EVENT REVIEW: Crime at Durham Book Festival

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Article by Gabriel Brown

Kicking off with the IAS Debate: ‘This house believes there is no such thing as hard evidence’, my three-part article on “Crime at Durham Book Festival” begins.

I confess to feeling a bit out of my depth when the debate first opened. I was hearing words I didn’t understand, in an argument about topic I didn’t understand. Thankfully this subsided quickly, and made way for an interesting debate, with convincing points of view brought forth from both sides.

First up was Professor Judith Howard, fighting against the existence of “hard evidence”, using slightly off-the-wall but effective points to do so. This included the unpredictability of British weather and how just because we say it will be sunny doesn’t mean it will (obviously, it’s typically rain in our case!) She also talked about pathology, fraud and new technology; she was making the point that improvements in technology means that it’s easier to fake “hard evidence”, using Photoshop and suchlike.

Next up, arguing for the ‘for’ team was Dr. Dan Grausam. He immediately shifted attention to him in an instant, getting the audience laughing and rooting for him, which I’ll admit worked in my case, as I didn’t want everything to be about science I didn’t understand! He called us “the makers of hard evidence”: without us all being there, he pointed out, the book festival could not have existed.

Author Peter Guttridge, argued against “the existence of hard evidence” with some very valid points: we all know eyewitnesses aren’t truly reliable, and he also spoke about an experiment conducted where people had to count the number of times a basketball was passed around, yet the majority of people who watched missed the woman with the umbrella walk into the room! This is known as inattention blindness. He then launched into more science stuff, at which point I got a bit lost again….

Author Louise Welsh was up last, with probably the most interesting method of explaining hard evidence’s existence. She dropped a pen, demonstrating the hard evidence of gravity, before asking us all to prepare the cameras on our phones before she pulling a gun (thankfully not real, though I’d like to see a real gun, call me crazy) on her fellow panelist. Once the pictures were taken, she maintained, there was proof, hard evidence, that she had shot him. She also mentioned a case where the culprit had been caught with pollen! And she advised us that the best way of killing someone is pushing them down the stairs. Nervous laughter ensued (at least I’m hoping it nervous!)

At the end of it all we were asked to vote for who had convinced us more.  I went with Dan and Louise, mainly because they had explained things in a simpler way and also (especially in Louise’s case) in a more interesting manner. However, the final vote was 30 “for” and 26 “against”, meaning most of the house believed there was no such thing as hard evidence. It was a very interesting event, to say the least.


Next on the agenda was The Story Of Wearside Jack, an event based around the book “I’m Jack”, written by Mark Blacklock.

Wearside Jack was the nickname given to a man known as John Humble, who pretended to be the Yorkshire Ripper on a number of occasions. Humble sent letters, as well as a recorded audio message, taunting authorities for not being able to catch him. The audio message, however, was spoken with a Wearside accent, causing the investigation to be moved away from the West Yorkshire area. However, as the actual killer, Peter Sutcliffe, inhabited this area this moving of the investigation allowed Sutcliffe to continue his attacks on women and actually delayed his arrest by two years! About 25 years after all this, a fragment of DNA was found on one of the envelopes, leading to an 8-year prison sentence for Humble.

This is the detail I wish I had knowledge of going into the event. As interesting as it all was, there were many names mentioned (such as Humble) who I did not know of, which confused me throughout the event. I feel as if I am mainly to blame (I, after all, came to the event lacking knowledge), though if you had never heard of the story or read the book, I would guess that you’d be as confused as I was. Mark Blacklock was joined with a panel of crime experts from Northumbria University. There was Professor of Criminology Mike Row, court expert Dr. Michael Stockdale, and law expert Adam Jackson. They spoke about how the case did and didn’t work, why some people admit to crimes they don’t have anything to do with, and most importantly, how the police could be misled for so long.

Mark spoke also about the research he did, and how he went about turning fact into fiction. He mentioned how he fictionalized some evidence, to confuse the reader even more.

I admit this whole event confused me, but this was only due to my knowledge of who was who. Once I came away and found out what was going on (with a bit of help from Simon Savidge of Savidge Reads!), I understood everything and in retrospect can see how good the event really was.

If you are considering giving the book a read, check out fellow reviewer Chloe Allan’s review here:

If you want to see a different opinion on this event, check out one of my other fellow reporters, Annie-Rose Mears, take on things:

Last but not least was Inside Durham Crown Court, ending my three-part crime article, as well as ending my time as a reviewer in residence for the festival. This took place in the court itself, which hasn’t opened to the public for an event like this ever before and was hosted by HH Judge Prince.

To sum it up quickly, this event was incredibly interesting, a mixture of real- life accounts, quotes and even a ghost story!

We were also shown where people were originally hanged (see the photo below). There are small filled-in blocks, which are where poles were pulled out, with holes/hooks used for hanging people from. Rather gruesomely, these are situated right next to the front door: so the crowds could get a good view, we were told!

The notorious Mary Ann Cotton, who’s trial was held in the court itself, was brought up too. We were told how her trial was delayed several months, due to the fact she had a child beforehand. Cotton’s child went on to have children of her own and a man now working at the court shares a house with Mary Ann Cotton’s great grandson!

The modernisation of the court was mentioned also. This mainly focused on giving access to women, who weren’t allowed to serve on a jury until the 1920’s.

Overall, the event was amazing, giving an incredibly interesting inside look at a court and court cases. I can also now say I’ve been to court. Not the best thing to admit, perhaps?