Do you have a favourite memory professionally from 2017?
I’ve had a good year. My debut novel, Becoming has sold well and received widespread acclaim. I’ve visited a number of schools giving talks on writing, and presented at several reading events. I was commissioned by Woodhorn Museum to write some passages for their Wonderfolk interactive family experience. This was a proud moment for me, as I spent my childhood walking up and down the narrow path past the pit where the museum is now. However, my favourite memory has to be completing my second novel, The Storm.
I play solo horn in Newbiggin Brass Band, and a couple of years ago we were involved in a local project ‘Haalin’ the Lines.’ Funded by the BAIT team at Woodhorn Museum, the project was led by the remarkable performer and singer-songwriter, Tim Dalling. Tim was commissioned by BAIT to take historical accounts being gathered by the Newbiggin-by-the-Sea Genealogy Project and put some of the stories to music. The aim was to bring back to life the tales and oral histories of local heroes from the village. One of those heroes was ‘Big’ Philip Jefferson, the first Newbiggin Lifeboat Coxswain who was awarded a clasp to his silver medal for an attempted rescue of the Norwegian brig ‘Embla’ in 1854.
The fascination with ‘Big’ Phil stayed with me after the project and further research revealed what an incredible man he was. The story of the night Phil and a few young men from Newbiggin tried to rescue the ‘Embla’ became the backdrop for the novel. However, the events of that night are only the starting point, as the book weaves this together with a folk tale, and a series of mysterious incidents to create a tense, supernatural thriller.
Setting is so important to my writing and it means a lot to me to write a story set in the village where I grew up. History is filled with tales of kings and queens, leaders and generals. This is the history they teach at school. But the true heroes are all around us. They are the people who built our communities, lived and died for our families, friends, and neighbours. What remains of those heroes is love and memories, and it’s vital we keep those alive. Our folk stories are our heritage and we can still learn from them. Writers and creatives play an important role in raising issues, stimulating debate, and provoking challenging questions. I hope my books are more than stories, but also make people think and reflect on the world.
And how about a favourite moment from 2017 generally?
Music has always been my first love, and my best moment in 2017 is a musical moment. As I said earlier, I play in my village brass band. The past two years have been our most successful and this year we retained our Durham League title, won the North East Regional Championship for the second year running, and qualified for the National Finals in Cheltenham.
We worked hard in preparing for the Finals, but you are playing against the best in the country. Wales, Yorkshire, and the North West all have strong, competitive bands and challenging against them is tough. There were twenty bands in the final and finishing anywhere in the top six placings is considered a success. The draw was not kind to us and as with the year before we had a long wait before we took the stage in nineteenth position. The band performed well, though not quite at our very best, leaving the stage with mixed feelings. Finals are unpredictable and always throw up surprises. Few had us anywhere near the prizes.
The announcements prior to the results were agonising, and full of the usual formal fluff and flannel. Eventually, they got round to revealing the prizes, and we were delighted to be awarded fourth place. This is one of my proudest moments in banding. The band folded many years ago and was only revived in 2010. They’re a great bunch of people and musicians, and to come from nothing and finish fourth at the Nationals is a remarkable achievement. We’ve been promoted and next year brings a whole set of fresh challenges. For the moment, we can enjoy the success.
Favourite book in 2017?
A few years ago I read a book called How to be Free by Tom Hodgkinson. It became a bit of a manifesto for me. I read it every now and then to remind me of some important anchors in my approach your life. I decided to read it again this year.
The book has its flaws and some of the author’s ideas are contradictory and simplistic. However, there’s plenty in there to enjoy and it’s worth reading with an open mind. It’s especially engaging if you’re deliberating a life change. I’ve listed the chapter headings below. They provide an indicator of his anarchic approach to life. I see them as a useful common-sense checklist for embracing a certain kind of freedom. You won’t agree with them all, but they make you think, and a number of them inspired me to focus on new priorities.
- Banish anxiety; be carefree
- Break the bonds of boredom
- The tyranny of bills and the freedom of simplicity
- Reject career and all its empty promises
- Get out of the city
- Cast off your watch
- Stop competing
- Escape debt
- Death to shopping, or fleeing the prison of consumer desire
- Smash the fetters of fear
- Say no to guilt and free your spirit
- No more housework, or the power of the candle
- Submit no more to the machine, use your hands
- Stop moaning; be merry
- Live mortgage free; be a happy wanderer
- Disarm pain
- Stop worrying about your pension and get a life
- Sail away from rudeness and towards a new era of courtesy, civility, and grace
- Live free of the supermarkets
- The reign of ugly is over; long live beauty, quality, fraternity!
- Depose the tyrant wealth
- Reject waste; embrace thrift
- Stop working, start living!!!
Favourite film in 2017?
I’ve not seen enough films this year. I’ve probably forgotten most of the ones I have. It’s a problem of mine, and my wife is always reminding me that I have seen films I’m convinced I haven’t.
One film that stood out for me was Baby Driver. It’s cool, stylish, full of action and has a great storyline. I enjoy a strong narrative and like to be entertained. There’s a role for challenging and thought provoking character movies, but I tend to fall asleep to a lot of those arthouse flicks. I like escapism, and Baby Driver is a bit of fun. It has an excellent soundtrack too. Thanks to Tarantino it seems to be a necessity these days.
One caveat is Kevin Spacey. Always a terrific presence on screen, his reputation is now in tatters. I suspect the film will be buried now. Some of you won’t want to see it because of him. I respect that. It’s a dilemma facing us all now. Should we separate the art from the artist? I must admit if I erased from my life all the creatives who had deplorable views or behaviour there wouldn’t be much culture left. I tend to leave the judgements to the courts or the gutter press. Perhaps that isn’t good enough.
Favourite album of the year?
My wife, Julie has been listening to the latest album by Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator. I recall loving their last album, and the snippets I was hearing around the house hooked me again. I downloaded The Navigator a few weeks ago and have listened to little else since. Essentially, the band is the creative vehicle for lead singer, Alynda Segarra. Of Puerto Rican descent, the album has a strong Latin flavour. The songs and lyrics are exceptional, but it’s the rhythms and mood that I love most. I’m into drums at the minute and love to hear them used in inventive ways. The standout track is ‘Pa’lante’ which contains the lines, ‘I just wanna prove my worth, on the planet Earth, and be something.’ Those words resonated with me. It’s a sentiment that connects most creatives. I think we all want to leave our mark, and if it doesn’t happen in your lifetime die hoping it will someday. Who knows? Maybe our time is yet to come.
Any downsides for you in 2017?
I’ve had a transitional year, readjusting to moving back into contractual work and finding the time to write. While I wouldn’t describe this as a downside, it has meant that I have had less free time. Writing is about discipline and making the time is a challenge. I’m enjoying my new role. It is rewarding, but my passion is writing. My long-term goal is to reach a point where I am writing most of the time. Many writers speak of how they write because they have to. Once you have caught the bug, the compulsion is overwhelming.
However, sustaining a living as an author is like building a business. It takes a few years to build your experience and reputation. The world of publishing has changed, and whilst this offers many opportunities it also means the financial rewards are not as great. I’m an advocate of the indie route. Why be J.K. Rowling when you can by Joy Division? I also like to be control of my own destiny. The opportunities presented in the mainstream would have come at too high a price for me.
I look at the likes of Louise Ross and Mark Dawson with great admiration. They have been bold and clever enough to build a living doing what they love. My success is far more modest, but the creative rewards are what excite and drive me. Whatever happens artistic integrity and authenticity are my primary goals. If others love what I do that is a bonus. Passion may not be enough to pay the bills, but keep working at what you love and the rewards are great. The important thing is to never give up. A film deal would be welcome though.
Are you making resolutions for 2018?
I’m an obsessive compiler of lists and revel in the opportunity to write my resolutions for the year ahead. I’m still working on my goals for 2018, but my main one is to complete Awakening, the follow up to Becoming. One of my challenges is to strike the right balance between work and writing. It takes discipline to write and finding the time is important. If there is one thing I would love more of it is time. I crave it more than anything. Filling that time with words and music is my idea of heaven. My other goals will revolve around music, travel and running. There are still a few bands I’d still love to see in concert. I go to lots of gigs and there are a few in the diary already. I want to see Sigur Ros, an Icelandic band. I also adore musicals and still haven’t seen ‘Les Miserables’, one of my favourites. I intend to put that right in 2018.
What are you hoping for from 2018?
A top four placing with the band at the Regionals would be great. We’re in a higher section now, so it’s going to be tough. I’m also hoping to visit Berlin this year. I passed through in the early 90s on the way to Poland, and regret not getting off the train for a few days. Croatia is another country I’d love to visit and that’s on my list for the summer. Depending on finances I hope to return to Iceland. It’s a captivating place and I promised myself I would return after a visit in 2016. The costs are eye-watering though and 2018 may be a touch too soon to cram in all this travel. I live in hope though.
Finally, I hope my readers enjoy The Storm. I loved writing it and it would be great if others appreciated the book too. It’s always daunting releasing your work, as you never know what the feedback will be. First and foremost, I see myself as a storyteller. If I can entertain people for a few hours, and make them think that’s all the success I need.