09 +00002017-02-11T18:57:43+00:0028 2012 § 9 Comments
Next stop for me after Quito was Charleston, in South Carolina, home of North America’s most prestigious conference for academic librarians. You often hear that places are ‘steeped in history’ – a cliché that must apply to at least 80% of UK towns and cities – but I’ve seldom visited anywhere as overtly gripped by the past as Charleston is. Named for Charles II (it was originally called ‘Charles Town’ until contracted to its present form after the American War of Independence), it has a colourful past, reminders of which include a cross-vaulted underground prison for smugglers
and numerous old colonial and pre- and immediate post-Civil War buildings. In the classical style and painted white, often with pillars or cupolas, they seem to epitomise old-world grace and the elegance of a more leisurely age.
When I was there, many of the houses were decorated for Hallowe’en, some in very imaginative ways:
my favourite was the giant witch’s hat set atop a cupola.
Charleston stands for a great many things that are hard to swallow. That gracious leisure – for the few – cost thousands their freedom. South Carolina was one of the first states to secede from the Union because it supported slavery. It still has a considerable black population, many of whom, if not part of an underclass, are clearly not rich; there’s a stark contrast between them and the owners of the sparkling white yachts and cabin cruisers that loll in the harbour
or go for little spins offshore.
As a British visitor, this blatant juxtaposition of wealth and modest means made me uneasy; yet, at the same time, it’s hard not to be beguiled by Charleston, where the sun shines warmly in November and the inhabitants treat strangers with impeccable courtesy and charm.
I asked a lady watering the plants in her garden the way back to my hotel and with alacrity she got out her car and drove me there; the staff in the hotel were unfailingly polite and solicitous, especially during my first forty-eight hours as their guest, after I’d turned up plagued with a Latin-American stomach bug.
Nowhere was the tension between old-fashioned courtesy and dyed-in-the-wool conservatism more apparent than during my visit to the Confederate Museum, which is situated right in the heart of Charleston, at one end of the historic covered market.
It’s run by a group that calls itself ‘The United Daughters of the Confederacy’. When I entered, two of these rather ancient ‘daughters’ were sitting at a table near the main door, collecting the modest entrance fee and looking as if they might indeed have stepped out of the 1840s (the building that houses the Museum was constructed, as the leaflet shows, in 1841). The ladies were gently polite and directed me to some of the things they (correctly) thought might interest me most, including children’s clothes made of old Confederate flags and letters home written by achingly young Confederate soldiers. They had one male companion, an elderly man whose sole task it was to tell visitors the story of the large cannon that occupied the centre of the room. Apparently, it was the first cannon ever to be used in America, and – of especial interest to me – manufactured from the particularly robust iron ore quarried at Low Moor, near Bradford. I told the old man that I lived in Yorkshire, not twenty miles from Low Moor; he said, to his knowledge, he’d had only one other visitor from Yorkshire and that I was very welcome. I told him I was a writer and begged for permission to photograph the cannon for my blog. Immediately, his attitude changed. He frowned and stabbed his finger at a large notice erected on an easel next to the cannon. “No photographs in here, Ma’am.”
I’ve mentioned the market, which is one of Charleston’s many crown jewels and the place that Americans always recommend to sightseers if they ask. It’s a fascinating place: a craft market with a few farmers’ market-style stalls thrown in. The stallholders sell many beautiful things, so I was spoilt for choice: eventually I settled on a South Carolina Beadwork necklace for my friend, a Charleston collapsible fruit bowl for my husband and a topsy-turvy rag doll for my granddaughter.
There’s some disagreement about the origin and purpose of these dolls – I was told that they were made for black children who were forbidden to own a white doll and one of these could be quickly turned upside down if an overseer came by, but perhaps the alternative view of their play purpose is more compelling, that African-American women were preparing their own children for the life they themselves experienced, as carers of white children during the day and their own children at night. I’m sure that other theories exist, but during this Black History Month I’ll take the opportunity to say that, for me, the doll is a fine emblem of an ideal of racial equality and mutual respect that sadly isn’t much evident in the world today.
Top of the tree among the stallholders are the black families (usually but not always headed up by a woman) who make the traditional sweetgrass baskets.
These are intricate and very beautiful – they’re expensive but take a long time to make – and crafted from a design that originated in Africa. The method for making them crossed the Atlantic with those captured for slavery. Apparently only about fifty people understand the technique today – it’s been passed down from mother to daughter over the decades and centuries. Another kind of Charleston elegance – and an enduring heritage.
09 +00002017-01-30T12:36:14+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
I’d never been to Latin America when I touched down in Quito and knew very little about Ecuador. Wikipedia had told me that Ecuador was a former Spanish colony, that the first language was Spanish and that temperatures while I was there would be around 19 degrees (which turned out to be a considerable underestimate: it was hot!). Otherwise, virtually zilch. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never taken much interest in the South American continent; I’m resolved to change that now.
I was wowed by the spectacular assault on my senses which began as soon as I could see Quito from the plane. It’s the world’s highest capital city and ringed by magnificent mountains, some of them volcanic. And, of course, it’s right on the Equator.
As the plane drew nearer to the earth, I could see Quito’s imposing array of churches and some of the colourful, flat-roofed dwellings that are home to most of its citizens. (I was to discover that only the old colonial houses have pitched roofs.)
The forty-minute taxi ride to my hotel revealed more of these houses, some clinging precariously to steep hillsides with deep ravines below them, and many incomplete, as if funds had suddenly dried up. Because there are few high-rise developments, huge areas are covered by these modest residential districts. Quito has a population of about two million, but its large number of very small buildings makes it seem more populous than it is.
There isn’t much undergrowth, but there are many shrubs and trees, including the fabulously tall araucarias. Most bushes and shrubs are in flower in late October, in vibrant, clashing shades of orange, purple and cerise, and are often sweet-smelling.
I asked my taxi driver what the main industries of Ecuador are and was told chemicals, including petroleum, and agriculture, especially the cultivation of flowers for export. I’m sure that there are wealthy Ecuadorians, but most of the people seem to be either poor or, at best, of slender means. Many of them make their living by selling things – I quickly realised there is a strict retail hierarchy. The poorest sellers are peripatetic: they roam the streets with a very small selection of low-cost goods – sweets, water, small toys – and accost people as they pass. Some of them are also beggars, who will offer you a sweet in return for alms; often they are women carrying small children. Then there are street sellers with fixed spots on the pavements. Either they lay out cloths or little folding tables exhibiting their wares, or they have small portable stalls.
They peddle cheap souvenirs and a wide variety of foods, especially the glistening heaps of stuff that looks like ice cream but, as I discovered, is really a kind of panna cotta, and cups filled with small pearl-like balls of coloured ice, which I guess are made of frozen fruit juice. Exotic drinks are also on sale. I sampled one of these, a pungent, bittersweet beverage made from green tea, cinnamon and warmed fruit juice. Apparently, it is served at funerals, with cheap cookies so that people don’t ask for too many refills!
One up again from the street sellers are the market traders. Most operate from relatively small, covered markets; Quito contains dozens of these. Most sell textiles, silver jewellery, upmarket groceries (especially local coffees and chocolates) and fancy goods, the latter often too gaudy for northern European tastes.
Carnival masks are a particular speciality of artisan craftsmen, and I found them both more appealing and more beautifully made than the ornate mirrors, leather-clad shots glasses, miniature shrines and fake shrunken heads which were also on sale. It’s possible to haggle with the market traders and I found this less of a problem than the fact that they never let anyone browse undisturbed. Immediately you show an interest in something, they emerge from the depths of the stall to describe with great enthusiasm and speed (and in Spanish!) the many virtues of whatever it may be. I found this approach overwhelming and usually just moved on.
Shops are at the top of the hierarchy. Usually they are grouped in small parades or two- or three- storey malls.
The goods they sell are generally of good quality and the shopkeepers themselves more discreet. They won’t barter: the prices are marked clearly on what is for sale and they won’t budge; but often they charge only a few dollars more for a product far superior to what can be purchased in the market. The textiles, in particular, are made of fine wools and silks tender to the touch. I imagine that many shopkeepers start off as street sellers and work their way up: this would explain the immense pride they take in their establishments and the impeccable displays they create.
I’ve said that, from the word go, Quito made a pleasurable assault on my senses, but there was one exception: as a dog-owner with a very British love of animals, it saddened me to see the packs of abandoned dogs roaming the streets almost everywhere, even in the more affluent districts. At first they look intimidating, especially when gathered in groups of up to ten, but I was assured by locals that they are never aggressive and don’t pose a danger to sightseers and other pedestrians. To be fair, they don’t seem to be malnourished, mainly because both sellers and consumers of street food frequently take pity on them. Cooked street food isn’t really my thing: I’m too prone to stomach ailments to be able to risk it; but I think even the most ardent dog-lover must find it difficult to enjoy a piping hot delicacy straight off the brazier when eating it involves having his or her every move tracked by a semi-circle of drooling, envious canines.
09 +00002016-11-28T13:17:40+00:0030 2012 § 6 Comments
Celebrating in 2016 its 140 years of selling books in Cambridge, Heffers is one of the nation’s great classic bookshops, a national treasure. It’s always been a privilege to visit it. Even better, from my point of view, it’s home to Richard Reynolds, perhaps the country’s best-known crime bookselling connoisseur. I first met Richard five or six years ago, when he had just embarked on a crime classic reprint venture. No doubt owing to Richard’s influence, classic crime is now big business: there are several excellent imprints, including the British Library’s own.
Richard is interested in all types of crime fiction, modern as well as classic, and I’m very proud to say that not only does he stock the DI Yates novels but he also invited me for a signing session on Saturday as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival. There was a wonderful buzz in the shop, which was packed with people shopping all the time I was there.
I had a glorious three hours, talking to old friends and many new acquaintances. I can’t begin to tell them how much I appreciate that most bought Rooted in Dishonour. There were lots of sales of the other books in the DI Yates series, too.
I’d like to thank Richard and his colleagues for great hospitality and for extending a very generous invitation to me to return to the shop again as soon as I am ready. Perhaps they should be careful what they wish for: I might turn up again next week!
You might like to share in some of the highlights of my day there with the photographs below:
09 +00002016-11-21T20:21:14+00:0030 2012 § 2 Comments
Last Saturday, as last year and the year before, I once again enjoyed a warm welcome in Stamford’s Walkers Bookshop, which hosted a signing session for the publication of the new DI Yates.
In spite of the cold (snow had arrived the previous day in the Pennines), Christmas was in the air and the shop looked very handsome, newly kitted out with its festive stock. I enjoyed talking to customers as they came and went. I was particularly grateful to Anne’s daughter (who sent her husband back to the shop to buy the book, having herself first gone home to check that her mother didn’t have it), to the lady who bought a copy for her friend ‘Brig’ and with whom I had a fascinating conversation, to Brian, Vetta and Liam, a British/Scandinavian family, who took a huge amount of interest in all the books and how I’d come to write them and to the man who, after a great deal of deliberation, decided that he’d rather have Sausage Hall. Several people wanted to buy the earlier DI Yates novels. I was very sorry to have missed ‘the man from Gainsborough’, who’d visited the shop about half an hour before I arrived and bought all the novels, but couldn’t wait long enough to have them signed – I do hope that you will read this blog post and, even more, enjoy the books!
I’d like to extend special thanks to Jenny Pugh and Tim Walker, who invited me to the signing, and Lynne, Linda and Sophie, who looked after me so well on Saturday. I hope to look forward to meeting you and some of your wonderful customers again next year.
09 +00002016-11-16T17:49:14+00:0030 2012 § 8 Comments
Yesterday was publication day for Rooted in Dishonour. As usual, I headed for Bookmark, Spalding’s lovely independent bookshop, which has kindly hosted the launch event for all of the DI Yates novels, beginning with In the Family in 2012. As always, I received a very warm welcome. For the past three years, Sam Buckley, the events manager, has arranged a dual event for me: a signing session in the afternoon and a talk and reading in the evening.
It was a cold, squally morning. I arrived at the shop about midday. It has recently changed hands and there was a major renovation going on in the café area; unfortunately, this meant that the café was closed, but I understand that it will be open again next week, ready for Christmas. I was privileged to meet Darren (twin brother of Jason, the new owner), who is in charge of the refurbishment work – he says Jason earns the money and he spends it!
Although the temporary lack of coffee was ruefully lamented by Bookmark’s clientele, the shop’s footfall (partly because it was market day) was excellent and there was a lot of interest in Rooted in Dishonour. One lady, Helen, bought three copies for herself and friends and said that she’d read all the DI Yates books: ‘Each one is better than the last’ – sheer music to an author’s ears!
Alex, who attends Spalding Grammar School and works in Bookmark on Saturdays, popped in at lunchtime and became one of my customers.
The evening event took place in the bookshop itself for the first time, as the café was out of bounds. As a speaker, I preferred the atmosphere there (though not the absence of cake!). Spalding audiences are always excellent, but this was my best ever!
I met some old friends and made many new ones. The discussion following my talk was a lively one and I was asked lots of searching questions about my writing. Several of the audience generously bought the new novel and some of the previous ones as well.
I’d like to thank Sam and the rest of the staff at Bookmark for working so hard to make the event a success, and all my wonderful Spalding readers for giving me a day to remember.
09 +00002016-09-15T20:58:02+00:0030 2012 § 15 Comments
I’ve finished reading John Le Carré: the biography, by Adam Sisman, a hugely enjoyable tour de force which has been justly praised by everyone who’s reviewed it. My only reservation is that it’s ‘official’, meaning that Le Carré co-operated with Sisman throughout – a huge advantage, but tempered by the fact that Sisman is therefore not always able to explore certain aspects of Le Carré’s life fully. For example, I’d like to know more about his relationships with women (the book goes into detail about his first wife only, now deceased); more about what other people – siblings, children, friends, publishers – thought or think about him; and, of course, more about his life as a spy. Sisman himself is not entirely convinced by Le Carré’s stated reasons for his reticence about the last of these.
However, Sisman makes it clear in his introduction that, although he and Le Carré enjoyed a mutually respectful professional relationship while the research for the biography was in progress, he didn’t allow himself to be tucked into Le Carré’s pocket. His version of what took place during certain key events in the author’s life (based on painstaking assembly of the facts) often differs markedly from Le Carré’s. This is fascinating, because usually these are also events that have been fictionalised to create important scenes in the novels. Sisman suggests that, over time, Le Carré has conflated his recollection of the actual event with the fictionalised account – which is even more likely in the many instances when he’s created different versions of the same event in several different novels.
This made me think about the constant overlap, and inevitable tension, between fact and fiction. We do always want to know ‘what really happened’: it’s a fundamental trait, part of the curiosity that makes humans the most adventurous and experimental of all primates. But can we ever achieve this knowledge? Does it even exist? It’s the continuing quest of the historian, his or her holy grail, and one that’s bound, however meticulous the research, to result ultimately in failure. The many versions of the Battle of the Somme that have been published this year offer a vivid example.
As a crime writer, I’ve often been intrigued by the different versions of the truth that are presented in courts of law. For example, based on exactly the same set of evidence, Oscar Pistorius was convicted of ‘culpable manslaughter’ by one judge and homicide by another. O.J. Simpson made a histrionic display of not being able to fit on to his hand a bloodstained leather glove left at the scene of his wife’s murder. It was pure courtroom theatre, but enough to introduce ‘reasonable doubt’ into the minds of the jury at his criminal trial, so they found him not guilty; however, he lost a civil court case in which he was accused of the same crime.
Even trickier than facts that rely on interpretation are ‘facts’ that may or may not be the result of distorted memory or belief. Recently, I’ve read several accounts of the Jeremy Bamber murders that took place thirty years ago. Bamber, who is one of a handful of convicted murderers serving a whole-life tariff and who has been told that for him life imprisonment literally means staying in prison until he dies, was accused and found guilty of murdering his adoptive parents and sister and her two twin sons in order to inherit the family wealth. Bamber has always protested his innocence; he’s set up a website that gives his version of events and has quite a large number of supporters who believe him. Having studied these accounts, written from all possible points of view, my own conclusion is that it’s the balance of probability that Bamber did commit the murders. What’s less clear is whether he himself knows this, or whether he either killed his relatives while experiencing a ‘fugue’ and has no recollection of their murders, or perhaps has been proclaiming his innocence for so long that he now believes it himself. This may sound far-fetched, but there is something very odd about his case.
Points of view are slippery things. As a child, I looked up to my paternal grandmother, a petite and elegant lady who kept house for my great-uncle, the youngest of her four brothers. Unlike my other grandmother, she was very up-to-date and well-informed, not just about current affairs, but about the fashions and music of the sixties that interested me. She went out to work, she dressed in smart clothes and she was always ready with good advice, but only when asked. I thought she was just about the perfect role model. However, I noticed that her brothers often spoke to her quite condescendingly. There seemed never to have been any question that she would take the entire responsibility of caring for, first of all, her elderly mother and then her youngest brother, who was physically disabled. At the time, I thought this was just another example of the male chauvinism that was rife in my family, but much later I discovered that she’d been ‘a bit of a goer’ in her youth. They’d given her ‘respectability’, but it seems the debt was not one that could ever be repaid. Their view of her was totally at variance with my own. Similarly, when my parents’ marriage disintegrated, I thought I understood chapter and verse exactly why, having been the reluctant occupier of a ringside seat, but over the many years that have since passed I’ve come to realise that I saw those events entirely from my mother’s point of view: I had and still have no idea what my father thought or suffered.
What did really happen? It’s a constant but almost always unanswerable question. In my latest novel, Rooted in Dishonour, mistaken points of view cost dear. The most skilful novelists are those who can assemble a kaleidoscope of viewpoints and still keep the reader onside, still maintaining that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that is the essential ingredient of all successful fiction. A few, like Le Carré, have the rare capability of achieving this while shifting the reader’s perception of the characters over time: thus, if you read all of the Smiley novels in sequence, you begin by thinking that Karla is the devil incarnate and end by realising that he is ‘just’ a man, with all the depth as well as the imperfections that entails. And it begs the question, what really happened? If we didn’t have to ponder that, there’d be no reason for reading any novel and, therefore, no reason for writing it.