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Writing and Me: Underbelly of Cambridge by John Phelps

Writing.ie | Magazine | Tell Your Own Story | Writing & Me
John Phelps

John Phelps

‘Poverty’ is not a word that is generally associated with the university city of Cambridge. Yet this centre of academic excellence and, more recently, growth in high tech activity has its quota.

I came to Cambridge to work as a journalist towards the end of 1969 and quickly saw a side that a lot of people seem loath to acknowledge. Skinheads were roaming the streets and elderly alcohol-fuelled vagrants were in evidence. The university dominated, though, and any form of industry outside it was limited.

There have been a lot of changes since then.

The least talked about and, to my mind, least acceptable, change has been the growth in homelessness. The beggars and rough sleepers have become more numerous … and younger … and many have become prey to drug dealers.

My reaction to the problem has been, first, to do a little work for the charity Wintercomfort and, later, to write Underbelly of Cambridge.

I must confess that my role as a Wintercomfort volunteer was only a small one and that Underbelly has not had much impact either!

I felt I had a good idea with this book and that it would at least generate some interest, but, in the event, the public response could best be described as underwhelming! That was several years ago and, at almost 81 years of age, I am hopefully wiser!

The story is basically about a homeless war veteran with PTSD who arrives in Cambridge to learn the truth behind the sudden death, due to a drugs overdose, of his estranged son. In his mission to find out what really happened, he enters a world of rough sleepers, drug dealers, “Big Issue” sellers and a variety of sleezy characters who have nothing to do with the university and little with the establishment. The question of whether enough is being done for the homeless and for traumatised ex-servicemen, for that matter, is posed.

Underbelly of CambridgeHopefully, another airing now will get Underbelly noticed a little more and provide a little more insight into what Cambridge is really like.

More poverty, perhaps more than ever, appears to be on the horizon nationally, and I will be surprised if Cambridge escapes it.

My strength of feeling on the subject should explain why I have not focussed first on my fourth and latest novel, The Vulcan Who Got Into Print. Underbelly of Cambridge is, in fact, my second.

The first to appear was Agent From Hell and the third A World Ruled By Mice, and I have also written two collections of short stories since retiring as a journalist at the “Cambridge Evening News on my 62nd birthday.

Agent From Hell is about a crooked estate agent whose murky past catches up with him. I had written about property for more than 20 years for the  “News” and was able to make use of my experience in that area … though no estate agent I ever encountered could plumb the depths that my leading character was prepared to go to!

A World Ruled By Mice is not a crime novel, but a quirky futuristic fantasy in which power is turned upside down. Written during the first onset of Covid and based on an idea I had 40 years ago, It carries an oblique message about the dangers of climate change.

My latest novel, The Vulcan Who Got Into Print could hardly be more different. A whodunnit with a provincial newspaper office as a backdrop, it features a host of characters based on people I have met and, with the notable exception of a murder, incidents that I have either witnessed or heard about during my 36 years employment as a journalist.

The first unusual character I met as a “journo” was on my first day as a reporter based in the London office of Scotland’s “Sunday Post.” I was there as a late entrant, having spent eight years as an insurance clerk after leaving school.

His name was Max, and he told me that the only people who entered my new profession were either mad or not tall enough to make the Foreign Legion! I happen to be 6ft 1in! However, the mercurial Max, a known wind-up merchant, did give me some valuable advice over a pint a little later. “You need to have a completely different attitude of mind,” he said. “You’re a timid clerk no more!” I have tried to follow that advice ever since.

And, mad as I might be, I have, for the most part, loved the profession ever since. That includes the finding and writing stories or articles, writing headlines, editing, designing pages and putting them to press.

Thirty-three of my years as a journalist were with the Cambridge Evening News.  My plan was to stay for a short time to gain experience and then move on. But, like so many before and since, I got married and opted to stay put.

A large part of the buzz emanates from the characters I have met, both inside and outside the office. As a journalist, you get to meet the rich, famous, notorious and down at heel outside the office … but what about those inside it?

The two main characters in Vulcan are a ruthless company secretary and a dyslexic private detective. One of the two is a figment of the imagination!

Regrettably there is no room this time for the mercurial Max, who I remember, albeit with fondness, as being something of a loose cannon. That’s something that clearly needs to be rectified in future …

About Underbelly of Cambridge:

Underbelly of CambridgeA highly topical thriller set amongst the world of the homeless in Cambridge.Frank Pugsley, a homeless ex-soldier, has come to Cambridge looking for answers. Having heard that his son has died from a drugs overdose he sets out to discover the truth of what has happened. This will be a quest fraught with danger as he enters a very different side of Cambridge to the one most of us know. As well as having to battle external threats Frank will also have face up to the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffers as a result of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Frank encounters a cast of shady and dangerous characters: a ruthless leader of a drug dealing gang; assorted heavies; a greedy and disreputable landlord: a bent police inspector and a well-connected auctioneer with a strange and surprising collection of auction gavels. With the help of his estranged wife, and her new husband, a WPC with whom he has a brief affair; a talkative and knowledgeable ‘Big Issue’ seller and a collection of rough sleepers and market traders Frank gets nearer to the truth. But this only increases the danger to him and those helping him. An explosive culmination to his quest will bring violence and further death to the city.

Underbelly of Cambridge is a taut and violent thriller which also deals with an urban problem getting worse and worse in modern Cambridge. It reveals an underclass in society and the constant danger they face. It has at its heart a hero, having to deal with his own inner demons, wanting justice but at what cost to himself and those around him?

Order your copy online here.


About the author

John Phelps is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association.

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