Finale to my National Crime Reading Month daily blog series
Today is the last day of June and therefore today’s is the last of my daily blog posts to celebrate Crime Reading Month. I’d like to pay tribute to the CWA for coming up with the idea of CRM and to the countless people who have supported it. I’d particularly like to thank everyone who has contributed to these thirty posts by providing so many magnificent insights and vignettes and for giving up their time so generously to help me. It’s impossible to pinpoint highlights – I feel as if I’ve been on a high all month! – although a few moments stand out for me personally. I was struck by Hannah Deuce’s comment that all writers are different, so she supports each one in different ways; by Natalie Sammons’ observation that if you write to please yourself, you won’t be disappointed ‘whatever the outcome’; and perhaps most of all by Frances Pinter’s description of Brexit in one punch-packing word: ‘frivolous’. Frances’ post was all about the importance of peace and how we should dread the danger of war that is looming once again; sadly, as we reach the end of this month, the conflict in Ukraine is no nearer to resolution than it was on 1st June.
CRM has given me some humbling opportunities to read or re-read some fine works of fiction: Snegurochka, by Judith Heneghan, and The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore impress with their originality and fine use of language, but I have enjoyed all the novels that I have written about this month and am in awe of all their authors. In this, I include Annie, the only poet featured, whose stark poems about domestic violence bring home the enormity of it more vividly than any number of newspaper and court reports. I’d also like to pay tribute to those who have always supported me as a writer and continue to do so: Annika, Valerie, Noel, Dea and now, Hannah, please take a bow. I salute those who have dedicated their lives to supporting the bookselling and publishing industries: Richard, Nick, Lynette, Linda and, again, Frances and Noel. I’d love to be a member of Deirdre’s reading group – she and her book club friends seem to have such fun! And finally, I’d like to thank Betsy, Tara and Hannah for publishing The Canal Murders to the usual high Bloodhound standards; and I’d like to take the opportunity to apologise for (temporarily) having forgotten my own publication date!
As readers of this whole series of posts will know, I have been privileged to speak at four libraries during the course of the month. I have, of course, known for many years how much librarians bring to their communities, but when I met Helen, Kathryn, Tarina and Kay and their teams, their generosity, talent and tireless efforts to help people were brought home to me all over again. I’d like to thank them once more for their wonderful hospitality – and the equally wonderful audiences to whom they introduced me, each of which taught me far more than I felt I had to offer them. I now know about ran-tanning, the use of opium for Fenland agues and many more facts about life in Lincolnshire, both past and present, than when I started out. The library visits also gave me the opportunity to research some unsolved Lincolnshire murders, including that of Alas! Poor Bailey, my favourite. My encounter with the vicar of Long Sutton church will stay with me.
When I introduced this blog series, I promised to tell my readers at the end of it why I write about the Spalding of my childhood even though my novels are set in the present. I renew that promise now, but I hope you will allow me a short delay. It is because – as I mentioned earlier this week – I am currently on holiday in Orkney – in fact, sadly, my time here is drawing to an end; and while I am still able to imbibe the magic of this place I should like to introduce you to one of the island’s serial murderers – the great skua. Called “the pirate of the seas” or, in Orkney, “the bonxie”, this formidable bird – which appears not to be afraid of humans – hunts other birds on the wing. Today my husband and I watched spellbound as a pair of great skuas systematically chased a curlew through the soft blue skies and engaged above and around us in aerial combat with greater black-backed gulls. I came to Orkney for inspiration as a writer and I have found more here than I could ever have dreamed about.
As I prepare to return home and submit myself to the discipline of the keyboard once more, I should like to conclude by thanking everyone who has read even one of these posts. I do hope you have enjoyed them. There are more to come – I was surprised and grateful to have more offers from would-be contributors than there are days in the month of June. And of course I shall not forget my promise.
I leave you with a cheerful picture of one of Orkney’s denizens.
An Orcadian digression
Today’s post is a bit of a self-indulgence. I hope you’ll forgive me, because it is only tangentially related to National Crime Reading Month and crime fiction, or indeed to any of the other topics this blog has covered since 1st June.
Allow me to explain. Since Thursday, I have been travelling north with my husband through the whole length of Scotland, reaching Stirling on Thursday evening and Thurso on Friday. Yesterday, we boarded the ferry for Orkney and reached our holiday house for the week – which is in Stromness – late yesterday afternoon. It has been one of my lifelong ambitions to visit Orkney and it does not disappoint. It is a magical place, palpably the residence still of the ancient, tricky-to-propitiate Norse gods of the old sagas, but with plenty of more recent history to explore and enjoy. Our first evening also gave us a moment of northern summer splendour, too, a sparkling view into space!
The gods seemed very close in the early hours of this morning when we got up at 03.40 am to try to watch the rare conjunction of five planets. It was almost daylight and we could see the moon, a fine sliver
in the pearl-grey sky, but unfortunately the fast-scudding clouds soon obliterated it and kept the planets out of view. We braced ourselves to stay outside for fifteen minutes to watch the rising of the chilly dawn and then returned to bed.
Today we have explored Stromness, a venerable port and fishing village.
A warm sun was shining on its mellow grey stones, tempered by a sharp and intermittently buffeting wind. The boats in the harbour gleamed white and blue, the waves turned briskly, flecking the blue-green sea with cream, and the mountains in the distance presided over all with summery bonhomie. (I imagine they loom with a much grimmer aspect in the winter.) People were out strolling on the cobbles or seated at the outdoor cafés drinking coffee. The ferry came and went again. Most of the quaint old shops were open – though the bookshop was closed, a visit to it therefore a treat to be saved for later in the week.
So, what has all this got to do with CRM and writing crime fiction? Well, to be honest, not much – yet. To be even more frank, today’s post is mainly an excuse to show off the wonders of Orkney by posting some nice photographs. But please have patience: I am also on writing alert. I already have a plot in mind and am thinking of ways in which I can make the most of this unique place to set the scene.
Murders in Orkney? I have read of a few, including a relatively recent one which is too harrowing either to discuss here or make use of in a novel. There will soon be a murder or two in Orkney – according to me – but they will not be founded in fact. I do not wish to arouse the wrath of the old Norse gods. I shall leave them to slumber until they themselves choose to wake again and you to stroll with us round Stromness:
The likes of a blogpost? A crime of expression…
As I’ve admitted in a previous post to having pedantic tendencies, I won’t apologise for them again today. In fact, snowed in and beleaguered by a power-cut as I am and having, at the time of writing, no hot water, no central heating and no means of obtaining hot drinks or cooking food (though mercifully I am sitting in front of a warm stove with a goodly supply of logs to burn and books to read), I have decided to treat myself to a bit of a Saturday rant.
Every so often, an expression that I particularly dislike seems to pop up with alarming frequency in the media. The one that I am thinking of at the moment is ‘the likes of’. It has been around for a long time and has always made me shudder. I associate it very much with certain annoying adults of my childhood who both used it and also perpetuated other hateful stereotypical sayings, such as ‘Had you thought of that?’ (thus indicating none too subtly that the speaker regarded himself or herself as of superior sense and intelligence) or, most heinous of all to me, ‘Yes, but…’ to any helpful suggestion that I might have ventured to make.
However, I had believed that use of ‘the likes of’ had been steadily waning in popularity for at least three decades. I had not encountered it much at all for ten years or so, until January this year. Now it seems to have resurfaced with a vengeance, like a virus that has lain dormant and suddenly been exploded back into life by some trick of the climate. The first occasion on which I noticed its resurgence was when Bradley Wiggins made his winning appearance at the BBC Sportspersonality of the Year Awards and said that he had never imagined that he would be standing there on stage with ‘the likes of’ the Duchess of Cambridge and the others with her. Among the rash of new incidences that have cropped up since then, a recent review by a well-known literary columnist referred to ‘the likes of Kafka’ and yesterday a newscaster on Radio 4, announcing bad weather warnings, spoke of ‘the likes of Oxford and Wales’.
Aside from the fact that to me it sounds more than a little derogatory, what exactly is meant to be conveyed by ‘the likes of’? Whom else besides the Duchess herself (pace Hilary Mantel) could possibly be described as ‘the likes of’ the Duchess of Cambridge? Who is the ‘like’ of Kafka, that most uncompromisingly individual of authors? Where are ‘the likes of’ Oxford and Wales, two distinctive geographical places, one a city, the other a country, which are not remotely like each other and neither of which, to my knowledge, resembles anywhere else? Is the expression supposed to liberate some kind of imaginative power in the listener, by inviting him or her to supply his or her own references to fill the implied gap? Thus I might think ‘this is like Kafka and Jeffrey Archer’ or you might think ‘this is like Oxford and Orkney’: all very confusing and not at all helpful.
What I’m attempting, I suppose, is to understand why the phrase exists at all. What does it add to the point that is being communicated? If Bradley Wiggins had said, ‘I never expected to be standing on stage with the Duchess of Cambridge and…’, would anything have been lost by the omission of ‘the likes of’? Would he not actually have come across as more gracious and complimentary? If the newscaster had simply said, ‘There are severe weather warnings for Oxford and Wales’, would our understanding of the message have been impaired by his not having included the rogue phrase?
Sometimes I’m a fan of redundant phrases. They can make what we say more graphic, more picturesque, even more nuanced and sensitive. But ‘the likes of’? Spare me! If the likes of you and me agree to boycott this nasty conjunction of three little words, perhaps we can start a fashion that will spread throughout the English-speaking world until, like smallpox, the expression has been completely eradicated. ‘Yes, but,’ you might say colloquially, ‘one day the likes of Bradley Wiggins is sure to emerge again. Had you thought of that?’