I have been globetrotting again, travelling first to Bangkok (which I’ve visited before) and then on to Bengaluru (also known as Bangalore, by Indians as well as Europeans – I think it’s a bit like the Welsh acknowledging ‘Wales’ as well as ‘Cymru’). As readers of this blog will know, I have been to Delhi several times, but this was my first visit to Southern India.
There were many highlights – Tipu Sultan’s palace, a trip to an extraordinary bookshop, Cubban Park, dinner in a traditional Karnatakan restaurant where the food is served on banana leaves (and usually eaten with the hands, though the proprietor took pity on us and offered cutlery)
– but for me the most outstanding experience of all was the morning I spent in Bengaluru’s traditional market.
The market is vast and, unlike the ones in Delhi, situated in a huge open area accessed only by unmetalled lanes and tracks. For this reason alone, it is an immense privilege to be there – it is probably one of the last big-city Indian markets not to be ‘sanitised’ with proper roads and walkways.
This in itself brings challenges as well as delights: the market heaves with a vast throng of the world’s most energetic humanity: boys pushing massive metal carts top-heavy with goods, vans and cars continually nosing their way through the masses, dozens of scooters and rickshaws everywhere and no traffic rules, either informal or official. And not a policeman or another European – except my companion – in sight. One woman, hurrying past, smiled at us and said, “It’s brave of you to come here!”
We took as much care as we could not to get crushed, bringing a whole new dimension to the expression ‘watch your back’! But as an adventure it was exhilarating: the range of colours and smells, the carefully-presented vegetables set out in baskets, the cries of the vendors, the fierce yet friendly haggling, even the single public toilet – one shaft each for males and females – entrance fee five rupees (or around five pence).
The highlight of highlights was the spice stall, to which we were directed by a teenage girl accompanying her mother who understood enough English to know what we were asking.
Spices are expensive in India, even for Indians (I have no doubt that Europeans, even if they haggle, always pay a premium) so this place was a cut above. As well as the open stall set out on the walkway, it also boasted a permanent shop in a sort of warehouse building – a long, dark room going back deep into the recesses of the structure. Customers were only allowed into the very front of this, to enable them to haggle with the two young men running the stall. At frequent intervals, they consulted the elderly lady – clearly the grande dame of the establishment – who sat opposite the scales at the entrance. If she said a proposed price was acceptable, it was accepted; if she didn’t like it, it was tough on the customer: her word was law. I bought a kilo of Karnatakan curry mix, which one of the young men put together by mixing handfuls of spices, dried leaves, chillis and aromatic tree barks from the baskets outside. I once bought a similar curry mix in Delhi, but it had already been made up – I didn’t have the joy of seeing it being concocted.
Second only to the magic of the spice stall was our visit to a no-frills kitchenware shop that clung to the edge of the market – ‘clung’ being the operative word, as the building had suffered from subsidence and there was a sizeable gap between the entrance and the edge of the track, which had to be leapt over. Inside, the stockholding was massive and must have catered for the restaurant trade as well as ordinary households. The were piles of huge metal dishes, skillets, giant spoons, frying pans and wok-like implements, as well as a few items made from plastic. What we were looking for, however, were some of the exquisite beaten copper bowls that are used to serve curry sauces in Southern India. This shop had some beautiful ones, all locked away in high cupboards that abutted the ceiling. The assistants – again, two young men – had to climb up the shelves and hang on with one hand to bring them down to floor level (no kick-stools in evidence and certainly not even a nod to health and safety at work). The bowls I bought are particularly fine and lined with steel.
Like the spice sellers’ stall, this shop was presided over by an elder, this time a man in late middle age who sat behind the counter and adjudicated as the haggling went on. The copper items are sold by weight and – unusually for India – the set of prices for each weight and combination of weights was posted on the wall. It was therefore possible to see that we obtained a genuine discount for buying the whole set – and the older man courteously allowed us to negotiate a bit more off the regulated price. (Looking back, I rather approve this custom of deferring to one’s elders. I’d stand to gain quite a lot from it if it operated in the UK. As it is, I have instead to contend on a daily basis with the irreverent youth of my family.)
I’ve been back home for more than a week now and was about to write that my memories of Bengaluru have already acquired a dream-like quality. However, it would not be strictly true: if I close my eyes I can see the market again in all its vivid bustle. It’s too bright – and too noisy – to qualify as a dream.
Finale to my National Crime Reading Month daily blog series
Today is the last day of June and therefore today’s is the last of my daily blog posts to celebrate Crime Reading Month. I’d like to pay tribute to the CWA for coming up with the idea of CRM and to the countless people who have supported it. I’d particularly like to thank everyone who has contributed to these thirty posts by providing so many magnificent insights and vignettes and for giving up their time so generously to help me. It’s impossible to pinpoint highlights – I feel as if I’ve been on a high all month! – although a few moments stand out for me personally. I was struck by Hannah Deuce’s comment that all writers are different, so she supports each one in different ways; by Natalie Sammons’ observation that if you write to please yourself, you won’t be disappointed ‘whatever the outcome’; and perhaps most of all by Frances Pinter’s description of Brexit in one punch-packing word: ‘frivolous’. Frances’ post was all about the importance of peace and how we should dread the danger of war that is looming once again; sadly, as we reach the end of this month, the conflict in Ukraine is no nearer to resolution than it was on 1st June.
CRM has given me some humbling opportunities to read or re-read some fine works of fiction: Snegurochka, by Judith Heneghan, and The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore impress with their originality and fine use of language, but I have enjoyed all the novels that I have written about this month and am in awe of all their authors. In this, I include Annie, the only poet featured, whose stark poems about domestic violence bring home the enormity of it more vividly than any number of newspaper and court reports. I’d also like to pay tribute to those who have always supported me as a writer and continue to do so: Annika, Valerie, Noel, Dea and now, Hannah, please take a bow. I salute those who have dedicated their lives to supporting the bookselling and publishing industries: Richard, Nick, Lynette, Linda and, again, Frances and Noel. I’d love to be a member of Deirdre’s reading group – she and her book club friends seem to have such fun! And finally, I’d like to thank Betsy, Tara and Hannah for publishing The Canal Murders to the usual high Bloodhound standards; and I’d like to take the opportunity to apologise for (temporarily) having forgotten my own publication date!
As readers of this whole series of posts will know, I have been privileged to speak at four libraries during the course of the month. I have, of course, known for many years how much librarians bring to their communities, but when I met Helen, Kathryn, Tarina and Kay and their teams, their generosity, talent and tireless efforts to help people were brought home to me all over again. I’d like to thank them once more for their wonderful hospitality – and the equally wonderful audiences to whom they introduced me, each of which taught me far more than I felt I had to offer them. I now know about ran-tanning, the use of opium for Fenland agues and many more facts about life in Lincolnshire, both past and present, than when I started out. The library visits also gave me the opportunity to research some unsolved Lincolnshire murders, including that of Alas! Poor Bailey, my favourite. My encounter with the vicar of Long Sutton church will stay with me.
When I introduced this blog series, I promised to tell my readers at the end of it why I write about the Spalding of my childhood even though my novels are set in the present. I renew that promise now, but I hope you will allow me a short delay. It is because – as I mentioned earlier this week – I am currently on holiday in Orkney – in fact, sadly, my time here is drawing to an end; and while I am still able to imbibe the magic of this place I should like to introduce you to one of the island’s serial murderers – the great skua. Called “the pirate of the seas” or, in Orkney, “the bonxie”, this formidable bird – which appears not to be afraid of humans – hunts other birds on the wing. Today my husband and I watched spellbound as a pair of great skuas systematically chased a curlew through the soft blue skies and engaged above and around us in aerial combat with greater black-backed gulls. I came to Orkney for inspiration as a writer and I have found more here than I could ever have dreamed about.
As I prepare to return home and submit myself to the discipline of the keyboard once more, I should like to conclude by thanking everyone who has read even one of these posts. I do hope you have enjoyed them. There are more to come – I was surprised and grateful to have more offers from would-be contributors than there are days in the month of June. And of course I shall not forget my promise.
I leave you with a cheerful picture of one of Orkney’s denizens.
Natalie Sammons, debut crime fiction novelist
Natalie is one of my fellow Bloodhound authors. We ‘met’ on a podcast in April, when The Consequence of Choice, her debut novel, and The Sandringham Mystery were both published.
Q: What is the title of your novel? Briefly, what is it about?
A: The title of my novel is The Consequence of Choice. The book tells the story of the introduction of a ‘one-child’ law as a means to minimising the world’s ever-growing population. Fast forward ten years. Elspeth, the main character finds herself pregnant, which is illegal, and soon the police are on the case. The story follows four characters. Each has his or her own agenda: they either strive to help Elspeth or to catch and convict her.
Q: Why did you decide to write a novel in the crime genre?
A: I don’t feel that it was a conscious decision to write a crime-based novel. It suited the plot, allowing for suspense, twists and turns and drama to be woven into the story.
Q: How long have you wanted to write? And what inspired you to start writing this book?
A: I have always had a passion for books, but until I wrote The Consequence of Choice I was content to be the reader rather than the writer. It was only after I had my son that I first put pen to paper. I wanted to write a story for him. My ambition snowballed as my love for writing took hold. It is my first attempt at writing something other than children’s fiction.
Q: I know you are a nurse by profession and that you live in Sussex. Have you drawn on your knowledge of nursing, medicine etc. in the novel? Or on the local topography?
A: Like me, Elspeth is a nurse. A piece of advice I read early on in my writing journey was to ‘write what you know’. I felt that following this advice ensured that my novel had authenticity and allowed me to write with confidence. I drew on my nursing knowledge at times, although I was mindful that I didn’t want the text to feel too clinical. The locations depicted in the book are familiar to me. I wanted to be able to picture the places I was writing about.
Q: What do you find most challenging about writing fiction? And what do you find most rewarding?
A: Being able to weave a story which has the reader enthralled is the most rewarding part of writing fiction: knowing that the reader is as invested in the story as I have been. The main challenge always lies in creating a story which captures someone’s attention. I often worry that the plot isn’t moving quickly enough or is moving too quickly. Sometimes I feel I overthink how my writing will be received by my readers.
Q: How did it feel to see your book in print, when the first copies arrived?
A: It was amazing to hold that first copy in my hands. It felt like such an achievement to have created a piece of work which other people also believed in.
Q: Are you working on another novel now? If so (without giving too much away) can you say what it is about?
A: Yes, I am, although it may be put on the backburner soon as I am due to have my second child this summer. The plot of this book is quite different from The Consequence of Choice. It focuses on two characters who are each struggling with demons: one is challenged by a mental health issue; the other by a medical condition. For one of them, all is not as it seems. In facing up to what she has most been afraid of, her medical condition, she discovers that her path is inextricably linked with that of the other character’s.
Q: What do you like to read yourself? Are there other crime fiction writers you admire? Aside from crime writers, who are your favourite authors?
A: I will read novels in most genres. I am all about the characters, I want to be invested in their story. Regarding crime writers, I do enjoy Peter James’ books; perhaps this is because his books are set in and around Brighton, the city I grew up in.
Q: What would be your advice to struggling new authors just starting out?
A: I can only pass on that same advice: ‘Write what you know’. This will make your story real and enable you truly to picture what you’re writing about. Oh, and don’t give up. You should write because you enjoy it, because there is a story you’re burning to tell, then you will be rewarded, no matter what the outcome.
An Orcadian digression
Today’s post is a bit of a self-indulgence. I hope you’ll forgive me, because it is only tangentially related to National Crime Reading Month and crime fiction, or indeed to any of the other topics this blog has covered since 1st June.
Allow me to explain. Since Thursday, I have been travelling north with my husband through the whole length of Scotland, reaching Stirling on Thursday evening and Thurso on Friday. Yesterday, we boarded the ferry for Orkney and reached our holiday house for the week – which is in Stromness – late yesterday afternoon. It has been one of my lifelong ambitions to visit Orkney and it does not disappoint. It is a magical place, palpably the residence still of the ancient, tricky-to-propitiate Norse gods of the old sagas, but with plenty of more recent history to explore and enjoy. Our first evening also gave us a moment of northern summer splendour, too, a sparkling view into space!
The gods seemed very close in the early hours of this morning when we got up at 03.40 am to try to watch the rare conjunction of five planets. It was almost daylight and we could see the moon, a fine sliver
in the pearl-grey sky, but unfortunately the fast-scudding clouds soon obliterated it and kept the planets out of view. We braced ourselves to stay outside for fifteen minutes to watch the rising of the chilly dawn and then returned to bed.
Today we have explored Stromness, a venerable port and fishing village.
A warm sun was shining on its mellow grey stones, tempered by a sharp and intermittently buffeting wind. The boats in the harbour gleamed white and blue, the waves turned briskly, flecking the blue-green sea with cream, and the mountains in the distance presided over all with summery bonhomie. (I imagine they loom with a much grimmer aspect in the winter.) People were out strolling on the cobbles or seated at the outdoor cafés drinking coffee. The ferry came and went again. Most of the quaint old shops were open – though the bookshop was closed, a visit to it therefore a treat to be saved for later in the week.
So, what has all this got to do with CRM and writing crime fiction? Well, to be honest, not much – yet. To be even more frank, today’s post is mainly an excuse to show off the wonders of Orkney by posting some nice photographs. But please have patience: I am also on writing alert. I already have a plot in mind and am thinking of ways in which I can make the most of this unique place to set the scene.
Murders in Orkney? I have read of a few, including a relatively recent one which is too harrowing either to discuss here or make use of in a novel. There will soon be a murder or two in Orkney – according to me – but they will not be founded in fact. I do not wish to arouse the wrath of the old Norse gods. I shall leave them to slumber until they themselves choose to wake again and you to stroll with us round Stromness:
Berlin’s where it’s at, in the reading group scene
Reading groups are some of an author’s greatest friends. They may be organised by libraries or bookshops, or just set up by like-minded people who want to explore books together. Modern technology means the members no longer have to meet in person, though of course it is much more fun when they do. Deirdre Watchorn tells the story of how her international reading group works.
Q: What inspired you to set up / join your reading group? How many members does it have? Did you all know each other already? Had you belonged to other reading groups previously?
A: The book group idea came from my Czech friend, Katka. Her husband is American and had been running his own book group for about three years… but with men only! Katka decided she would like to be in a book group and the only way to do this was to set one up herself. She then extended the invitation to me and various other women she knew, including a wife of one of the ‘men’s book club’ members (!) who was also jealous of her husband’s book club. None of us had been in groups before and didn’t know what to expect. We had heard stories of the men’s book club – that they stayed up until 4 am in the morning, sometimes discussing very heavy literature and drinking lots. But I don’t think any of us had any expectations in the beginning about what ours would be like.
The reason I joined is that I used to be an avid reader on my daily commute into town when I lived in London. But once I moved to Berlin and gave up work for a few years, I hardly picked up a book. My concentration was in pieces. I was intrigued to see if the book club could reignite my love for reading.
Q: I understand the members live in more than one country. How does the group operate? Do you mostly meet virtually? Do you meet in person?
A: Apart from during the pandemic, we always meet in person in Berlin at least every 4-6 weeks. The group is made up of one Czech, one Belarussian, two Germans and two Brits. We also had an American member, but she moved away from Berlin a few years ago. During lockdown, we continued to run our book groups over Zoom and it usually worked really well! Even our American friend, now living in Brussels, continued to join us for some meetings as a special guest! We have taken short breaks away together, with themed books to match. We have become such good friends over the past seven years. I love my book club!
Q: How do you choose the books you read? Is there consensus on this or do you take turns to choose? Do you ever really dislike the book that has been chosen? If so, do you continue to read it to the end? Do you always choose fiction, or do some of the books you read belong to non-fiction categories? Do you all buy the book selected? If so, is it usually in hard copy format or do you buy ebooks as well?
A: It’s a very democratic process. We each take it in turn to lead the club, in strict rotation! The person leading needs to come up with a list of at least five titles, email them to all members and then the members vote on which one to read. If there is a draw, we take a straw poll on WhatsApp. At the very first meeting we decided we’d read only fiction and we have stuck with that. The only thing we sometimes discuss in advance is what theme the books for the next book club meeting should be. That for me is one of the most exciting parts, deciding on a theme and then seeing which books are put forward.
Yes, we tend buy the books to read, in print, although sometimes we share books between us, especially if they are expensive – i.e., only just published or hard to get hold of in Berlin. One of our members works in a school library so there have been occasions where she has provided the books for us to read, which is helpful! We rarely read ebooks. One of the members will sometimes read one on her phone but I could never do that.
I am known for being the most critical of the books we read! It’s quite rare that I ‘love’ a book we have chosen. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading all the books and indeed that for me is the beauty of the group, getting to read things I would never dream of picking up otherwise – classics, for example. I almost always read a book to the end. It’s disrespectful to the author if you don’t. But I am also a very quick reader.
Q: How long do you allow to read a book? Is there a fixed time – e.g., one month – or do you vary it?
A: We aim to hold the group every 4-6 weeks, but it does vary. I’m a very fast reader, some others (no names mentioned!) less so. As many of the group are non-native English speakers, we have a rule that if a book is over 500 pages long, we mention this when making the selection, so people don’t get a nasty surprise when they buy it.
Q: Do you always read books in English, or are some of the books you choose in other languages as well?
A: We have always them in English, even if the books were originally written by German authors or authors from other countries. This means a lot of the titles which are suggested are from US and UK authors, but we are conscious of this and try to internationalise as much as we can.
Q: Is the group’s discussion about the book pretty much spontaneous, or do you suggest themes or topics about the book prior to your discussion? Do you ever use the sets of questions about the book that some authors include – either at the end of the book itself or on their own or their publishers’ websites?
A: We agree never to discuss the book before the meet up, even if we see each other beforehand. The person leading starts the discussion and we go around the table. To be honest, we have never used the questions at the back of the book. I don’t know why! Probably because we have never been short of ideas or things to talk about. Some of us will have done some further research on a topic online, to find out about the author or the story and we bring those discussions into the group. But there is no set format. Some of the group studied literature at university, so it’s always interesting to hear their observations. But my favourite discussions are those that lead into other topics about life, the world and everything. Our first book, The Circle, was very memorable, not because we liked the book all that much, but because it prompted huge debate about social media and the damaging impact it has had on our lives.
Q: Is there one book that stands out above others as the one the whole group really enjoyed?
A: It’s really hard to remember. I know many of us disliked Mood Indigo, a French classic which was just too random to follow. We all enjoyed Station Eleven, a story about the collapse of civilisation and the aftermath. And also the novel Blindness, which we read just before the start of the pandemic. Maybe that’s our book club’s main theme: death and the end of civilisation.
Q: What are your own favourite types of book? Do you like crime or other kinds of genre fiction, or are your tastes more literary?
A: I’m a big fan of contemporary American literature: authors like John Updike, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler, stories with quirky characters in everyday settings. But I like to read a real mix. At the moment, I am reading Elena Ferrante, Damon Galgut and Marion Keyes. I read a lot of crime novels in my twenties and have not felt the urge to return to that genre since. But never say ‘never’.
Q: What advice would you give someone thinking of setting up a reading group? Do you have any advice for authors?
A: Just do it! Don’t mull over the format too much or what titles to read. The group will develop organically, reflecting the membership. But do ensure you do spend time talking about the book at each meeting! I know of book clubs that were more about the wine than the books and unsurprisingly they fizzled out. Talking about the book helps strengthen the relationships between the members, too. In terms of advice for authors, I don’t have any I’m afraid… and I don’t think they need any. Creating these amazing characters and worlds is more than enough for us (thankful) readers.
Murders in the Fens
As I mentioned on Friday, the talk that I gave at Sleaford Library was the last in my series of six talks about Murder in the Fens, four of which were prepared to celebrate National Crime Reading Month (NCRM). As I don’t like giving the same talk twice – I don’t believe it is ever possible to replicate the momentum if you deliver the same words again – for each of these talks I researched a different Lincolnshire murder that, in the eyes of the police, remains unsolved. This post offers a brief account of each of these ‘murders’ – though I think that only three of them deserve to be so called.
John Bailey was a country doctor who lived in Long Sutton and was murdered in April 1795. On Tuesday 21st April he went to Tydd St Mary, a village about four miles from Long Sutton, to visit a patient. Early the following morning, his horse returned home without him. Following a report by a servant girl that she had seen a man lying in the grass on the side of the road, a group of local residents went to look for Bailey and found him where the girl had indicated. Alive, but with horrific head injuries, he tried to write something in the silty soil, but could not do so and shortly afterwards died. The motive appeared to be theft, though only the doctor’s watch was missing. There was a nationwide search for his killers and several people were arrested, but no charges were brought. Arrests, incidents of mistaken identity and false confessions continued to plague his wife and son for many years afterwards.
In 1979, Gordon Snowden, a sixty-year-old petrol pump attendant at Sutton Bridge Motors, was attacked at 2 am on 17th April. The motive appeared to be robbery – the cash till with all the takings was stolen. The police made no headway with solving the crime and never announced any suspects. No longer even regarded as ‘cold case’, it has now been archived. In other words, however tragic Gordon Snowden’s murder and however outrageous, it has become a statistic. It will never be reopened.
On May 22nd 1934, Mrs Ethel Major, of Kirby-on-Bain, near Horncastle, made her husband Arthur his customary ‘tea’ of corned beef, bread and butter. Shortly afterwards, he became ill and was soon unable to stand or speak. Two days later he had a seizure and died. The police discovered that Ethel had received anonymous letters telling her that her husband was having an affair with Rose Kettleborough, their neighbour. Police eventually concluded that Ethel had poisoned her husband, using as their main source of evidence an anonymous letter from the same person who had written to Ethel about the affair – which might have been Rose Kettleborough herself. Ethel pleaded not guilty to murder, but was hanged on December 19th 1934 by Albert Pierrepoint, the crown executioner famous for the compassion with which he treated convicted prisoners. Ethel Major was the last Lincolnshire woman to be hanged. Today the evidence against her would be deemed insufficient – and there are many people living in the Horncastle area whose ancestors always doubted her guilt. Horncastle people apparently divided into ‘Rose’ and ‘Ethel’ camps – though there was only circumstantial evidence that either was to blame for Arthur’s death.
Beatie Simpson, who was twenty, and a nineteen-year-old girl who was not named by police were both employed at a tobacco factory in Nottingham. In 1922, they travelled to Mablethorpe for a fortnight’s holiday, which they rashly extended by one week, even though they knew this would result in dismissal from their jobs. According to the girl who survived, they made a suicide pact because they could see no way out of their dilemma and both took Lysol while they were still staying in their seaside boarding house, which was owned by a blacksmith and his wife. Beatie Simpson was badly burned in the mouth and stomach by the corrosive liquid, but the doctor who carried out the post-mortem said that it would have been the effects of the poison on her heart and nervous system that killed her. She left a suicide note. It is not clear why the nineteen-year-old girl survived, although when the girls were discovered attempts were made to force them to drink salt water to cause them to vomit, and apparently Beatie’s mouth was clamped so tightly shut that she could not be made to swallow it. The coroner ruled that the girl who did not die was guilty of murder, as suicide was illegal at the time. The logic of this is hard to understand today: the coroner’s rationale was presumably that if a crime had been committed and someone could be made to pay for it, they should. However, the nineteen-year-old girl was eventually acquitted.
Barbara Grice died from a ruptured liver following a trip to Billinghay Feast (a kind of fair held annually near Sleaford) on 17th October 1956. Tantalisingly, I can find nothing more about this crime – I don’t even know why the police classified it as a murder. Was Barbara Grice pushed from one of the fairground rides or attacked by someone? In any event, no one has ever been charged with her murder.
Lastly, a twenty-six-year-old man named Charles Trier died in Gainsborough in 1995 during a game of Russian roulette. The police charged one man with his murder, then released him owing to lack of evidence. From my perspective, this barely counts as an unsolved murder, although it raises some interesting questions: for example, if you play Russian roulette of your own free will and die as a result, is the cause of your death murder, suicide or an over-developed gambling instinct? If you were coerced into playing, that of course is a different matter. Lovers of ‘The Deer Hunter’ will no doubt have a view!
Of these six deaths, I think that only John Bailey’s, Gordon Snowden’s and, probably, Arthur Major’s – although forensic science was not as conclusive in his day as it is now – would today be classified as murders. Beatie Simpson’s suicide certainly would not, unless it could be proved that her faculties were weak and the nineteen-year-old girl had unduly influenced her; the circumstances surrounding Charles Trier’s death are too uncertain to determine whether he pulled the trigger of his own free will; and Barbara Grice’s demise, as I have indicated, remains shrouded in mystery.
A privilege, indeed, to fly with Kevin Taylor, Chief Pilot, Lincolnshire Police Drones
Kevin Taylor is the Chief Pilot of the Lincolnshire Police Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) Unit. He has worked as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) flight instructor/assessor, training staff at all levels, from beginners to advanced remote pilots. He specialises in the training of military and emergency services personnel. He has himself flown both manned and unmanned aircraft and is qualified to fly both aeroplanes and helicopters. He has put in more than 1500 flying hours in more than twenty aircraft types. He acts as test pilot for the British Microlight Aircraft Association (BMAA) and the Light Aircraft Association (LAA). This involves testing new lightly manned aircraft. Kevin himself owns a light sport aircraft and flies regularly.
Kev began his career as a radar engineer in the Royal Air Force, then joined the Special Constabulary in 2003. He serves as a Special Sergeant in the Lincolnshire Police RPAS Unit. He has overall responsibility for the safe delivery of RPAS operations, including all aspects of training and safety standards. He is experienced in all the operational areas of police RPASs and has carried out hundreds of live deployments in Search & Rescue, Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear incidents and Offender and Event Crowd Dynamics. He is also experienced in Beyond Visual Line Of Sight flights. He has received multiple commendations for his operational RPAS flying. He has also worked with the UK defence industry to develop autonomous RPASs. He has pioneered police use of RPASs in relation to criminal activities.
I asked Kev to contribute to my series of blog posts to celebrate CRM because Lincolnshire Police have very kindly been following this blog for several years. They also helped to influence the plot for Chasing Hares.
Q: Do police drone pilots train from scratch or have they already been flying drones as a pastime?
A: In Lincolnshire Police, drone pilots are police constables who work mainly as responders and attend a vast array of incidents. If an incident can benefit from the use of a drone, a drone officer will be deployed to assist. A drone is just one of numerous tools available in a police officer’s kit bag and drone flying should be described as a skill, rather than a role. In some ways, it’s like carrying a taser: the training has some similarities. The initial training course consists of five days’ training followed by a practical test which the trainee must pass. Once an officer is trained, s/he must pass an annual requalification test. If prospective drone pilots are already interested in drones before they train, it is useful, but not essential.
Q: What, very briefly, is the history of police drone use in the county? How many officers are involved and how has this field of policing been expanded in Lincolnshire?
A: Lincolnshire Police started its drone journey in March 2017. The first operational flight took place in September of that year. On average there are now 350-400 deployments per year. The target is to have five officers at each of the four main bases: Lincoln, Boston, Grantham and Skegness. Currently there are twelve officers and six more in training.
Q: Would you explain the particular value of drones for police work in a place like Lincolnshire or, indeed, anywhere.
A: Lincolnshire has the perfect landscape for drones. In terms of geographic area the force is one of the largest in England and Wales, covering 2,284 square miles. The population of this area is 736,700. Policing such a large area presents challenges: Lincolnshire has vast areas of open countryside and, as such areas are difficult to search on foot, effective air support is vital. Drones can now play a pivotal role in addressing this challenge. The running cost of a drone is negligible when compared to the other options available, such as crewed helicopters. Drones are also used to manage large events such as Christmas markets and can assist with crowd dynamics, acting as an extension to the CCTV camera network.
Q: What incidents stick out in your mind as memorable examples of success? (Not just nabbing the villain, though that is very interesting, of course; perhaps the successful rescue of someone vulnerable or the way in which a traffic incident has been helped by drones.)
A: There have been many incidents that have resulted in a positive outcome for the whole team. We are not allowed to discuss one of the most unusual ones, owing to reporting restrictions, which is a real shame. All drone pilots will have a personal set of memories of occasions that got their adrenaline pumping; one of my own was using the drone to discover an unconscious male in a ditch following a road traffic collision. It was in early 2018; his was among the first lives to have been reported as saved by a police drone in the UK and this incident alone demonstrates that the investment in drones by Lincolnshire Police was worthwhile.
Q: What do you find particularly frustrating in your line of work?
A: When we first launched the drones initiative there was some scepticism. There was criticism that drones were just glorified toys. However, the clear and powerful images produced by the drones once they became operational soon converted the sceptics to supporters. There aren’t too many frustrations, but it may not be a surprise to hear that if I had better funding I could achieve so much more. That said, the Chief Officer Team has been very supportive of drones and can see they provide value for money. The results speak for themselves, although we can’t always put a financial value on all that we do.
Q: Do you read crime fiction? Would be your advice to a writer like me to up her game in presenting police work?
A: I’m always on the go, so sitting down and reading a book is something I don’t have much time for. I would say that policing is moving with the times and that technology plays a large part in the way criminals operate today, so the police need to use it, too, to keep up. I guess a crime writer would benefit from understanding the technology and tools at the disposal of a current, modern-day police force. Drones constitute just one small part of contemporary technology that benefits the police and public, not only in Lincolnshire, but worldwide. Besides operating drones, we play a considerable role in education and enforcement. Drones technology is constantly evolving and the regulations have also evolved quickly. Lincolnshire is a very RAF-centric county, with a busy airspace, and we contribute to the effort to ensure that all airspace users can share the airspace safely. In July, we’ll be inviting the public to the Lincolnshire Police HQ to learn more about how to fly drones safely and to understand a little more about how we use them.
All pictures © Kevin Taylor
Very sunny Sleaford
The first thing that strikes you about Sleaford is that it is a lovely old town with lots of characterful buildings and monuments. I was particularly taken with the Carre’s Hospital Almshouses, also known as the ‘Bedehouses’, off the Market Square in Eastgate and the lovely old redbrick buildings adjacent to the town centre car park. The next thing that strikes you is that it is a town packed with traffic. In every road and small lane, there is a queue of cars – at least, there is at midday on a summer’s afternoon on a Friday! The volume of traffic may explain why Sleaford can also boast an extremely friendly traffic warden who, when we eventually found a baking hot car park quite a long way out of town, directed us to one that was closer to the library.
The library itself is spacious and extremely well kept by Kay and her assistant librarians – I met Angela and June and I know there are others, too. She was also assisted by James, a work experience boy, who told us he had just enjoyed a stellar week in the library. I’m not surprised – Kay and her team thought of everything. They set out tables with lace cloths, served tea and biscuits twice – at the beginning of the talk and before it ended – and gave me a beautiful bunch of flowers before I left. They also secured one of the largest audiences I have had on this series of talks. They told me this had been achieved by putting flyers in the boxes of books they send out to reading groups – a useful tip for other librarians, if any are reading this post.
As always, the members of the audience came from diverse backgrounds and each had an interesting backstory to tell. There was an Australian couple searching for information about the husband’s ancestors; the widow of the former County Archaeologist of Northamptonshire, with whom I had a fascinating exchange about Anglo-Saxon graves that contained valuable grave goods – and the ones that didn’t; a teacher of English literature; and a lady whose parents had known Ethel Major, the last woman to be hanged in Lincolnshire (more about her in a later post) and were adamant that she wasn’t guilty. Various lawyers have recently come to the same conclusion, if more tentatively expressed.
All my audiences have asked different kinds of questions. This audience – made up of avid readers – wanted to know what sparks the idea of a plot in the first place: what triggers the gleam in the author’s eye? I much enjoyed talking with them and was grateful to them all for turning out on such a hot day – it was thirty-one degrees outside, though the library – uniquely among the libraries I have visited – boasted some very effective air conditioning. I was impressed that every person who booked a ticket turned up.
The talk at Sleaford was the last of the series of talks in Lincolnshire libraries arranged to celebrate Crime Readiing Month. I felt that, owing to the amazing efforts of Kay, Angela, June and the rest of the team, the series ended on a real high. Very many thanks to them and to all the wonderful Lincolnshire librarians I have met this June. I am not planning any events for July and August, but I shall be back in the autumn, setting up some writing workshops and giving more talks. I will keep the readers of this blog posted.
And the posts will, of course, continue until the end of the month – possibly beyond, if I can summon up the time! Tomorrow’s post will be by Kev, a Lincolnshire police officer responsible for the drones the police service uses – to catch criminals, of course, but for other purposes, too. Kev has sent me some great photos to accompany it. I think you’ll find it well worth reading.
Bewitched by Long Sutton library – and murder and tea with the vicar
On Monday, after a cloudy start, the weather suddenly started to improve, aided in my case by my travelling south to Long Sutton, which already had a head start in the heat stakes. It was a glorious sunny afternoon when I arrived in this old Fenland village with its ancient silver and grey church and mellow ‘city centre’ (that term beloved of satnavspeak that makes me smile when the ‘city’ in question has a population of 5,000 people😉).
As I was an hour early for my talk, I headed to the churchyard, intent on finding the grave of John Bailey, a surgeon from the village who was murdered in 1795. I spent an interesting half hour examining the gravestones, having quickly discovered the late eighteenth-century graves, but I could not find John Bailey. I knew he was there somewhere because I had seen a photo of his stone. A quick online search told me that it was inside the church. The church – which began to be built in 1170 – is magnificent; I recommend anyone who is passing through the area to visit. Luckily for me, on Monday it was unlocked and, having it to myself, I walked slowly up the aisle from the back of the church to the altar and then down the aisle on the other side, reading all the plaques on the wall and the gravestones set into the floor. I discovered tributes to several ‘vickers’ and members of the Fitzalan Howard family – the local toffs – but still John Bailey eluded me.
The time of my talk was approaching and reluctantly I decided I’d have to leave, Bailey still unfound. Outside the main door, I met a man dressed in black and wearing a dog collar – and, super-sleuth that I am, having honed my investigative skills through the medium of writing nine detective stories, I deduced that it was the vicar. He asked if he could help and when I said I was looking for John Bailey he led me straight to Bailey’s memorial stone, which was set in the floor very close to the altar and cunningly concealed by a chair.
The vicar told me a bit more about the church and said he would have liked to have come to my talk, but the parish meeting was taking place at the same time. He therefore had tea and biscuits to hand! Very hospitably, he made me a cup of tea which I had to drink quickly as time was running short. It was not exactly what you might expect of tea with the vicar – we drank standing up from recyclable paper beakers – not a bone china cup in sight – but it was hugely welcome after a long journey and the dusty ramblings among the tombstones.
On to the library, where I met Tarina and Alison, the librarians,
and a very lively audience made up of some of their readers.
As with my other Lincolnshire talks to celebrate CRM, the discussion following the formal part of the event ranged far and wide. I discovered, for example, that in the nineteenth century, the citizens of low-lying Wisbech were plagued with agues which they assuaged by taking laudanum made with opium from the boats that still sailed up the river from the sea. (I’ve never been to Wisbech, though my Great Aunt Lily lived there. I doubt if she was one of the laudanum set. She signed the ‘pledge’ when she was fourteen and thought my father, who could make the same bottle of whisky last across three Christmases, was a drinker because he indulged in the odd glass of shandy on his way to the coast.)
One of my audience is a curator at Bewsey Old Hall in Wisbech. I have been invited to give a talk there later this year. The vicar would also like me to return to talk to various groups in the village, so I am already looking forward to visiting Long Sutton again.
Huge thanks to Tarina, Alison, Jonathan Sibsey the vicar and my wonderful audience at the Long Sutton library for an enchanted afternoon. And thank you, John Bailey, for eventually emerging from your hiding place. I’ll write about you in a later post.
On an entirely unrelated topic, today is Bloomsday, the day that Leopold Bloom pounded the streets of Dublin in 1916 in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is a date that I remember every year. Joyce chose the date because it was the same day of the year in which he met his (eventual – they didn’t marry until they were middle-aged, after many years and two children) future wife Nora Barnacle in 1902. Barnacle really was her name – I’ve always been surprised that Joyce didn’t use if for one of his characters. She was a chambermaid at a Dublin hotel when they met. I envisage her as a homely, no-nonsense lady who did her best to keep Joyce grounded. He was one of the (slightly) more stable members of the brilliant but half insane generation of writers that included Virginia Woolf (his exact contemporary), Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott FitzGerald. Happy Bloomsday, everyone!
The gold of reader loyalty
Were I to say that readers are not unimportant to writers, I’d be providing you with an extreme example of litotes. Readers are an author’s lifeblood. If a novel has no readers, it barely deserves to be called a book, just as a portrait kept forever in the dark is scarcely a picture. I feel blessed that as a crime writer I have been ‘discovered’ by some loyal readers who have subsequently read and reviewed all my books. No one has been more staunchly supportive of my work or sympathised more with what I have set out to achieve than Valerie Poore. Recent posts of mine have featured Fraser Massey, a fledgeling crime writer and Mickey J Corrigan and Sarah Stephens, two established writers whom I’ve never met in person. Similarly, I have never met Valerie (a couple of times, on my way through Holland, I tried to visit her on her vintage Dutch barge in the Oude Haven in Rotterdam – there are two links here – but, sadly, on those occasions she was not there). I know she supports other authors as well as myself. I have asked her to write a short post on why she is so generous with her support for others – and how she finds the time to do it!
For several consecutive years, I’ve looked forward eagerly to each of Christina James’ nine crime novels. If I remember correctly, In the Family, her first DI Yates book, was also the first crime fiction I’d ever read from a novelist who wasn’t already widely known in the genre. I was a detective novel fan of old and had read most of the big name authors: PD James, Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin, to name just a few. But at some point, I found the plots becoming ever more harrowing and disturbing – so much so that I stopped reading crime fiction for quite some time.
As a result, I was somewhat hesitant to start down the detective novel path again, but after meeting Christina James on Twitter and enjoying our interaction, I decided to give In the Family a try. To my delight, the book ticked all my mystery-solving boxes and I can say with some conviction that Christina gave me back my taste for crime (so to speak). It was an extra benefit that having ‘met’ her on Twitter, I could also continue to interact with her and support her writing on social media.
Since then, I’ve added several other, mostly independent, authors to my list of favourite crime fiction writers, nearly all of whom I’ve discovered through Twitter and book bloggers. And even though I’m not a crime writer, it’s still the fiction genre I read the most, so I love being able to support their books as a reader, reviewer and tweeter.
So when Christina asked what motivated me to help other authors through social media support, the answer came easily: it’s because I was an avid reader long before I became an author myself. Without exaggeration, I can say I’ve loved immersing myself in books my entire life and nothing gives me more pleasure than reading. I also appreciate others’ excellence in writing, so if I read an author whose prose, dialogue, plot development or even turn of phrase I admire, I instinctively want to tell the world about them and share my enthusiasm.
As a student and young adult, I could talk books for hours with my friends – I studied English and French literature, which helped, of course. These days, that appreciation is more easily conveyed through social media, as I no longer have the time to linger with fellow readers to the same extent; nor do I live in an environment which would tempt me to do so. My home for twenty years has been on an old barge in the Netherlands among folk whose passion is restoring historic vessels. Welding, not reading, is what lights their fires. And although I’ve written about these colourful neighbours in my memoirs, I cannot talk books with them.
My solution, then, is to share my reading discoveries on social media where I can promote and interact with the authors whose books I enjoy. But there’s a spin-off benefit too: I now belong to a community of readers and authors, many of whom reciprocate by reading and sharing my books too. Promotion, I discovered, is reciprocal. What you give is what you get, a further reason (as if I needed one) to share and share alike.
So, there you have it: someone who loves crime fiction and promotes it, brilliantly! I should add that Val is a writer of memoirs other than those of her experiences on the canals of the Netherlands, Belgium and France, for she has lived in South Africa, too. I’m adding the link to her fascinating blog so that you may wander with her if you wish! I’ve also provided two links to my posts about my visits to the Oude Haven, if you’re interested. I’ll finish with a photographic flavour of her watery life and her books about it: