Finale to my National Crime Reading Month daily blog series
Today is the last day of June and therefore today’s is the last of my daily blog posts to celebrate Crime Reading Month. I’d like to pay tribute to the CWA for coming up with the idea of CRM and to the countless people who have supported it. I’d particularly like to thank everyone who has contributed to these thirty posts by providing so many magnificent insights and vignettes and for giving up their time so generously to help me. It’s impossible to pinpoint highlights – I feel as if I’ve been on a high all month! – although a few moments stand out for me personally. I was struck by Hannah Deuce’s comment that all writers are different, so she supports each one in different ways; by Natalie Sammons’ observation that if you write to please yourself, you won’t be disappointed ‘whatever the outcome’; and perhaps most of all by Frances Pinter’s description of Brexit in one punch-packing word: ‘frivolous’. Frances’ post was all about the importance of peace and how we should dread the danger of war that is looming once again; sadly, as we reach the end of this month, the conflict in Ukraine is no nearer to resolution than it was on 1st June.
CRM has given me some humbling opportunities to read or re-read some fine works of fiction: Snegurochka, by Judith Heneghan, and The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore impress with their originality and fine use of language, but I have enjoyed all the novels that I have written about this month and am in awe of all their authors. In this, I include Annie, the only poet featured, whose stark poems about domestic violence bring home the enormity of it more vividly than any number of newspaper and court reports. I’d also like to pay tribute to those who have always supported me as a writer and continue to do so: Annika, Valerie, Noel, Dea and now, Hannah, please take a bow. I salute those who have dedicated their lives to supporting the bookselling and publishing industries: Richard, Nick, Lynette, Linda and, again, Frances and Noel. I’d love to be a member of Deirdre’s reading group – she and her book club friends seem to have such fun! And finally, I’d like to thank Betsy, Tara and Hannah for publishing The Canal Murders to the usual high Bloodhound standards; and I’d like to take the opportunity to apologise for (temporarily) having forgotten my own publication date!
As readers of this whole series of posts will know, I have been privileged to speak at four libraries during the course of the month. I have, of course, known for many years how much librarians bring to their communities, but when I met Helen, Kathryn, Tarina and Kay and their teams, their generosity, talent and tireless efforts to help people were brought home to me all over again. I’d like to thank them once more for their wonderful hospitality – and the equally wonderful audiences to whom they introduced me, each of which taught me far more than I felt I had to offer them. I now know about ran-tanning, the use of opium for Fenland agues and many more facts about life in Lincolnshire, both past and present, than when I started out. The library visits also gave me the opportunity to research some unsolved Lincolnshire murders, including that of Alas! Poor Bailey, my favourite. My encounter with the vicar of Long Sutton church will stay with me.
When I introduced this blog series, I promised to tell my readers at the end of it why I write about the Spalding of my childhood even though my novels are set in the present. I renew that promise now, but I hope you will allow me a short delay. It is because – as I mentioned earlier this week – I am currently on holiday in Orkney – in fact, sadly, my time here is drawing to an end; and while I am still able to imbibe the magic of this place I should like to introduce you to one of the island’s serial murderers – the great skua. Called “the pirate of the seas” or, in Orkney, “the bonxie”, this formidable bird – which appears not to be afraid of humans – hunts other birds on the wing. Today my husband and I watched spellbound as a pair of great skuas systematically chased a curlew through the soft blue skies and engaged above and around us in aerial combat with greater black-backed gulls. I came to Orkney for inspiration as a writer and I have found more here than I could ever have dreamed about.
As I prepare to return home and submit myself to the discipline of the keyboard once more, I should like to conclude by thanking everyone who has read even one of these posts. I do hope you have enjoyed them. There are more to come – I was surprised and grateful to have more offers from would-be contributors than there are days in the month of June. And of course I shall not forget my promise.
I leave you with a cheerful picture of one of Orkney’s denizens.
An Orcadian digression
Today’s post is a bit of a self-indulgence. I hope you’ll forgive me, because it is only tangentially related to National Crime Reading Month and crime fiction, or indeed to any of the other topics this blog has covered since 1st June.
Allow me to explain. Since Thursday, I have been travelling north with my husband through the whole length of Scotland, reaching Stirling on Thursday evening and Thurso on Friday. Yesterday, we boarded the ferry for Orkney and reached our holiday house for the week – which is in Stromness – late yesterday afternoon. It has been one of my lifelong ambitions to visit Orkney and it does not disappoint. It is a magical place, palpably the residence still of the ancient, tricky-to-propitiate Norse gods of the old sagas, but with plenty of more recent history to explore and enjoy. Our first evening also gave us a moment of northern summer splendour, too, a sparkling view into space!
The gods seemed very close in the early hours of this morning when we got up at 03.40 am to try to watch the rare conjunction of five planets. It was almost daylight and we could see the moon, a fine sliver
in the pearl-grey sky, but unfortunately the fast-scudding clouds soon obliterated it and kept the planets out of view. We braced ourselves to stay outside for fifteen minutes to watch the rising of the chilly dawn and then returned to bed.
Today we have explored Stromness, a venerable port and fishing village.
A warm sun was shining on its mellow grey stones, tempered by a sharp and intermittently buffeting wind. The boats in the harbour gleamed white and blue, the waves turned briskly, flecking the blue-green sea with cream, and the mountains in the distance presided over all with summery bonhomie. (I imagine they loom with a much grimmer aspect in the winter.) People were out strolling on the cobbles or seated at the outdoor cafés drinking coffee. The ferry came and went again. Most of the quaint old shops were open – though the bookshop was closed, a visit to it therefore a treat to be saved for later in the week.
So, what has all this got to do with CRM and writing crime fiction? Well, to be honest, not much – yet. To be even more frank, today’s post is mainly an excuse to show off the wonders of Orkney by posting some nice photographs. But please have patience: I am also on writing alert. I already have a plot in mind and am thinking of ways in which I can make the most of this unique place to set the scene.
Murders in Orkney? I have read of a few, including a relatively recent one which is too harrowing either to discuss here or make use of in a novel. There will soon be a murder or two in Orkney – according to me – but they will not be founded in fact. I do not wish to arouse the wrath of the old Norse gods. I shall leave them to slumber until they themselves choose to wake again and you to stroll with us round Stromness:
A privilege, indeed, to fly with Kevin Taylor, Chief Pilot, Lincolnshire Police Drones
Kevin Taylor is the Chief Pilot of the Lincolnshire Police Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) Unit. He has worked as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) flight instructor/assessor, training staff at all levels, from beginners to advanced remote pilots. He specialises in the training of military and emergency services personnel. He has himself flown both manned and unmanned aircraft and is qualified to fly both aeroplanes and helicopters. He has put in more than 1500 flying hours in more than twenty aircraft types. He acts as test pilot for the British Microlight Aircraft Association (BMAA) and the Light Aircraft Association (LAA). This involves testing new lightly manned aircraft. Kevin himself owns a light sport aircraft and flies regularly.
Kev began his career as a radar engineer in the Royal Air Force, then joined the Special Constabulary in 2003. He serves as a Special Sergeant in the Lincolnshire Police RPAS Unit. He has overall responsibility for the safe delivery of RPAS operations, including all aspects of training and safety standards. He is experienced in all the operational areas of police RPASs and has carried out hundreds of live deployments in Search & Rescue, Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear incidents and Offender and Event Crowd Dynamics. He is also experienced in Beyond Visual Line Of Sight flights. He has received multiple commendations for his operational RPAS flying. He has also worked with the UK defence industry to develop autonomous RPASs. He has pioneered police use of RPASs in relation to criminal activities.
I asked Kev to contribute to my series of blog posts to celebrate CRM because Lincolnshire Police have very kindly been following this blog for several years. They also helped to influence the plot for Chasing Hares.
Q: Do police drone pilots train from scratch or have they already been flying drones as a pastime?
A: In Lincolnshire Police, drone pilots are police constables who work mainly as responders and attend a vast array of incidents. If an incident can benefit from the use of a drone, a drone officer will be deployed to assist. A drone is just one of numerous tools available in a police officer’s kit bag and drone flying should be described as a skill, rather than a role. In some ways, it’s like carrying a taser: the training has some similarities. The initial training course consists of five days’ training followed by a practical test which the trainee must pass. Once an officer is trained, s/he must pass an annual requalification test. If prospective drone pilots are already interested in drones before they train, it is useful, but not essential.
Q: What, very briefly, is the history of police drone use in the county? How many officers are involved and how has this field of policing been expanded in Lincolnshire?
A: Lincolnshire Police started its drone journey in March 2017. The first operational flight took place in September of that year. On average there are now 350-400 deployments per year. The target is to have five officers at each of the four main bases: Lincoln, Boston, Grantham and Skegness. Currently there are twelve officers and six more in training.
Q: Would you explain the particular value of drones for police work in a place like Lincolnshire or, indeed, anywhere.
A: Lincolnshire has the perfect landscape for drones. In terms of geographic area the force is one of the largest in England and Wales, covering 2,284 square miles. The population of this area is 736,700. Policing such a large area presents challenges: Lincolnshire has vast areas of open countryside and, as such areas are difficult to search on foot, effective air support is vital. Drones can now play a pivotal role in addressing this challenge. The running cost of a drone is negligible when compared to the other options available, such as crewed helicopters. Drones are also used to manage large events such as Christmas markets and can assist with crowd dynamics, acting as an extension to the CCTV camera network.
Q: What incidents stick out in your mind as memorable examples of success? (Not just nabbing the villain, though that is very interesting, of course; perhaps the successful rescue of someone vulnerable or the way in which a traffic incident has been helped by drones.)
A: There have been many incidents that have resulted in a positive outcome for the whole team. We are not allowed to discuss one of the most unusual ones, owing to reporting restrictions, which is a real shame. All drone pilots will have a personal set of memories of occasions that got their adrenaline pumping; one of my own was using the drone to discover an unconscious male in a ditch following a road traffic collision. It was in early 2018; his was among the first lives to have been reported as saved by a police drone in the UK and this incident alone demonstrates that the investment in drones by Lincolnshire Police was worthwhile.
Q: What do you find particularly frustrating in your line of work?
A: When we first launched the drones initiative there was some scepticism. There was criticism that drones were just glorified toys. However, the clear and powerful images produced by the drones once they became operational soon converted the sceptics to supporters. There aren’t too many frustrations, but it may not be a surprise to hear that if I had better funding I could achieve so much more. That said, the Chief Officer Team has been very supportive of drones and can see they provide value for money. The results speak for themselves, although we can’t always put a financial value on all that we do.
Q: Do you read crime fiction? Would be your advice to a writer like me to up her game in presenting police work?
A: I’m always on the go, so sitting down and reading a book is something I don’t have much time for. I would say that policing is moving with the times and that technology plays a large part in the way criminals operate today, so the police need to use it, too, to keep up. I guess a crime writer would benefit from understanding the technology and tools at the disposal of a current, modern-day police force. Drones constitute just one small part of contemporary technology that benefits the police and public, not only in Lincolnshire, but worldwide. Besides operating drones, we play a considerable role in education and enforcement. Drones technology is constantly evolving and the regulations have also evolved quickly. Lincolnshire is a very RAF-centric county, with a busy airspace, and we contribute to the effort to ensure that all airspace users can share the airspace safely. In July, we’ll be inviting the public to the Lincolnshire Police HQ to learn more about how to fly drones safely and to understand a little more about how we use them.
All pictures © Kevin Taylor
The Sandringham Mystery and some personal memories of places and people with a part to play in its creation
When I was a child, the motor car was the ultimate status symbol. Families aspired to own one and felt they had ‘arrived’ when the car did, however shabby or humble it might be.
Our next-door neighbours, Harry and Eileen Daff, were the first in our street to bring home a car. Theirs was a forties Morris with running boards which looked as if it belonged on a film set, but that made it yet more glamorous in the eyes of the local children. The Daffs went out for Sunday afternoon rides in their car. Mrs Daff – ‘Auntie Eileen’ – was always promising to take me, too, but the invitation never materialised.
My father acquired our first car about three years afterwards, when I was nine. It was a two-door Ford Popular which we nicknamed ‘Hetty’. I can remember the registration number: it was HDO 734. Hetty, like the Daffs’ Morris, was not only second-hand but practically vintage. My father had saved hard to afford her and had still needed a loan from my miserly – but loaded – Great Uncle David to complete the purchase.
Great Uncle David lived – indeed, spent his every waking moment – working in the convenience shop in Westlode Street which he had inherited from his parents despite being their youngest son, presumably because he had scoliosis and was considered ‘delicate’. My paternal grandmother kept house for him. They were only a short bike ride away.
My mother’s mother, however, was the paid companion of a very old lady and lived in Sutterton, nine miles distant, which meant that in pre-Hetty days visits had to be accomplished by bus. It was usually she who visited us, invariably spending the morning of her day off shopping in Spalding and then walking to ours for lunch. Post-Hetty, we were able to make more frequent visits to Sutterton. However, I was still sometimes allowed to travel there alone on the bus. It was nearly always on a damp, foggy day when the sun never broke through the Fenland mists.
The house she lived in was the house I have called Sausage Hall in The Sandringham Mystery. It was a big, gloomy red-brick house in considerable need of repair. Sometimes she occupied the breakfast room when she had visitors, but her natural habitat was the kitchen with its adjoining scullery, in both of which roaring fires were kept burning night and day throughout the winter months. The kitchen fire had a built-in oven in which she would bake perfect cakes. Lunch would be tinned tomato soup and bread, followed by a big hunk of cake. Cherry cake was my favourite.
Her employer’s name was Mrs James. My grandmother always referred to her as ‘the old girl’. Mrs James’s first name was Florence and she was one of a large family of sisters, the Hoyles, who had been brought up in Spalding in extreme poverty. One of the sisters still lived in what could only be described as a hovel in Water Lane and occasionally, after one of my visits to Sutterton, I would be sent round with cake or chicken. Miss Hoyle never invited me in. She would open the door a few inches, her sallow face and thin grey hair barely distinguishable from the shadows of the lightless cavern behind her, and reach out a scrawny hand to take what I had brought, barely muttering her thanks before she shut the door again.
My grandmother, also the eldest of a large family of sisters, despised the Hoyles. Mrs James was not exempt. My grandmother’s father had been a farm manager, employed by a local magnate. He was a respectable, hard-working man of some substance in the community, unlike the allegedly feckless Mr Hoyle. According to my grandmother, Florence had ensnared Mr James with her pretty face, but that did not excuse her humble beginnings.
Florence, long widowed, had taken to her bed, for no other apparent reason than that she was tired of the effort of getting up every day. My grandmother delivered all her meals to her bedroom and sometimes sat there with her. When I visited I was expected to call in to see her before my departure. I never knew what to say. She would extend a plump, soft white hand from beneath the bedclothes and offer it to me. I’d shake it solemnly. Once, when I’d been reading a Regency novel, I held it to my lips and kissed it. She was momentarily surprised – I saw the gleam of interest in her eyes before her spirit died again.
Mrs James’s sons, both middle-aged gentlemen farmers, also performed duty visits. My grandmother and I were expected to call them ‘Mr Gordon’ and ‘Mr Jack’. In The Sandringham Mystery, Kevan de Vries, head of the de Vries empire, has his staff call him ‘Mr Kevan’. I lifted the idea from my experience of the two James brothers. I was about nine when I met them and could identify condescension when I encountered it.
Hetty broadened our horizons immeasurably. Instead of going out for bike rides at weekends, we drove to local beauty spots – Bourne Woods, the river at Wansford, Barnack – and sometimes on nice days even further afield, to Hunstanton, Skegness and Sandringham.
Sandringham, the Queen’s Norfolk estate, consists of many acres of forest, most of which were already open to the public, though the house itself wasn’t. It was possible to visit the church. Both local people and visitors would wait outside the wall beyond the churchyard for glimpses of the royal family when they were in residence. I saw Princess Margaret once. She had the most astonishing violet-blue eyes.
I associate Sandringham particularly with the clear bright cold of Easter holidays and the drowsy late-summer warmth of blackberrying. The blackberries there were enormous and my brother and I would scratch the skin on our arms to ribbons trying to reach the best ones. Parts of the woods were deciduous, but the blackberries seemed to flourish in the areas where the pine trees grew, planted in squares and divided up by trails (‘rides’). When I was writing The Sandringham Mystery, I remembered vividly a clearing in the woods that had been made by the crossroads of two trails. In the novel, it is here that the body of a young girl is discovered, the start of a police investigation that not only reveals why she was murdered, but also uncovers some other terrible murders that took place in the past, in Sausage Hall itself. The Sandringham Mystery is published by Bloodhound Books today. I hope you will enjoy it.
Today is Bloomsday, June 16th, the date that James Joyce renders unforgettable in Ulysses. Ulysses was finally published in 1922, but the novel celebrates the day in 1904
that Joyce first met his long-term (and eventually ‘legal’) common-law wife, Nora Barnacle, who was then working as a chambermaid in a hotel in Dublin. Since I first read the novel in the 1970s, I’ve always quietly celebrated Bloomsday when it has come round each year and still enjoy dipping into Joyce’s account of the perambulations of Leopold Bloom in Dublin on this day. I’ve written about it before, too, but today I have a new dimension to add, something I’d forgotten about for decades.
One of my Covid-19 lockdown projects has been to ‘bottom’ my study and sort through all the books and papers living there. I’ve almost completed this task. Sometimes it has been stressful: I knew I’d have to be ruthless and select some items for recycling or other forms of disposal and I’ve done so, discarding items that logic dictates I will never truly want to use or look at again, despite the happy memories they inspire and the tug of my hoarding instinct..
Many things remain sacrosanct, however, including some discoveries that have surprised and delighted me. Among these is a privately printed guide to the Martello tower that Buck Mulligan, the first character to appear in Ulysses, lives in in the novel.
A foolscap-sized pamphlet printed on hand-made paper, it is entitled James Joyce’s Tower, Sandycove, Co Dublin and was written by Joyce’s most famous biographer, Richard Ellman, and published in 1969.
I acquired it in the very hot summer of 1976, when it was sent to me by William ‘Monk’ Gibbon, an Irish poet and man of letters – in fact, long before then he was known as the Grand Old Man of Irish letters – whom I had contacted when I was carrying out research on George Moore, an Irish author who lurked on the periphery of the Gaelic Revival. As a young man, Gibbon knew W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge and Lady Gregory and George Moore, as well as Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty, the real-life inspiration for Buck Mulligan. When I wrote to him, he was one of the last living links with these writers. He had also kept in touch with ‘George’ Yeats, Yeats’s wife, until her death a few years previously. He told me fascinating anecdotes about all of them and sent me several gifts, including the book about the Martello tower and a hand-written poem of his own, inscribed on a sheet of the same type of hand-made paper as the book. He had written out eighty copies of this, of which the one I have is numbered the fifteenth.
I’m posting a copy of the poem, but, in case some of the words are difficult to read, I’ve also transcribed it.
An Alphabet of Mortality
A’s for Arrival on the arena’s sand
B is our distant Birthright, long forgot.
C are the Cards, dealt deftly, to each man.
D is the Desperation of his lot.
E is for Eagerness, which conquers sloth.
F is our Folly, immense, which drags us down.
G are the hallowed, haloed, laurelled Great,
who scorned Happiness, that tinselled crown.
I the insatiable, insistent self.
J all its Jealousy and petty spite.
K is the coloured Kaleidoscope of our views
and L our longing for more stable sight.
M is the makeshift Madness of most lives.
N is Lear’s ‘Never’ to the fifth degree.
O’s the Occasion, haste or hesitate.
And P? Pride, Prejudice and Pedantry.
Q is the ultimate Query all must ask.
R the much-varied Responses from the dark.
S the great Silence, which puts speech to shame
and T the triumph when men leave this mark.
U is the infinite Universe, where there’s zoom,
when all the lies are dead, for Veritude.
W’s recovered Wholeness, which may yet
give X in the equation exactitude.
Y is for Yearning.
So, having overlooked
The many-lettered joys which, too, have been,
I, at the stake, do now recant and say
The Zephyr of my hopes was sweet and clean.
On the reverse side it is inscribed to me, with the message “to she …who knows that whatever the rest of it may say the last letter of my alphabet is the truest.”
It is dated December 15th 1976, the date of his 82nd birthday; he must have written the poem to celebrate it. He lived until 1987.
As I re-read it, it struck me that this poem contains sentiments that are very relevant for our present times (also his use of the word ‘zoom’ made me smile – he had, of course, no idea that in 2020 it would achieve fame as a brand name for a virtual communication product).
Happy Bloomsday, everyone!
Peace in Europe Day
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,
Into the wild…
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.
Of Melbourne and meeting people…
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.
Oude Haven, Rotterdam, again…
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.