People: Julia Walker

Julia Walker made Cillian Murphy’s trademark flat cap in Peaky Blinders and worked on Russell Crowe’s body armour in Gladiator. Now the theatre maker is picking up her paintbrush to pursue new creative adventures. Interview by Deborah Grace.

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People – Caroline England

Divorce lawyer turned author, Caroline England, talks to Deborah Grace about the inspiration for her debut novel, Beneath the Skin.

What is your earliest memory?

I can’t remember much before I was eight. That’s when I went to boarding school, which defined my childhood. I remember being homesick and missing my parents. Having fun too, but eight is quite young to be sent away. I was the youngest of five and the others had all gone. Mum and Dad, who was a solicitor, came from working class backgrounds and they thought they were doing the best thing for us all.

How long have you lived in South Manchester?

Ever since I came to Manchester University, as a law student, more than 20 years ago! I’m originally from Sheffield. I lived in student digs in Stretford and Northern Moor and bought my first house – a tiny little terrace – in Levenshulme. I moved to West Didsbury and finally to Didsbury, where I’ve lived ever since.

How long have you been writing?

Approximately 10 years. With three young daughters, I took the decision to give up working as a solicitor and have time with the girls. At first I was dabbling and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve taken writing more seriously and treated it as a job. I’ve had a variety of short stories and poems published, but it’s really exciting to have my debut novel, Beneath the Skin, coming out in October. At school, I was good at English and I wrote poetry. I always fancied writing a novel, but, coming from a family of lawyers, I was side-tracked! I would probably have loved doing an English degree.

Tell me about your debut novel

Beneath the Skin is about human weakness, emotions and fears; the secrets we wouldn’t even tell our best friend. It comes under the crime umbrella, but, although suspenseful, it’s a more nuanced read than a pacy, police procedural. It’s strong on characterisation and the ‘domestic noir’ label pretty well sums it up. It’s about four couples, their interconnected lives and the secrets they’re hiding, which eventually unravel. The novel is set in south Manchester – in Didsbury, Chorlton, Alderley Edge and Hale – so you’ll recognise some familiar places. I’ve renamed a Withington pub, where the male characters meet up, but if you’ve ever drunk there, you’ll probably spot it!

How has your legal career influenced your writing?

As a trainee solicitor I worked, mainly, in criminal law. After that I did divorce and matrimonial work, then went on to do professional indemnity work, representing professionals such as solicitors, accountants and architects, who’d made a mistake – or not, as the case might be. I’m interested in people and the human condition; about how we put on a brave face, but there’s all sorts happening in our heads that we don’t talk about. Like my legal work, my writing is all to do with issues, frailties and being flawed human beings. In matrimonial cases, for instance, you’re seeing people naked, effectively; raw, human emotion! 25 When I finished with law I did some voluntary mediation work for the south Manchester community, which again had a huge influence on my writing. It’s fascinating hearing the same story told from two different viewpoints, which is very much what writing is about.

Any literary influences?

I’ve always loved Roald Dahl’s short story collections; books like Kiss Kiss and Switch Bitch, which were turned into Tales of the Unexpected for TV. Spiteful little stories with a real sting in the tail! They were quite racy, too. My copy of Switch Bitch was confiscated at school! I’ve always enjoyed crime novels; Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels (televised with Jason Isaacs) are interesting in the way they blend contemporary, literary fiction with crime and psychological aspects. I hope my novels have managed to do that too.

Any more in the pipeline?

Book number two, My Husband’s Lies, will be published by Avon Harper Collins, hopefully, next May. Again, it’s about people, secrets, lies and discoveries.

Any tips for aspiring writers?

Just do it! There are so many setbacks, so many rejections and criticism. It feels really personal, but you just have to carry on. And the more you write, hopefully, the better you’ll become.

What makes you happy?

Being with my children and husband; holidays and being around the dinner table together. Family is the main thing for me and, obviously, I love writing as well!

I love South Manchester because…

It’s so eclectic – the people, different cultures and personalities. It has a warmth about it and I love the trees and greenery. Fletcher Moss is on the doorstep and we have the River Mersey, the water parks and beautiful countryside. I must love South Manchester because that’s the setting for my novels!

Beneath the Skin is published by Avon Harper Collins on 5 October 2017.

Homelessness in South Manchester

Life without running water, sanitation, heating, washing or cooking facilities is not something that anyone should experience in the 21st century.

Life on the streets is also dangerous and harmful to health. Average life expectancy in Manchester is 79 for men and 83 for women: for rough sleepers, it’s 47 for men and just 43 for women.

Homelessness is a growing problem in Manchester. We’ve seen an increasing number of people street begging and sleeping rough – including in tents – which has caused concern among residents, businesses and visitors alike. It’s a complex issue, however, and working with rough sleepers can be a long process. Not everyone that you see on Manchester’s streets is unsupported:

  • Some rough sleepers need ongoing support to move them away from the streets. This can take time; a lot of work is often being done behind the scenes by the council, health and voluntary services.
  • Some rough sleepers have been offered accommodation or other support many times, but have been unwilling, or unable, to take that help.
  • Some are street beggars who already have accommodation elsewhere. This may be the case for a number of people who beg in South Manchester.

The best way to help is to encourage people who are street begging and/or sleeping rough to access long-term support. The city has come together under the Manchester Homelessness Partnership to tackle the challenge.

Stephanie Moore and Becky Elliott run Chorlton’s Reach Out to the Community: “We’re one of several organisations in the partnership that offers very practical and direct help, from arranging medical appointments to supplying food, clothes or travel costs. In common with the City Council and other agencies, we ask that you don’t give money to homeless people directly: it really doesn’t help them. By doing so, you’re incentivising begging and possibly enabling an addiction.”

Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Work with local groups like Reach Out to the Community
  • Become part of the Manchester Homelessness Partnership by signing the Manchester Homelessness Charter and making a pledge;
  • Donate to Big Change – a partnership fundraising campaign across Manchester. Find out what really helps people to get off the streets, rather than sustaining them there.

“Homeless people deserve better lives, away from the streets,” says Stephanie. “They need support, respect and encouragement to engage with the help that’s available – and that help is definitely out there.”

Find out more by visiting the Street Support Network.

A Greater Manchester

All eyes may be on June’s General Election, but the Greater Manchester Mayoral Election in May is a key part of the most comprehensive devolution deal for any English region. Dr Andrew Mycock talks to Ella Parkinson about why local matters too.

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