An accident waiting to happen

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There have been countless shipwrecks down the years, both in war and in peacetime. Each one is shocking in itself as well as being a personal tragedy for those involved. While there is no hierarchy in disaster, one life is as precious as any other, those that happen close to home, to people who are just going about their daily business, feel especially poignant. How many of us have taken the tube through King’s Cross, travelled by train, taken a trip on a cross channel ferry? The fact that disaster can strike so suddenly, in perfectly normal circumstances inspired me to write The Sixth of March but that was not my only motivation. I wanted to show the appalling effects that a culture of corporate negligence could have on the life of just one child.

The Herald of Free Enterprise sank on the evening of 6th March, 1987, just as she left the harbour at Zeebrugge. She was laden with day trippers on their way back from an excursion. The ship collapsed within sight of the harbour; one hundred and ninety three passengers and crew lost their lives. The injured were counted in excess of 200, but accounting for everyone was difficult since not only were the passenger registration procedures virtually non existent, there were discrepancies between the accounting procedures of the Belgians and the British. Add to that the fact that the embarkation forms were somewhere in the pursers office, by then under water. It is not known to this day just how many passengers were on board when the Herald left Zeebrugge.

Why did the ship sink? The reason was obvious even before the vessel left harbour and way before the public enquiry, led by Sir Barry Sheen, came to the same conclusion.  The ship capsized because it left harbour with its bow doors open. Other factors contributed to the disaster but this was the irrefutable first cause. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it wasn’t to be the last. Fingers were pointed, scapegoats were singled out but the plain fact is that, once again, people lost their lives due to corporate negligence, in this case taking the form of “a disease of sloppiness” and negligence at every level of the corporation’s hierarchy.

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How it all began

How it all began

When I started the novel writing element of my MA at Sheffield Hallam I hadn’t decided on a subject for the book. I only knew that I wanted to do something completely different from anything I’d done before. In common with many writers I have a ‘sandpile’ –people give it different names but in essence it’s a file, folder or just a drawer full of jotted ideas, articles and press cuttings. Things that have caught our attention but which don’t fit into the piece we’re working on at the moment, things we want to go back to at some stage.

Everyone else in my group had decided on their theme and time was moving on. So I did what I always do, went through the sandpile. I found some notes I’d scribbled years before, about the Kings Cross tube fire. The train for Sheffield leaves from London’s St Pancras station, which is adjacent to King’s Cross. This plus the sheer romance of the old Midland Grand Hotel inspired me. (The building was by then called St Pancras Chambers and had yet to be restored – the shiny new St Pancras International Station and the posh hotel and loft appartments were still some years ahead.)

I went to the British Library’s newspaper archive and to the main library too and read everything I could find about the fire, including the Fennell report into it. I discovered that the fire was yet another example of corporate negligence. This is something that both interests me and enrages me. I’m all to well aware of the devastating effects a culture of negligence can have on individuals and families, with the people in the firing line often blamed for something that eminates from the boardroom. I also discovered that apart from the many life changing injuries, the fire killed 31 people and that one poor person was still unidentified (he remained unidentified for a further seventeen years). That was the starting point.

During our train journey up to Sheffield, we often discussed our writing, exchanged ideas, tried out plots on one another. I told the group about the fire and the unidentified person, at which one of my friends remarked that she had always thought that the unidentified man was an ethereal spirit, not flesh and blood at all. It was a wonderful concept and it became my starting point.

That was how Fabriel was born. Then some magical things happened – the baby just arrived and the baby led to Alice and so on. Mr Aitchison appeared briefly early on, though I had a feeling that he’d play a larger role, which he did. Later, as I was trying to get to grips with Fabriel’s character, Mr Aitchison suddenly took on more importance. Fabriel’s status changed several times during the writing, but Alice’s character was set from the beginning.. The elemental also came out of the blue. As the work progressed, the fire became simply the catalyst, with the story of Fabriel and Alice going somewhere else entirely.

Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

There are books that leave you feeling a little bereaved when you have finished them. ‘Apple Tree Yard’ is one of those books.  There are books that, however good they are, leave you unsatisfied by the way they are concluded.  ‘Apple Tree Yard’ is not one of those books. It gripped me from the perfectly paced prologue to the very end.

When I say perfectly paced prologue I mean just that. The tension builds in the book just as it is doing in the courtroom. We follow the line of questioning without knowing what the protagonists are charged with.  Unlike the jury we are totally in the dark. We just know there are two accused – the female narrator and another. At that stage we don’t even know for sure whether it’s a male or female, unless we have read a bit about the book, as I had. The courtroom is described by referring to small details and observations, as are the jury, judge and other players. This is skilful writing. I am familiar with courts and the judicial system and felt I was there.

The book is beautifully written by someone who has mastered the craft. We get show, not tell. We get small details and observations that paint pictures of places, people, emotions. The first violent twist in this story literally took my breath away. I felt as if I’d been punched. I can’t say more without spoiling the book for others; suffice to say that the hatred was palpable and the violence only too real.  I didn’t see it coming just as I didn’t anticipate the other twists and turns.

Some reviewers find the characters unsympathetic and their actions incomprehensible, particularly the main character and narrator, Yvonne. Given her lifestyle and background I too found Yvonne’ actions hard to justify. And then I think I romanticised the whole thing so as to be able to justify it to myself. Only to be brought back to earth with a crashing jolt as the courtroom drama unfolded. But that’s another strength, for this is much more than a literary thriller. It’s a thoroughly engaging but disturbing book that forces you to think, to examine your own attitudes and prejudices. It also examines not just attitudes against women, especially older women, in mainstream society but also in the justice system.

Powerful.

A novel for our times

Feral Youth – Polly Courtney

Not all books grab you from the start. Feral Youth does. And it does much more. Many authors, even famous and respected ones, cannot always achieve a satisfactory ending. It’s extremely difficult to keep up the momentum, not just throughout the book but right to the last chapter. So I am quite often left disappointed when a great read doesn’t quite make it to the end.

This wasn’t the case with Feral Youth. The tension is sustained throughout, and there were quite a few instances, especially from the middle onwards, where I found myself muttering ‘please, please don’t do that’ or ‘please Alesha, don’t go there.’ Indeed at times I almost held my breath fearing what the next twist would be. Like most readers, I had my own views on how I wanted it to end.

Alesha’s attitude and life experience wasn’t the eye opener for me that it may have been for some readers because I worked as a social worker in a deprived borough many years ago. I know that the swagger and apparent indifference is a mask. Nevertheless it is a mask that is extremely hard to penetrate even, and maybe especially, for professionals. We are after all ‘the other side’, we’re ‘authority’, we don’t’ understand.

What Polly Courtney has done is penetrate that mask, allowing us to see both the vulnerable and the hardened person underneath the defiance. She has talked, worked alongside and mentored young people who are in a similar position to Alesha. She’s canvassed their views, learnt their language and this has more than paid off. It shows the way it should, not in a shouty or obvious way, but in the authenticity of the characters and in the atmosphere and tone.

We see the world through Alesha’s eyes. Character descriptions are sparely written and all the more powerful as a result. Miss Merfield, the teacher, comes alive mostly through her actions, her attitudes and her dress – revealing someone ‘on the other side’ who is in turns caring, vulnerable, foolish and sensible. Other minor yet important characters are a perfect demonstration of how ‘less is more’. Mr Slick with his red socks, slicked hair and false smile. Blowsy Beth, bursting out of her red dress. The woman in the care home asking all the ‘right’ questions but with no insight at all. The journalist, Alison, way out of her depth despite her cool braids and piercings. I could go on and on. Spare writing, vivid portraits.

This short(ish) review cannot possibly do justice to the richness of this book. We really do get into Alesha’s head and see the world through her eyes – not comfortable but definitely enlightening. There are so many small scenes, snippets of dialogue, glancing references that take us into her world. What’s even more important this is a book that makes us stop and think. And continue to think after we have come to the end.