I’ve been planning several posts about my recent narrowboat holiday, but have been struggling to find the time to write them! Today, I’m determined to start, not only because that whole week provided some wonderful experiences that I’d like to share, but also because I want to celebrate a brief meeting with an extraordinary volunteer.
The background circumstances of our meeting were inauspicious, but it might never have taken place without them. It was a baking hot Thursday afternoon and our boat (endearingly named ‘Short-toed Eagle’) was approaching Birmingham City Centre, gradually being steered by my husband up the thirteen Farmer’s Bridge Locks, the final steep (eighty feet) flight into the city’s heart, while I manipulated the lock-gates; not far into the flight, we heard an explosive argument taking place, just out of sight, on the towpath. I should explain that this particular section of the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigations) is a very public place to be negotiating locks, as office and shop workers take their lunches here and joggers, cyclists and families compete for space on the restored towpath. We were accompanied some of the way by a group of locals on bikes, who watched the whole process of ‘locking up’ several times over, but didn’t volunteer (sadly, for moving the gates is a hard job on a hot day!) to help!
This lock flight, as I hope you can see from the photographs, is an astonishing blend of old and new, for it passes through (and under!) the commercial centre of Birmingham.
Anyway, back to the ‘tiff’: The vocabulary of the two participants was ferocious but limited. ‘**** you!’ bellowed one. ‘**** off!’ screamed the other. After a few minutes, a couple in their early twenties strode into view: she, tanned with dark hair, wearing a short but chic black dress accompanied by stiletto heels; he, less surprisingly, perhaps, sporting a baggy T-shirt, jeans and baseball cap. The tirade continued. Sixteen or so rounds of expletives were spat back and forth with very little sub-text, ricocheting off the walls of the tall buildings around the canal. Eventually it became clear that he wanted to borrow her mobile phone to get a score from his dealer and she wasn’t having it (although she actually seemed higher on something than he was).
Their mood was volatile, so I thought it best to be discreet; as they passed me, I focused on trying to shift the paddles on my lock-gate, the ratchets of which were ancient and troublesome. As I was leaning my full weight on my windlass, I became aware of a man standing beside me. I looked up to see an athletic and well-preserved gentleman in his sixties. He offered to help. I saw that he was also carrying a windlass, and thought that he must have come from a boat further up.
He was very anxious to tell me that the incident that I’d just witnessed was not typical and that the towpaths were safe places. He was obviously quite proud of the local canal complex and even more of Birmingham itself. He told me that his name was Michael Payne and that since his retirement he had worked a few shifts each week as a volunteer for the Canals and Rivers Trust. I asked him if he also had a boat and he replied that he had a part-share in one, which was currently moored at Royston in Leicestershire.
Michael was a mine of information. As we worked our way up the remaining locks in the flight, he pointed out to me an offshoot of the canal that had been buried in the 1950s and rediscovered during excavations for a new office block and showed me an impressive building that had once housed a large coffee-importing business in Birmingham. This had been abandoned decades ago and opened up only recently, when the copper industrial coffee-grinding machinery had been found there, still intact. He said that all this has been restored and the building will shortly be opened as a museum dedicated to coffee. I was fascinated by this story and wondered under what circumstances a building could be left like this. Did no-one own it? Had all the owners died? Why hadn’t the machinery been sold off when it ceased trading? Perhaps the answers will come from the museum itself.
Michael’s shift was due to end, but he said that he’d carry on helping me until we reached the top of the flight. I was grateful, as all the lock mechanisms were misshapen, old and extremely unyielding. My husband, who was joining in the conversation from the narrowboat, told him that I was a crime fiction writer (not sparing my blushes!) and Michael said that he was a big Donna Leon fan. Apparently he and his wife have visited Venice several times, where they’ve joined the walking tours that are arranged to allow devotees to follow in Inspector Brunetti’s footsteps.
I thought that this was a very intriguing idea. Should I myself organise walking tours in order to introduce my readers to the Spalding (and South Lincolnshire) of DI Yates? I’m not sure, however, that it would help me to curry favour with my Fenland friends and fans who have been so hospitable and generous with their support since DI Yates was born! On the whole, I think I’d sooner organise a walking tour of the Farmer’s Bridge Flight, but I’d have to engage Michael to lead it.
If you’re reading this, Michael, may I just say that it was a great pleasure to meet you and to have the benefit of your conversation for an hour or two. We owe you a very great debt of gratitude for your skilful management of the (to me) troublesome ratchets of the Farmer’s Bridge flight. And if there ever is a DI Yates walking tour of Spalding, I shall make sure that you hear of it.
[Thanks to my husband for all the pictures, which he managed with his camera in one hand and the tiller in the other!]
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
Canal banks in June: great mounds of blackberry-promising fatfulness; blushes of dog-rose, fluffing; field roses with hearts of gold; elder sprays of cream parasols; purple-loosestrife spikily soaring; yellow flags already rent and over-blown, but bright to the end; hemp-agrimony, overdressed and busty for an opera of bloom; meadow-sweet candy-frothing and a-buzz; hemlock towering on red-splotched trunks with canopies of flowers; bittersweet, weaving its poisonous way with velvet cunning through the twiggery; armies of mare’s tail on the march; suckabee Himalayan balsam just beginning to pout; tow-path beds of campion, partying in pink; sweeps of buttercups amongst the broken banks of the pasture; good old hogweed, slumming it with grandeur; inevitable rosebay willowherb rising and aspiring to July; lush grasses teetering on the brink.
Sit in the almost silent narrowboat bow and love the flower parade, whose scents undulate like the ripples spreading wide.
I’ve just returned from two days at the University of Winchester Writers’ Festival. It is one of the more famous and established UK festivals, now in its thirty-fifth year. It was my own first visit, however, so I know nothing of its previous history, but I do know that Judith Heneghan took over as its director this year. Before I write more about the festival, I’d like to thank both Judith and Sara Ganjai for their superlative organisation and unfailing good temper during the whole two-day period. It was a wonderful occasion, extremely well-attended, that also benefited from taking place at the exact point of the summer solstice (Stonehenge is, of course, not so very far from Winchester) and during two days of exceptional sunshine, which itself contributed to the general good humour. Nevertheless, I know from my own experience of organising events that there must have been many small hiccups and minor catastrophes which Judith and Sara and their team handled silently and efficiently, whilst always appearing entirely unruffled. Judith is already putting her own stamp on the festival as it enters a new era: an innovation that she has introduced this year is a scholarship programme which awards ten free places to young writers. It was my privilege to have been able to meet some of them.
Early on Saturday morning, Joanne Harris gave the keynote talk. This was planned as the pivotal event of the festival and it did not disappoint. Introducing her, Judith said that she had invited Joanne because she is an extraordinary writer who defies categorisation: her characters are memorable to both young and old and she is not afraid to take risks with her writing.
Joanne began by saying that finding stories and recognising their value is sometimes more important than telling them. She herself grew up in a house full of stories. However, both her her parents were teachers, so it was clear (some enjoyable irony here!) that she also was being ‘genetically groomed’ to be a teacher. Her mother was quite a tough matriarch and when, aged seven, Joanne said that she’d like to write books, her mother said ‘Oh, yes, is that so?’ and led her to her own bookshelves, which were full of the works of dead French authors and poets (her mother was French) who she said had died destitute in the gutter. ‘Darling, this is why you need a proper job.’ Joanne said that actually all writers need a proper job and that hers (as a teacher of languages at Leeds Grammar School) had, in fact, provided her with many stories!
She continued with an anecdote that was personally fascinating to me, living as I now do in South Yorkshire, about Barnsley Library, which she was allowed to join, aged seven, and issued with a pink junior ticket. This was not the library that exists today in Barnsley, that I am myself familiar with, but its forerunner. She said that it was situated above the Centenary Rooms and was characterised by a big vaulted archway, an odour of damp and dust… and utter silence. There was only one shelf of books considered suitable for children: Joanne instantly wanted to know what the ‘unsuitable’ books were about, particularly as her mother had herself acted as censor of Joanne’s reading and imposed several ‘banned’ categories, including works of fantasy and science fiction. However, mythology was allowed and consequently the first book Joanne took out was The Thunder of the Gods, by Dorothy G. Horsford. She was held spellbound by this book and borrowed it many times subsequently, until, aged nine, she was allowed to obtain a blue ticket and join the adult library, even though you were supposed to be thirteen before you could do this (I’ve written elsewhere about how I was similarly allowed to join the adult section of the library in Spalding while I was still at primary school.). As an example of ‘stories coming back to bite us’, she said that many years later she found herself looking for a copy of The Thunder of the Godsto give to her daughter. It was long out of print, but she managed to track down a copy on Amazon’s AbeBooks. When it arrived, she realised that it was the same copy that she had borrowed from Barnsley Library as a child. This anecdote was an inspired way of introducing her latest book, The Gospel of Loki.
Joanne Harris concluded her talk with some thoughts on her theory that telling stories has a ‘chaos effect’. She said that a properly-written story can do all sorts of things: it can change people’s lives, make them want to read (or not to read) or empower them. She had been surprised to find that reading Chocolat had inspired some of her readers to open chocolate shops. Chocolat had itself spawned lots of other stories. Her publishers had asked her to write a cookery book that included some of the recipes that she’d featured in Chocolat, and although ‘not much of a cook’, she’d agreed to do this because she wanted to give the proceeds to Médecins Sans Frontières to supports its fight against sleeping sickness in Africa. Because of her donation, MSF sent her to the Congo, where she stayed for two months – longer than she had intended – and, in a remote village, met a very old woman, who was probably in her 90s and spoke French. She’d never left the village and found it difficult to envisage where Joanne had come from, but they each had a fund of stories about similar things: magic, witches and rivers. Joanne collected many stories from her and concluded that this was an example of the ‘chaos effect’ at work. When the old woman had recovered from her illness, she got up to leave with all her possessions piled on her head. Looking back over her shoulder, she delivered her parting shot: ‘Remember this: stories do everything. You should encourage other people to write stories. Write some of my stories: they are good stories.’ This was an inspiring note on which to end the keynote address of the festival; indeed, as a talk to inspire budding or struggling authors to keep on writing, in my own experience this one has had few equals.
This is already quite a long post, but I can’t conclude it without mentioning a few other things that particularly struck me about the festival. Firstly, there was the book stall, run with unfailing professionalism and courtesy throughout the entire event by David Simpkin and some of his staff from the P & G Wells (independent) bookshop in Winchester. I’m proud to welcome David to this blog and delighted to have him as a Twitter friend. I’d also like to pay tribute to the creative writing students at Winchester University, who worked hard to make sure that all delegates had exactly what they needed at all times. Finally, I’d like to thank the many authors who chatted to me and shared with me their ideas and experiences. It was a very great pleasure to meet you and I certainly hope that some of our paths will cross again. If you’re reading this now, welcome here!
The last episode of the six-part television series Happy Valley was broadcast yesterday evening. I’ve sat, rapt, through every one of them. I know it has received many plaudits in the national press, including a two-page article in The Times last week (which I haven’t read as I didn’t want it to colour my own effort in this post), but I so enjoyed it and was so moved by it that I’d like to add my two-penn’orth.
It’s one of the best TV series I’ve seen for a long time and, for me, certainly the best crime programme since The Bridge, but it is about much more than crime. It is about a whole community and its ills (and successes) and also about the strengths and frailties of human nature and how some people manage to survive knock-backs and adversity in life, while others are completely corrupted or destroyed by them. On top of this, it is by turns funny, ironical and topical; the dialogue sparkles and the drama is set in my adopted county of Yorkshire (actually in the Hebden Bridge valley, original home of Ted Hughes and close by the place where Sylvia Plath is buried). What more could I want?
An early review I did read said that Sarah Lancashire, as Catherine Cawood, carries the whole thing ‘on her broad shoulders’. Lancashire is superb – I’ll come back to her later – but I don’t think that this is a fair assessment. James Norton gives a brilliantly disturbing performance as the psychopath Tommy Lee Royce – in last night’s closing scenes, especially, we saw the damaged and frightened character behind his dangerously unpredictable behaviour. Siobhan Fineran is always delightful to watch: as Claire, Catherine’s originally wayward, then much stronger, sister, she uses her fine and subtle acting talent to feel her way tentatively to support Catherine as the latter suffers temporary moral disintegration following her beating by Royce. Their roles are reversed, but not in too obvious a way – Catherine still comes back strongly sometimes, even when she appears to be at her weakest, and Claire’s new-found confidence is easily knocked.
Other memorable performances are given by Steve Pemberton, as Kevin Weatherill – he’s a descendant of Uriah Heep, sycophantic, toadying, pusillanimous and with a heart full of envy and hatred, made the more repugnant by his whining self-justification – and Rhys Connor, who is impressively consistent in his portrayal of Ryan Cawood, the vulnerable but not likeable product of the rape of Catherine’s deceased daughter, Becky, by Royce.
But I have to agree that, even though it is not the only good performance, Sarah Lancashire’s is the greatest. It must surely win an award. When I look back on two of her recent performances, as the outwardly perfect, inwardly troubled Caroline in Last Tango in Halifax and this one as Catherine Cawood, I wonder where she has been all my (albeit very selective) viewing life. She has enormous talent, as her creation of these two quite different roles proves. Catherine is much more of a rough diamond than Caroline, yet at times the small town police sergeant looks poised and beautiful, at times as washed out, dull and haggard as a drug addict. The moral dilemmas and dichotomies which lie at the heart of the story are almost all filtered through Catherine’s character in some way – her daughter’s rape and suicide, the birth of the unwanted Ryan, the murder of the young policewoman (Sophie Rundle), the kidnapping and rape of Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), also by Royce, which echoes his assault on Becky, Catherine’s son’s alienation and the break-up of her marriage following Becky’s death.
Most of these dilemmas are presented in a straightforward way until the last episode, when it is suggested that Becky brought at least some of her misfortunes on herself; that Kevin Weatherill would never have suggested the kidnapping if his boss Nevinson Gallagher (George Costigan) had been more generous when he requested a pay-rise; and that Catherine’s distress at the death of her daughter and subsequent belief that she was obliged to care for Ryan actually caused her to destroy what was left of her own family. The viewer rejects some of these alternative scenarios (e.g., the Weatherill / Gallagher one) immediately; others leave a strong sense of the ambiguous nature of how best to love or to behave that cannot be resolved.
The author of Happy Valley is Sally Wainwright. She also wrote Last Tango in Halifax. She is to be congratulated on the subtlety, distinction and fine irony of her work and also for the golden author / actor relationship that she has established with Sarah Lancashire. I hope that more extraordinary dramas will result from this exceptional partnership.