On Saturday, I had the great privilege of accompanying another Salt author, James Clarke, to Pontefract Library for an event to celebrate the publication of his important novel, The Litten Path, which tells the story of one mining family during the miners’ strike of 1984 – 5. The book has received some excellent reviews in the national press.
James talked eloquently about how he came to write the book. He said that he felt his generation was dispossessed, not by ‘baby-boomers’, but by the politics that prevailed in the late 1970s and 1980s (especially Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” adage) and the legacy of that period, from which he believes he and his contemporaries are still suffering today.
I’ve met Pontefract audiences before and I was delighted to see some familiar faces on this occasion. After James had talked about how and why he wrote The Litten Path, and read a chapter from it (he chose Chapter 5, which describes the first conflict between the miners and the police), the members of his audience were invited to give their views. What followed was an amazing discussion – one of the best I have ever participated in at any event.
James was fascinated by the fact that many of those attending not only remembered the miners’ strike but had been directly affected by it. One woman described how her mother and grandmother took food to miners’ families who had none; another said her grandmother had lived in Orgreave Lane: the ‘mighty Orgreave’ colliery of James’s novel, where the most vicious pitched battles took place, was just down the road.
People reminisced about how the strike had destroyed families, obliging some people to move away. Others are still living in towns and villages which used to be prosperous, but are now depressed and poverty-stricken, never having recovered from the strike or been able to reinvent themselves. Whole communities were dismantled. ‘Scabs’ – miners who went back to work while their colleagues were still on strike – were still being shunned and pilloried by those who fought it out to the bitter end many years later. A former teacher said she had taught at a local school between 1995 and 2010 and even at the end of that period it was not uncommon for strike-breakers to have bricks thrown through their windows.
The conversation moved on to the privations and hazards of mining itself – the illnesses, accidents and early deaths suffered by many miners. Several of the audience said that, although memories of the strike were still raw, they believed that, eventually, some kind of catharsis would be achieved and these communities would rise anew – “even if it takes 200 years”.
Alison and Lynne, the librarians from Wakefield and Pontefract who organised the event, did their usual great job – and surpassed themselves with the cakes and other goodies they provided. James and I would like to thank them very much indeed. And huge thanks to all the members of the audience for their wonderful contributions. If you are reading this, we want you to know how much we appreciated you.
I must apologise for my long silence to all the readers of this blog and to those very, very wonderful Twitter and FB friends (You know who you are!) who have continued to tweet out for me – I’ll be doing my best to make amends very soon now. Your kindness is phenomenal!
I do have excuses for not having posted much recently (a year like no other for me), but I realise I can’t justify my silence when so many of you manage to keep up your own posts and timelines and support me and others on top of doing your ‘day jobs’. However, by way of explanation, my own day job has taken me abroad several times this year (to the USA, twice, Seoul, Barcelona and Dubai), and whilst I realise how incredibly privileged I am to have visited all these places, I know that some of you will understand that long-haul travel is very disruptive to a writing routine, and the work resulting from those trips even more so. There have been some family challenges, too. As a result of all this, I was way behind with the latest DI Yates, the deadline for which was also brought forward slightly and I’ve been both-candle-ends burning for quite some time. Anyway, I’ve now finished the novel and should like to tell you a little bit about it, as well as, to start with, some landmarks of my writing year so far.
First and foremost, I’m delighted to be able to tell you that Salt has a wonderful new team to support its books. Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery and all Salt authors are now being supported by Adrian Weston (selling rights), Hannah Corbett (in charge of PR) and Medwyn Hughes and Julian Ball, of PG Distributors. I had the privilege of meeting everyone at a lunch in June. It is the most stellar team Salt has ever had and I’m sure will do a wonderful job.
For the third year running, I attended the Winchester Literary Festival at the end of June. This year, as well as giving as yet unpublished authors some one-to-one advice, I gave a talk on crime writing (Whodunnit: how it’s done), which attracted a much bigger audience than I’d anticipated and I think was probably a success.
A couple of weekends ago, I was invited back to Harlow Carr Gardens to participate in a series of signing sessions which Juliet Allard, the lovely bookshop manager, had organised to celebrate the summer. As on the last occasion, I really enjoyed the ambience there and the buzz of being in a really good bookshop – one that is supported not only by the local community, but by visitors who come from many miles away to see the gardens.
Juliet Allard has invited me back for another signing session after Rooted in Dishonour, the next DI Yates, is published in November. I’ve been offered a launch signing session/evening event for the novel at Bookmark, in Spalding, a bookshop with which I have a very special relationship and which has supported all the Yates novels magnificently ever since In the Family was published, and another signing session at Walkers Bookshop in Stamford. I’ll post and tweet the dates nearer the time. At present, I’m taking bookings for other events around the publication date, including library and bookshop events and talks to reading groups, so if you are interested I should be delighted to hear from you.
So, on to the novel. This is what it’s about (apologies for using the publisher’s blurb, but I did write it myself):
Eighteen-year-old Ayesha Verma disappears from her home in Spalding just a few days after her parents have introduced her to the cousin they’ve arranged for her to marry. There has been a nation-wide police campaign to raise awareness of ‘honour killings’. Conditioned by this, DI Tim Yates and Superintendent Thornton are convinced that Ayesha has been murdered for refusing the arranged marriage. Tim throws himself enthusiastically into preparations for a trip to India to interview the cousin. He first travels to London to visit his rather louche old friend, DI Derry Hacker, at the Met. Hacker introduces Tim to DC Nancy Chappell, an unconventional expert on honour killings.
When Tim arrives at King’s Cross he thinks that he hears the voice of Peter Prance, a confidence trickster whom he last encountered when he was investigating the murder of Kathryn Sheppard several years before. He’s unable to follow the man because he’s suddenly taken ill.
Tim’s wife, Katrin, has just returned to work as a police researcher after the birth of their daughter Sophia. DC Juliet Armstrong, who is far from convinced that Tim is right about the reason for Ayesha’s disappearance, arranges for Katrin to meet Fi Vickers, a social worker who helps women to escape from forced marriages and violent male relatives. She hopes that Fi will introduce Katrin to some of the women in her care so that Katrin can build a picture of the likely circumstances of ‘honour killings’. Juliet herself is feeling aggrieved because she thinks her career is going nowhere. Tim and Superintendent Thornton have announced their intention to appoint a Detective Sergeant to the team, but Juliet is convinced that she won’t get the job.
DI Hacker arranges dinner in a restaurant for Tim with a ‘surprise’ guest, who turns out to be Patti Gardner, the SOCO who was his girlfriend before he met Katrin. Derry is called away to a reported gangland beating shortly after they’ve begun to eat. Tim remains à deux with Patti, escorting her back to her hotel at the end of the evening. There he’s taken ill again, and is so incapacitated that he spends the night in Patti’s room. The victim of the gangland beating has been spirited away by the men who attacked him, but from Tim’s description Hacker is convinced he is Peter Prance.
Katrin has received a visit earlier that evening from Margie Pocklington, a teenager working for her child-minder. Margie asks Katrin to employ her as a full-time nanny, and when she gets a cautious response flounces out of the house. Next morning, she fails to turn up for work. She has vanished.
Juliet Armstrong is convinced that Ayesha’s and Margie’s disappearances are linked. She has begun to investigate when Tim returns to Spalding earlier than expected, with Nancy Chappell in tow. He puts her in joint charge of the investigation while he is in India. Sparks fly.
I hope that you will find this intriguing. You’ll see that the ‘cast’ includes some old acquaintances, but, like all the Yates novels, it stands on its own: you don’t need to have read the others first.
Thank you again for all your support and interest. I have some amazing friends out there!
I’ve admired Sue Gee for a long time and was a fan of her work long before she became a Salt author. When I received my copy of Trio, her latest novel, I therefore knew I was in for a treat, though even I could not have predicted how magnificent a treat it would be!
Trio covers the lives of three generations, but asymmetrically. Its central characters are Steven Coulter and Margot, his second wife, whom he meets and falls in love with eighteen months after his first wife, Margaret, has died of tuberculosis. The Steven / Margaret / Margot story is set mainly in the latter half of the 1930s, when the Second World War is looming and the Spanish Civil War has already begun, but it isn’t one of the myriad novels whose subject is primarily how the war and its aftermath affected ordinary lives: there is a little of that, but mainly in the context of how engaging in warfare may be a choice, a buffer used by one of those ordinary lives against personal distress. The childhood and young adulthood of the middle generation, that of Steven and Margot’s children, is not described directly: the final part of the novel is devoted to Steven’s son’s first lonely Christmas after his wife’s death, and his feelings for his sister, children and grandchildren. This is set more or less in the present.
The real subjects of Trio are love, sex, grief and death: huge, primeval topics, and ones which most authors struggle to write about convincingly, let alone eloquently. ‘Bad’ sex scenes in fiction are, of course, notorious and even otherwise very accomplished authors are sometimes guilty of inadvertently creating scenes that are memorable only for their risibility. But Gee is more than equal to this task: the love scenes between both Steven and Margaret and Steven and Margot are tender and moving. Gee really comes into her own, however, when she is conveying grief: the sharpness of Steven’s terrible, raw young man’s grief when Margaret dies; the more muted, sad and resigned sorrow of Geoffrey Coulter, Steven’s son, when he is widowed as an old man.
Threading its way through each of the big themes of the novel, music is an ever-present force. On one level, the trio referred to in the title are Margot and the other two musicians with whom she regularly plays in concerts and recitals. Gee’s accounts of music and the effect that it has on its listeners are magnificent: Steven comes from a totally non-musical family, and his awakening upon listening to the trio to the power and pleasures of music are masterfully evoked. In Gee’s hands, music promotes love, awakens desire, assuages grief and dignifies death – even a shocking and violent death. Music sustains Geoffrey in his sadness, and he is proud that his granddaughter, Evie, also shows signs of musical talent.
I could write more about Trio, but I’m aware of the dangers of slipping into ‘spoiler’ territory. One last observation: I’m too young to remember the 1930s or the 1940s, but I’m sure that Gee’s portrayal of them is as authentic as I know her depiction of the present to be. And I love her evocation of the Northumberland landscape, which acts as both a beautiful and a terrible presence in this novel.
I first encountered the work of Catherine Eisner in 2008, when I read Sister Morphine (also published by Salt) and it absolutely blew me away. I was convinced at the time that it was a major, very important novel and the comparatively modest success that it has enjoyed since then has not caused me to change my mind. I still believe that it will be ‘discovered’ by a much larger audience, including some discerning and influential critics, much in the same way as John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces finally achieved the (sadly posthumous) attention it deserved.
A Bad Case has strong links to Sister Morphine, picking up on some of the same themes and even exploring further the lives of some of the same characters. Both works consist of a series of discrete but linked short stories, a format which I find very appealing. It enables the author to expand the sometimes constricting form of the short story whilst taking advantage of the fine discipline that it imposes, simultaneously giving the characters more depth by setting them in a shared context.
I have to confess that, although I by no means belong to the school of thought that opines that an author’s biography and his or her work are inextricably linked (i.e., you can’t understand the one without the other, a wonderful excuse for prying), Eisner herself intrigues me almost as much as her work. This is because she is profoundly knowledgeable in so many different fields: she understands the pop scene of the 1960s; she obviously knows a lot about the publishing industry; she exhibits more than a passing acquaintance with a wide range of ‘mind-altering substances’; she is erudite, although she wears her learning lightly, pronouncing telling mots justes upon the giants (and some of the minnows) of Western civilisation’s authors, artists and musicians across many centuries; she understands Latin and several European languages besides English; she has an acute ear for dialect (in A Bad Case, southern Irish, especially) as well as the varying cadences of speech that derive from differences in social standing; and, if she has not lived among the British aristocracy, she has clearly had opportunities to observe it at first hand. Wow!
But it is not Eisner’s accomplishments as a polymath that most fascinate me. I am hooked on her work because she writes with a vigour that both contributes to and has pushed the boundaries of an outstanding literary tradition. I don’t have a single word that encapsulates what this tradition stands for, but I can list some of its luminaries. They are Jonathan Swift (though Eisner’s indignatio is more of the jocosa than the saeva variety); Somerville & Ross and Samuel Beckett. Elements of A Bad Case also remind me of Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour. It is not lost on me that all of these writers are Irish, but although Eisner is clearly interested in Ireland and Irish characters, I doubt that it is because she has Irish blood herself. I think it is because her strong sense of the inescapable absurdity of fate, her ability to communicate the disgusting terribleness of the human condition, her knack of pulling off some elements of the supernatural while staying just this side of credibility and her wonderful power with words, all interlaced with robust black humour, happily also epitomise the best of Anglo-Irish writing.
So to the writing itself. Eisner may often be tongue-in-cheek, but the subjects she chooses are harsh. They include false imprisonment (I found A Room to the End of Fall, the first story in the volume, of particular interest, because my next novel, The Crossing, also explores false imprisonment, though in quite a different way.), paedophilia, treason, espionage, adultery, suicide and madness. The cover of A Bad Case quotes Kate Clanchy, who says that Eisner’s writing is ‘slightly, scarily deranged’. Although I understand perfectly what Clanchy means, this is not my reading of Eisner’s work. The characters may be deranged, but not the author. She pays them the compliment of presenting their world through the prism of their own outlook and sentiments, which have been conditioned by their often adverse experiences. If the reader can’t keep up, that is too bad: if there is one thing Eisner never does, it is patronise her readers by pandering to some notion of sparing their refined sensibilities. If the reader feels unsettled, that is good. If, despite understanding the richly conflicting, occasionally brutal and always uncompromising world that Eisner paints, the reader also laughs out loud, that is perfect. I have no better words to express my admiration than to say again: Wow!
Over the past few years I have played an Eisner guessing game with a friend. (I do hope that if Catherine Eisner reads this, she won’t be offended!) It’s only half serious and has its roots in our first reading of Sister Morphine, when we were each convinced that ‘Catherine Eisner’ was a pseudonym for someone much better known in the world of literature. If we’d taken bets on it, he would have lost, because his preferred candidate has since died. I’m still half-convinced that my own prospect is the correct one: I may never find out the truth. However, if you are also intrigued, I know that there is only one way for you to get closer to it: by reading Sister Morphine and A Bad Case, if possible in that order. I heartily recommend both of them to you, as I am certain you will not be faint-hearted.
How does one write a review of an anthology of poetry that will do justice to all its poets and encourage readers to want to taste its fruit? Let me dangle that last word, tantalisingly close, on one of the boughs of Salt Publishing’s latest collection of compressed experience and knowledge, The Best British Poetry 2014. Ah, the temptation of the succulent flavours of sixty-six authors, when insinuated into the conscious and the sub-conscious by Guest Editor Mark Ford, whose introductory blandishments would out-Satan Satan (‘What would Milton or Tennyson make of this poem?’ he asks.). He doesn’t, however, sell the fruit individually, but tells us, to make such a selection as this, that he goes on his ‘nerve: a poem rings one’s bell, or it doesn’t.’
So here I am, already reaching out to taste and try, knowing that not all Ford’s choices will ring my bell, for an anthology is a single collection to appeal to many and, as editor, he can’t please everyone all of the time. And, in a sense, I have the same problem; if I single out individual poets, then those omitted may well feel slighted, even if I explain patiently that my preferences are the ones which chimed with me.
What’s my solution? To say that I’m delighted with the range of poems here and I’m going to highlight one, purely because it sums up for me what the whole is all about. It’s ‘Girl to Snake’, which didn’t just ring out at me; it waved its clapper in my face!
Apart, of course, from the poems themselves, one of the best features of the Salt ‘Best Poetry’ selections is the section of potted bio.s, which include comments about each of the poems by their respective authors. Abigail Parry didn’t need to say much about ‘Girl to Snake’, which speaks plentifully all on its own, though she admits to an ‘attraction’ to poems about ‘transgression, particularly when they feature smooth-talking animals and particularly when the poem’s on the side of the transgression.’ Tantalising, indeed.
Since the poem consists entirely of a girl talking to a snake, the creature itself does no smooth talking, but ‘Ropey Joe’ is seductive, nevertheless, and insinuates himself into the household; he’s ‘thin enough
To slip beneath the door and spill [his] wicked do-si-do
In curlicues and hoops across the floor.’
There is an unmistakeable sense of naughty fun in this, though Abigail Parry says quite clearly that she didn’t intend it to be an ‘overtly sexual poem’. And she’s correct: the sexual symbolism and some gorgeous double-entendres are there all right (and, in slang terms, equally relevant to drug-taking!), but what she captures is the desire for knowledge that overwhelms a girl on the cusp of adulthood; she is desperate to make sense of the things that she has heard of, that appeal because they are forbidden, that constitute a ‘wicked line of dominoes’ in our post-lapsarian world. And she will taste… and she will find out… and the knowledge, however dangerous, will be preferable to the ignorance of innocence.
Parry’s inclusion of the colloquial appellation ‘pal’, her choice of a monologue, her use of those lists to which I’ve recently referred, her deft handling of monosyllables for pace, her command of metre and her deliberate play to the ear all cohere to make the poem ring true and capture that moment in a girl’s life when she simply must step away from the tediously tame reality of the domestic safety her parents have created.
And that’s what you get with this anthology: a tantalising verse crop of fruit on the tree of knowledge, dangled by Mark Ford for our delectation and designed to appeal to our taste and our sense of adventure in a poetic world that has darkness and sadness and pain and disease and war and death and destruction and sex and drugs and vice… and delight. Of course, Milton and Tennyson (and, especially, Blake) knew perfectly well that the things on the knowledge side of the world make much more interesting subjects for poetry than innocence.
Is anything beginning to chime with you yet?
The Best British Poetry 2014, available from Salt Publishing here.
This is the final post on my launch week activities for Sausage Hall. I’m covering the last two events: Tea at Sausage Hall, an imaginative tea-party given last Wednesday by Alison Cassels, Lynne Holroyd, Claire Pickering and their colleagues at the Wakefield Library at Wakefield One, which regular readers of this blog will know has provided me with granite-strength support ever since In the Family was published two years ago,
and an evening of conversation and readings at the Covent Garden branch of Waterstones, rounding off the celebrations with a London launch on Thursday.
Ever resourceful, Alison and her team provided sausage rolls, cake (Yes, there was cake!) and biscuits for the tea party. (Her e-mail to me when organising the event reads ‘Can you put chocolate cake in the title of your next book?’)
As always, she promoted the occasion superlatively well and attracted a lively and engaging audience, amongst whom were old friends (such as Marjorie and Pauline – both also fab visitors to my blog) from the library’s book club, as well as many interesting new faces.
There’s obviously a lively and diverse events programme at Wakefield One: under the table bearing the tea-cups was a box containing a plastic skeleton (I was rather disappointed that someone arrived to remove it, as a suitable visual aid never goes amiss), while high on one of the shelves was a stuffed green parrot in a glass case. (My husband dared me to say ‘Norwegian Green? Is it nailed to its perch?’, but, though tempted, I’m afraid I failed to rise to the occasion, having on my mind things other than late parrots gone to meet their maker.)
Wakefield One audiences are truly wonderful.
They are united in their love of books and reading, and not afraid to tell it how it is. I’m delighted that they like my novels, because they would certainly tell me if they didn’t – during the course of the afternoon, they told me exactly what they thought of the work of a writer who is much better known than I am! As well as being extremely perspicacious, they’re fun and they like to have fun.
They know what they want and they want more of it: I’ve already promised to return to talk to them about DI Yates numbers 4 and 5. It was my first Wakefield audience that told me how much they enjoyed reading about Juliet Armstrong and that they’d like to see more of her. I hope that they’ll think I’ve done so in Sausage Hall, where Juliet’s story takes a new turn.
Several of the Wakefield readers had already bought Sausage Hall and came armed with it for me to sign. Others bought it during the tea-party; as at my other Wakefield events, the books were kindly supplied by Rickaro Books in Horbury. A man in the audience asked for an interesting, and very relevant, inscription (see caption): apparently, these are the nicknames of his brother and sister-in-law!
The event at Waterstones Covent Garden was masterminded by Jen Shenton, the bookshop’s lovely ‘can-do’ manager.
I hadn’t met her before, but as soon as I saw her I knew what a distinguished bookseller she is. It’s something you can’t fake: I honestly believe that the best booksellers are born, not made, though that’s not to say they don’t work hard all the time in order to stay ahead. I didn’t leave Jen’s shop until almost 9 p.m., and she was still there behind the till, helping customers, smiling and looking as fresh as a daisy, even though she must have been feeling exhausted.
This event also had a wonderful audience.
Many of my friends from the book industry came (which meant they bowled me a few googlies when it came to the questions). It was a light-hearted, laughter-filled evening, well lubricated with Waterstones wine and sustained by Adams & Harlow sausage rolls. I was delighted that Tabitha Pelly, who has worked with Salt on PR for Sausage Hall, was able to come. Like Jen Shenton, she seems never to tire or have a negative thought in her head.
I left the shop laden with some book purchases of my own and headed for King’s Cross station to catch the last train. It was the perfect end to an extraordinary week. My only sadness was that Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery, my publishers at Salt, were unable to come. But I know that they’ve been keen followers of my progress as I’ve sprung Sausage Hall upon the world and I look forward to catching up with them next week. Today is Chris’s birthday: I’d like to take the opportunity to wish him many happy returns!
Grateful thanks, once again, to Adams and Harlow for their wonderful sponsorship of the launch of Sausage Hall.
I am extremely grateful to you, the readers of this blog, both those of you whom I’ve met in person and those from countries around the world whom I’ve met ‘virtually’, for the huge welcome that you have given Sausage Hall. Thank you very much indeed.
As many of you know, Sausage Hall will be published next Monday, November 17th. My wonderful publishers, Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery at Salt Publishing,
their equally stellar PR consultant, Tabitha Pelly, Faber (which now represents Salt titles) and my bookselling and librarian friends have combined to make happen a series of celebration events.
The first of these is today, Thursday November 13th, when Nicola Gilroy will be interviewing me live on Radio Lincolnshire at 14.05. I hope that you will be able to listen; if not, I think the interview will be on iPlayer for twenty-four hours after broadcast.
Monday November 17th is a very special day indeed. I’m spending much of it at Spalding High School,
where I was once a student (Facebook doesn’t know this, having inexplicably assigned me to Wycliffe Senior School and Sixth Form College! I don’t intend to disabuse it!). I’m giving a young writers’ workshop and talking about how I came to write Sausage Hall, but first of all I’m being taken on a tour of the school by Adrian Isted, the present Head of English. I’m really looking forward to this, and especially to meeting the students.
Also on November 17th, in the evening, Bookmark, Spalding’s very distinguished bookshop,
is hosting the official launch event. This will begin at 19.00. I’m delighted to be able to announce that it is being sponsored by Adams and Harlow, the pork butchers, who will supply sausage-themed canapés. Wine will also be served. As well as signing copies of Sausage Hall, I’ll be giving some readings and talking about all the DI Yates novels. I’d like to offer my thanks in advance to Christine Hanson and Sam Buckley, who have supported all the novels as they’ve been published. In conjunction with Spalding Guardian, they’ve also arranged a DI Yates competition, the prizes for which will be four sets of the DI Yates titles.
On November 18th, I’m travelling to Walkers Books in Stamford,
where I’ll be signing copies of Sausage Hall and talking about it informally between 11.00 and 13.00. I’d like to thank Tim Walker and Jenny Pugh for all their support. More about this may be found here.
Wednesday November 19th finds me back at wonderful Wakefield One, where Alison Cassels has organised Tea at Sausage Hall, an informal talk-and-signing session, with refreshments, that will start at 14.30. Regular readers will know that Wakefield One has been a particularly magnificent supporter of mine. Books will be supplied by Richard Knowles of Rickaro Books, another staunch supporter.
There is more about Tea at Sausage Hall here. If you live in the Wakefield area or are visiting, it would be great to see you at this event.
On Thursday November 20th the Waterstones bookshop in Covent Garden is giving a London launch event. As Adams and Harlow are sponsoring this, too, there will be sausages as well as wine! This reading and signing session will begin at 19.00 and continue until the shop closes. It has already attracted a large audience, so it should be quite a party! The store’s brilliant manager, Jen Shenton, and I would be delighted to see you there. More information can be found here.
And Friday 21st November? At present, nothing is planned, so this will be a rest day… but I’m open to offers!
Rickaro Books, of Horbury, is one of our most distinguished independent bookshops and, like all distinguished independent booksellers, Richard Knowles knows that events don’t just happen: you have to work at them. Therefore, although World Book Day – and, by extension, World Book Week – is getting a huge amount of support from the Booksellers Association and individual publishers, with lots of media coverage, whether or not a bookseller succeeds in making it work is down in the end to himself or herself.
Richard has arranged events for almost every day of this week, leading up to World Book Day itself, which is tomorrow, Thursday March 6th. (If you’re interested in finding out more, please click here.) Tomorrow, he is entertaining a group of schoolchildren in the shop, all wearing fancy dress, and is even going to dress up himself! (I find this amusing: Richard has obviously mellowed since I worked with him all those years ago, when, if not exactly child-unfriendly, he was certainly selective about the children that he liked!)
However, when I read about Richard’s celebrations for World Book Week, the Rickaro Books event that most intrigued me was the one that took place yesterday. I made plans to attend it immediately. It was a live poetry evening, with Ralph Dartford and Matthew Hedley Stoppard (who refers to himself on Twitter as ‘the poor man’s Benedict Cumberbatch’, a soubriquet that immediately endeared him to me). The shop has an excellent track record at organising poetry readings (I’ve written about them on this blog before) and I knew that yesterday’s would not disappoint.
The two poets recited alternately with the fluency and skill which comes from complete command of the material. Both were consummate performance artists, but what really impressed me was the quality of the poetry itself. It is my experience that many live poets are performers first, poets second, but both Ralph and Matthew are exceptional poets as well as being brilliant at engaging with a bookshop audience. The latter was pretty special, too, and included a small boy named George who was dressed as Peter Pan.
If you are not familiar with Ralph’s and Matthew’s work and you like poetry, I recommend that you invest in the two books (AND Matthew’s lovely green vinyl record!) that I bought last night. Cigarettes, Beer and Love, by Ralph, takes the form of a chapbook that has been beautifully produced by the Ossett Observer on hand-made paper. Matthew’s A Family Behind Glass, published by Valley Press, has all the elegance of a classic ‘slim volume’. Which poems did I enjoy most last night?
Well, the Co-op store in Ossett will never be quite the same to me again, now that Ralph has given me ‘Co-op Live Art Fiasco’, which describes his effort to show the individuals in the checkout queue that their investment in the Lottery pays for art (and his wages)… by stripping stark naked and doing some ‘live art’ with a Lucozade bottle. The constable summoned to the event says: “I once saw something like this in Berlin. A scratch card paid for the trip. I quite liked it.” (Ralph was led away at 08.46.) As readers of this blog know well, I’m game for a laugh, but there’s serious stuff behind Ralph’s humour.
Ralph describes Matthew as the ‘cerebral’ one of the pair (but all their poems last night were ‘thinky’, even the most superficially frivolous of them!). In fact, one poem of Matthew’s touched me a lot and spoke to me very clearly from my own past in our first rented marital flat in Leeds.
He set the context of a rented house in Rothwell, his and his wife’s first home, at a time when, he said, they weren’t really ready to be adults, yet. I’ll give you the first stanza, so that you may be touched as well:
Now that the streetlamps have stolen the stars
From the afternoon sky, sleep, content
And lovely as custard, pours over us. We sit
With winter on the settee, arm in arm –
Our legs interlaced like denim snakes,
Bedlam pressed between our palms. [From ‘The Wendy House’]
Matthew is about to take up a post with Leeds City Libraries: I’d like to wish him well with this. Ralph works for the Arts Council, and knows Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery of Salt Publishing. He observed, unsurprisingly, that they are both ‘lovely people’. He kindly bought In the Family before he left the shop, which gave what had already been a very enjoyable evening a considerable extra fillip for me!
I wish Richard every success with World Book Day. (I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he receives the schoolchildren tomorrow, but unfortunately I have to travel to London instead.) And I hope very much indeed that I shall meet Matthew and Ralph again. In the meantime, I shall enjoy reading their poetry for myself. Thanks to them for introducing me so beautifully to it.
Precious poetry pack
How to get a book signed by two priceless poets
This is the second of my Polish pieces. I’m sorry that it follows on from the first after quite a gap – I’ve been hi-jacked by a nasty cold this week. I’ll try to be a bit more punctual from now on.
Cold notwithstanding, I should have preferred to get this post out earlier, because its main purpose is to share with you some photographs of our visit to the famous Wieliczka salt mine some seventeen kilometres outside Kraków. The chambers and carvings in the mine are spectacular – as you can see. Discovering them was an opportunity that we almost passed up, because we’re pretty averse to joining any kind of organised tour, and the salt mine is obviously not a place where tourists can be allowed to wander around on their own; indeed, so many tunnels are there, it would be very easy to get lost. We were persuaded to make the visit only the evening before, by some Danish people dining in the same restaurant. I suppose that making holiday plans on the advice of complete strangers about whom you know nothing and whom you’re never likely to see again is as good a way as any! In any case, I’m published by Salt and it therefore seems an appropriate kind of tribute to Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery.
Determined not to be an entire pushover to the tourist industry, we travelled to the mine on an ordinary service bus instead of one of the special tour buses. For me, one of the highlights of the day was encountering people from the suburbs as they travelled on this bus, though I was much less enthusiastic about the return journey in the afternoon, when the driver was clearly behind schedule and rattled along at such a speed that I had to face the back of my seat and hang onto it in order not to be thrown into the aisle. I was grateful that I hadn’t had lunch! I was also fascinated to note that, beyond the suburbs, Kraków has quite an industrial hinterland.
Tours at the mine are extremely regimented and quite expensive – entry costs about as much as a visit to the Tower of London, which is extortionate by Polish standards. The experience was also shot through with a slightly bizarre streak: for example, our tour was called a ‘non-tour tour’ (we worked out that this meant that we were not part of a pre-booked group). Endearing rather than annoying was how the enterprise running the mine tried to make money out of absolutely everything, from coffees and ice-creams to printed guides, knick-knacks made of rock salt and ‘genuine miners’ soup’, but in a slightly amateurish way. It is noticeable in Poland that everyone is desperate to make money, but in a friendly, almost apologetic, manner. The same thought struck me when I was watching the drivers of the horse-drawn carriages in the main square in Kraków trying to cajole tourists into taking rides.
The non-tour tour guide was a young woman immaculately dressed in uniform. She was extremely professional and her English near perfect. She was obviously highly educated and very knowledgeable about the history of the mine, which has existed since mediaeval times. Rock salt was quarried there for seven hundred years, until 2002, after which the mine was devoted entirely to tourism. Engagingly, the guide explained that this was because more money could be made out of tourists than digging for salt. There is another commercial salt mine elsewhere in Poland, with much lower extraction costs, and that provides the supply.
I was almost as interested in my fellow tourists as the mine itself. We were a jovial bunch from many countries; the only thing we had in common was that we had chosen an English-speaking guide, rather than one who spoke the other languages on offer: Polish, German, Dutch, French or Italian. Our group therefore included people from India, Japan, China and the USA, as well as several other Brits. I particularly admired the Indian couple, who gamely negotiated with two quite small children the up-and-down kilometres that we had to walk within the mine.
The initial descent, down many short flights of wooden stairs within a vertical shaft, was neither frightening nor particularly taxing, if dizzily repetitive. Walking back up all of those stairs would have been a challenge, and might have caused a few heart attacks. Nevertheless, I didn’t enjoy the return to the surface, which had to be made in a small miners’ cage, crammed in with seven others. I was delighted to reach the exit and emerge into the warm autumn sunshine again.
I’ve already written more than I intended, so I’ll leave the pictures to speak for themselves now, just adding that all the sculptures and carvings – and indeed all the floors – in the mine have been fashioned from rock salt and that (although it is probably self-evident) Polish salt miners were very devout, some of the chambers having been turned into chapels, the most impressive being the Chapel of St. Kinga, which, with its altarpieces, wall-friezes and statuary, as well as carved floor, all in rock salt, is like a cathedral. The caverns are astonishing in scale (the Staszic Chamber has a ceiling thirty-six metres high), in some cases with self-supporting ceiling, in others prevented from collapse by elaborate wooden prop systems or by much more modern metal rods, inserted into drilled holes and therefore much less obtrusive to the eye.
I hope that you’ve got the taste of the salt from all this, if not a taste for a salt mine visit; you can lick the walls of the tunnels if you like (visitors are encouraged to do so)! Alternatively, you can read a Salt book…
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!