Writers’ workshop in Spalding

09 +00002018-02-20T18:45:50+00:0028 2012 § 2 Comments

Readers of this blog will know that DI Yates and I have been fortunate enough to have been supported with many events in Spalding, owing to the extraordinary generosity of a growing list of people, especially Sam Buckley and her team at Bookmark, Michele Anderson and her colleagues at Spalding High School and Sharman Morris and the other librarians at the public library. As regular readers also know, I’ve now been privileged to lead several writers’ workshops in other places. This Spalding event was my second workshop there and, like the first, was hosted in the library by Sharman, and thanks to her and her colleague, Amanda, and the wonderful audience they gathered, it was a resounding success.

We took as our main topic ‘How to create a really evil character’ and we began by considering the attributes that such a character requires the author to deliver to make him or her come alive. We talked at length about how to achieve credibility and what sort of writing maintains the tension demanded by an evil character (and the kinds of writing that fail to maintain that tension). We considered Hannibal Lecter’s first meeting with Clarice Starling, how it is described by Thomas Harris in The Silence of the Lambs and what that tells us about Clarice, as well as Hannibal himself.

The audience then broke into small groups to work on creating some evil characters of their own.

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All of the groups were totally engaged and they came up with some startlingly fresh ideas. I particularly enjoyed the debate that took place between the four members of one group as they discussed whether or not to allow the serial killer’s dog to travel with him in his cab. The dog would be a useful tool to deflect suspicion, but – amid much hilarity – could not be trusted not to eat his sandwiches, so he wouldn’t be able to leave those in the cab as well! I hasten to add that this was actually only a small part of the conversation, most of which was a serious consideration of how alibis work and what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour – and how the Victorian music-hall villain is a stereotype that never occurs in real life. Real-life killers don’t provide good role models for authors, either, as they are frequently banal – ‘black boxes’ who don’t tick. We agreed that to be a successful evil character in fiction you must always have an inner life which the reader is allowed to penetrate, and often also demonstrate a certain glamour.

As the groups read out what they’d written and described the progress they’d made with creating their characters, some of the audience also began to share fascinating real-life anecdotes.  One was about a dog which actually did eat its owner’s sandwiches every time it was taken in a vehicle; two others focused on making unfair judgements about people because of mistaken preconceived ideas. One of these told how his grandfather liked to dress up and go to a pub on a Saturday night. One Saturday, slightly well-oiled, he tripped and hurt his face on the pavement. Several people passed him by without stopping, assuming, despite his good clothes, that he was a habitual drunk. It was only when a party of punks saw him that anyone helped him to his feet: having done so, they walked him two miles home and made him a cup of tea.  This story prompted someone else to recount how, when she moved to a new area, she thought the local pub looked rough and shunned it until she, too, tripped outside and was helped inside and cared for by some of the regulars whom she’d previously disdained.

I gave two short readings from my own books, the first from the passage where Grace Brackenbury asks to see the bodies of her foster mother and baby daughter in Fair of Face and the episode in which Peter Prance begins to challenge Hedley Atkins on the train journey to Liverpool in In the Family. Many of the audience stayed to talk to me informally after the organised part of the event was over. We spoke some more about reading and writing and what they mean to us. It was very clear that all participants in the session had enjoyed themselves. For my own part, I had a fantastic time: it was a great privilege to be able to spend a Saturday morning with such a lively group. They’ve asked me to lead another workshop after Gentleman Jack is published and I shall be delighted to do so – if Sharman doesn’t mind weaving her magic again!

Energy and spice: in Delhi

09 +00002018-01-04T14:23:16+00:0031 2012 § 10 Comments

Delhi 8

I visited India for the first time in November.  I was there for only three days, so it would be presumptuous of me to claim that I’ve even begun to scratch the surface of this amazing, complex country that shimmers with great beauty and at the same time seethes with contradictions. I suspect that even if I had lived there for many years I would not fully understand the cultural, social and historical accretions that have made India and Indians what they are today.

All I can offer, therefore, is a diffident account of what I was able to see in a few very brief hours.  My visit was confined to Delhi: I spent my first two days there working, so my taste of the ‘real’ India (as opposed to the cosmopolitan experience that is pretty much the same across the world for all guests staying at business hotels) was almost entirely crammed into a single day.  I was fortunate in having as my guide an Indian colleague based in Delhi who not only spoke several languages but understood how to deal with the myriads of rickshaw drivers and sellers of goods of all kinds who continually accost those walking through the streets.  It’s no exaggeration to say that I felt protected by being accompanied by one who knew their ways, but it would be wrong to suggest that I was frightened: despite the horror stories we read in the British press of attacks and muggings, it was my impression that what these people most wanted was the opportunity to earn an honest living.  The problem was that there were so many of them it was difficult to know which way to turn.  The only word that serves to describe a walk through an Indian street – or market – is ‘overwhelming’.

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Indians from all walks of life emit enormous energy: they’re constantly moving, they speak fast and all of the time they’re taking in their surroundings – no mean feat, as these are perpetually shifting, too.  Even the most modestly-situated street sellers demonstrate an optimism, an upbeatness, which inspires admiration rather than sympathy.  They seem determined to conquer life’s adversities by being cheerful and, above all, persistent.  This is even true of the small children clutching bundles of pens which they press passers-by to purchase for a few rupees each.  It’s heart-wrenchingly sad that these children clearly don’t go to school, that they’re grubby and often without shoes and that they’re out in the streets both early and late.  Some undoubtedly sleep in the open.  Yet they don’t seem deflated: on the contrary, they possess a resilience which convinces that at some level they will succeed.

The first stop on my itinerary was the Red Fort.

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This is a seventeenth century fortification set on a hill and now famous for being the first place at which the flag of India was hoisted after the country gained independence in 1947.  The fort fronts a whole series of royal palaces

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and ornate gardens, the latter containing trees of great age whose time-thickened trunks are gnarled and twisted with creeper.   The gardens are home to some of the stray dogs that roam the streets and public places everywhere in Delhi (though they don’t seem to work in packs, like the ones I saw in Quito, and therefore don’t intimidate).

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The dogs beg shamelessly from picnickers, but most Indians have no compunction about roundly shooing them away.  People are kinder to the chipmunks that also abound,

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perhaps because they’re ‘cute’, whereas the dogs are skinny and bedraggled.  The roofs of the palace buildings are thick with pigeons, while above them circle ‘eagles’ – as Indians often call the black kites which can be seen across the whole city.

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Inside, the palaces contain so many glass cases filled with artefacts that it’s difficult to take them all in.  I found the fine silk and damask nineteenth-century garments particularly striking, especially the tunic and trousers that had belonged to a princess described as being a rare beauty.  (These clothes would have drowned Queen Victoria herself!)  There were many weapons, some of them primitive and barbaric, though none that would have killed as efficiently as the Gatling gun, a British-supplied relic from India’s contribution to the First World War.  One of the palaces housed ancient manuscripts, the calligraphy exquisite and perfect.

A visit to the spice market followed, a noisy place teeming with humanity.  It contains row upon row of stalls piled high with spices, nuts and teas,

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some facing the main thoroughfare, others hidden away in tunnel-like passages.  We tried to penetrate one of these and were quickly driven back on to the street, eyes and noses stinging and streaming from the overpowering impact of the spices.  I bought a kilo of green tea (a kilo of tea’s a lot, I realised belatedly!), a classic Delhi curry mix, the spices still whole, and half a kilo of unground turmeric.

The street food looks and smells wonderful: chapatis containing all kinds of meat and vegetable fillings, sliced melon and coconut, flavoured naans and chicken prepared as numerous varieties of finger food – but so many seasoned European travellers had warned me not to be tempted that I didn’t succumb.  Residents of Delhi are evidently immune to ‘Delhi belly’, but our digestive tracts haven’t benefited from the same training.  Lunch was at the Connaught Gardens, quite a famous spot which is run like a gentleman’s club.  The food was classic – much of it vegetarian – and delicious.

Having realised from my experiences in the spice market that I am quite incapable of bartering, I was relieved to be taken to one of the government-approved shops that sells high-quality goods at fixed fair prices.  I bought a few things there before going on to another street market.

By this time, it was almost dark.  The market was beginning to fill up with people leaving work.  Some street acts appeared: musicians and conjurors.  Suddenly tired, we decided to round off the day by visiting the Indian monument.  There are, in fact, two of these, one a traditional-looking building that has been conceived as a beautifully-sculpted gazebo, the other a large square triumphal arch, akin to both Marble Arch and the Arc de Triomphe, which commemorates by name every Indian soldier killed in the India-Pakistan war.  As the darkness descended, the floodlights came on and both structures were suffused with an eerie beauty: a fitting end to my excursion into Delhi.

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Warm in Walkers Bookshop

09 +00002017-11-05T21:07:26+00:0030 2012 § 6 Comments

 

Walkers Stamford

Walkers, Stamford

Saturday 4th November was a wild, wet day.  The rain came bouncing down on the A1 as I headed for Walkers Bookshop in Stamford to sign copies of Fair of Face.  In places, the water stood inches deep on the road.  The lorries tossed out spray which severely restricted visibility.  A Reliant Robin three-wheeler (I hadn’t seen one for years!) went bombing along at 70 mph and almost aquaplaned.

It was a relief to reach Stamford, always a haven of civilisation and peace, and, even better, to arrive in time to indulge in a cappuccino and a huge, home-made cookie at The George Hotel, before going ‘on duty’ at Walkers.

I received a wonderfully warm welcome from the staff at Walkers, as I always do – and, as always, I appreciated it: I know how busy bookshop staff are, especially on Saturdays, and I’m very grateful when they spare time to look after me in addition to everything else they have to do.

The rain didn’t deter Walkers’ customers from venturing out from home.  They continued to show up steadily throughout the three hours I was there, some very windswept, some clutching wet umbrellas, all dressed in sturdy waterproofs, boots and hats.

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It certainly felt as if winter had suddenly taken Stamford by storm, but with it came a sense of excitement, a feeling that there was celebration in the air.  I suppose this may have been because it was one of the first weekends when people really start to think about Christmas shopping, but well before they begin to feel jaded and harassed by the whole prospect of coping with the ‘festive season’.

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I’ve always enjoyed visiting Walkers – this was the fourth signing session I’ve been offered there – and yesterday was no exception.  Many of the shop’s customers stopped to talk to me, and most of these bought one of my books – I was delighted to find that In the Family, Almost Love and Rooted in Dishonour were in demand, as well as Fair of Face.  Most people wanted them for Christmas presents, but others supplied different reasons: one lady was intrigued by Fair of Face because she knows Spalding well, having grown up in Gosberton Clough (a place I have yet to feature in the novels, so she’s now given me the idea!); another wanted Almost Love for her husband to read on his frequent journeys to London;

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another was bought by an author of Young Adult books who told me that she’d given a signing session in Walkers herself and was strongly in favour of supporting local authors.  She said that her reading group might be interested in hearing me speak.  If she reads this post, I’d like to thank her for a fascinating conversation and to say again that I’d be delighted to speak to the members of the reading group if indeed they’d like to hear me.

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I’m never bored in bookshops: it’s a great privilege to be allowed to sit in one for several hours and just drink in the atmosphere.  My time at Walkers was over only too quickly, but I took away some very pleasant memories that I know will stay with me.

I’d like to offer heartfelt thanks to Jenny Pugh, of Walkers Bookshop, Stamford, for making the signing session possible, and also to thank all of the staff there, particularly those who were working on the top floor, for their kindness and generous hospitality.

Bookmark, marking a moment for Fair of Face

09 +00002017-10-23T21:04:28+00:0031 2012 § 5 Comments

Window on the world of Bookmark

Last Monday dawned squally.  As I drove to Spalding for the first signing session of Fair of Face, the leaves were being snatched from the trees, victims of whatever the latest Atlantic storm was called (I’ve lost track!).  As I approached Spalding, the rain arrived. (Lovers of pathetic fallacy, take note!)  However, once inside Bookmark, I was safe, as I knew I would be, enveloped by its usual high standard of hospitality, warmth and the provision of many interesting people to talk to.

Last year, when Rooted in Dishonour was launched – the staff at Bookmark have, magnificently, given me events for all my novels – the café was closed for refurbishment.  This year, I was delighted to find it open, with an enticing range of treats to choose from.  My husband, never behind the door when it comes to food, indulged in a farmer’s breakfast and, a few hours later, a massive slice of coffee and walnut cake. I confined myself to a cheese and tomato toastie (not as modest as it sounds: Spalding helpings are generous!).

I was there until 3 p.m., signing copies of Fair of Face.  Several old friends, readers I have met since In the Family was published in 2012, came in to see me.  I met new readers, too, some of whom wanted to buy all the DI Yates titles, starting with the first – though I made it clear to them, as I do to all new readers, that each novel is a standalone. As I’ve said before, I think it’s cheating to expect readers to have to read all the previous titles in order to make sense of the latest one.

On Tuesday, a radio programme followed the Bookmark signing session: Carla Green interviewed me on Radio Lincolnshire at lunchtime, asking some particularly searching questions about Fair of Face, and generously promoted the events at Spalding and Stamford (see below).

I was back in Bookmark on Thursday evening to give a talk and two readings to members of Bookmark’s reading group and some of its other customers, too.  An author’s dream audience, they were extremely lively and engaged and, if any of them is reading this post: Thank you very much indeed for a magnificent evening – you were brilliant in your response!  And huge thanks to Sam Buckley, Sarah Halgarth and all the rest of the staff at Bookmark for welcoming me again and working so hard to make great successes of both occasions there.

This coming week the wonderful Chris Hamilton-Emery, founder of Salt Publishing and the equally wonderful Emma Dowson, Salt’s PR Manager, have organised a blog tour for Fair of Face. Here’s the tour and I hope to ‘meet’ some of you there.  I’d like to thank all the bloggers who have so generously contributed their time and their oxygen to this.

There are several other events in the pipeline:

  • 4th November.  Signing session. Walkers Bookshop, Stamford.
  • 18th November.  Readings and workshop {‘Fair of Face but dark at heart’), Wakefield One.
  • Date tbc, February 2018.  Readings and workshop, Lincoln City Library.
  • 17th February 2018.  Readings and workshop, Spalding Library.
  • Dates tbc: Readings and workshop, University of Winchester

Review in Lincolnshire Life

There will be other events and reviews, too, which I’ll announce here when I have more details.  If anyone reading this is organising an event to which I could contribute, I should be very happy to hear from you.

Last but certainly not least, if you have bought Fair of Face, I should like to offer you my sincerest thanks: authors are not authors without readers and I want you to know that I feel greatly honoured knowing you have spent several hours of your precious time reading my book. I do hope that you enjoy it.

Stepping into Rickaro Books on Bookshop Day, 2017

09 +00002017-10-08T20:18:54+00:0031 2012 § 11 Comments

Rickaro Books 2

Rickaro Books, Horbury

Yesterday was UK Bookshop Day, the annual event which celebrates the huge contribution made to civilised life by all British bookshops, especially independents.  It also marks the beginning of the current year’s ‘Books Are My Bag’ [BAMB] initiative for the run-up to Christmas and beyond.

The whole BAMB drive was conceived of and masterminded by the UK Booksellers Association, which now administers it.  Authors and readers alike are very fortunate to have, working on our behalf, this imaginative, dedicated, hard-working and amazingly small team of people led by Tim Godfray, its long-term CEO.  I was lucky enough to attend, on 11th September, the BA’s annual conference and there to get a sneak preview of some of this year’s BAMB marketing material, which includes beautiful mugs and book bags designed by Orla Kiely.

I always visit at least one bookshop on Bookshop Day.  Yesterday I headed for Rickaro Books in Horbury, one of my favourite bookshops, which is run by my (very) long-term friend and colleague, Richard Knowles.

Richard Knowles

Richard Knowles

Richard was my first boss after I left university – I won’t mention how many years ago! His bookshop, situated in a small Yorkshire town of great character, is a veritable jewel. As well as stocking new books (including all the Christina James titles – he has kindly agreed to distribute Fair of Face postcards and to supply copies of the book for purchase at my event in Wakefield One on 18th November), he is an accomplished antiquarian bookseller, with an enviable vintage stock. He provides a world-class service by selling antiquarian books on a limited range of topics and does indeed attract customers from all over the world.

Richard always engages in BAMB festivities. Yesterday, he had decorated his windows with promotional bunting and was offering discounts on new books. His dog Tilly

Tilly

Tilly

(the inspiration for the Tilly Club that Rickaro Books runs for children) entered into the spirit of the day by sporting a Books Are My Bag T-shirt.  Richard said that he’d suggest that Sophie, one of his booksellers, should wear the same T-shirt on Monday morning. I’m assuming that this was one of his lugubrious and slightly macabre jokes, but, just in case, I shall send the link to this post to Sophie!

Tilly T shirt

I bought three books, two for myself (The Greatest Knight, by Thomas Asbridge, and The Idea of North, by Peter Davidson) as well as, for a young person of my acquaintance, a book which I won’t describe here, as it’s intended to be a surprise.  Instead of the Orla Kiely bags, Richard had others featuring Christopher Robin – appropriate for a shop which is a magnet for child readers.  Several of them came in while I was there, including a screaming toddler whose tears turned to smiles as soon as she crossed the threshold.  Such is the power of a good bookshop!

One of the charms of Rickaro Books is that it doesn’t change very much from visit to visit.  However, as soon as I walked in yesterday, I was struck by a very significant new addition to the furnishings.  Richard has acquired the striking and quite famous portrait of Thomas Gent, the eminent eighteenth-century Yorkshire historian, poet and printer (and therefore, like all printers of the time, also a bookseller), painted by Nathan Drake in 1770, when Gent was seventy-seven.  (He lived for another eight years after this, dying in 1778 at the ripe old age of eighty-five.)

Gent

Thomas Gent

Gent was highly respected in his own day, but was, as his Wikipedia biography laconically states, ‘financially unsuccessful’.  I wonder what he would have made of Books Are My Bag?  I think it’s likely he would have approved of it and I’m certain that he would have loved to have had the opportunity to obtain support from an early version of the Booksellers Association.

Christina’s summer, aside from work!

09 +00002017-09-18T15:29:15+00:0030 2012 § 9 Comments

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Despite all my good intentions (and I’m very grateful to Lisette Brodey, Laura Zera, Val Poore, Sylvia Peadon and Tamara Ferguson for the supportive empathy they have shown me over my failure to keep up to date with social media generally!), the summer mostly slipped away without my posting on this blog. However, I met some great people at literary events over June, July, August and September and want to share those occasions with you before they become distant memories.
On 16th and 17th June, I attended the Winchester Literary Festival for the fourth time, partly to conduct one-to-ones with twelve new authors, partly to give an updated version of the talk I first delivered last year (‘Whodunnit: how it’s done’), which, as last time, attracted a large and enthusiastic audience. Winchester has now become one of the most important dates on my calendar: it’s a brilliant festival, thoughtfully and imaginatively created by Judith Heneghan, who lectures in creative writing at the university, and efficiently organised by Sara Gangai. The guest talk that takes place first thing on the Saturday morning is always a treat. This year’s speaker was Lemn Sissay, the performance poet.

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay

Lemn’s talk was full of wit and unusual insights: for example, he said that every single day we are part of a privileged generation because we have the Internet. “We are at the most exciting time for words that there has ever been. So how can it be that the point of view that the Internet promotes rubbish is always held above that that says the Internet promotes beauty and genius?” And: “Every day I wake up and think of ways that I can promote writing other than the book. But the book is the greatest gift you can give any child or adult.” My own books were kindly stocked and sold, as always, by staff from P. & G. Wells at the festival book stall; they also gave me a signing session, when I met several new and a few old friends.
July 6th was the next big date for me, as the legendary bookseller Richard Reynolds had invited me and eleven other authors to participate in his summer evening of crime at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge.

Heffers Crime July 2017

Reading at Heffers

I was particularly pleased to meet Barbara Nadel, whose books I have read with real enjoyment. We were each asked to describe ourselves and read, in not more than two minutes, a short extract from our latest novels (Richard’s assistant had a bell and said that she was “not afraid of using it”!). This actually worked very well: it’s surprising how much you can get across in two minutes if you think about it beforehand and try hard.

Richard Reynolds

Richard Reynolds, in rapt concentration during the readings

Afterwards, there was a drinks reception at which all of our books were on sale. The audience numbered more than one hundred (Cambridge is a real Mecca for crime enthusiasts!) and we all sold lots of copies.

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Busy at Heffers

Wednesday 12th July followed hard on the heels of the Heffers event. I had the good fortune to be invited to a Houses of Parliament reception (held by the Booksellers Association, Publishers Association and the charity, World Book Day) for authors and booksellers, with MPs and peers.

Houses of Parliament

Before the bell was silenced!

There I met several booksellers who have supported me by stocking my books, including Sam Buckley, from Bookmark in Spalding, who over the years has generously given me a launch event for each of them. The event was hosted by Dame Margaret Hodge, who emphasised the civilising influence of both books and booksellers on our society (a sentiment about which I need no persuading!).
Last but not least, on 15th July I was invited to give ‘A Morning with Christina James’ at Spalding town library. This was a round-table event, at which I read a couple of excerpts from In the Family and Rooted in Dishonour and then talked to the audience about how I came to write the novels, my own Lincolnshire roots and, most important of all, their views on fiction. I was delighted to be able at last to meet Sharman Morriss, the librarian, having been told at one of the Bookmark evenings that she tirelessly promotes my novels to her customers. Sharman then put me in touch with Alison Wade, her colleague at Boston town library,

Boston Stump

Boston Stump (the library is just the other side of it)

which has been holding a month-long crime-writing festival during September. Alison very kindly asked me to open this on the afternoon of September 1st, when I talked to the audience about my own books and what they like to read. I was really pleased to have been able to meet readers and new writers on this occasion.

Boston library

Alert readers at Boston!

Fair of Face, the sixth novel in the DI Yates series, will be published on 15th October.

I’ve diligently been updating my Twitter header and posting the new novel’s cover here and on Facebook! Bookmark in Spalding is providing a signing session on the afternoon of 16th October and an evening launch event on 19th October and I know both will be memorable moments for meeting friends old and new. If you would like me to come and talk at your local bookshop or library, or to your reading group, just let me know.
Oh, and hello again to all my readers here!
[An apology to Spalding Library – I’ve temporarily mislaid my SanDisk – a picture will follow!]

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Charleston, South Carolina… a topsy-turvy town

09 +00002017-02-11T18:57:43+00:0028 2012 § 12 Comments

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Next stop for me after Quito was Charleston, in South Carolina, home of North America’s most prestigious conference for academic librarians.  You often hear that places are ‘steeped in history’ – a cliché that must apply to at least 80% of UK towns and cities – but I’ve seldom visited anywhere as overtly gripped by the past as Charleston is.  Named for Charles II (it was originally called ‘Charles Town’ until contracted to its present form after the American War of Independence), it has a colourful past, reminders of which include a cross-vaulted underground prison for smugglers

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and numerous old colonial and pre- and immediate post-Civil War buildings.  In the classical style and painted white, often with pillars or cupolas, they seem to epitomise old-world grace and the elegance of a more leisurely age.

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When I was there, many of the houses were decorated for Hallowe’en, some in very imaginative ways:

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my favourite was the giant witch’s hat set atop a cupola.

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Charleston stands for a great many things that are hard to swallow.  That gracious leisure – for the few – cost thousands their freedom.  South Carolina was one of the first states to secede from the Union because it supported slavery.  It still has a considerable black population, many of whom, if not part of an underclass, are clearly not rich; there’s a stark contrast between them and the owners of the sparkling white yachts and cabin cruisers that loll in the harbour

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or go for little spins offshore.

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As a British visitor, this blatant juxtaposition of wealth and modest means made me uneasy; yet, at the same time, it’s hard not to be beguiled by Charleston, where the sun shines warmly in November and the inhabitants treat strangers with impeccable courtesy and charm.

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I asked a lady watering the plants in her garden the way back to my hotel and with alacrity she got out her car and drove me there; the staff in the hotel were unfailingly polite and solicitous, especially during my first forty-eight hours as their guest, after I’d turned up plagued with a Latin-American stomach bug.

Nowhere was the tension between old-fashioned courtesy and dyed-in-the-wool conservatism more apparent than during my visit to the Confederate Museum, which is situated right in the heart of Charleston, at one end of the historic covered market.

ch-2It’s run by a group that calls itself ‘The United Daughters of the Confederacy’.  When I entered, two of these rather ancient ‘daughters’ were sitting at a table near the main door, collecting the modest entrance fee and looking as if they might indeed have stepped out of the 1840s (the building that houses the Museum was constructed, as the leaflet shows, in 1841).  The ladies were gently polite and directed me to some of the things they (correctly) thought might interest me most, including children’s clothes made of old Confederate flags and letters home written by achingly young Confederate soldiers.  They had one male companion, an elderly man whose sole task it was to tell visitors the story of the large cannon that occupied the centre of the room.  Apparently, it was the first cannon ever to be used in America, and – of especial interest to me – manufactured from the particularly robust iron ore quarried at Low Moor, near Bradford.  I told the old man that I lived in Yorkshire, not twenty miles from Low Moor; he said, to his knowledge, he’d had only one other visitor from Yorkshire and that I was very welcome.  I told him I was a writer and begged for permission to photograph the cannon for my blog.  Immediately, his attitude changed.  He frowned and stabbed his finger at a large notice erected on an easel next to the cannon.  “No photographs in here, Ma’am.”

confederate-cannon

I’ve mentioned the market, which is one of Charleston’s many crown jewels and the place that Americans always recommend to sightseers if they ask.  It’s a fascinating place: a craft market with a few farmers’ market-style stalls thrown in.  The stallholders sell many beautiful things, so I was spoilt for choice: eventually I settled on a South Carolina Beadwork necklace for my friend, a Charleston collapsible fruit bowl for my husband and a topsy-turvy rag doll for my granddaughter.

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There’s some disagreement about the origin and purpose of these dolls – I was told that they were made for black children who were forbidden to own a white doll and one of these could be quickly turned upside down if an overseer came by, but perhaps the alternative view of their play purpose is more compelling, that African-American women were preparing their own children for the life they themselves experienced, as carers of white children during the day and their own children at night. I’m sure that other theories exist, but during this Black History Month I’ll take the opportunity to say that, for me, the doll is a fine emblem of an ideal of racial equality and mutual respect that sadly isn’t much evident in the world today.

Top of the tree among the stallholders are the black families (usually but not always headed up by a woman) who make the traditional sweetgrass baskets.

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sweetgrass-basket

My charming sweetgrass lady, with a couple of Christmas decorations

My charming sweetgrass lady, with a couple of Christmas decorations

These are intricate and very beautiful – they’re expensive but take a long time to make – and crafted from a design that originated in Africa.  The method for making them crossed the Atlantic with those captured for slavery.  Apparently only about fifty people understand the technique today – it’s been passed down from mother to daughter over the decades and centuries.  Another kind of Charleston elegance – and an enduring heritage.

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