Tag Archives: books

Black Car Burning by Helen Mort

I broke the back of it in three sittings. For someone who has not been able to finish a novel for months that was good going. It helped that I knew the author. I’ve listened to her read from her collections Division Street and No Map Could Show Them, in warehouse venues, theatres and library reading rooms across the city. Latterly she has made regular appearances on literary radio shows and television documentaries: and won a slew of prizes for her writing.  

Helen Mort online: https://www.helenmort.com/

How do we trust each other?

Alexa is a young police community support officer whose world feels unstable.

Caron is pushing Alexa away and pushing herself ever harder. A climber, she fixates on a brutal route known as Black Car Burning and throws herself into a cycle of repetition and risk. Leigh, who works at a local gear shop, watches Caron climb and feels complicit.

Each chapter, section, scene… is prefaced with an exquisitely crafted portrait of a single place from Helen’s beloved Sheffield: a street, an estate, a moorland, a rock’s face and character. The presence of these brief geographical snapshots and the way the author weave’s them into the narrative, feels fresh and exciting to me. Not a pithy quote from some learned scribe, but something heartfelt and real, something that sits apart and yet fits so readily with the storytelling. Helen does place so incredibly well. 

I liked how Helen’s women drank ale in old mans’ pubs; how they viewed the world with suspicion and wariness; the deep almost spiritual connection to the landscape they lived in; the strange way Mort doesn’t allow timeframes to get in the way: and the surprising sense of freedom ‘outside’ of their non-exclusive relationships. 

I wasn’t ready for how Helen’s use of language would make me feel, the words felt vital, alive precarious like they too were hanging from a jutting rock face, fingers jammed into handholds and tiptoes expertly balancing on a rock ridge. I enjoyed the climbing terminology, the poetry in the place names, and the deeper exploration into the mindset of a climber and what for me was a hitherto unknown, unchartered climbing subculture.   

Helen climbs, whether she has climbed Black Car Burning or not I don’t know. Throughout reading I resisted the temptation to scour the internet to see if the place names of the routes, the rocks were in fact real, or whether all had been a conjuring trick of the author. 

As I read Black Car Burning I was hearing news stories about Hillsborough in the present day, the ongoing fight for justice by the families of the 96. The bulletins ran in parallel to that of one of her characters ‘an ex-police officer who ‘compulsively revisits that day in 1989 that changed his life forever’. As he read about notebooks being altered after the fact, I was hearing in May 2021 that the charge of ‘perverting the course of justice; was being thrown out on a technicality: something about the notebooks being requested for administration purposes only, and not for a legal investigation: so even if they had been changed they could not now be used as evidence against the force. I wonder how the author felt about this slippery use of the letter of the law, as yet again the South Yorkshire police force ducked another arrow. 

For me Hillsborough – like it is for many – is pictures on a newsreel, dangling figures being hauled up football terraces, makeshift stretchers carrying people across the playing pitch, and football scarves and wreaths next to railings in remembrance of the dead. For Sheffield it seems like Hillsborough has become inextricably woven into the city’s identity. The impact still being felt in multiple different ways in the minds of every resident. Here in Hull we have the Triple Trawler Tragedy, the gruesome benchmark by which all other disasters are measured, and our own share of corruption and cover up in the death of Christopher Alder, and, as in Helen’s book, those people on both sides that long for the day the truth will out.

My lasting impression of the book – the first I’ve completed in months I remind you – is of a place not a million miles from where I write this, but in Helen’s hands it is an outside world transformed, familiar and inviting, unfamiliar and foreboding all at the same time. 

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Third BBC Contains Strong Language festival takes place in Hull September 27th-29th 2019. Tickets for BBC Contains Strong Language are available to book via Hull Truck’s website from Friday 23rd August at 10am. Most events are completely Free!  Continue reading

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Contains Strong Language – 4 Days 1 Blog

One big blog, one huge blog, one massive blog, one humongous blog: thanks Hannah. I remove my boot and a shred of Louise’s Social Service Report falls out it reads… no I think it’s private there’s a reason it was shredded. Right off the bat Louise Wallwein’s performance of Glue has been my highlight of Contains Strong Language, brought to you by the BBC and Wrecking Ball Press and Hull 2017.

bigger than Larkin

CSL hoarding in Paragon Station

I was hoping for answers, some clue as to whether it is wise to look, find and make contact with your birth family. I came away not knowing what I should do, but I think I might do a gig in my hometown, the place of my birth all the same. Louise took her papers, all her papers that told her who she was and jettisoned them in a confetti cannon courtesy of Walk the Plank. After spending so many years waiting for that part of her story, she is super brave for doing that. But I understand why she did it. If I did likewise it would be a poor cannon indeed, just one side of A4 not even a picture.  Who thinks it is okay to let a child out in the world without a picture of their mum or dad? A brilliant show I am very glad I got to see it.

Let just get this out the way, I was very fortunate to be able to work with Kate Fox on the show Women of Words/Queens of the North and thank you all who saw our show and saw/heard the snippet on The Verb live on BBC Radio 3 later the same evening…. but maybe someone else ought to say something about our show, rather than I.

books3My Contains Strong Language Festival began really with Dean Wilson:

I think Dean Wilson is fearless

In this town he is peerless

It is best to steer clear of imitation when conducting examination…. so I won’t… suffice to say Dean flew the flag and represented Hull with modesty, generosity and class.

As did Vicky Foster, on that stage she came of age, following Hannah Silva a true artist of the word – who breaks boundaries with every utterance, every syllable, a masterclass in mic control –  not one faltering step, she owned that stage, and has earned the right to be one of the 17. The tears that ran down during her set, were tears of pride, they surprised me, I wasn’t ready for that, but Vicky is. Voices in the pine cones?  I was right there holding it to my ear: a phone call from the past.

And our Joe. Joe Hakim, he told me he was going to pull out Two Coppers in a Subaru for the first time in eight years, hope you dropped Fake Plastic Socialists too and just for old time sake Special Brew Blues… the poem that made you, upstairs Haworth Arms, 2005.

Back to Hannah Silva for a moment, her politics had me doubled up with laughter and open-mouthed with awe as she took apart and rebuilt Cameron’s Liverpool speech, mash-up just isn’t a good enough word to describe her approach. It was a bit like CSI when they rebuild a document from a million fragments to prove who the guilty party is. Her deconstruct of Pain left me in a very dark place and retreating further still and beginning to feel very uncomfortable, Prosthetics undercuts the glossy heroic narrative favoured by television.

Paul ‘Pansy Boy’ Harfleet planted a pansy for me – as he did in a number of Hull locations, for other Hull folk who have faced homophobic abuse. My question remains, now memorialised, how will that place feel to me in days, weeks, months to come? I don’t question the work he has done, raising the issue of homophobic attacks and wouldn’t it be great, to see his book in every school, repairing some of the damage that Section 28 did to an entire generation? I think it will take many, many more years and institutional change before everyone can feel safe on the street.

Helen Mort offering up of a piece of her father’s heart in Ablation, the discarded fridge and cracked cup in Rag and Bone, the endless beginnings for the impetuses to climb, and the owl with the runway stare, those are the things that will stay with me, that and the glorious sight of Sheffield poet Helen bathed in fancy lighting inside Kardomah 94, right there on my telly when I got in last night.

And then the Manchester utopia/dystopia pieced together in diorama, by Michael Symmons Roberts. Newsreaders with eyes closed, portents foretold during a taxi ride, the end of books, the end of books… The Future of Books, a poem with a message that should probably be engraved on a plaque above the College library door. Finally, the long and involved process of shaking out an old coat. I like to find the forgotten things in the fuzzy corners, like a breath mint or an old bus ticket.

There was more:

Jeremy Irons performing poetry in Hull, what could be better than that? Julie Hesmondhalgh performing poetry in Hull what could be better than that? Another packed out CSL audience applauding a poetry performance what could be better than that? A poetry performance without an audience is like a library without books… but that’s probably enough of that, for now at least.

I spoke with Imtiaz Dharker on the complexities of writing verse to fit choreography, wonderful to see contemporary dance alongside new works of poetry.


I marvelled at the idea that kids today get to study Joelle Taylor in the classroom. English lessons must be so much fun and serious and challenging and rewarding. I declined the offer to inspect her damp pits, how could she get nervous with that kind of commanding presence and explosive delivery? I revelled in the Orcadian filth of Harry Giles, has there ever been a voice so determined not to be defined: they continue to be an inspiration to me.

It was after seeing Zena Edwards that I had the courage to open my Freedom set with a song. I’m not saying my voice is on a par with hers, but she planted the seed in my head, and I’m grateful for it. Zena’s set was full of love, warmth, huge amounts of skill and openness. The musicality and characters from her during the snapshot of city living, seen through the eyes of an Eastern man who drank rum, I say East I think he was Turkish – his dog ate turkish delight that’s for sure. that story was told, the picture described so clearly, I can see the unshaven man looking in the mirror, I can see his dog at his feet, I can picture him weaving through the streets with his camera… perhaps more importantly I could clearly hear his voice coming from Zena.

DLFbc10XcAAyKjTI couldn’t see everything. In between my own commitments to the festival, I tried to see as much as I could. My Contains Strong Language came to a close to the ethereal northern tones of The Unthanks as they opened the songbook of Molly Drake. The arrangements were beautiful, the setting of a dressed up Jubilee Church stunning, seeing a tiny baby Nick – footage from the family archive – was somehow surreal. The poetry particularly the one about the two different kind of worlds – the daytime world and the world that exists between three and four in the morning – when inner demons are left to roam freely – those words hit home. For the second time a tear escaped the corner of my eyes as the idea of time being both enemy and saviour, was firmly planted.

DLCwoqDWkAA54U_There’s much more that could be said about Contains Strong Language, like remembering that Fred Voss could do funny on the factory floor and by owning more radios than Rumbelows, the Latvian outfit Orbita blew everyone’s circuitry. Katherine Williams singing gorgeous words and playing guitar without whiskey, but with a sliced finger. Blood, sweat and tears and some delicious leek and potato soup – thank you Ian McMillan.


Brilliant, beautiful and bloody well done all of you. For more updates: #Hull17CSL

Images used by permission, courtesy of Jerome Whittingham for lots more festival images go to: Jerome.photoshelter.com


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Nicholas Lezard: A Not So Bitter Experience

I cannot let the visit from journalist, literary critic and author Nicholas Lezard pass by without some comment. Having had a few days – and yet another birthday – to mull over his guest spot at May’s Head In a Book, the writer part of me is left feeling hopeful despite being suspicious of the rather louche world in which he exists.  Continue reading


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Talking About Humber Mouth – Hull Literature Festival

Humber Mouth Hull’s annual Literature Festival starts November 6 and continues over 10 days in the city. A good friend asked me this week why it was called Humber Mouth. I responded that we live beside the Humber Estuary and Humber Mouth is about bringing many different voices to the city, to share their love for and encourage engagement with, the written and spoken word. Nov 6th Humber Mouth Launch Night will take place at Central Library 6pm and is free to all. Continue reading

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