Where do ideas come from?


I started thinking about When the Killing Comes Home many years ago. A girl in a school where I was the Principal slapped a member of staff. I discovered that she was on her umpteenth foster-placement and her grandmother had just died. The task set had led her to feel she was worthless – it was unintentional on the part of the teacher, of course. The girl’s lashing out was a symptom of enormous distress. Her story haunted me.


Another story, of a completely different kind, also caught my imagination. A very old friend, at the time a magistrate, told me of a story presented to the court, one they felt would not easily be resolved. A woman whose baby had been removed tracked down her child, some years later, and began to stalk the new family. The magistrates sensed that without enormous therapeutic support she’d be likely to stalk again, whatever penalties were imposed. The trauma of having her child removed, probably for excellent reasons, had caused deep damage. My friend was haunted by the incident. I felt I was looking at two sides of a story, though I didn’t know how to tell it.


In 2010, a taxi driver, Derrick Bird, previously said to be a pleasant man, began to shoot people he knew well, beginning with his twin brother. He shot people in the face, including complete strangers. In half a day he drove along the West coast of Cumbria, killed 12 people, injured another 11, and narrowly missed killing more. Finally, he shot himself, in a remote woodland.


I knew the area, and, it transpired, I knew some of the people caught up in his rampage. Newspaper headlines were black and white – this was ‘a killing spree’, ‘a Cumbria massacre’. The then prime minister, David Cameron, said, "There will be some parts of this that we will never understand. There were some random acts of killings, and people who will have lost loved ones will ask why it happened to them and why so random? Why it is so unfair and so cruel, what's happened here?”

I thought of all the children taken into care, but never finding  successful foster-carers or adopting parents. I’d come across many such stories, listened to friends who are social workers. I also knew of those women researchers ‘maternal outcasts’: women who become repeatedly pregnant, are cared for by social workers, until the babies are born, removed, and the women feel abandoned:

  • and I thought, ‘these people have lost loved ones’ for all those whose babies are removed …
  • and I thought, ‘Why it is so unfair and so cruel, what’s happened here?’ for the girl on an umpteenth foster placement, her story so predictable …

There are other kinds of “killing” spree that don’t attract national headlines or visits from prime ministers. How many children leaving care are homeless, sucked into crime, lose heart completely? How many maternal outcasts suffer? Was Bird’s behaviour really impossible to explain?

I found the psychiatric research related to behaviour such as Bird’s. A friendly senior policeman sent me the report most useful for the police (that’s for another blog). I set out to write the story of a teenage girl running away from school, after constant bullying because she’s ‘looked-after’, set against the background of Bird’s killing journey. I visited the area, took copious photographs, pored over maps, began writing … and then I realised, because I understand the value of getting the details correct, that schools were on half-term when he got out his shotgun and rifle. People were camping in the valley, visiting the seaside. And what about the girl’s mother? Where did she fit in?

Near Boot, Cumbria