Deeply entranced by a tuba
I’m just back from a very short weekend in Oxford. We braved the elements in order to listen to a Saturday evening concert given by an orchestra in which my daughter-in-law plays. The concert was excellent, especially the solo rendered by a professional tuba player (at some point I’d like to find a place for him in a crime novel), whose personality radiated around the church venue. He had generously, and at very short notice, agreed to stand in for the talented young woman who usually plays; she was unable on this occasion to do so, because of illness. I felt for her, since she really loves the piece, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto, and the concert would have demonstrated just how good an instrumentalist she is.
However, with his supple virtuoso fingering on visual display and tuba tones at the challenging upper register of the instrument as aural evidence of his musical skills, her replacement held the audience in a trance. A couple of times, the deepest notes sounded, causing the very masonry of the building to vibrate, and we were all aboard a seabound vessel, under way and making way down the shipping channel to wide musical horizons. I think that there could not have been a single person in the audience who did not want to learn to play the tuba, there and then!
Not only did he stand in for that piece, but, having recognised that the orchestra was a tuba player down for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 in D (‘Polish’) after the interval, he volunteered for that, too, instead of jumping ship and heading back to London. Such generosity of spirit and such willingness to support an orchestra in need of help charmed us all and I was reminded of the fellow feeling of writers I have come to know since making my way into crime fiction. There is plenty of evidence on the social networks of the sharing of ideas and of asking for and receiving much-needed information: a community of like-minded individuals who value each other’s work and are happy to help promote it.
If this tuba player makes it into my writing, however, he won’t be the man I watched on Saturday… but he will have a tuba-sized personality.
SALT: essential to human life
On Friday 18th January, Chris Hamilton-Emery tweeted his surprise, excitement and satisfaction about Salt Publishing’s impressive January follower statistics: “Goodness me! 76,000 Twitter followers! Not bad for a Norfolk indie publisher …” Now this icy winter’s snow showers are blowing westwards off the continent and the North Sea, moving relentlessly inland, all across East Anglia and the Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire Fens and thence to the Midlands, to London, the home counties and all places west and south, and northwards to the Pennines and to the wild and windswept Celtic lands, SALT is everywhere. The proof is there for all to see on the motorway gantries: SALT SPREADING. The warm centre of Salt Publishing, at ‘Salty Towers’ in Cromer, is quietly melting the hearts of the nation and of the cognoscenti beyond these shores with a constant sprinkling of poetry, short stories and novels, for SALT is essential to human life and adds a flavour to the dullest day. It preserves our sanity and we put down its stores of beautiful language for immediate use and to save for later, packaged in covers so original that our taste buds are tingling before we even tuck in to the goodness inside. No fear that supplies will run short, however great the demand! The SALT staff are working day and night to ensure that the needs of the population are met; the trucks are rolling and the deliveries are getting even to the remotest places along previously impassable routes. It’s happening: SALT is SPREADING!
SALT is not only my own publisher – it is also my favourite publisher. I have followed its fortunes since it emerged, butterfly-like, from the chrysalis of a poetry magazine thirteen years ago. I have been delighted to watch and share in its successes. Almost from the start, its poets won acclaim and prizes; when it branched out into short stories, many already distinguished authors wished their work to appear under the SALT imprint. More recently, it has developed fine literary and genre fiction lists. It won its first big fiction accolade last year, when The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.
I am proud to see ‘SALT’ on the spine of my book. I am fascinated by its enigmatic name. I know that this derives from the salt marshes in the area of Australia where the poetry magazine was founded; but ‘salt’ is also a fundamental word. Customs and sayings relating to it are deeply embedded in our culture. Every school child is taught that the word ‘salary’ derives from ‘salarium argentum’, the salt money that was given to Roman soldiers so that they could buy the condiment that made their food palatable. Later, in mediaeval times, when everyone in the lord’s hall ate at the same long trestle table, the centrepiece was an elaborate salt cellar. Only nobles and gentry could choose to sit ‘above’ it; servants and other lesser mortals had to seat themselves ‘below the salt’. This sceptre’d isle is surrounded by the salty sea and ‘old salts’ are former venturers upon it, who may or may not be ‘the salt of the earth’! A tradition still kept in some rural societies involves throwing salt over your shoulder when you’ve sneezed, to keep the devil at bay. Bread, salt and wine are traditional gifts for newlyweds or, sometimes, new neighbours. Salt with a small ‘s’ is everywhere in our heritage.
And SALT with a big ‘S’ is continually getting stronger. Its founders, Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery, have seen it through some tough years. With tenacity and optimism they have put their faith and energy into this fine independent publishing house which never compromises on the quality of the work that it publishes or its standards of presentation. Some wonderful SALT books were published in 2012 (see the SALT carousel) and some great ones are coming in 2013. SALT is SPREADING. The Highways Agency says so. It’s official.
Playing Dead (Julia Heaberlin)
I’ve just finished reading Playing Dead, by Julia Heaberlin. It’s set in Texas and is an unusual novel.
In the first place, it has a fairly transparent plot; the reader knows almost from the beginning what happened to the heroine and her family in the past and therefore why they are now in danger (I won’t spoil it by giving away more), but there is also a surprise twist near the end which this reader, at least, failed to suspect until it was revealed.
Secondly, if it were to be categorised (which is not necessarily an exercise that I would encourage), it would be dubbed a ‘woman at risk’ crime novel. However, Tommie McCloud, the heroine, is feisty, tough and ready to take on any adversary. She is certainly not presented as a lamb ready for the slaughter. Sometimes we are even made to dislike her brash take on events. She does not conform to stereotype in other ways: although her family is wealthy, her taste in clothes is outré and her sister’s even more extreme; the sister, a single mother, lives in a trailer and feeds her child (or her child feeds her) on junk food; their mother, who dies early in the novel but whose presence permeates it throughout, is proved to have been not so much a wronged woman as ‘no better than she should have been’ in her youth. The author is not making a moral point here: she intends us to like these people and it is a tribute to her skill as a writer that we do.
The knock-on result of her subtle depiction of the characters and the tangled web of circumstances that they manage to weave is that the bad guys and the good guys do not separate into two clear camps. Julia Heaberlin therefore keeps the reading guessing, not about the plot, but about how these complex yet lightly-drawn people will eventually gather enough answers about the past to enable them to launch themselves into the future; or alternatively, in one or two cases, forfeit the future because of the way in which they have behaved in the past. She establishes that there is a tipping point between good and evil; most of the characters in the novel could fall on either side of it.
Playing Dead is a serious novel which wears its seriousness lightly. It is a beautifully-written, entertaining read, on the surface of it not demanding, a book which you might take to bed when suffering from a cold or a hangover. It makes some profound statements about the human condition, but with a lightness of touch that at times verges on the tongue-in-cheek.
It is a debut novel, in the UK a Faber publication. I shall certainly look out for her next, Lie Still, due out this year. In the meantime, I recommend Playing Dead wholeheartedly to readers of this blog.
The curved blade of the weather front slices across the land; the air is Atlantic grey; a scimitar’s shining sweep from Biscay to Malin clangs with cold continental iron and the snow swirls and falls, whirling in the wild eddies of the sky and smoothing the humps and hollows of the ground. The curved blades of the ploughs bite into the drifts and fling furls to the roadsides, filling the dykes and walling the verges to the height of a man. Daylight is delirious, hurled raving into the enveloping dark, its face stinging and burning with blown ice; there is no respite.
Communities huddle indoors and peer out at the powdered flecks flowing past dim streetlights. The enormity of the sky hangs over them; the outside closes round them; they are excited… and awed. The need for food and warmth and shelter has primal significance and ancient firelight flickers in their eyes.
Morning is still, with no sun. In every direction, flat fields stretch into a gloomy distance. Trunks and branches of solitary trees are black, and white with snow and rime. More snow will come.
Silence enfolds the January Fenlands.
Listen, there is something magical in your ear…
Like many people, I have been reading about the collapse of HMV and its departure from the high street, having failed to respond to the migration of consumers to online suppliers. I have already written on this blog about the challenges faced by bookshops and I am sure that this HMV news will only encourage the owners and managers of physical outlets for books to focus even more sharply upon their strategies for survival.
However, though I am obviously interested in the circumstances of the retail world and read this news avidly, it was the His Master’s Voice terrier logo, circulated for nostalgic reasons, which set me off on a train of thought quite unconnected with the story. The terrier is listening to the recorded voice with the characteristic comical cocked-head interest of my own dog, when strenuously trying to pick out the sounds of the words which mean that what he wants (walk and food, mostly!) will materialise.
The quality of word sounds is something that I have always enjoyed in literature (and not just in poetry, either) and I read prose with my ear cocked for the aural signals that a writer is not just thinking about meaning, but is also powerfully aware of the impact of sound upon the reader: patterns of hard and soft consonants, short and long vowels, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, rhythm, rhyme (yes, in prose!) and so on. Fortunately, I think, there is a growing practice of writing of prose for performance reading (such as Salt Publishing’s OVERHEARD, stories to read aloud, edited by Jonathan Taylor) and more and more places to go to listen to prose authors reading or performing their work (Rattletales in Brighton, for example). For me, crimewriters who create really effective atmosphere through sound as well as description have the edge on those who do not, for I love to listen to a book and hear an author in my head.
Gosh, ‘The Versatile Blogger’ award! Thanks, Anabel Marsh!
Several people have recently made very complimentary comments about my blog; I am, naturally, pleased to enjoy favourable feedback as it makes my daily commitment feel really worthwhile! Since starting social networking in October, I have been much struck by the incredible kindness and support of the online community around me – so much generosity and warmth! Now, to cap it, Anabel Marsh, a very experienced and entertaining blogger about travel and children’s literature, has nominated me for ‘The Versatile Blogger’ award, which allows bloggers to be really nice to each other! Anabel’s personal regard for my blog is what really means most to me, though the award is a fun thing in itself. According to its rules, I have to say seven things about myself and here they are:
- A few years ago, I might have said my favourite pastime was cycling. On an all-terrain tandem, my husband and I went on some pretty ambitious excursions, here and abroad, including the Alps. However, as his appetite for speed increased (and my screams – we once broke the speed limit cycling through Holmfirth!), I became more fearful. Last year, my birthday present was an individual bike, so my appetite for cycling may revive. In the meantime, I most like walking with our Pointer dog in the countryside, watching it change subtly almost every day, enjoying the dog’s antics, keeping fit and, of course, thinking about what I’m going to write when I reach home again. It’s also amazing how much you can spot going on in and around a small village, if you’re nosy!
- If I had to choose one favourite place, I’d say Spalding, but the Spalding of the past rather than the present. Although my novels take place in the present, they are set in the Spalding of the past, which now seems to me to have been a magical place. That I have not lived there since I was eighteen enables me to preserve almost intact my memories of how it was then (though of course I still pay visits). Other favourite places are Paris (the first European city I ever visited and where I spent my honeymoon), Leeds (mis-spent youth) and London (dirty, noisy, magnificent).
- Sorry to be predictable, but my favourite book of all time has to be Emma. There are few books that I read twice, but I re-read all of Jane Austen’s every five years or so. I always find something that I haven’t spotted before and she always teaches me something new about writing. I don’t really have a favourite crime writer – too many candidates; if really pushed, I’d probably choose Le Carré’s Smiley novels (if they count as crime). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made a big impression on me when I first read it, but I find the later Larssons far-fetched. I admire Anne Zouroudi, Michael Dibdin and Donna Leon for the quality of their prose and I like Peter Robinson and Stephen Booth because they write about places that I know.
- I love cooking! I’ve been baking my own bread since I was first married. We grow vegetables, apples, plums and soft fruits and I try not to let any go to waste. I preserve jams and chutneys, for which various members of my extended family place orders. I’ve always baked cakes and pastry items – girls growing up in the Lincolnshire of my youth learned to make pastry almost before they could walk. I’m definitely a Nigella Lawson fan; my only quibble is that she always uses the most expensive ingredients, so sometimes I substitute more economical ones!
- Things I hate the most: i) Way out ahead of the others has to be my yearly tussle with my tax form! If it were possible to murder an organisation, my choice would be the Inland Revenue. ii) I don’t like gratuitous rudeness; it is usually as easy and certainly more effective to be polite. iii) I wish my husband would learn to use the laundry basket.
- My favourite holiday: We love long holidays in France, staying in secluded rural gîtes to indulge our love of walking, cycling, reading and writing. (The outlines of both my DI Yates novels were written there.) If anyone has any recommendations for good quality self-catering in other countries, I’d appreciate them.
- My ideal evening: Write for a couple of hours; cook a nice dinner and serve with wine; have an interesting conversation with my husband and / or immediate family; either read a good book or watch a film.
Anabel, I hope that you enjoyed reading this information! Thank you for your nomination; I am very touched and honoured by it. I really enjoy visiting your blog and I’d like others to use the link here to come and meet you.
Now, according to the rules of the award, I am supposed to nominate fifteen (!) other bloggers, but that seems silly and I intend to nominate just one, the one I really admire for versatility beyond the norm and for serving the interests of a huge creative community drawn to her by her encouragement, support, wit, humour, kindness, content scope and, most important of all, knowledge. She is Rhian Davies, It’s a crime! (Or a mystery…) , on Twitter as @crimeficreader. She is under no obligation to be bothered with continuing this process, but my nomination will, I am sure, be understood by very many indeed.
When reality strains belief, what hope has fiction?
Now here is a news story that must give heart to writers worried about whether their fictional situations are going to be too unbelievable: Man throws puppy at biker gang, does a moonie and escapes on bulldozer. Before anyone takes issue with me for referring her or him to a story in which a puppy and some innocent biker boys are grossly abused (but, please note, neither puppy nor bikers perished in this incident), may I say that my main reason for writing a post about this is the matter of realism in crime novels. I am always disappointed when a crime writer, in the interests of a plot, strains credibility so much that my willing suspension of disbelief is compromised; it’s as bad for me as one memorable occasion at the Leeds Playhouse (no, not the West Yorkshire Playhouse, but its excellent predecessor, which clung to the back of the Leeds University sports hall back in the seventies), when the balcony in a production of Romeo and Juliet collapsed under the lovers’ combined weight and I was torn between convulsions of laughter, waves of sympathy for the actors and, most significant of all, anguish at the loss of the moment.
You will by now, if you have recovered from that news story, be thinking that I’m just considering far-fetched scenarios, but there are other things, too: I was much struck by an excellent recent post (Facebook December 24th 2012 -scroll to date), written by the very astute crime novelist Margaret Murphy (whose research to support the realism of her work is painstaking), which presented a subtle point about the need for a writer to include precise and convincing technical detail, but not to overwhelm the reader with an overdose of it; her sense of the need for convincing her reader is highly-developed and she has her audience very firmly in mind.
For me, as someone whose interest lies more in the psychological portrayal of characters than in procedural elements, my mind was less affected by the absurdity of the situation in the news report than by the mind of the man who committed this astonishing series of acts. I know that this is one of those news stories which will never be followed up in the media and that the only way I’ll ever find out more about this man will be by visiting the area of Germany in which it all happened and doing research there. I’m left to my own mental devices, therefore, and I’m imagining all kinds of things beyond the mere ‘stopped taking depression medication’ comment. There are so many psychological aspects to this that my mind is running on how I might have prepared the reader by my characterisation, were this incident to have featured in a novel of mine, to make this reality achieve a fictional realism.
I confess, I’m struggling!
There is nothing worse than a pedant when it comes to the use of language and things grammatical; the last thing that any writer wants is to have some linguistic know-it-all ram rules down her throat. (You just know that all the pedant wants is to parade his or her own knowledge.) There have been and still are plenty of excellent writers of prose whose verbal accuracy leaves something to be desired, but fortunately the editing process by self or others eliminates the things which would undoubtedly annoy a reader. Where do I stand on all this?
The fact is, I am, I think, my own worst critic and I constantly read and re-read my work to pick up the inevitable errors that have occurred as I have striven to achieve what are, arguably, much more important things, such as creation of mood, descriptive interest or aspects of characterisation. I’m sorry to say that I’m a bit anal about the accuracy of what I post on this blog and (yes, I am a bit sad!) go back to look at past posts because I read them again with a greater distance and objectivity. I do find things I’m not happy about and sometimes (to me, anyway) shocking mistakes like lack of agreement of subject and verb.
I hope that writers on the receiving end of an editor’s amendments take them in good part; the additional critical eye is something to be grateful for, not to squirm under. If someone else ‘corrects’ my prose, my first instinct is to bristle, but then to remember what this is all about: improvement. I may not agree with the amendments, but if they make me re-think, as well as re-read, I can do it better! I’m married to a pedant who provides an in-house critical view and we have some humdingers of disagreements, but, in the end, I do realise that he is on my side. Annoyingly, he is frequently right.
Cryptic to the end…
I come from a family of avid crossword addicts. My mother and my late father-in-law each completed the cryptic crossword on most days. Both especially liked crosswords set by ‘Araucaria’, which has therefore been a household name for me since I was a child. I still can’t pass a monkey-puzzle tree without thinking of his crosswords.
I did not know this crossword-setter’s true identity, so was fascinated to discover in today’s Sunday Times that his real name is the Reverend John Graham and that he is ninety-one years old. I was also saddened to go on to read that he has contracted cancer of the oesophagus, which is being treated with palliative care only. His life is therefore likely to end soon.
However, I was heartened when I also read that he intends to keep going while he can; his crossword-setting days are not over yet. And I take my hat off to him for his ability to view even his terminal illness with both humour and with a professional eye. He has created a crossword puzzle which tells readers who solve the four relevant clues that ‘Araucaria has cancer of the oesophagus, which is being treated with palliative care.’
Crossword puzzle setters and crime writers have a great deal in common. They look at life in a certain way. Word-play and coincidences, double- entendres and things not being quite as they seem are their stock-in-trade. Much of their lives are lived through their work. (I suspect that readers of crime fiction may often have a penchant for crossword puzzles, too.)
Crime writers have to be resilient. Having dragged their readers through slaughter, mayhem and near-Armageddon, they have to bounce back and recreate a status quo in which all is right with the world again. It is still fiction, though. Should I receive warning that the end of my life is near, as Araucaria has, I hope that I shall be as full of robust common sense and equanimity as he is. By incorporating the announcement of his death into his professional work with such modest good humour, it seems to me that he has already succeeded in pre-empting the end of his life by making it imitate art and has in the process regained control, even achieved a victory. He has found a brave and wonderful way of playing the grim reaper at his own game.
A moral question on wheels…
According to an article by Rosemary Bennett in yesterday’s The Times, ‘An ICM poll commissioned by LV= [insurers] found that 7 per cent of families with children under 5 have had a buggy stolen, which is equivalent to 340,000 families.’ As you might expect, articles about criminal activity always grab my attention, even if, as with this one, the time for personal interest in baby buggies has passed. Time was, when opportunist vagabonds and tinkers roamed the highways and byways of England, valuable sheets put out on the hedges to dry tended to vanish, so not much changes. The rogue Autolycus sings of this in The Winter’s Tale:
The white sheet bleaching on the hedge,
With hey! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!
Doth set my pugging tooth on edge;
For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.
‘Pugging’ is a splendid word that probably refers to the tendency to steal and the quart of ale suggests what Autolycus might have bought with the proceeds from his ill-gotten gains. Today, those casual thieves with an eye to the main chance are no doubt responsible for the appearance of nearly-new buggies on online sites, where someone desperate for a Bugaboo or a Maclaren (with go-faster stripes) but unable to afford a new one may not care very much where it came from. I’m intrigued by human nature and behaviour and even more by that delicate borderline between honesty and dishonesty. The Times article says that the same poll ‘found that 5 per cent of parents admit they would buy a buggy they suspected had been stolen if the price was right,’ but I suspect that that figure is much lower than reality: Of course, we are all very moral, aren’t we? We never do anything illegal; we buy but just don’t question provenance – that’s not a crime!
Forgetting the inconvenience to the owners of a stolen buggy, which is not inconsiderable, this wavering personal morality is actually very damning; put in the position of an easy and quite cheap personal gain, we might not be quite so absolutely honest, might we? I don’t see baby-buggies making it into crime fiction any time soon, but there is a huge potential for the novelist in the portrayal of uncertain honesty, whether in members of the public or in officers of the law!
As for the proud owners of the upmarket buggy, the simple message of a full-page article is: Don’t leave it unattended.