09 +00002016-09-15T20:58:02+00:0030 2012 § 15 Comments
I’ve finished reading John Le Carré: the biography, by Adam Sisman, a hugely enjoyable tour de force which has been justly praised by everyone who’s reviewed it. My only reservation is that it’s ‘official’, meaning that Le Carré co-operated with Sisman throughout – a huge advantage, but tempered by the fact that Sisman is therefore not always able to explore certain aspects of Le Carré’s life fully. For example, I’d like to know more about his relationships with women (the book goes into detail about his first wife only, now deceased); more about what other people – siblings, children, friends, publishers – thought or think about him; and, of course, more about his life as a spy. Sisman himself is not entirely convinced by Le Carré’s stated reasons for his reticence about the last of these.
However, Sisman makes it clear in his introduction that, although he and Le Carré enjoyed a mutually respectful professional relationship while the research for the biography was in progress, he didn’t allow himself to be tucked into Le Carré’s pocket. His version of what took place during certain key events in the author’s life (based on painstaking assembly of the facts) often differs markedly from Le Carré’s. This is fascinating, because usually these are also events that have been fictionalised to create important scenes in the novels. Sisman suggests that, over time, Le Carré has conflated his recollection of the actual event with the fictionalised account – which is even more likely in the many instances when he’s created different versions of the same event in several different novels.
This made me think about the constant overlap, and inevitable tension, between fact and fiction. We do always want to know ‘what really happened’: it’s a fundamental trait, part of the curiosity that makes humans the most adventurous and experimental of all primates. But can we ever achieve this knowledge? Does it even exist? It’s the continuing quest of the historian, his or her holy grail, and one that’s bound, however meticulous the research, to result ultimately in failure. The many versions of the Battle of the Somme that have been published this year offer a vivid example.
As a crime writer, I’ve often been intrigued by the different versions of the truth that are presented in courts of law. For example, based on exactly the same set of evidence, Oscar Pistorius was convicted of ‘culpable manslaughter’ by one judge and homicide by another. O.J. Simpson made a histrionic display of not being able to fit on to his hand a bloodstained leather glove left at the scene of his wife’s murder. It was pure courtroom theatre, but enough to introduce ‘reasonable doubt’ into the minds of the jury at his criminal trial, so they found him not guilty; however, he lost a civil court case in which he was accused of the same crime.
Even trickier than facts that rely on interpretation are ‘facts’ that may or may not be the result of distorted memory or belief. Recently, I’ve read several accounts of the Jeremy Bamber murders that took place thirty years ago. Bamber, who is one of a handful of convicted murderers serving a whole-life tariff and who has been told that for him life imprisonment literally means staying in prison until he dies, was accused and found guilty of murdering his adoptive parents and sister and her two twin sons in order to inherit the family wealth. Bamber has always protested his innocence; he’s set up a website that gives his version of events and has quite a large number of supporters who believe him. Having studied these accounts, written from all possible points of view, my own conclusion is that it’s the balance of probability that Bamber did commit the murders. What’s less clear is whether he himself knows this, or whether he either killed his relatives while experiencing a ‘fugue’ and has no recollection of their murders, or perhaps has been proclaiming his innocence for so long that he now believes it himself. This may sound far-fetched, but there is something very odd about his case.
Points of view are slippery things. As a child, I looked up to my paternal grandmother, a petite and elegant lady who kept house for my great-uncle, the youngest of her four brothers. Unlike my other grandmother, she was very up-to-date and well-informed, not just about current affairs, but about the fashions and music of the sixties that interested me. She went out to work, she dressed in smart clothes and she was always ready with good advice, but only when asked. I thought she was just about the perfect role model. However, I noticed that her brothers often spoke to her quite condescendingly. There seemed never to have been any question that she would take the entire responsibility of caring for, first of all, her elderly mother and then her youngest brother, who was physically disabled. At the time, I thought this was just another example of the male chauvinism that was rife in my family, but much later I discovered that she’d been ‘a bit of a goer’ in her youth. They’d given her ‘respectability’, but it seems the debt was not one that could ever be repaid. Their view of her was totally at variance with my own. Similarly, when my parents’ marriage disintegrated, I thought I understood chapter and verse exactly why, having been the reluctant occupier of a ringside seat, but over the many years that have since passed I’ve come to realise that I saw those events entirely from my mother’s point of view: I had and still have no idea what my father thought or suffered.
What did really happen? It’s a constant but almost always unanswerable question. In my latest novel, Rooted in Dishonour, mistaken points of view cost dear. The most skilful novelists are those who can assemble a kaleidoscope of viewpoints and still keep the reader onside, still maintaining that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that is the essential ingredient of all successful fiction. A few, like Le Carré, have the rare capability of achieving this while shifting the reader’s perception of the characters over time: thus, if you read all of the Smiley novels in sequence, you begin by thinking that Karla is the devil incarnate and end by realising that he is ‘just’ a man, with all the depth as well as the imperfections that entails. And it begs the question, what really happened? If we didn’t have to ponder that, there’d be no reason for reading any novel and, therefore, no reason for writing it.
09 +00002015-12-05T20:05:50+00:0031 2012 § 4 Comments
Monday was a horrible day in West Yorkshire. Torrential rain and high winds were battering the city when I arrived at Wakefield One for my afternoon of reading and discussion with some of the lovely members of the reading groups run by Alison Cassels. My husband dropped me off opposite the library complex and I got soaked – and nearly blown away – just crossing the road.
Nevertheless, I felt both philosophical and optimistic. As I’ve already noted, every event for The Crossing so far has taken place when the weather outside has been appalling, and every one has been a success. I knew that the gallant and stalwart members of the Wakefield reading groups would not let me down by preferring their firesides to the library.
Reader, I was not wrong! An extremely lively audience arrived punctually, some having regaled themselves with hot soup in the café to start with, and we all enjoyed a couple of hours of reading, writing and sleuthing, handsomely fortified by the Christmas cake, mince pies and stollen and tea and coffee supplied as generously and thoughtfully as usual by Alison and Lynn.
After listening to and providing feedback on the readings as only Wakefield audiences know how to do, when invited to take inspiration from the first chapter of The Crossing, each of the group members wrote a short sketch of an event that had happened to them and had stayed with them vividly, one that might be used as the opening scene of a novel. I hope the photographs capture the lively and committed participation that has come to be the hallmark of Wakefield One events: some read their own sketches, others asked their immediate neighbour to read for them. Everyone was spellbound by what was on offer. The accounts were fascinating and included bell-ringing for the first time and soaring unintentionally upwards on the rope, riding to London on The Flying Scotsman, walking to school through the snow in the Arctic winter of 1947 and the tale of how an uncle had pawned his wife’s hard-saved-for furniture to buy a red sports car. Novels in the making, every one – and the quality of the writing was of a very high standard.
The afternoon was rounded off by a quiz prepared by Alison. She’d found the photographs of twenty famous crime writers and asked the group to put names to them while I signed some books. It was a brilliant idea, and quite a hard task: no-one got more than half of the answers correct. (I’m going to ask Alison if she’ll let me have the quiz to post on this blog, as I’m sure some of my readers will enjoy it, too!).
The time slid away very rapidly. Braced by a final cup of tea, we ventured out into the cold again before we were trapped by the notorious end-of-day Wakefield traffic bottlenecks. I’d like to thank everyone who took part: the reading group members for giving me so much support (as they always do; it was also good to see several new faces this time), Alison and Lynn for arranging it all so impeccably, the Wakefield Libraries tweeter who, together with them, ensured that the event gained plenty of publicity, and Richard Knowles of Rickaro Books for supplying copies of The Crossing for sale. I hope to see you all again soon!
09 +00002015-11-19T19:02:00+00:0030 2012 § 6 Comments
“… when we’re pretty sure we have the whole picture and are reflecting on the roller coaster nail biter of a journey as the end approaches, the author punches us in the stomach. Once again we’re treated to a big last minute shock in the same way she shook us in Sausage Hall.”
May I express here my sincere thanks to @TheBookbag’s Ani Johnson. The review may be found in full here.
09 +00002015-11-18T18:49:47+00:0030 2012 § Leave a comment
The Crossing seems fated to attract stormy weather! Recently, I described travelling through squalls and heavy rain to reach the pre-launch event at Harlow Carr. Yesterday, the day of the launch proper, a dual event organised by Bookmark in Spalding (Christine and Sam were wonderful as always!) dawned bright and clear, but by the time I’d arrived in Spalding it was starting to rain. The showers rapidly exploded into a torrential downpour which deterred all but the most stalwart shoppers, even though it was market day. By the evening, the rain had slackened but been replaced by gale force winds.
The day-time signing session had been as successful as possible under the circumstances. I enjoyed talking to some interesting people and was fascinated by what they had to say, but I was very nervous about the evening event. Though I knew the shop had sold a lot of tickets, I doubted that many members of my audience would want to venture out. Some, I knew, would have to travel quite a distance to get there.
Inexcusably, considering my antecedents, I had reckoned without the influence of true Lincolnshire grit! Everyone who had bought a ticket showed up, and there were a few on-spec visitors as well. No-one even bothered to mention the weather. The audience was among the best I have ever had: lively, engaged, perceptive and eloquent. Several of them had already bought The Crossing, even though it was first displayed in the shop only on Monday, and many more bought it at the event (and some of my other books, as well). I was impressed by the stamina shown by Peter, a member of Bookmark’s flourishing book club, who had sat down to read The Crossing solidly all day, finally finishing it a couple of hours before the event, so that he could talk about it.
I was both delighted and grateful to learn that the book club has chosen The Crossing as its next title, apparently the second time it has opted for a DI Yates novel.
I told them a bit about how I’d come to write the book, especially the real-life event on which the opening chapter is based.
I think I’ve already mentioned it on this blog, but, for new visitors, here are a few details: When my great aunt was the crossing-keeper at a remote hamlet called Sutterton Dowdyke, there was a terrible railway accident. The Peterborough to Skegness train, in heavy fog, ploughed into a lorry standing on the crossing, derailing some of the carriages, which crashed into my great aunt’s tied lodge-house and turned it round on its foundations. She was physically unhurt, but her mind was affected for the rest of her life. In the novel, the accident is the catalyst for the whole chain of events that follows. A strong theme throughout is imprisonment and how a person’s character is affected when completely subjugated to someone else’s will: what integrity compromises must such a prisoner be obliged to make in order to survive?
The Bookmark audience and I talked about this. We also discussed memory, place, old Spalding, what sort of research I carry out when writing the books, books in prisons, other books we like to read and the relationship between fact, memory and fiction. We concluded by discussing significant events in their lives that perhaps they’d like to write about.
One very enjoyable moment stands out: a question from the floor to put the speaker on the spot! “What do you like to read?” Now I simply can’t resist buying books when I find myself in a bookshop and, since I had my purchases from Bookmark tucked under the table, I enjoyed sharing my tastes with a group of very like-minded people – interaction doesn’t get much better than that.
I’d like to say how grateful I am to everyone who came yesterday evening, both for braving the elements and for all your wonderful contributions to the conversation. And heartfelt thanks, of course, to Christine and Sam.
I shall be popping in to Bookmark briefly again to sign a few more books on 17th December, if any of my readers is interested. If so, I look forward to meeting you then.
09 +00002015-08-28T10:55:00+00:0031 2012 § 5 Comments
In South Lincolnshire on the afternoon of 28th January 1970, the countryside was enveloped in thick, freezing fog. It made the roads treacherous and there were protracted delays on the trains. Driving in country lanes was especially hazardous. Although some level crossings had already been fitted with so-called ‘continental barriers’, with relatively sophisticated warning systems, most were still simple five-barred gates operated manually. The practice in country districts where there wasn’t much traffic was to leave the gates closed against the road. Vehicles wishing to cross had to summon the crossing-keeper, who usually resided in an adjacent lodge-house tied to the job. Such an arrangement existed at Sutterton Dowdyke, a tiny hamlet a few miles south of Boston and east of the A16.
On 28th January, the regular Peterborough to Skegness train was considerably delayed by the fog. The driver of a tanker lorry owned by the council who regularly travelled on Dowdyke Road rang the bell to summon the crossing keeper to open the gates. The driver and his mate had been sent to empty a cesspit in the area and, task completed, were now returning to their depot. The crossing keeper, a woman in late middle age, came out and chatted with them briefly before opening the gates. The driver eased the lorry onto the crossing (most crossings at the time were notoriously bumpy) and was sitting right in the middle of it when the train came thundering through the fog, which had muffled the noise it was making until this moment, and flung the lorry into the air. The train was derailed. It ploughed into the lodge-house and turned the building one hundred and eighty degrees on its foundations. The lorry driver’s mate was killed instantly; the lorry driver himself was taken to hospital, critically injured.
Miraculously, the crossing-keeper was not hurt, but collapsed at the scene and was also taken to hospital, badly shocked.
My family and I first learned of the accident when watching the nine o’clock news that evening. The site of the accident wasn’t named, but my father recognised the lodge-house. We drove there immediately and then on to the Pilgrim Hospital to visit the crossing keeper. She was my father’s aunt and my own great-aunt.
My memories of that night sowed the first seeds of the plot of The Crossing, the fourth DI Yates novel, which I have just completed.
09 +00002014-12-07T21:15:21+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
The magazine that accompanied Saturday’s edition of The Times was full of lists. Each of the regular journalists contributed an article based on them, presumably to show solidarity with a population that is currently either toiling away at compiling Christmas lists or trudging through the streets to fulfil them as December sets in and we realise – indeed are perpetually being reminded by the media – that there are only x shopping days left. To be honest, the result is a bit contrived, though some of the lists – especially Caitlin Moran’s – are great fun. That said, I’ve long had a fascination with lists myself. Consciously, it dates back to my student days, when I remember that my tutor drew attention to James Joyce’s magnificent series of lists in Ulysses. “They may look effortless or random,” he told us, in his mildly admonishing way, “but just try writing lists to equal them yourself. You’ll find out then that only a genius can produce lists like Joyce’s.”
Whatever the truth of this, some of Joyce’s lists are indeed difficult to surpass. One of my favourites is the list that begins as a pastiche of a passage from the King James Bible and reaches its climax with the following description of Leopold Bloom, fleeing through the streets of Dublin from a hostile reception:
“And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel.”
Lists were a part of my life long before I read that, of course. I belonged to a generation whose mothers sent us up to the corner shop at a very tender age, a note tucked into a purse that also contained exactly the right money to pay for the items listed. And, as well as shopping lists and Christmas lists, there were birthday lists, lists of people you wanted to come to your party (always more than you were allowed to invite), lists of books you wanted from the library and, on a more mundane note, the elaborate lists of ‘essential’ clothes and equipment that were part of the rite of passage of first attending a grammar school. Later, as my friends and I married, there were wedding lists – a phenomenon to which I’ve never been able to reconcile myself. The French go in for them in an even bigger way than we do: the poshest linen and china shops in France all carry ‘listes de mariages’ signs in the windows. But I’ve always thought that wedding lists are too specific, and therefore slightly off-colour, not to say mercenary. For example, it may be fine to tell your future wedding guests that you would like tea-cups, but it surprises me that accepted etiquette also allows you to specify ‘Wedgwood Daisy Tea Story’, or some such. It’s like smiling at someone while you’re simultaneously twisting her arm halfway up her back: ‘You will buy me this china, each set of six cups and saucers costing an eye-watering £240, because I have invited you to my wedding.’
Nevertheless, lists, both your own and other people’s, are mesmerising, and since I’m sure The Times has not devoted a whole magazine to them on a whim, I’m clearly not alone in thinking so. I’m not sure why this should be. Perhaps it’s because a list combines comprehensiveness with brevity. An eclectic list also allows the reader a tantalising, if puzzling, glimpse of its author’s mind:
“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax– Of cabbages–and kings– And why the sea is boiling hot– And whether pigs have wings.”
Lists can be sinister as well as humorous; they can help you to cope with everyday irritations; they can soothe by striking a common chord with the rest of humanity:
“I’ve got a little list–I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed–who never would be missed!
There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs–
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs–
All children who are up in dates, and floor you with ’em flat–
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like _that_–
And all third persons who on spoiling tête-a-têtes insist–
They’d none of ’em be missed–they’d none of ’em be missed!”
And despite what my tutor averred, I think that compiling a list is an excellent way of achieving literary distinction without having to try too hard. It allows its author to give free rein to his or her imagination without having to take on the full responsibility of plot, characterisation or format. In order to create a list all you need to do is, as the saying goes, empty your head on to the paper. Though, with even half an eye on prosperity, you’re likely to want to tweak your list a little before you show it to anyone else.
I’m going to indulge myself by concluding with a bit of a digression. It’s about the word ‘list’ itself. It’s one of those words that has multiple meanings. Thus boats list when they’re sinking. Knights jousted in the lists. And ‘list’ was an archaic word for ‘please’. I love words like this! And since today’s has been a post full of quotations, I’ve chosen a suitably gnomic one that uses a different meaning for list, to conclude:
“Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, ‘How can these things be?’”.
Happy Christmas shopping! Don’t forget your list – you might not survive Christmas without it! 😉