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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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.

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…