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?”
“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.”
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.
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.