The Sandringham Mystery was published by Bloodhound Books on April 19th, just after the Easter break. The Bloodhound jacket is brilliant – I’m delighted with both it and the support I’m getting from the Bloodhound team. They even sent me an inscribed mug to celebrate the publication date – a first in my experience!
I feel extremely privileged to have been invited to speak at two events very shortly after the book came out. First was the Deepings Literature Festival, where I gave a talk in the Oddfellows Hall at Market Deeping on April 29th to a very lively and engaging audience. I was so happy to be able to speak at the festival at last – I had been scheduled to make my debut there in 2020, but COVID intervened. Astonishingly, since I grew up in Spalding, which is only twelve miles away, I’d never been to Market Deeping before. (I know Deeping St Nicholas well – my great aunt lived there – and I visited Deeping St James as a child – with my father, whose job included dropping in on sugar beet farmers.)
I know of several Oddfellows Halls in Lincolnshire and, as the name has always intrigued me, I looked it up. The name ‘Oddfellows’ was first used in the early eighteenth century, but their practices were much older – the movement derived from the mediaeval guilds and there are even some suggestions that its roots lay in ancient Rome. The Oddfellows were – are? – akin to the Masons, but the two groups have always preserved distinct identities. They were/are certainly not peculiar to or especially relevant to Lincolnshire (though someone no doubt will correct me on this!) and, since they seem in the past to have had strong links to Roman Catholicism – they were keen supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie – their strong Lincolnshire associations are surprising. The county is more renowned for its championship of Wesleyanism than Catholicism.
The Oddfellows Hall in Market Deeping turned out to be a very hospitable place. I was grateful that so many people chose to attend the event – the hall was packed – and to stay behind to talk to me afterwards. Huge thanks to Linda Hill and Jenny Spratt for organising and promoting it.
Five days later I was welcomed to the library at Papworth Everard, where I was honoured to take part in the first author event there since the COVID lockdowns of March 2020. This was attended by another large and lively audience, including at least two fellow authors. We managed to discuss many topics, including the relevance of government crime statistics, the importance of place in crime fiction, how to plan a novel and how authors use real crime stories for inspiration while at the same time being careful not to cause distress by depicting the real-life victims. Huge thanks again to Nicola and Terri, who put in an enormous amount of work to make this a success.
It is great to be back on the author circuit again. I’m certain that many other authors feel the same. This will be the best year we’ve had since 2019 – the magic created, as always, by wonderful readers and audiences. I’m hoping to take part in many more events as the spring turns into summer. If you are running a library, a festival or a bookshop and think I can make an interesting contribution, please do let me know.
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.
It is National Libraries Week (see Libraries Week). This is a great occasion for public libraries in the UK to showcase all their brilliant initiatives and demonstrate how much they do to support their local communities. Each year, National Libraries Week adopts a theme; this year’s is ‘Taking Action, Saving Lives’.
Given the unprecedented events of the last (almost) two years, it could hardly be more apposite. Like almost every kind of institution, public libraries here closed down for a few weeks during the first lockdown – and, like millions of people, I immediately noticed this left a big draughty gap in my life. Some people felt the loss much more acutely – both practically and emotionally, they really had lost a lifeline.
We were fortunate that most libraries continued to be resourceful, even in lockdown – my former school friend, Jane Barber, who works at Stamford Library, told me how she had quickly mastered how to run story-telling events and competitions online. Staff at the British Library searched their world-class collections to dazzle and entertain members with a stream of online displays and exhibitions and, as a result, I have discovered more about maps, newspapers, oriental art, Anthony Gormley, ‘killer bunnies’ and many other topics that I would otherwise never have explored. Wonderful as all these things were and are, it was with great joy that I received the notification on 17th August that the British Library Reading Rooms were open again – with no need to book. Long may that last!
I have written many times on this blog about how libraries have supported me and my books by inviting me to take part in readings and other events and, most importantly, by also finding great audiences to attend them. The last event I took part in – ‘The Body in the Library’ – was at Stamford in late January 2020.
Shortly after that, Stamford and every other library in the country had to cancel events and shut their doors. As I’ve said, the libraries didn’t stay completely closed for long – they operated click-and-collect facilities, allowed patrons to enter in limited numbers and developed other ingenious stratagems to provide essential services. Events, however, remained untenable. First to disappear from the library schedule, they have also (of course with good reason) been last to be reinstated.
I was therefore delighted last week to receive an invitation from Sharman Morriss, librarian at Spalding Library, to kick off its celebrations for National Crime Month by taking part in an event at the library on 4th November. Sharman and I had a call about it earlier today, during which she gave me total carte blanche over what form the event should take. So far, we have just agreed that it will start at 14.00 on 4th November and last perhaps for one-and-a-half or two hours. My editor and I will come up with a programme for it shortly and, after Sharman and her colleagues have approved, I’ll post more details about it on the blog. If you’re in the Spalding neighbourhood on that day, I do hope you will find time to come! More than anything else since the lockdown regulations were relaxed in July, Sharman’s invitation has persuaded me that we’re back on the road to normality.
In the meantime, I shall scrutinise the National Libraries Week website avidly each day and celebrate the huge variety of events that librarians are sharing to celebrate it. Sharman said that earlier today she and her colleagues had welcomed guide dogs to Spalding Library. Other libraries are posting details about initiatives that support the housebound, prisons and mental well-being. There will be more as the week progresses.
I know I’ve said this before, so I hope you’ll forgive the repetition: Librarians and booksellers are the (largely) unsung but nevertheless peerless civilisers of modern existence. They deserve our support; we’d be lost without theirs.
De Vries, my latest novel, is published today. It makes a more tentative entry into the world than my other books, emerging cautiously, like us, as the lockdown restrictions are gradually relaxed… and I must say I can’t wait to visit some bookshops next week! Not being able to go to bookshops and talk to booksellers has been one of the greatest privations of this latest lockdown – for thousands of others, I know, as well as for me. Unlike all my other books, therefore, De Vries cannot be launched in a bookshop. However, Carla Green and Alison Swainson at BBC Radio Lincolnshire have kindly offered De Vries a virtual book launch on the Carla Green programme today. If you are able to, please tune in at 15.10, with your glasses charged! There are some library and bookshop events planned for later in the year and I’ll keep everyone posted.
De Vries has already been blessed by several kind and perspicacious reviewers who read it ahead of publication date. I include some of their reviews in this post. I’d like to thank you, Stacey, Mickey and Jane, for taking the time and the trouble to write such brilliant reviews. I appreciate them hugely.
I also include some photos of the Sakura (cherry) blossom, sent to me by my friend and colleague Katsunori Iino, who lives in Shiga, Japan. The ancient Japanese Hanami ritual celebrates the fleeting beauty of this blossom of a species of ornamental cherry. The ancient Japanese sages compared the precious short-lived splendour of these flowers with life itself and believed both should be enjoyed to the full before they slip away. I hope they’ll bring the readers of this blog some calm and joy as we all begin to embrace life to the full once more – and we shall, I’m sure, still find plenty of time to read!
Reviews of De Vries
From Stacey Haber:
I loved this book. A quick read and intriguing from start to finish.
It’s not your typical murder mystery in that it doesn’t open with a dead body and the central character sleuth. It opens with a mystery, just not the one we’re expecting. If you’ve not read its predecessor Sausage Hall, then you’re greeted with a man who knows he’s at risk and in a place he shouldn’t be. You are immediately propelled to the edge of your seat and the tension of a good mystery stays with you from page one. If you have read Sausage Hall, then the mysteries of ‘why’ and ‘why now’ are all the more present and shocking.
The web of characters in this story resonates with purpose. The introduction of the many characters takes the time deserved and the unfolding of the story is like a film camera slowing pulling back to reveal that web. It’s a glorious reveal in slow motion with rich detail and intrigue.
When the protagonist and side kick DI Tim Yates and DS Juliet Armstrong finally appear, it’s a relief; a relief that things will all become clear soon and that the characters that we care about have a chance of a resolution, even if not a happy ending. Yates and Armstrong are wonderfully pragmatic and determined. Armstrong in particular has a mind that is a joy to follow and an instinct for detail that would be lost on anyone else.
Can’t wait for the next instalment in the DI Yates series.
From Mickey Corrigan:
Hijinks at Sausage Hall: De Vries by Christina James
When Kevan de Vries returns to the family home in Sutterton, South Lincolnshire, he knows he is taking a huge risk. He’s wanted by the local police for questioning in the disappearance of his former employee, a man accused of running of a child trafficking ring. De Vries’ attorney, the manipulative Ms Jean Rook, has power of attorney in more ways than the usual. And there are some ghosts he must confront. His dead wife, for one. The missing trafficker. Not to mention some hundred-year-old skeletons the police dug up in the cellar.
There’s much at stake, but de Vries is bored living on the lam in St. Lucia, idling his time while avoiding extradition and waiting for his son Archie’s school recess. Thus, his return to ‘Laurieston House’ (which the locals call ‘Sausage Hall’, in reference to the butcher who went bankrupt building it) and the dangers it represents, the demons he must face. He’s also on a quest. Not to clear his name, but to discover its secrets. His birth certificate lists his father as “unknown” and de Vries is determined to fill in the blanks.
Agnes Price is worried about one of her young students from the seasonal workers’ camp. Mirela Sala is underfed, underdressed, and bears other signs of abuse when Agnes takes her under her wing. But Mirela’s scary “uncle” takes offense, which leads to violence and threats of more. Already stressed from a previous run-in with a stalker, Agnes struggles to maintain her composure while distracting herself with a project for the local Archeological Society. That’s where de Vries meets her – and rather quickly falls for her.
DI Yates and DS Armstrong, the likeable cops involved in the child trafficking bust, are back on the job. (If you are a Christina James fan, you will recognize these characters from the DI Yates series.) Drawn in by the possibility that de Vries is hiding out at Sausage Hall, they launch another one of their intuition based investigations, only to get sidetracked when a townswoman goes missing.
Will de Vries solve his paternity mystery before the law finds him? Will he be able to explain his legal troubles to Agnes? Is the child trafficker dead—or still in business? What will the Archeological Society dig up? And where did those old skeletons at Sausage Hall come from? Are there more?
Enquiring minds must find out, which is why I couldn’t stop reading. I greatly admire a writer who can lure me in with an addictive plot and make me fall in love with a motley group of well-drawn characters as she fits all the puzzle pieces together. I won’t say more as I don’t want to spoil your read. It’s a fun one by a master storyteller.
From Jane Barber:
Kevan De Vries has spent seven years living in St Lucia and has decided to return to his home in Sutterton. The police are still interested in questioning him about his business manager’s disappearance and involvement in criminal activity. Kevan would prefer not to answer their questions so decides to travel incognito.
He needs to spend time at his old family home of ‘Sausage Hall’ to try and find out any information about his father. His mother and grandfather never would answer his questions.
Sausage Hall has a lot of secrets – is it about to divulge some more? And what connection is there with the crimes that DI Yates and his team are investigating?
I had wondered what had happened to Kevan De Vries – this time he is the one looking for answers and finding himself attracting unwanted attention. I liked the different narratives of de Vries and the police and found myself hoping he escaped safely back to St Lucia.
The local Lincolnshire settings are so well described and enhance the story so well. I can visualise all the places mentioned.
An excellent read.
Thank you once again, Stacey, Mickey and Jane, for such perceptive and tantalising reviews. I very much appreciate them.
May I wish everyone a rapid escape from the restrictions that the pandemic continues to impose and enduring good health and happiness thereafter.
This is the third in the series of posts about De Vries. It explores the role of ‘Sausage Hall’ in the novel, particularly whether the house itself can have influenced the course of events that take place.
Buildings fascinate because they are so much part of the era in which they were built – which means that, to a greater or lesser extent, almost everyone lives within some construct of the past. Buildings are also the backdrop to the events that take place within them. Can they remember these events, perhaps even absorb some quintessential miasma from them? It hardly seems fanciful to think so – such a belief is sometimes even embraced by officialdom. Thus, Gloucestershire Council in 1996, shortly after the conviction of Fred and Rosemary West, razed to the ground 25 Cromwell Street, scene of many horrific murders, ostensibly to stop souvenir hunters but also because its continued existence gave local people ‘the creeps’; and the council house where Myra Hindley lived with her grandmother and Ian Brady, where they murdered Edward Evans, was also demolished, though, curiously, only twenty-two years after Hindley and Brady were imprisoned. Manchester Council eventually found it impossible to let the house because successive tenants complained of a ‘dreadful sense of brooding’ there. Imagination or fact?
As a child, I visited Hardwick Hall – built by Bess of Hardwick, the ancestress of the Dukes of Devonshire – before it was taken over by the National Trust. Despite the famous adage ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’, the house at that time was dark and chilly and neither very clean nor in a good state of repair. There weren’t many visitors on that day – I think it was in early spring, probably just after the house had been opened up after the winter – and I was dawdling behind my parents. They had disappeared beyond the top of the shallow-stepped stone staircase that led to the first floor by the time I began to climb it myself. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw that I was quite alone. I carried on up the steps – I was looking to my right at a large faded tapestry on the wall, apparently woven in greys and browns – when something brushed against my shoulder and my leg. It was soft, a fabric of some kind. In less than a second it had passed me. When I looked back at the foot of the staircase again, I caught a glimpse of a woman in a long, dark dress smartly walking away. Although subsequently no-one believed me, I was convinced that I had seen Bess herself. Had some essence of her survived, fostered perhaps by the sheer force of her personality? Had her spirit been left free to roam when her descendants decamped to the even grander house they built at Chatsworth? Since the National Trust took over the property, I have visited the house several more times, but never again felt any inkling of an uncanny presence there. Is that because in the process of undertaking much necessary restoration work, the National Trust has ‘sanitised’ it? (Like every other NT house, it now has a tea-room, a gift shop, cordons to keep you off the furniture and attendants everywhere.) Or is it because children really can see and feel almost imperceptible elemental forces that adults can no longer detect? I still don’t believe I imagined the whole thing.
When Kevan de Vries leaves Sutterton in a hurry at the end of Sausage Hall, he has come to detest the house, the location of some of the unhappiest events in his life. Even more sinisterly, he has discovered that it was the scene of much evil-doing in the past. Yet when he returns to it incognito seven years later, as well as his quest to discover his father’s identity it is the house itself that draws him. His fascination is in part empirical: he knows there is a large number of papers and artefacts stored within the house that are likely to yield clues about his paternity. But there is more to it than that: at some level, he feels that the house, scene of his childhood, youth and married years, carries a part of himself, however much he may have tried to deny it during his exile in St Lucia.
Perhaps that is the great collective secret shared by all buildings once they have been inhabited: like light years, they don’t just exist in the present, but within a continuum reaching right back to their foundation. They face both forwards and backwards: they absorb and are shaped by the loves, fears and hatreds of those who have occupied them. They have characters, sometimes charming, sometimes terrible. As they grow older, their personality changes: they possess their own powerful kind of DNA, incremental rather than fixed. They become companions, not just enclosures of living space. Kevan de Vries is the central human character in De Vries; but in every step he takes he is shadowed, perhaps even influenced, by Sausage Hall.
I thought my readers would be interested in the post below. It tells the story of how Heather Anderson, whom I worked with during my ‘day job’ trip to Australia in 2019, was marooned in Fiji after the country was locked down because of COVID and had to stay there for almost nine months. I think it is an extraordinary story of resilience and creative thinking. Heather’s achievement while exiled from her family was immense – and, as she says herself, the experience will have changed her forever. I’m sure you will be as impressed as I am!
No one will forget last year, the ‘COVID year’. Most people worked – are in fact still working – from home, and many have found ingenious workarounds to enable them to carry on almost as normal. Few, however, can claim to have experienced new adventures in 2020, the year when monochrome surroundings and hugely reduced personal interaction became the norm.
Heather Anderson, Cambridge Academic’s Sales Support Consultant in Australia and New Zealand, has an entirely different story to tell. Heather planned a five-day visit to Fiji in March… and ended up staying for more than eight months, trapped by the country’s lockdown as the pandemic reached Australia and the Pacific region.
Shortly after Heather arrived in Fiji, COVID infections in the region began to escalate, but Fiji itself was still clear of the disease. Its government therefore made a swift decision to close its borders, largely because the village lifestyle of the Fijian people would make social distancing, self-isolation and quarantining impossible. This decision was not taken lightly: inevitably there was a huge economic price to pay, as the country depends solely on tourism. However, the initiative worked: Fiji continued to be COVID-free for nearly the entire time Heather was there. Just a few cases arrived from overseas during June, an outbreak that was contained by quarantining those infected.
The Australian government organised one repatriation flight, in April, but Heather did not hear of it until it was fully booked. Every month for almost nine months, she booked herself on a scheduled flight home that eventually was cancelled. She finally reached home – she lives on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland – on 6th December 2020, following a repatriation flight to Brisbane and quarantine.
Heather continued to do her job for the whole time she was away. Because the visit she had planned was so short, initially she had not intended to take her laptop and other working tools with her, but changed her mind at 3 a.m. on the morning of the outward flight. Once she realised she would be marooned in Fiji, she managed to purchase a WiFi modem and set up her ‘office’ in a village on Viti Levu, the ‘Coral Coast’.
She explained her situation to some of her librarian customers and some already knew, from discussions with her colleagues. She is grateful to them for the support she received: she says they were very empathetic; most of them checked on her each week, sending funny jokes, video snips or just supportive notes.
Michael Cowley, the Sales Director of Cambridge Academic in Australia, contacted Heather regularly to check on her wellbeing and she continued to join weekly video calls with the Cambridge HE/Library team: “My direct academic team in Australia were wonderfully supportive and showed so much care and compassion, which was really great. That got me through the working weeks.”
Despite all the remote support she was able to channel, Heather found it extremely difficult to adjust to the knowledge that she would be detained in Fiji indefinitely, even though she was also very aware that others in the world were suffering more because of the pandemic. At first, time dragged when she wasn’t working, but then she realised she could be of huge practical help to the islanders, who had lost their jobs. Heather takes up the story.
“I got involved in raising funds for the youth in the area I was staying. Their parents had all lost their jobs, because they worked in tourism and they were really struggling to feed the children and get them back to school. The picture of me below, in the Fijian jumba (it is red), was taken at the main fundraising event. Altogether we raised $25,000FJD for the young people, which was an enormous help in taking pressure off their parents.”
Enforced exile and collapse of the local economy was not all Heather and the islanders had to contend with:
“During April we were hit by a Category 5 Cyclone, which wiped out all the plantations these families were relying on for food and money – they had hoped to sell their produce at the markets – so the fund-raiser really helped raise hopes and gave immediate relief.”
Heather is an inveterate animal lover – she particularly likes penguins! – and spent the rest of her spare time on animal welfare:
“I fed all the dogs in the village every day for over eight months. In partnership with Animals Fiji, I also ran an
animal de-sexing clinic to help the many stray and starving dogs on the island. I also ran mini-education sessions for the kids and adults in the village, to give them basic tips on how to care for their animals and how to carry on feeding them after I left. I am now sending monthly payments to those families to purchase extra food for the animals they own and pay for basic medicine to cope with fleas, ticks and worms.”
Heather says that one of her main ‘positives’ was that she lost weight rapidly while she was in Fiji – almost sixteen kilos altogether. She thinks it was mainly the result of eating ‘clean’, simple foods and walking on rough terrain, especially sand dunes. Taking up fishing also entailed a lot of walking.
“The Government imposed military curfews for the entire time I was there, which was unnerving at first but seemed to work well. Most people obeyed them. For several months, the curfew lasted from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every night, then the restrictions were gradually eased, so it was running from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. by the time I left.
“I really tried to keep positive and busy, but deep down I was struggling every day. I knew my husband, at home in Australia, was unwell. Each month my hopes were raised that I would be able to fly home and every time the flight was cancelled. I felt very fragile when I was told that I might not be able to leave Fiji until mid-March 2021.
“Just after I received this shattering news, my cousin sent me a list of repatriation flights which I hadn’t been told about, even though I had registered for absolutely every aid I possibly could. I shall be forever grateful to my cousin for giving me the heads up! I phoned immediately, to learn that there were only twenty seats available on a flight arranged for November 22nd and all had been taken. I explained how long I had been away and begged to be allowed on the flight. I boarded it as passenger twenty-one! I had two days to put everything straight and get to the airport.
“When I was finally on the plane, mask on and no one either side of me, I cried and cried: more tears than I thought possible. Finally, after months of trying and failing to go home, I was on my way.
“As soon as I the plane landed in Australia everyone on the flight was sent to a quarantine centre, so I had made it home only to find myself in ‘prison’ for fourteen long days. It wasn’t a major setback in the scheme of things, but I found those fourteen days the hardest of all. “2020 has taught me so much. I am stronger than I ever gave myself credit for and I appreciate all the little things in life. I know now that kindness and open hearts will get you through almost anything. Material things truly are overrated. I was in a place where people barely had enough to eat, but the love and support of the families I knew and the smiles on the beautiful kids’ faces were riches of a much more worthwhile kind.”
[I wrote this post for the Cambridge University Press blog and it is with permission from CUP that I am also publishing it here.]
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!
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.