A Proper Person to be Detained

My new book is up for pre-order on various sites, including Waterstones so do have a browse - especially if you're interested in all kinds of things, including family history in general, the Irish migrants who fled hunger and privation to become 'hands' in industrial cities, the treatment of women in Victorian Britain, discrimination and poverty, prison conditions, law and order - and murder.

When I began this project a couple of years ago, I didn't intend for it to be quite as relevant as it seems to have become. I simply set out to research and write about a family mystery: who murdered my Irish great great uncle John in Leeds, on Christmas Day in 1881; did the murderer really, as some family members believed, get away with it - and what happened afterwards?

It wasn't simple at all though. It was difficult and complicated and harrowing and tragic, especially for those left behind. I made unexpected discoveries, and sometimes it seemed as though each one was more distressing than the last.

If you love researching your family history, and are the kind of researcher who wants to know more than the bald names and dates - if you are fascinated by the stories that lie beneath the surface - then this is the book for you. I think almost all of us, embarking on this kind of research, will uncover more than we bargained for and often, those discoveries will be profoundly distressing.

This book also stands alone as an exploration of a true crime: what led up to it, how and why the murder came about - and what happened afterwards in terms of justice and imprisonment.

And finally, it is a very personal reflection on the part that migration, poverty and prejudice have played in my personal history: the extraordinary confluence of the varied influences and experiences that have helped to make me what I am today.

Celebrating Creative Change and Transition, Whatever Your Age.

Wordsworth's couch. Doesn't look too comfy, does it?

From time to time, I meet up with a good friend, an artist, and we set the world - and ourselves - to rights over coffee and scones. (Wordsworth liked to lie on his couch, in vacant or in pensive mood, but we like to chat.) A few things strike us about these meetings: how nice it is to meet up with a like minded person, and how helpful it can be to talk about work and motivation, why and how we do what we do, and what we feel about it. It helps that we're both creative but work in different areas of creativity. It's amazing how often insights emerge from these conversations as we explore the differences and similarities between our respective practices. My friend has been doing serious research into ageing and creativity and as we grow older, but still remain creative, we inevitably find ourselves thinking and talking about the challenges the years bring.

It's all useful, but just occasionally, a vital insight seems to emerge.

Ageing, when you're working in the so called 'creative industries' can be a demoralising business. Especially, I suspect, when you're female, although men don't have it easy either. At a time when you might be reaping the rewards of a lifetime of creative practice you can suddenly find that professionally, you've disappeared. Women, especially find this.  You feel more confident, wiser and, in many ways, at the peak of your game. And yet, that's not how the world sees you, not even the world in which you may have lived and worked hard for years.

Read this long and intensely interesting interview with Anjelica Houston for example. She's of an age when she can say exactly what she thinks. I love it when she says 'I’m looking for movies that ... aren’t apologetically humble or humiliating like, “Band of cheerleaders gets back together for one last hurrah,” you know.'

Only this week I found myself facing the realisation that a decent amount of successful work in a particular field - not, fortunately, the one which means most to me right now - counted for absolutely nothing. I had become invisible. But this isn't a rant. Not this week, anyway! And all it did was confirm for me that I'm heading in the right direction. That I don't have to be apologetically humble. That I don't even have to try to go back to a part of my creativity that no longer serves me well.

Throughout my creative career, I've encountered periods of quite radical change and development, periods of transition, where the kind of work I once did, the work that once satisfied me, no longer suited me. So I moved on. Sometimes that was a slow process, and sometimes it happened almost overnight. Occasionally, I looked back to themes or ways of working that had once excited me and picked them up again with the benefit of experience. In fact that's what happened with my latest book, A Proper Person To Be Detained, the true story of a murder in my own Leeds Irish family, in 1881. I had often thought of writing about it, but it was only a couple of years ago that the time suddenly seemed right, that I felt myself capable of undertaking the project.

When I was young, or even middle aged, these periods of change and transition didn't feel wrong. They may have been challenging but they were exciting. And one of the reasons why they were exciting was that they always felt like a part of some kind of creative cycle. One way of working no longer suited, but another one did. So I took what I needed from the old, shrugged off the rest, and moved on. There was work to be done, and wasn't that good?

As older writers or artists or musicians, though, we have to contend with the almost constant brainwashing about ageing, failure and diminishing powers that surrounds us. Our media, whether it's television, radio, social media or newspapers, constantly bombard us with negativity about ageing. It could be 'Parsnip Man' and June, rabbiting on about funeral plans, or those hideous headless pictures of very old people trudging along with their walkers: you know, the ones that they always show over headlines about bed blockers or elderly abuse. See enough of them, and you do start to wonder whether it wouldn't be better to head off into the wilderness now, before they get to you.

The other thing that happens to you is that if and when you find yourself in one of these inevitable and hitherto quite exciting transitional periods, you may put it all down to ageing. When for most of us, it's nothing of the kind.

Think about it. Much more likely is that it's just one more phase of a long career in creativity. Change is inevitable, but often it can be wonderfully empowering. And that should be welcomed and celebrated. Shouldn't it?

However young or old you are.