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.
Arriving in Lincoln on the morning of Saturday 14th April 2018, with a couple of hours to spare before the crime writers’ workshop I was leading at the Central Library, I decided to explore a part of the city I hadn’t really looked at closely before – the waterfront at Brayford Pool. I particularly wanted to see the Lincoln end of the Roman-constructed Fossdyke (probably the UK’s oldest canal still in use), which links the city to the River Trent at Torksey. Thus, a navigable waterway stretched, via Lincoln, from the Trent to the Wash, for the Brayford Pool is a natural lake on the River Witham, which flows to Boston and the North Sea. In the middle ages, the Pool was a thriving inland port, but it declined subsequently until Daniel Defoe in 1720 called Lincoln ‘an old, dying, decay’d dirty city… it is scarce tolerable to call a city…’ Twenty years later, one Richard Ellison was granted a long lease on the Fossdyke (he grew wealthy from the tolls he charged on it) and the Pool sprang into life again. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the land around it turned over to bustling wharves and mighty warehouses for grain and cloth, together with all the attendant trades of a waterway. Great sailing barges carried produce and imported goods to the growing industrial cities of the Midlands and the North; steam packet boats eventually appeared on the Witham. However, the railways and then motor transport superseded the boats and, by the 1960s, as I can just remember, the Pool was an ugly graveyard of abandoned shipping.
What I found this weekend, however, was a revitalised marina for leisure and pleasure craft and contemporary working vessels – narrowboats, sleek modern motor yachts, canoes and water-taxis – in a sympathetically-modernised harbour, with Lincoln University on one side of it and bars, restaurants and cafés on the other. Thankfully, plans for filling in the Pool and turning it into a carpark were not carried out and the Brayford Trust began clearing the site. There are unsurpassed views of the Cathedral and Lincoln Castle and the old city from the University side. It surprises me that places like this, which I’ve explored by land and water – the centres of Leeds and Birmingham, for example – have only recently been revitalised, their potential for public relaxation and enjoyment, for entertainment, heritage preservation and wildlife only slowly realised.
Walk with me and enjoy this lovely part of Lincoln. Let’s start with ‘The Glory Hole’, the size limit to shipping from the River Witham into the Brayford Pool. This is High Bridge (1160 AD), the oldest UK bridge with buildings on it.
Thank you for strolling with me!
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.
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!
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’.
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.
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
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).
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,
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.
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,
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.