Handcuffs and exploding hands. (Browsing history deleted.)


Personal data’s been in the news a bit this week.  From Monday to Wednesday, I work for a charity and our office is nestled in the impressive HQ of a much larger charity.  On the ground floor there’s a big cafe showing rolling BBC news so you don’t have to make eye contact with anyone else while you’re microwaving your soup.

This week the story spelled out in hastily typed subtitles was Apple’s resistance to helping FBI officers access data on a gunman’s phone.  The corporation argues:

“The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers.”

Now I’ve started to get rather paranoid about my own browsing history.

I wrote ‘Orangeboy‘ on our main family desk top.  The computer’s currently being repaired having forgotten how to turn itself off and, once unplugged and replugged, sulked at being turned on again. This left my own options for fixing it rather limited.

The plot of ‘Orangeboy’ evolved gradually.  In real speak, this means I had no idea what was going on until several drafts in.  I knew that it was going to be a crime-inspired story – after all, it came to life at an Arvon crime-writing course.  As the story parts were being hammered in place, the extent of my ignorance became startlingly clear.

Some of this was eased through the ‘Seven Degrees’ approach.  As I found out, you’re never a couple of degrees away from a coroner, a lawyer, a senior police officer and someone who gets sick on fairground rides.

Other pieces of research are recycled from books that never happened.  For instance, an east London cemetery has a bit of a star spot.  I felt I owed it to my daughter after making her, aged nine, follow me round City of London Cemetery and Crematorium taking pictures.  The book it was destined for was never published.  But a few years later, a second chance beckoned.

But there was other stuff.

For a start, I have never set fire to a car.  I know people who have but they refused the opportunity to tell me the details while I took copious notes.  But this is core You Tube business.

Mangled hands?  Click.  Gosh.  (But it does have relevance, honest.)

‘Orangeboy’ is a book  that explores choices.  Some of the choices potentially have unpleasant consequences.  I needed to dig out info on getting round those consequences.  And blimey, there are some innovative folk out there, albeit with ambiguous morals.

Though, no doubt the fixer guy hired by Currys PC World has his own view on my morals by now.

So, I’ve pumped friends, and friends of friends up to the seventh degree, for those reassuring details that make a good story plausible.

I’ve also fished in the seething depths of the internet and pulled out all sorts of brow-raising detritus.

But then, there’s the opportunistic ‘ask’.

You see those handcuffs in the picture?

Last September, I was trundling round London on my bike taking in some of the Open House opportunities.  On my way to queue for a basement Roman bath, I passed the Custom House.  No queue and handy railings for my bike.

The Custom House used to be the place which collected levies on goods entering London by boat.  It is still used by HM Customs and Excise.  So rather unexpectedly, I found out about sniffer dogs (how they’re acquired and trained), the range of forbidden animal-related items that are smuggled in (from endangered sturgeon’s caviar to a ruddy great big bear skin) and then, there were the weapons.

The guy displaying the weapons was a trainer.  He helped customs officers involved in raids to stay safe.  I couldn’t help lingering, or asking questions or taking lots of photos. Lots and lots of photos.  he was very helpful.  But he also looked really pleased when someone else showed interest because he moved really quickly away.











Rioters, abolitionists and Tom Hollander’s snog – welcome to Shoreditch Church

Shoreditch Church isn’t discreet – it’s a great, big hulk of a building that’s impossible to miss.  It’s currently the location for the church scenes in the BBC comedy ‘Rev’, where Adam Smallbone passionately embraces the primary school head and electrocutes a local imam.  At the moment the rear is ablaze with tulips, so it’s not quite as rundown as the programme makes it appear, but – as you can see from the sign below- it does have its unique challenges

I have recently been part of a project researching and recording the history of Haggerston.  Haggerston is a difficult area to define, incorporating part of Kingsland Road, a tip of Shoreditch and a slice of Hoxton.  It is also changing again as ward boundaries shift for this year’s council elections.

As the old estates are demolished and communities separate and disperse, we worked with Geffrye Museum, Hoxton Hall and the Building Exploratory, to capture some of the secret stories of this part of Hackney .  Last Sunday, we led a guided walk around the area to explore  the impact of migration.  One of our stops was Shoreditch Church of St Leonard’s.

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This building is the third one on the site.  Construction started in 1736 and immediately hit problems.  The contractors sacked all the local English builders so that they could employ cheaper Irish labour.  As a result, 4,000 rioters rampaged through the area destroying Irish taverns.  The disarray was only broken up when Tower Hamlets sent in the local militia.  Compared to their eighteenth century counterparts, contemporary rioters are little lower scale.

Guildhall records reveal Shoreditch Church as the place of baptism of one Jonathan Strong and the place can consequently claim a powerful role in the fight against enslavement.  Strong was an enslaved African, a young man in his teenage years, brought from Barbados to London by a lawyer and planter called David Lisle.  Strong was so badly beaten in the Lisle household, he was considered useless and thrown out.  He was found by the physician William Sharp who, with his brother, Grant, paid for Strong to receive several months of treatment at St Bartholemew’s hospital.

After Strong’s discharge, William and  Granville, funded Strong’s food and lodging and helped him find work with a Quaker apothecary.  Lisle, however, ‘sold’ Strong to another planter, James Kerr; Strong was kidnapped by professional slave hunters and sent for transportation.  However, Strong believed that his baptism had liberated him and called on the Sharps to fight his case –  he and Sharp won.

Several years of litigation followed.  English law favoured the master’s rights to own a man as property, even on English soil and Kerr sought compensation.  Eventually, Kerr’s claims were dismissed and he was ordered to pay compensation.

Granville Sharp became a prominent abolitionist and fighter against social injustice.  He is the ‘Granville’ of Granville, Jamaica and Granville Town, Sierra Leone.  He died, aged 79 and is buried in All Saints Church, Fulham.  His tomb is a Grade 2 listed building and there is a memorial plaque to him in Westminster Abbey.

Jonathan Strong died a free man.  He was 25.  I haven’t yet found his place of burial.