My son called me yesterday evening to gloat because of the outcome for him of a BBC quiz he’d just completed, entitled ‘Where would you be happiest in Britain?’ (The quiz can be found here, if you’re interested. I assume, for readers of this blog who live outside Britain, that it will guide your choice should you wish to emigrate from your country. 😉 I should add that, since the way into it is by selection of a miserable three photographic choices, I rather suspect that it has an equal paucity of possible places to put participants!) It told him that the place in which he’d be happiest is Lewes, in East Sussex (also its choice for my husband – QED my point about the limitations of the quiz), but his reason for calling was to let me know it also forecast the place in which he’d be most miserable. The prediction for him was ….Spalding! Where, apparently, the inhabitants are bereft of several character traits that those of other places have in spades, including friendliness. My son was delighted because he’s always affirmed that I, a native of Spalding, was born among bog-dwellers with webbed feet (and, in point of fact, my paternal aunt did have webbed feet!), whereas he is one of God’s Yorkshiremen.
Not willing to take this lying down, I decided to complete the quiz myself. It told me quite firmly that the place I’d be happiest living in would be Oxford (where there is, allegedly, a very high ratio of ‘cultured, conscientious and’ … ahem… ‘neurotic ’ people, just like me, apparently). And the place in which I’d be least happy? You may have guessed it already: Spalding!
Now, apart from pointing out the obvious – that the BBC must have a real down on my home town; so much so, that I wonder if the quiz might have been compiled by Jeremy Clarkson after he found out that all the restaurants serving food (hot or cold!) there are closed by 10 p.m. – I’d like to take issue with this.
First of all, I know Oxford well and have never considered it to be my idea of residential heaven. It’s pleasant enough and I’ve been to some good concerts there and eaten some excellent food in its (largely overpriced) restaurants. I have a significant number of friends and acquaintances who live or work there, most of whom are cultured and conscientious and some of whom are undoubtedly neurotic.
But, over the years, I’ve also had some pretty duff experiences in Oxford. Here are a couple of examples:
When I was working for a Scottish library supplier, I was once booked into a hotel (called Green Gables, but there, its resemblance to the home of L.M.Montgomery’s heroine ended), a turn-of-the-twentieth-century building that sat right in the middle of a run-down housing estate containing a maze of roads through which feral dogs and glue sniffers roamed at large. The hotel didn’t serve food and I didn’t dare to go out after dark in search of any, so I dined on a cereal bar that I had in my brief case and a glass of tap water. My room looked as if it hadn’t been decorated since 1930 (the décor was bottle green and cream) and the ‘en suite shower’ (cunningly concealed behind a clear plastic curtain) was fitted with a rubber mat which, when lifted, revealed a thriving family of wood lice. Not very Oxford as Oxford conceives of itself!
My second example, however, is quintessentially Oxonian. I was visiting a publisher who persuaded me to attend an evening soirée featuring a ‘traditional African music ensemble’. Intrigued, I changed my train ticket and turned up at the event, hoping to feast on some of the exotic music and dancing I’d seen executed by a visiting troupe from Zimbabwe when I worked in Huddersfield (another awful town, according to the BBC). Imagine my chagrin when the ensemble turned out to consist of a quartet of upper middle class white Oxford ladies of a certain age playing its own arrangement of ‘native’ music on some very European instruments! I couldn’t capture my idea of Oxford better than by telling this tale, which does indeed demonstrate that Oxford is conscientious (if self-consciously so), cultured (in its own inimitable way) and neurotic (possibly).
When I think of places which have made me miserable, therefore, I’d have to include Oxford in the list. There are more deserving candidates, however. Among these, I’d cite Rotherham, a town that seems to have had nothing going for it since its magical (definitely, then, before the Industrial Revolution snapped it into its jaws!) ‘merry England’ manifestation, described by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe; Solihull, for several years home of the HQ of Dillons and Waterstones, a place which never seemed to have anything to recommend it except a larger-than-average number of dress shops catering for ‘the fuller figure’; its much bigger and uglier sister, Birmingham (though I admit the canal system there is superb and worth a visit); Bridgnorth, a place so benighted that even the local copper didn’t know where the library was; and, last but not least in the misery-making-for-me stakes, Middlesbrough, which I’ve visited twice and where I had my car broken into on both occasions.
And places where I’ve been happiest? Sometimes in London, spending delightful evenings with friends, though I’d hate to live there; often in Surbiton or Mawdesley, basking in special friends’ wonderful hospitality; at my God’s-own-Yorkshireman son’s various homes over time, both entertained and amused by him and his wife; and – yes – in Spalding; certainly, in Spalding, that sink of human baseness by BBC reckoning. I spent the first seventeen years of my life there, so I’d have experienced a childhood of Dickensian deprivation if I hadn’t been very happy some of that time, and an unusual teenager if I hadn’t also sometimes felt melodramatically sad. Finally, I do actually like the place I live in now – otherwise, why would I have chosen it? – even though the BBC thinks it is only 54% suitable for a person with my character traits.
Which brings me to my final point. Supposing that I do exhibit more than average conscientiousness, cultural awareness and neuroticism, why should I want to ghettoise myself with a massive bunch of people just like me? My immediate neighbours are as unlike me as possible. They include a racehorse trainer, a physiotherapist, a lawyer, a doctor and several businessmen, as well as a number of retired people. Their passions include horseracing, greyhound racing, playing the harp, planting rare snowdrops and keeping bees, in none of which I have more than a passing interest. Some are bluff, hearty, hail-fellow-well-met and extrovert; others are quieter, more reserved, but fascinating once engaged in conversation. Some take three holidays a year; one lives in the South of France for six months out of the twelve; others never have a holiday and hardly leave the village at all. We all appreciate the surrounding countryside. We all like being within a short drive of several major cities and towns. Other than these common points of consensus, mutual variety is the spice of our lives in so far as we share them.
So there you are, BBC. Mood and character createth the individual woman… or man; but not the place. In my book, anyway.
Once again I am on a train travelling south to London, and once again it is winter. I’ve made this journey many times since I last wrote about my fellow-travellers in January, but today it is quite cold outside and the people who have crowded on to this train are much more reminiscent of my January acquaintances than any I’ve encountered since.
Today, the people travelling in first class (it is very cheap on this service) are lively and cheerful. Most are talking to each other animatedly, so there is less scope for me to guess about their backgrounds or attribute murderous motives to them. Some are clearly business people, but many are going to London for a day out, to shop for Christmas. Several appear to be families engaged in both activities: the man (or woman) poring over spreadsheets or reports while other family members chat noisily over his or her head. One conspicuous difference at this time of year is that all the blocks of four seats around the large tables are taken. The ‘airliner’ seats for one, each with a smaller table, have mostly been shunned. I love the airliner seats, which are usually in heavy demand, but today I feel anti-social, sitting here in solitary splendour tapping away at my laptop.
The most extraordinary thing about these pre-Christmas travellers is that not one of them is glued to a mobile phone. There are no raised voices enunciating “I’m on the train”, intruding upon others’ thoughts with infuriating penetration; no ever-so-busy women spending the time from when they board the train at Doncaster to when they get off it at King’s Cross systematically calling everyone in their address book (it’s surprising how often my journeys have fallen victim to one of these); no raucous men calling their mates to reminisce about having had a few too many the night before.
The only thing that disappoints about this group – and the disappointment is a big one – is that not a single one of them seems to me to be likely murderer material. I realise that murderers come in all shapes and guises, but they have one thing in common: if they’re not being paid to kill, they exhibit some kind of negative excess. All are excessively desperate, or vengeful , or greedy, or deranged. It is hard to believe that any of these joyful, excited people now sharing the carriage with me harbours such qualities with sufficient intensity to be transformed to a killer.
So what shall I say about them? Guessing what they’d like for Christmas might be fun.
I’ll start with the easy ones. The two femmes d’un certain age sitting opposite me are both swathed in expensive scarves: one sports a bright red pashmina-style creation with tassels, the other a svelte black velvet cravat discreetly patterned in silver. If they buy presents for each other, I’m sure that it will be festive scarves again. Again? Well, the ones they’re wearing were probably last year’s reciprocated presents.
The man at the next table, still hunched over his report as his wife and two teenage daughters chatter and wave their arms, is making occasional notes with an ancient, chewed biro that looks as if it might have started life as a promotional gift from Kwik-Fit. If he really has to toil so hard for the whole journey (and is not just taking the soft option by ignoring his family), I feel that he deserves a decent pen. A Waterman, at least, if not a Mont Blanc. The two girls, both dressed in gauzy tops with lots of silver jewellery, huge eyes accentuated with expertly-applied make-up, are probably expecting to receive more of all of these things… and a lot more besides. The elder looks old enough to drive …. so Dad probably does need to keep on with the grafting. His wife, fingertips nail-barred to perfection, is sporadically reading on her Kindle between joining in the laughter and the chat. I doubt that Kindle vouchers will hack it for her, though. She, too, is wearing jewellery, much less than her daughters, but items of a different order from theirs: two sleek rings, one with a diamond embedded; a slender gold necklet; studs in her ears, which look suspiciously like diamonds. Her watch is probably gold, though mounted on a plain black leather strap. I’m sure she’d like an upgrade: a new gold watch for her, complete with a gold bracelet this time, please.
Time to hazard a guess at the tastes of the more inscrutable passengers now. The three companionable men sitting together: what would they like? They don’t look like football fans and, mercifully, aren’t discussing sport. One is reading the paper; one (I’m pleased to say, silently) listening to music; one sipping coffee and looking out of the window. No clues there. I could award them all new boxers and socks, but it wouldn’t be very enterprising of me. I think I’ll take a risk and give them all tickets for a murder mystery weekend. I know that Walton Hall, near Wakefield, has a couple coming up. I might even go to one of them myself. I may not be able to spot any latent murderers on this train, but there’s no harm in getting some of its occupants into the right frame of mind.
I’ve just been in London for three days. It was mostly for the day job: I’m afraid the lazy days of August are now a distant dream. Autumn, with its increased workload and vigorous round of conferences and exhibitions, has now kicked in with a vengeance. The nights are also getting longer, of course, and on Wednesday evening there was a decided nip in the air. Nevertheless, I was having a wonderful time. After five meetings with colleagues and friends (none of them arduous, it should be said, and all of them interesting), I rounded off the day in style by meeting my friend Sally, with whom, as I’ve mentioned before, I stay when I’m in London, and going to see Top Hat at the Aldwych.
Although I’ve seen many (probably too many!) amateur musical productions, I don’t think I’ve ever been to one in the West End before. It was truly breathtaking. Top Hat was made famous by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for whom it was written, and first produced in 1935. The Aldwych version is faithful to the original – I’m glad to say that it’s not a spiky modern take on what has always been intended to be a slice of sumptuous fantasia – and I’d guess, although I don’t know, probably even follows the same choreography. The dancing was superb. The lead roles were played by Kristen Beth Williams and Gavin Lee, and to my eye – although I daresay this will be considered sacrilege in some quarters – their dancing was every bit as fluid, graceful and amazing as Fred’s and Ginger’s (which I’ve seen on film). The dancing by every member of the cast was of the same high standard. The costumes were magnificent – Williams wore at least ten outfits on stage, each one more glamorous than the last – and the two-tiered set was extremely clever, a brilliant way of making the most out of what is in fact quite a small early twentieth century stage.
The theatre was packed, and not just with people of a certain age. It set me wondering why a musical with no ‘hidden message’, whose appeal resides in the extravagance of everything about it, from the virtuoso performances to the clothes and make-up, should be so popular. I thought that it might be because we’re all fed up with so-called austerity, and seeking a break from it. Spending the evening in a make-believe world where money is no object and everyone is talented and beautiful certainly did the trick for me. I guess that this may be the reason why the original Top Hat went down such a storm, too. The glamour and genius of Fred and Ginger were obviously powerless to dispel the dark shadows that were gathering over Europe in 1935, but they must have given their audiences a night off from thinking about them.
Understandably, the Aldwych doesn’t allow photographs to be taken during performances, so I hope that my words and your imagination will supply the deficit. I have, however, included a photograph of another heart-stirrer, the view from Waterloo Bridge. It was approaching midnight when I was walking over the bridge to catch the train back to Sally’s, so I managed to capture only a fraction of its magic. It’s a place that never ceases to delight me when I’m there. The sweeping views of the Thames, the elegant and floodlit buildings, the reflection of the lights on the water and the London Eye (which is larger and more substantial than the other Ferris wheels I’ve written about) always make me feel proud of our capital city. London can be grey and dingy, mean and impoverished, just like all big cities, I suppose: but on Waterloo Bridge it twinkles and shimmers with the same aplomb and grace that the dancers showed in Top Hat.
Today, August 9th, was my grandmother’s birthday. Already an old lady in my first memories of her, she was born in 1892. If she were still alive today, she would be 121, making her only slightly younger than Jeanne Calment, the longest-lived woman ever (reliably) recorded. I always remember the date of her birth when it comes round, partly because it is only a few days after my own birthday.
My grandmother was eighty-seven when she died. Although she was nine when Edward VII (whom she saw when he visited King’s Lynn shortly after his coronation) came to the throne, she remained a Victorian all her life. She dressed in high-necked blouses and ankle-length skirts. She never bought an article of clothing from a chain store; instead, she was fitted by a dressmaker twice a year for a new summer dress or a new winter dress, for ‘best’, plus two or three more of the almost-identical perennial skirts and blouses. Every few seasons, there would also be a new coat and a hat to match. She always wore a hat and gloves in the street and kept the hat on if she were visiting someone’s house. People in Spalding used to say to me, ‘Is your grandmother that old lady who’s always so beautifully dressed?’ Her shoes were handmade, too. She went to church several times a week and always twice on Sundays. She had standards.
You’d almost think that the twentieth century was an irrelevance to her, yet she was a bystander at some of its most significant events. Aged nine, she was lying in bed with rheumatic fever when her mother came in and said, ‘The Queen’s dead.’ (She meant Queen Victoria). She was working as a nursery nurse in London when her upper middle class employers told her in hushed tones of horror of the murder of the Russian royal family. Like many other young women, she knew young men who never returned from the trenches. She witnessed one of the Zeppelin raids on London, and was still living and working there during the General Strike. She remembered the suffragette processions and was flattered when she was told that she looked like Nancy Astor, the first woman MP. After she moved to Spalding (to be near her ageing parents) in the mid-1930s, she watched a rally held there in the marketplace by Oswald Mosely and his blackshirts. She and my mother were making a bed together towards the end of the Second World War when a doodlebug immediately overhead stopped buzzing; they each froze and waited, but thankfully it fell in Bourne Woods, some fifteen miles away.
These are just some of the reminiscences that she shared with me when I was a child (and I was always spellbound by her memories, never bored by them). Today, I thought it would be interesting to find out a few of the other things that happened in the year that she was born. It turned out that 1892 was a very eventful year… and, to list just a few of the significant happenings I’ve discovered that happened in that year:
- Thomas Edison received a patent for the two-way telegraph.
- Ellis Island began accommodating immigrants to the United States.
- Rudolf Diesel applied for a patent for the petrol ignition engine.
- The General Electric Company was founded.
- The Dalton Gang was apprehended by local townspeople and most of its members shot dead.
- An anarchist’s bomb killed six people in Paris.
- The Nutcracker ballet was premiered in St Petersburg.
- Andrew Carnegie (later a huge benefactor of English and Scottish libraries) amalgamated his six companies into one business and gained monopoly of the American steel industry.
- The father and mother of the suspected murderess Lizzie Borden were found dead in their Massachusetts home. It was one of the first murders to arouse widespread public interest.
- Conan Doyle published The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
- It was the birth year also of Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy), Haile Selassie, Pearl S. Buck, Vita Sackville-West and Hugh MacDiarmid. Hugh MacDiarmid was my grandmother’s very close contemporary: he was born just two days after her and died five months to the day before she did.
The story that this miscellaneous list of facts tells is that the seeds of the twentieth century – scientific, cultural, literary and political – were being sown by the beginning of the 1890s. There can be no period of time that has seen greater changes than the years that my grandmother’s life (1892 – 1979) spanned. When she was born, motor-cars were in their infancy and girls waited impatiently to be allowed to ‘put their hair up’; when she died, it was already eighteen years since Yuri Gagarin had been launched into space and Flower Power, The Beatles and the mini-skirt had been and gone. Yet she was not impervious to these events; rather, she seemed to take them in her stride. In the meantime, she carried on wearing long skirts, visiting her dressmaker and attending church, confident, I have no doubt, that one day the world would wake up from its madness and proper decorum would be restored.
All, apart from my memories, that I have of her are a few presents that I treasure; they include a brass carriage clock of hers, which, as it stood on her mantelpiece, and now stands on mine, seems a symbolic link of time to a bygone age of which she was very much a part.
I bought this book because it has had some excellent reviews and also because I’ve met Anya Lipska on social networks, where she always speaks with great courtesy and perspicacity. I knew, therefore, that buying it would involve little risk!
The front of the jacket carries a quote from Emlyn Rees: ‘RIP Nordic crime. Here come the Poles’. That in itself is interesting, because I’ve read several novels this year that, like this one, are set partly in the UK and partly in Poland, the protagonists of which are either Polish ex-pats or the children of Polish ex-pats. I went overboard on the first of them, because the subject seemed to me to be so unusual and appealing. However, after I’d read two or three, I realised that they all focus on Poland’s recent troubled political past, especially the Soviet occupation. This actually gives them a much more limited appeal than that of Nordic crime, which deals with the many facets of modern society in the Nordic countries, not just one aspect of it. That first one, especially, was, upon a second reading, disappointing in terms of both technique and its author’s command of language.
Where the Devil Can’t Go is in a different league. It’s true that it touches on the Soviet occupation and dwells at length on Solidarity and its aftermath, but in a very sophisticated way. This is not a tub-thumping work. Anya Lipska demonstrates an impressive knowledge of Poland’s post-war political history and its residual effects, yet she does not parade her knowledge or make sweeping comments about a martyred state. Instead, she offers a wise, balanced and yet hard-hitting narrative. If I may say so in all humility, this is a very accomplished book indeed. It contains sinners, but no saints… and even the sinners are complicated characters. Lipska holds no truck with two-dimensional villains.
The hero, Janusz Kiszka, is decidedly flawed. He works as a builder, not always on the right side of the law. He has a very uncertain temper and is prone to bouts of despair. In some ways, he is the stereotypical Polish incomer – so much so that, given the quality of her writing, I suspect that at the beginning of the book Lipska is gently mocking her readers, leading them to the slightly smug but erroneous belief that they’ve come across this type before – perhaps in real life – and have got him taped. But Kiszka is full of surprises – and not contrived ones, either. Gradually, he is revealed as a complex, tragic and even noble character, who, although he is sometimes forced by circumstance to engage in James Bond-like escapades, possesses qualities to which Bond is a stranger: fear, remorse, reflectiveness and sensitivity. He is also an intellectual manqué. Yet he remains a bit of a rogue.
The minor characters are equally well-drawn. I particularly like the old priest, Father Pietruski, who, if not a rogue himself (a point that is never dwelt on too much) certainly understands rogues and can separate the ‘good’ ones from those with black hearts. He’s not averse to drinking with the former. Kasia, Janusz’s girlfriend, is also well-drawn. Married to a worthless man, she refuses to leave him because she takes her marriage vows seriously. She works as a stripper and her greatest aspiration is to own a nail bar. It is a tribute to Lipska’s talent that she is able to generate great sympathy for this woman and her drab, sleazy life. The novel also gets my vote because of the way in which it vividly and accurately captures local topographies: I can’t speak for the Polish scenes, but the London ones, with which I am familiar, are completely convincing.
Where the Devil Can’t Go is shot through with politics, but its core subject is something deeper: it is about the human condition itself. In this respect, as in many others, it resembles the work of the best of the Nordic writers; Henning Mankell springs to mind. Yet the authorial voice is Lipska’s own, unique and original.
I’m impressed by the young female detective, Natalie Kershaw, but it is Kiszka who steals the show; I’m not sure if this novel is the first of a series, and therefore whether more are planned, but I do hope so. I should very much like to encounter Janusz Kiszka again.
Yesterday, London was in the grip of one of those gloomy, fog-bound days of which Dickens wrote so eloquently. The streets were grey and obscured by swirling mists so heavy that they fell like grubby rain on clothes and hair. People were scurrying about, heads down, doing damage with their umbrellas.
The British Library shone, as always, an oasis of light, heat, calm and coffee… and, importantly, cakes. I went to the café there to meet a colleague and, our business done in ten minutes, we had a wonderful time drinking in the power of George III’s magnificent book collection (which is displayed behind glass and occupies the full height of the building) while eating chocolate pastries.
My colleague had to leave at midday, which gave me an hour to kill before my next meeting. This was just as I had planned, because I had picked up from Twitter that a Crime Writing exhibition is currently on display there.
Sponsored by the Folio Society (which has apparently published quite a lot in the genre, a point to remember when trawling secondhand bookshops for old Folio Society titles), the exhibition takes an alphabetical approach to crime writing. It consists of twenty-six glass showcases, one for each letter of the alphabet, each one showing or explaining some aspect of the crime writer’s craft. Unsurprisingly, ‘A’ is for Agatha Christie; ‘Z’, less obviously, for ‘Zodiac’ – i.e. for crime writing based on the occult.
It is an inspired way of celebrating the genre. My favourite letters included ‘L’ for lady crime writers – I had not realised that until P.D. James published her debut crime novel, Cover her Face, in 1962, the fictional lady sleuth had pretty much dropped out of sight since Victorian times – and, of course, ‘B’ for Baker Street. The Holmes showcase included some specimens of Conan Doyle’s manuscripts (which I photographed before I was told to put away my camera by a security guard – I honestly had not realised that photography was not allowed!). I revisited many crime-related topics that I’ve researched myself, often presented in ways that made me regard them anew, and discovered some fascinating facts; for example, that Wilkie Collins’ estimated annual income from The Woman in White (published in 1860) was £60,000 p.a.
This equates to about £4.5m today. It and many of the other exhibits served to prove that, right from the start of its inception as a genre, crime writing could be made to pay. The exhibition, which is free, takes about half an hour to absorb. I highly recommend a visit if you get the opportunity – especially if it is raining and you are struck down by a pressing need for coffee… and cake.