This is the third in the series of posts about De Vries. It explores the role of ‘Sausage Hall’ in the novel, particularly whether the house itself can have influenced the course of events that take place.
Buildings fascinate because they are so much part of the era in which they were built – which means that, to a greater or lesser extent, almost everyone lives within some construct of the past. Buildings are also the backdrop to the events that take place within them. Can they remember these events, perhaps even absorb some quintessential miasma from them? It hardly seems fanciful to think so – such a belief is sometimes even embraced by officialdom. Thus, Gloucestershire Council in 1996, shortly after the conviction of Fred and Rosemary West, razed to the ground 25 Cromwell Street, scene of many horrific murders, ostensibly to stop souvenir hunters but also because its continued existence gave local people ‘the creeps’; and the council house where Myra Hindley lived with her grandmother and Ian Brady, where they murdered Edward Evans, was also demolished, though, curiously, only twenty-two years after Hindley and Brady were imprisoned. Manchester Council eventually found it impossible to let the house because successive tenants complained of a ‘dreadful sense of brooding’ there. Imagination or fact?
As a child, I visited Hardwick Hall – built by Bess of Hardwick, the ancestress of the Dukes of Devonshire – before it was taken over by the National Trust. Despite the famous adage ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’, the house at that time was dark and chilly and neither very clean nor in a good state of repair. There weren’t many visitors on that day – I think it was in early spring, probably just after the house had been opened up after the winter – and I was dawdling behind my parents. They had disappeared beyond the top of the shallow-stepped stone staircase that led to the first floor by the time I began to climb it myself. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw that I was quite alone. I carried on up the steps – I was looking to my right at a large faded tapestry on the wall, apparently woven in greys and browns – when something brushed against my shoulder and my leg. It was soft, a fabric of some kind. In less than a second it had passed me. When I looked back at the foot of the staircase again, I caught a glimpse of a woman in a long, dark dress smartly walking away. Although subsequently no-one believed me, I was convinced that I had seen Bess herself. Had some essence of her survived, fostered perhaps by the sheer force of her personality? Had her spirit been left free to roam when her descendants decamped to the even grander house they built at Chatsworth? Since the National Trust took over the property, I have visited the house several more times, but never again felt any inkling of an uncanny presence there. Is that because in the process of undertaking much necessary restoration work, the National Trust has ‘sanitised’ it? (Like every other NT house, it now has a tea-room, a gift shop, cordons to keep you off the furniture and attendants everywhere.) Or is it because children really can see and feel almost imperceptible elemental forces that adults can no longer detect? I still don’t believe I imagined the whole thing.
When Kevan de Vries leaves Sutterton in a hurry at the end of Sausage Hall, he has come to detest the house, the location of some of the unhappiest events in his life. Even more sinisterly, he has discovered that it was the scene of much evil-doing in the past. Yet when he returns to it incognito seven years later, as well as his quest to discover his father’s identity it is the house itself that draws him. His fascination is in part empirical: he knows there is a large number of papers and artefacts stored within the house that are likely to yield clues about his paternity. But there is more to it than that: at some level, he feels that the house, scene of his childhood, youth and married years, carries a part of himself, however much he may have tried to deny it during his exile in St Lucia.
Perhaps that is the great collective secret shared by all buildings once they have been inhabited: like light years, they don’t just exist in the present, but within a continuum reaching right back to their foundation. They face both forwards and backwards: they absorb and are shaped by the loves, fears and hatreds of those who have occupied them. They have characters, sometimes charming, sometimes terrible. As they grow older, their personality changes: they possess their own powerful kind of DNA, incremental rather than fixed. They become companions, not just enclosures of living space. Kevan de Vries is the central human character in De Vries; but in every step he takes he is shadowed, perhaps even influenced, by Sausage Hall.
As I said in my previous post, De Vries has three major themes: whether murder can ever be justified, why some people are prepared to risk everything to discover who their parents are/were and the secrets held by old houses.
Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the second theme. Why is it that a significant proportion of people who cannot identify their birth parents – such as those who have been adopted, or whose parents have been lost in war or some other catastrophe, or who have experienced the denial of parenthood by one parent (usually the father), or who are the offspring of a sperm donor or even who have been abandoned in early infancy – grow up with an insatiable desire to discover who their biological parents were, while others in a similar situation either display no interest in finding out or are actively hostile to the idea?
My first boss and his wife had three adopted children, each with different biological parents from the others. They were adopted in the 1960s, when adoptive parents had minimal contact with the biological parents and the latter had very limited rights. Adoption societies of the time made it clear that they were facilitating a ‘clean break’ from the natural parent (usually the mother) who had offered the child for adoption. Often the mothers were very young and coerced into giving away their babies by the demands of their parents and the disapproval of society as a whole. It was considered shameful to be an unmarried mother and the welfare state did little to help girls and women who found themselves in this predicament. The prospective mothers were often sent to unmarried mothers’ homes when they began to ‘show’. Spalding had such a home, Carisbrooke House in Haverfield Road. The girls who came to it were probably from other towns; similarly, Spalding girls would be sent to towns some distance away. Soon after the birth, the baby was adopted and the girls would return home as if nothing had happened – though the experience cruelly curtailed their education and there was little psychological support for the trauma of having had to relinquish the child. The headmistress of Spalding High School was considered to be very progressive for allowing one of my classmates to return to school after she had a baby. The year was 1969.
My boss’s two adopted sons showed no interest whatsoever in their biological parents. Like Kevan de Vries, they entered the family business at a young age and enjoyed the privileged lifestyle and well-heeled standard of living it offered. His adoptive daughter felt differently. She went to huge lengths to track down her biological mother and eventually settled in the USA, where her mother had emigrated, and changed her name to the name her mother had entered on her birth certificate. Despite having been brought up in a loving and affluent household, just like the two boys, she was never able to identify with the adoptive family.
During the same period, issues of parentage frequently became more convoluted, not to say dishonest, when the woman was older and married to a man who was not the father of the child. Divorce carried a stigma almost as powerful as unmarried motherhood, so few women would choose it; on a more practical level, most divorcees and abandoned wives were forced to live in penury. This was decades before British law changed and became almost always in favour of the woman if she had children and Britain became the ‘divorce capital of the world’. The alimony awarded by courts was usually meagre and little attempt was made to force defaulting husbands to pay.
A woman who bore a child whom she knew or suspected not to be her husband’s therefore commonly passed the baby off as his. Some husbands were complicit, knowing the child not to be theirs but still preferring to raise it as their own rather than end the marriage; others were genuinely taken in by the wife’s claims. As an adult, a friend suspected that the child of one of her neighbours was in fact her half-brother. The boy was small and fine-boned, with tight black curls like her own and those of her two siblings. The mother was a tall, heavily-built woman with fair skin and hair whose other children all looked like her. My friend later discovered that it had been an open secret in the neighbourhood that this boy was her father’s, but the woman’s husband had accepted responsibility for his upbringing and treated him exactly like the others.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some early efforts were made to identify fathers reluctant to acknowledge their children and make them contribute to their maintenance. Proving paternity was, however, largely based on the results of blood tests: it was possible to prove that a man was definitively not the child’s father, but, unless he had a very rare blood group, not to prove conclusively that he was.
The advent of the much more reliable DNA tests – though the earliest ones were not as reliable as claimed at the time – helped women to assert who the child’s father was, be believed and consequently obtain financial support, which became much more robustly enforced by the law than previously. Even more crucial, however, was the shift, from the 1970s onwards, in social attitudes towards parenthood. Gradually the stigma of being born outside wedlock was removed. More and more couples elected to have children without marrying and if they subsequently split up they were much more likely to agree on joint care – or at least joint financial support – for the children.
Kevan de Vries is fifty when De Vries begins. During his lifetime, the whole spectrum of social attitudes towards children not born to a conventionally married couple takes place. Viewed in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that as a young man he is happy to have his mother and grandfather sweep the question of his paternity under the carpet, whereas in middle age he develops a burning desire to understand the identity of his missing parent, even at the risk of losing his liberty and physical contact with his own son.
A brief footnote: John and Limming were the first and middle names of one of my close relatives. His mother named him after her own eldest brother, who was gassed in the First World War, and the father who refused to acknowledge him. She was determined that he would carry his father’s last name in some form, even though it was denied to him as a surname. He spent his whole life hating it and would omit it from official documents whenever possible.
I’m sure that you will, at one time or another, have come across and been amused by Hannah Hillam’s ‘Are you going to sleep?’ cartoon meme, with the brain acquiring its own separate existence, floating above the bed and saying or asking something that wakes the girl up to eye-saucer-wide alertness. Such astute insights remind me that many of us experience sleeplessness and devise ways of overcoming it.
Often, when I can’t sleep, I play word games by making up a set of rules and then searching in my mind for words which adhere to them. Sometimes my hit rate is spectacular; on other occasions, I simply fall asleep – which is the object of the exercise, unless the game grows so interesting that I willingly become wider and wider awake. (Occasionally, I draft in my husband, who is usually initially annoyed at being disturbed, but then enters into the spirit of the current game with gusto, adding – to my annoyance, his own rules. 😉)
The following day, I usually remember the rules of the game, but the words themselves have floated away into the ether. Today, I have made a special effort to remember the words from a game I’ve been playing over the past several nights, substituting new ones when the originals, despite much brain-racking, have been lost.
I’ve turned my set of words into a very short story, just for fun. I thought my readers might like to share with me a spot of hilarity as we approach the happy season of what has been the most sombre year, I guess, that any of us can remember.
Can you spot the word rule that I used? And what leeway I gave myself?
Revolutionary and somewhat farinaceous Lady Louise, succumbing to a year-long compulsion of god-daughterliness, met the ambidextrous quantity surveyor bivouacked beside a zinziberaceous crematorium for equatorial hippopotamuses. He was voyeuristically observing the trouble-making kindergarten nurse, full of maliciousness, separating out xiphopaguses by the washing-house as she, importunate, planned a pre-accusation, much to his unexpectation – and later nauseation, although supported by documentation – that he had stolen her oleaginous juice-extractor.
Today is Bloomsday, June 16th, the date that James Joyce renders unforgettable in Ulysses. Ulysses was finally published in 1922, but the novel celebrates the day in 1904
that Joyce first met his long-term (and eventually ‘legal’) common-law wife, Nora Barnacle, who was then working as a chambermaid in a hotel in Dublin. Since I first read the novel in the 1970s, I’ve always quietly celebrated Bloomsday when it has come round each year and still enjoy dipping into Joyce’s account of the perambulations of Leopold Bloom in Dublin on this day. I’ve written about it before, too, but today I have a new dimension to add, something I’d forgotten about for decades.
One of my Covid-19 lockdown projects has been to ‘bottom’ my study and sort through all the books and papers living there. I’ve almost completed this task. Sometimes it has been stressful: I knew I’d have to be ruthless and select some items for recycling or other forms of disposal and I’ve done so, discarding items that logic dictates I will never truly want to use or look at again, despite the happy memories they inspire and the tug of my hoarding instinct..
Many things remain sacrosanct, however, including some discoveries that have surprised and delighted me. Among these is a privately printed guide to the Martello tower that Buck Mulligan, the first character to appear in Ulysses, lives in in the novel.
A foolscap-sized pamphlet printed on hand-made paper, it is entitled James Joyce’s Tower, Sandycove, Co Dublin and was written by Joyce’s most famous biographer, Richard Ellman, and published in 1969.
I acquired it in the very hot summer of 1976, when it was sent to me by William ‘Monk’ Gibbon, an Irish poet and man of letters – in fact, long before then he was known as the Grand Old Man of Irish letters – whom I had contacted when I was carrying out research on George Moore, an Irish author who lurked on the periphery of the Gaelic Revival. As a young man, Gibbon knew W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge and Lady Gregory and George Moore, as well as Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty, the real-life inspiration for Buck Mulligan. When I wrote to him, he was one of the last living links with these writers. He had also kept in touch with ‘George’ Yeats, Yeats’s wife, until her death a few years previously. He told me fascinating anecdotes about all of them and sent me several gifts, including the book about the Martello tower and a hand-written poem of his own, inscribed on a sheet of the same type of hand-made paper as the book. He had written out eighty copies of this, of which the one I have is numbered the fifteenth.
I’m posting a copy of the poem, but, in case some of the words are difficult to read, I’ve also transcribed it.
An Alphabet of Mortality
A’s for Arrival on the arena’s sand
B is our distant Birthright, long forgot.
C are the Cards, dealt deftly, to each man.
D is the Desperation of his lot.
E is for Eagerness, which conquers sloth.
F is our Folly, immense, which drags us down.
G are the hallowed, haloed, laurelled Great,
who scorned Happiness, that tinselled crown.
I the insatiable, insistent self.
J all its Jealousy and petty spite.
K is the coloured Kaleidoscope of our views
and L our longing for more stable sight.
M is the makeshift Madness of most lives.
N is Lear’s ‘Never’ to the fifth degree.
O’s the Occasion, haste or hesitate.
And P? Pride, Prejudice and Pedantry.
Q is the ultimate Query all must ask.
R the much-varied Responses from the dark.
S the great Silence, which puts speech to shame
and T the triumph when men leave this mark.
U is the infinite Universe, where there’s zoom,
when all the lies are dead, for Veritude.
W’s recovered Wholeness, which may yet
give X in the equation exactitude.
Y is for Yearning.
So, having overlooked
The many-lettered joys which, too, have been,
I, at the stake, do now recant and say
The Zephyr of my hopes was sweet and clean.
On the reverse side it is inscribed to me, with the message “to she …who knows that whatever the rest of it may say the last letter of my alphabet is the truest.”
It is dated December 15th 1976, the date of his 82nd birthday; he must have written the poem to celebrate it. He lived until 1987.
As I re-read it, it struck me that this poem contains sentiments that are very relevant for our present times (also his use of the word ‘zoom’ made me smile – he had, of course, no idea that in 2020 it would achieve fame as a brand name for a virtual communication product).
Happy Bloomsday, everyone!
This spy thriller is the impressive first novel of a series planned about Thomas Dylan, who is plunged into ‘security’ work when, shortly after his graduation, he agrees to attend an interview for an organisation that needs a linguist. It is the 1970s. The job, which Dylan accepts, means working for the Defence Intelligence Service (DIS) as a civil servant. He is warned that there is no glamour attached to being part of the DIS, which is poorly regarded by both MI5 and MI6.
A boring future seems to beckon: he is convinced he has chosen – or, rather, fallen into – the wrong career, but he is very quickly sent to Zandvoort in the Netherlands on an undercover operation in which he is set up to fail. However, despite failing as resoundingly as expected, he quickly finds himself on his way to South America on a more important mission. It is to retrieve a device called ‘The Griffin’: ‘Garble-Recognition-Interrogation-Friend-or-Foe-Inboard Nautics – Master Control Unit’. The Griffin is never explained more clearly than this, but a reader well-versed in tales of espionage might assume it to be something like a portable 1970s version of the Enigma machine. All the usual suspects are after The Griffin, from the CIA to British Intelligence to various assorted Russians, Israelis and Arabs, not to mention the South Americans on whose turf the action takes place, some of whom are not South Americans at all, but escaped Nazi war criminals.
The plot is a relatively simple one – the novel tells the story of Dylan’s adventures as he tries to track down The Griffin. Both pursuer and pursued, he is continually trying to figure out which of the people he encounters are really who they say they are and which ones can (or can’t) be trusted. Among them is the intriguing upper-class (anti-?) heroine Julia, whose uncle is (allegedly?) a bigwig in the security services. The narrative is written in the first person, which works well: during the course of the novel we see Dylan progress from a greenhorn apprentice spy to a much more mature operator whose rite of passage has included killing as a duty of his new profession.
What makes this novel stand out, apart from the fact that it is beautifully written, is that it is a spy thriller for grown-ups. The plot may be straightforward but the relationships between the various characters are intricate, their underlying rationale complex; yet despite the welter of detail and counter-detail, the author never makes the reader feel lost or, as so many spy writers do, leaves her or him feeling that the book is teetering perilously close to the edge of credibility. Landers has also accomplished the difficult trick of showing a profound understanding of the milieu which he describes without over-parading his knowledge.
There is some violence in Awakening of Spies, but it is not gratuitous or unduly sensational (I’m mentioning this because I know some of my readers don’t like too much bloodshed). Both death and sex are described in a restrained way – there are no James Bond-type shenanigans. If you’d like to try a good spy thriller without the Boys’ Own escapades, I recommend this novel. And I’m already looking forward to the next one in the series.
Awakening of Spies is published by Red Door Press. ISBN 978-1913062330
This has been a strange weekend for everyone, despite – or even because of – the blue skies and sunshine, now replaced by a cold, grey front from the North Pole. On Friday, it was seventy-five years since ‘VE [Victory in Europe] Day’. In the UK, all kinds of celebrations had been planned for this, most of which haven’t happened because of the Covid-19 lockdown. There is some hope that they can be held on 15th August, on ‘VJ [Victory in Japan] Day’ instead. I wonder. When the lockdown started, no-one imagined it would still be in place towards the end of the summer, but it may well be.
My daughter-in-law, who is German, told us about a conversation she had with our five-year-old granddaughter about this European anniversary, providing her with the relevant history that she really did want to know about, for, though the family lives in Cambridgeshire, she has relatives in the Münsterland and elsewhere whom she visits regularly; she also speaks German very well indeed. She knows that her great-grandparents chucked bombs at each other. Her mum’s words speak for themselves:
“VE Day. I’ve been thinking about the right words all day. It is one of the very few days when I find British life… awkward.
For me, the 8th of May has always been a day of commemoration and, primarily, of remembering the liberation from fascism and the Holocaust. I have absolutely no problem with celebrating this and the end of the war, but I suppose what makes me feel uncomfortable is the choice of the name for this day. Victory in Europe.”
Between them, she and her daughter decided to rename the day ‘Peace in Europe Day’ and – in and with, socially distanced 😉, their local community – to celebrate peace, not victory, as something perhaps more relevant now than it has ever been since 1945.
Here, at home in the Pennines, we have reflected a lot on how far we have come as a nation since the Second World War and I don’t mind saying that we are both committed Europhiles, who are happily English but also proud of being European. We love the country we were born in and all that makes it unique, but we love Europe too; we identify, quite rightly, with our nation, but not to the detriment of other nations; we are not jingoistic and we are weary indeed of the ultra-nationalistic nonsense we’ve heard all our lives and, especially, over the past three years or so. When our son and daughter-in-law were married in 2011, we hung German and British flags in our hall, where they have remained ever since, accompanied now by a banner of the twelve Chinese horoscope characters in silk and an Indian textile designed to celebrate Diwali, both acquired on my forays abroad. They hang there together in solidarity, companions in peace and shared interests from four very different countries, a testament to new global friendships with likeminded people. Our granddaughter takes it for granted that they are a permanent part of our household.
In the village where I live, several families hung out Union Jacks. Flags are evocative props – they stand at once for national pride, military prowess and a strong sense of identity. When my husband was a child and his family were living in the south of England they made a pilgrimage back to the north once a year to visit his grandmother, who always hung out Union Jacks on the hedge to welcome them after their long journey.
In retrospect, these same flags were probably the ones she purchased to celebrate the original VE Day. When I was a child growing up in Lincolnshire, we all waved flags on Flower Parade Day (though I never understood why) and, when we visited the seaside, our parents would buy us little packets of paper flags to stick in sandcastles. There was always a Union Jack among these, though my brother and I both liked the red and green Welsh dragon best. Children enjoy the simple realities, rather than the symbolism, which they only later come to understand. We are delighted that our granddaughter has shrugged off naïveté about this very early.
The celebrations were meant to mark the return to peace rather than victory and those creative people who managed to put their mark on yesterday expressed this. My favourites were the staff of my local convenience shop, who dressed as – very glamorous – land girls to cheer and amuse their customers.
They all work very hard to support everyone in their neighbourhood, with no discrimination, even though they have their fair share of – how best to put it? – awkward individuals! I’m led to consider that EVERY nation has its own fair share of, frankly, unpleasant people.
Because of my day job, I’m in daily touch with people across the world, all coping with lockdown. Some have very challenging situations to cope with: they live in densely populated conurbations, are looking after newborn babies or have underlying health issues that have confined them to their homes for months. As the effects of the lockdown here make life seem ever more like living in a science fiction novel, I’m conscious of how fortunate I am that my home is in a beautiful place, from which I can walk out for my daily exercise in woods bursting with bluebells and with the air a tumult of birdsong.
The spring has seemed particularly lovely this year, perhaps because the enforced stay at home has helped us to notice it more. Listing the positives associated with the lockdown, both the warmth of the season and having access to technology that allows me to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family are jointly top. I’ve learnt some new skills, too: several culinary ones, including a Nigella chocolate cake that guarantees domestic bliss (at least in this household!); I’ve helped my husband make John Innes-style compost for the tomato plants because the garden centres were closed; and I’ve plucked up the courage to tackle my grey roots and for the first time to experiment myself with hair dye (I’m pleased to report I’ve emerged neither orange nor bald!). I’m working on a new venture with an old friend. I’ve had more time to get in touch with other authors to discuss writing; I’ve managed to read even more books than usual. The British Library, which I joined last year, has sent me links to virtual tours of its collections which have enthralled and delighted me.
Of course, there are negatives. Social networking can’t replace face-to-face contact in the long term; the future of my day job is uncertain; and a significant reaction to bee stings has been harder to deal with than if the chemist and the doctor’s surgery had been working as normal. But these things are trivial compared to the most profound truth: that in villages such as mine we know we are cocooned from reality: it’s hard for us to imagine the distress and suffering that is being experienced by patients and NHS workers across the country, or by those in care homes, those who are grappling with Covid-19 at home or those who are afraid because they need ‘shielding’.
Flags and silk figures can’t help here: they symbolise important values, but they are inert. What can and does help tremendously are the small acts of joy that people like Paula, who works in the convenience store and took the trouble both to research and glam herself up in style, bring to the people they meet, by spending time and thought on how to celebrate sensitively.
Whether you think that spring begins on 1st March (meteorologists’ definition), 19th March (the equinox) or 25th March (Lady Day), the sap is certainly rising now. It’s impossible to ignore this break-out of beauty as animals, birds, insects and plants and flowers engage in their annual rejuvenation, totally untouched by the human despair at the break-out of the coronavirus. It’s as if we live in parallel universes. I do wonder whether the more perceptive scions of the natural kingdom have noticed humans behaving strangely. Perhaps not; perhaps they don’t care – but it is to be hoped that some are benefiting from the steep global drop in carbon emissions, the newly-clear rivers, streams and canals and the lessening menace of ‘road kill’.
I’ve noticed the signs of spring more keenly this year, possibly because I’ve been at home more (though I’m always at home quite a lot), but more probably because you cease to take for granted what you love about your life when it comes under threat. I’m sure we all have been recalibrating our outlook on life, thinking about what is most important to us and possibly even thinking that some of the new ways of working could become permanent rather than a temporary measure to contain Covid-19.
My garden is only small, but both the pond and the old cattle trough that I was given for my birthday a couple of years ago glisten with frog spawn – the biggest crop I can remember.
The mint is pushing up through the soil in the planters, each tender shoot furled and delicate as a rosebud;
and a very handsome pheasant, his feathers mating-resplendent, struts his stuff under the fruit trees, certainly not too proud to eat the seeds that fussy finches and tits scorn and toss from the bird feeders. He’s sometimes joined by a grey squirrel engaged in the same activity. I’m not a great fan of grey squirrels, but this one endears by being enterprising. If the pheasant doesn’t keep his eyes peeled, he misses the next shower of manna as it flows from the feeders because the squirrel will grab it first. He doesn’t seem to think it’s worth chasing the squirrel away. (My cat, by contrast, certainly has designs on the pheasant, although she is only half his size and I think would be no match for his sharp and powerful spurs.)
Although the sun is shining, the chill winds from Europe are still with us and there was a heavy frost last night. We awoke to frozen windscreens and glittering ice. It felt healthy, somehow – bracing, antiseptic, optimistic and beautiful all at the same time.
My writing has been interrupted over the past few weeks by the exigencies of the day job, including taking the same time-consuming measures that everyone has had to resolve as we lock down. But I’m back into De Vries now – it’s the sequel to Sausage Hall – and keenly aware of the privilege of being able to sit here and work on my next novel.
I hope that everyone who reads this blog is keeping safe and well and that, whatever the fears and inconveniences that beset you, there have been some good and happy things resulting from this mass change of lifestyle, unprecedented not only in our lifetimes but possibly in the whole of history.
I’m going to start a new venture soon, to help writers and those who want to read their work, and I’ll keep in touch with you about it, if I may.
With love and hope and very best wishes,
As readers of this blog may remember, for the past several Januaries I have been privileged to travel to South-East Asia for the day job; and even more privileged, so far, to have visited a different country each time. This year, I was also extremely lucky, for another reason: I had spent four days in Singapore and a weekend in Malaysia (which I had visited previously) and returned safely home before the coronavirus outbreak began to take hold. I have many friends and acquaintances in South-East Asia; if you are reading this post, please know that my thoughts are with you during this crisis. Stay well.
Singapore is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. My first full day there began with a 7 a.m. visit to the Botanical Gardens, a World Heritage site.
The early morning is the best time to see them, before the humidity takes hold. At that time of day, the gardens are already busy with people: joggers, groups practising Tai chi and people just using them to walk dogs or take a short-cut to work. The many varieties of exotic tree – and the even more exotic creepers intertwined with them – defy description; you must make do with a photographed example!
The wildlife is equally striking. I was particularly fortunate to get a shot of a lizard basking at the top of a tree.
The business meetings took place at the National University of Singapore, whose global university ranking is eleventh; it is first in Asia. Amenities include a very advanced library which, like other university libraries in South East Asia, is experimenting with a variety of artificial intelligence applications to improve the experiences of its students and researchers. The hotel in which I stayed was also making good use of advanced technology: as I was waiting for my cab to the airport early on the Saturday morning, when there were few staff around, what was ostensibly a waste-paper bin – I’d noticed it several times but didn’t know until then it served a dual purpose – trundled up to me and asked me if I needed any help!
The Marina Bay is home to some of the world’s most spectacular high-rise buildings. Primus inter pares is the building shaped like a boat on top of three towers.
I took the photograph of this astonishing hotel complex from the rooftop bar at the Fullerton Hotel.
By walking round to the other side of the bar, I could also see the famous Raffles Hotel.
Like most of my other visits to Asia, this one coincided with the run-up to the Chinese New Year. 2020 is the Year of the Rat. The streets and markets were exuberantly decorated and packs of child-friendly toy rats abounded! Everyone was very happy.
The weekend that followed was not about work, but a literary adventure. I’ve begun to plan a novel which isn’t primarily crime fiction, though it may very well contain some crimes. (I have a theory that all novels are about crimes, one way or another, but I won’t sidetrack you with that now.) It was inspired by a fifty-five-year-old BSA motorbike, which really exists, to which I am going to attach a story. The motorbike was painted Port Dickson Green and exported by the British Army during the Malayan Emergency. Somehow it found its way back to the UK: that is the nub of the mystery. Watch this space!
I won’t say any more, except to add that, in quest of the motorbike, I was able to spend an afternoon at the military museum in Port Dickson, in the company of its curator, a soldier in the Malaysian army who is also a forensic archaeologist. His specialism is repatriating the remains of soldiers who have been killed in conflicts, not just in Malaysia, but worldwide. The stories he had to tell were fascinating. I hope I shall be able to do them justice! Also amazing was the reconstruction of an underground Communist terrorist hideout at the museum.
My journey ended with a visit to Malacca. Originally a Portuguese, then a Dutch, colony, it was taken over by the British after almost two centuries of Dutch rule, but the essential character of the old town, which is now protected, remains Protestant Dutch.
It’s an extraordinary feeling, walking through streets containing so many prim, plain, sturdily constructed North European buildings, but interspersed with hugely contrasting places of worship, according to religion,
and fishermen’s houses.
Then it was time to board the plane and embark on the long journey home. It lasted thirteen hours – the longest single air flight I have ever taken – but it seemed to pass in the blinking of an eye – doubtless because I had so many recent memories to ponder.
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…