As I said in my previous post, De Vries has three major themes: whether murder can ever be justified, why some people are prepared to risk everything to discover who their parents are/were and the secrets held by old houses.
Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the second theme. Why is it that a significant proportion of people who cannot identify their birth parents – such as those who have been adopted, or whose parents have been lost in war or some other catastrophe, or who have experienced the denial of parenthood by one parent (usually the father), or who are the offspring of a sperm donor or even who have been abandoned in early infancy – grow up with an insatiable desire to discover who their biological parents were, while others in a similar situation either display no interest in finding out or are actively hostile to the idea?
My first boss and his wife had three adopted children, each with different biological parents from the others. They were adopted in the 1960s, when adoptive parents had minimal contact with the biological parents and the latter had very limited rights. Adoption societies of the time made it clear that they were facilitating a ‘clean break’ from the natural parent (usually the mother) who had offered the child for adoption. Often the mothers were very young and coerced into giving away their babies by the demands of their parents and the disapproval of society as a whole. It was considered shameful to be an unmarried mother and the welfare state did little to help girls and women who found themselves in this predicament. The prospective mothers were often sent to unmarried mothers’ homes when they began to ‘show’. Spalding had such a home, Carisbrooke House in Haverfield Road. The girls who came to it were probably from other towns; similarly, Spalding girls would be sent to towns some distance away. Soon after the birth, the baby was adopted and the girls would return home as if nothing had happened – though the experience cruelly curtailed their education and there was little psychological support for the trauma of having had to relinquish the child. The headmistress of Spalding High School was considered to be very progressive for allowing one of my classmates to return to school after she had a baby. The year was 1969.
My boss’s two adopted sons showed no interest whatsoever in their biological parents. Like Kevan de Vries, they entered the family business at a young age and enjoyed the privileged lifestyle and well-heeled standard of living it offered. His adoptive daughter felt differently. She went to huge lengths to track down her biological mother and eventually settled in the USA, where her mother had emigrated, and changed her name to the name her mother had entered on her birth certificate. Despite having been brought up in a loving and affluent household, just like the two boys, she was never able to identify with the adoptive family.
During the same period, issues of parentage frequently became more convoluted, not to say dishonest, when the woman was older and married to a man who was not the father of the child. Divorce carried a stigma almost as powerful as unmarried motherhood, so few women would choose it; on a more practical level, most divorcees and abandoned wives were forced to live in penury. This was decades before British law changed and became almost always in favour of the woman if she had children and Britain became the ‘divorce capital of the world’. The alimony awarded by courts was usually meagre and little attempt was made to force defaulting husbands to pay.
A woman who bore a child whom she knew or suspected not to be her husband’s therefore commonly passed the baby off as his. Some husbands were complicit, knowing the child not to be theirs but still preferring to raise it as their own rather than end the marriage; others were genuinely taken in by the wife’s claims. As an adult, a friend suspected that the child of one of her neighbours was in fact her half-brother. The boy was small and fine-boned, with tight black curls like her own and those of her two siblings. The mother was a tall, heavily-built woman with fair skin and hair whose other children all looked like her. My friend later discovered that it had been an open secret in the neighbourhood that this boy was her father’s, but the woman’s husband had accepted responsibility for his upbringing and treated him exactly like the others.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some early efforts were made to identify fathers reluctant to acknowledge their children and make them contribute to their maintenance. Proving paternity was, however, largely based on the results of blood tests: it was possible to prove that a man was definitively not the child’s father, but, unless he had a very rare blood group, not to prove conclusively that he was.
The advent of the much more reliable DNA tests – though the earliest ones were not as reliable as claimed at the time – helped women to assert who the child’s father was, be believed and consequently obtain financial support, which became much more robustly enforced by the law than previously. Even more crucial, however, was the shift, from the 1970s onwards, in social attitudes towards parenthood. Gradually the stigma of being born outside wedlock was removed. More and more couples elected to have children without marrying and if they subsequently split up they were much more likely to agree on joint care – or at least joint financial support – for the children.
Kevan de Vries is fifty when De Vries begins. During his lifetime, the whole spectrum of social attitudes towards children not born to a conventionally married couple takes place. Viewed in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that as a young man he is happy to have his mother and grandfather sweep the question of his paternity under the carpet, whereas in middle age he develops a burning desire to understand the identity of his missing parent, even at the risk of losing his liberty and physical contact with his own son.
A brief footnote: John and Limming were the first and middle names of one of my close relatives. His mother named him after her own eldest brother, who was gassed in the First World War, and the father who refused to acknowledge him. She was determined that he would carry his father’s last name in some form, even though it was denied to him as a surname. He spent his whole life hating it and would omit it from official documents whenever possible.
Readers of this blog will know that DI Yates and I have been fortunate enough to have been supported with many events in Spalding, owing to the extraordinary generosity of a growing list of people, especially Sam Buckley and her team at Bookmark, Michele Anderson and her colleagues at Spalding High School and Sharman Morris and the other librarians at the public library. As regular readers also know, I’ve now been privileged to lead several writers’ workshops in other places. This Spalding event was my second workshop there and, like the first, was hosted in the library by Sharman, and thanks to her and her colleague, Amanda, and the wonderful audience they gathered, it was a resounding success.
We took as our main topic ‘How to create a really evil character’ and we began by considering the attributes that such a character requires the author to deliver to make him or her come alive. We talked at length about how to achieve credibility and what sort of writing maintains the tension demanded by an evil character (and the kinds of writing that fail to maintain that tension). We considered Hannibal Lecter’s first meeting with Clarice Starling, how it is described by Thomas Harris in The Silence of the Lambs and what that tells us about Clarice, as well as Hannibal himself.
The audience then broke into small groups to work on creating some evil characters of their own.
All of the groups were totally engaged and they came up with some startlingly fresh ideas. I particularly enjoyed the debate that took place between the four members of one group as they discussed whether or not to allow the serial killer’s dog to travel with him in his cab. The dog would be a useful tool to deflect suspicion, but – amid much hilarity – could not be trusted not to eat his sandwiches, so he wouldn’t be able to leave those in the cab as well! I hasten to add that this was actually only a small part of the conversation, most of which was a serious consideration of how alibis work and what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour – and how the Victorian music-hall villain is a stereotype that never occurs in real life. Real-life killers don’t provide good role models for authors, either, as they are frequently banal – ‘black boxes’ who don’t tick. We agreed that to be a successful evil character in fiction you must always have an inner life which the reader is allowed to penetrate, and often also demonstrate a certain glamour.
As the groups read out what they’d written and described the progress they’d made with creating their characters, some of the audience also began to share fascinating real-life anecdotes. One was about a dog which actually did eat its owner’s sandwiches every time it was taken in a vehicle; two others focused on making unfair judgements about people because of mistaken preconceived ideas. One of these told how his grandfather liked to dress up and go to a pub on a Saturday night. One Saturday, slightly well-oiled, he tripped and hurt his face on the pavement. Several people passed him by without stopping, assuming, despite his good clothes, that he was a habitual drunk. It was only when a party of punks saw him that anyone helped him to his feet: having done so, they walked him two miles home and made him a cup of tea. This story prompted someone else to recount how, when she moved to a new area, she thought the local pub looked rough and shunned it until she, too, tripped outside and was helped inside and cared for by some of the regulars whom she’d previously disdained.
I gave two short readings from my own books, the first from the passage where Grace Brackenbury asks to see the bodies of her foster mother and baby daughter in Fair of Face and the episode in which Peter Prance begins to challenge Hedley Atkins on the train journey to Liverpool in In the Family. Many of the audience stayed to talk to me informally after the organised part of the event was over. We spoke some more about reading and writing and what they mean to us. It was very clear that all participants in the session had enjoyed themselves. For my own part, I had a fantastic time: it was a great privilege to be able to spend a Saturday morning with such a lively group. They’ve asked me to lead another workshop after Gentleman Jack is published and I shall be delighted to do so – if Sharman doesn’t mind weaving her magic again!
At first light yesterday, I travelled to Spalding High School, my own former school, to which I had returned only once previously since leaving the sixth form. I received a wonderful welcome from Adrian Isted, the newly-appointed Head of English, who began the day’s activities by showing me round the school.
First stop was the office of the headteacher, Mrs. Michele Anderson, who is also fairly new to the school. She was fascinated to hear a little more from me about Mrs. Jeanne Driver, the first married headteacher at the school, who was its leader throughout my school career. Born Jeanne Ouseley, she lived at 10, High Street, a large house of several storeys situated near the River Welland in Spalding. Part of this house was divided into flats and there were usually several other teachers living there, as well as two of my fellow sixth formers, Cheryl Ouseley and Elizabeth Davies, both of whom were her nieces. They called her ‘Auntie Jeanne’, a name that the rest of the sixth form also used affectionately, if unofficially. Mrs. Driver was one of several strong women who influenced me as a girl. She had a strong sense of duty and an even stronger work ethic. We found some of the things she said highly amusing (for example, ‘I stand up whenever I hear the national anthem, even if I’m in the bath.’). Sometimes she took the notion of duty to an extreme. I remember she told us that when her husband, who had been in ill health for some time, finally died, she finished marking a set of books before setting in train the preparations for his funeral. But her influence has lasted all my life.
The school has been added to, but otherwise is little changed. I suppose the thing that struck me most yesterday is how it seems to have shrunk. The corridors seemed longer, the stairways steeper, the ceilings higher when I first attended it as an eleven-year-old, then for only a part of the school week – pupils belonging to the first two school years still spent most of their time at the old school building in London Road, the first home of Spalding High School when it was established in 1920 on the site of its predecessor, the privately-owned ‘Welland Academy for Young Ladies’. (The present school building was completed in 1959, but the London Road property continued to be used by younger pupils for more than twenty years afterwards.) The assembly hall still boasts its luxurious but absurdly impractical parquet floor.
In my day it doubled up as a gym (there is now a separate sports hall) and we were obliged to do PE barefoot, which we all hated, so that the floor wouldn’t become scuffed by gym shoes. The same grand piano stands in the corner, to the left of the stage. In the corridor outside the headteacher’s office are several group photographs taken of all the teachers and pupils at intervals during the school’s history. After some searching, I was able to discover myself on one of these – and I could also name all the other girls in my form and most of the teachers.
After the tour, I was interviewed by Eleanor Toal and Holly Hetherington for High Quarterly, the school’s completely online magazine (which is streets ahead of the drab, dark-red-covered printed production of my youth). Eleanor, the e-zine’s editor, also writes articles for the Spalding Guardian, carrying on the long-standing relationship between the school and the local newspaper. Eleanor and Holly (who edits Gardening and Food in the mag) knew they were going to be asked to interview me only very shortly before we met, because the intended interviewer was ill, but I wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t told me. I was much struck by the sensitivity and perspicacity of their questions and enjoyed answering them.
After lunch, I talked to sixth form English students about how to get published. Jean Hodge, who reports on cultural affairs for the Spalding Guardian, also attended and joined in. It was quite an exciting occasion, because it also took the first steps towards setting up a short-story competition that the Great British Bookshop has agreed to sponsor at the High School. Adrian and his colleagues and I will choose the best ten or twelve stories submitted to be published in a single volume at The Great British Bookshop’s expense. Winners will each receive a free copy of the book, which will then go on sale in TGBB’s extensive distribution network. I’ll be writing more about the competition in this blog very shortly.
I completed my day at the school with a writers’ workshop for Years 7, 8 and 9 students. The participants explored some of the key elements of crime fiction (they proved to be very well read) and collaborated to put some of those into practice. Their discussion illustrated their excellent grasp of linguistic and literary effects and the results were amazing! Nearly all of these students bought one of my books at the end of the session; some bought all three. Thank you!
I can’t conclude this post without saying that a remarkable library now exists at Spalding High School. The library is housed in the same room that I knew, but what a difference in the stock! The emphasis is on supplying students with books to read for pleasure. It’s a place of relaxation and also a place where students can go to work in groups. There’s none of the shushing and grim looks that any talking in the library produced when I was a schoolgirl and all the dusty old Latin grammars and ancient editions of Gray’s Anatomy have been disappeared. Hats off in particular to Kirsty Lees, the School Librarian and Learning Resources Manager, and to her team. The school knows how lucky it is to have them and to be able to enjoy the warm and inviting place (complete with crime scene rug featuring a splayed body) that they have turned it into.
It’s almost impossible for me to thank all the people who made this day so special. I’m deeply grateful to Michele Anderson for making it possible; to Adrian Isted and Kirsty, for making it happen; to Eleanor and Holly, for giving me such a delightful interview; to Jean Hodge, for all her support for Sausage Hall both at this event and elsewhere and, especially, to all the students whom I met yesterday, who were such a joy to work with and who were so keen to develop their own writing. Thank you all!