile. A group of lads stop, on their way to a gig in The Cluny. “Are they real books?” one of them asks. I give them a free copy each from leftovers in the boot of my car and we stop to talk. Three are local lads, one a flutist from Italy and the fifth a classical guitar player from Egypt. They invite me to their gig at the Head of Steam. A middle aged couple walk past and speak with Dawn. The woman is from Romania and the man from Newcastle. They spent a couple of years sleeping on the streets but now have a flat and they’re delighted to receive a free signed copy of Kicked Out. Next come a group of girls, leaving The Cluny and on their way to The Tanners pub. Giving books away is liberating and like others, they’re delighted to receive a free copy and think Dawn’s structure is beautiful.

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Half an hour later Dawn has jumped in a taxi to look after her little Ayla and I’m starting to dismantle the structure when this drunken feller staggers down the hill.

“Are you an artist?” he asks.

“No,” I reply. “I’m the writer.”

“Ah right. It’s just I was having a few pints in The Tanners and these lasses came in, sat round the table and all opened the same book. I thought it was a fucking book club or something but they said there was this bloke down here that was giving away free books.”

I sign a copy for him and then he asks if he could have one more.

“Of course,” I say. “Who should I sign it for?”

He hesitates a few seconds. “I can’t remember his name,” he says. “Just sign it to the beardy landlord out The Tanners.”

We chat for fifteen minutes while he helps me put them all back in the boot, all piled much higher than before, now they’re out of their shrink wrapping. I give him a lift back up the hill to The Tanners and drive home, thinking how it would be good to do it all again, but build the structure in the middle of Northumberland Street in Newcastle, give out books to raise awareness of homelessness and of the fact that more than forty per cent of books published end up getting pulped; and this at a time when libraries are closing and schools struggle to find the money to buy books. Maybe I’ll wait until my third book is published, so I have a new book to publicise.

Then I arrive home and open the car door, and a whole stack of them fall out onto the rain soaked drive. I shake my head and bend down to pick them all up. At least I have a loving home to come back to, unlike a lot of people this Christmas, and the young people that inspired Kicked Out.

Walking for Forgiveness – Part 2

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Frankie Owens is walking from John O’Groats to Land’s End to raise money for the Forgiveness Project. Along the route he’s giving talks to Universities, Probations and Youth Offending Teams about his experiences inside prison, about the book he wrote when he was inside and how it can help first time offenders and their families. Day 26 is Newcastle to Durham and I’ve answered his call for company along the route…

Newcastle has a cosmopolitan feel when the sunshine is out and Frankie’s soaking up the autumn rays, enjoying the warmth more than most.

“It’s an easy walk today,” he says, “just sixteen miles.”

I’m certainly feeling lucky. In the last two days Frankie has walked from Carlisle to Newcastle, following Hadrian’s Wall and the old Military Road across the North Pennines in howling gales and driving rain.

But today is another day, thankfully. Off we trot at a leisurely pace, past The Mining Institute and the Literary and Philosophical Society, where Frankie stops to tweet a photograph of the sign stating it contains the first public room to be lit by electricity during a lecture by Sir Joseph Swan, inventor of the light bulb, in 1880. Over the Tyne Bridge we go, looking down at The Sage and the Baltic, remembering the Tuxedo Princess, a disco boat with a revolving dance floor. Five minutes later we’re in the centre of Gateshead.

“Which way now?” asks Frankie, assuming the person on home turf knows the way.
“Err…I’m not sure.”

And so, less than a mile into the day’s journey, we’re inside a pub asking directions.

“Just gan oot there and turn left,” says an old feller nursing his morning pint. “And just gan straight on, all the way. Ye cannot go wrong.”

We walk up the hill past the police station and the town hall. And then I ask Frankie, “what the hell are you doing this for?”
“I had a six-month manic spell where I was arrested more than thirty times,” he says. “I was a successful person with a beautiful wife and house, three gorgeous daughters….I should have gone down the mental health route but was sent to prison. As a first time offender I had no idea how the system or a prison worked. I was clueless to it all, and it was hard for me going in and frightening for the family and loved ones I left behind. To save my sanity and give me something positive to focus on I began writing about the process I was going through. It was like self-help.”

Out of this writing came the ‘Little Book of Prison – A Beginners Guide’, an award-winning book for first time offenders and their families that can act as a guide as they try and get through a difficult period. Having said that, I’ve read the book and anyone vaguely interested in prison would find it an absolute eye-opener, as the Chief Executive of the Koestler Trust obviously did…

“It is a practical and totally frank introduction to real life in the British prison system – probably the best introduction there is. But it is also a wonderfully human narrative and a sharply argued critique – the wit and wisdom of one inmate who turns out to be a born writer. I was gripped from start to finish – roared with laughter one minute, winced with pain the next, and was left wondering why we have prisons at all’ – Tim Robertson, Chief Executive, The Koestler Trust.

Through Gateshead we walk, following the main ‘A’ road, stopping for an interview with Metro Radio at the Angel of the North. It’s not the most scenic of routes but it is the most direct and after his experiences of the last two days Frankie is happy to have a safe pavement to walk on.

But why this walk? And why The Forgiveness Project?

“I was going round the country promoting the book anyway,” says Frankie, “jumping on a train back and forth all the time. So I thought I might as well do it all in one go and just walk it. I’m doing 1170 miles, not 880 which is the shortest route, because I’m zig-zagging across the country, speaking at Universities, Probation and Youth Offending Teams along the way. And of course, when I decided I was going to walk the whole way, I needed to find a charity to raise money for, and when I came across The Forgiveness Project they fitted perfectly.”

The Forgiveness Project is a UK based charity that uses storytelling to explore how ideas around forgiveness, reconciliation and conflict resolution can be used to impact positively on people’s lives, through the personal testimonies of both victims and perpetrators of crime and violence.

We talk about Frankie’s event at Northumbria University the previous night, where he spoke eloquently and honestly about his experiences in prison, and had to adlib because his laptop wasn’t working after getting damp in the storm. Criminology students listened intently as he talked about the macho environment inside. ‘You can’t show emotions on the wing,’ he told them, ‘because they can be seen as weaknesses and preyed upon. And so many prisoners put on this hardened ‘I’m not bothered’ mask whenever they’re near anybody else. And then of course you’re usually sharing a cell with someone anyway, so you might not allow your emotions to come out any time. Lots of prisoners don’t put pictures of their children or their wife on the wall either, because they can’t handle it. And when they speak on the phone to their family they tell them everything is fine because they don’t want to worry them. And what happens is that, over time, they start to withdraw from their own emotions, or smother them in drugs to keep them down, and either way, that can be a very dangerous thing. But creative writing and other kinds of arts are an outlet for your emotions. They allow you to express them in a safe and positive way.’
And this was music to my ears, being a writer who has taught creative writing in prisons for the last five years. Prisoners writing may have caused some controversy in recent years, such as John Darwin trying to sell his tale of faked death, but most prisoners write because, in times of crisis and despondency, the pen is indeed a mighty instrument. When your life is curtailed through incarceration, your future blocked by concrete walls, it is natural to turn backwards and ponder, to investigate decisions and actions that led to such a predicament. And it can often be reassuring and warming to gather up some of those good memories too. A piece of paper won’t tell you to get your act together, won’t say you’re being stupid. It won’t walk around the corner and tell others, turn into chinese whispers. Writing is an exercise for the mind that can be worked upon and changed, added to when the writer feels comfortable enough to continue. And all you need is pen and paper!

But it seems the society we live in and the governments that rule us often don’t fully appreciate how crucial creativity is to individuals. In this era of increasing tick-boxes and targets, of huge cuts in community arts funding, the importance of agencies that place artists and writers inside prisons and other community settings continues stronger than ever. For in difficult times the arts work in ways that speak to the self. And as Frankie himself said, most of the support he received whilst in prison came from outside agencies.

We turn left at Pity Me, head towards HMP Frankland and HMP Low Newton. Our plan is to walk between the two of them and then across the fields into Durham. Frankie slows as we approach huge concrete walls on either side, damp lichen curling over the tops, climbing out from inside, rising from the bottom too, as if reaching out fingers to help. What look like barnacles crust into the middle, standing their ground, fixed into position to keep the two growths apart. The singing of birds in nearby trees is disturbed by the barking of guard dogs stretching their vocal chords. Prison officers step out of cars, slam doors shut and walk towards work.

“It feels a bit weird, being on this side of the walls,” says Frankie.

He tries to send a tweet about the size of the walls and the razor wire that can be seen on the other side of them, but his phone’s not working properly. It survived twenty-five days of walking, often through terrible rainfall and passing cars that sent waves over the top of him. But then, when he arrived at my warm and dry house last night after the event at Northumbria University, he dropped it into the dog’s water bowl. Eventually, it works though, and we continue on our way, through fields of floodwater, my legs starting to ache but Frankie, sensing the end of day 26, picking the pace up.

“What have been the highlights of your journey so far?” I ask him.
“Day four from Brora to Golspie,” he says, “on the North-East coast of Scotland, way above Inverness. There was a 60mph wind in my face. I was getting sand-blasted and cursing this woman who told me to walk along the coast. And then I turned round a corner and there were about eighty seals lying on the beach. And day seven at Loch Ness was amazing – this big beautiful expanse of water that’s so immense it makes you realise how small and insignificant you are.”
“Any more?”
“Yeah, climbing Ben Nevis on day twelve. It wasn’t on the schedule. I just climbed it because it was there. It took me over two and a half hours to get up. This old man with a dog beat me up there. Then it poured with rain at the top and it took me four hours to get back down again. One slip and my whole walk would have been ruined and over.”
“And which places are you looking forward to visiting next?
“Liverpool,” he says instantly. “My dad’s family are all from there. Walking into Liverpool to see my relatives will be something special. And meeting up with friends in Middlesbrough, Birmingham and Sheffield.”

Durham Cathedral and Castle appear before us, framed by fields and blue sky. My journey is coming to an end but Frankie has another thirty-four days walking ahead of him.

“What next?” I ask him. “When you finish this? Will you need another challenge after this one?”
“I need to write up this journey,” he says. “And then I need to move on. I don’t want to dwell on the past. I want to have a positive future.”

But there’s something else he needs to finish first. He’s written the first draft of a book detailing his experience of going through the mental health system. He believes he should have gone down the mental health route instead of the prison one and eventually he was sectioned under the mental health act. And although that path did work for him and he’s not been arrested since, he found much of the experience similarly frustrating.

“You’re told you will get five hours per week with a senior psychiatrist but you get twenty minutes and the rest of the time with student nurses. What they say they do and what they actually do is miles apart, just like prison.”

And then we’re there, walking along the River Wear, climbing the steps with aching legs up to the Market Square. And Frankie’s chatting to locals and handing out leaflets, explaining to them what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. And I’m wishing my time with him wasn’t so short, because like most people he meets, I’m in awe of someone who believes in something so much they’re prepared to walk the length of the country for it.

Richard W Hardwick is the author of ‘Kicked Out’ and ‘Andalucia.’ In January 2012 he published ‘Shattered Images and Building Bridges’ – a collection of artwork and writing from three Durham Prisons.

Walking for Forgiveness

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Prison strips you of everything while absorbing you into itself, leaving nothing of the person you were before – at which point it will be a full stop or a first step on a path to who you will be. I choose the latter, not to be a label but instead to set about writing my own label afresh

The quote is part of the introduction to ‘Shattered Images and Building Bridges – A Collection of Artwork and Writing from three Durham Prisons,’ a book I designed and published at the start of the year. Part of my reasoning was that people who live in such enclosed communities deserve the right to have their voices heard, and also to highlight the fact that creative writing has great therapeutic power. Many of my students within prisons have benefitted hugely from creative writing. They have discovered things about themselves, their relationships and thought processes that they wouldn’t have got elsewhere and this has had a beneficial effect in a number of ways – including greater confidence, greater skills, better awareness of self and others, better behaviour and better mental health. Amazing really – and all from pen and paper and a facilitator…

One man who has learned the power of writing the hard way is Frankie Owens, not a student in my class but someone who was locked up for a short period of time in 2011. The following quote is taken from his website…

“As a first time offender I had no idea how the system or a prison worked. I was clueless to it all, and it was hard for me going in and frightening for the family and loved ones I left behind. To save my sanity and give me something positive to focus on I began writing about the process I was going through, it felt like self-help”

Frankie Owens

Out of this writing came the ‘Little Book of Prison – A Beginners Guide’, an award-winning book for first time offenders and their families that can act as a guide as they try and get through a difficult period. Having said that, anyone vaguely interested would find the book an eye-opener, as the Chief Executive of the Koestler Trust obviously did…

“It is a practical and totally frank introduction to real life in the British prison system – probably the best introduction there is. But it is also a wonderfully human narrative and a sharply argued critique – the wit and wisdom of one inmate who turns out to be a born writer. I was gripped from start to finish – roared with laughter one minute, winced with pain the next, and was left wondering why we have prisons at all’ – Tim Robertson, Chief Executive, The Koestler Trust

And now, to raise money for The Forgiveness Project, Frankie is going for a walk – from John O’Groats to Land’s End! In fact, he’s already halfway through. I’ll be walking from Newcastle to Durham with him this Wednesday, but that’s only 16 miles. Frankie is walking well over one thousand miles. The Forgiveness Project is a UK based charity that uses storytelling to explore how ideas around forgiveness, reconciliation and conflict resolution can be used to impact positively on people’s lives, through the personal testimonies of both victims and perpetrators of crime and violence.

Terrible crimes hit the headlines often, such as the recent one where two policewomen were lured to their deaths. But please remember that, for every criminal such as this one, there are thousands and thousands of other prisoners that have committed offences nowhere near this scale of things. The prison population in England and Wales has reached a record high on a number of occasions this year and currently stands at over eighty-eight thousand. According to the BBC, 3,056 new laws were introduced in the UK in 2010, 2,492 in 2009 and 2,148 in 2008. Almost all – 98% – were introduced as statutory instruments, which do not require full debate in Parliament. The new Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has already trawled out the usual get tough quotes that are assumed to be popular vote winners. Some people though, Frankie among them, would suggest current policy isn’t working. Everyone is entitled to their own view but surely those who’ve committed offences and the victims of crimes are the people we should be listening to most. The Forgiveness Project works with both to seek alternatives to resentment, retaliation and revenge.

Perhaps you agree too, and wouldn’t mind donating some money to The Forgiveness Project. Frankie’s keen to hear from people himself and would like writers or supporters to walk part of the way with him. If you can help in any way it would be appreciated and it really could make a difference…

Shattered Images and Building Bridges

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Shattered Images and Building Bridges – a collection of Writing and Artwork from three Durham Prisons is the second book to be published by Lapwing Books, the publishing company I created last year to release my own book ‘Andalucia.’

Shattered Images and Building Bridges will be launched to the public at Durham University and Newcastle University on Thursday 26th April and Thursday 3rd May. Please get in touch should you wish to come along. See below for more details of the launches, how to buy a hardback book or receive a free PDF of it instead…

In the last couple of years, I’ve worked as Writer-in-Residence at HMP Durham, have facilitated three creative projects inside HMP Low Newton and have continued my permanent post as Creative Writing tutor at HMP Frankland and as Editor of their prison magazine. Much of that work came from the wonderful and now defunct (thanks to government, arts council and council cuts) Durham City Arts, who placed me in Durham and Low Newton and also gave me the last of their money to design, format and publish Shattered Images, a limited print run of a beautiful and powerfully written hardback book now on sale for only a tenner.

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The prisons I worked in are all very different – and their writing reflects that. Durham is a category B local and remand prison, holding more than nine hundred men. Low Newton is a womens prison, holding more than three hundred convicted and remanded women over the age of eighteen. And Frankland is a category A high security prison with more than eight hundred men, all serving a minimum of four years but most serving much much more.

Here’s a piece of writing from the book….

Razor Wire

Every window I look out from, I see nothing but razor wire. Coils of it sitting up high above every fence, every wall.

Sometimes ragged pieces of clothing hang flapping in the wind. Pigeons look for food thrown out of windows by inmates, until the crows come and scare them away. The lay of the land, survival of the fittest. Some of the pigeons look sad, some missing a foot, bald patches in their feathers. Who really are the survivors in life, I wonder…

That’s where the saying comes from.

Plenty of bird and bars, not the kind I would like. The saying ‘doing bird,’ ‘doing sparrow,’ relates to birds in cages. Some prisons, lifer jails, allow prisoners to keep budgerigars as pets, companions in their cells. Home Office legislation is now putting a stop to it, as prisoners who own budgerigars cause problems for the prison service when being transferred to other establishments.

A man convicted of murder can show love and care looking after one of God’s small creatures. Even the hardest of men have a heart. It’s just finding it. But prison does not encourage finding the heart. It destroys it. Binds it with coils of razor wire so tight it chokes the meaning of life from it.

One day I hope to see from my window a clear view, not obscured by fences and walls laced with razor wire. Maybe a little knee-high picket fence. Beyond that fields, trees and blue sky. Animals grazing. And hopefully my grandchildren, playing with my son, who will be a man. The pigeons won’t be the scrawny little survivors. They will be big overfed wood pigeons and collared doves. The clothes flapping in the wind will be washing on the line. I will see my wife folding the clothes and putting them in a basket. The smell of fear, hate and desperation will be gone, replaced by certainty, love and happiness. That’s my window; the window locked within my mind. A prisoner, never knowing the day of his release; doing time, doing bird, doing sparrow.

There are nearly ninety thousand prisoners in England and Wales, despite most crime statistics reporting a fall in numbers. We’re locking more people up and we’re locking them up for longer, in some cases much longer. What does all this mean for the prisoner? I wouldn’t consider myself qualified as a spokesman. That’s why it became my mission to publish this book. The pen is a mighty instrument. When your life is curtailed through incarceration, your future blocked by concrete walls, it is natural to turn backwards and ponder, to investigate decisions and actions that led to such a predicament. And it can often be reassuring and warming to gather up some of those good memories too.

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Here’s another piece of writing. The quality of writing in the book is so good and so powerful that I would like to post them all here, but that’s impossible, so I’ve decided to show the variety of the work by giving you a poem, this one remembering the good old days….

Haiti

Do you remember us riding horseback,

Chasing the wind?

You cupped to me in saddle,

Knuckles white with tension.

Spindly arms clenched about my waist,

Your brow between my shoulder blades

As I slackened the reigns, quickening the pulse.

Kicked up earth on savannah plains,

Three heart-beats galloping to the same song.

Baked earth drummed under hoof,

Ashanty’s shack with the broken roof,

We entered whole but left unchaste.

Black villagers cutting sugar cane as we passed,

Sweat dripping off their leather toned skins.

And cotton pickers perfect in their song,

Perfect in their limbs,

Dancing to ancestral beats

While incorporating Christian hymns

In the sunset at labour’s end.

Acacia and lavender

Rolled off the misty hills.

We lost ourselves that day,

Sue Ellen

To our incorrigible wills.

I’ve written beforehand about the therapeutic power of creative writing so I won’t go on about it here. But I’ve seen prisoners come into jail feeling suicidal and I’ve witnessed and helped them come to terms with things by using writing. The arts, always the first to be cut in times of financial mismanagement by governments, are not “soft targets.” For in difficult times the arts work in ways that speak to the self. At the least they take up time and help people learn new skills. At best, they are transforming…

The lauch at Durham University is on Thursday 26th April  at 6pm at the Josephine Butler College. You need your name on the door for that one though, so contact me if you’re interested.

The launch at Newcastle University is a First Thursday Reading, on Thursday 3rd May, at 1pm, in the King George VI building, on the corner of Queen Victoria Road and St Thomas Street. This one’s open to the public so you can just walk in.

For both launches I will be doing a small reading from Kicked Out and Andalucia, and talking about my experiences of working in the criminal justice system – as a social worker in a youth offending team and as a senior project worker in an emergency access homeless hostel, as well as in various prisons. All of the readings, apart from the above two, will come from Shattered Images and Building Bridges.

If you want to buy a copy for ten pounds then please let me know. They are beautifully made and there won’t be any more created when they are all gone. The writing is important and very powerful. You can message me here, e-mail me personally or at richard@lapwingbooks.com. Alternatively, you can order a free PDF by contacting me.

Thank you

Both Moving and Inspiring

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How did I get a beautiful quote for my book from one of the best writers in modern British History? It was thanks to Barry Stone.

Whatever happens with Andalucía, whether it sells thousands upon thousands, or not much more than the few hundred I’ve already reached, at least I have that quote from Pat Barker, winner of the Booker Prize.

“Told with courage, humour and love, Andalucía weaves past and present with great skill so the pace of the narrative never falters. There is a zest for life on every page of this book which I found both moving and inspiring” – Pat Barker

To think one of my books, indeed the most important and beautiful book I will ever write, would have such a stamp of approval, such a quote on the front cover – well, I could never have predicted that. Pat Barker even came along to my event and reading at Durham University the other week, along with the wonderful writer Fadia Faqir, another supporter of mine.

It’s all down to Barry Stone in truth. Barry, a local writer from Holywell just up the road, agreed to read the manuscript of Andalucía, loved it and gave me a quote:

“Tender and potent: a beautifully crafted narrative, rich with love and free of sentimentality. Triumphant! A story for every family that has been menaced by cancer” – Barry Stone

Barry Stone

He accepted the cup of tea I’d made him, then asked which star name I’d targeted for a quote for the front cover. I didn’t tell him what I was thinking; that he was the one. He might not be a household name but he’s written a wonderful book, Barking at Winston, self-published it, sold thousands through perseverance, through charm and word of mouth that followed peoples readings, then had it snapped up by Constable, a leading independent publisher. And of course he’d got a quote from a big name:

“My tail’s wagging! Barry Stone achieves the almost impossible: he writes from the point of view of a dog and makes me care about the canine and the people he comes into contact with” – Ian McMillan

And so I’d told him I’d met Pat Barker once, at an event I’d participated in about the worth of creative writing in prisons (where I teach). She’d even bought a copy of my first book ‘Kicked Out’ afterwards.

“That’s it,” said Barry, smiling and taking a sip of his tea, then fixing me with a knowing glance.

And I knew then that the opportunity was too good to let slip, that yes, perhaps it might be a little cheeky to ask her to read a proof copy of ‘Andalucia’, given I’d only met her once. But ‘Andalucía’ is a special book, and shy bairns get nowt. I trawled through my e-mails. I was sure I had her e-mail address from a couple of years ago, sent in a group message from someone we both knew. Eventually, I found it. If I could have held it up like a piece of lost treasure I would have. An hour later a carefully crafted e-mail was on its way. Two hours later the reply came back: “By all means send me a copy. The book sounds fascinating.”

Now the book’s out and the feedback has been wonderful. Amazon reviews say the following:

“Andalucia is the most beautifully written book I have ever read”

“At times this story really does stop you in your tracks; sometimes to laugh out loud, at other times to catch your breath because it feels like you’ve been punched in the stomach”

“It made me yearn for the beach and dene, the prose and descriptions are beautifully done”

“It’s beautifully and skilfully written, so moving but funny too. It had me crying in places, laughing in others – I couldn’t  put it down”

But I’m after a not quite so literary stamp now, that of Richard and Judy. How do you go about getting one of their stickers on your book? An internet search reveals nothing but reams and reams of questions from desperate writers asking the same thing.

I’m meeting Barry Stone tonight. He’s invited me over for a cup of tea and a chat. He knows I want to find out how he manages to sell so many books at his Waterstone’s signings. He’s turning himself into a legend; in thirty six signings around the country he’s sold nearly three thousand books. I’m hoping he’ll let something of his secret slip. I might even ask if he knows Richard and Judy, but I guess if he did, then he’d have one of those stickers on his book as well as a quote…

Summer Holidays

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Summer Holidays – Memoir, Men who live Under the Drains and Mango Stones with Googly Eyes…

Well, it’s five in the morning again, and everyone else is still asleep upstairs.

I’m presuming you’ve all heard that saying: “I can’t see the wood for the trees.”

It’s a reasonable metaphor for the last couple of months, that’s for sure. Or perhaps something about treading water, not realising the undercurrent is ready to drag me under. Mmm…maybe something about drowning…

And yet it really was all so simple six months ago. The publishing industry is changing. It’s on its knees. Every e-mail I get regarding publishing is obsessed with the dangers of the digital world; how e-books, i-books, kindles and the like are going to strip them of their paper based products, leave them sitting on a mountain of old books that nobody wants to buy anymore and they can’t afford to pulp. We’re in the middle of these two huge publishing worlds and I wanted to jump to the world that had the future on its side rather than the past. And I don’t mean write a book, prepare it for kindle and wait for the millions to come flooding in. I don’t actually know anyone who has a kindle yet. I’ve never even seen one. I decided to start my own publishing company. No more sending out manuscripts to agents and publishers and crossing fingers for six months. No more feeling let down because others aren’t putting as much effort in as you think they should. No more months and months of uncertainty, of the woman in the post office raising her eyebrows as you arrive with yet another bundle to post away. Of exhaustive relief at having secured a contract and then needing to wait a year before the book comes out because the publishers are too busy with dozens and dozens of others.

A Lapwing down the Dene (not in summer)

I settled on a name, eventually; Lapwing Books. They visit the dene at the bottom of my road every year. They symbolise beauty and freedom. I walked by them so often when Anna was diagnosed with cancer. They represent the healing power of nature; illustrate how you pay so much more attention to detail, to the things that used to literally fly over your head beforehand – when you think someone you love is going to die.

And so; printing and distribution of ‘Andalucía’ – my soon to be published memoir about falling in love and surviving cancer, that alternates between Israel and the English coast, spanning two decades of excitement, adventure and friendship…

The first company I chose was the cheapest. Their website looked good. But someone told me they were terrific or terrible and never anything in-between. And then I found a wave on and jumped on it; a company called Lightning Source. But this wave, one that ensures good quality books, decent profit and just as importantly shipping with Amazon within 1-2 days all over the world, has started to crash. Amazon has pulled the plug. They’ve started their own printing and distribution company and presumably are trying to force authors over to their side. Now, many books with Lightning Source don’t ship from Amazon for 2-3 weeks. Sales, understandably, have plummeted. My timing could have been better. This wave had been going strong for ten years.  Amazon’s CreateSpace meanwhile, offer terrible profits if you’re not selling primarily in America, or not selling your book at an inflated price to scrape something back for yourself. And so, with recommendations from Red Squirrel Press and Barry Stone (who self-published and sold thousands of his great book ‘Barking at Winston’), I’m trundling up the road to Berwick, to Martins the Printers, an independent family owned printers who’ve been in the game since 1892. I’ll have to sort out getting books to Amazon myself. I have, however, signed contracts with Lightning source for Australia, America and EBooks. And I’m going to turn ‘Andalucía’ into a kindle book myself, somehow. Do I understand what I’m doing? Well, some of it. There seems to be some light up ahead at least.

And it’s not just ‘Andalucía’ I have to concentrate on. In four weeks I need to have finished compiling my book of writing and art from three Durham prisons – ‘Shattered Images and Building Bridges.’ I’ve been writer in residence at HMP Frankland for over three years, at HMP Durham for a year, and I’ve done three creative projects at HMP Low Newton. That’s a maximum security prison, a local remand prison and a woman’s prison; all completely different in their set-up and atmosphere. The writing and art I’ve collected is fantastic; some beautiful, some hard-hitting – the best collection I’ve ever seen. That should be published in October, the month after ‘Andalucía.’

And then there’s the kids. We haven’t got any money for a holiday this summer, and I can’t afford to take time off work anyway. The most we’re getting is a weekend camping in the mother-in-laws garden. Any money there was went to Gibraltar and Andalucía with us, when we got married in April. The kids have decided they want to write a book too. I’ve told them I will spend at least one morning or afternoon with each of them these summer holidays. And if they finish their books I will publish them properly. Isla’s dressing up mango stones with googly eyes and chocolate wrapper dresses, using seeds as stones, rice as snow. Joe’s writing about people who live under the drains because the pavements stink of rotten cheese.

Mango Stones with Googly Eyes

Hopefully their books will be finished and published by Christmas. And that will be four books published by Lapwing Books within four months. I think I’ll have earned a week off by then. Has a five-year old ever had a book published before? Or an eight-year old? I haven’t got time to look into it. The rest of the family are beginning to stir. I have to make tea and warm milk. Then it’s off for a cycle to Tynemouth and back at seven o’clock. I’ve signed up to do the Great North Bike Ride in a few weeks and promised to do the Coast to Coast at the end of September. Like I haven’t got enough to do. It looks like these summer holidays are going to fly by…

Tying the knot on the final chapter…

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The flights have been paid for, the hotels booked. The kids are champing at the bit to get into the water-park in that first hotel and I’m apprehensively looking forward to how they handle their first ever aeroplane flight. The wedding rings have arrived from a designer in Devon who’s inspired by the coastline. And so the closer we get, the closer I am to tying the knot on my final chapter of Andalucía.

The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

For those of you who don’t know me personally, Andalucía is the book I never planned on writing. When my partner Anna was diagnosed with breast cancer I wrote every day simply because it helped, and then about our past because I was scared it was all our children would be left with. We met on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, fell in love above the Sea of Galilee, survived a terrorist attack, were hit by lightning. We explored the Dead Sea, had Christmas in Jerusalem, New Year climbing avocado trees on the borders of Syria and Jordan below circling eagles and vultures – while binoculars were trained on us from enemy mountains.

The Golan Heights

After Israel, we ended up in the cheapest hostel in Amsterdam’s red light district, then homeless in Greece.

Andalucía alternates between current and past. It combines past adventures and falling in love with a family struggling to come to terms with cancer and possible death, young children having to deal with their mammy’s hair falling out from chemotherapy drugs, her breast being cut away. It is raw but is also a celebration of how community still exists and helps, how nature heals and about life in a village on the north east coast. Only the final chapter is left to write. And this will be done after Easter, when Anna and I will get married in Gibraltar before heading off north to the mountains of Andalucía.

When I told a colleague at work I was getting married after such a long relationship in sin, he responded with the following: “Jesus Christ. What are you doing that for? It’s like training for a marathon, running it all the way until you’re about twenty metres from the finish. Then tripping yourself up and falling on the floor”

Thankfully, Anna and I don’t share his sentiments. We’re excited about our first holiday abroad for over eight years, taking the children overseas for the first time too. And likewise, we’re excited about getting married. Gibraltar was chosen because it’s so much easier to get married there than Spain, though staying in this hotel built into the rock itself would surely swing anyone into feeling a tad romantic.

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And thankfully, readers of Andalucía on the Harper Collins website Authonomy, can see how all this makes for a great read. Below are a few quotes from there…

“Absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking story, written with the deepest passion. I was bawling within the first couple of paragraphs”

“A book every woman should read so they can be diagnosed early…..a poignant story beautifully told”

“A beautiful piece of work, deeply moving. Your writing flows effortlessly and you are a wonderful storyteller”

“Superb – every reader will empathize with the words and wish they could express    their emotion so well. So well they draw tears from strangers”

(If you’re interested you can read the first pages right here)

And so there it is; the book nearly wrapped up, the marriage almost tied up, Anna doing great. There’s only one slight problem. We’re heading off to Spain and Gibraltar all by ourselves. And to get married you need two witnesses over the age of eighteen that aren’t related to you. And so the afternoon before our wedding day, perhaps even the morning of the actual day itself, we’re going to be running around Gibraltar desperately trying to find two people who will agree to help us get married.

So if you know anyone in Gibraltar, give them a shout for us. There’s a free signed book in it for them…

Zeus and Apollo in a High Security Prison…

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Harnessed by chains and fitted with tracker devices beneath tails. Feathered in various shades of brown apart from patches of white down which feather up as they reach maturity. Legs and feet pale yellow, curved beaks with black tips. They entered a high security prison at ease with themselves and the feast of incarcerated eyes focused upon them.

Immortalised by poets such as Yeats, Graves and Ted Hughes, these hawks were not the free flying hunters of Hughes’ beloved Yorkshire Moors. These were Harris Hawks, originally found in Texas, Mexico and much of Central America. Their diet consists of small creatures including birds, lizards, mammals and large insects. But because it will hunt in groups, the Harris Hawk can also take down larger prey, such as jackrabbits. Eight month old brothers Zeus and Apollo though, are housed in six foot square cages in a category A prison that holds over 700 inmates, including some of the country’s most violent, dangerous and challenging men. Frozen one day old cockerel chicks are their meals, bought by the box load.

The men watched in awe as the birds came into the classroom. They’d seen them out flying in the yards, wondered why they didn’t fly free whenever they were let off the leash and given the opportunity. God knows they’d dreamed of it often enough themselves. And included in the classroom were two men who would never get their freedom back until the day they died.

Zeus, named after the supreme God of all other Greek Gods, was by far the most aggressive. His trainer admitted he‘d clawed quite a few people. They were not pets, were completely wild when bought from a falconry dealer, wouldn’t feed while the trainers were present, would lie on their backs and play dead instead. And they certainly wouldn’t allow the trainers to pick them up. But food changes all that, just like the training of any other wild animal or bird. Apollo, named after the God of prophesy, music and healing, was the calmer and smaller brother. But standing there, chained to leather glove, they emitted a power and alertness that demanded respect. And fascinated staff and students who peered in from outside classroom windows were eyeballed until they turned away and left.

When a snack was produced Zeus became more animated, instinctively arching his wings to protect his prey from others whilst aggressively ripping the chick to shreds and devouring it within seconds. Apollo was more laid back, savoured it a little more. The trainers watched fascinated faces and explained female hawks were twice as big as males.

Acquired to disperse the growing menace of pigeons from prison grounds, the idea is that they keep disturbing the pigeons, forcing them to move to where they feel less threatened. Being well fed, Zeus and Apollo don’t kill the pigeons. They simply fly free and unsettle them. However, the pigeons have been well established for years and are fed by prisoners who appreciate visitors landing on their barred windowsills. And so the aim is proving to be more of a challenge than initially hoped for. By simply feeding Zeus and Apollo less, the trainers could ensure pigeons were killed and that would certainly prove effective in removing them. But pigeons are a significant health risk, to humans and hawks. They eat anything, breed extensively, carry a number of diseases and their faeces, which cover the chapel roof and have to be removed regularly, are highly toxic. When told several pigeons had been attacked by hawks the trainers stated these were done by hungry sparrow hawks from a nearby nature reserve. Zeus and Apollo could kill and eat a pigeon if they so wished – after all they do fly free – but the repercussions could be problematic in a couple of ways. The worst case scenario would be poisoning. Another consequence could be them realising they don’t need their trainers after all and deciding to return to their wild roots. And life for them is easy when food is provided without effort. Plus, even the ‘wilderness’ in North East England can be hostile for birds of prey. The gulls and crows which fly over concrete walls and razor wire fences don’t take kindly to their appearance and often dive-bomb them.

What was surprising was that these birds can be bought without a licence, though the Falconry UK website, through which they must be registered, advises caution. They say there is a prolific amount of Harris Hawks up for sale, unwanted, spoilt and miserable because their owners did not research their needs before buying and subsequently couldn’t look after them. Zeus and Apollo meanwhile, picked remains off their trainers’ gloves, then looked outside at the growing number of pigeons that had started to settle on the roof of E Wing.

Psychopaths, Fairies and a Creative Writing Recipe

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Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us

He will choose you, disarm you with his words, and control you with his presence. He will delight you with his wit and his plans. He will show you a good time, but you will always get the bill. He will smile and deceive you, and he will scare you with his eyes. And when he is through with you, and he will be through with you, he will desert you and take with him your innocence and your pride. You will be left much sadder but not a lot wiser, and for a long time you will wonder what happened and what you did wrong.

– From an essay signed, ‘A psychopath in prison’; Without Conscience (Robert D Hare PHD)

Product DetailsThe belief in a parallel universe that may exist independently of our own and yet occupy the same space runs counter to the concept that we humans are the only sentient life in the universe. Travellers in the modern world rarely walk across lonely moorlands with only the light of a lantern or sleep under the stars in the shelter of ancient stones or a grove of trees – and no self respecting fairy would linger on the subway late at night or frequent a neon-bright service station

– A Complete Guide to Fairies and Magical Beings (Cassandra Eason)

The above quotes are from two excellent books I have read and researched in order to write my third book (as yet untitled). I feel immersing yourself in the book’s issues (if you’re not an expert in them already) is essential.

While below is a Creative Writing Recipe I’ve rustled up…

Firstly, arrange the following ingredients:

A large slab of something you care about (preferably raw)

Chopped Characters (plucked from real life while still fresh)

Mix the above two ingredients until a paste of a plot develops

Pad out with other minor ingredients that compliment the main ones but don’t detract from the overall flavour

Cook (i.e. write) for as long as it bloody takes

Season with five senses (but be careful not to tip too many in)

Leave to simmer even longer (keeping an eye on it and adding anything if deemed necessary)

Give it to someone to taste (but not your wife, husband or anyone else you love too much)

Leave it as long as possible so it goes cold

Heat it up in the microwave and taste again

If palatable send to publisher and hope they dont…

a) find it too bland or b) vomit