Life in death: the legacy of Henrietta Lacks

In 1951 a woman called Henrietta Lacks died in Baltimore, USA. These are cells from her body. 

They were taken from her just before she died. They have been growing and multiplying ever since.

There are now billions of these cells in labs across the world. If massed together they would span more than 105 kilometers and weigh 400 times Henrietta’s original body weight. 

The cells have helped to develop vaccines and further our understanding of cancer, HIV and AIDS, and the behaviour of human cells in general. 

Images from Wikipedia

Life in death

Here’s a timeline of Henrietta’s life, death, and her subsequent gift to science.


Henrietta Lacks is born on 1 August in Roanoke, Virginia.


Henrietta’s mother dies. She is raised by her grandparents in Clover, Virginia.


Henrietta gives birth to her first child, Lawrence, when she’s 14. The father is Henrietta’s cousin, Day.


She gives birth to her daughter Elsie.


Henrietta marries Day aged 20. Their young family move to Turner Station in Baltimore.


After the birth of her fifth child, Henrietta goes to The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to have a “knot on her womb” diagnosed.

She is told she has cervical cancer, but she doesn’t tell her family.

She has radium treatment and starts x-ray therapy. She is told she can’t have any more children.


Henrietta becomes very ill. She finally reveals the extent of her illness to her family, showing them the burn marks from radiation.

She returns to hospital and is told her cancer is inoperable. She has tumours throughout her body.

Cells are taken from her tumours. They are sent to a lab run by scientist George Otto Gey. He creates the first immortal human cell line by isolating one of Henrietta’s cells and repeatedly dividing it, so it can be used for experiments.

Henrietta dies on 4 October.


Henrietta’s cells continue to multiply quickly and aggressively. The samples are packaged and sold to labs across the world for scientific research.

They are called HeLa cells after Henrietta’s first and last names.


Jonas Salk opens a HeLa cell production factory where he uses the cells to develop the first polio vaccine. Within a year the vaccine is ready for human trials – and it becomes a staple of child healthcare around the world.

Demand grows for HeLa cells. Gey sells more samples to labs across the world for scientific research.


A geneticist accidentally spills chemicals on HeLa cells at a lab in Texas. They instantly grow in size and untangle themselves, making them more visible under the microscope.


Joe Hin Tjio and Albert Levan use HeLa cells to identify that humans have 46 chromosomes. Before this it was believed to be 48.

In another scientific milestone, HeLa cells are the first human cells to be successfully cloned.


It is discovered that HeLa cells can travel through the air. They contaminate other tissue samples being used to find a cure for cancer, wasting millions of dollars of scientific research.


The Lacks family begin to receive requests for blood samples from researchers hoping to replace the contaminated cells. They find out for the first time that samples from Henrietta have been used for research.


Despite other cell lines being created, HeLa cells are the gold standard. They still multiply at a remarkable rate, capable of doubling in 24 hours.

They continue to be sold for billions of dollars for research into the effects of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as HIV and AIDS, gene mapping and other scientific pursuits.


Biologist Leigh Van Valen claims the HeLa cells are “no longer human” because they don’t behave like human cells. Some scientists consider them an entirely new species.


HeLa cells are used to test how the parvo virus infects humans, dogs and cats.


German virologist Harald zur Hausen uses HeLa cells to find a link between HPV and cervical cancer, which leads to the creation of two HPV vaccines. He is awarded the Nobel Prize.


The number of scientific articles published about research involving HeLa cells reaches 60,000.


HeLa cells develop new strains as they continue to mutate in different lab conditions across the world. They have genetically evolved to adapt to their environment – a petri dish – as a result of natural selection.


Two members of the Lacks family are invited to serve on the National Institute of Health group responsible for reviewing researchers’ applications for access to HeLa cells.


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Giving nothing away

The evening was a write-off.

He’d wasted it staring into the mid-distance, focusing neither on the automated video playlist that had started with AC/DC and somehow finished with Wham!, or the book that had ended up closing itself. In three hours he’d got up once to put the kettle on. But he’d not listened out for it boiling, so he didn’t get up a second time to make the cup of tea. Everything he did that day had been half-arsed.

He thought about the people who must have climbed mountains today, rescued trapped pets from burning houses, and danced as they watched their favourite band play live. And he’d been sat here the whole time.

Still, it would soon be time to rest.

It was very late. Before he went to bed he decided to check his Facebook. He opened his laptop and fired up his browser. He tapped the F key and the URL filled itself out. Then he hit Return.

He looked at his friends’ posts. Most of them were just updates about which restaurant or bar they were at. Or to say what they thought of the latest person to get booted off whatever reality show they were watching. Or links to sponsorship pages for charity runs or bike rides.

He spent the best part of an hour scrolling through dozens, hundreds of posts that did nothing to even change the expression on his face – tired, still, and sunken.

He was about to close his browser when he saw her.

He recognised her almost straight away, even from the little thumbnail photo. It was the smile. When she smiled you could tell she was holding herself back, giving nothing away. A kind of Mona Lisa smile. He looked at her name. It was down as Stephanie.

He’d always known her as Stef. With an f.

He loved her.

He clicked on her picture and went to her profile. He wanted to see what other photos she had on there. She was married now with a family. There were albums of her on holiday, at a theme park, and dressing up for Halloween. There were other albums of her on nights out with her mates, on girls’ holidays, and at weddings. She was always smiling. Smiling that smile he remembered. It was special.

He yawned and rubbed his eyes, half asleep in his seat, until he spotted something that woke him right back up again. It was another picture, but a picture from back in the day. Old pictures like that take you right back, but this one especially, because it was him that took it.

It was taken in the Highlands.

He and Stef had rented a cottage in the middle of nowhere with some uni mates, to celebrate the end of the year. There were about eight of them, and they were all going home for Christmas, so they’d decided to do something different – and get pissed together somewhere random. That’s how they ended up booking this cottage.

It was freezing, but sunny and crisp, and there was no one else around. It was nice. He’d taken loads of cool photos, mainly of the lochs near the cottage, and a few group shots of everyone in a line with a forest in the background. Stuff like that. It all went up on Facebook.

But with this photo, he remembered exactly what he was thinking at the time. It was the last one he took before everyone went home.

It was the morning they checked out. They had to check out at 10am, so everyone looked a little rough. The sun was in everyone’s eyes. No one looked like they wanted their picture taken. In fact one guy looked like he was going to throw up.

He remembered everyone getting into position for the photo. He was stood next to Stef, at the back. Everyone was up close, but they were up close in a way that said: “I want you.” Everyone else was talking but them, who were pretending to listen, but were really having their own little moment.

Nothing had happened between them on the trip. They’d got drunk together and chatted to other people, played sharades, cooked. But now was the best part. There was something in the air. He remembered how excited he was that she seemed interested in him.

The guy who’d suggested taking the picture was going back to Italy that summer, for good, so someone in the shot said that someone else should take it, so the Italian guy could be in it.

He said he’d take it. He walked to the front, took the camera from the Italian guy, then knelt down and said: “Say cheese.”

Most people in the photo looked weird. They were making ‘Ch’, ‘eee’, or ‘zzz’ faces after all. He looked at their expressions and laughed. But she, Stef, wasn’t saying “cheese”. She was just looking at the lens, through to him. She looked beautiful. Her eyes were narrowed and her smile was turned up at one end of her mouth, as if she was speaking to him both then and now, saying: “Dude, I love you.” She was on her own in the photo, and there was a space next to her where he had stood, before he agreed to take it.

He zoomed in on her face until it filled his laptop screen. That Mona Lisa smile, giving nothing away. So elegant and exciting. So perfect.

The next morning he woke up on the sofa. Dawn’s blue glow crept in from behind the curtains. He opened his eyes slowly and saw feet standing nearby. He turned his head. It was Stef.

“Morning,” he said. But she didn’t reply.

He was in the living room. Their living room, where he must have drifted off. With his laptop on his lap. It was boiling.

She wasn’t smiling anymore. He hadn’t seen her smile in years.


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Little one

She was doing her third lot of washing that morning when Kenny waddled in and said he'd shat himself. She told him to stand there until she'd finished. He didn't. He rolled around on the floor for a bit and screamed like a velociraptor. Then he took his nappy off and flung it at her. She tried to stay calm and finish what she was doing. She rinsed the suds off the baking tray and stacked it on the draining board, which looked like a scrapheap with all the cups, plates and bottles on top of each other. With washing up, there was always more than meets the eye.

"Right, let's get you sorted," she said, taking off her apron. In the living room she heard Loose Women coming on the TV. She wanted to watch it with a cup of tea, but she had to get Kenny cleaned up first. She couldn't believe that's what she wanted to do. And that she wasn't even able to do it. When did she become the person she swore she'd never be?

Kenny had gone upstairs. After wiping herself down she went to look for him. Following the small brown smears up to the top, she heard him in her bedroom. The door was half closed, and from the landing she could only see his legs and feet. He'd climbed up onto her dressing table, and she could hear him going through her makeup and jewellery. She imagined him dribbling and getting his shit everywhere. Of course, in the most adorable way.

"Where is he?" she said, putting on a baby voice. "Where's he hiding? Ready or not, here I come!"

She opened the door to her room and found him playing with her pearl necklace. Nothing was broken, it was all fine.

She caught her reflection in the mirror. Fuck, she thought. Is that me? She knew she wasn't looking her best - she didn't mind that. It was her expression. It was the way she looked sad and worried at the same time. She pulled the same smile she'd just smiled on the landing, to see what it looked like. It didn't look like a smile. It was just her opening her mouth into an oval shape. The sides of her mouth didn't curl up at the ends, and her eyes were dead. She blinked slowly and it hurt. It felt like a bruise was on her eye. She touched it and felt a lump. It was a stye.

"We play football with this mummy," said Kenny. He'd split her pearl necklace and there were white balls everywhere. "Mummy, we play football now!"

Kenny woke her up every hour of the night until he was five. When most other people would have slept for eight hours straight, she was getting up every 60 minutes through the night, for five years. Her friends who had kids the same age seemed to sleep just fine. Most of their kids started sleeping through the night when they were two.

She didn't mind. When Kenny's made a success of himself one day, he'll remember his good old mum. He could grow up to be an actor, a football player, an astronaut, and he will remember the part she played in it. That would make it all worth it, she thought. The more she suffered now, the more joyful it would be later. That was the pay off. Her mother told her that to get her through those early days, and it was how she coped with the stress of raising a child.

But Kenny wasn't that into drama at school. He hung around boys who said it was "gay". And because he tended to give up on stuff he couldn't master straight away, he didn't take to sports either. And the astronaut thing just wasn't going to happen. He didn't hate doing things, he was just indifferent. He wasn't really that into anything, and he didn't care.

Kenny did alright in his GCSEs, but not well enough to get into sixth form, as she'd hoped. He got a job as a support worker at an old people's home nearby, and carried on living at home.

Most of his friends went to sixth form, and he lost touch with them after a while. Because of that, she lost touch with the other mums she knew. It made her feel lonely, even though they made her feel bad about herself, not on purpose, but by telling her about all the amazing things their kids were doing. They thought she was shy, but they only talked about their kids, and she never had anything good to say about Kenny. As he developed into his late teens he started to look a lot like his father. The long, triangular jaw and the thick brow. Even though he rarely saw his dad, Kenny still acted like him. He was a negative person, and never motivated to do more than the bare minimum, and see past the status quo. She realised that, despite all the chances and inspiration she'd tried to give him, in the end most things come down to genetics. Kenny was 18 by the time she knew this.

When Kenny went full time at the old people's home she asked him for rent. At first he refused, but then when she threatened to kick him out he started paying up. He agreed to pay £40 per week.

She was watching Loose Women, and laughing in the way that only middle-aged divorcees can, when he came and sat down next to her. He usually sat down on the armchair, rather than sharing the sofa with her.

"Why aren't you in your armchair?" she said.

He didn't say anything. He just stared at the amber glow of the three-bar heater at her feet.

"Hey, aren't you supposed to be at work?" she said.

"Mum, do you love me?" said Kenny. As the heat rose it made her toes look all blurry.

"Of course I do, my little one," she said. She smiled and ruffled his hair.

"Well why don't you show it?"

When you see it written down like that, it doesn't really look like much of a statement. But something about the way he said it really got to her. Why don't you show it. With his dad's vacant look, with his mouth slightly open. Answering his own question.

And then it all came back to her. The three-day labour, the sleepless nights, the three jobs she'd worked to pay the bills. The shame she felt when around the other parents. Not once had he lived up to the hype. They say babies never ask to come into the world, but he did. He wasn't planned. Even now she cleaned up after him. There was still not one moment of joy.

"Get out," she said.

"Why do you charge me rent? None of my mates have to pay rent," he said.

"Get out!" she said again.

He looked at her as if he was going to hit her.


"And the Academy Award goes to... Kenny Cooper!"

"And now we go live to Captain Kenny Cooper and his team from space, as they continue their journey to Mars."

"And it's Cooper with the winner, in the last minute of extra time!"

She was fantasising about memories she'd promised herself. It was dark outside and there was nothing on telly, so her mind was wandering. Wondering, about him. She realised she missed him. And that surprised her. They'd not been in touch for over a year.

Then for the first time, she imagined him fucking up as an astronaut. Like, just spending all day floating around in zero gravity rather than contributing anything to whatever space mission he was part of. She sniggered. Then she thought about him failing as a footballer - getting so angry with another player for being so good that he would pick up the ball, belt it out the stadium, and walk off the pitch. She laughed out loud. Then she imagined him as the worst actor in the world, forgetting his lines on stage, and just looking into the audience blankly, as he tried to remember them. She snorted and the tea that was in her mouth went everywhere.

It didn't matter, she realised. None of it mattered, the hopes and dreams. None of it. A chill washed over her, and suddenly her eyes felt wet. Nothing mattered to her except for one thing. Kenny was her son. God, what had she done?

Her bones clicked as she shot up from the couch. She went to the door and put her feet in her boots. She was still wearing pyjamas, but she put on her long coat so people wouldn't notice - unless they really looked hard. It was much colder than she thought it'd be. But it was fine. In fact, she couldn't stop smiling. Kenny was her son. She thought about the other parents who would understand what she felt. She hadn't always felt like this, but now she did. And he was gone.

She saw the pub sign in the distance. The fog had lifted around it. She picked up the pace and even though her laces had come undone, she didn't stop to tie them. She had to get there.

"Kenny!" she said as she came in through the door. One or two heads looked up from the bar. A couple of guys playing pool stopped and stared back at her.

It was a rough pub. The walls were nicotine yellow. There were crisp packets on the floor. A pint glass on the bar filled up with drips from the leaky ceiling. But she knew Kenny often used to come in here. And if he wasn't in here today, someone was bound to know where he was.

"Is Kenny here?" she said, looking between them all.

A barman climbed up from the cellar, breathing heavily.

"Kenny Cooper?" he said, coughing.

She nodded.

"I haven't seen Kenny in months. He used to be in here every day from about six til last orders. He played for our pool team on Thursdays," the barman said.

"Where is he?" she said.

The barman said: "He left town. He met a girl and then got a job where she was from. It all happened pretty quickly. Why, who's asking?"

"His mum," she said.

"He mentioned you a couple of times," the barman said.

She nodded and smiled, but the barman didn't elaborate. One of the men playing pool came over.

"Here, I've got his number. Give him a call, see how he's getting on. Tell him Dave says hello," the man said.

"I will, thank you," she said.

She left the pub. On the way home, she saw a group of kids hanging out on bikes near the bins. One of them was doing a wheelie on his own, the others were slumped over their handlebars.

She shouted over to them: "Your mothers love you!"

They looked back at her, baffled. Usually they were laughing at how terrified of them she was. She had a completely different energy today.


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What is the point of running?

Running is hard. It hurts, and it’s boring – especially if you don’t listen to music. It can be lonely, frustrating, even soul destroying, depending on the weather and what mood your body and mind are in.

I understand why people call it pointless. There are no real goals to work towards. There’s no ball to chase, no wickets to aim for. When you finish running, there’s no saying whether you’ve won, lost or drawn. Whether it’s a 5K or an ultramarathon, running doesn’t exactly achieve anything.

Sure, you can track your progress. You get home, check your Strava app, and hope you’ve shaved a few seconds off your personal best. I used to think this was why I ran – to keep pushing myself to hit new targets, get faster times, and go longer distances. With all the fitness tech, tracking apps and health data available, it’s easy to obsess over the numbers you’re getting. But it’s not that important.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see your progress as a runner. It’s always nice to know you’ve improved, and have the facts to prove it. But then, what about next time? You’ll have to go one better, and one better the time after that. Eventually you won’t be able to – and if progress-tracking is all you’re running for, that moment will be brutal.

Forget about outcomes for a second

Running is about putting in time to do something that doesn’t achieve anything, which flies in the face of our outcome-driven world. You’ve got to think in terms of what you need to do by the end of the week, where you want to be in six months’ time, and whether you’re making good on your five-year life plan – right? So why bother doing something if you’re not going to put it on your CV, or add it to your Twitter feed?

I often think like that. After all, if you want to live an accomplished life, you need to challenge yourself to learn, grow and achieve – always. It’s good to have personal targets and life goals. But they can stress you out.

So you’ve got two options:

  1. Screw the targets and live a life of simple joys and pleasures, and hope that you can justify that to yourself on your deathbed. 
  2. Keep aiming towards targets and goals, but balance the pressure by enjoying the moments you’re experiencing, rather than looking past them all the time.

If you chose option two, then there are a few ways you can consciously live in the present.

You can take drugs, and notice how different chemicals affect your consciousness, emotions and interaction with other people. BUT whatever goes up must come down, and if a negative thought gets inside your head, it can grow like a disease.

You can listen to music, and enjoy how sounds can swell and give a heightened sensation of time passing. BUT when it’s gone, it’s gone. If you put the same track on again it won’t feel the same.

You can meditate, which is kind of like running BUT without the physical benefits or outward-looking benefits.

Or you can go running.

You are both significant and insignificant

The glory of running is not in the finishing, but the humbling, exhilarating, perspective-bringing process of getting there. Running through nature reminds you that while the world is much bigger than you are, you can do so much within in it. Like you are both significant and insignificant.

Running is an escape. It’s impossible to worry about anything too much if you’re running. Your mind’s attention is taken up by listening to your body, and taking in the outdoors around you. In Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he says:

“The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky.”

I’ve been running for two years, and I haven’t yet discovered a down side. Even when your muscles are aching after a middle or long-distance run, it’s their way of saying ‘thank you’. (However, after I recently did the Yorkshire Marathon, it took them a good couple of days for them to come to their senses.)

So that’s why I run. For the joy of knowing I can.*

*And because I get to eat lots of food.


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VIDEO: Millennial entitlement is a great thing. Here's why.

A lot of experts believe millennials (people born between 1980 and 1995) have a sense of entitlement. They say this gives us inflated self-perceptions, unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance to criticism.

As one of the many millennials raised to believe they are 'special', here I talk about how these characteristics form a winning mentality that can help overcome life's knocks and drive achievement.

The video below is an abridged version of my talk at York's Pecha Kucha Night.


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Viewing is essential


ENTRANCE HALL (3.6m x 1.3m) where they squeezed in their furniture on Moving In Day, as dad helped them unload all the bags and boxes from the van outside.

CARPET FLOORING, which got ruined by the peppered footprints of his hiking boots, and helped them agree a ‘no shoes inside’ rule.

LARGE STORAGE CUPBOARD, where they kept their old photographs and study folders that she’d secretly get out and go through to remind her of more exciting times.

DOUBLE BEDROOM (4.3m x 2.6m) where she’d brought him a pot of tea and a plate of toast, fried eggs and bacon, the afternoon after his birthday party.

DOUBLE-GLAZED WINDOWS they’d argue about opening or shutting, especially in May and October.

BUILT-IN WARDROBE she stared at, wondering which summer dresses to pack for that holiday by the sea she’d told him was a weekend at her parents’.

EN-SUITE BATHROOM (2.2m x 2.9m) where she found herself belting out Bohemian Rhapsody the morning after he moved out.

SINK AND MIRROR he looked in nervously as she tried to shave his stubble for the first and last time in something that could have been one of those Gillette moments.

ELECTRIC SHOWER OVER BATH, where he scattered tea lights and rose petals on the Valentine’s Day she hadn’t made it back from the office.

TILED FLOORING that felt cold on her left cheek when she woke up hungover and confused one morning, briefly forgetting he’d left weeks before.

EXTRACTOR FAN that came on with the light switch, and woke him up every time he slept in that bed.

HEATED TOWEL RAIL they hung their underwear on when they knew they’d have no one visiting for a while.

KITCHEN DINER (6.8m x 4.9m) where he held her tight and spun her around when she opened the letter saying she’d got the trainee solicitor job.

FRIDGE FREEZER that wouldn’t close because of all the booze, meat and dips they’d bought for their housewarming party.

WASHER/DRYER she filled with extra detergent to get the smell of sick out her jacket.

ELECTRIC OVEN WITH GAS HOBS he spent an hour scrubbing clean after the food fight with squirty cream and porridge oats.

BALCONY WINDOWS she gazed out of while watching the raindrops race each other down the streaky glass, answering “nothing” whenever he asked “what’s up?”

SEATING AREA where he’d read all the text messages from her colleague.


ELECTRIC HEATING that came on during the night, and made his month sleeping by the radiator on the living room floor more bearable.

ON-STREET PERMIT PARKING where he sat behind the wheel of his car and took a few deep breaths before driving away.

CYCLE STORE, where she’d go to call her friend from work.

GROUND FLOOR ENTRANCE where they sometimes left each other ‘I love you’ and ‘From Your Secret Admirer’ type notes in their post box.

COMMUNAL LIFT where they used to kiss as it took them up or down.

EASY ACCESS TO LOCAL AMENITIES, like the convenience store where he bought her those Happy Anniversary flowers two years running.

CLOSE TO CITY CENTRE AMUSEMENTS, where they first met and could only see the sun.

Viewing is essential.


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It's only natural: metaphors at the beach

Nature has a way of making everything in its power symbolic of something or other. Here’s a selection of potential metaphors I collected from Bridlington beach – free to a good home.

  • Clumps of ruined sandcastles that once stood proud and tall
  • Jagged fragments of mussel shells that’ll scratch you if you don’t watch out
  • The tide that already looks distant is retreating even further
  • The UV rays you don’t feel because of the breeze, which doesn’t make them any less harmful
  • Lines drawn in the sand that become less defined with time, replaced with natural grooves that no one can affect or influence
  • If you hold sand too tightly it slips between your fingers
  • Each individually brilliant grain of it looking generally the same in the company of many others
  • Seagulls swooping for anything neglected, which their numbers suggest they always find
  • Flags flapping so violently you can’t tell what they represent
  • The blurred glimmer of light from inside the public loos
  • Sunglasses hiding what people are thinking, or where they’re looking
  • Pools of water built on sand where footprints disappear faster than they’re formed
  • The apartments overlooking are pristine – but no one’s home
  • Ball games undermined by the wind they thought wouldn’t matter
  • A motorised dinghy no match for the chopping waves, even though it tries harder
  • Swimming shorts holding on to the thighs they cover – but only when wet
  • A toddler cries next to a mossy wall that’s a thousand shades of green
  • You’ve got to blink, not rub, the sand out of your eyes
  • Everyone confuses seaweed pods with bubblewrap at some point
  • Baseball caps clinging to matted fringes, clinging to sweaty foreheads
  • Contextless feathers intriguing no one
  • A parked tour bus’s livery framed accidentally perfectly between a gap in the railings
  • It’s easy to forget the seagulls look sideways rather than forwards
  • The metal detector man searching for value he can’t see
  • Territorially placed volleyball nets
  • How funny that everyone knows to plan around the cooling of the day
  • How difficult it is to get up when you’ve been sat down for so long


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On finding out my ex-girlfriend was cheating on me

An open letter.

Today, nearly four years after our six-year relationship ended, I found out you were cheating on me.

Things had started off so well between us, in that first naïve summer when neither of us had any worries in the world. Then I went back to university, and you went back home to save up for your first year at drama school.

Was it then that it happened?

We lived 250 miles away, and it was challenging. It seemed particularly tough for you, who had a job washing pots and was jealous at the thought of me living a more exciting student life in which you worried my head would be turned. But I’m a decent person and I stayed faithful. I wished you’d believed me. You needed reassurance so I texted and called you with regular updates, sometimes 30 times a day. And whether I was reading at home, walking to the library, at a gig, or wherever, I was always honest. Every two or three weeks you knew exactly where I was anyway – with you, at your parents’ house, where I spent my student loan travelling to.

Was it then that it happened?

Later that year we hit a rocky patch. It was my second year living in a big city and I was changing. While it was still tough seeing you wave me off from the station platform after spending another weekend together, once I was at the other end I had exciting stuff going on that you were never part of – and didn’t want to understand. One day in the holidays I tried to end our relationship. You begged me to stay and I wasn’t strong enough to see it through, so we gave it another go. That night I told myself things would get easier when you went to drama school, but to be honest it felt like a missed opportunity.

Was it then that it happened?

And things did get easier. You were busier and happier at drama school. You still wanted to know what I was up to and with whom. You said you wouldn’t get upset when I told you, but whenever it involved a female friend, you did. I would spend hours reassuring you, often missing out on conversations and memories with the people around me because of the lengthy phonecalls and texts needed to put your mind at ease. I tried to lead by example by never questioning where you were going or which friends you were spending time with, but it didn’t work. A lesser man would have just lied to you. Despite that, I was excited to visit you. The train prices had gone up, but I got the one at 5am so I could afford it.

Was it then that it happened?

The weeks and months were flying by and pretty soon I was in my final year. We were both doing well and I was optimistic about our future. I was going to be a writer – you an actress. Together we would embody the virtues of following your dreams, doing what you were born to do, and working your ass off to get where you want to be. I knew we could do it.

Was it then that it happened?

After I graduated I went travelling. I remember being our goodbyes at the bus station. It felt like the end of that first summer – just, wrong. Every day I was out there was a countdown to seeing you again. My fingers were sore from writing about you in my journal. I knew that when I returned, you were the girl I would settle down with. I wasn’t afraid of committing. Being away from you for so long gave me that clarity. I remember the teary international phonecall from a payphone somewhere, when I said I was at the halfway point of my journey, and I was now pretty much on my way back to you.

Was it then that it happened?

When I got back, I got a job in the city where you were studying. For a while I lived with you and your flatmates, but I knew it was temporary, because we weren’t ready to take that step just yet. At least I was in the same city as you, and we could see each other all the time. With everything we’d been through, all the train journeys and long-distance calls, we’d really earned that right.

Was it then that it happened?

A year later I took a job out of the city. It was a career decision and we agreed it would be better to give you that extra time to study for your final exams and performances. Sometimes you doubted yourself, and I’d try to motivate you by saying stuff like “you’re special”, “look at how far you’ve come and what you’ve achieved. You just need to keep at it and it’ll happen. It could happen tomorrow”, and “in the end you either succeed or you give up”. I couldn’t bear you to give up on your dreams. Too many people do that. When you graduated with 1st class honours, you thanked me for it. But I said it was all you.

Was it then that it happened?

You moved back home after graduating, and got yourself an agent! Things were looking up. See, I told you things would work out if we stuck at it. We visited each other every few weeks or so, but before long I was in a situation where I needed to find another flat, and we took the opportunity to move in together. We went for a drink to celebrate signing the contract. When you went to the bathroom I remember thinking how happy I was that you’d convinced me to stay with you all those years before.

Was it then that it happened?

I took care of the rent – you helped out with the bills. It made sense, because I was the one with the permanent income. Even if it wasn’t a very good one, it made me feel good to provide. I was happy to support you in getting your acting career started. You couldn’t get a full-time job anyway, because you needed to be available for auditions. You did a few adverts and local theatre jobs here and there, and we celebrated each and every success.

Was it then that it happened?

You seemed tired when we were coming home from spending New Year’s with some of your family down south. When we got back you looked at me and said you were going to stay with your mum and dad for a while, because you needed to think things over. I thought you were kidding. You said: “I might come back in five minutes, or I might never come back,” and left. Our luggage was still on the floor.

It wasn’t nice not knowing. I didn’t want to tell friends and family in case you did come back and they knew we were having problems. I was in limbo. Whenever I’d hear a car slow down outside I thought it was you. But it never was and I got over it and moved to another city to start my next chapter.

I wish you had told me when you started to want different things, rather than do what you did. But thank you. Thank you for adding another twist in the narrative of triumph my life will eventually become. There will be more knocks to come I’m sure. Along with the bullies at scouts, the doubting school teachers and the father who left me as a two-year-old boy, you are part of the crowd who inspires me to go further and better to prove wrong.


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Never wake me up: an extract


Cannick was hired at a hotel and started a few days later. Tahoe hung around for a while and got a job herself. She called her grandma in Thunder Bay and told her she’d visit in a few weeks’ time but wouldn’t be able to stay as long as she’d originally planned. She washed dishes in a café on the outskirts of town, and strangely it was one of the cleaners from the Greyhound terminal that day who gave her the job.

They stayed in the hostel for a couple of months, and moved into their own apartment the day before Halloween. Their next door neighbours threw a party and invited them in, so they met a whole bunch of people there. By the end of the year their friends and family were visiting them and telling them how happy they looked. And they were.

At some point they stopped living paycheque to paycheque and started saving. At around the same time Tahoe went to the bathroom and came out holding a pregnancy test. It was the third one she’d taken so she was pretty sure. It took them a few more months and a promotion for them to get a deposit together for a house, and everything went through before the twins came along.

“Where does the time go,” said Cannick. He was sat in his friend Kelvin’s back garden, holding a glass of water and watching Kit and Elodie play with a plastic gardening shovel.

Elodie was getting fed up of Kit dragging her around by her feet, so she was holding the shovel like a fencer would hold a sword to ward him off. Kit used his size to wrestle it from her and hold it high above his head so she couldn’t get it. She thrashed her arms around to try. His wide-set nose wrinkled as he laughed.

“Does that look alright to you?” he said.

“I guess if one of them hits the other over the head with it you might have a problem,” said Kelvin, climbing up off his deck chair. “I’m going to get another beer. Want one?”

“No thanks,” said Cannick. “You know I don’t drink, right?”

Kelvin stopped. “No way. How long?”

“Five years. I was such a mess you wouldn’t believe it,” said Cannick. “One day at a time.”

Kelvin raised his eyebrows as he disappeared through his French windows. Cannick got up and went over to the twins. The grass was cooler than he thought it would be as his bare feet stroked the neatly trimmed blades and daisies. He’d been outside for most of the afternoon and things had changed over the four hours or so.

“Kit, Elodie, come on, let’s find you something safer to play with,” said Cannick, wrestling the shovel from Kit’s 18-month-old fingers. He pointed towards a pair of tennis balls and nudged them both in that direction. Then he jogged back to the patio where he took his seat again. There was laughter inside the house. The hiss of another beer bottle opening and the clinking of the bottle top dropping onto the floor preceded Kelvin coming back out. He had a huge smile on his face when he did. He smiled at Cannick and then at the twins on his way to his deck chair, before collapsing into it.

“Tennis balls can’t do much harm can they?” he said.

Cannick laughed.

“Unless one of them’s the next Roger Federer,” added Kelvin. “Or the Williams sisters.”

An aeroplane appeared out of the clouds to the west and buzzed over the horizon towards the east. The journey it took, across the green treetops of Van Wallegham Park and the lake nearby, held their attention for half a minute or so. It was the first time Cannick had really taken in his surroundings at Kelvin’s place.

“Show off,” said Kelvin. He took a swig of his beer and added: “That guy flies over here every Sunday. Just when I’m kicking back thinking about how good my life is, there he flies to show me his is even better. His name is Phil Thomas, or Thomas Phillips, or something like that.”

“Just think about how many bigger planes he sees when he’s up there,” said Cannick. He got up and stretched. “Anyway man, we’d better go. It’s getting towards these guys’ feeding time. Thanks for having us.”

“Pleasure. Give my best to Tahoe. Would have been nice to see her today. Hope she’s OK,” said Kelvin.

“She’s fine, just a little under the weather. Summer colds, you know how it is,” said Cannick, walking over to Kit and Elodie. “When did you last see her?”

“Must have been when these two guys were born,” said Kelvin.

Cannick picked up the kids and walked over to Kelvin. “No way,” he said. “We’ll definitely sort something out soon. Say goodbye to uncle Kelvin, kids.”

The twins said nothing.

“They’re tired. we’d better get going,” said Cannick. He made for the side gate that led to the sloped driveway out front. “See you soon, give my best to Tadila.”

“Will do, Cannick. Safe journey.”

With the kids firmly in their baby seats, Cannick got behind the wheel and shut his door.

“Hey Cannick,” said Kelvin. He came up to the window on the driver’s side and gestured for Cannick to wind it down, which he did.

“Hey man,” said Cannick.

Kelvin folded his arms on the door and leaned in uncomfortably close.

“Is everything alright with you and Tahoe?” he said after a while.

Cannick nodded.

“If there’s something going on and you think we can help, well, we’re here anytime,” said Kelvin.

Kelvin studied him for a second and then saw the twins in the back, staring back at him blankly.

“OK then,” he added. “Like I said, it’d be great to see you guys soon. Safe journey.”

Kelvin patted the top of the car a couple of times as a goodbye. He didn’t look back as he walked towards his front door. Cannick took a couple of deep breaths before he turned on the ignition and let the car roll down the driveway.


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VIDEO: People of York

I was honoured to feature in the latest instalment of Plastic Fortune's YouTube documentary series People of York, in which creative people in our city talk about the projects they're working on, what inspires them, and what they think about York.

Having finished my first short story collection Pillow Talk for Insomniacs, I'm now working on a longer novella. You can read the first extract here.


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Why the sea around me is blue

You’ve lost faith in politics because no one in parliament represents you. Trade unions are things from the 1980s, and demonstrations achieve shit. Suddenly you’re given the chance to make a decision that will actually change something. You would take that chance.

Remember that referendum results map of Britain? I live on that island of gold in the middle of the north of England. I woke up at 5.30am last Friday morning and my first three words were “no, no, no”. I’ve been pretty pissed off all weekend but the last thing anyone on the internet wants to see is another Europhile’s ode to Brussels. So I’m making an effort to understand why the sea around me is blue.

What I do know is that our country is not 51.9% old and xenophobic. Sure you can take a look at the results data and see that more young people voted Remain, with the Baby Boomers voting to Leave, but look closer: 38% of 25 to 34-year-olds also voted Leave.

The people who got this over the line were the lost and frustrated working class. By that I don’t mean thick, aggressive bigots who if it weren’t for liking Will Smith would be fully fledged racists – I mean fun, humble, decent people who have been starved of hope for a generation.

In another era, they were represented by the Labour party. But while the parties in Westminster have grown closer over the past 20 years, social inequality has widened. Many voters in Labour’s traditional heartlands – in Wales and across the north and east of England – don’t have anyone speaking up for them anymore.

They know no one will ever make their homes more affordable, their wages more generous, or their jobs more secure. So they vote less, and politicians care less, election after election.

The Leave campaign was the first time they had been given a convincing case for something that could actually change their lives for the better, and “take back the country” they had in mind when they weren’t too old to dream. The referendum had given them hope for the first time. Everyone deserves hope.

Some of them knew Johnson, Hannan and Farage were talking bollocks on Friday – but threw their hats in the ring anyway. After all there was nothing to lose.

The sad thing is that there’s no obvious way that cutting important diplomatic and economic ties with our neighbours will improve anything. In fact it seems like a terrible, irreversible mistake. But I guess I would think that, as someone who has the privilege to understand our establishment and the opportunity to find his way in it – not someone who still needs so much more from their country.

This still hurts, but everyone needs to get over it, and try to make it work. Hopefully it will.


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The room's motion sensor light turned itself off.
He tried waving his hands and it worked.

Dear Heather, he wrote. It's strange that-
He chewed his nail, to make it smooth and even.
But daggers scraped his lips.
He smelt garlic through pores.

Taking his pencil he wrote on the notepad.
That I love you but at the moment-
And tried to stay between the lines.
-I'm not looking forward to seeing you.

He knew that was exactly how he wanted to start it.
Thought of it in the cafe, a few days before.
Wonder if that man sat next to him was meeting someone?
He kept looking over his shoulder. Maybe he was nervous.

The motion sensor light turned off. He waved, it worked.
I do want to come home but I am still horrified-
Why didn't he sit where he could see the front door?
-about last night. Everytime we get back together-
Oh yeah, that seat was taken.
Daggers scraping lips, garlic pores.
-feels like an opportunity missed.

He strayed out of the lines and felt like trying again.
Was it important enough to do a version 'in best'? Yes.
The carpet looked like a bus seat. Just ugly.
Sat at the very back, the feeling of the engine behind him.
And when it stopped on the bridge, at night.
The river beneath him was invisible in the dark.
But he knew it was was there because he could hear it.
Another time, a bike tyre mark embedded in dog shit, at one of the stops.
Time to get a car.

Trying to make his nails smooth and even. He knew better.
Anyway. Let's keep going with this draft for now.
I don't want people watching when I pull up outside-
The pencils in school either said HB or 2B on them.
They were black and red or black and yellow.
-and walk to the front door.

The light went off. Waved, worked.
Daggers on lips. Garlic pores.
Like an opportunity missed, he read over. That was the key bit.
Who knew the inside of your ears could bruise?
That was the main message alright.

Maybe a version 'in best' isn't needed.
He felt like a good person for even considering it was.
It's nice to focus on doing something and just do it y'know.


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About the hipster

Did the hipster eat the last bit of yesterday's stir fry for breakfast this morning? Or was it a greasy spoon bacon butty with ketchup? Would that explain the bloody red stain on his shirt, given to him as a birthday present by his brother a few years ago?

Does the hipster make small talk with the old man sat next to him at the café as he waits for his friend to arrive? Or with the barista before he ordered his drink? What do they talk about? Does the old man, also alone, talk about the graffiti that’s being hosed off the shop shutters across the street? Is his outrage, based on his friendship with the shop owner, rather than his opinion on the graffiti's image of a dog with human teeth, spoken? Has the hipster ever had a conversation with an old person, or a stranger? Does that explain his nervous nail-biting, a habit that dates back to his early teens?

How long does it take to make the hipster's flat white with soya milk? How long should it? Are some baristas better at making certain drinks than others? For example, are there cappuccino and mocha specialists? Are the staff competitive at making designs in the milky froth? Do some make flowers and others love hearts, and how far does that fall along gender lines? Or has the cafe got a particular style, based on managerial preference? Is that style respected even on the manager's days off?

Why does the hipster feel strange when the song I Should Be So Lucky is played at the café? Why does the hipster feel strange when the barista laughs as the chorus kicks in?

Will the hipster be relieved when his friend turns up, or does he like being alone with his thoughts? What does he think about? His week at work? His ill mother? A girl? Does the hipster worry about the future? Does the hipster worry about the present? Does the hipster wonder what his life might be like had he not left his home town and moved to the city? Does the hipster think his A Levels alone will be enough to get a job that he likes? How long-term are his hopes and dreams? Are they based on the ambitions he had as a kid, or on what his peers are doing today?

Does the hipster consider himself a giving person? Do others? Has the hipster enough money to spend in the café for the rest of the afternoon? What’s the hipster’s socio-economic background? Given his public school education and family-subsidised living situation, does the hipster consider himself privileged? How does he compare himself with the old man, the barista, or the guys removing the graffiti from the shop shutters? With whom does he feel closest to? Has the hipster ever voted?

Does the hipster feel more or less important in the café than he does in his apartment’s living room? Does he wear those same chinos when he’s lounging around at home, or pyjamas? Does it depend on who else is around? How many different pairs of trousers does he have? Did he buy them all himself?

How does the hipster compare himself with the young men on the table next to his? Has he noted the difference in quality between his shoes and theirs? Between his chinos and theirs? What bits of conversation does he overhear? Why does he not feel angry when one of them reveals his support for eugenics, given that his mother is critical ill in hospital? Is it primarily because he's never felt such affection towards his family, or because she's been ill a long time? Or did he just not hear the person properly?

Is the hipster aware of the fact that the café flooded just two months before? Is he aware that the café’s owner is being investigated for insurance fraud? How well does the hipster know the café staff? How well does he think he knows them? Would he respect their opinions in a political debate? Does he trust them?

How close is the hipster to other people? Do people consider him shy or rude for not talking much? How many people are in his circle of friends, and do they consider him an important part of that circle, or just on the periphery? To what extent does he define his personal qualities by the memory of one of his first girlfriends saying he was a good listener, as the blue dawn appeared just as everyone else had left the party? When’s the last time the hipster called his mother? Are his chats with his father just watered-down versions of these conversations?

Is the hipster even slightly concerned at the health implications the flat white with soya milk will have on his body? Has he noted the quality of the air in the café? Is he uncomfortable enough on his wooden chair, which has no cushion, to get up and stand at the bar instead? Is the hipster tired of hanging out in cafés? Is he doing what he wants to be doing, or because he feels like he has to? Is he tired generally? How well does he sleep?

Is there a Wi-Fi connection in the café? If yes, is the name and password signposted at the bar, or does it have to be asked for? How much does the hipster spend a month on his phone? £20? £40? How long does his battery last? What does that say about him?

The barista behind the bar – who is she? Is it obvious to people that she’s been working there for many years? How much does the barista make in tips? Have they got a tips jar at the bar, or do people just add an extra few pounds onto their bill? Is it easier for the café owner to distribute the tips one way or the other? Does the barista take home the tips in cash? Are they usually less than she expects them to be? How much less?

Will everyone do and feel this again in a week's time?


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