I was very privileged yesterday to have been invited to the event arranged by Wakefield Library Service as a joint celebration of National Reading Group Day and Crime Fiction Month. It was organised by Alison Cassels, Library Officer for Reading at Wakefield, and lasted almost the whole day. It was held at Wakefield One, the wonderful new library and museum complex which was opened last November by Jarvis Cocker. The day’s activities were built around the interests of Wakefield Libraries’ eighteen reading groups. When they are in everyday mode, the reading groups choose books that they wish to read from a selection provided; the library service then buys sets of these and distributes them. In itself, this must constitute an impressive feat of complex organisation and canny budget allocation.
About twenty members from various Wakefield reading groups attended. The morning began with refreshments, during which participants were given the opportunity to examine the next round of suggested titles and make their choices. We then split into three groups. Three books were being discussed, Peter May’s The Blackhouse, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and my own In the Family. The facilitators were Alison Cassels’ colleague, Lynn, Julie Walker, Operations and Development Manager for Kirklees Library Service, and myself.
It turned out that so many of the participants had read all three novels that I and my fellow facilitators led consecutive sessions with all three groups. At the end of the morning, Julie chaired a wrap-up session about crime fiction more generally and we discussed our favourite books in the genre. We then broke for lunch. In the afternoon, more people joined the groups to listen to my reading of two short excerpts from In the Family and Almost Love, as part of a session during which we discussed how I write and how I originally managed to get published; the audience put to me more questions (some of them very searching indeed) about my novels. At the close, Richard Knowles of Rickaro Books, in Horbury, sold copies of both books.
I don’t recall having enjoyed an event – whether or not it featured other authors or myself and my own writing – more than I enjoyed yesterday’s. I say this, not from reasons of vanity, but because I have never before had the opportunity to get as close to readers and what they really think. The eloquence and perceptiveness of the reading group members, and the fact that they had spent so much time on really engaging with In the Family, was truly humbling. I took much pleasure in listening to Pauline when she explained why she enjoyed the passages of dialogue – particularly that which takes place during Hedley Atkins’ and Peter Prance’s train journey to Scotland – and how much she identified with Hedley’s frustration when he missed the train to Liverpool, in spite of his sinister intent; and to Jane, for taking the trouble to create a family tree for the Atkins family. Other reading group members quizzed me for more information about Salt Publishing, about the history of Lincolnshire, about how DI Tim Yates will develop in subsequent books and – in true, straightforwardly friendly, Yorkshire fashion – about what I could say to persuade them to buy Almost Love! I said that it does develop Tim’s character further, as they’d hoped, and that it contains quite a lot of history and more of the dialogue that they’d obviously enjoyed.
If any of yesterday’s participants are reading this, I’d like you to know that I think you are amazing. I was grateful beyond words for your generosity in investing so much time, both in the event itself and in reading the books, as well as, of course, for your buying them. I do hope that I shall have the opportunity to meet you again.
I’d like to conclude with a special thank-you to Alison, who provided me with excellent hospitality. Wakefield Library Service is an old friend, with which I first became acquainted in the late 1970s. It has always enjoyed a fine reputation as a distinguished and innovative library authority. From the start, therefore, I knew that yesterday would succeed, but the magic of the day, created by a combination of impeccable organisation by Alison, Lynn and their colleagues and the wonderful enthusiasm of all the participants involved, both from the reading groups and other members of the public, made it truly unforgettable.
I gave my first talk in a library yesterday, at Bawtry Community Library, near Doncaster. It had been requested by Claire Holcroft and George Spencer, of Doncaster Library Service, and immaculately organised by Lesley Gilfedder at the library itself. Despite the rain and the fact that it coincided with the local school play, about twenty people attended. It was a lively and appreciative audience; most of its members had read more crime novels than I have, even though I’m a self-confessed addict, and several of them had detailed personal knowledge of the part of Lincolnshire which I write about. I felt that I learnt at least as much from them as they from me.
I gave two short readings, one from In the Family and one from Almost Love. I was asked about the characters and, especially, about why I’d chosen to make a dysfunctional family the focus of In the Family. We talked a lot about the atmospheric qualities of the Fens and about past writers who have described them, especially Charles Dickens and Dorothy L. Sayers. We discussed plots and plot construction, how to make them work, whether it’s possible to change the plot mid-novel and how to avoid inconsistencies. Several of the audience kindly bought copies of the books.
I took some cakes (I’ve decided to make this one of my trademarks!) and, when the organised part of the evening was over, no-one was in a hurry to leave. Lesley, ever efficient, made tea and coffee and we all stayed to talk.
Of course, I know about public library cutbacks, but I had no idea how swingeing they have been in some authorities or how magnificently local communities have responded in order to save their libraries. Bawtry is a lovely library: it has a cared-for look; there are bright paintings on the walls; the stock is impeccably arranged and there is a large children’s area where the floor has been carpeted in multi-coloured tiles to aid the playing of games and telling of stories. It keeps full opening hours and, as last night, is also sometimes open late. All of this is achieved by volunteers. It has about ninety of them, typically working three-hour shifts. As well as manning the library, they clean it and care for the grounds. They’ve been operating this arrangement for eighteen months and, so far, not one volunteer has dropped out. I understand that most of the other libraries that come under the aegis of the Doncaster local authority are also run in this way, though not all manage to keep such long opening hours as Bawtry.
I am amazed and full of admiration, tinged also with a little bit of shame. The public library charter entitles people to the right to borrow books from a local library, yet the people of Bawtry would not be able to do this if so many of them were not prepared to give up their own time to make it work. It is both a huge local achievement and a national scandal that this state of affairs should exist.
I’d therefore like this post to stand as a tribute to the wonderful people from Bawtry whom I met yesterday and to all their friends and colleagues who continue to make the library the vibrant hub of their community. Thank you. And especial thanks to Lesley, for all your unobtrusive hard work behind the scenes.
I read in yesterday’s paper that Julia Gillard, the outgoing Australian PM, thinks that knitting can save the world, because of its therapeutic qualities, and that a (male) spin doctor thought it was a good idea for her to appear in domestic knitting bliss on the cover of The Australian Women’s Weekly. If, by this means, she intended her knitophile confession to demonstrate her hominess and thus save her career, she failed spectacularly, but I hope that she is consoled by knowing that now she will have much more time to knit and that she may thus reap all of knitting’s health-giving benefits.
As an acknowledged world-saver, knitting is one of the more unlikely contenders. I’d say that, by some distance, the thing most commonly claimed to be a universal restorative and peacemaker is tea. I offer the following literary samples to take with tea:
- Typhoo [after Joseph Conrad]
- Under the Green Tea Tree [after Thomas Hardy]
- Take tea or not take tea, that is the question! [after Shakespeare, Hamlet]
- I will arise and go now, to make a cup of tea [after W.B. Yeats]
- Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of Whittard’s mango tea [after John Milton]
- Earl Grey’s Anatomy [after Henry Gray]
- Darjeeling Buds of May [after H.E. Bates]
- The Gunpowder Tea Plot [after Antonia Fraser et al]
- The time is spent, her object will away, but from her Twinings tea there’s no releasing [after Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis]
- Ode on a Grecian Urn [John Keats]
However, there is the Boston tea party, proving both that truth is stranger than fiction and that, in reality, although tea may sometimes be a peacemaker, it can also start wars!
Perhaps it might be better to put cake on the tea table, too, whilst we all sit knitting for our lives… Men make cakes as well, you know… and knit.
I’ve read a lot of crime novels over the past few weeks and I’ve also started writing the third book in the Tim Yates series. As a result, I’ve thought a lot about writing practices that I particularly dislike, including ones occurring in my own work before (and sometimes, I suspect, also after) I’ve revised it as ruthlessly as I can. Here is a list of ten of my ‘hates’.
- Over-use of the word ‘cheap’. The effectiveness of this adjective as shorthand to describe a character’s clothes and personal effects, and by extension his or her personality, has long since staled. A more specific word almost always works better: tawdry, poor, shoddy, flimsy, badly-made, ill-fitting, shabby, dingy or threadbare.
- Use of ‘here’ to denote the person standing next to the speaker, as in ‘Mrs Smith here,’ or ‘Detective Constable Jones here’. It’s almost become a convention in detective stories. Why? I’ve never heard anyone say it in real life.
- Over-striving for effect by the writer, resulting in sentences that are too long and made ungainly by too many subordinate clauses.
- Over-striving for effect by the writer, resulting in the expression of conflicting ideas, sometimes within the same sentence. For example, I’ve recently read in the same sentence that because it was market day, a restaurant was full and that the waitress moved quickly among the half-empty tables.
- Trotting out the same phrase or catchword time and again to describe the same character. All characters need to have traits and foibles which differentiate them and capture the reader’s imagination, but I’d suggest that you can’t get away with using exactly the same expression more than twice.
- The use of a particularly arcane or unusual word more than once, unless it is integral to the main plot or theme of the novel or is made to occur several times as a deliberate irony.
- Parading of knowledge, either by introducing whole paragraphs or even pages of the author’s unreconstructed research into the novel (authors who have researched medical practices and conditions seem particularly susceptible to this) or by the more casual dropping of the names of obscure artists and musicians or the titles of little-known art films or pieces of music into descriptive passages for the sake of it. It has the unfortunate effect of seeming to chalk up a score against the reader. “The view resembled a sky-scape from the later blue period of the early twentieth-century Argentinian Cubist painter Mazzo Prisellio.”
- Making several different characters repeatedly use the same common phrase or exclamation. ‘Of course.’ (Guilty!) ‘My God!’ ‘Actually…’
- Changing a minor character’s name mid-novel. I’ve mentioned this one before, partly because I know I’m particularly guilty of it, partly because I’ve encountered it in the work of other writers so many times.
- Weakening descriptive passages too many times by using tentative words that dilute the impact: perhaps, rather, possibly, a little, maybe.
Apologies for sounding curmudgeonly! It’s a long time since I’ve read a book that I couldn’t finish, but these minor flaws tend to have a disproportionate effect on the reader’s enjoyment of the novel… or on this reader’s enjoyment, at least. That’s why I thought it might be helpful to list them.
In January, I wrote about a train journey to London during which I observed my fellow passengers and assessed them for potential as fictional murderers.
Yesterday, I made another train journey, this time to Cambridge. I didn’t set out with this intention, but, by the journey’s conclusion, I had been compelled by an uncharacteristic bout of Swiftian disgust to appraise the potential of some of my travelling companions as murder victims.
The journey from Wakefield began in a civilised manner, until the train pulled into Grantham. There, a group of schoolchildren boarded, evidently bound for some kind of daytrip destination (possibly London – this was the King’s Cross train). I say ‘schoolchildren’ – they were fifteen or sixteen, possibly first-year sixth formers. Until that point, I had been occupying a table to myself. Three of them joined me, two girls taking the seats opposite and a boy the one beside me.
The boy was very polite. The girls were shrill horrors, bred on a diet of Hello and reality TV. One of them was particularly inane. She made it quite obvious that she fancied the boy. She asked him what time he’d got up that morning. He replied 5.30 a.m. – he’d had to do his paper round before setting out. She said that she herself had got up at 6.30 a.m. – and it was a good thing that she did, because she, like, put on the T-shirt she meant to wear today and there were, like, two inches of bra sticking out at the top. Cue: shrieks of laughter from both girls. She then asked which of her companions would like to play ‘I-Spy’. (I was astonished at this choice of game, which most self-respecting ten-year-olds of my acquaintance would have scorned.) The other girl declined. The boy – still patiently polite – agreed. ‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with t,’ said the first girl. ‘Train!’ said the boy. Another burst of giggles. ‘I don’t believe it!’ she said. ‘However did you, like, guess that first time around?’
I was joined on the Cambridge connection by a tall young man with Jesus hair and a Tonto headband. He was dressed in an Afghan-style coat and was reading a book on philosophy. He seemed a pleasant enough travelling companion until he yawned. I was assaulted by breath fouler than could have poured from the mouths of half a dozen dragons after a brimstone-eating spree. I moved to the seat beside mine so that he and I were diagonally opposite each other. A middle-aged woman then boarded and sat next to him. She was immaculately dressed, all her golden curls sprayed firmly into place. She was clutching a cup of Costa coffee. I looked up a few minutes later: The white plastic lid of the coffee was smeared all over with her red-orange lipstick; so was her face. She took a packet of Monster Munchies from her bag; they were pickled onion flavour!
At Ely, another tall young man joined us. I stood up so that he could take the seat opposite dragon-breath. Their long legs clashed. The newcomer smelt even worse than his counterpart. It wasn’t just his breath: he had an all-over aroma of mingled mould and sweat.
I was delighted and relieved when I could finally disembark. Cambridge station, drab at the best of times, had never seemed so inviting. Jonathan Swift, I am sure, would have imagined eloquent and appropriate comeuppances for their various vile traits. I could think only about who might murder them and how. Motive would not have been a problem… but engaging the reader’s sympathy for the victims? Perhaps a little more of a challenge!
I first learnt of Murielle’s Angel on the social networks. It is the debut novel of Mary Jane Howell, who is married to one of my husband’s university friends. Though I don’t know Mary Jane well, this is the first novel I have read by someone who was an acquaintance before she became a writer. I have friends who are writers, but that is because they are writers, if I may make the distinction.
It is piquant to read a book by someone whom you not only know but of whose circumstances you also have a little knowledge. The book is about Rosemary, a middle-aged woman who undertakes the pilgrimage of Santiago di Compostella. I am aware that the author herself made this pilgrimage some years ago; there are also other aspects of Rosemary’s personal life that seem to coincide with Mary Jane’s. The novel, however, is described as a fictionalised account of the pilgrimage and I won’t therefore be foolish enough to fall into the trap of assuming that it is thinly-disguised autobiography! I recognise from my own writing that characters can display certain traits or characteristics of people that I know, including myself, whilst remaining fictional creations nevertheless, and I’ve been much amused by readers who’ve told me with great certainty that they ‘knew’ who some of my characters were based on. For example, someone told me that she recognised the original of Henry Bevelton in In the Family. To my knowledge, Henry is entirely fictitious and not based on anyone at all!
Cinnamon Press, its publisher, describes Murielle’s Angel as a modern take on The Canterbury Tales. This is true in the sense that it tells of how a disparate group of people are thrown together, united only by the common purpose of making the pilgrimage; but, unlike Chaucer’s, these pilgrims don’t entertain each other by whiling away evenings and rest periods telling stories; instead, each has a story which the author herself outlines and pursues cleverly, drawing out the threads with admirable economy of detail. There is Stefan, who was brought up in an orphanage and has staked his whole career and possessions on producing a film; Ria, a doctor who is a workaholic seeking to restore some balance to her life and using the temporary separation to re-evaluate her relationship with her partner (interesting parallels and contrasts are drawn between her life and Rosemary’s); Dominic, who is a bit of a chancer and of dubious morality – he is a type, someone we have all met on campsites and ferries, the kind of person who latches on to others in a hail-fellow-well-met sort of way and wants something in return – but for Dominic, too, there is a sad story behind the bravado; then there is a host of minor characters who criss-cross the narrative at intervals – two Canadian nurses, a grotesquely amorous widower, two groups of Germans.
Like Chaucer’s, these modern pilgrims have many reasons for committing to the pilgrimage, none of them overtly religious. Each is trying to ‘find’ himself or herself through the combined abandonment of routine and the privations that the journey entails. There is a strong sexual undercurrent throughout, although only one description of sexual consummation, and that between two minor characters. The author shows that the unfamiliarly liberal circumstances created by a group of strangers being thrown together encourages an often unwelcome removal of inhibitions. Rosemary herself is propositioned on several occasions and is sometimes disgusted, sometimes flattered, by these attentions.
For me, the novel dips briefly about two thirds of the way through, when the combination of apparent moral aimlessness and the dissatisfaction of several of the characters with what they are achieving as pilgrims suddenly tipped me into, if not boredom, at least a bewildered questioning of where it was all leading. But I was too impatient, because it is at this point that Murielle, who has been hovering around the periphery for some time, now takes centre stage. Terminally ill, she is unable to continue further on foot (even with the help of a little cheating on public transport) and takes refuge in the house of a priest. The relationship between Murielle and the priest is exquisitely drawn. He is her spiritual guide as she prepares for death, but also, the author hints delicately, totally (although of course hopelessly) in love with her. It is an act of love that unites all the characters of the novel, as they admire the mural that Murielle has painted on the side of the priest’s house to thank him for his care. Their reaction is unanimously of joy and laughter. It is the priest who teaches Murielle that you owe service especially to those who love you more than you love them. It is a lesson that each of the main characters takes on board, each in his or her own way.
Murielle’s Angel is beautifully written; it is sad, yet uplifting; it is a brilliant achievement, one of the best debut novels that I have read. I’d not heard of Cinnamon Press before I bought it, but it is a publisher whose books I shall look out for now. If you’re looking for some fine writing and an extraordinary narrative to take on holiday, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
I read that the moon would come unusually close to the northern hemisphere last night. As it was also the day after the summer solstice, I thought I’d have to wait until quite late before being able to see it properly. In fact, like many another midsummer evening, yesterday’s was squally and darkness fell relatively early. An ominously large moon revealed itself, a huge silver-yellow disk in the sky, shadowed in places, and getting ever larger, as if it might keep on coming closer until it crashed into the Earth. That it was repeatedly occluded by rapidly scudding clouds made it the more sinister, a laughing witch at her games.
Regardless of culture or creed, the moon has dominated as one of the great motifs of literature. From earliest times, she has been celebrated in religion and ritual, often as the gentle feminine foil to the sun’s aggressive masculinity, but sometimes with a stronger and more violent persona. Implacable, she demanded sacrifice from the Incas and other ancient societies. She was Diana the Huntress, among the fiercer goddesses of the Roman pantheon and symbol of assertive virginity. She is the subject of the contemporary Wiccan practice of ‘drawing down the moon’, said to derive from a picture of two women and the moon which was painted on an ancient Greek vase. It is the moon that controls the tides and therefore influences shipwrecks. No wonder that so many old sailors’ superstitions are about her. Eighteenth century smugglers waited for the full moon to give them enough light to bring their goods ashore, though sometimes she was a fickle friend, enabling the customs officers to spot them as clearly as they could themselves see their contraband crates of rum and bales of silk. “Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by.”
There is a long list of books and films that I’ve enjoyed that have the word ‘moon’ in the title. Here are some of them: The Moon and Sixpence, The Moon’s a Balloon, Moon Tiger, Paper Moon, Moonfleet, Moonraker, and, of course, The Moonstone, arguably the first English detective novel and also, many readers of crime would claim, still the finest. Mine is a disparate and eclectic list; no doubt you could produce one that is equally idiosyncratic. What all these titles – and the many others – have in common is that none of them is directly about the moon. Instead, their authors have invoked her name to convey that their books engage with one or more of her many qualities: mystique, exoticism, ambition, cruelty, the fickle, the unattainable, the preternaturally beautiful.
Looking at my photographs of last night, one of which I am now sharing with you, I am reminded of the elusive nature of the moon so brilliantly and humorously conveyed in Charles Laughton’s drunken puddle sequence in the 1954 David Lean Hobson’s Choice film; I madly toy with the idea of her in the word ‘lunacy’; quotations from many poems about the moon flit amongst the clouds of my mind; I feel that the moon is a deserving mistress and I catch glimpses of all her qualities as she dips her face towards the earth and holds me in her thrall. By tonight, she will have retreated a little; apparently, she won’t stoop to kiss us again until August 2014.
Now that’s fickle.