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.

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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…

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…