For the month of August 2016, Peter Mortimer travelled the highways and byways of the UK on a journey that was to result in the book The Chess Traveller - Fourteen Random Games on the Road.
This was the plan: at each destination on his travels, he needed to find an opponent to play him at chess. After the game, this opponent would choose the next destination of around 30 miles distance. He would make his way there, find a new opponent who after the game will choose the next destination and the process would be repeated. He would play 16 games (the number of chess pieces) and travel about 500 miles, the daily journey dictated by others. "I'm an occasional, average chess player," he said, "so will lose some games and, I hope, win the odd one." The book will comprise the notated games plus the peripatetic impressions, thoughts and observations on the country, a sideways look at the contemporary UK (or some parts of it) from a journey dictated by chess and by others.
As it turned out, he managed to play 14 games of chess, travelled 370 miles on the journey back from Lossiemouth and cycled the last 30 mile leg from Hexham in Northumberland to Cullercoats, following the final game played against Sara Jane Palmer. The weather varied between baking hot and very cold mist and rain on the wild Scottish moors (and crossing the border at Carter Bar). Peter Mortimer won 11 games, drew two and lost one, though he came to realise that most chess players are only occasional participants and the single really dedicated chess player he came up against, beat him.
Tiring, often lonely, but never uninteresting, the 19 day adventure brought him into contact with a whole variety of places and people never previously encountered and he wrote a 30,000 word first draft of the book while on the road. More than 90 per cent of the journey was on the bike. On three occasions, necessity dictated he take a car lift - all explained in the book!
The Chess Traveller - 14 Random Games on the Road is published by Red Squirrel Press.
The Tyneside writer Peter Mortimer is used to writing about difficult places. Against Foreign Office advice he wandered round Yemen. He set up a children's theatre group in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and, over one summer, walked the length of Britain with one dog and no money, dependent on the kindness of strangers to provide accommodation and food.
In this book, part memoir, part documentary and social commentary, he undertook a shorter journey, taking up residence in the same street he grew up in, on the Sherwood council estate in Nottingham. It was a journey of only 160 miles, but one which involved revisiting his previous Nottingham life, some fifty years back. His sojourn makes for an unpredictable, often comic, sometimes painful journey.
Made in Nottingham was published by Five Leaves Publications on June 16th 2012.
Shatila is a Palestinian refugee camp in outer Beirut. It does not appear on maps, and many Beirut residents do not even know it exists, let alone go there. Yet it is home to 17,000 people - some of them Palestinians whose families have lived there for several generations, some of them Lebanese drawn by the low coast of living - crammed into an area the size of a cricket field. In 1982 Shatila, and the neighbouring Sabra camp, were the scene of a massacre, when up to 3,000 people were killed.
Peter Mortimer lived two months in Shatila, towards the end of 2008. During his time on camp he created a children's drama group at the Shatila school, and adapted one of his own fables, Croak The King & a Change in the Weather into a 30-minute theatre piece, incorporating dance, music, and mime.
Despite having only the basic grasp of the language, the children performed the play in English. It was performed twice to camp residents on the writer's final day - and in September 2009 the same production came to the North-East.
In February 12th 2011, Peter Mortimer returned to Beirut with a six strong production team, for a visit which he describes as "tiring, maddening, but exhilarating. It culminated in the production at East Beirut's Théâtre Monot of Croak the King & a Change in the Weather, Peter Mortimer's play with the children Camp Shatila. The Lebanese morning paper The Daily Star found the play "as surprising as it is inventive"; and this is what the British Ambassador to the Republic of Lebanon said about it. The Shatila Theatre Project now has its own website.
The video shows Peter Mortimer on stage at the Théâtre Monot, performing his poem Tsunami, recorded just before the Japanese earthquake made it more timely than ever.
In November 2013, Peter Mortimer visited Lebanon again, and on his return wrote about his visit for Newcastle's Journal. "I grew excited on this visit," he says, "by an idea slowly forming of inviting members of the Tyneside Jewish community to some future performance here by the Palestinians."
In an editorial, the Journal commented that "Mr Mortimer is a man of optimism and idealism - and there aren't too many of those in the Middle East. ... he is making an effort - and a few more people doing that in the Middle East would be most welcome."
Published by Five Leaves Publishing (2007)
Where Peter Mortimer first journeyed, others later followed. He was the first writer to travel and work with fishermen out on the high seas, experiencing conditions not seen on land for 200 years. The Last of the Hunters, though much sought after, has been unavailable for years. Described as 'a minor classic', it is now brought out in a new updated format, though containing every word of the original.
Fishing is dangerous and unpredictable. Lives are often lost. This is a harsh, macho and dangerous world of thirty-foot long rust buckets about which most of us know nothing. Peter Mortimer lived the life, working on six separate boats over a six months' period, winning respect from the fishermen and developing his own respect for people whose working conditions are primitive, and whose job security is non-existent. North Shields fishermen often work with unprotected machinery for 18 hour days, exposed on open decks to the harsh elements and the vagaries of the North Sea.
This new edition contains an Afterword which brings us up to date with the people of the distinctive North Shields fishing community, and how the changes in fisheries' policy have affected them.
Original edition published by North Tyneside Libraries and Arts, 1987.
Published by Five Leaves Publishing (2007)
Off the Wall is the chronicle of a unique theatrical journey which saw six Cloud Nine actors and playwright Peter Mortimer striding the width of England to perform their specially commissioned play in remote rural areas. The actors, like medieval troubadours, walked through rugged terrain along the length of Hadrian's Wall, arriving each evening at remote rural venues for their performance.
The book is a fascinating insight into the Roman Wall, the contrasting fortunes and dymnamics of such an unusual journey, plus a full transcript of the play, a fast paced satire whose main subject is Hadrian's Wall itself - and one entrepreneur's attempts to turn it into the world's longest theme park.
Published by Mainstream Publishing (2005)
ISBN-13: 978-1-84018-946-9 Price: £9.99
When Peter Mortimer was commissioned to write a play about a little-known riot between Yemeni and British seamen at Mill Dam, South Shields, in 1930, he decided to take the long trip to Yemen itself in search of inspiration. Undeterred by post-11 September government warnings against visiting this 'highly dangerous' area, Mortimer set off and found an extraordinary and surprisingly Anglophile country.
Cool for Qat documents this remarkable journey, during which Mortimer pieces together how the riots of 1930 arose and considers their relevance to Western attitudes towards Muslims today. He meets many remarkable characters along the way and immerses himself in the national custom of chewing the narcotic qat leaf.
After visiting the ex-British Protectorate of Aden - through which many of the seamen passed en route to Britain - Mortimer travels on to San'a and then Tai'iz. It is while visiting the isolated mountain villages surrounding this city that Mortimer finally meets men who worked in South Shields some 50 years ago. Carrying a battered book with images of Yemenis living in the North-east in the '30s from home to home, trying to jog distant memories, he realises his visit has taken on a new purpose - bringing a small part of the country's history back to where it belongs.
Back in the UK, Mortimer's investigations into the 1930 riot reveal a society with many striking similarities to current times. Then, as now, Muslim immigrants were treated as scapegoats for all manner of ills, tabloid newspapers drummed up prejudice and hatred, and the powers that be often used fear and racial mistrust to disguise their own economic failings. Cool for Qat questions just how 'civilised' the Western world - and Britain in particular - is in comparison to Yemen. It is a touching, thought-provoking and at times humorous document of one man's travels through a country about which little is known in the West.
Read more about the play RIOT (script now available in book form).