Handcuffs and exploding hands. (Browsing history deleted.)

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you a proper writer?

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Yesterday, I felt like a proper writer.  I felt so proper that I sent a text to a good friend about it, just so it was recorded for posterity.  There are certain things that should generally enhance your writer status.  These include:

Writing stuff.

I’ve been writing stuff since I was about six.  Tellingly, I only have one friend left from childhood.  I wonder if the others fell away under the weight of having to endure endless rhyming couplets about my dog, Jai.  Or the time the coffee percolator exploded.  Or even that special moment when a really big worm slopped on to my mum’s bare foot in Italy.  (Oh, happy days.)

There are other reasons why I could have claimed proper writerliness.  I read out my poem about Romans in Fishbourne at a parents’ evening.  (And believe me, my school was hot on quality control.)  And another poem – is there a pattern here? – won an award at a local arts festival and was read aloud by the only Doctor Who companion who died in situ.   There were the stories published in ‘True Romance’ and the constructive, encouraging rejection from ‘Black Lace’, ‘the first erotic imprint in the UK written for women’.  Apparently, kinky politicians were a bit of a cliché.

Come sixth form, come my crowning achievement –  a reworked pantomime version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’.  Not only did my head of house agree to be a witch and her deputy, rock the stage as Toto, but the production team featured future stars including a model and ‘Emmerdale’ actor and the bass player of a world famous indie band.  Us Haywards Heath folk punch way above our weight.  Or sometimes just punch.  Entertaining nightlife is a bit sparse there.

But did that make me a proper writer?  No.  My rich earnings of £60 and a poem published in the ‘Evening Argus’, did not turn my head.  (I must have had a rich store of poems, though.  I wonder where they are now.  Along with my childhood friends.)

Many years later, I’m preparing for the debut of ‘Orangeboy’, my first novel for young adults.  I’ve arrived here via short stories, screenwriting, comedy writing and a go at radio scripts.  All languishing in a forgotten folder in a forgotten hard drive with ports for cable types that have long been extinct.

I was lucky enough to gain Caroline Sheldon as my agent.  She saw my potential (but thankfully, no poems) and encouraged me to write for a younger audience.  A couple of paying gigs followed – children’s short stories and educational publishers – then by pure accident I was at an Arvon crime writing course and found myself chatting to a 16-year-old protagonist called Marlon.  Orangeboy.

But still… proper writer?  Ummm.

Then yesterday, something changed.  I went in to Hodder to talk publicity, proofs and literary festival panels.  We chatted school events and people of influence. Coming out into the Blackfriars’ sunshine, I thought – goddamn, this is real!  I then whizzed up the District Line for a lunchtime catch up with Caroline.  A lovely hour or so that also happened to feature some rather splendid butternut squash and apple crumble.

So what was it that made me feel like a proper writer?

Was it the lightheaded shock from getting a seat on the Underground for most of the journey from Blackfriars to Notting Hill?  Definitely a contributing factor.

Was it the lunchtime glass of wine?  As, if!

But perhaps it’s finally sunk in – I can do this!  I can write stuff that people want to read.  I can write stuff that people want to sell.  Without a rhyming couplet in sight.

My partner knows a coroner. I never saw that coming. (Notes from a debut YA author.)

Yah!  I have a two-book deal with Hodder!  I have signed on the dotted line for my first young adult novel as well as another stand alone one to follow.   I am actually being paid money for this.  Yay, again!  Last Man Standing, will be published in March 2016, Indigo Donut, (title may change…) in March 2017. This is good news.

Actually, it’s amazingly excellent news.  Such good news that it  made our local paper, as well as The Voice newspaper, the website of a prolific local blogger and our local freebie. I was even interviewed on Colourful Radio, sitting in the corner of a north London park, on a bench between the goats and the deer, on my way to work.

And I have wanted to be a writer since.  Just since.

So, how did this deal come about?  I researched the young adult market – that is, loitered with intent in Charing Cross Road Foyles and scanned my daughter’s shelves.  She’s into manga.  Not helpful.  I also started planning a crime novel set in 1940s Port of Pain, a society still facing up to the impact of the second world war, colonial rule and a programme of de-slumming and emigration.  If you’ve seen Errol John’s play ‘Moon On A Rainbow Shawl’, you know what I mean.  A setting ripe for drama and random poisoning.

I took my collection of ideas to an Arvon crime-writing course, tutored by Dreda Say Mitchell and Frances Fyfield.  About halfway through the week, we were given an exercise to help us hide information – a sentence that had to be embedded within a paragraph or so.  The rest of the group had to guess the sentence.  I was presented with ‘He woke up dreaming of yellow’.  So – what was on my mind?

The obvious.  Mustard.

A few weeks earlier, my daughter and I had used the day of a teachers’ strike to check out Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.  Everything was so pricey that after a couple of rides – her, not me, I’m a coward – we only had money left for one hot dog to share. So – what if?  What if two young people are at a fairground? It’s their first date and the boy is a bit uncertain.  He hates mustard but he’s going to eat that hot dog the girl’s just bought him because it’s a sign.  She’s claiming him.  The date’s going well and then what’s the very worst thing that can happen?  After I wrote that, I just carried on writing.

There was no plan.  Characters emerged from a murky subconscious and vicarious wish fulfillment.  The mother I’d like to be, the 15-year-old I wish I’d been, the big brother I wanted, were all there on the page.  And what was at the core?  The press release mentions gangs, drugs and guns, but that wasn’t what really interested me.  I wanted my protagonist, Marlon, to be a lovely young man, a bit quiet, a bit geeky and with an enduring love for vinyl records.  I was fascinated by what would tip a boy like that over.  Why would Marlon Sunday, who can name every Earth, Wind and Fire album in order, risk destroying his family and his future?

First draft done, after a thorough critique from my writing group, priceless mentoring and the complete removal of a subplot, I was getting there. The book had always been like a jigsaw, but now I had the right number of pieces.  I had to keep trying until the picture looked right.

Caroline Sheldon, my agent, sent it to a number of publishers. My first meeting with Hodder was in an office with a wonderful view and premium biscuits.  I fell in love and eventually it was requited.

So what have I learnt from this so far?

1. My partner knows a coroner.  I honestly never saw that coming.

2. Local newspapers really like good news. So –

3. It’s good to have a couple of decent hi res pics to send off.  My hair is its own lifeform.  In the photos you will see it trying to escape.

4. I somehow have to balance shameless and modest self-publicity.  Haven’t quite worked out that one yet.  However, promotion is vital.

5. The joy of getting to the 300th edit.  There will be more polishing, but I feel that we’re nearly there.  (Aren’t we?  Say ‘yes’!)

6. How pleased and encouraging my friends are!

7. I have a full time job, a teenage daughter, a needy cat and a heavy clad allotment.  I should learn to multitask.

I’ll (try and) keep you posted about book cover selection, promotion and all those new experiences as as we edge towards publication. Px

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Lonely Londoners’ – Radio 4 Book at Bedtime

‘The Lonely Londoners’ – Radio 4 Book at Bedtime

Don Warrington is definitely doing justice to Sam Selvon’s book!  Sir Galahad, Tante and the journalist, Brixton…  Yes, it was a struggle for families coming from the Caribbean, but this book is very funny and Don Warrington’s accents and voices brings out the humour.

And with a spot of Lord Kitch bookending it too.  Great!

Hackney hood rat tells it like it is – but do I want to hear? Book review.

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I thought I’d struck gold with Robyn Travis’s ‘Prisoner to the Streets’, and in some ways, I had.  I’ve been researching for a late draft of the young adult novel I’m finishing and I wanted to get in to the mind of the protagonist.  My book is set in Hackney – I’ve lived there since 1997 and know the terrain well.  As I was doing the slightly lazy Amazon search thing, I found this book, an ‘ex-bad bwoy’ memoir set in these very streets.  Thanks, Amazon algorithms.  Just what I needed.

The author, Robyn Travis, promises ‘NO FRONTING. Just honesty’.  And to some extent, this is true.  Travis doesn’t try and make himself look good in this.

‘Prisoner’ starts with a chase – Travis and his mate, Darker, pursued through the streets by ‘Boi-dem’, the police.  Both boys are carrying guns.  He wonders how he gets himself into this – again.  We then head back to his early childhood on the borders of Hackney and Tottenham.  These time seem relatively happy in spite of extreme poverty, his father disappearing and apparently faking his own death and harassment from racists.  His mother toughens him and his older brother up by insisting they fight with anyone that wrongs them and ‘she would ‘dish out’ beatings like it was slavery times’.  Along with shoes and a belt called ‘johnny’, a curtain wire with a hook and eye was also a handy weapon of chastisement.  As Travis says, ‘Mum didn’t ramp when it comes to licks’.

Throughout the book, Travis talks about ‘the switch’, the blind anger that surrounds his violence, but rather frustrating for me, this feels like the only insight he has into his behaviour.  He and his brother are both eventually permanently excluded from school; his brother becomes a ‘dream chaser’ – a drug dealer – while Travis refuses that route.  At various times he tries different manual jobs to earn money, but always with the fierce allegiance to his friends.  He carries a knife and is stabbed and hospitalised.  He starts carrying a gun.  His mum is evicted and the vulnerable fifteen-year-old is rehoused in adult homeless hostels amongst drug addicts and those with serious mental health difficulties.  He sleeps with a gun under his pillow and people he knows are killed.  His mother marries a crack smoker.  His beloved grandmother dies from a heart attack shortly after Travis is involved in a knife fight by her house…

Yes.  It is a difficult read. Much of the tale supports the findings of some of the more sensitive and thoughtful gang journalists and commentators – these are not the organised gangs beloved of the sensational press.  These are loose and constantly changing allegiances of young men whose lives are shaped by ‘beefs’, ‘ride or die’, revenge and reputation.  Surprisingly quickly, life becomes cheap.

One touch I enjoyed was the occasional voices from other people.   Travis’s mother has a section, likewise a couple of primary school teachers.  The most emotional contribution is from the mother of a young man that Travis stabs.

I wanted more of this.  I am pretty liberal, but I spent so much time yelling at this book ‘ Take responsibility!’  (Best not do that in a crowded bus.)  ‘How can you complain that the police harass you when you behave that way?’  ‘Do you know what it’s like sitting in a bus with your young child, adrenalin revving because you think something’s going to kick off with the boys who’ve just got on?’  ‘Do you know how many London mothers are terrified that their sons are getting drawn into that crap or they’re going to get shot?’   There are no descriptions of the times he spent in a police cell.  What was the first time like – was a line crossed?  Or much acknowledgement of the people who tried to intervene – the school coach, the solicitor and maybe others who would have been constantly let down.

And what about other people trying to live their lives without all that random violence and aggression going on?  The people in Holly Street and London Fields, terrified of getting caught in the crossfire.  Last year, I was walking through London Fields early on a winter’s evening.  The woman walking in front of me stopped dead so quickly I almost slapped in to her back.  A group of young black guys on bikes were riding towards her.  They rode straight past – but just the possibility of them being local gang boys made her freeze solid.  In 2007, Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba was stabbed to death outside his home in Holly Street after asking ‘gang’ members to quieten down.  Is that what it’s all about?

Travis is a father, son, brother, neighbour.  He has turned his life round and is trying to stop others following path.  But after reading 254 pages, I still didn’t understand Travis’s choices, or why it was so easy to go back to your room, change into your tracksuit, pick up your weapon and get ready to kill a man.

Prisoner to the Streets is published by The X Press http://www.prisonerofthestreets.com

From Lambeth Archives: Stories for one parent families

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I love archives.  I’ve recently been rummaging around archives in Hackney to write an updated history of Hoxton Hall.  In such a short time, my head was buzzing with the stories of Hoxton folk from the past.  Counterfeiters, asylum managers, workhouse attendants, fences and costermongers… a Sunday evening BBC series waiting to happen. This leaflet from Lambeth Archives also feels like a historical document, albeit much more recent.   There is the language; one parent families, single parent families, lone parent families – the adjective shifts.  I also smile, a little sadly, because Lambeth has also been portrayed as the ‘loony left’, a gift for any subeditor who fancied a little light alliteration.   I could imagine a leaflet like this being held up as the epitome of political correctness. But the thought that someone, somewhere wanted children to feel a connection to a book, to see a world that reflected their own, makes me feel rather warm.  I really like people who are willing to do that.  Seriously.  I really do.