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,
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.
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.
Arriving in Lincoln on the morning of Saturday 14th April 2018, with a couple of hours to spare before the crime writers’ workshop I was leading at the Central Library, I decided to explore a part of the city I hadn’t really looked at closely before – the waterfront at Brayford Pool. I particularly wanted to see the Lincoln end of the Roman-constructed Fossdyke (probably the UK’s oldest canal still in use), which links the city to the River Trent at Torksey. Thus, a navigable waterway stretched, via Lincoln, from the Trent to the Wash, for the Brayford Pool is a natural lake on the River Witham, which flows to Boston and the North Sea. In the middle ages, the Pool was a thriving inland port, but it declined subsequently until Daniel Defoe in 1720 called Lincoln ‘an old, dying, decay’d dirty city… it is scarce tolerable to call a city…’ Twenty years later, one Richard Ellison was granted a long lease on the Fossdyke (he grew wealthy from the tolls he charged on it) and the Pool sprang into life again. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the land around it turned over to bustling wharves and mighty warehouses for grain and cloth, together with all the attendant trades of a waterway. Great sailing barges carried produce and imported goods to the growing industrial cities of the Midlands and the North; steam packet boats eventually appeared on the Witham. However, the railways and then motor transport superseded the boats and, by the 1960s, as I can just remember, the Pool was an ugly graveyard of abandoned shipping.
What I found this weekend, however, was a revitalised marina for leisure and pleasure craft and contemporary working vessels – narrowboats, sleek modern motor yachts, canoes and water-taxis – in a sympathetically-modernised harbour, with Lincoln University on one side of it and bars, restaurants and cafés on the other. Thankfully, plans for filling in the Pool and turning it into a carpark were not carried out and the Brayford Trust began clearing the site. There are unsurpassed views of the Cathedral and Lincoln Castle and the old city from the University side. It surprises me that places like this, which I’ve explored by land and water – the centres of Leeds and Birmingham, for example – have only recently been revitalised, their potential for public relaxation and enjoyment, for entertainment, heritage preservation and wildlife only slowly realised.
Walk with me and enjoy this lovely part of Lincoln. Let’s start with ‘The Glory Hole’, the size limit to shipping from the River Witham into the Brayford Pool. This is High Bridge (1160 AD), the oldest UK bridge with buildings on it.
Thank you for strolling with me!
I visited India for the first time in November. I was there for only three days, so it would be presumptuous of me to claim that I’ve even begun to scratch the surface of this amazing, complex country that shimmers with great beauty and at the same time seethes with contradictions. I suspect that even if I had lived there for many years I would not fully understand the cultural, social and historical accretions that have made India and Indians what they are today.
All I can offer, therefore, is a diffident account of what I was able to see in a few very brief hours. My visit was confined to Delhi: I spent my first two days there working, so my taste of the ‘real’ India (as opposed to the cosmopolitan experience that is pretty much the same across the world for all guests staying at business hotels) was almost entirely crammed into a single day. I was fortunate in having as my guide an Indian colleague based in Delhi who not only spoke several languages but understood how to deal with the myriads of rickshaw drivers and sellers of goods of all kinds who continually accost those walking through the streets. It’s no exaggeration to say that I felt protected by being accompanied by one who knew their ways, but it would be wrong to suggest that I was frightened: despite the horror stories we read in the British press of attacks and muggings, it was my impression that what these people most wanted was the opportunity to earn an honest living. The problem was that there were so many of them it was difficult to know which way to turn. The only word that serves to describe a walk through an Indian street – or market – is ‘overwhelming’.
Indians from all walks of life emit enormous energy: they’re constantly moving, they speak fast and all of the time they’re taking in their surroundings – no mean feat, as these are perpetually shifting, too. Even the most modestly-situated street sellers demonstrate an optimism, an upbeatness, which inspires admiration rather than sympathy. They seem determined to conquer life’s adversities by being cheerful and, above all, persistent. This is even true of the small children clutching bundles of pens which they press passers-by to purchase for a few rupees each. It’s heart-wrenchingly sad that these children clearly don’t go to school, that they’re grubby and often without shoes and that they’re out in the streets both early and late. Some undoubtedly sleep in the open. Yet they don’t seem deflated: on the contrary, they possess a resilience which convinces that at some level they will succeed.
The first stop on my itinerary was the Red Fort.
This is a seventeenth century fortification set on a hill and now famous for being the first place at which the flag of India was hoisted after the country gained independence in 1947. The fort fronts a whole series of royal palaces
and ornate gardens, the latter containing trees of great age whose time-thickened trunks are gnarled and twisted with creeper. The gardens are home to some of the stray dogs that roam the streets and public places everywhere in Delhi (though they don’t seem to work in packs, like the ones I saw in Quito, and therefore don’t intimidate).
The dogs beg shamelessly from picnickers, but most Indians have no compunction about roundly shooing them away. People are kinder to the chipmunks that also abound,
perhaps because they’re ‘cute’, whereas the dogs are skinny and bedraggled. The roofs of the palace buildings are thick with pigeons, while above them circle ‘eagles’ – as Indians often call the black kites which can be seen across the whole city.
Inside, the palaces contain so many glass cases filled with artefacts that it’s difficult to take them all in. I found the fine silk and damask nineteenth-century garments particularly striking, especially the tunic and trousers that had belonged to a princess described as being a rare beauty. (These clothes would have drowned Queen Victoria herself!) There were many weapons, some of them primitive and barbaric, though none that would have killed as efficiently as the Gatling gun, a British-supplied relic from India’s contribution to the First World War. One of the palaces housed ancient manuscripts, the calligraphy exquisite and perfect.
A visit to the spice market followed, a noisy place teeming with humanity. It contains row upon row of stalls piled high with spices, nuts and teas,
some facing the main thoroughfare, others hidden away in tunnel-like passages. We tried to penetrate one of these and were quickly driven back on to the street, eyes and noses stinging and streaming from the overpowering impact of the spices. I bought a kilo of green tea (a kilo of tea’s a lot, I realised belatedly!), a classic Delhi curry mix, the spices still whole, and half a kilo of unground turmeric.
The street food looks and smells wonderful: chapatis containing all kinds of meat and vegetable fillings, sliced melon and coconut, flavoured naans and chicken prepared as numerous varieties of finger food – but so many seasoned European travellers had warned me not to be tempted that I didn’t succumb. Residents of Delhi are evidently immune to ‘Delhi belly’, but our digestive tracts haven’t benefited from the same training. Lunch was at the Connaught Gardens, quite a famous spot which is run like a gentleman’s club. The food was classic – much of it vegetarian – and delicious.
Having realised from my experiences in the spice market that I am quite incapable of bartering, I was relieved to be taken to one of the government-approved shops that sells high-quality goods at fixed fair prices. I bought a few things there before going on to another street market.
By this time, it was almost dark. The market was beginning to fill up with people leaving work. Some street acts appeared: musicians and conjurors. Suddenly tired, we decided to round off the day by visiting the Indian monument. There are, in fact, two of these, one a traditional-looking building that has been conceived as a beautifully-sculpted gazebo, the other a large square triumphal arch, akin to both Marble Arch and the Arc de Triomphe, which commemorates by name every Indian soldier killed in the India-Pakistan war. As the darkness descended, the floodlights came on and both structures were suffused with an eerie beauty: a fitting end to my excursion into Delhi.
Saturday 4th November was a wild, wet day. The rain came bouncing down on the A1 as I headed for Walkers Bookshop in Stamford to sign copies of Fair of Face. In places, the water stood inches deep on the road. The lorries tossed out spray which severely restricted visibility. A Reliant Robin three-wheeler (I hadn’t seen one for years!) went bombing along at 70 mph and almost aquaplaned.
It was a relief to reach Stamford, always a haven of civilisation and peace, and, even better, to arrive in time to indulge in a cappuccino and a huge, home-made cookie at The George Hotel, before going ‘on duty’ at Walkers.
I received a wonderfully warm welcome from the staff at Walkers, as I always do – and, as always, I appreciated it: I know how busy bookshop staff are, especially on Saturdays, and I’m very grateful when they spare time to look after me in addition to everything else they have to do.
The rain didn’t deter Walkers’ customers from venturing out from home. They continued to show up steadily throughout the three hours I was there, some very windswept, some clutching wet umbrellas, all dressed in sturdy waterproofs, boots and hats.
It certainly felt as if winter had suddenly taken Stamford by storm, but with it came a sense of excitement, a feeling that there was celebration in the air. I suppose this may have been because it was one of the first weekends when people really start to think about Christmas shopping, but well before they begin to feel jaded and harassed by the whole prospect of coping with the ‘festive season’.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting Walkers – this was the fourth signing session I’ve been offered there – and yesterday was no exception. Many of the shop’s customers stopped to talk to me, and most of these bought one of my books – I was delighted to find that In the Family, Almost Love and Rooted in Dishonour were in demand, as well as Fair of Face. Most people wanted them for Christmas presents, but others supplied different reasons: one lady was intrigued by Fair of Face because she knows Spalding well, having grown up in Gosberton Clough (a place I have yet to feature in the novels, so she’s now given me the idea!); another wanted Almost Love for her husband to read on his frequent journeys to London;
another was bought by an author of Young Adult books who told me that she’d given a signing session in Walkers herself and was strongly in favour of supporting local authors. She said that her reading group might be interested in hearing me speak. If she reads this post, I’d like to thank her for a fascinating conversation and to say again that I’d be delighted to speak to the members of the reading group if indeed they’d like to hear me.
I’m never bored in bookshops: it’s a great privilege to be allowed to sit in one for several hours and just drink in the atmosphere. My time at Walkers was over only too quickly, but I took away some very pleasant memories that I know will stay with me.
I’d like to offer heartfelt thanks to Jenny Pugh, of Walkers Bookshop, Stamford, for making the signing session possible, and also to thank all of the staff there, particularly those who were working on the top floor, for their kindness and generous hospitality.