Personal experiences

A shared Salt publication day!

BoA and GJ

My copy of Gentleman Jack has arrived at last! I am, as always, delighted with Chris Hamilton-Emery’s brilliant jacket design and distinguished typesetting. ‘Jack’ is officially published today, 15th October 2018. It’s my first novel about a serial killer. I’ve thought for a long time about the best way to tackle this type of criminal in my fiction. Indirectly, it draws on my own experiences of living in Leeds as a young woman when the Yorkshire Ripper conducted his reign of terror, but, like all my novels, it is much more concerned with portraying the psychology of the killer than the ‘blood and guts’ of the crimes themselves. It’s also about the organised theft of agricultural vehicles, a scourge which periodically afflicts farmers in Lincolnshire and other rural areas.

I know that many of my regular readers – across the world – have been looking forward to reading it.  I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you all for your support and your continuing enthusiasm for my books.  Ipso facto, one can’t really be an author without readers; words cannot express how much I value the time you spend on reading my books. I offer you my profoundest thanks. And I do hope you will enjoy Gentleman Jack!

Also published today is The Book of Alexander, the debut novel of Mark Carew, a fellow Salt author. I was privileged to read this book in draft form and I heartily recommend it. It’s not exactly a crime novel, although there are some relevant features: Alexander, the protagonist – stalker or not? No spoilers!

The Book of Alexander follows the time-honoured and exciting literary tradition which explores different versions of the self.  Who is Alexander? Who is his mysterious grandfather, ‘Mr Travis’? Who is Melanie, Alexander’s down-to-earth girlfriend, and is she really competing with rivals for Alexander’s affection? Above all, who is the dullish private detective who tells the story – and is he really so dull?

The second half of the novel is episodic. Alexander embarks upon a journey, not to distant lands – although I suspect he may do that in a future novel – but through the city of Cambridge and around the River Cam and its environs. This journey is by turns sinister, comical and exasperating.

The Book of Alexander contains a rich cast of characters, including: Mick and Yin, who run the garage where the private detective roosts when spying; a bevy of girlfriends (real or imagined?); and Alexander’s eccentric but lovable parents, who perhaps hold the key to Alexander’s whimsical character. Or then again, perhaps they don’t!

Have I hooked you yet?

Having my cake… and eating it!

Lisa at Bettys

Lisa, patisserie expert at Bettys, Harrogate

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!

Sachertorte

I have to say, my Sacher torte looked promising, even if it suffered travel damage on the way home!

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.

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The (travel-damaged) Sacher torte, completed

Bettys 2 (1)

Lemon and strawberry torte

Bettys 2 (2)

French fruit tartlets

Treading the Litten Path with James Clarke

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Alison Cassels introduces James Clarke

On Saturday, I had the great privilege of accompanying another Salt author, James Clarke, to Pontefract Library for an event to celebrate the publication of his important novel, The Litten Path, which tells the story of one mining family during the miners’ strike of 1984 – 5.  The book has received some excellent reviews in the national press.

James talked eloquently about how he came to write the book.  He said that he felt his generation was dispossessed, not by ‘baby-boomers’, but by the politics that prevailed in the late 1970s and 1980s (especially Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” adage) and the legacy of that period, from which he believes he and his contemporaries are still suffering today.

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James, warming to his theme

I’ve met Pontefract audiences before and I was delighted to see some familiar faces on this occasion.  After James had talked about how and why he wrote The Litten Path, and read a chapter from it (he chose Chapter 5, which describes the first conflict between the miners and the police), the members of his audience were invited to give their views.  What followed was an amazing discussion – one of the best I have ever participated in at any event.

James was fascinated by the fact that many of those attending not only remembered the miners’ strike but had been directly affected by it.  One woman described how her mother and grandmother took food to miners’ families who had none; another said her grandmother had lived in Orgreave Lane: the ‘mighty Orgreave’ colliery of James’s novel, where the most vicious pitched battles took place, was just down the road.

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People reminisced about how the strike had destroyed families, obliging some people to move away.  Others are still living in towns and villages which used to be prosperous, but are now depressed and poverty-stricken, never having recovered from the strike or been able to reinvent themselves.  Whole communities were dismantled.  ‘Scabs’ – miners who went back to work while their colleagues were still on strike – were still being shunned and pilloried by those who fought it out to the bitter end many years later.  A former teacher said she had taught at a local school between 1995 and 2010 and even at the end of that period it was not uncommon for strike-breakers to have bricks thrown through their windows.

The conversation moved on to the privations and hazards of mining itself – the illnesses, accidents and early deaths suffered by many miners.  Several of the audience said that, although memories of the strike were still raw, they believed that, eventually, some kind of catharsis would be achieved and these communities would rise anew – “even if it takes 200 years”.

Alison and Lynne, the librarians from Wakefield and Pontefract who organised the event, did their usual great job – and surpassed themselves with the cakes and other goodies they provided.  James and I would like to thank them very much indeed.  And huge thanks to all the members of the audience for their wonderful contributions.  If you are reading this, we want you to know how much we appreciated you.

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Passionate reading from James Clarke

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, again…

Oude Haven

Oude Haven and Het Witte Huis

Val Poore, that most elusive of authors, at least to me on her home territory, proved impossible to find on our return after five years to Rotterdam’s Oude Haven. Not knowing when we might arrive in Rotterdam (for time for trans-European car travel is notoriously difficult to estimate) and the fact that Valerie was almost certainly at work (it was a Friday), made it unfair to alert her to a visit we might not have been able to make. As it was, we discovered that the parking meters I wrote about those five years ago had all been made credit-card-friendly (maybe someone on the city council read my blog post!) and we could relatively easily pay for our stay. (If you are out there still, council person, to have various languages – as do ATMs – on your meters would make them even friendlier!)

Anyway, we were interested to find that, aside from the meters, not a huge amount had changed. Perhaps that isn’t so surprising for a museum of vintage barges, but there seemed to be more of them, so no doubt Valerie’s two memoirs recounting her experiences of restoring and living aboard her Vereeniging have encouraged others to do likewise. The boatyard was much busier, too, as you will see from the photographs, with more going on than the repair of one raised barge.

In the yard

In the boatyard

In the boatyard 2

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Xenia on the slipway

Xenia on the slipway

 

Activity on the water

On the water

Motorised raft

Getting around by raft…

Vereeniging looked very well, too, with her gangplank effectively repaired (Valerie blogged about its vandalised damage) so that we momentarily wondered if we dared a quick stand on the foredeck! I’m sure if we had, the neighbours would have made us walk the plank in a rather different way! We met one of them, briefly (he had just arrived by bicycle), and asked him to say hello to Valerie and Koos for us.

Vereeniging

Valerie’s Vereeniging

Gangplank repair

Robust repair to the gangplank

I can safely aver that Rotterdam continues to thrive and the vibrancy we noted on our previous short exploration is still very much in evidence, even though the weather last Friday was gustily post-stormy and chilly. Anyway, enough from me now, except to say that Valerie has been a huge supporter of DI Yates and I’d very much have liked to meet her in person. I think that she has another memoir in the making and I’m sure it will be as warm and colourful as the others. Buy one and you’ll see what I mean. If you like canals and barges and narrowboats as I do, then her wanderings (‘farings’) along Dutch, Belgian and French waterways will hold you spellbound.

Here again

Here again, at the harbour bridge

Lancs and Lincs

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Gainsborough’s distinguished library building

The turn of the month from April to May was delightfully busy. On 23rd April, I returned from a business trip to the USA (World Book Day as well as St George’s Day, the day the booksellers bring their stalls out into the streets in Barcelona – stuck in a tube in the sky, I missed them), anticipating the privilege of the three Christina James events ahead of me. Three in eight days, no less!

As the first of these was at Adlington Library, near Chorley in Lancashire, I was very close to the smallholding kept by my friends Priscilla and Rupert and so was able to relish the double pleasure of visiting the library and staying with them as well.

I’d been invited by the Friends of Adlington Library, an energetic and committed group who have put a huge amount of effort into keeping the library open after government cuts. I’ve already written about local determination to keep underfunded, understaffed library services open in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Lancashire is encountering similar problems and fighting back with just as much dedication.

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Adlington’s readers, with Margaret and Phillip at each end of the picture

The event was scheduled to last an hour and a half. The time flew by: the Friends, led by Margaret and Philip, offered me a large and very responsive audience, many of whom had read my books; several had also bought them or bought copies during the event. As I’ve said before, an audience can pay a writer no great compliment than to give feedback on her or his books. Readers are always perceptive and it is fascinating to hear their accounts of other books they like and why; additionally, in this instance, Adlington’s readers opened up on the evil characters, both real and fictional, whom they had encountered.

Just four days later I was heading for Gainsborough, a North Lincolnshire town that was totally uncharted territory for me. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I realised that this was my loss: Gainsborough is a wonderful old town with a mediaeval manor house at its heart, reputedly haunted by Lady Jane Grey. One of my audience – a local woman who now lives in Australia and was visiting family in the town – told me she had seen Jane’s ghost wandering the house when she was a child (intact, with head on – I did ask!).

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At Gainsborough

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At Gainsborough

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At Gainsborough

Gainsborough’s library earned the unique distinction of providing me with an audience that expanded during the afternoon, drawing in more and more people as the session unfolded! The library itself is a building of palatial proportions – huge for a small town – and the librarians make excellent use of the space they are able to command. The event ran on way past the allocated time, until eventually we were invaded by a party of primary school children who had come for a reading session.

I am indebted to Lynne and her colleagues for organising this event and would like to thank them again for the really beautiful bunch of flowers that they gave me. I felt truly spoilt!

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With Lynne and her lovely colleagues

Just three days later, came the last of the trio: a different kind of event this time, held for a writers’ group in Woodhall Spa, another North Lincs town that I’d never visited before. The home of the Dambusters, it’s a picture postcard place, and was gearing itself up for the 75th Anniversary of the Lancaster bomber raids in WWII. (There’s a café just a few doors up from the library, full of Dambusters memorabilia – well worth a visit.)

The library itself is tiny – the smallest in Lincolnshire, apparently – but librarians Jude and Deborah have organised it extremely well.  Like Adlington and Gainsborough, it has a well-stocked children’s section and a children’s activity area – they’re trying to make the Guinness Book of Records by creating the world’s largest pom-pom! Jude and Deborah gave me a very warm welcome indeed.  I loved their shoes – yellow and orange respectively – worn as a gentle, tongue-in-the-cheek protest against having to wear a librarian’s ‘uniform’ of sober navy that wouldn’t be out of place in an old-fashioned girls’ school.

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Writers at Woodhall Spa

The writers in the workshop and I talked about what makes a good evil character (is that a tautology?!) in fiction; how fictionalised serial killers differ from real-life ones; and how various authors have depicted them in very different ways.  As I had expected, the members of the group were both perceptive and a fund of anecdotes about their own observations and experiences.  I was particularly intrigued – not to say horrified – by the account that one man gave me of evacuee children sent to the county from London who were literally starved to death. He said that the local community closed ranks and ensured that no-one was ever prosecuted for the crime.

I am honoured that the people of Adlington, Gainsborough and Woodhall Spa not only took time out of their busy lives to meet me, but also prepared for the events with such care. Thank you all!  And special thanks to Margaret and Philip, Lynne and her colleagues and Jude and Deborah.

Writing at Lincoln Central Library

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On Saturday 14th April 2018, I spent the afternoon at a Lincoln City Library event organised for me by the indefatigable Tina Muncaster and her colleagues (indefatigable, because we first tried to run this event on 3rd March, but were thwarted by the astonishingly heavy snow that had gridlocked Lincoln a couple of days before, when I was very kindly interviewed by Lincoln City Radio).  As Tina said, when she re-invited me, perhaps the daffodils would be blooming if we rearranged for April!  This turned out to be correct: the daffodils in Lincolnshire are magnificent this year.

Arriving in Lincoln early, I decided to explore the city.  I’ve been to Lincoln several times before, both as a child and later, but in the past I’ve always headed for the Cathedral and the steep streets that lead to it.  This time, I visited the waterfront and was amazed both by its beauty and its long history. (I particularly wanted to see the Fossdyke Navigation, which features in Gentleman Jack, my next novel.) I’ve already published a separate post about my explorations.

Nine people attended the event, with Tina and her colleagues joining in as their work permitted. The members of the audience – or, I should perhaps say, my fellow writers – were wonderful.  There was an almost equal balance of women and men, from a wide age range. I was particularly happy that Elise Harrington, of Lincoln City Radio, was able to join us.

Like the event in February in Spalding, this was not just about reading from the DI Yates novels and talking about them. Tina had said that she thought her library patrons would also be interested in discussing how a really bad character is created and so we planned a modified version of the Spalding activity. We therefore focused on Hannibal Lecter for the first part of the discussion and considered some published extracts depicting evil characters before I read a short passage about Peter Prance, taken from In the Family.

After a break, during which the Library served up tea and delicious biscuits and almost everyone bought a copy of one of the DI Yates titles (I’d like to say here how grateful I am for this), we got down to the business of creating some brand new nasties! The group worked in twos and threes. It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone was fascinated by the task and completely absorbed by it, as I hope the photographs demonstrate. The villains created were imaginative and ingenious – they included a woman who was a housekeeper and ‘saw’ everything, a transgender sailor and a male villain with a ‘small man’ complex.

After everyone had shared their villains with the others, the event concluded with another short reading, this one from Fair of Face. By this time, it was 4 pm – and the event had been scheduled to run from 1.30 pm – 2.30 pm!

If you were one of my fellow crime writers on Saturday, I’d like to thank you very much indeed for sharing your creative ideas and for so obviously enjoying yourself. And double thanks to Tina Muncaster and her colleagues: they’ve kindly said they’ll invite me to Lincoln again and I shall jump at the opportunity. Thank you also for my beautiful bunch of tulips, the first I have enjoyed this year.

Finally, I’d like to thank Sharman Morriss at Spalding Library, both for hosting me there and also for setting in train a series of Christina James events in libraries around Lincolnshire. I’m next at Gainsborough Library and then, shortly afterwards, at Woodhall Spa, a stone’s throw from the River Witham I wrote about in my previous post.

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Where are you going?

Water 14

Arriving in Lincoln on the morning of Saturday 14th April 2018, with a couple of hours to spare before the crime writers’ workshop I was leading at the Central Library, I decided to explore a part of the city I hadn’t really looked at closely before – the waterfront at Brayford Pool. I particularly wanted to see the Lincoln end of the Roman-constructed Fossdyke (probably the UK’s oldest canal still in use), which links the city to the River Trent at Torksey. Thus, a navigable waterway stretched, via Lincoln, from the Trent to the Wash, for the Brayford Pool is a natural lake on the River Witham, which flows to Boston and the North Sea.  In the middle ages, the Pool was a thriving inland port, but it declined subsequently until Daniel Defoe in 1720 called Lincoln ‘an old, dying, decay’d dirty city… it is scarce tolerable to call a city…’ Twenty years later, one Richard Ellison was granted a long lease on the Fossdyke (he grew wealthy from the tolls he charged on it) and the Pool sprang into life again. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the land around it turned over to bustling wharves and mighty warehouses for grain and cloth, together with all the attendant trades of a waterway. Great sailing barges carried produce and imported goods to the growing industrial cities of the Midlands and the North; steam packet boats eventually appeared on the Witham. However, the railways and then motor transport superseded the boats and, by the 1960s, as I can just remember, the Pool was an ugly graveyard of abandoned shipping.

What I found this weekend, however, was a revitalised marina for leisure and pleasure craft and contemporary working vessels – narrowboats, sleek modern motor yachts, canoes and water-taxis – in a sympathetically-modernised harbour, with Lincoln University on one side of it and bars, restaurants and cafés on the other. Thankfully, plans for filling in the Pool and turning it into a carpark were not carried out and the Brayford Trust began clearing the site. There are unsurpassed views of the Cathedral and Lincoln Castle and the old city from the University side. It surprises me that places like this, which I’ve explored by land and water – the centres of Leeds and Birmingham, for example – have only recently been revitalised, their potential for public relaxation and enjoyment, for entertainment, heritage preservation and wildlife only slowly realised.

Walk with me and enjoy this lovely part of Lincoln. Let’s start with ‘The Glory Hole’, the size limit to shipping from the River Witham into the Brayford Pool. This is High Bridge (1160 AD), the oldest UK bridge with buildings on it.

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The Brayford Pool, with Lincoln University buildings across the water

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Preen scene

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Old and new

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Rail and water, now in harmony

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Elderly resident

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View from the Pool

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The Fossdyke

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Brayford Pool from the Fossdyke

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A glance up the hill

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University

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“Just for a stroll around the Pool…”

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And now, back to the Glory Hole

Thank you for strolling with me!

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