Northumberland, London, Forensics & Short Stories

My 26 mile challenge walk has been and gone and with only minor muscle aches I feel a great sense of achievement. The weather was spectacular and nowhere on earth beats the view on a sunny day as you walk up the hill to Low Newton and see Embleton Bay stretched out in front of you and the haunting ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle in the distance. Northumberland is my home and I feel privileged to have been born here. Friends who visit the county always want to stay. It is an inspirational place with castles, deserted beaches, forests, market towns and hills where you can walk for hours and never see another soul.

Bamburgh CastleDunstanburgh

In a real change of scenery I spent four days in Ibiza with my 18 year-old daughter. San Antonio Bay to be precise. I can hear the gasps and the images you must have of me in skimpy shorts clubbing on ‘the strip’. Well to my delight it was quite sedate as the real clubbing season hadn’t started. We did sip cocktails on the sunset strip with hundreds of others but it was more of a middle-aged clientele than the teens and twenty-somethings staggering along pavements having imbibed vast quantities of booze.

In my last blog I mentioned Jack London’s ‘The People of the Abyss’. At times I found the book frustrating and annoying with London’s ideological view of how the world of the East End should be. Many of the areas in the book are no more but throughout London,particularly in the East End, there is still a society where low paid workers are at the mercy of landlords charging high rents. Poverty is still prevalent and although living conditions have improved there are still overcrowded homes and poorly maintained houses. We talk about progress but has life really changed?

I loved Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life after Life’ and eagerly awaited its companion ‘A God in Ruins’. I wasn’t disappointed and although it did not give me the same breathtaking feeling as ‘Life after Life’ I found myself caught up in the story of Teddy and his wartime life. Atkinson writes emotive stories and the beauty of the prose engages the reader from the beginning. It is an amazing read.

Intrigued by the Twitter conversations I visited the Wellcome Collection for the ‘Forensics – Anatomy of Crime’ exhibition. For anyone interested in crime this is the exhibition to visit. Blowflies, blood spatters, DNA – it is all here. The history of forensics is shown in artifacts, interviews and real life cases. Accompanying the exhibition is the brilliant book by Val McDermid which shows how forensics has helped solve cases. I spent a very enjoyable (is that the right word?) journey home reading the book.

I seem to have turned into a Val McDermid groupie as I attended an event on Thursday 4 June at the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts where Val and Jackie Kay discussed the short story. Reading a short story each we were entertained by Jackie’s Shetland wedding story ‘Grace and Rose’ followed by Val McDermid’s ‘The Road and the Miles to Dundee’. We were even treated to musical renditions of the song in Val’s story with her singing. She has a great voice as well as being a great writer. There followed a discussion on the short story form and how it is all about voice. Both writers agreed that it gave them an opportunity to step inside someone else’s shoes – someone you are not. The two writers had a really good rapport with each other and this made it feel like you were sitting in a small front room with them, listening to their stories and learning from their vast experience of writing. I came away enthused and inspired.

And now to my writing. For a couple of years I have been struggling with my novel which seems to be going nowhere. So much so that I have decided to put it away and write something totally different. Crime. Maybe all those images of maggots and flies have stirred up my creative juices.


From the metropolis to Newcastle Noir

I spent a few days in London last week. A combination of work, research and seeking out interesting places. I am not familiar with the East End of London but a birthday present last month sent me off on a journey around Spitalfields and Canary Wharf.

I was given a copy of Spitalfields Nippers, a collection of photographs taken by Henry Warner around 1900. The photographs are poignant reflections of a society where children were working from a young age; selling flowers, cutting wood and often looking after younger siblings while their parents were out at work. There is an innocence about them but it was a world of immense infant and child mortality. For any writer, photographs are a great source of inspiration and the ones in this book have triggered ideas for short stories that are waiting to be written.

Spitalfields is in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and even now still has high levels of deprivation and child poverty, Compare this to other parts of the Borough; in particular, Canary Wharf and you wonder how in the 21st Century you can have great wealth and extreme poverty living side by side.

A great place to visit is the Museum of London Docklands in West India Docks where you can see the history of the river and the life around it. From Roman times to the present day this is an area that has seen it all. Invasions, world trade, slavery, wartime bombings and the metamorphosis from docks to skyscrapers.

From this visit my current read is Jack London’s ‘The People of the Abyss’. A review will follow in my next post.

I love crime fiction and spent an amazing afternoon on Saturday at Newcastle Noir Festival. The first panel was Northern Landscapes with Howard Linskey, Nick Quantrill, David Mark and Craig Robertson, chaired by Luca Veste. A great insight into how the landscape of places plays such a crucial part in crime novels. Cities such as Glasgow, Newcastle and Hull all give writers and readers a sense of the places they are. It is not just about cities in crime, wilder landscapes such as the countryside around cities and the Faroe Islands also represent the uniqueness of the northern landscapes. But what is the North? North of Bloomsbury was one comment. Is there a North/South divide and where is that indistinct line?

Writers in Prison had Mari Hannah, Russ Litten and Alexandra Sokoloff sharing their experiences of prison life from a range of perspectives. Mari as a former probation officer, Russ as a Writer in Residence in a prison and Alexandra as a screenwriter, novelist and early in her career working with young offenders. Are killers evil? What makes people kill? A fascinating discussion around crime, rehabilitation and the future of prisons made this a very thought-provoking session.

My final panel for the day was Mark Billingham and Martyn Waites ‘In Conversation’ and what a conversation it was. This whizz bang session was funny, informative and enthralling. These two writers were a great double-act and kept the audience entertained with their experiences of writing, researching and a short reading from their respective books ‘Time of Death’ and ‘The Woman in Black – Angel of Death’. Great entertainment.

Walking is back on the agenda tomorrow. Twenty six miles from Budle Bay to Alnmouth. Madness I hearĀ  you cry and yes I think I am probably suffering from some type of mid-life crisis which made me sign up for the Coastal Challenge Walk. Yet walking is a time to think, to plot, to argue with yourself and also create characters and landscapes that will touch the lives of many. As Nietzsche said ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking’.