Spring has come at last, having mothballed itself after a false start six weeks ago when, amazingly, the dwarf daffodils, which were already out, went into hibernation and then bloomed again after the snow had melted. The other narcissi have come late, but now they seem to be on fast-forward through their flowering; like child film-stars, their youth has been sucked straight into the adult world of make-up and seduction – and the bumblebees are falling for it. (Somewhat disturbingly, given the exceptionally long winter months that they may or may not have survived, the honey-bees have yet to appear in any numbers.)
The birds have started nesting late, but they’re now frenetically active. On the plum tree this morning, a great tit whose beak held an enormous (by bird standards) bale of sheep’s wool, waited patiently for his mate to do her nest-box honours. The sight prompted a timely reminder that the resident killer, having skulked inside since November, aside from brief forays to the soft ground behind the gas tank when it was made emphatically clear to him that ‘behind the sofa’ would not do as an alternative, is also on the stir. During the long winter months, he has amused himself by scratching at the wallpaper in the boiler-room that constitutes his principal residence (the shop-bought scratching-pad the only pristine article in there), picking at the piping on the sofa cushions when he thinks no-one is looking and terrorising the dog. (The dog weighs twenty-seven kilos and the cat less than two, so no especial outrage on behalf of the canine is necessary!)
Now sixteen, but neither arthritic nor showing any sign of lessening powers of co-ordination, the cat is at his cruellest in the spring. He is still able to climb to the top of the pergola, always home to two or three nests, and jump from it to the shed, where there is usually one more amongst the rambling roses. I cannot recall a spring when he has not brought at least one terrified chaffinch, blue-tit or blackbird into the house. Usually they are still alive and sometimes it is possible to free them – which makes his his eyes glow reddish-green with owner-hatred – but sadly they often die of fright. His repertoire of tactics is ingenious. I once entered our bedroom to find a cock house sparrow flying round, battering the walls in its frenzy to get out, while the cat crouched on the bed, waiting for it to tire. I concluded that he must have climbed out through the open window on to the outside sill and snatched it from there: a cat-burglar in reverse. He is not without moral sense and is well aware that birds are contraband creatures. He catches them furtively and tries to conceal his crime, whereas mice are slain with a fanfare and a flourish: he lays them out with ceremony upon the kitchen floor.
We’ve always kept cats. When we lived in Leeds, we had an elderly neighbour who used to phone me to tell me when she saw the then feline incumbent, whose name was Peachum, out stalking prey. If I rushed outside quickly enough, to the cat’s chagrin the bird sometimes escaped; but I’m sure that Peachum still managed to capture what he regarded as his rightful quota. As both a bird- and cat-lover, I am troubled by the ethics of this annual cull. In summers like last year’s, when spring was so early that some bird species raised three broods instead of two (we had a super-abundance of blackbirds), it might be possible to argue that the cat is just helping to maintain the balance of nature; our neighbourhood sparrowhawk, by the by, is responsible for far more small-bird deaths than any cat, having awe-inducing eye-sight, silence, stealth and speed.
I wonder whether this year the clutches will be larger, or smaller, as nature adjusts itself? I shall now do my best to restrain my otherwise charming resident killer. I shall encourage him to accept that baiting the dog provides a superior form of entertainment… if fewer corpses.
I was awake during the night, thinking vaguely about today’s blog-post and, much more strenuously, about how to get back to sleep, when a twenty-year-old memory presented itself unbidden. It was, in fact, a series of memories that covered a period of five years or so.
I was running a small library supply company. Most of us had individual PCs, but we needed a proper computer system. Having interviewed a number of candidates (including some very poncy large-company operators who didn’t get out of bed for less than six figures at one end of the scale and hilarious wide boys at the other who wouldn’t have fooled a child with their patter), we opted for a small hardware company that had been established for some time in Leeds and the consultant to whom they sub-contracted systems and software development. His name was Will.
Over the next few months, I came to know Will a little. He took endless trouble to make sure he understood how our quirky manual system worked so that he could replicate it ‘virtually’, ironing out a few of the inconsistencies along the way. He always carried with him a large portable Compaq, and he carried out all of his configurations on this. He seemed to have unlimited patience. Software development was at the stage when it took a proficient techie five minutes to type in a piece of code, after which he would have to wait for half an hour or so for the machine to whirr and rumble through its set of tricks in order to produce the next stage of the programme. Like all computer guys of the period, therefore, Will spent a lot of time sitting around drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes (it was before they were banned in offices). If we were not too busy, sometimes he would talk to us about the business while he waited; occasionally, he would tell us about his personal life.
He said that he had a wife called Catherine. They didn’t always live together because she suffered from depression and, when it got really bad, she would go to stay with her mother for a spell. They had a son whose name was Ian, who went to a special school and so was away during term-time. Will gave me to understand that Ian was exceptionally gifted, which was why they were investing so much in his education.
Will was tall – taller than my husband, who is six foot three – and heavily built. He had a soft voice and a rather alternative way of dressing (not uncommon in geeks). Everyone in the office liked him. He told us that his mother called him ‘the gentle giant’.
A few months into the project, Will was suddenly taken ill. He was admitted to Leeds General Infirmary and told that he had lung cancer (in retrospect, after so many cigarettes, it was not surprising), but that the prognosis was good, because, as far as they could tell, only one lung was affected. The diseased lung was removed. My boss and I visited him at the hospital shortly afterwards. It was a boiling hot July evening. Will had lost a lot of weight; his face was pale and gaunt, but his skin seemed flawlessly clear, as if made of alabaster, and he’d grown his hair, always on the long side, to shoulder-length. He looked almost Christ-like. He was very thirsty and said he’d like some beer. The ward sister said it would be OK, so my boss went out to an off-licence to buy some cans of Guinness.
Will’s mother was his other visitor. A diminutive, bird-like woman (it seemed hardly credible that this giant of a man could be her son), she was notable for her inquisitive bright brown eyes and flushed cheeks. She said that she also had lost a lung and had managed with a single one for many years, so she was sure that Will would be OK. Will himself was enthusing about a generous present of money that he had received from a relative, which he intended to spend on walking gear for himself and Karen. It would be part of his fitness regime when he was discharged from hospital.
“Who’s Karen?” I asked.
Will looked at his mother, obviously discomfited. “My wife.”
“I thought her name was Catherine?”
“It is. She sometimes uses Karen, though. She likes it.”
I didn’t understand, but he was obviously keen to change the subject and it would have been rude to press him further. My boss returned with the beer and after half an hour or so we left. As we said goodbye, Will promised to keep in touch and to let us know as soon as he was well enough to start work again.
After I hadn’t heard from him for three months, I wrote him a letter. I had his mobile phone number (not many people had mobiles then: he was an early adopter), but I thought that writing would be less intrusive. The next day I received a telephone call from a woman who identified herself as Karen. She told me that Will had died almost four weeks previously. I told her that I was sorry. She brushed off my condolences quite brusquely – I put it down to grief and was about to apologise for troubling her when she interrupted. She said that Will had left a lot of computer equipment and some software in ‘his’ house, together with manuals belonging to clients, and that if I thought that there was anything belonging to my company I should come and claim it.
I knew that Will had lived in an old lodge house, close to a paper mill at which he had worked as the manager before he took up software design full-time. It was easy to find. Karen was waiting for me at the gate. She was a short, plump woman with long, very dark hair and a conspicuous limp. I’d say she was in her late thirties – Will had been some years older. She led me into a room in which she had set out several computers, other pieces of equipment and a large array of folders. I rummaged through the latter and found the one containing confidential information about my company. It was impossible for me to identify which of the floppy disks contained the code that Will had been working on; I knew that we’d have to write off the project. Although Karen was friendly, she seemed very weary. I left as quickly as I could.
Of course we talked about Will for a while at work, but we hadn’t known him well and his memory quickly faded. A new software engineer was brought in and a new system designed. After some years, I left the company to take up a post at a much larger organisation.
My new boss was a woman – the only woman boss I’ve ever had and, ironically, the most unreasonable and psychotic of all my bosses. She was half Italian, half what was then called Yugoslav, and I can testify that this produced a volatile set of genes! Many times I had to work late into the night, writing a report that she’d requested at 4 p.m., to be delivered the following day.
It was on such an occasion that, having worked for a couple of hours one evening and with at least another couple ahead of me, I went downstairs to make tea. Popping my head round the door to ask my husband if he would also like some, I saw that he was watching a television programme. To my amazement, the woman whose face filled the screen, now older and more drawn, was Karen’s. I stayed to listen to what she was saying.
The camera moved from the close-up shot so that the viewer could take in more of the setting. I saw that she was standing in a cemetery. The camera moved to the headstone, and I saw that it marked Will’s grave.
“I don’t feel bitter for myself,” she said, “but I wish that I had left him sooner. I tried many times, but he always persuaded me to come back to him. I blame myself that I didn’t go for good when I found that I was pregnant. When he beat me up, I was terrified for the baby.”
“The baby was born damaged?” asked the unseen commentator gently.
“Yes,” she said flatly. “He is epileptic and has learning difficulties. Severe learning difficulties.” She wasn’t crying, but her face was inexpressibly sad.
“And what about you? You say that your injuries are progressive. How does that affect you?”
“My spine is damaged. I can just about walk with a stick. I’ve been told that I’ll be in a wheelchair in five years or so.” Again, it was the matter-of-factness and the resignation in her tone that were harrowing.
The programme cut to another woman with a similar story to tell. I watched it until the end. It concluded with a list of telephone numbers and addresses to which battered wives could turn for help.
I’ve often wondered since about Catherine. Was it a name that Will concocted in order to exonerate himself, to distance himself in some way from his appalling actions by pretending that his victim wasn’t Karen? Or was it a name that she herself had used on those occasions on which she had tried to escape from him?
[For obvious reasons, I have changed the names in this account. Everything else is completely true and unembellished.]
My recent short holiday in Barcelona was inspired by a brief visit that I made to the city in October 2011, when I facilitated a two-day international librarians’ advisory group hosted by the University of Barcelona. Not only did this previous occasion help to delay having to grapple with the onset of winter for a few more days (in the last week of October, the temperature in the city was around 24 degrees celsius, just a little higher than it was last week towards the end of April), but it provided me with an opportunity to see the library of an ancient university from the inside, because the advisory group meeting concluded with our being shown some of the library’s most prized possessions.
In the 1830s, this library was given a unique privilege by the then King of Spain. He wanted to loosen the grip of the church on the country; he also saw that most of the nation’s ancient manuscripts, incunabula and early printed texts were being held in convents and monasteries. This meant that not only were they inaccessible to scholars and students unless they were also inmates of these foundations, but also, in many cases, the books were not being adequately curated. Gradually, these priceless texts were being destroyed by insects, vermin, damp and, sometimes, acts of vandalism (in the sense that those who coveted particular illustrations might remove them from the work concerned). He therefore ordered that all of these rare manuscripts and books should be given to the University of Barcelona. I imagine that there were some grim ecclesiastical mutterings at the time and I strongly suspect that not every last text was relinquished. Nevertheless, the king’s dictat has resulted in a treasure trove that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the great library collections of the world. For the university, it has been a joyful trouble: the work of preservation and curation goes on to this day. The books are kept in rooms where the temperature is constant and the university has a continuous restoration programme.
Having heard about these wonderful works of art, my husband wanted to see them too, so I contacted Carmen Cambrodi, the acquisitions librarian at the university, and asked her if it would be possible for us to make a short visit during our stay. She very kindly arranged for one of her colleagues to show us some of the collection and we spent an enthralling hour in her company. She was very knowledgeable about all of the books in her care. Appropriately, we made the visit on St George’s Day, when the streets outside were full of books of modern provenance.
The first book she showed us was an illuminated manuscript dating from the fourteenth century. I have included a photograph of it here. As you will see, all the letters are impeccably formed; it is so perfect that it looks typeset. It was written on vellum, which has stood up to the test of time remarkably well. I’d like to know how many hours it took to complete. It is certainly the result of many months’ work. I wonder if the monk who crafted it with such professional care was pleased or sad when his work was done? The illustrations take your breath away.
The second book is an incunable, or a book printed before the year 1501. It is strikingly similar to the manuscript: it demonstrates clearly that the earliest printed books tried to emulate their handwritten forbears in every detail. Interesting are the gaps left for illustrated letters, which were never completed, and the stamps of the religious institution from which the book came. Finally, there was a sixteenth-century example of a botanical encyclopaedia. This book was remarkable, not only for its accurate and beautiful illustrations (the vegetable dyes used to colour them have hardly dimmed with the passage of almost five hundred years), but also because it concludes with portraits of the three men who, respectively, wrote the text, painted the illustrations and cut the engravings for the printing press. Apparently such celebration of the author and other contributors – and especially inclusion of their pictures – was very rare at this date. You can see that these aren’t stereotyped portraits, either, but real likenesses: you feel as if you would be happy to meet these characters in a tavern and listen to them discoursing sagely on the problems of printing and book illustration, or perhaps the political issues of their day. They look as if they could be fun, too.
The librarian, Mrs Neus Verger, told us that the paper that was produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for early printed books was of much better quality than that which followed in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the result that priority for conservation work often has to be given to ‘younger’ books. She made her point by showing us some holes created by insects in some of the pages of the botanical book. The insects had bored through the paper completely, but these small pinprick holes constituted the only damage: the surrounding paper was completely untouched. The insect depredations had caused no further decay.
My husband and I will treasure memories of this visit and hope that one day we shall be allowed to return in order to glimpse again these jewels from bygone ages. I’d like to record here our heartfelt thanks to Carmen Cambrodi and Mrs Neus Verger, a wonderfully erudite but very modest colleague, and to pay tribute more generally to the University of Barcelona, an oasis of calm and of serious learning set in the centre of a bustling and vibrant city.
[Text and photographs © Christina James 2013]
As some of my readers with good memories may recall, DI Tim Yates has a sister who lives in Surbiton. So far, his sister has appeared only in In the Family and has no name; she makes no appearance in Almost Love. However, she is a benign, if shadowy, presence waiting in the wings and (I am certain) will crop up in a more central role in a future book.
As I’ve said before, topography and a sense of place are important to me, both in my own writing and in that of others, and I therefore try to place my characters in settings that I know well. I’m familiar with Surbiton because my long-suffering friend Sally lives there. She has allowed me to stay in her lovely turn-of-the-twentieth-century house on almost all of my visits to London over the past fourteen years and she makes strenuous occasions like the London Book Fair tolerable during the day and a joy when I return to her house in the evenings for conversation, wine and good food.
Surbiton is itself an interesting place. It is the quintessential English suburb – even its name suggests it. If you were to hear of it without knowing its location, you would not conjure up an image of a Fenland village or a rugged Scottish town. It sounds like what it is; it even has an equally suburban twin: Norbiton. The twins have mellowed together, their streets laid out and their houses and gardens maintained much as they were in late Victorian times. Even the shops have old-fashioned façades. You feel you might meet Mr Pooter coming round the corner, or see Jerome K Jerome and his friends boating on Surbiton’s stretch of the Thames. Many of the gardens in the street where Sally lives contain beautiful magnolia trees, a feature I think also of the time when they were first laid out, when magnolias were very popular. I love to see them in bloom and am always glad when the Book Fair coincides with their flowering, as it did this year.
Even Surbiton has to move a little with the times, however. On my latest visit, I was amused to see a sign directing would-be purchasers to a new housing development; amused, because the developers have called it Red Square. Now that is a brave step! I don’t know how established residents of Surbiton might feel about this designation, but, as someone who has visited its more famous Russian namesake, I have to confess I see few points of similarity.
I’ve not yet decided upon the exact street in which Tim’s sister lives. Originally, I had conceived of a rather genteel existence for her, perhaps working as a lecturer at nearby Kingston University and living in one of the pretty, solid, semi-detached houses within walking distance of the station. But perhaps she is not like this at all. Younger than Tim, perhaps she is an undercover agent working for MI5. She may even be about to move into a safe house in Red Square.
Sam, the wonderful Events Manager at Waterstones Gower Street, has organised ‘An Evening with Christina James’ on Thursday 2nd May 2013. It will start at 6.30 p.m. and last for perhaps an hour. I shall be reading a short excerpt from In the Family and perhaps also one from Almost Love (which will be published in June), and offering a few tips, from a personal perspective, on how to get published. After this, there will be a short Q & A – and a glass of wine! The event is a sort of forerunner of a larger Salt crime event that will be hosted by Gower Street on 23rd May 2013.
I know that readers of the blog are scattered far and wide and that some of you don’t live in Europe. Wherever you are, I am very grateful to you for your interest and have been delighted to ‘meet’ you on these pages. For those of you who happen to be in London next Thursday or can travel there easily (and would like to, of course!), I should be delighted to have the opportunity to meet you in person.
Happily my visit to Barcelona coincided with the celebration of St. George’s Day (on Tuesday 23rd April); ‘Sant Jordi’ is big in this city, which honours him with a much higher profile than we extend to him as our national patron saint. It was, of course, also World Book Day. I’m not sure whether it was owing to Spanish influence that the UK and the USA have chosen this date for their annual bookfest, but I am certain that the people of Catalonia got there first. In Barcelona, it is an ancient tradition to celebrate St George’s role as the patron saint of books. Booksellers bring book stalls out on to the pavements and everyone enters into the spirit of celebrating the book. Sales throughout the day are brisk; almost everyone I saw travelling on the Metro in the evening was carrying a bag of books. There is a carnival atmosphere. St George is remembered by a rose and an ear of corn, symbolising the damsel that he rescued and himself as her rescuer. Traditionally, the Spanish man of honour presented his lady with a rose accompanied by a corn stalk, to which she responded by giving him a book. Christina James, I am proud to say, received her rose (well, three, in fact!) and, for pleasure’s sake, not duty’s, gave her man a book. (For the romantics amongst you – and to the smiles of Catalan onlookers – kisses were exchanged…)
To walk the streets, roses in hand, amid the throng of local people intent on having a good time, was to share in a general joie-de-vivre and to have a precious opportunity to talk to enthusiastic lovers of books. Beautiful displays of roses and red and yellow striped ribbons and flags adorned street corners and pavements everywhere. Music filled the air and the sun shone.
On a more business-like level, I feel that there may be something for us to learn from this. It did strike me at the time that Catalan booksellers are fortunate in being able to place such confidence in the weather; I could imagine a similar event in London or Leeds being suddenly dampened (in every sense of the word) by a sharp shower. And World Book Day is a remarkable achievement, a miracle of co-operation and generosity between all the elements of the book industry and a huge army of volunteers. Nevertheless, no-one was being given anything in Barcelona: roses came at €3 each; books were sold at full price. In a sense, it was all about celebrating the skills of booksellers themselves and the pleasures that they bring… and showing that they are worth paying for. We in the UK should honour our booksellers more and they should learn to expect and accept our homage gracefully and with attitude.
Life can be raw on the mean streets of Barcelona. Down La Rambla, in spite of the police presence, teams of pickpockets roam, taking advantage of the tourists’ distraction to coax valuables out of pockets and purses from handbags. ‘Three-cup-where’s-the-ball?’ hoodwinks naïve player and unwitting audience alike (not all are audience). Along the pavements, with heads and shoulders bent into four-wheeled municipal refuse bins, scavengers of everything from metal to cardboard sift and sort the unwanted detritus of urban life and load it into supermarket trolleys, selling it on later at street corners where, next level up, men with vans pay only low denominations in return. Beggars with appealing canine companions or a pair of crutches play to the emotions of passers-by. Buskers in teams work the subway trains, as does the ‘poet’ with his single learned verse. Tuneless extroverts invade bars and restaurants to serenade diners, prodding shoulders with a nudge and placing an empty bowl on the table. The homeless sleep in parks.
A separate economy is operating beneath the tourist world and it is hard-bitten and single-minded; it has its own hierarchy and its own rules. Though the casual observer may see nothing much of it, careful scrutiny of just a small portion of a street or a tube station unveils the surreptitious transfer of illicit packages, information or cash; eyes that are everywhere and nowhere, looking for gain or Guardia with equal determination. There is a quality in shiftiness that singles out its owner from the rest of the urban swirl and it’s always interesting to use the invisibility of a café vantage point to sift out bad from good. Crowds down the ages have been the haven of criminals, cutpurses and vagabonds, the noise and crush and apparently innocent jostle enabling skilful sleight of hand and surreptitious, instant disappearance.
Too much mistrust springing from too much reading of crime? Not so: watch the hands and eyes and see for yourself. It’s a dog-eat-dog dogfight on the streets.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Barcelona, its lovely Catalan people and its edge. I’m just playing with reality…