I was struck by the appearance in Monday’s The Times of the Jan Van Eyck ‘Arnolfini Portrait’, a painting I have always found fascinating for its depiction of a wealthy merchant and his wife. The detail to be explored in this marvellous creation of character and setting has not only human but also symbolic value, suggestive of the real existence, aspirations and lifestyle of this couple in their Bruges home. It cries out: ‘Here we are! We are rich and wonderful people! Look at us!’ The most intriguing aspect for me is the reflection in the convex mirror on the wall behind the couple, depicting two figures, one of whom is commonly assumed to be Van Eyck himself. Velázquez later did much the same thing in ‘Las Meninas’, showing himself as painter of the scene. It’s a clever way of putting your personal stamp on your work. As well as that, Van Eyck painted boldly on the wall (in the style, popular at the time, of a maxim or moral text): ‘Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434’ or ‘Jan Van Eyck was here 1434’. I’ve always found it pleasantly ironic that the painter should have muscled in on the proud self-declaration of the Arnolfini couple, in a kind of portrait-bombing that elbows aside the intended subject.
My mind jumped quickly to the concept of self, as presented by ‘Kilroy was here’ and graffiti tags: ‘Notice me – I’m everywhere – I can get into the most unlikely and bizarre places… because I’m wonderful!’ That too seems pretty ironic to me, as I feel that shouting out about myself or my achievements is de trop and immodest; creating a ‘Christina James’ brand and promoting my writing here on the social media, I confess, does make me feel uncomfortable, even though I accept the need for it in the current bookselling market and therefore join in. However, I know how I feel about those who simply churn out plugs for their books without any engagement with others – it’s so much spam. Van Eyck’s skill sold itself and I suppose all writers and artists and craftspeople hope that the quality of their handiwork will do the same and that people will notice; in the meantime, they give it what they consider a helpful push. Shakespeare definitely, with his choice of the word ‘powerful’ in Sonnet 55, knew the value of his own words in outlasting even the hardest stone (‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.’) and was clearly right to say so: his sonnet certainly seems to be standing the test of time. So… we turn the words and polish them, with ‘perhaps’ floating in our heads… and promote them.
Which in turn leads me to the ‘selfie’, a bizarre bi-product of the technological society in which we live. We have a ‘smart’ phone (there’s a misnomer) which we can turn upon ourselves with no skill or effort whatsoever and take our own picture. Why? Narcissus fell in love with his reflected image, because Nemesis, having noticed his overweening pride in himself, led him to the pool in which he saw himself and he couldn’t drag himself away from the image in its surface; he therefore died, his hubris preventing him from seeing reality. Messrs Obama and Cameron, perhaps flattered by the photographic attentions of the personable Danish PM, fell into much the same trap, losing their sense of reality in the process. Not only did they use no art in the creation of the resulting silly picture, but also failed to use even the most basic commonsense, and Mrs Obama and the rest of the world clearly eyed them with the sharp vision of objectivity. Oh dear. The ‘selfie’ doesn’t work very well as a self-promotional tool.
I didn’t set out to be moralistic, but this is beginning to feel that way. We care about what we create and care about how others view it; there is ‘self’ in that! I have been privileged to receive positive reviews about Almost Love from writers whose own work I value and enjoy and I’m therefore sharply aware of how important it is to celebrate what I find successful and admirable in what others do; there is joy to be had in reviewing books that stand scrutiny. I’m also very much aware of how selflessly many of the people with whom I interact on the social networks behave; they deserve to feel proud of themselves for making someone else’s day. I’m glad, too, that the social media allow all of us to find our way to what we like; we’d miss out on some gems if their creators were utterly selfless!
On the platform
Yesterday was a real red-letter day for me. I had been invited to give one of two after-lunch talks at Soroptimist International King’s Lynn annual fund-raising lunch, which was held at the Best Western Le Strange Arms Hotel at Old Hunstanton. I was invited to speak by Sue Renwick, this year’s King’s Lynn Soroptimist President, and her colleague, June Muir. I discovered that my name had been suggested by two of my old school friends, Lyn Lord and Mandy North. Both have been enthusiastic promoters of my books and Mandy has attended both of the signing sessions held at Bookmark in Spalding. I was chosen because my books are set in Spalding – not too far away from King’s Lynn (in fact, my brother was born in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital there) – and the group particularly likes to listen to authors whose books have a local flavour.
This literary lunch was the fourth one held by the King’s Lynn Soroptimists. The speaker at last year’s event was Stella Rimington (who has a house in Norfolk), so I felt honoured indeed! The audience consisted of ninety-nine lunchers, mostly Soroptimists, with a sprinkling of husbands. The Worshipful the Mayor of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, Councillor Mrs Elizabeth Watson, was there, and I much enjoyed talking to her. I was privileged to be seated next to Sue Renwick’s husband and had a fascinating conversation with him about migrant workers in Norfolk (a topic in which I’m currently immersed as I write my third DI Yates novel). The local press was in attendance: I shall post links to their photographs when I have them.
I had heard of the Soroptimists before, but I didn’t know much about them until I received the invitation, when I made it my business to find out a little more. The first group was set up in the USA, quickly followed by others in the UK. The organisation is now worldwide. Its website explains its mission: We are committed to a world where women and girls together achieve their individual and collective potential, realise aspirations and have an equal voice in creating strong, peaceful communities worldwide. The fund-raising events support particular causes. The money raised from yesterday’s lunch will contribute to respite holidays for Norfolk’s young carers: heartbreakingly, there are children as young as seven looking after infirm or disabled parents.
My fellow-speaker was Elly Griffiths, whom I had already met earlier this year at a very successful literary festival event held at Watton Library. Elly spoke first. I know her to be a witty and eloquent speaker (and therefore a tough act to follow!). She told the audience how she came to create her academic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway, and read an excerpt from the next Ruth Galloway novel. She said that the inspiration for these books had come from her husband, who exchanged a high-profile, lucrative career as a city ‘suit’ to become an archaeologist. The Galloway novels are set in Norfolk because Elly’s aunt lives there and Elly spent holidays there as a child; she also pointed out that Norfolk is full of bones!
My brief asked me how I came to develop the characters in the DI Yates novels. I’ve reproduced some of what I said here in the hope that it may interest readers of this blog, as several of you have asked me similar questions.
When I was thinking about where to set the novels, I revisited the Spalding of my childhood (and incidentally some of my most memorable holidays as a girl were spent in Hunstanton). DI Yates’ Spalding is therefore a ‘perfect’ place in the sense that it exists only in my memory and imagination. Among the many riches that Spalding and the Fens offer to me as a writer is their wonderful place-names – Pode Hole, Quadring Eaudyke, Gosberton Risegate, Pinchbeck: I know that many readers are intrigued by the promise of romance and mystery implicit in the names of these villages.
None of the characters is entirely based on people I know or have known, though they have been influenced by traits I saw in certain individuals or by real events and customs. For example, my great uncle kept a general shop in in Spalding, in Westlode Street. It was the family business for many years: he’d inherited it from his father. My grandmother – my father’s mother – acted as his housekeeper. More or less accurately, this is the shop in which Doris Atkins is murdered in In the Family. Her daughter-in-law, Dorothy Atkins, also known as Tirzah, is convicted of the crime. But Doris Atkins is not a portrayal of my grandmother, nor is Dorothy a portrayal of my mother. Uncle Colin, the hunchback who keeps the shop, is a little more closely based on my own great-uncle, but only in the physical sense: my great-uncle did indeed suffer from curvature of the spine. He did make forays on a grocer’s bicycle to collect cigarettes and bananas to sell in the shop. He did wear a long shopman’s coat and a trilby. But Colin’s character is not his character. (Just as well, considering what Colin gets up to in the novel!)
Moving on to Almost Love, I talked about Alex Tarrant and her role in the novel. Alex is the secretary of the Archaeological Society, a prestigious institution very loosely modelled on Spalding Gentlemen’s Society. Some of my readers have told me that they feel that the Archaeological Society is almost like another character in this novel. The story begins with the unexplained disappearance of a famous archaeologist. Several murders take place during the course of the novel and, although she isn’t involved in them directly, Alex is inadvertently the person who provides the links between the various perpetrators; this is in part because she embarks upon an ill-considered affair. I was interested in exploring the disintegration of character of Edmund Baker, the County Heritage Officer and the instigator of this illicit alliance, as he undoubtedly suffers the guilt of betraying his wife.
I also spoke about my grandmothers and the extraordinary houses they lived in. I’ve already mentioned the shop at Westlode Street where my father’s mother lived. My mother’s mother was employed in domestic service from the age of fourteen to seventy-four, at first (a bit like Hardy’s Tess!) as a poultry maid. Her second employer sent her to Bart’s Hospital to train as a nursery nurse and from this she worked her way up to become housekeeper to Samuel Frear, last of the great Lincolnshire sheep farmers. She was widowed young, so my mother grew up at The Yews, the Frear family home at Surfleet. Just after I was born, my grandmother, now aged sixty, moved to Sutterton, to become companion to a very old lady who lived at a substantial house called The Laurels. She had been the wife of a gentleman farmer who was twenty years her senior, so he must have been born in the mid-nineteenth century.
Like Westlode Street, The Laurels was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were decorated with many sepia photographs of the old lady’s husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man. These photographs must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s and in many of them he was accompanied by several black women wearing very little except strings of beads. The book I’m working on now is set in this house. When I began writing it, I had also just discovered that a very famous person was living in the area at the same time, which helped me to construct the plot. It’s about a murder that happens in the present, but is strongly influenced by what happened in the house in the past.
I think that both our talks were well-received: many of the Soroptimists came and spoke to us with great warmth and enthusiasm afterwards, and they were extremely generous in their purchases of our books. We were each presented with a pen in a beautifully crafted wooden box that Sue Renwick had made herself – an unexpected and delightful kindness.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank most sincerely all of those present for a wonderful day. I shall certainly take a very close interest in all that they do from now on and hope perhaps to be able to help them, both as a writer and a professional woman, in the future. I hope too that they will come to visit here and perhaps comment, too.
Today has been one of those perfect late summer days that you look on and savour when it’s the bleak middle of winter. The sun has been shining, but a gentle breeze has prevented the heat from becoming oppressive. When we took the dog for a walk this morning, the wheat was almost ripe and straight, unspoiled by the rainstorms of a couple of weeks ago; the barley stubble was pure gold. By lunchtime, I’d written my quota of words for the novel I’m working on. The garden is a pleasure to be in: it hasn’t yet matured into its blowsy, trollopy autumn look and the late summer flowers are still blooming. The clematis étoile violette is at its spectacular best.
The flowers of our golden marjoram and oregano are attracting our honey-bees and the many kinds of bumble-bee that seem to be flourishing this year (I like the red-bottomed ones!) and there are more butterflies than I’ve ever before seen here – the peacock butterflies have been especially prolific and one popped in to be photographed before we helped it back to the yellow buddleia.
There will be a good apple crop later, as the ripening Cox’s orange pippin shows. And there is crab for dinner tonight!
Aside from the beauties of nature, the day got off to a wonderful start, with two very generous reviews of Almost Love, by Elaine Aldred and Trish Nicholson, to join Valerie Poore’s excellent one; all are on the DI Yates page of this website! May I wish you, all three, a summery bounty – you spent a great deal of time and care over these, as well as over the reading of the novel – and may I also extend warm greetings to all who visit and comment here.
A wonderful day. And a shameless excuse to share some photographs.
I was very privileged yesterday to have been invited to the event arranged by Wakefield Library Service as a joint celebration of National Reading Group Day and Crime Fiction Month. It was organised by Alison Cassels, Library Officer for Reading at Wakefield, and lasted almost the whole day. It was held at Wakefield One, the wonderful new library and museum complex which was opened last November by Jarvis Cocker. The day’s activities were built around the interests of Wakefield Libraries’ eighteen reading groups. When they are in everyday mode, the reading groups choose books that they wish to read from a selection provided; the library service then buys sets of these and distributes them. In itself, this must constitute an impressive feat of complex organisation and canny budget allocation.
About twenty members from various Wakefield reading groups attended. The morning began with refreshments, during which participants were given the opportunity to examine the next round of suggested titles and make their choices. We then split into three groups. Three books were being discussed, Peter May’s The Blackhouse, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and my own In the Family. The facilitators were Alison Cassels’ colleague, Lynn, Julie Walker, Operations and Development Manager for Kirklees Library Service, and myself.
It turned out that so many of the participants had read all three novels that I and my fellow facilitators led consecutive sessions with all three groups. At the end of the morning, Julie chaired a wrap-up session about crime fiction more generally and we discussed our favourite books in the genre. We then broke for lunch. In the afternoon, more people joined the groups to listen to my reading of two short excerpts from In the Family and Almost Love, as part of a session during which we discussed how I write and how I originally managed to get published; the audience put to me more questions (some of them very searching indeed) about my novels. At the close, Richard Knowles of Rickaro Books, in Horbury, sold copies of both books.
I don’t recall having enjoyed an event – whether or not it featured other authors or myself and my own writing – more than I enjoyed yesterday’s. I say this, not from reasons of vanity, but because I have never before had the opportunity to get as close to readers and what they really think. The eloquence and perceptiveness of the reading group members, and the fact that they had spent so much time on really engaging with In the Family, was truly humbling. I took much pleasure in listening to Pauline when she explained why she enjoyed the passages of dialogue – particularly that which takes place during Hedley Atkins’ and Peter Prance’s train journey to Scotland – and how much she identified with Hedley’s frustration when he missed the train to Liverpool, in spite of his sinister intent; and to Jane, for taking the trouble to create a family tree for the Atkins family. Other reading group members quizzed me for more information about Salt Publishing, about the history of Lincolnshire, about how DI Tim Yates will develop in subsequent books and – in true, straightforwardly friendly, Yorkshire fashion – about what I could say to persuade them to buy Almost Love! I said that it does develop Tim’s character further, as they’d hoped, and that it contains quite a lot of history and more of the dialogue that they’d obviously enjoyed.
If any of yesterday’s participants are reading this, I’d like you to know that I think you are amazing. I was grateful beyond words for your generosity in investing so much time, both in the event itself and in reading the books, as well as, of course, for your buying them. I do hope that I shall have the opportunity to meet you again.
I’d like to conclude with a special thank-you to Alison, who provided me with excellent hospitality. Wakefield Library Service is an old friend, with which I first became acquainted in the late 1970s. It has always enjoyed a fine reputation as a distinguished and innovative library authority. From the start, therefore, I knew that yesterday would succeed, but the magic of the day, created by a combination of impeccable organisation by Alison, Lynn and their colleagues and the wonderful enthusiasm of all the participants involved, both from the reading groups and other members of the public, made it truly unforgettable.
I gave my first talk in a library yesterday, at Bawtry Community Library, near Doncaster. It had been requested by Claire Holcroft and George Spencer, of Doncaster Library Service, and immaculately organised by Lesley Gilfedder at the library itself. Despite the rain and the fact that it coincided with the local school play, about twenty people attended. It was a lively and appreciative audience; most of its members had read more crime novels than I have, even though I’m a self-confessed addict, and several of them had detailed personal knowledge of the part of Lincolnshire which I write about. I felt that I learnt at least as much from them as they from me.
I gave two short readings, one from In the Family and one from Almost Love. I was asked about the characters and, especially, about why I’d chosen to make a dysfunctional family the focus of In the Family. We talked a lot about the atmospheric qualities of the Fens and about past writers who have described them, especially Charles Dickens and Dorothy L. Sayers. We discussed plots and plot construction, how to make them work, whether it’s possible to change the plot mid-novel and how to avoid inconsistencies. Several of the audience kindly bought copies of the books.
I took some cakes (I’ve decided to make this one of my trademarks!) and, when the organised part of the evening was over, no-one was in a hurry to leave. Lesley, ever efficient, made tea and coffee and we all stayed to talk.
Of course, I know about public library cutbacks, but I had no idea how swingeing they have been in some authorities or how magnificently local communities have responded in order to save their libraries. Bawtry is a lovely library: it has a cared-for look; there are bright paintings on the walls; the stock is impeccably arranged and there is a large children’s area where the floor has been carpeted in multi-coloured tiles to aid the playing of games and telling of stories. It keeps full opening hours and, as last night, is also sometimes open late. All of this is achieved by volunteers. It has about ninety of them, typically working three-hour shifts. As well as manning the library, they clean it and care for the grounds. They’ve been operating this arrangement for eighteen months and, so far, not one volunteer has dropped out. I understand that most of the other libraries that come under the aegis of the Doncaster local authority are also run in this way, though not all manage to keep such long opening hours as Bawtry.
I am amazed and full of admiration, tinged also with a little bit of shame. The public library charter entitles people to the right to borrow books from a local library, yet the people of Bawtry would not be able to do this if so many of them were not prepared to give up their own time to make it work. It is both a huge local achievement and a national scandal that this state of affairs should exist.
I’d therefore like this post to stand as a tribute to the wonderful people from Bawtry whom I met yesterday and to all their friends and colleagues who continue to make the library the vibrant hub of their community. Thank you. And especial thanks to Lesley, for all your unobtrusive hard work behind the scenes.
The Salt crime writing event that took place at Waterstones Gower Street yesterday was a very festive occasion. Sam Rahman, the Events Manager at the shop, her colleagues and a large and appreciative audience combined to make it a great success.
Laura Ellen Joyce, Matthew Pritchard and I each gave readings from our books. Laura read from The Museum of Atheism, which (jointly with In the Family) launched the Salt crime list last November. I read from Almost Love and Matthew from Scarecrow, which Salt will publish in September. Afterwards, I chaired a discussion with Laura and Matthew about their writing. The audience joined in, offering many lively and perceptive comments.
Both Matthew and Laura agreed that a sense of place was important to their writing. Laura chose to set her book in small-town America in the dead of winter – there is no daylight in the novel – to epitomise the corruption that it portrays. Matthew writes powerfully about Andalucia, which he knows well, having lived and worked there for twelve years. Laura agreed with the suggestion that she describes a rudderless society in which no character is able to provide a moral yardstick or compass. Matthew said that the corruption captured in his work derives more directly from his knowledge of shady Spanish officialdom. Danny Sanchez, the protagonist of Scarecrow, is a journalist who bravely tries to expose the fraudulence and self-interest upon which he sees that Spanish politics is based.
Laura had deliberately left vague the identity of the killer in her book, because, in a sense, she was indicating that society as a whole was to blame. Matthew had had the intention right from the start to write about a serial killer, but the character of the killer took shape in his mind gradually as he worked on the book and continued to read about real-life murders. An account of how the head of one of Fred and Rosemary West’s victims had been swathed in gaffer tape had left a particularly lasting impression on his imagination.
There was much laughter from the audience at Matthew’s anecdote about how, when the shop below his flat caught fire recently, the police broke into the flat and discovered his large collection of books about serial killers and Nazism scattered over the floor. There was even more laughter when I persistently made the mistake of calling him ‘Danny’, after his hero, rather than Matthew! (Apparently, it is a mistake that his agent makes, too!)
Laura confirmed that she will continue to write crime because she has a profound interest in why people commit evil or anti-social acts. She’s also interested in pushing out the boundaries of fiction. When, in response to a question from one of the audience about what I thought the ‘next big thing’ in crime writing would be, I said that I’ve seen several books lately that mix genres and I’m not sure that it works, Laura said that this idea appealed to her and that she would like to experiment with it. I do think that it would take a very good writer to pull it off, but Laura is so accomplished that she is one of the few people I know who might succeed at it.
I was asked why most crime novels are about murder, rather than other types of crime, such as theft or fraud. I said that there are some novels based on theft – there is quite a strong sub-genre relating to crimes associated with works of fine art, for example – but it is difficult to write about crimes other than murder unless you are a police procedural author. This sub-genre has never appealed to me; I’m more interested in the psychological aspect of crime-writing.
We were all asked whether we’d come to writing ‘lately’, or whether we’ve always been writers. We agreed that we’ve all been writing ever since we can remember. Asked also whether we had to let a novel ‘fade’ from our imaginations after we’d finished it before we could embark upon another, we each offered different responses: Matthew writes all the time and is usually working on several books at once – he knocks out 2,000 words a day, even if sometimes he knows it is rubbish and he will have to discard some of it; Laura writes regularly, but in different genres – she writes short stories between novels and also said that she was very organised when writing The Museum of Atheism which, with a detailed outline on a spreadsheet, she wrote in twenty-four days, a chapter a day, all in November, following the NaNoWriMo concept; I usually take a brief break after completing a novel, but I’ve started on the next DI Yates book now. I feel that being an author is a bit like being a member of the fashion industry: your mind is already on the next season’s work while your readers are still consuming this season’s product.
We all paid tribute to Salt Publishing, which we agreed is an uncompromising publisher setting high standards. We were also united in saying that we aren’t interested in the ‘blood-and-guts’ style of crime writing.
On behalf of the three of us, I’d like to thank Sam and the staff at Gower Street for their wonderful hospitality. I’d especially like to thank all of you who attended for being such a generous and receptive audience, for making such constructive contributions to the discussion and, of course, for buying or ordering our books! It was good to meet some new friends – some of whom I’ve only previously ‘met’ through Twitter. Finally, a big thank-you to numerous well-wishers who were unable to come (some of you based in countries very far away), but who sent kind and encouraging messages and helped to advertise the occasion. We hope to meet you all one day at future events.
All in all, it was a very memorable evening indeed!