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…

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.

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