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.

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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…