Saturday was a clear, crisp, cold day after many days of rain and muggy warmth. It felt like a proper winter’s day, of the best possible kind!
Before it was quite light, I was heading for Stamford – one of my favourite places – for a signing session in Walkers Bookshop, at the heart of the town. First stop, however, was the George, Stamford’s splendid old coaching inn – for coffee and pastries in front of its roaring open fire!
I am very happy to be able to say that Walkers is an extremely successful bookshop. The period after Christmas is a notoriously slack time for bookselling – as for all types of retail activity – but on Saturday, Walkers was clearly thriving, with a constant flow of people, many of whom engaged me in conversation and not a few of whom bought Chasing Hares or one of the other Yates novels (In the Family and Sausage Hall seem to be the perennial favourites).
I was particularly smitten by the little girl who told me she wanted to be an author and an illustrator! And also delighted – and very honoured – that Rex Sly, whose books about the fen country I have long been consulting when carrying out my research, came in to meet me. We had a long conversation about writing. Himself a Lincolnshire farmer – he lives in the farmhouse in which he was born – Rex told me that at one stage his family’s problems with hare coursers had become so grave that they considered moving out and finding somewhere else to live.
Many thanks indeed to Jenny Pugh and all the staff at Walkers for arranging the session and making me as welcome as always – and for providing tea and other comforts!
After a quick lunch and a brief exploration of Stamford – it has an amazing ironmonger’s which always draws my husband like a magnet – it was on to the library, where Jane Barber, one of the librarians and an old school friend, had again used her fertile imagination to plan an event, this time a murder mystery event that she called ‘Tea and Murder’. She and her colleagues expended a great deal of energy and time on this and they – and I – were rewarded by its being a hugely successful event. They attracted a very large audience, some of whom I had already met last spring at the first DI Yates event in Stamford Library.
I talked about how I had come to write Chasing Hares – not forgetting to mention the large part played by my friends Madelaine, Marc, Anthony and Marcus and by South Lincs police, all of whom had a significant hand in creating the plot – and read aloud the first chapter. We then had a lively discussion about how to plan a murder. I said that although the characters in my novels are all (except one) fictional, or at most composites of several people I have known, the plots are often inspired by real-life crime. For example, the plot of Fair of Face draws heavily on the White House Farm murders (a version of which is now being televised) and Chasing Hares is in part the product of a great deal of research about hare coursing. We talked about the perfect crime being one which was never discovered – which doesn’t work in fiction, for obvious reasons – but how some novelists have got round this by allowing the murderer not to be caught (Patricia Highsmith, in the Ripley novels) or by using the device of the unreliable narrator (probably started by Agatha Christie, when she wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). In my own Sausage Hall, Kevan de Vries appears to get away with murder – but watch this space! Kevan will return in my next book – to be called, simply, de Vries – and he may not be so lucky next time.
Then there were (delicious!) cakes and tea.
All this was a prelude to a murder mystery for which Jane had set the scene. She had even produced an actual body – the ‘body in the library’! The audience worked in groups, each group to decide who the victim was, who the murderer and what the motive. Each suggestion was more ingenious than the last: it was impossible to award a prize for the best one!
The whole evening was very light-hearted, relaxing and entertaining and the audience at Stamford has become one of my great favourites. I’d like to thank everyone who came to the event for turning out on a Saturday (and also a cold evening), some travelling from quite a long way away. And very sincere thanks to Jane Barber and her colleagues for all their hard work and for pulling off another triumphant event – Jane’s inspirational activity and her sensitive management of it were indeed wonderful to see. 😊
Yesterday it rained. And rained. And rained.
And it didn’t spoil a thing.
I was at three events in Spalding to celebrate the launch of Chasing Hares: a signing session at wonderful Bookmark, where all my novels have been launched, and where the hospitality from Sam and Sarah and their team was as warm as always;
a very special event hosted by Anthony and Marcus on the island where most of the novel is set;
and an evening talk and readings at Bookmark, attended by just as large an audience as usual despite their having had to turn out in grim weather.
Thank you, everyone! I both appreciated and enjoyed it all very much indeed.
And Chasing Hares? Well, it is unique among the DI Yates novels in that its two (related) plots were both suggested to me by other people. In the summer of 2018, my husband and I called in on our friends Madelaine and Marc. It was a hot, sunny day and their friends Anthony and Marcus, who own several boats, offered us a trip along the river Welland from the island house where they live. Anthony showed us round the house and made us coffee before we went. As we sat in the garden outside, I said I had almost finished writing Gentleman Jack and the conversation turned to what I should tackle in my next novel.
I can’t remember who suggested I should write about this island: it was Madelaine, Marc or Anthony, or a combination of all three. Marc, who’s a fount of knowledge when it comes to local history, said he’d heard there had been a row of small cottages on the island – hovels, really – and that a retired soldier had lived in one of them. Local people called him Soldier Bob. Anthony had heard this story, too. The soldier was half-crazed – we speculated that he might have been a WWI veteran suffering from shell-shock – and trigger-happy. He was also a recluse. He didn’t take kindly to having people disturb him. A man approached his cottage one day and Soldier Bob shot him dead. (Anthony’s version of this was embellished by the detail that the victim was the postman and Soldier Bob shot him through the letterbox.) Bob was arrested and tried for murder but acquitted – and presumably taken into care – on the grounds of insanity.
Listening to the tale of Soldier Bob, I could see that setting the next novel on the island offered great possibilities. I didn’t want to tell the tale of Bob, however – though it is mentioned in Chasing Hares – because for some time I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel that drew inspiration from the Golden Age of crime fiction, but with a modern twist.
A popular device used by Golden Age crime writers is the country house crime story. It has a lot to recommend it: a group of people gather in a country house, usually secluded and some distance from civilisation; a murder is committed; one of the people present must have been the murderer; all turn out to have motives for killing the victim; and the reader is titillated along the way by accounts of gracious living, exquisite dresses, sumptuous picnics, fine dinners, afternoon tea, torrid love affairs – the lot.
I thought it would be interesting to create a modern-day version of such a gathering, spiced with a little bit of irony. I decided to update it further and, as a double irony, instead of depicting an upper-class social event, I made the reason for my gathering a crime mystery weekend. Instead of being presided over by a suave and cultured society hostess, the party in Chasing Hares is hosted by a perennially mean and crooked wheeler-dealer, Gordon Bemrose. Instead of representing high society, his guests hail from humbler – and in some cases, dodgier – walks of life, but, like their country house counterparts, they are all potential murderers. Finally, instead of being entertained by a chamber orchestra or string quartet, their entertainment is a play, a bowdlerised version of Arsenic and Old Lace, put on by the local amateur dramatic company but starring Gordon’s actor nephew, Anton Greenweal.
The second part of the plot was suggested to me by a policeman who has been following me on my blog for some time. He wrote to me to say that the biggest single problem rural police forces have to deal with, particularly in East Anglia and parts of Northern England, is hare coursing. I’ve since carried out quite a lot of research on this and it’s a truly horrific crime. It’s not just the hares that are hurt – they’re horribly mutilated by the dogs before they die – but also the dogs themselves: they’re often badly injured by running into each other or spraining or breaking their legs by trying to follow as the hare changes course rapidly in its attempt to escape. There’s nothing ironical or tongue-in-cheek about the hare-coursing passages – they’re deadly serious.
That’s all I’m going to say about Chasing Hares for now…
After a very busy year, my husband and I took a September break in Algonquin Park, Ontario, Canada. We had always wanted to explore Canada and never managed it before this year, but… where to start? It’s a HUGE country. We went online and looked at a Canada-sized range of options, but the one my husband (J) really hankered after was (forget Toronto!) the wilderness. I honestly thought he’d been tripping on ‘Dances with Wolves’, as he enthused about animals I didn’t want to meet close up and personal. “They’ll never be a problem – they’re more frightened of us and we’ll be lucky to see them.” They? Black bears, wolves and moose!!!
His excitement was, to repeat the cliché, infectious and I put aside my qualms as he summoned up Canadian wilderness images on his computer to impress me. To be honest, I was more struck by the fact that he didn’t want to spend hours and hours on the road or on a train and, well, neither did I. Thus we homed in on Algonquin Park, manageable by hire car from Toronto airport and with a range of options for exploration. What I didn’t expect was that we’d be doing it all by canoe.
As it happens my son and his family have an Old Town open canoe of the Canadian kind and we had a day out in it to see whether we could cope. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed our excursion on the river and so we went ahead with our plans. As readers of this blog know, I’ve come to love canal boating (another of my J’s ideas) and I honestly thought that this might work – it’s all water, after all.
There were provisos: knowing J of old, I immediately said: “NO CAMPING!” His face fell. “NO BUTS!” His face fell further.
While I was in New York on business, he got on with the research and, when I returned, he presented me with – not a fait accompli – a compromise that I could live with… be attracted by… see myself enjoying. “It’s a resort,” he explained, which wasn’t promising, as a certain company in the UK doesn’t appeal to me at all. It was called Arowhon Pines and proved to be as unlike the conventional idea of a resort as I could wish.
We arrived in sunshine after a pleasant lunch at a Polish wayside restaurant and a drive along highway 60, the usual way into the park. The unmade road to the Pines wound its way through woodland and we found the car park encouragingly only half full. The lake, Little Joe Lake, looked lovely.
A word or two about the history of this place, Arowhon Pines.
Accommodation in cabins and a central restaurant and reception, with freely available canoes and kayaks, a couple of sailing dinghies and plenty of dockside loungers seemed right for us. We ‘totally got’ the principle of Arowhon Pines: price to include everything: food, accommodation, activities and equipment, taxes and gratuities. No hidden extras. We heard that some people do complain about the price, but to us it more than matched what we in a short time in Canada realised were ‘normal’ tourist costs. It was a place geared to people who wanted to enjoy their remote surroundings and provided an exceptionally high standard of cuisine, service and facilities. We loved the fact that most of the employees were young, very well trained, impassioned and utterly welcoming; those who were older were knowledgeable, skilled and… utterly welcoming.
So, we took advantage of the golf-buggy delivery of our luggage to our cabin room, grabbed a lifejacket and paddle each and went immediately out on the lake.
What were we trying to achieve? To see as much wildlife as possible (though at a safe distance in my case!) and to find peace ‘dropping slow’. J, after some serious surgery over several years (and being a man) had something physical to prove in the form of portage – could he do it? How far could he carry a canoe? Could he even pick one up and put it over his head? We knew that to complete a circuit, we’d have to cope with portage and we’d seen young women and men merrily hoisting canoes and disappearing into the forest. We started gently and built up over our stay to a three-quarter mile up and down portage… and loved it. The weather smiled (apart from troublesome afternoon winds) and we found loons, otters, beavers, hares, rabbits, squirrels, frogs, herons, pileated woodpeckers, blue jays, mergansers and unbelievably beautiful scenery. We hauled over beaver dams and tree-blocked creeks; we met lovely people (Hello, Patty and John, Jen and Bruce!); we had brilliant packed lunches, courtesy of Arowhon Pines; we went out in the early light of dawn and listened to the turning world. We saw not one wolf, bear or moose, which I know means that J will be agitating for a return… very soon. And do you know, I’ll agree.
Finally, we had a ride out in the Arowhon Pines pontoon boat; its captain was Geoff Brown, who I discovered was from Deeping St James, near my home town of Spalding, in Lincolnshire! Small world. (Lovely to meet you, Geoff, and that book will be on its way to you.)
Enjoy the pictures, everyone.
The day job recently took me to Australia, for a very short sojourn: four days, in and around Melbourne – 36+ hours’ travel each way, all in! The jet lag wasn’t too bad, despite my managing only one full night’s sleep – one of the few benefits, I suppose, of getting older!
I’ve visited Melbourne before, also on a whistle-stop tour. That was twenty-two years ago, and I was surprised at how much it has since changed. I’m not referring to buildings and road systems, though those are respectively more high-rise (some truly magnificent contoured glass skyscrapers challenge the straight line)
and more complicated than I remembered, but to my overall impression of the culture. On my first visit to Australia, people asked me if it was more like the UK or more like America, and I replied that it was like neither: that Australia had a style and outlook all of its own. I think that this is still true, up to a point, but the USA’s influence on the country is now very pronounced. There are examples everywhere: in the fast food restaurants, in the way people dress and in the news programmes. However, before I receive dozens of protests from irate Australians, let me add that I’m certain that there is still an indelibly and quintessentially Australian quality about Aussie life that can’t be obliterated; perhaps what I really mean is that the British influence has noticeably diminished.
As I’ve already said, I didn’t have much free time, but I made good use of what there was. My first morning in Melbourne was free, so I visited the Museum of Immigration, which provides a powerful record of changing Australian attitudes to immigrants from different countries over the years. My two main meetings were at the Balgownie Estate winery in the Blue Hills, about an hour’s drive from Melbourne, so I was able to see some of the surrounding countryside.
I was able to go into the Yarra Ranges National Park, to the east of Melbourne, and to the Mount Donna Buang summit, with its tall observation tower.
From here I could see a splendid panorama, over Melbourne and the bays, the Yarra valley and the Dandenong and Cathedral ranges.
I was fascinated by the different species of trees in the woods, none of which I could recognise.
In the early dawn, I saw a wombat scurrying for cover and, on a drive into the hills, was lucky enough both to see and photograph a wallaby in the wild.
And the staff at my hotel in Melbourne kindly upgraded me to the penthouse, forty-one floors up, which gave me a panoramic view of the city.
One of the things I like about long-distance travel is the ‘ships-in-the-night’ opportunities it presents to talk to complete strangers for short periods of time and perhaps find out what makes them tick. There’s something about journeys, with their unlooked-for vicissitudes of challenging delays, alarming pockets of turbulence and indifferent cabin crews, which causes people – who would never venture to speak to each other if they were, say, waiting for a train at Watford Junction or standing in a queue at the post office – to communicate.
My Australian visit supplied me with three of these cameo encounters. The first was on my way to Melbourne Airport with a female taxi driver. (I noted that there were as many female as male taxi drivers on my first visit to Australia; it’s clearly a strong tradition which still flourishes.) This woman was Latino (which I could see for myself) and fifty years old (which she told me – she didn’t look it). She was a single parent supporting herself and two children as a cabbie while she studied for a PhD. The subject? Aeronautical Engineering, in which she already had a first degree and a Masters. Her reason for wanting a PhD? “It’s a man’s world and women need to show they are better than men – especially women like me.” (I think she was referring to her ethnicity.) She struck me as being very brave and determined.
The day-time flight from Melbourne to Hong Kong was civilised (unlike the night-time flight from Hong Kong to Heathrow, which lasted fourteen hours and was brutal!). I was sitting next to an Australian woman who, after a while, asked me what part of England I came from and I told her – Yorkshire. She told me that she was flying to Barcelona for a holiday with an old flame who was a Yorkshireman (from Richmond). Her husband, who was Greek, had cheated on her with a Filipino woman – who was only twenty-one – and she’d divorced him. He wanted her back now, but she felt she couldn’t trust him, though she still helped him to run his business. She was travelling to Barcelona to meet the old flame with her ex-husband’s blessing – he’d even given her extra money for the trip. I wanted to tell her that she shouldn’t pin all her hopes on the Yorkshireman, but the opportunity didn’t seem to arise and in any case I didn’t know how she’d take it.
And then I was sitting in Hong Kong Airport, having got through security and found the right gate for the flight to Heathrow, enduring the interminable wait for the tardy flight crew to turn up. It was the middle of the night. The man sitting next to me offered to look after my luggage while I went in search of coffee and we had a short conversation when I returned. He said he came from Southampton and that he was a ship’s captain. He travels the world dredging the sea bed for damaged fibre optic cables and brings them up to the surface so they can be repaired. Apparently, they are then just tossed back into the sea – siting them is not an exact science. He said that he’d been doing this for more than twenty years and, although he regretted having missed so much of his children’s childhood, he couldn’t imagine doing anything else now.
Ships in the night, as I said, but providing memories as indelible as the photographs or my fortuitous encounter with a wallaby.
At 5.30 a.m., the Saturday before last, I was nursing an incipient cold as a passenger on a bus chugging round all five terminals at Charles de Gaulle airport in the snow, desperately trying to acquire a boarding card for the last leg of my trip home from Taipei. It was an ignominious end to what had been a very successful and hugely interesting visit – mainly a business trip, but with some useful gaps in my itinerary which could be used to explore.
I’d hired a driver for the free day intervening between my arrival and the start of my business appointments, something which I frequently do in S.E. Asia, because it is a safe, efficient and affordable way of seeing a great deal in a short time. On this occasion, I was accompanied by two colleagues and it was great to have some company, as on similar jaunts I’ve almost always been on my own. It was a slight handicap that the driver spoke almost no English – of the places I’ve visited in Asia, Taiwan has fewer English speakers than any; but we managed with a mixture of sign language, pictures on mobile phones and a very desultory stab at ‘Google translates’.
I’d already received, from an ex-pat, some tips about things to do. One of his suggestions was that we should visit a waterfall about eleven miles from the city. We managed to convey this to the driver, who indeed took us to a very picturesque waterfall –
it wasn’t unique, as I subsequently discovered, for there are several – in an area which was also home to some of the indigenous Taiwanese. My companions and I realised as soon as we got out of the car that these people and their artefacts were not of Chinese origin – the people themselves looked more like South Seas islanders – but I wasn’t to find out more about them until three days later. On this first day, we very much enjoyed strolling past the waterfall, drinking coffee in what looked like a 1950s retro jukebox bar and wandering through the street of small shops, eateries and bazaars.
A temple on the hillside seemed to be devoted to the Buddha, so we went for a look.
My meetings were at the National Taiwan Normal University. I won’t dwell on them too much, except to say that this university has a fabulous library – similar to the one at the London School of Economics, but with twice as many floors! Dinner on the second day was at the Shinyeh Dining Room, a famous restaurant serving typical Taiwanese food (delicious!). On the third day, after work had finished, we headed to a night market – a feature of Taiwan. The shops and stalls were, as the name suggests, opened only after dark.
They mostly sold street food and clothes: the atmosphere is the main reason why a Westerner enjoys a visit. The smells were indescribable – a mixture of two-stroke, coffee, fish and spices – and the ambience was festive. Whole families were out, laughing and joking and moving in large groups. That it was the week before the Chinese New Year (2019 is the Year of the Pig) contributed to the holiday feel.
On my last day in Taipei, a Taiwanese librarian and her American husband very kindly took two other colleagues and me to a New Year market in the old town.
The old town is not very old – a settlement was established at Taipei about 200 years ago and the ‘old’ town itself dates from, I’d guess, the turn of the twentieth century: the architecture of the shops and market halls is reminiscent of the parades of shops that were built in British
suburbs at the same time, though the Taiwanese ones are more decorative. The New Year markets open for twenty-four hours a day, just for the two weeks preceding the Chinese New Year. They provide a rich treasure trove of beautifully-crafted artefacts and scrumptious things to eat – there are many special foods and house decorations associated with the Chinese New Year, but because I was beginning my journey home in the evening of that same day, I was able only to photograph the foods, not buy them. We also visited a coffee shop devoted to raising money for the indigenous people – a map on
the wall showed there are twelve indigenous tribes living outside Taipei, each with its own designated reservation (similar to those of native Americans). They sell the little pots I’d seen during my visit to the waterfall; it is one of their main sources of income. The shop ensures that a fair price is paid for the goods they make (twenty years ago, I visited a similar shop in Sydney which performed the same service for Australian aborigines). A visit to a museum further down the street told us more about these people and the other races who inhabit Taiwan. Chinese influence is on the ascendant now, but in the past Taiwan was ‘owned’ by the Japanese and the impact of that culture is also strong.
And so to the airport, where the Cathay Pacific desk receptionist (having a noble stab at English) told me that she could check my luggage through to Manchester – though, worryingly, she kept saying ‘train station or plane?’ and, although I kept saying ‘plane’, her parting shot was that it had been sent to the ‘train station’ – but couldn’t give me a boarding card from Charles de Gaulle to Manchester, the final stage of the journey, because Cathay Pacific has no arrangement with Flybe. In the meantime, my cold kicked in. I spent the whole thirteen hours of the flight to Paris trying not to splutter on my fellow travellers and worrying about my lack of a boarding card – a fear I knew would be well-founded because I’ve ‘enjoyed’ the service at CDG before. Sure enough, my qualms about the boarding card were met with Gallic indifference until finally, after another tour of the terminals, I persuaded a very cross desk clerk to print one out for me. My reward was a complimentary cup of coffee and snack on the plane when I finally boarded, but, to be honest, by that stage I would gladly have travelled in the hold!
Miraculous to relate, my suitcase was waiting for me at Manchester. So was my husband. I collapsed into the car, but managed to enjoy the snowy drive across the Pennines – rather different from the twenty-degrees-plus temperatures in Taipei! It was all more than worth it, though – Taiwan is a magical, multi-layered country; as with India, I feel I have not even scratched the surface of all it has to offer. I hope I shall be able to return one day.
Gentleman Jack is launched! Thank you to all those who helped.
Gentleman Jack, the seventh novel in the DI Yates series – and the first about a serial killer – was published on October 15th 2018. This is a round-up of the events and some of the reviews I’ve been lucky to have received since.
On October 15th, Bookmark in Spalding – always a staunch and much-appreciated supporter of my novels – gave me a signing session.
On the 17th, I had a very lively interview with David Harding-Price at Radio Lincoln City.
Then it was back to Spalding for an event in the library on the afternoon of the 18th and to give a talk at Bookmark that evening. Both talks featured serial killing and how I have tackled the subject. At these events, I was delighted to meet so many friendly faces, both those well known to me and some new ones. A very happy direct outcome of the Bookmark occasion was that I was able to meet an old schoolfriend whom I last saw before I was married; I was also reconnected with two other friends from Spalding High School. I was also privileged to be supported in the evening by the current owners of the real Sausage Hall and their daughter.
My sincere thanks to Sam and Sarah at Bookmark and Sharman in the library, not forgetting all their colleagues for making these events a success.
On October 19th, I was interviewed by BBC Radio Lincolnshire’s Carla Green, who was as generous as always with her time and praise. (Then I went to India for five days – the day job intervened.)
On my return, Walkers Books of Stamford provided their usual impeccable hospitality with a signing session – this has become an annual event – and, as always, I enjoyed talking to their customers, who included some of the people I met at the Stamford Academy Literary Festival last June. A big thank you, therefore, to Jenny and Linda at Walkers.
Meanwhile, Emma Dowson, Salt’s PR Manager, had organised the best blog roll I’ve ever had the good fortune to experience. I’d like to thank all the bloggers for their very generous reviews, and for publishing several articles they requested from me as guest posts on their blogs. Zoe Myall, of the Spalding Gazette, wrote a brilliant review of Gentleman Jack and I’d very much like to thank her, too.
My final event before Christmas was, if not the most ambitious, certainly the quirkiest. I am a frequent visitor to Papworth Everard, in Cambridgeshire, as I have family living there, one of whom told me that a micro-brewery had recently opened in the village and that it sold a beer called ‘Mad Jack’ – not quite ‘Gentleman Jack’, but near enough! The micro-brewery is situated outside Papworth, but its products are sold in a coffee shop there that doubles as a bar and gin palace in the evenings – it’s called ‘The Courtyard’.
(As one of my readers said – ‘Crime and gin – what more could anyone want?’) I happened to pop in for a casual gin and met Chris Jones, the proprietor of both bar/gin palace and brewery, who told me that he had been thinking of holding some events there. One gin led to another and we agreed to collaborate to provide a crime evening with a focus on the DI Yates books… and with liquid refreshment! It proved a winning combination! 😉
I made many new friends there and was also supported by several long-standing ones. Much gratitude to the captive audience of locals who’d only dropped by for a drink but nevertheless joined in, one of whom even called up his wife, a book enthusiast, to bring her down! I was also staggered that one member of the group had bought and read In the Family in advance of the session – much appreciated, Nathalie! I also particularly enjoyed having the opportunity to meet and chat to the members of the Papworth Reading Group. Huge thanks to Chris Jones and his long-suffering staff, who cheerfully waited for us to leave some time after closing time. You, Chris, will be pleased to know that Mad Jack is now being celebrated far beyond Papworth!
I do have one more piece of news, but I’ll save that for another post. For now, I’d like to thank everyone who has helped Gentleman Jack to meet the world, including the many people whose names I have not been able to mention in this short post.
And if your library, bookshop or reading group is looking for someone to talk crime, killers and bodies, you know where to come!
On a very wet day during the long August bank holiday weekend, I got up early to arrive at Bettys (sic.) cookery school in Harrogate by 8.30 a.m. I had booked myself in for a day’s tuition on patisserie. The course didn’t begin until 9 a.m., but the students were advised to arrive half an hour early for breakfast, which consisted of Bettys croissants and pains au chocolat. Delicious!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Bettys, it’s an upmarket baker and confectioner operating six tea-shops in Yorkshire. It’s not named after a woman – Mr Betty was an immigrant, an Austrian patissier who came to the UK in 1919 and opened his first shop in Harrogate, then still a famous spa town.
The cookery school is a relatively recent innovation. It’s been running for a few years – my son attended one of the early sessions, on boning meat – and since then the courses have proliferated. Passionate about Patisserie, the course that I attended, was a present from my son and daughter-in-law. (No ulterior motive, they assured me… though I’m a touch dubious about that! I am a keen baker, which they appreciate, but I’d never before done any of the fancy stuff.)
All fifteen places on the course were filled; only one of the students was male – a man attending with his daughter, because, she explained, she’d been away all summer and hadn’t seen much of him. I was very impressed by this – and later came to realise that she, too, may have been influenced by a filial ulterior motive, as he proceeded to do all her washing up as well as his own. Together we made one of the groups of three – each of the five work benches had three sinks and three ovens. I enjoyed working with these two throughout the day; I also spent some time talking to a woman in her fifties who had inherited money from her parents, retired early and become a sort of Bettys junkie. She does all the courses and avidly waits for new ones to appear.
There were two Bettys staff taking the course, led by Lisa, who said she’d been working for Bettys for more than thirty years – she must have joined the company as soon as she left school – while one other – Philippa – was catering for the participants; it was she who made the breakfast pastries, the lunch of quiche, salad, rosti and lemon tart and the afternoon tea of scones, cream and jam, while we concentrated on our own cakes and pastries. It was the one time in my life I’ve experienced the opportunity to have my cake and eat it!
I found the day relaxing for many reasons. Foremost among these was that there was an unquestioning assumption that patisserie is all about taste and look. There were no apologies for the number of calories involved or concerns about whether the fats were saturated or the sugars ‘organic’; no consideration, even, of the expense of the ingredients!
Despite this, it was by no means the cake version of a Bacchanalia. Each step of each recipe (we completed three) was completed with military precision and each was accompanied by some precious nuggets from Lisa’s store of cake wisdom. Thus I learnt that: metal mixing bowls give the best results; you should never remove the ‘twiddly’ bits when preparing eggs for cake-making, because they are your friends – they help to stabilise the mixture; and that getting the temperature right is key – since all ovens, even new ones, vary from one day to the next, an oven thermometer is an essential investment. There was something I didn’t need telling, because I found it out for myself years ago: baking well is an art as well as a science. Like good writing, it is 95% hard graft, 5% inspiration.
We all completed our three recipes and everyone’s efforts were successful. However, as well as getting the temperature right, I’m also aware that weighing ingredients correctly is imperative to getting good results. This was something we didn’t have to do – probably because there wasn’t time – so we were supplied with little packages of all the ingredients we needed, no doubt weighed accurately down to the last milligram. Repeating the recipes, therefore, may still be a bit of a challenge!
The need to get the temperature right reminds me that, two years ago, I finally abandoned my ailing and capricious electric Aga, which had never worked properly since it was bought new seventeen years before (a Friday afternoon job, obviously). It would actually be more correct to say that it abandoned me – it finally gave up the ghost just before Christmas (!), having cost as much again in repairs as was spent on it originally. We replaced it with a Falcon range, which, mercifully, fitted (to a millimetre) the gap vacated by the Aga… exactly, perhaps because Falcon was acquired by Aga! Then I discovered that the Falcon, unlike the Aga, has no dedicated cookery books and I vowed to write one myself – perhaps with a criminal theme! This ambition was rekindled by the Bettys experience – so if anyone reading this has some Falcon recipe tips, I’d be glad to receive them.
While I was at Bettys, my husband spent the very damp morning at RHS Harlow Carr gardens, where there is a Bettys café, reading the digital proofs of Gentleman Jack, drinking Bettys coffee and, like me (though he didn’t know it), indulging rather more heavily in their breakfast pastries. So much for his plaintive declaration, when we met up again, of indifferent supermarket sandwiches for lunch… and he timed his arrival for the cookery course tea and cream scones!
After returning home, I unpacked my bunch of goodies to show him and went off to get changed. On coming back downstairs, I couldn’t find one of the small fruit tartlets, which I was sure had been there. Hmmm.