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

Putting pen to paper…

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The amount of people who say to me: “I don’t know how to write a story. I wouldn’t know where to start…”

And then they turn to the person next to them and say: “Do you know what happened last night? Well…”

And they’re off, telling a great story, a funny one, or one with heartbreaking poignancy or a lesson to be learned – and sometimes with all of those.

And I tell them, if you wrote it down exactly like that it would be perfect, it would be a tremendous story. But often, when I say that to people, they give me a bemused look as if I’ve grown something on my head that shouldn’t be there.

Sometimes however, after a few seconds of thought adjustment, people are off and running – it’s all they need, that little piece of simple advice. Others though, often the most talented storytellers, carry on struggling with some obstructive and self limiting thought process. I have two students in my creative writing class in prison like this. They tell the most wonderful stories, would continue telling them all class if I would let them. But when I ask them to write them down, to just pretend they’re telling me and write them down exactly that way, they look at me blankly. Or they get a couple of sentences down and sit back with a heavy sigh. And I think once more: if you were allowed to take dictaphones into prisons things would be so much easier.

It’s as if somehow, in the act of putting pen to paper, something inside certain people changes – or they believe they need to change and writing adopts this hugely serious and formal air.

I think my own story could be useful here…

When I moved back to the north east of England in April 2000 I brought with me the beginnings of what was to be my debut novel. Over the next five years I managed to amount over seventy thousand words. But even though I’d written so much, I’d had my doubts throughout. After six months of leaving it to ferment (as advised by so many how to write books) I went back to my novel with ‘fresh’ eyes. And I realised it was tosh. Years of trying to be oh so clever, of picking up the thesaurus every five minutes and of desperately trying to invent a plot that shocked and dragged the reader forwards were horribly visible through the words. I’m not sure who I was trying to imitate but I was definitely not being myself, not writing in a way that was natural and enjoyable for me. I became dejected. I thought to myself, why do I bother? I will never write anything as clever or as witty as Dickens, as compelling as Ken Kesey. And so I threw it in the bin, deleted it from my computer and entered a slump for a few months.

But I’d picked up the writing bug and it wasn’t that easy to shake off.  Since moving back up north I’d also trained as a social worker, spent two years working in Sunderland Youth Offending Service, six months supporting victims and witnesses in Crown Court and two years working in an emergency access hostel for homeless young people. I was passionate about such work, passionate about my belief that there’s nothing more important than people. And so I started again, inspired by the work I’d done and the people I’d met. Frustrated by the way society and the media are quick to condemn and criticise without any understanding of the ‘story’ that lies behind actions and appearances, I wrote the story of Danny, a sixteen year old lad from the west end of Newcastle.This time the words flowed out easily. Writing became enjoyable and exciting. I couldn’t wait to carry on from where I’d left off the last time. And as anyone who has read the book will testify, I didn’t pick up a thesaurus once. “Kicked Out” is Danny’s voice, and the voice of others in similar situations. It’s a thriller from normal life, full of excitement and tension, of anger and frustration, because that’s what peoples lives are like sometimes…