Music to write words by

I’m writing and listening – who says men can’t multi-task? I usually write to cinematic music or ambient electronic so the lyrics don’t get muddled up with the book words in my brain. But I was in the mood for some singing tonight. I love this track by Slow Club – a beautiful belter.

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Name blame game

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Why couldn’t they have just called me something normal?

That was the internal whine that played out in my huffy little head on an daily basis as I was growing up.

Top of the list of acceptable alternatives were Danny and Steve. Proper names. I’d also have been happy with Howie (Colt Seavers’s sidekick in The Fall Guy) and Luke (Skywalker as a middle name would have been an added bonus, but not a deal-breaker).

I remember pleading with my parents to have my name legally changed, but to no avail. For some reason they thought Chae was a fine, interesting name that I would grow to like.

Eh? What the heck did they know, stupid grown-ups?

They might as well have called me Pancake-Trumpet III or Bongo Cheesepipe or Wee Jiggle Pomfrey. Why didn’t they understand?

But they did understand. My dad, Pumperdink, and my mum, Bananalama, were only too aware that you grow into your name (I may have altered their real names to protect their identities).

And they were right, of course. As I went through my teenage years I stopped hating my name and, by the time I was an adult, I actually liked it.

Now I’m grateful to my parents for choosing a more interesting name (inspired by the character Chae Strachan in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic Sunset Song).

Mind you, I still think Luke Skywalker Strathie sounds pretty darn cool. Perhaps if I ever have a son…

The birth of a book

I was clearing out my utility room – or North East Fife Junk Storage Facility as it’s officially known – and came across a rogue notebook. This isn’t unusual as I have countless notebooks scattered round the house, at work, in bags, in the car, in high-security London bank vaults (just glad those perps got caught by the fuzz – some of my best notebooks were in those safety deposit boxes).

I had a flick through and was pleased to discover the first scrappy, messy draft of Bedtime For Tiny Mouse, called Song Of The Stars at the time, which is wishy-washy pants, obviously.

Anyway, it was interesting to be reminded that the most chaotic, untidy noodlings in a notebook can, months or years later, end up as beautifully illustrated picture books (this one by Seb Braun). Which is why notebooks are so precious – too precious for dodgy London bank vaults.

Tiny Mouse went from this . . .

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To this . . .

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The magic of notebooks . . .

Meet Albert

Often when I begin working up a new book (though not always) I’ll doodle the characters. As I don’t illustrate my own work – for obvious reasons – it helps get the creative juices flowing and means I have a lead in mind as I plot out their adventure.

Here’s a doodle from a few nights ago of a new character. meet Albert Baker . . .

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Can’t say too much about what he gets up to yet, and he may never see the light of day. If he doesn’t he’ll join the other sad doodles in The Box Of Unwanted Characters (hmmm… sounds like a good idea for a book that).

A matter of life and death

A few months back I spent a morning with Dr Helen Meadows at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee University. It’s a fascinating place, full of incredible people . . . both living and dead. Here’s the story of that visit.

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THE four bodies rise slowly from the square metal tank next to me. They are naked and hairless, laid out on trays, embalming fluid dripping from their limbs.

I’d steeled myself for this moment but it’s still a jolt to the senses to suddenly be standing so close to these silent, still strangers.

It’s a strange sensation. I feel both honoured and slightly guilty. Honoured to be in the presence of these selfless four who have left their bodies to be dissected and studied in the name of medical science. And guilty because I feel somehow as if I shouldn’t be seeing them in this vulnerable state. Should I look away?

The reaction is probably quite normal. Death remains one of the great taboos of the modern age. We’re uncomfortable with thinking about it or facing it. We want it kept hidden, tucked away behind closed doors.

It’s an attitude that my companion in the room this bright August morning wants to break down.

I’m at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification in Dundee University’s Medical Sciences Institute to talk to Dr Helen Meadows, a sunny 31-year-old who has been based here since ????.

Although she works surrounded by the dead, and clearly has a deep respect for them and passion for the use of bodies in furthering medical research, her current field of expertise deals with making a difference to the living. Children in particular.

The hand is where Helen’s focus lies. Her research has looked at how vein patterns on the back of the hand can be used to identify offenders in images of child sexual abuse. This information, along with other variations such as scars, skin pigmentation, freckles and fingernail markings, is used to build up a profile of a hand in a photograph and compare it to that of the accused in a criminal case.

And it works.

Of the 40 or so cases she and her colleagues have worked on, their data has resulted in more than 80 per cent of suspects changing their plea. They have built up the UK’s only database of the hand’s vein patterns and receive requests for help from police forces across the country.

In 2009, evidence supplied by CAHID was crucial in the case against Neil Strachan, who was part of Scotland’s biggest paedophile ring. His lunula (the white half moon at the bottom of a nail) was unusually distorted, a fact that helped identify and convict him.

It’s successes like this that motivate Helen.

“What drives me is that this is important work – it has a very real impact,” she says. “It’s not ‘ivory tower’ research. It has real applications.”

“The fact that 80% of the cases we’ve been involved in resulted in plea change is incredible, especially if it means a child doesn’t have to go to court during trial.

“I don’t know what to liken it to – the feeling is unparalleled. It’s a feeling you’re really making a difference. Hopefully early enough to prevent it happening again.”

It’s clear Helen takes her work – and its potential impact on children’s lives – incredibly seriously. But she also has a cheery demeanour that belies the horrific elements of her job. She’s smiley, quick to laugh, and is happy to reveal her less-than-promising first step on the journey that has brought her to Dundee.

“When I was a teenager I was a huge Stephen King fan, which I think gave me an awful morbid curiosity! Then somebody loaned me a non-fiction book call Dead Men Do Tell Tales when I was 16 and that got me interested in forensic pathology.

“As part of school work experience, I visited a hospital mortuary every day for two weeks. But I have to admit the first time I saw a routine post-mortem it was a shock to the system . . . I fainted!”

Surely that would be enough to make any fresh-faced teen take a sharp detour from their potential career path?

“No – it didn’t kill that curiosity. I found it fascinating. What struck me was the human element – these people were doing it on daily basis, dealing with a subject that’s incredibly difficult. I thought, ‘that’s kind of thing I think I could do’.”

And after going on to study biochemistry at St Andrews University (although she grew up in Wigan, Helen’s maternal grandmother was from Aberdeen and she’d always said she wanted to study in Scotland) she was given the number of Professor Sue Black, head of CAHID and one of the world’s most renowned forensic pathologists, by a Scenes of Crime Officer from Tayside.

“I was nervous and excited going from test tubes and a lab to see lady who deals with bones and dead people,” says Helen of her first visit to see Professor Black. But it was incredible. Sue was amazing.”

A year long Masters in Human Identification followed, which involved both identification of the dead and of the living.

But what about that early weak-kneed episode in the hospital mortuary?

“That experience was still in my mind,” Helen admits. “I wondered if I was going to hit the deck. But when I said I was nervous before going in Sue took me aside with some textbooks. She explained what I was going to see in the dissection room (DR) was no worse than the pictures in the book and then spoke about importance of body bequeathal.

“She emphasised the human, emotional side. And it hit home for me. It made me feel at ease, more comfortable.

“I realised how you can make a difference and how individuals who are donating bodies make a difference.

“As important as it is to remove yourself from it in some ways, you have to remember it is a human being in front of you. It’s important to maintain that connection.”

That raises an important question in my mind. How does she, in a job where she regularly has to deal with death and disturbing images of child exploitation, manage to stay on an even keel and protect herself emotionally? Stay connected yet apart?

“I have to take a very clinical approach,” she says of the child abuse images she analyses. “I deal with it as if it is an anatomical image in a textbook and I’m assessing it purely on the basis of anatomical information. We ask not to be given too much detail about the cases, which helps maintain some form of detachment.

“But I’m not really sure what the process is of ‘forgetting’ these things. I just have to get on with it and do it. If I do encounter problems it could be the tiniest thing in the brain that triggers it. It could be at work or at home.

“But we speak to each other at work. That’s one of the benefits of working in very close team. There’s an open door policy with the boss – we can talk any time. There’s always a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen to us.

“There’s definitely a closer bond due to the difficulty of work. Because of case confidentiality you can’t go home and off-load to your partner. You just can’t. So you develop very close and unique relationship with colleagues.”

As far as the death side of things is concerned though, that no longer holds any “mystique” for Helen. She and her colleagues are as comfortable around the dead as you and I are around the living. There is nothing to fear, nothing to feel squeamish or “spooked” about. And that is a message she believes is important to get out to the public.

As she takes me on a tour around CAHID we visit the embalming room where former technician turned PhD student Amanda Hunter explains the cutting-edge new process called Thiel soft-fix embalming, a method that retains the body’s natural look and feel.

Then it is on to the mortuary where the bodies are transferred to the large metal tanks (there are ?? in all) to soak in Thiel fluid for two to three months before being vacuum packed and stored at the far end of the room to await their move to the DR upstairs.

The mortuary is illuminated by bright strip lights and the chemical smell is strong and strange to the unfamiliar nose. It is here I meet the four people who have donated their bodies to the Centre. Three are men, body number 1095 – there are no names on the tanks – is a woman. Unlike me, Helen and Amanda are completely unfazed.

After introducing me to anatomy lecturer Seaneen McDougall, whose small office is lined on three walls with transparent plastic boxes filled with children’s bones – the largest collection of its kind in the world – Helen takes me to the dissection room.

There are rows of tables already laid out with cadavers shrouded in coloured plastic covers. The new academic year is due to start soon, and the DR is prepped and ready for the next group of medical and dental students to take up scalpel and drill.

Helen pulls the thick blue cover back on one metal table and unzips the clear plastic bag underneath. Inside is the body of an elderly woman. Her pale skin is shiny with Thiel fluid.

As we talk about Helen’s work she picks up the lady’s hand and holds it gently, caressing the wrinkle-skinned fingers. She says she often finds herself doing this – her fascination with hands and with the dead combining to draw her to them.

She asks if I want to feel how the Thiel process leaves the body soft and supple, making dissection much more “real” for students. I hesitate, then reach out and take the woman’s hand.

It is cold and wet, but soft. The grandmotherly fingers move freely and easily beneath my own. Helen and I speculate on the hands this one has held, the babies and children it has cradled, the tears it has wiped away, the loved ones it has waved goodbye to.

Lines from a poem pop unbidden into my head.

“We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved . . .”

That’s the thing that is never forgotten at CAHID. These are real people, not simply tools. Human beings who have given their bodies so that they may do good after their life is over.

Every year, in May, a funeral is held for the people who have been through CAHID. Their families come to the university for a non-religious service and the place is packed with CAHID staff and the students who have benefitted from the amazing gift of those who have donated themselves. It’s an emotional but also joyful day, according to Helen, as students and families alike give thanks.

So what of the future? Helen and her colleagues will continue to analyse hands in the images provided by police in an attempt to put offenders behind bars for the most heinous of crimes. She is also keen to extend her work in schools and beyond, where she gives demonstrations of what she does and inspires youngsters, showing them that science is an active, vibrant area that makes a very real difference to people’s lives.

And she will strive to change people’s perceptions of death and what it means.

“It’s an incredible honour to be able to do job I do,” she says. “It has changed my own feeling about death.

“A lot of people are raised with a fear of death but once you remove all the mystery, this ‘veil’, and you begin to investigate it, it changes your view.

“You realise there is much to be gained after death as well as in life.”

As I leave CAHID, my meeting with the dead in mortuary and dissection room replaying in my mind, I know she’s right.

It is perhaps the greatest gift of all. Ourselves.

Why hello there . . .

Come on in. Take your shoes off. And your beard. Can I offer you some trifle? Yes, of course you can bring your monkey in. All are welcome – human, animal or cake. But not Jeremy Kyle.

This is the place I’ll be evacuating my brain – assorted writing, book news, journalism, stories, random haverings and shameless humblebragging.

Nice to have you here – please do not let your monkey damage the furniture.

Chae