Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Reflections of Those Who Suffered; VICTIMS of Torture Worked with the Poet Gillian Allnutt on a Book of Poems and Prose, as DAVID WHETSTONE Reports

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Reflections of Those Who Suffered; VICTIMS of Torture Worked with the Poet Gillian Allnutt on a Book of Poems and Prose, as DAVID WHETSTONE Reports

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID WHETSTONE

THERE are real-life tales so terrible that sometimes they can't be told. They are survivors' stories that defy the means of expression most of us take for granted.

Facing each other across City Road in Newcastle are the offices of New Writing North and the North East centre of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.

It was perhaps inevitable the twain should meet. But when the question of a writer-in-residence arose, Alan Brice, who runs the Medical Foundation, was nervous.

"Our clients are often very troubled," he writes in the book which proves he overcame his fears. "And it is my responsibility to ensure they are safely cared for. They have been treated unthinkably, unspeakably. It is a challenge to work professionally, safely, sensitively and intensely with such destructive experiences.

"Many clients won't, can't speak about their lives and struggle to communicate at all, even with an interpreter." But funding for the residency was acquired and "some very good candidates from all over Britain" were interviewed.

The poet Gillian Allnutt, who lives in Esh Winning, County Durham, got the job. As Alan writes, there was "something magical in the room" when Gillian spoke of how she would encourage creative writing.

Officially, the six-month residency is done. The book will be launched today. In Alan's office, he and Gillian reflect on the making of it.

Gillian says she had been going to Quaker meetings for more than a year before she saw the residency advertised. She had become "sick, sick, sick of the me-centredness of the world and the literary world".

The Quakers promised "spiritual dimension" of which she had felt starved.

"It was really difficult at the beginning," she recalls.

"I asked myself what was the opposite of torturing someone and decided it was listening as wholeheartedly as I could, so I engaged people in conversation and let it go where it could.

"The way I described it to myself was hanging about proactively."

The Medical Foundation charity arose out of Amnesty International 25 years ago. It has had a presence in the North East for a few years, explains Alan, but has occupied this office since August 2007.

"We've seen about 200 clients and they come from a very wide range of countries. Torture is prevalent in more countries than it's not prevalent in.

"People find their way to Britain often through an agent who they will pay to get them to a country of safety.

"Some are quite wealthy people who can manage to get across a border themselves. Some struggle and work their way through dangerous parts of Africa and Europe.

"They get referred to us from all sorts of people, maybe a doctor, a solicitor or a housing worker."

Once here, it is their job to prove they are deserving of asylum - a word which can be defined as safety - in this country. …

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