The day job recently took me to Australia, for a very short sojourn: four days, in and around Melbourne – 36+ hours’ travel each way, all in! The jet lag wasn’t too bad, despite my managing only one full night’s sleep – one of the few benefits, I suppose, of getting older!
I’ve visited Melbourne before, also on a whistle-stop tour. That was twenty-two years ago, and I was surprised at how much it has since changed. I’m not referring to buildings and road systems, though those are respectively more high-rise (some truly magnificent contoured glass skyscrapers challenge the straight line)
and more complicated than I remembered, but to my overall impression of the culture. On my first visit to Australia, people asked me if it was more like the UK or more like America, and I replied that it was like neither: that Australia had a style and outlook all of its own. I think that this is still true, up to a point, but the USA’s influence on the country is now very pronounced. There are examples everywhere: in the fast food restaurants, in the way people dress and in the news programmes. However, before I receive dozens of protests from irate Australians, let me add that I’m certain that there is still an indelibly and quintessentially Australian quality about Aussie life that can’t be obliterated; perhaps what I really mean is that the British influence has noticeably diminished.
As I’ve already said, I didn’t have much free time, but I made good use of what there was. My first morning in Melbourne was free, so I visited the Museum of Immigration, which provides a powerful record of changing Australian attitudes to immigrants from different countries over the years. My two main meetings were at the Balgownie Estate winery in the Blue Hills, about an hour’s drive from Melbourne, so I was able to see some of the surrounding countryside.
I was able to go into the Yarra Ranges National Park, to the east of Melbourne, and to the Mount Donna Buang summit, with its tall observation tower.
From here I could see a splendid panorama, over Melbourne and the bays, the Yarra valley and the Dandenong and Cathedral ranges.
I was fascinated by the different species of trees in the woods, none of which I could recognise.
In the early dawn, I saw a wombat scurrying for cover and, on a drive into the hills, was lucky enough both to see and photograph a wallaby in the wild.
And the staff at my hotel in Melbourne kindly upgraded me to the penthouse, forty-one floors up, which gave me a panoramic view of the city.
One of the things I like about long-distance travel is the ‘ships-in-the-night’ opportunities it presents to talk to complete strangers for short periods of time and perhaps find out what makes them tick. There’s something about journeys, with their unlooked-for vicissitudes of challenging delays, alarming pockets of turbulence and indifferent cabin crews, which causes people – who would never venture to speak to each other if they were, say, waiting for a train at Watford Junction or standing in a queue at the post office – to communicate.
My Australian visit supplied me with three of these cameo encounters. The first was on my way to Melbourne Airport with a female taxi driver. (I noted that there were as many female as male taxi drivers on my first visit to Australia; it’s clearly a strong tradition which still flourishes.) This woman was Latino (which I could see for myself) and fifty years old (which she told me – she didn’t look it). She was a single parent supporting herself and two children as a cabbie while she studied for a PhD. The subject? Aeronautical Engineering, in which she already had a first degree and a Masters. Her reason for wanting a PhD? “It’s a man’s world and women need to show they are better than men – especially women like me.” (I think she was referring to her ethnicity.) She struck me as being very brave and determined.
The day-time flight from Melbourne to Hong Kong was civilised (unlike the night-time flight from Hong Kong to Heathrow, which lasted fourteen hours and was brutal!). I was sitting next to an Australian woman who, after a while, asked me what part of England I came from and I told her – Yorkshire. She told me that she was flying to Barcelona for a holiday with an old flame who was a Yorkshireman (from Richmond). Her husband, who was Greek, had cheated on her with a Filipino woman – who was only twenty-one – and she’d divorced him. He wanted her back now, but she felt she couldn’t trust him, though she still helped him to run his business. She was travelling to Barcelona to meet the old flame with her ex-husband’s blessing – he’d even given her extra money for the trip. I wanted to tell her that she shouldn’t pin all her hopes on the Yorkshireman, but the opportunity didn’t seem to arise and in any case I didn’t know how she’d take it.
And then I was sitting in Hong Kong Airport, having got through security and found the right gate for the flight to Heathrow, enduring the interminable wait for the tardy flight crew to turn up. It was the middle of the night. The man sitting next to me offered to look after my luggage while I went in search of coffee and we had a short conversation when I returned. He said he came from Southampton and that he was a ship’s captain. He travels the world dredging the sea bed for damaged fibre optic cables and brings them up to the surface so they can be repaired. Apparently, they are then just tossed back into the sea – siting them is not an exact science. He said that he’d been doing this for more than twenty years and, although he regretted having missed so much of his children’s childhood, he couldn’t imagine doing anything else now.
Ships in the night, as I said, but providing memories as indelible as the photographs or my fortuitous encounter with a wallaby.
At 5.30 a.m., the Saturday before last, I was nursing an incipient cold as a passenger on a bus chugging round all five terminals at Charles de Gaulle airport in the snow, desperately trying to acquire a boarding card for the last leg of my trip home from Taipei. It was an ignominious end to what had been a very successful and hugely interesting visit – mainly a business trip, but with some useful gaps in my itinerary which could be used to explore.
I’d hired a driver for the free day intervening between my arrival and the start of my business appointments, something which I frequently do in S.E. Asia, because it is a safe, efficient and affordable way of seeing a great deal in a short time. On this occasion, I was accompanied by two colleagues and it was great to have some company, as on similar jaunts I’ve almost always been on my own. It was a slight handicap that the driver spoke almost no English – of the places I’ve visited in Asia, Taiwan has fewer English speakers than any; but we managed with a mixture of sign language, pictures on mobile phones and a very desultory stab at ‘Google translates’.
I’d already received, from an ex-pat, some tips about things to do. One of his suggestions was that we should visit a waterfall about eleven miles from the city. We managed to convey this to the driver, who indeed took us to a very picturesque waterfall –
it wasn’t unique, as I subsequently discovered, for there are several – in an area which was also home to some of the indigenous Taiwanese. My companions and I realised as soon as we got out of the car that these people and their artefacts were not of Chinese origin – the people themselves looked more like South Seas islanders – but I wasn’t to find out more about them until three days later. On this first day, we very much enjoyed strolling past the waterfall, drinking coffee in what looked like a 1950s retro jukebox bar and wandering through the street of small shops, eateries and bazaars.
A temple on the hillside seemed to be devoted to the Buddha, so we went for a look.
My meetings were at the National Taiwan Normal University. I won’t dwell on them too much, except to say that this university has a fabulous library – similar to the one at the London School of Economics, but with twice as many floors! Dinner on the second day was at the Shinyeh Dining Room, a famous restaurant serving typical Taiwanese food (delicious!). On the third day, after work had finished, we headed to a night market – a feature of Taiwan. The shops and stalls were, as the name suggests, opened only after dark.
They mostly sold street food and clothes: the atmosphere is the main reason why a Westerner enjoys a visit. The smells were indescribable – a mixture of two-stroke, coffee, fish and spices – and the ambience was festive. Whole families were out, laughing and joking and moving in large groups. That it was the week before the Chinese New Year (2019 is the Year of the Pig) contributed to the holiday feel.
On my last day in Taipei, a Taiwanese librarian and her American husband very kindly took two other colleagues and me to a New Year market in the old town.
The old town is not very old – a settlement was established at Taipei about 200 years ago and the ‘old’ town itself dates from, I’d guess, the turn of the twentieth century: the architecture of the shops and market halls is reminiscent of the parades of shops that were built in British
suburbs at the same time, though the Taiwanese ones are more decorative. The New Year markets open for twenty-four hours a day, just for the two weeks preceding the Chinese New Year. They provide a rich treasure trove of beautifully-crafted artefacts and scrumptious things to eat – there are many special foods and house decorations associated with the Chinese New Year, but because I was beginning my journey home in the evening of that same day, I was able only to photograph the foods, not buy them. We also visited a coffee shop devoted to raising money for the indigenous people – a map on
the wall showed there are twelve indigenous tribes living outside Taipei, each with its own designated reservation (similar to those of native Americans). They sell the little pots I’d seen during my visit to the waterfall; it is one of their main sources of income. The shop ensures that a fair price is paid for the goods they make (twenty years ago, I visited a similar shop in Sydney which performed the same service for Australian aborigines). A visit to a museum further down the street told us more about these people and the other races who inhabit Taiwan. Chinese influence is on the ascendant now, but in the past Taiwan was ‘owned’ by the Japanese and the impact of that culture is also strong.
And so to the airport, where the Cathay Pacific desk receptionist (having a noble stab at English) told me that she could check my luggage through to Manchester – though, worryingly, she kept saying ‘train station or plane?’ and, although I kept saying ‘plane’, her parting shot was that it had been sent to the ‘train station’ – but couldn’t give me a boarding card from Charles de Gaulle to Manchester, the final stage of the journey, because Cathay Pacific has no arrangement with Flybe. In the meantime, my cold kicked in. I spent the whole thirteen hours of the flight to Paris trying not to splutter on my fellow travellers and worrying about my lack of a boarding card – a fear I knew would be well-founded because I’ve ‘enjoyed’ the service at CDG before. Sure enough, my qualms about the boarding card were met with Gallic indifference until finally, after another tour of the terminals, I persuaded a very cross desk clerk to print one out for me. My reward was a complimentary cup of coffee and snack on the plane when I finally boarded, but, to be honest, by that stage I would gladly have travelled in the hold!
Miraculous to relate, my suitcase was waiting for me at Manchester. So was my husband. I collapsed into the car, but managed to enjoy the snowy drive across the Pennines – rather different from the twenty-degrees-plus temperatures in Taipei! It was all more than worth it, though – Taiwan is a magical, multi-layered country; as with India, I feel I have not even scratched the surface of all it has to offer. I hope I shall be able to return one day.
My copy of Gentleman Jack has arrived at last! I am, as always, delighted with Chris Hamilton-Emery’s brilliant jacket design and distinguished typesetting. ‘Jack’ is officially published today, 15th October 2018. It’s my first novel about a serial killer. I’ve thought for a long time about the best way to tackle this type of criminal in my fiction. Indirectly, it draws on my own experiences of living in Leeds as a young woman when the Yorkshire Ripper conducted his reign of terror, but, like all my novels, it is much more concerned with portraying the psychology of the killer than the ‘blood and guts’ of the crimes themselves. It’s also about the organised theft of agricultural vehicles, a scourge which periodically afflicts farmers in Lincolnshire and other rural areas.
I know that many of my regular readers – across the world – have been looking forward to reading it. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you all for your support and your continuing enthusiasm for my books. Ipso facto, one can’t really be an author without readers; words cannot express how much I value the time you spend on reading my books. I offer you my profoundest thanks. And I do hope you will enjoy Gentleman Jack!
Also published today is The Book of Alexander, the debut novel of Mark Carew, a fellow Salt author. I was privileged to read this book in draft form and I heartily recommend it. It’s not exactly a crime novel, although there are some relevant features: Alexander, the protagonist – stalker or not? No spoilers!
The Book of Alexander follows the time-honoured and exciting literary tradition which explores different versions of the self. Who is Alexander? Who is his mysterious grandfather, ‘Mr Travis’? Who is Melanie, Alexander’s down-to-earth girlfriend, and is she really competing with rivals for Alexander’s affection? Above all, who is the dullish private detective who tells the story – and is he really so dull?
The second half of the novel is episodic. Alexander embarks upon a journey, not to distant lands – although I suspect he may do that in a future novel – but through the city of Cambridge and around the River Cam and its environs. This journey is by turns sinister, comical and exasperating.
The Book of Alexander contains a rich cast of characters, including: Mick and Yin, who run the garage where the private detective roosts when spying; a bevy of girlfriends (real or imagined?); and Alexander’s eccentric but lovable parents, who perhaps hold the key to Alexander’s whimsical character. Or then again, perhaps they don’t!
Have I hooked you yet?
On Saturday, I had the great privilege of accompanying another Salt author, James Clarke, to Pontefract Library for an event to celebrate the publication of his important novel, The Litten Path, which tells the story of one mining family during the miners’ strike of 1984 – 5. The book has received some excellent reviews in the national press.
James talked eloquently about how he came to write the book. He said that he felt his generation was dispossessed, not by ‘baby-boomers’, but by the politics that prevailed in the late 1970s and 1980s (especially Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” adage) and the legacy of that period, from which he believes he and his contemporaries are still suffering today.
I’ve met Pontefract audiences before and I was delighted to see some familiar faces on this occasion. After James had talked about how and why he wrote The Litten Path, and read a chapter from it (he chose Chapter 5, which describes the first conflict between the miners and the police), the members of his audience were invited to give their views. What followed was an amazing discussion – one of the best I have ever participated in at any event.
James was fascinated by the fact that many of those attending not only remembered the miners’ strike but had been directly affected by it. One woman described how her mother and grandmother took food to miners’ families who had none; another said her grandmother had lived in Orgreave Lane: the ‘mighty Orgreave’ colliery of James’s novel, where the most vicious pitched battles took place, was just down the road.
People reminisced about how the strike had destroyed families, obliging some people to move away. Others are still living in towns and villages which used to be prosperous, but are now depressed and poverty-stricken, never having recovered from the strike or been able to reinvent themselves. Whole communities were dismantled. ‘Scabs’ – miners who went back to work while their colleagues were still on strike – were still being shunned and pilloried by those who fought it out to the bitter end many years later. A former teacher said she had taught at a local school between 1995 and 2010 and even at the end of that period it was not uncommon for strike-breakers to have bricks thrown through their windows.
The conversation moved on to the privations and hazards of mining itself – the illnesses, accidents and early deaths suffered by many miners. Several of the audience said that, although memories of the strike were still raw, they believed that, eventually, some kind of catharsis would be achieved and these communities would rise anew – “even if it takes 200 years”.
Alison and Lynne, the librarians from Wakefield and Pontefract who organised the event, did their usual great job – and surpassed themselves with the cakes and other goodies they provided. James and I would like to thank them very much indeed. And huge thanks to all the members of the audience for their wonderful contributions. If you are reading this, we want you to know how much we appreciated you.
Val Poore, that most elusive of authors, at least to me on her home territory, proved impossible to find on our return after five years to Rotterdam’s Oude Haven. Not knowing when we might arrive in Rotterdam (for time for trans-European car travel is notoriously difficult to estimate) and the fact that Valerie was almost certainly at work (it was a Friday), made it unfair to alert her to a visit we might not have been able to make. As it was, we discovered that the parking meters I wrote about those five years ago had all been made credit-card-friendly (maybe someone on the city council read my blog post!) and we could relatively easily pay for our stay. (If you are out there still, council person, to have various languages – as do ATMs – on your meters would make them even friendlier!)
Anyway, we were interested to find that, aside from the meters, not a huge amount had changed. Perhaps that isn’t so surprising for a museum of vintage barges, but there seemed to be more of them, so no doubt Valerie’s two memoirs recounting her experiences of restoring and living aboard her Vereeniging have encouraged others to do likewise. The boatyard was much busier, too, as you will see from the photographs, with more going on than the repair of one raised barge.
Vereeniging looked very well, too, with her gangplank effectively repaired (Valerie blogged about its vandalised damage) so that we momentarily wondered if we dared a quick stand on the foredeck! I’m sure if we had, the neighbours would have made us walk the plank in a rather different way! We met one of them, briefly (he had just arrived by bicycle), and asked him to say hello to Valerie and Koos for us.
I can safely aver that Rotterdam continues to thrive and the vibrancy we noted on our previous short exploration is still very much in evidence, even though the weather last Friday was gustily post-stormy and chilly. Anyway, enough from me now, except to say that Valerie has been a huge supporter of DI Yates and I’d very much have liked to meet her in person. I think that she has another memoir in the making and I’m sure it will be as warm and colourful as the others. Buy one and you’ll see what I mean. If you like canals and barges and narrowboats as I do, then her wanderings (‘farings’) along Dutch, Belgian and French waterways will hold you spellbound.
The turn of the month from April to May was delightfully busy. On 23rd April, I returned from a business trip to the USA (World Book Day as well as St George’s Day, the day the booksellers bring their stalls out into the streets in Barcelona – stuck in a tube in the sky, I missed them), anticipating the privilege of the three Christina James events ahead of me. Three in eight days, no less!
As the first of these was at Adlington Library, near Chorley in Lancashire, I was very close to the smallholding kept by my friends Priscilla and Rupert and so was able to relish the double pleasure of visiting the library and staying with them as well.
I’d been invited by the Friends of Adlington Library, an energetic and committed group who have put a huge amount of effort into keeping the library open after government cuts. I’ve already written about local determination to keep underfunded, understaffed library services open in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Lancashire is encountering similar problems and fighting back with just as much dedication.
The event was scheduled to last an hour and a half. The time flew by: the Friends, led by Margaret and Philip, offered me a large and very responsive audience, many of whom had read my books; several had also bought them or bought copies during the event. As I’ve said before, an audience can pay a writer no great compliment than to give feedback on her or his books. Readers are always perceptive and it is fascinating to hear their accounts of other books they like and why; additionally, in this instance, Adlington’s readers opened up on the evil characters, both real and fictional, whom they had encountered.
Just four days later I was heading for Gainsborough, a North Lincolnshire town that was totally uncharted territory for me. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I realised that this was my loss: Gainsborough is a wonderful old town with a mediaeval manor house at its heart, reputedly haunted by Lady Jane Grey. One of my audience – a local woman who now lives in Australia and was visiting family in the town – told me she had seen Jane’s ghost wandering the house when she was a child (intact, with head on – I did ask!).
Gainsborough’s library earned the unique distinction of providing me with an audience that expanded during the afternoon, drawing in more and more people as the session unfolded! The library itself is a building of palatial proportions – huge for a small town – and the librarians make excellent use of the space they are able to command. The event ran on way past the allocated time, until eventually we were invaded by a party of primary school children who had come for a reading session.
I am indebted to Lynne and her colleagues for organising this event and would like to thank them again for the really beautiful bunch of flowers that they gave me. I felt truly spoilt!
Just three days later, came the last of the trio: a different kind of event this time, held for a writers’ group in Woodhall Spa, another North Lincs town that I’d never visited before. The home of the Dambusters, it’s a picture postcard place, and was gearing itself up for the 75th Anniversary of the Lancaster bomber raids in WWII. (There’s a café just a few doors up from the library, full of Dambusters memorabilia – well worth a visit.)
The library itself is tiny – the smallest in Lincolnshire, apparently – but librarians Jude and Deborah have organised it extremely well. Like Adlington and Gainsborough, it has a well-stocked children’s section and a children’s activity area – they’re trying to make the Guinness Book of Records by creating the world’s largest pom-pom! Jude and Deborah gave me a very warm welcome indeed. I loved their shoes – yellow and orange respectively – worn as a gentle, tongue-in-the-cheek protest against having to wear a librarian’s ‘uniform’ of sober navy that wouldn’t be out of place in an old-fashioned girls’ school.
The writers in the workshop and I talked about what makes a good evil character (is that a tautology?!) in fiction; how fictionalised serial killers differ from real-life ones; and how various authors have depicted them in very different ways. As I had expected, the members of the group were both perceptive and a fund of anecdotes about their own observations and experiences. I was particularly intrigued – not to say horrified – by the account that one man gave me of evacuee children sent to the county from London who were literally starved to death. He said that the local community closed ranks and ensured that no-one was ever prosecuted for the crime.
I am honoured that the people of Adlington, Gainsborough and Woodhall Spa not only took time out of their busy lives to meet me, but also prepared for the events with such care. Thank you all! And special thanks to Margaret and Philip, Lynne and her colleagues and Jude and Deborah.
On Saturday 14th April 2018, I spent the afternoon at a Lincoln City Library event organised for me by the indefatigable Tina Muncaster and her colleagues (indefatigable, because we first tried to run this event on 3rd March, but were thwarted by the astonishingly heavy snow that had gridlocked Lincoln a couple of days before, when I was very kindly interviewed by Lincoln City Radio). As Tina said, when she re-invited me, perhaps the daffodils would be blooming if we rearranged for April! This turned out to be correct: the daffodils in Lincolnshire are magnificent this year.
Arriving in Lincoln early, I decided to explore the city. I’ve been to Lincoln several times before, both as a child and later, but in the past I’ve always headed for the Cathedral and the steep streets that lead to it. This time, I visited the waterfront and was amazed both by its beauty and its long history. (I particularly wanted to see the Fossdyke Navigation, which features in Gentleman Jack, my next novel.) I’ve already published a separate post about my explorations.
Nine people attended the event, with Tina and her colleagues joining in as their work permitted. The members of the audience – or, I should perhaps say, my fellow writers – were wonderful. There was an almost equal balance of women and men, from a wide age range. I was particularly happy that Elise Harrington, of Lincoln City Radio, was able to join us.
Like the event in February in Spalding, this was not just about reading from the DI Yates novels and talking about them. Tina had said that she thought her library patrons would also be interested in discussing how a really bad character is created and so we planned a modified version of the Spalding activity. We therefore focused on Hannibal Lecter for the first part of the discussion and considered some published extracts depicting evil characters before I read a short passage about Peter Prance, taken from In the Family.
After a break, during which the Library served up tea and delicious biscuits and almost everyone bought a copy of one of the DI Yates titles (I’d like to say here how grateful I am for this), we got down to the business of creating some brand new nasties! The group worked in twos and threes. It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone was fascinated by the task and completely absorbed by it, as I hope the photographs demonstrate. The villains created were imaginative and ingenious – they included a woman who was a housekeeper and ‘saw’ everything, a transgender sailor and a male villain with a ‘small man’ complex.
After everyone had shared their villains with the others, the event concluded with another short reading, this one from Fair of Face. By this time, it was 4 pm – and the event had been scheduled to run from 1.30 pm – 2.30 pm!
If you were one of my fellow crime writers on Saturday, I’d like to thank you very much indeed for sharing your creative ideas and for so obviously enjoying yourself. And double thanks to Tina Muncaster and her colleagues: they’ve kindly said they’ll invite me to Lincoln again and I shall jump at the opportunity. Thank you also for my beautiful bunch of tulips, the first I have enjoyed this year.
Finally, I’d like to thank Sharman Morriss at Spalding Library, both for hosting me there and also for setting in train a series of Christina James events in libraries around Lincolnshire. I’m next at Gainsborough Library and then, shortly afterwards, at Woodhall Spa, a stone’s throw from the River Witham I wrote about in my previous post.