This has been a strange weekend for everyone, despite – or even because of – the blue skies and sunshine, now replaced by a cold, grey front from the North Pole. On Friday, it was seventy-five years since ‘VE [Victory in Europe] Day’. In the UK, all kinds of celebrations had been planned for this, most of which haven’t happened because of the Covid-19 lockdown. There is some hope that they can be held on 15th August, on ‘VJ [Victory in Japan] Day’ instead. I wonder. When the lockdown started, no-one imagined it would still be in place towards the end of the summer, but it may well be.
My daughter-in-law, who is German, told us about a conversation she had with our five-year-old granddaughter about this European anniversary, providing her with the relevant history that she really did want to know about, for, though the family lives in Cambridgeshire, she has relatives in the Münsterland and elsewhere whom she visits regularly; she also speaks German very well indeed. She knows that her great-grandparents chucked bombs at each other. Her mum’s words speak for themselves:
“VE Day. I’ve been thinking about the right words all day. It is one of the very few days when I find British life… awkward.
For me, the 8th of May has always been a day of commemoration and, primarily, of remembering the liberation from fascism and the Holocaust. I have absolutely no problem with celebrating this and the end of the war, but I suppose what makes me feel uncomfortable is the choice of the name for this day. Victory in Europe.”
Between them, she and her daughter decided to rename the day ‘Peace in Europe Day’ and – in and with, socially distanced 😉, their local community – to celebrate peace, not victory, as something perhaps more relevant now than it has ever been since 1945.
Here, at home in the Pennines, we have reflected a lot on how far we have come as a nation since the Second World War and I don’t mind saying that we are both committed Europhiles, who are happily English but also proud of being European. We love the country we were born in and all that makes it unique, but we love Europe too; we identify, quite rightly, with our nation, but not to the detriment of other nations; we are not jingoistic and we are weary indeed of the ultra-nationalistic nonsense we’ve heard all our lives and, especially, over the past three years or so. When our son and daughter-in-law were married in 2011, we hung German and British flags in our hall, where they have remained ever since, accompanied now by a banner of the twelve Chinese horoscope characters in silk and an Indian textile designed to celebrate Diwali, both acquired on my forays abroad. They hang there together in solidarity, companions in peace and shared interests from four very different countries, a testament to new global friendships with likeminded people. Our granddaughter takes it for granted that they are a permanent part of our household.
In the village where I live, several families hung out Union Jacks. Flags are evocative props – they stand at once for national pride, military prowess and a strong sense of identity. When my husband was a child and his family were living in the south of England they made a pilgrimage back to the north once a year to visit his grandmother, who always hung out Union Jacks on the hedge to welcome them after their long journey.
In retrospect, these same flags were probably the ones she purchased to celebrate the original VE Day. When I was a child growing up in Lincolnshire, we all waved flags on Flower Parade Day (though I never understood why) and, when we visited the seaside, our parents would buy us little packets of paper flags to stick in sandcastles. There was always a Union Jack among these, though my brother and I both liked the red and green Welsh dragon best. Children enjoy the simple realities, rather than the symbolism, which they only later come to understand. We are delighted that our granddaughter has shrugged off naïveté about this very early.
The celebrations were meant to mark the return to peace rather than victory and those creative people who managed to put their mark on yesterday expressed this. My favourites were the staff of my local convenience shop, who dressed as – very glamorous – land girls to cheer and amuse their customers.
They all work very hard to support everyone in their neighbourhood, with no discrimination, even though they have their fair share of – how best to put it? – awkward individuals! I’m led to consider that EVERY nation has its own fair share of, frankly, unpleasant people.
Because of my day job, I’m in daily touch with people across the world, all coping with lockdown. Some have very challenging situations to cope with: they live in densely populated conurbations, are looking after newborn babies or have underlying health issues that have confined them to their homes for months. As the effects of the lockdown here make life seem ever more like living in a science fiction novel, I’m conscious of how fortunate I am that my home is in a beautiful place, from which I can walk out for my daily exercise in woods bursting with bluebells and with the air a tumult of birdsong.
The spring has seemed particularly lovely this year, perhaps because the enforced stay at home has helped us to notice it more. Listing the positives associated with the lockdown, both the warmth of the season and having access to technology that allows me to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family are jointly top. I’ve learnt some new skills, too: several culinary ones, including a Nigella chocolate cake that guarantees domestic bliss (at least in this household!); I’ve helped my husband make John Innes-style compost for the tomato plants because the garden centres were closed; and I’ve plucked up the courage to tackle my grey roots and for the first time to experiment myself with hair dye (I’m pleased to report I’ve emerged neither orange nor bald!). I’m working on a new venture with an old friend. I’ve had more time to get in touch with other authors to discuss writing; I’ve managed to read even more books than usual. The British Library, which I joined last year, has sent me links to virtual tours of its collections which have enthralled and delighted me.
Of course, there are negatives. Social networking can’t replace face-to-face contact in the long term; the future of my day job is uncertain; and a significant reaction to bee stings has been harder to deal with than if the chemist and the doctor’s surgery had been working as normal. But these things are trivial compared to the most profound truth: that in villages such as mine we know we are cocooned from reality: it’s hard for us to imagine the distress and suffering that is being experienced by patients and NHS workers across the country, or by those in care homes, those who are grappling with Covid-19 at home or those who are afraid because they need ‘shielding’.
Flags and silk figures can’t help here: they symbolise important values, but they are inert. What can and does help tremendously are the small acts of joy that people like Paula, who works in the convenience store and took the trouble both to research and glam herself up in style, bring to the people they meet, by spending time and thought on how to celebrate sensitively.
Whether you think that spring begins on 1st March (meteorologists’ definition), 19th March (the equinox) or 25th March (Lady Day), the sap is certainly rising now. It’s impossible to ignore this break-out of beauty as animals, birds, insects and plants and flowers engage in their annual rejuvenation, totally untouched by the human despair at the break-out of the coronavirus. It’s as if we live in parallel universes. I do wonder whether the more perceptive scions of the natural kingdom have noticed humans behaving strangely. Perhaps not; perhaps they don’t care – but it is to be hoped that some are benefiting from the steep global drop in carbon emissions, the newly-clear rivers, streams and canals and the lessening menace of ‘road kill’.
I’ve noticed the signs of spring more keenly this year, possibly because I’ve been at home more (though I’m always at home quite a lot), but more probably because you cease to take for granted what you love about your life when it comes under threat. I’m sure we all have been recalibrating our outlook on life, thinking about what is most important to us and possibly even thinking that some of the new ways of working could become permanent rather than a temporary measure to contain Covid-19.
My garden is only small, but both the pond and the old cattle trough that I was given for my birthday a couple of years ago glisten with frog spawn – the biggest crop I can remember.
The mint is pushing up through the soil in the planters, each tender shoot furled and delicate as a rosebud;
and a very handsome pheasant, his feathers mating-resplendent, struts his stuff under the fruit trees, certainly not too proud to eat the seeds that fussy finches and tits scorn and toss from the bird feeders. He’s sometimes joined by a grey squirrel engaged in the same activity. I’m not a great fan of grey squirrels, but this one endears by being enterprising. If the pheasant doesn’t keep his eyes peeled, he misses the next shower of manna as it flows from the feeders because the squirrel will grab it first. He doesn’t seem to think it’s worth chasing the squirrel away. (My cat, by contrast, certainly has designs on the pheasant, although she is only half his size and I think would be no match for his sharp and powerful spurs.)
Although the sun is shining, the chill winds from Europe are still with us and there was a heavy frost last night. We awoke to frozen windscreens and glittering ice. It felt healthy, somehow – bracing, antiseptic, optimistic and beautiful all at the same time.
My writing has been interrupted over the past few weeks by the exigencies of the day job, including taking the same time-consuming measures that everyone has had to resolve as we lock down. But I’m back into De Vries now – it’s the sequel to Sausage Hall – and keenly aware of the privilege of being able to sit here and work on my next novel.
I hope that everyone who reads this blog is keeping safe and well and that, whatever the fears and inconveniences that beset you, there have been some good and happy things resulting from this mass change of lifestyle, unprecedented not only in our lifetimes but possibly in the whole of history.
I’m going to start a new venture soon, to help writers and those who want to read their work, and I’ll keep in touch with you about it, if I may.
With love and hope and very best wishes,
As readers of this blog may remember, for the past several Januaries I have been privileged to travel to South-East Asia for the day job; and even more privileged, so far, to have visited a different country each time. This year, I was also extremely lucky, for another reason: I had spent four days in Singapore and a weekend in Malaysia (which I had visited previously) and returned safely home before the coronavirus outbreak began to take hold. I have many friends and acquaintances in South-East Asia; if you are reading this post, please know that my thoughts are with you during this crisis. Stay well.
Singapore is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. My first full day there began with a 7 a.m. visit to the Botanical Gardens, a World Heritage site.
The early morning is the best time to see them, before the humidity takes hold. At that time of day, the gardens are already busy with people: joggers, groups practising Tai chi and people just using them to walk dogs or take a short-cut to work. The many varieties of exotic tree – and the even more exotic creepers intertwined with them – defy description; you must make do with a photographed example!
The wildlife is equally striking. I was particularly fortunate to get a shot of a lizard basking at the top of a tree.
The business meetings took place at the National University of Singapore, whose global university ranking is eleventh; it is first in Asia. Amenities include a very advanced library which, like other university libraries in South East Asia, is experimenting with a variety of artificial intelligence applications to improve the experiences of its students and researchers. The hotel in which I stayed was also making good use of advanced technology: as I was waiting for my cab to the airport early on the Saturday morning, when there were few staff around, what was ostensibly a waste-paper bin – I’d noticed it several times but didn’t know until then it served a dual purpose – trundled up to me and asked me if I needed any help!
The Marina Bay is home to some of the world’s most spectacular high-rise buildings. Primus inter pares is the building shaped like a boat on top of three towers.
I took the photograph of this astonishing hotel complex from the rooftop bar at the Fullerton Hotel.
By walking round to the other side of the bar, I could also see the famous Raffles Hotel.
Like most of my other visits to Asia, this one coincided with the run-up to the Chinese New Year. 2020 is the Year of the Rat. The streets and markets were exuberantly decorated and packs of child-friendly toy rats abounded! Everyone was very happy.
The weekend that followed was not about work, but a literary adventure. I’ve begun to plan a novel which isn’t primarily crime fiction, though it may very well contain some crimes. (I have a theory that all novels are about crimes, one way or another, but I won’t sidetrack you with that now.) It was inspired by a fifty-five-year-old BSA motorbike, which really exists, to which I am going to attach a story. The motorbike was painted Port Dickson Green and exported by the British Army during the Malayan Emergency. Somehow it found its way back to the UK: that is the nub of the mystery. Watch this space!
I won’t say any more, except to add that, in quest of the motorbike, I was able to spend an afternoon at the military museum in Port Dickson, in the company of its curator, a soldier in the Malaysian army who is also a forensic archaeologist. His specialism is repatriating the remains of soldiers who have been killed in conflicts, not just in Malaysia, but worldwide. The stories he had to tell were fascinating. I hope I shall be able to do them justice! Also amazing was the reconstruction of an underground Communist terrorist hideout at the museum.
My journey ended with a visit to Malacca. Originally a Portuguese, then a Dutch, colony, it was taken over by the British after almost two centuries of Dutch rule, but the essential character of the old town, which is now protected, remains Protestant Dutch.
It’s an extraordinary feeling, walking through streets containing so many prim, plain, sturdily constructed North European buildings, but interspersed with hugely contrasting places of worship, according to religion,
and fishermen’s houses.
Then it was time to board the plane and embark on the long journey home. It lasted thirteen hours – the longest single air flight I have ever taken – but it seemed to pass in the blinking of an eye – doubtless because I had so many recent memories to ponder.
Saturday was a clear, crisp, cold day after many days of rain and muggy warmth. It felt like a proper winter’s day, of the best possible kind!
Before it was quite light, I was heading for Stamford – one of my favourite places – for a signing session in Walkers Bookshop, at the heart of the town. First stop, however, was the George, Stamford’s splendid old coaching inn – for coffee and pastries in front of its roaring open fire!
I am very happy to be able to say that Walkers is an extremely successful bookshop. The period after Christmas is a notoriously slack time for bookselling – as for all types of retail activity – but on Saturday, Walkers was clearly thriving, with a constant flow of people, many of whom engaged me in conversation and not a few of whom bought Chasing Hares or one of the other Yates novels (In the Family and Sausage Hall seem to be the perennial favourites).
I was particularly smitten by the little girl who told me she wanted to be an author and an illustrator! And also delighted – and very honoured – that Rex Sly, whose books about the fen country I have long been consulting when carrying out my research, came in to meet me. We had a long conversation about writing. Himself a Lincolnshire farmer – he lives in the farmhouse in which he was born – Rex told me that at one stage his family’s problems with hare coursers had become so grave that they considered moving out and finding somewhere else to live.
Many thanks indeed to Jenny Pugh and all the staff at Walkers for arranging the session and making me as welcome as always – and for providing tea and other comforts!
After a quick lunch and a brief exploration of Stamford – it has an amazing ironmonger’s which always draws my husband like a magnet – it was on to the library, where Jane Barber, one of the librarians and an old school friend, had again used her fertile imagination to plan an event, this time a murder mystery event that she called ‘Tea and Murder’. She and her colleagues expended a great deal of energy and time on this and they – and I – were rewarded by its being a hugely successful event. They attracted a very large audience, some of whom I had already met last spring at the first DI Yates event in Stamford Library.
I talked about how I had come to write Chasing Hares – not forgetting to mention the large part played by my friends Madelaine, Marc, Anthony and Marcus and by South Lincs police, all of whom had a significant hand in creating the plot – and read aloud the first chapter. We then had a lively discussion about how to plan a murder. I said that although the characters in my novels are all (except one) fictional, or at most composites of several people I have known, the plots are often inspired by real-life crime. For example, the plot of Fair of Face draws heavily on the White House Farm murders (a version of which is now being televised) and Chasing Hares is in part the product of a great deal of research about hare coursing. We talked about the perfect crime being one which was never discovered – which doesn’t work in fiction, for obvious reasons – but how some novelists have got round this by allowing the murderer not to be caught (Patricia Highsmith, in the Ripley novels) or by using the device of the unreliable narrator (probably started by Agatha Christie, when she wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). In my own Sausage Hall, Kevan de Vries appears to get away with murder – but watch this space! Kevan will return in my next book – to be called, simply, de Vries – and he may not be so lucky next time.
Then there were (delicious!) cakes and tea.
All this was a prelude to a murder mystery for which Jane had set the scene. She had even produced an actual body – the ‘body in the library’! The audience worked in groups, each group to decide who the victim was, who the murderer and what the motive. Each suggestion was more ingenious than the last: it was impossible to award a prize for the best one!
The whole evening was very light-hearted, relaxing and entertaining and the audience at Stamford has become one of my great favourites. I’d like to thank everyone who came to the event for turning out on a Saturday (and also a cold evening), some travelling from quite a long way away. And very sincere thanks to Jane Barber and her colleagues for all their hard work and for pulling off another triumphant event – Jane’s inspirational activity and her sensitive management of it were indeed wonderful to see. 😊
Yesterday it rained. And rained. And rained.
And it didn’t spoil a thing.
I was at three events in Spalding to celebrate the launch of Chasing Hares: a signing session at wonderful Bookmark, where all my novels have been launched, and where the hospitality from Sam and Sarah and their team was as warm as always;
a very special event hosted by Anthony and Marcus on the island where most of the novel is set;
and an evening talk and readings at Bookmark, attended by just as large an audience as usual despite their having had to turn out in grim weather.
Thank you, everyone! I both appreciated and enjoyed it all very much indeed.
And Chasing Hares? Well, it is unique among the DI Yates novels in that its two (related) plots were both suggested to me by other people. In the summer of 2018, my husband and I called in on our friends Madelaine and Marc. It was a hot, sunny day and their friends Anthony and Marcus, who own several boats, offered us a trip along the river Welland from the island house where they live. Anthony showed us round the house and made us coffee before we went. As we sat in the garden outside, I said I had almost finished writing Gentleman Jack and the conversation turned to what I should tackle in my next novel.
I can’t remember who suggested I should write about this island: it was Madelaine, Marc or Anthony, or a combination of all three. Marc, who’s a fount of knowledge when it comes to local history, said he’d heard there had been a row of small cottages on the island – hovels, really – and that a retired soldier had lived in one of them. Local people called him Soldier Bob. Anthony had heard this story, too. The soldier was half-crazed – we speculated that he might have been a WWI veteran suffering from shell-shock – and trigger-happy. He was also a recluse. He didn’t take kindly to having people disturb him. A man approached his cottage one day and Soldier Bob shot him dead. (Anthony’s version of this was embellished by the detail that the victim was the postman and Soldier Bob shot him through the letterbox.) Bob was arrested and tried for murder but acquitted – and presumably taken into care – on the grounds of insanity.
Listening to the tale of Soldier Bob, I could see that setting the next novel on the island offered great possibilities. I didn’t want to tell the tale of Bob, however – though it is mentioned in Chasing Hares – because for some time I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel that drew inspiration from the Golden Age of crime fiction, but with a modern twist.
A popular device used by Golden Age crime writers is the country house crime story. It has a lot to recommend it: a group of people gather in a country house, usually secluded and some distance from civilisation; a murder is committed; one of the people present must have been the murderer; all turn out to have motives for killing the victim; and the reader is titillated along the way by accounts of gracious living, exquisite dresses, sumptuous picnics, fine dinners, afternoon tea, torrid love affairs – the lot.
I thought it would be interesting to create a modern-day version of such a gathering, spiced with a little bit of irony. I decided to update it further and, as a double irony, instead of depicting an upper-class social event, I made the reason for my gathering a crime mystery weekend. Instead of being presided over by a suave and cultured society hostess, the party in Chasing Hares is hosted by a perennially mean and crooked wheeler-dealer, Gordon Bemrose. Instead of representing high society, his guests hail from humbler – and in some cases, dodgier – walks of life, but, like their country house counterparts, they are all potential murderers. Finally, instead of being entertained by a chamber orchestra or string quartet, their entertainment is a play, a bowdlerised version of Arsenic and Old Lace, put on by the local amateur dramatic company but starring Gordon’s actor nephew, Anton Greenweal.
The second part of the plot was suggested to me by a policeman who has been following me on my blog for some time. He wrote to me to say that the biggest single problem rural police forces have to deal with, particularly in East Anglia and parts of Northern England, is hare coursing. I’ve since carried out quite a lot of research on this and it’s a truly horrific crime. It’s not just the hares that are hurt – they’re horribly mutilated by the dogs before they die – but also the dogs themselves: they’re often badly injured by running into each other or spraining or breaking their legs by trying to follow as the hare changes course rapidly in its attempt to escape. There’s nothing ironical or tongue-in-cheek about the hare-coursing passages – they’re deadly serious.
That’s all I’m going to say about Chasing Hares for now…
After a very busy year, my husband and I took a September break in Algonquin Park, Ontario, Canada. We had always wanted to explore Canada and never managed it before this year, but… where to start? It’s a HUGE country. We went online and looked at a Canada-sized range of options, but the one my husband (J) really hankered after was (forget Toronto!) the wilderness. I honestly thought he’d been tripping on ‘Dances with Wolves’, as he enthused about animals I didn’t want to meet close up and personal. “They’ll never be a problem – they’re more frightened of us and we’ll be lucky to see them.” They? Black bears, wolves and moose!!!
His excitement was, to repeat the cliché, infectious and I put aside my qualms as he summoned up Canadian wilderness images on his computer to impress me. To be honest, I was more struck by the fact that he didn’t want to spend hours and hours on the road or on a train and, well, neither did I. Thus we homed in on Algonquin Park, manageable by hire car from Toronto airport and with a range of options for exploration. What I didn’t expect was that we’d be doing it all by canoe.
As it happens my son and his family have an Old Town open canoe of the Canadian kind and we had a day out in it to see whether we could cope. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed our excursion on the river and so we went ahead with our plans. As readers of this blog know, I’ve come to love canal boating (another of my J’s ideas) and I honestly thought that this might work – it’s all water, after all.
There were provisos: knowing J of old, I immediately said: “NO CAMPING!” His face fell. “NO BUTS!” His face fell further.
While I was in New York on business, he got on with the research and, when I returned, he presented me with – not a fait accompli – a compromise that I could live with… be attracted by… see myself enjoying. “It’s a resort,” he explained, which wasn’t promising, as a certain company in the UK doesn’t appeal to me at all. It was called Arowhon Pines and proved to be as unlike the conventional idea of a resort as I could wish.
We arrived in sunshine after a pleasant lunch at a Polish wayside restaurant and a drive along highway 60, the usual way into the park. The unmade road to the Pines wound its way through woodland and we found the car park encouragingly only half full. The lake, Little Joe Lake, looked lovely.
A word or two about the history of this place, Arowhon Pines.
Accommodation in cabins and a central restaurant and reception, with freely available canoes and kayaks, a couple of sailing dinghies and plenty of dockside loungers seemed right for us. We ‘totally got’ the principle of Arowhon Pines: price to include everything: food, accommodation, activities and equipment, taxes and gratuities. No hidden extras. We heard that some people do complain about the price, but to us it more than matched what we in a short time in Canada realised were ‘normal’ tourist costs. It was a place geared to people who wanted to enjoy their remote surroundings and provided an exceptionally high standard of cuisine, service and facilities. We loved the fact that most of the employees were young, very well trained, impassioned and utterly welcoming; those who were older were knowledgeable, skilled and… utterly welcoming.
So, we took advantage of the golf-buggy delivery of our luggage to our cabin room, grabbed a lifejacket and paddle each and went immediately out on the lake.
What were we trying to achieve? To see as much wildlife as possible (though at a safe distance in my case!) and to find peace ‘dropping slow’. J, after some serious surgery over several years (and being a man) had something physical to prove in the form of portage – could he do it? How far could he carry a canoe? Could he even pick one up and put it over his head? We knew that to complete a circuit, we’d have to cope with portage and we’d seen young women and men merrily hoisting canoes and disappearing into the forest. We started gently and built up over our stay to a three-quarter mile up and down portage… and loved it. The weather smiled (apart from troublesome afternoon winds) and we found loons, otters, beavers, hares, rabbits, squirrels, frogs, herons, pileated woodpeckers, blue jays, mergansers and unbelievably beautiful scenery. We hauled over beaver dams and tree-blocked creeks; we met lovely people (Hello, Patty and John, Jen and Bruce!); we had brilliant packed lunches, courtesy of Arowhon Pines; we went out in the early light of dawn and listened to the turning world. We saw not one wolf, bear or moose, which I know means that J will be agitating for a return… very soon. And do you know, I’ll agree.
Finally, we had a ride out in the Arowhon Pines pontoon boat; its captain was Geoff Brown, who I discovered was from Deeping St James, near my home town of Spalding, in Lincolnshire! Small world. (Lovely to meet you, Geoff, and that book will be on its way to you.)
Enjoy the pictures, everyone.
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.