09 +00002018-02-20T18:45:50+00:0028 2012 § 2 Comments
Readers of this blog will know that DI Yates and I have been fortunate enough to have been supported with many events in Spalding, owing to the extraordinary generosity of a growing list of people, especially Sam Buckley and her team at Bookmark, Michele Anderson and her colleagues at Spalding High School and Sharman Morris and the other librarians at the public library. As regular readers also know, I’ve now been privileged to lead several writers’ workshops in other places. This Spalding event was my second workshop there and, like the first, was hosted in the library by Sharman, and thanks to her and her colleague, Amanda, and the wonderful audience they gathered, it was a resounding success.
We took as our main topic ‘How to create a really evil character’ and we began by considering the attributes that such a character requires the author to deliver to make him or her come alive. We talked at length about how to achieve credibility and what sort of writing maintains the tension demanded by an evil character (and the kinds of writing that fail to maintain that tension). We considered Hannibal Lecter’s first meeting with Clarice Starling, how it is described by Thomas Harris in The Silence of the Lambs and what that tells us about Clarice, as well as Hannibal himself.
The audience then broke into small groups to work on creating some evil characters of their own.
All of the groups were totally engaged and they came up with some startlingly fresh ideas. I particularly enjoyed the debate that took place between the four members of one group as they discussed whether or not to allow the serial killer’s dog to travel with him in his cab. The dog would be a useful tool to deflect suspicion, but – amid much hilarity – could not be trusted not to eat his sandwiches, so he wouldn’t be able to leave those in the cab as well! I hasten to add that this was actually only a small part of the conversation, most of which was a serious consideration of how alibis work and what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour – and how the Victorian music-hall villain is a stereotype that never occurs in real life. Real-life killers don’t provide good role models for authors, either, as they are frequently banal – ‘black boxes’ who don’t tick. We agreed that to be a successful evil character in fiction you must always have an inner life which the reader is allowed to penetrate, and often also demonstrate a certain glamour.
As the groups read out what they’d written and described the progress they’d made with creating their characters, some of the audience also began to share fascinating real-life anecdotes. One was about a dog which actually did eat its owner’s sandwiches every time it was taken in a vehicle; two others focused on making unfair judgements about people because of mistaken preconceived ideas. One of these told how his grandfather liked to dress up and go to a pub on a Saturday night. One Saturday, slightly well-oiled, he tripped and hurt his face on the pavement. Several people passed him by without stopping, assuming, despite his good clothes, that he was a habitual drunk. It was only when a party of punks saw him that anyone helped him to his feet: having done so, they walked him two miles home and made him a cup of tea. This story prompted someone else to recount how, when she moved to a new area, she thought the local pub looked rough and shunned it until she, too, tripped outside and was helped inside and cared for by some of the regulars whom she’d previously disdained.
I gave two short readings from my own books, the first from the passage where Grace Brackenbury asks to see the bodies of her foster mother and baby daughter in Fair of Face and the episode in which Peter Prance begins to challenge Hedley Atkins on the train journey to Liverpool in In the Family. Many of the audience stayed to talk to me informally after the organised part of the event was over. We spoke some more about reading and writing and what they mean to us. It was very clear that all participants in the session had enjoyed themselves. For my own part, I had a fantastic time: it was a great privilege to be able to spend a Saturday morning with such a lively group. They’ve asked me to lead another workshop after Gentleman Jack is published and I shall be delighted to do so – if Sharman doesn’t mind weaving her magic again!
09 +00002018-01-04T14:23:16+00:0031 2012 § 10 Comments
I visited India for the first time in November. I was there for only three days, so it would be presumptuous of me to claim that I’ve even begun to scratch the surface of this amazing, complex country that shimmers with great beauty and at the same time seethes with contradictions. I suspect that even if I had lived there for many years I would not fully understand the cultural, social and historical accretions that have made India and Indians what they are today.
All I can offer, therefore, is a diffident account of what I was able to see in a few very brief hours. My visit was confined to Delhi: I spent my first two days there working, so my taste of the ‘real’ India (as opposed to the cosmopolitan experience that is pretty much the same across the world for all guests staying at business hotels) was almost entirely crammed into a single day. I was fortunate in having as my guide an Indian colleague based in Delhi who not only spoke several languages but understood how to deal with the myriads of rickshaw drivers and sellers of goods of all kinds who continually accost those walking through the streets. It’s no exaggeration to say that I felt protected by being accompanied by one who knew their ways, but it would be wrong to suggest that I was frightened: despite the horror stories we read in the British press of attacks and muggings, it was my impression that what these people most wanted was the opportunity to earn an honest living. The problem was that there were so many of them it was difficult to know which way to turn. The only word that serves to describe a walk through an Indian street – or market – is ‘overwhelming’.
Indians from all walks of life emit enormous energy: they’re constantly moving, they speak fast and all of the time they’re taking in their surroundings – no mean feat, as these are perpetually shifting, too. Even the most modestly-situated street sellers demonstrate an optimism, an upbeatness, which inspires admiration rather than sympathy. They seem determined to conquer life’s adversities by being cheerful and, above all, persistent. This is even true of the small children clutching bundles of pens which they press passers-by to purchase for a few rupees each. It’s heart-wrenchingly sad that these children clearly don’t go to school, that they’re grubby and often without shoes and that they’re out in the streets both early and late. Some undoubtedly sleep in the open. Yet they don’t seem deflated: on the contrary, they possess a resilience which convinces that at some level they will succeed.
The first stop on my itinerary was the Red Fort.
This is a seventeenth century fortification set on a hill and now famous for being the first place at which the flag of India was hoisted after the country gained independence in 1947. The fort fronts a whole series of royal palaces
and ornate gardens, the latter containing trees of great age whose time-thickened trunks are gnarled and twisted with creeper. The gardens are home to some of the stray dogs that roam the streets and public places everywhere in Delhi (though they don’t seem to work in packs, like the ones I saw in Quito, and therefore don’t intimidate).
The dogs beg shamelessly from picnickers, but most Indians have no compunction about roundly shooing them away. People are kinder to the chipmunks that also abound,
perhaps because they’re ‘cute’, whereas the dogs are skinny and bedraggled. The roofs of the palace buildings are thick with pigeons, while above them circle ‘eagles’ – as Indians often call the black kites which can be seen across the whole city.
Inside, the palaces contain so many glass cases filled with artefacts that it’s difficult to take them all in. I found the fine silk and damask nineteenth-century garments particularly striking, especially the tunic and trousers that had belonged to a princess described as being a rare beauty. (These clothes would have drowned Queen Victoria herself!) There were many weapons, some of them primitive and barbaric, though none that would have killed as efficiently as the Gatling gun, a British-supplied relic from India’s contribution to the First World War. One of the palaces housed ancient manuscripts, the calligraphy exquisite and perfect.
A visit to the spice market followed, a noisy place teeming with humanity. It contains row upon row of stalls piled high with spices, nuts and teas,
some facing the main thoroughfare, others hidden away in tunnel-like passages. We tried to penetrate one of these and were quickly driven back on to the street, eyes and noses stinging and streaming from the overpowering impact of the spices. I bought a kilo of green tea (a kilo of tea’s a lot, I realised belatedly!), a classic Delhi curry mix, the spices still whole, and half a kilo of unground turmeric.
The street food looks and smells wonderful: chapatis containing all kinds of meat and vegetable fillings, sliced melon and coconut, flavoured naans and chicken prepared as numerous varieties of finger food – but so many seasoned European travellers had warned me not to be tempted that I didn’t succumb. Residents of Delhi are evidently immune to ‘Delhi belly’, but our digestive tracts haven’t benefited from the same training. Lunch was at the Connaught Gardens, quite a famous spot which is run like a gentleman’s club. The food was classic – much of it vegetarian – and delicious.
Having realised from my experiences in the spice market that I am quite incapable of bartering, I was relieved to be taken to one of the government-approved shops that sells high-quality goods at fixed fair prices. I bought a few things there before going on to another street market.
By this time, it was almost dark. The market was beginning to fill up with people leaving work. Some street acts appeared: musicians and conjurors. Suddenly tired, we decided to round off the day by visiting the Indian monument. There are, in fact, two of these, one a traditional-looking building that has been conceived as a beautifully-sculpted gazebo, the other a large square triumphal arch, akin to both Marble Arch and the Arc de Triomphe, which commemorates by name every Indian soldier killed in the India-Pakistan war. As the darkness descended, the floodlights came on and both structures were suffused with an eerie beauty: a fitting end to my excursion into Delhi.
09 +00002017-11-05T21:07:26+00:0030 2012 § 6 Comments
Saturday 4th November was a wild, wet day. The rain came bouncing down on the A1 as I headed for Walkers Bookshop in Stamford to sign copies of Fair of Face. In places, the water stood inches deep on the road. The lorries tossed out spray which severely restricted visibility. A Reliant Robin three-wheeler (I hadn’t seen one for years!) went bombing along at 70 mph and almost aquaplaned.
It was a relief to reach Stamford, always a haven of civilisation and peace, and, even better, to arrive in time to indulge in a cappuccino and a huge, home-made cookie at The George Hotel, before going ‘on duty’ at Walkers.
I received a wonderfully warm welcome from the staff at Walkers, as I always do – and, as always, I appreciated it: I know how busy bookshop staff are, especially on Saturdays, and I’m very grateful when they spare time to look after me in addition to everything else they have to do.
The rain didn’t deter Walkers’ customers from venturing out from home. They continued to show up steadily throughout the three hours I was there, some very windswept, some clutching wet umbrellas, all dressed in sturdy waterproofs, boots and hats.
It certainly felt as if winter had suddenly taken Stamford by storm, but with it came a sense of excitement, a feeling that there was celebration in the air. I suppose this may have been because it was one of the first weekends when people really start to think about Christmas shopping, but well before they begin to feel jaded and harassed by the whole prospect of coping with the ‘festive season’.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting Walkers – this was the fourth signing session I’ve been offered there – and yesterday was no exception. Many of the shop’s customers stopped to talk to me, and most of these bought one of my books – I was delighted to find that In the Family, Almost Love and Rooted in Dishonour were in demand, as well as Fair of Face. Most people wanted them for Christmas presents, but others supplied different reasons: one lady was intrigued by Fair of Face because she knows Spalding well, having grown up in Gosberton Clough (a place I have yet to feature in the novels, so she’s now given me the idea!); another wanted Almost Love for her husband to read on his frequent journeys to London;
another was bought by an author of Young Adult books who told me that she’d given a signing session in Walkers herself and was strongly in favour of supporting local authors. She said that her reading group might be interested in hearing me speak. If she reads this post, I’d like to thank her for a fascinating conversation and to say again that I’d be delighted to speak to the members of the reading group if indeed they’d like to hear me.
I’m never bored in bookshops: it’s a great privilege to be allowed to sit in one for several hours and just drink in the atmosphere. My time at Walkers was over only too quickly, but I took away some very pleasant memories that I know will stay with me.
I’d like to offer heartfelt thanks to Jenny Pugh, of Walkers Bookshop, Stamford, for making the signing session possible, and also to thank all of the staff there, particularly those who were working on the top floor, for their kindness and generous hospitality.
09 +00002017-10-08T20:18:54+00:0031 2012 § 11 Comments
Yesterday was UK Bookshop Day, the annual event which celebrates the huge contribution made to civilised life by all British bookshops, especially independents. It also marks the beginning of the current year’s ‘Books Are My Bag’ [BAMB] initiative for the run-up to Christmas and beyond.
The whole BAMB drive was conceived of and masterminded by the UK Booksellers Association, which now administers it. Authors and readers alike are very fortunate to have, working on our behalf, this imaginative, dedicated, hard-working and amazingly small team of people led by Tim Godfray, its long-term CEO. I was lucky enough to attend, on 11th September, the BA’s annual conference and there to get a sneak preview of some of this year’s BAMB marketing material, which includes beautiful mugs and book bags designed by Orla Kiely.
I always visit at least one bookshop on Bookshop Day. Yesterday I headed for Rickaro Books in Horbury, one of my favourite bookshops, which is run by my (very) long-term friend and colleague, Richard Knowles.
Richard was my first boss after I left university – I won’t mention how many years ago! His bookshop, situated in a small Yorkshire town of great character, is a veritable jewel. As well as stocking new books (including all the Christina James titles – he has kindly agreed to distribute Fair of Face postcards and to supply copies of the book for purchase at my event in Wakefield One on 18th November), he is an accomplished antiquarian bookseller, with an enviable vintage stock. He provides a world-class service by selling antiquarian books on a limited range of topics and does indeed attract customers from all over the world.
Richard always engages in BAMB festivities. Yesterday, he had decorated his windows with promotional bunting and was offering discounts on new books. His dog Tilly
(the inspiration for the Tilly Club that Rickaro Books runs for children) entered into the spirit of the day by sporting a Books Are My Bag T-shirt. Richard said that he’d suggest that Sophie, one of his booksellers, should wear the same T-shirt on Monday morning. I’m assuming that this was one of his lugubrious and slightly macabre jokes, but, just in case, I shall send the link to this post to Sophie!
I bought three books, two for myself (The Greatest Knight, by Thomas Asbridge, and The Idea of North, by Peter Davidson) as well as, for a young person of my acquaintance, a book which I won’t describe here, as it’s intended to be a surprise. Instead of the Orla Kiely bags, Richard had others featuring Christopher Robin – appropriate for a shop which is a magnet for child readers. Several of them came in while I was there, including a screaming toddler whose tears turned to smiles as soon as she crossed the threshold. Such is the power of a good bookshop!
One of the charms of Rickaro Books is that it doesn’t change very much from visit to visit. However, as soon as I walked in yesterday, I was struck by a very significant new addition to the furnishings. Richard has acquired the striking and quite famous portrait of Thomas Gent, the eminent eighteenth-century Yorkshire historian, poet and printer (and therefore, like all printers of the time, also a bookseller), painted by Nathan Drake in 1770, when Gent was seventy-seven. (He lived for another eight years after this, dying in 1778 at the ripe old age of eighty-five.)
Gent was highly respected in his own day, but was, as his Wikipedia biography laconically states, ‘financially unsuccessful’. I wonder what he would have made of Books Are My Bag? I think it’s likely he would have approved of it and I’m certain that he would have loved to have had the opportunity to obtain support from an early version of the Booksellers Association.
09 +00002017-01-30T12:36:14+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
I’d never been to Latin America when I touched down in Quito and knew very little about Ecuador. Wikipedia had told me that Ecuador was a former Spanish colony, that the first language was Spanish and that temperatures while I was there would be around 19 degrees (which turned out to be a considerable underestimate: it was hot!). Otherwise, virtually zilch. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never taken much interest in the South American continent; I’m resolved to change that now.
I was wowed by the spectacular assault on my senses which began as soon as I could see Quito from the plane. It’s the world’s highest capital city and ringed by magnificent mountains, some of them volcanic. And, of course, it’s right on the Equator.
As the plane drew nearer to the earth, I could see Quito’s imposing array of churches and some of the colourful, flat-roofed dwellings that are home to most of its citizens. (I was to discover that only the old colonial houses have pitched roofs.)
The forty-minute taxi ride to my hotel revealed more of these houses, some clinging precariously to steep hillsides with deep ravines below them, and many incomplete, as if funds had suddenly dried up. Because there are few high-rise developments, huge areas are covered by these modest residential districts. Quito has a population of about two million, but its large number of very small buildings makes it seem more populous than it is.
There isn’t much undergrowth, but there are many shrubs and trees, including the fabulously tall araucarias. Most bushes and shrubs are in flower in late October, in vibrant, clashing shades of orange, purple and cerise, and are often sweet-smelling.
I asked my taxi driver what the main industries of Ecuador are and was told chemicals, including petroleum, and agriculture, especially the cultivation of flowers for export. I’m sure that there are wealthy Ecuadorians, but most of the people seem to be either poor or, at best, of slender means. Many of them make their living by selling things – I quickly realised there is a strict retail hierarchy. The poorest sellers are peripatetic: they roam the streets with a very small selection of low-cost goods – sweets, water, small toys – and accost people as they pass. Some of them are also beggars, who will offer you a sweet in return for alms; often they are women carrying small children. Then there are street sellers with fixed spots on the pavements. Either they lay out cloths or little folding tables exhibiting their wares, or they have small portable stalls.
They peddle cheap souvenirs and a wide variety of foods, especially the glistening heaps of stuff that looks like ice cream but, as I discovered, is really a kind of panna cotta, and cups filled with small pearl-like balls of coloured ice, which I guess are made of frozen fruit juice. Exotic drinks are also on sale. I sampled one of these, a pungent, bittersweet beverage made from green tea, cinnamon and warmed fruit juice. Apparently, it is served at funerals, with cheap cookies so that people don’t ask for too many refills!
One up again from the street sellers are the market traders. Most operate from relatively small, covered markets; Quito contains dozens of these. Most sell textiles, silver jewellery, upmarket groceries (especially local coffees and chocolates) and fancy goods, the latter often too gaudy for northern European tastes.
Carnival masks are a particular speciality of artisan craftsmen, and I found them both more appealing and more beautifully made than the ornate mirrors, leather-clad shots glasses, miniature shrines and fake shrunken heads which were also on sale. It’s possible to haggle with the market traders and I found this less of a problem than the fact that they never let anyone browse undisturbed. Immediately you show an interest in something, they emerge from the depths of the stall to describe with great enthusiasm and speed (and in Spanish!) the many virtues of whatever it may be. I found this approach overwhelming and usually just moved on.
Shops are at the top of the hierarchy. Usually they are grouped in small parades or two- or three- storey malls.
The goods they sell are generally of good quality and the shopkeepers themselves more discreet. They won’t barter: the prices are marked clearly on what is for sale and they won’t budge; but often they charge only a few dollars more for a product far superior to what can be purchased in the market. The textiles, in particular, are made of fine wools and silks tender to the touch. I imagine that many shopkeepers start off as street sellers and work their way up: this would explain the immense pride they take in their establishments and the impeccable displays they create.
I’ve said that, from the word go, Quito made a pleasurable assault on my senses, but there was one exception: as a dog-owner with a very British love of animals, it saddened me to see the packs of abandoned dogs roaming the streets almost everywhere, even in the more affluent districts. At first they look intimidating, especially when gathered in groups of up to ten, but I was assured by locals that they are never aggressive and don’t pose a danger to sightseers and other pedestrians. To be fair, they don’t seem to be malnourished, mainly because both sellers and consumers of street food frequently take pity on them. Cooked street food isn’t really my thing: I’m too prone to stomach ailments to be able to risk it; but I think even the most ardent dog-lover must find it difficult to enjoy a piping hot delicacy straight off the brazier when eating it involves having his or her every move tracked by a semi-circle of drooling, envious canines.
09 +00002016-01-17T21:00:56+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
Last week, the day job took me to Seoul, the capital of South Korea. I didn’t have very much time to explore this city, as, for family reasons, I had to cut my visit as short as possible. These impressions are therefore based on two walks that I made within about a one-mile radius from my hotel, my visit to the (amazing) library at Seoul National University, several evening trips to restaurants and what I could see from two one-hour taxi rides.
Seoul is a massive, sprawling city set within a giant curve of the Han River. If you land at Incheon Airport, the city appears to be ahead to the east and to your left. Gradually, the road sweeps round until you hit the city centre quite suddenly. There is a lot of traffic, with bottlenecks and impatient queues clogging the arterial roads at either end of the day.
The city centre had a slightly odd look when I was there, because many shops and hotels had removed only some of their Christmas decorations. Many still sported Christmas trees (the ones at my hotel were adorned with little placards announcing ‘Danger of Electric Shock’). I’ve no idea why Christmas disappears from Seoul in stages in this way; my Asian colleagues were equally baffled.
Although there are many cars, the streets teem with pedestrians. On the Sunday afternoon, many young people, in particular, were out walking, muffled against the cold (it varied from -1 to -10 degrees) in thick padded clothes. What immediately struck me as a Western observer was how the young women continually try to please their male partners, laughing up into their faces when the latter make jokes and hanging on to their arms as if unable to support themselves. To me, it seemed as if there was something formal, almost ritualistic, about this behaviour. It didn’t appear to be spontaneous.
The crowds on weekdays are quite different. They stream purposefully along the pavements, obviously on their way to work. The main streets are broad, often with traffic islands in the middle. ‘Jay walking’ is strictly not allowed: there are notices banning it. Just a few yards down from my hotel, a policeman with a whistle was stationed near a spot where the pavement narrowed each morning. He blew his whistle and waved a kind of luminous wand (reminiscent of a battery-powered Darth Vader light sabre that my son owned as a child) if anyone stepped off it in an attempt to circumnavigate the throng. In the evening, you see the people surging forth again, sometimes stopping at one of the many street food stands that occupy the lanes and alleys branching off from the main thoroughfares. Some of these alleys and passageways are decorated with murals that celebrate Korea’s ancient past.
Food seems to be the national passion. In the network of streets and alleys that I explored, almost every business was a restaurant, café or bar. Some have fish tanks standing in the street outside, from which you can choose the fish you fancy for dinner. (I assume that, once they’re removed from the tank, they’re taken out of sight to be dispatched.)
As well as these individual premises, there are whole malls devoted to every type of cuisine – in addition to Korean restaurants, there are Japanese sushi bars, Italian pizzeria, Swiss chocolate houses, and even an approximation of a British pub, sporting the sign ‘HAND COOKED DINING PUB’ – though, as I found when my hosts took me to an Italian restaurant, most practise ‘fusion’ cookery.
Whether you order a pizza, spaghetti, pie and peas or a hot chocolate, you’re likely to be offered a dish that, although it resembles its national original, is also redolent of Korean herbs and spices. My favourite restaurant, which I visited on my last evening, was a Korean B-B-Q restaurant. (This is how it is always spelt: these restaurants appear to be nationally celebrated.) It had charcoal braziers set into the tables. Patrons order raw meat from a selection on the menu (my own party chose a mixture of beef and pork), together with a range of salad and sauce accompaniments, and cook their own food. The main course was followed by two kinds of soup, one meat and vegetable based, one fish and seafood based, both very spicy. Koreans usually drink beer with this kind of meal, though there was also a strong white wine on offer (you drink it in sherry-type glasses, in very small quantities, and it tastes a bit like saké).
What else do Koreans like besides food? I was keen to find out so that I could buy presents, but even Koreans were at a loss to tell me. I discovered that Korea is home to a renowned type of ginseng and very good for silk ties. There are whole shops devoted to candles (though, on closer inspection, I found that the candles are imports from New York and Paris) and chemists’ shops, often selling vast ranges of foreign make-up, are popular. Otherwise, the main passions do indeed seem to be food and drink. This impression was borne out by the wares at the airport shops, where I saw very little on display except extensive pyramids of food and alcohol and an impressive range of electronic products. I couldn’t even find postcards, either at the airport or anywhere else.
Would I like to return? As I said at the beginning, my stay was very short and I can’t claim to have formed an accurate opinion of Seoul. I certainly liked the people: they were courteous and fun-loving, hard-working but not over-serious: I’d like to go back to become better acquainted with some of them. But I didn’t find Seoul itself as interesting as some of the other Asian cities I’ve visited. I’d be very happy, though, to be told that I’ve completely missed the point.