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!
Despite all my good intentions (and I’m very grateful to Lisette Brodey, Laura Zera, Val Poore, Sylvia Peadon and Tamara Ferguson for the supportive empathy they have shown me over my failure to keep up to date with social media generally!), the summer mostly slipped away without my posting on this blog. However, I met some great people at literary events over June, July, August and September and want to share those occasions with you before they become distant memories.
On 16th and 17th June, I attended the Winchester Literary Festival for the fourth time, partly to conduct one-to-ones with twelve new authors, partly to give an updated version of the talk I first delivered last year (‘Whodunnit: how it’s done’), which, as last time, attracted a large and enthusiastic audience. Winchester has now become one of the most important dates on my calendar: it’s a brilliant festival, thoughtfully and imaginatively created by Judith Heneghan, who lectures in creative writing at the university, and efficiently organised by Sara Gangai. The guest talk that takes place first thing on the Saturday morning is always a treat. This year’s speaker was Lemn Sissay, the performance poet.
Lemn’s talk was full of wit and unusual insights: for example, he said that every single day we are part of a privileged generation because we have the Internet. “We are at the most exciting time for words that there has ever been. So how can it be that the point of view that the Internet promotes rubbish is always held above that that says the Internet promotes beauty and genius?” And: “Every day I wake up and think of ways that I can promote writing other than the book. But the book is the greatest gift you can give any child or adult.” My own books were kindly stocked and sold, as always, by staff from P. & G. Wells at the festival book stall; they also gave me a signing session, when I met several new and a few old friends.
July 6th was the next big date for me, as the legendary bookseller Richard Reynolds had invited me and eleven other authors to participate in his summer evening of crime at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge.
I was particularly pleased to meet Barbara Nadel, whose books I have read with real enjoyment. We were each asked to describe ourselves and read, in not more than two minutes, a short extract from our latest novels (Richard’s assistant had a bell and said that she was “not afraid of using it”!). This actually worked very well: it’s surprising how much you can get across in two minutes if you think about it beforehand and try hard.
Afterwards, there was a drinks reception at which all of our books were on sale. The audience numbered more than one hundred (Cambridge is a real Mecca for crime enthusiasts!) and we all sold lots of copies.
Wednesday 12th July followed hard on the heels of the Heffers event. I had the good fortune to be invited to a Houses of Parliament reception (held by the Booksellers Association, Publishers Association and the charity, World Book Day) for authors and booksellers, with MPs and peers.
There I met several booksellers who have supported me by stocking my books, including Sam Buckley, from Bookmark in Spalding, who over the years has generously given me a launch event for each of them. The event was hosted by Dame Margaret Hodge, who emphasised the civilising influence of both books and booksellers on our society (a sentiment about which I need no persuading!).
Last but not least, on 15th July I was invited to give ‘A Morning with Christina James’ at Spalding town library. This was a round-table event, at which I read a couple of excerpts from In the Family and Rooted in Dishonour and then talked to the audience about how I came to write the novels, my own Lincolnshire roots and, most important of all, their views on fiction. I was delighted to be able at last to meet Sharman Morriss, the librarian, having been told at one of the Bookmark evenings that she tirelessly promotes my novels to her customers. Sharman then put me in touch with Alison Wade, her colleague at Boston town library,
which has been holding a month-long crime-writing festival during September. Alison very kindly asked me to open this on the afternoon of September 1st, when I talked to the audience about my own books and what they like to read. I was really pleased to have been able to meet readers and new writers on this occasion.
Fair of Face, the sixth novel in the DI Yates series, will be published on 15th October.
I’ve diligently been updating my Twitter header and posting the new novel’s cover here and on Facebook! Bookmark in Spalding is providing a signing session on the afternoon of 16th October and an evening launch event on 19th October and I know both will be memorable moments for meeting friends old and new. If you would like me to come and talk at your local bookshop or library, or to your reading group, just let me know.
Oh, and hello again to all my readers here!
[An apology to Spalding Library – I’ve temporarily mislaid my SanDisk – a picture will follow!]
I know that some of the readers of this blog have been following my contribution to the ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ campaign. I thought, therefore, that you might also be interested in an article that appeared in The Times last Thursday, which says:
“Economists have calculated the monetary value of sporting and cultural activities and found that going to the library frequently was – in satisfaction terms – worth the same as a pay rise of £1,359.”
Playing team sports came close behind – but still it was behind – at a value of £1,127.
Now, I’m not naïve enough to expect anyone to swallow this without a little pinch of salt. How do you put a monetary value on any activity? It could be taken to extreme limits: for example, I could estimate that the monetary value of my husband is £5,000 per annum, but only if he does the hoovering. If he doesn’t do the hoovering, it drops to -£5; and either figure would have to be offset by the amount that he ratchets up on my credit card buying stuff for his greenhouse. I jest, of course, though some of the assumptions made by the research team at the London School of Economics strike me as equally far-fetched. The article continues: “The authors … speculated that … the sort of person who went to a gym was probably already tired of life and unhappy with their lot.” I have no idea how they arrived at this conclusion. Most of the people I know who attend gyms are irritatingly bouncy, dripping their endorphins and their self-righteous early morning starts all over everyone else. I’m quite grateful for this observation, nevertheless, as it obviously lets me off ever setting foot in a gym again for the rest of my life.
But let me get back to the point. If libraries are worth so much to the well-being of the individual, you’d think that, by now, the government – and especially David Cameron, with his slightly suspect ‘well-being index’ – would have latched on to this and decided that it was a bad idea to keep on closing libraries and cutting their services. Just think how they could keep inflation down if every time someone asked for a pay-rise, they could be told that £1,359 of it would be paid in library benefits! By the by, the Prime Minister has responded to the splendid petition and letter given to him by ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ campaigner Julie Harrison by passing them on to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, as being rather too hot to handle himself. He should realise just how much libraries mean to, especially rural, communities in the county of my birth and elsewhere and take a lead on this at least.
I know that the government is struggling to see the value of libraries in today’s society and that it can’t get away from the idea that they are ‘old hat’. In reply, I’d like to tell them to dust off their history books a little. Recently, I have been reading David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain. If you haven’t come across David Kynaston’s three books, which at present cover the years 1945 – 1959 (there are more in the pipeline), you should rush out and buy them immediately, because they are the most brilliant evocation of post-war society you are ever likely to come across. Austerity Britain chronicles the years 1945 – 1951 and, by chance also on Thursday, I reached the section on public libraries. Kynaston quotes some Mass Observation opinions on why public libraries were so little used in 1947 and why people preferred magazines:
–None of them subjects is interesting to me. All I like is gangster stories, though there’s precious much chance of reading here. Three rooms we got and three kids knocking around. No convenience, no water. I’m glad to get out of the house, I can tell you.
– Cos I ain’t got no interest in them [books] – they all apparently lead up to the same thing.
– I’m not very good at reading, I never was. I’ve never liked it some’ow.
– Too long. I have started books and I have to read through the first pages two or three times. I like to get stuck straight into a story – there’s too much preliminary, if you see what I mean.
You might have expected public libraries to be more appreciated at this time of austerity, when wages were low and almost everything was rationed. Apparently they weren’t. But ten years later, when the nation was back on the road to prosperity, public libraries were enjoying the start of their heyday. This lasted for at least three decades. When I started work as a young library supplier at the end of the 1970s, public libraries were still highly regarded and librarians enjoyed considerable prestige. They were also extremely well-supported by both local and national government.
Is there a moral here? I’d say that if the experience of the past can teach us anything, it is that people are more interested in culture, including cultural services, when their lives are financially stable. It makes sense, if you think about it, for people who are happy and settled in their jobs and home life to ‘make time’ to go to the library. It is also understandable if people who are unemployed and desperately looking for work don’t feel able to find space for using the free public library service. That is my take on it, anyway, and I think that the government should note the facts. If Mr Gove is as worried as he says he is about standards of literacy among the young, he should encourage his colleagues at the Culture Department to stick up for public libraries. There can be no cheaper or more effective way of encouraging high standards of literacy than to get children interested in books at an early age and to make as many books as they can read available to them, regardless of their social background.
When I was a child growing up in Spalding, the public library was on the ground floor of Ayscoughfee Hall. (It subsequently moved to a purpose-built building in Henrietta Street and it was while taking a gap year to work as an assistant at this library that my friend Mandy brought me the book about Jack the Ripper when I was working in the Chinese restaurant with the putatively murderous cook called Moon.) There were only a few shelves of children’s books, and I had exhausted these long before the end of my primary school years. The librarian there, a kindly lady, used her discretion and allowed me to join the adult section of the library, even though the rules stated that this was not possible for children under twelve. There exists a very stereotypical idea of librarians as mousy, unhumorous and devoted to regulations (especially ‘no talking’); I’m certain that this is unfair and that librarians like the one I knew in Spalding quietly go the extra mile all of the time in order to help people read and enjoy books. We should celebrate librarians as well as libraries: along with booksellers, they are the great unsung heroes and heroines of civilised society.
(But before I get too eulogistic, I’d like to add that I’m now planning a future blog-post called Librarians I Have Known. I won’t pre-empt it by offering more than a glimpse here, but, suffice it to say, it will include tales of red shoes, prostitutes, Spirella corsets and Sanderson sofas. I may just have been lucky, but many of the librarians I’ve encountered have been very far removed from the stereotype.)