The Sandringham Mystery and some personal memories of places and people with a part to play in its creation
When I was a child, the motor car was the ultimate status symbol. Families aspired to own one and felt they had ‘arrived’ when the car did, however shabby or humble it might be.
Our next-door neighbours, Harry and Eileen Daff, were the first in our street to bring home a car. Theirs was a forties Morris with running boards which looked as if it belonged on a film set, but that made it yet more glamorous in the eyes of the local children. The Daffs went out for Sunday afternoon rides in their car. Mrs Daff – ‘Auntie Eileen’ – was always promising to take me, too, but the invitation never materialised.
My father acquired our first car about three years afterwards, when I was nine. It was a two-door Ford Popular which we nicknamed ‘Hetty’. I can remember the registration number: it was HDO 734. Hetty, like the Daffs’ Morris, was not only second-hand but practically vintage. My father had saved hard to afford her and had still needed a loan from my miserly – but loaded – Great Uncle David to complete the purchase.
Great Uncle David lived – indeed, spent his every waking moment – working in the convenience shop in Westlode Street which he had inherited from his parents despite being their youngest son, presumably because he had scoliosis and was considered ‘delicate’. My paternal grandmother kept house for him. They were only a short bike ride away.
My mother’s mother, however, was the paid companion of a very old lady and lived in Sutterton, nine miles distant, which meant that in pre-Hetty days visits had to be accomplished by bus. It was usually she who visited us, invariably spending the morning of her day off shopping in Spalding and then walking to ours for lunch. Post-Hetty, we were able to make more frequent visits to Sutterton. However, I was still sometimes allowed to travel there alone on the bus. It was nearly always on a damp, foggy day when the sun never broke through the Fenland mists.
The house she lived in was the house I have called Sausage Hall in The Sandringham Mystery. It was a big, gloomy red-brick house in considerable need of repair. Sometimes she occupied the breakfast room when she had visitors, but her natural habitat was the kitchen with its adjoining scullery, in both of which roaring fires were kept burning night and day throughout the winter months. The kitchen fire had a built-in oven in which she would bake perfect cakes. Lunch would be tinned tomato soup and bread, followed by a big hunk of cake. Cherry cake was my favourite.
Her employer’s name was Mrs James. My grandmother always referred to her as ‘the old girl’. Mrs James’s first name was Florence and she was one of a large family of sisters, the Hoyles, who had been brought up in Spalding in extreme poverty. One of the sisters still lived in what could only be described as a hovel in Water Lane and occasionally, after one of my visits to Sutterton, I would be sent round with cake or chicken. Miss Hoyle never invited me in. She would open the door a few inches, her sallow face and thin grey hair barely distinguishable from the shadows of the lightless cavern behind her, and reach out a scrawny hand to take what I had brought, barely muttering her thanks before she shut the door again.
My grandmother, also the eldest of a large family of sisters, despised the Hoyles. Mrs James was not exempt. My grandmother’s father had been a farm manager, employed by a local magnate. He was a respectable, hard-working man of some substance in the community, unlike the allegedly feckless Mr Hoyle. According to my grandmother, Florence had ensnared Mr James with her pretty face, but that did not excuse her humble beginnings.
Florence, long widowed, had taken to her bed, for no other apparent reason than that she was tired of the effort of getting up every day. My grandmother delivered all her meals to her bedroom and sometimes sat there with her. When I visited I was expected to call in to see her before my departure. I never knew what to say. She would extend a plump, soft white hand from beneath the bedclothes and offer it to me. I’d shake it solemnly. Once, when I’d been reading a Regency novel, I held it to my lips and kissed it. She was momentarily surprised – I saw the gleam of interest in her eyes before her spirit died again.
Mrs James’s sons, both middle-aged gentlemen farmers, also performed duty visits. My grandmother and I were expected to call them ‘Mr Gordon’ and ‘Mr Jack’. In The Sandringham Mystery, Kevan de Vries, head of the de Vries empire, has his staff call him ‘Mr Kevan’. I lifted the idea from my experience of the two James brothers. I was about nine when I met them and could identify condescension when I encountered it.
Hetty broadened our horizons immeasurably. Instead of going out for bike rides at weekends, we drove to local beauty spots – Bourne Woods, the river at Wansford, Barnack – and sometimes on nice days even further afield, to Hunstanton, Skegness and Sandringham.
Sandringham, the Queen’s Norfolk estate, consists of many acres of forest, most of which were already open to the public, though the house itself wasn’t. It was possible to visit the church. Both local people and visitors would wait outside the wall beyond the churchyard for glimpses of the royal family when they were in residence. I saw Princess Margaret once. She had the most astonishing violet-blue eyes.
I associate Sandringham particularly with the clear bright cold of Easter holidays and the drowsy late-summer warmth of blackberrying. The blackberries there were enormous and my brother and I would scratch the skin on our arms to ribbons trying to reach the best ones. Parts of the woods were deciduous, but the blackberries seemed to flourish in the areas where the pine trees grew, planted in squares and divided up by trails (‘rides’). When I was writing The Sandringham Mystery, I remembered vividly a clearing in the woods that had been made by the crossroads of two trails. In the novel, it is here that the body of a young girl is discovered, the start of a police investigation that not only reveals why she was murdered, but also uncovers some other terrible murders that took place in the past, in Sausage Hall itself. The Sandringham Mystery is published by Bloodhound Books today. I hope you will enjoy it.
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.
Yesterday it rained. And rained. And rained.
And it didn’t spoil a thing.
I was at three events in Spalding to celebrate the launch of Chasing Hares: a signing session at wonderful Bookmark, where all my novels have been launched, and where the hospitality from Sam and Sarah and their team was as warm as always;
a very special event hosted by Anthony and Marcus on the island where most of the novel is set;
and an evening talk and readings at Bookmark, attended by just as large an audience as usual despite their having had to turn out in grim weather.
Thank you, everyone! I both appreciated and enjoyed it all very much indeed.
And Chasing Hares? Well, it is unique among the DI Yates novels in that its two (related) plots were both suggested to me by other people. In the summer of 2018, my husband and I called in on our friends Madelaine and Marc. It was a hot, sunny day and their friends Anthony and Marcus, who own several boats, offered us a trip along the river Welland from the island house where they live. Anthony showed us round the house and made us coffee before we went. As we sat in the garden outside, I said I had almost finished writing Gentleman Jack and the conversation turned to what I should tackle in my next novel.
I can’t remember who suggested I should write about this island: it was Madelaine, Marc or Anthony, or a combination of all three. Marc, who’s a fount of knowledge when it comes to local history, said he’d heard there had been a row of small cottages on the island – hovels, really – and that a retired soldier had lived in one of them. Local people called him Soldier Bob. Anthony had heard this story, too. The soldier was half-crazed – we speculated that he might have been a WWI veteran suffering from shell-shock – and trigger-happy. He was also a recluse. He didn’t take kindly to having people disturb him. A man approached his cottage one day and Soldier Bob shot him dead. (Anthony’s version of this was embellished by the detail that the victim was the postman and Soldier Bob shot him through the letterbox.) Bob was arrested and tried for murder but acquitted – and presumably taken into care – on the grounds of insanity.
Listening to the tale of Soldier Bob, I could see that setting the next novel on the island offered great possibilities. I didn’t want to tell the tale of Bob, however – though it is mentioned in Chasing Hares – because for some time I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel that drew inspiration from the Golden Age of crime fiction, but with a modern twist.
A popular device used by Golden Age crime writers is the country house crime story. It has a lot to recommend it: a group of people gather in a country house, usually secluded and some distance from civilisation; a murder is committed; one of the people present must have been the murderer; all turn out to have motives for killing the victim; and the reader is titillated along the way by accounts of gracious living, exquisite dresses, sumptuous picnics, fine dinners, afternoon tea, torrid love affairs – the lot.
I thought it would be interesting to create a modern-day version of such a gathering, spiced with a little bit of irony. I decided to update it further and, as a double irony, instead of depicting an upper-class social event, I made the reason for my gathering a crime mystery weekend. Instead of being presided over by a suave and cultured society hostess, the party in Chasing Hares is hosted by a perennially mean and crooked wheeler-dealer, Gordon Bemrose. Instead of representing high society, his guests hail from humbler – and in some cases, dodgier – walks of life, but, like their country house counterparts, they are all potential murderers. Finally, instead of being entertained by a chamber orchestra or string quartet, their entertainment is a play, a bowdlerised version of Arsenic and Old Lace, put on by the local amateur dramatic company but starring Gordon’s actor nephew, Anton Greenweal.
The second part of the plot was suggested to me by a policeman who has been following me on my blog for some time. He wrote to me to say that the biggest single problem rural police forces have to deal with, particularly in East Anglia and parts of Northern England, is hare coursing. I’ve since carried out quite a lot of research on this and it’s a truly horrific crime. It’s not just the hares that are hurt – they’re horribly mutilated by the dogs before they die – but also the dogs themselves: they’re often badly injured by running into each other or spraining or breaking their legs by trying to follow as the hare changes course rapidly in its attempt to escape. There’s nothing ironical or tongue-in-cheek about the hare-coursing passages – they’re deadly serious.
That’s all I’m going to say about Chasing Hares for now…
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!
Yesterday was publication day for Rooted in Dishonour. As usual, I headed for Bookmark, Spalding’s lovely independent bookshop, which has kindly hosted the launch event for all of the DI Yates novels, beginning with In the Family in 2012. As always, I received a very warm welcome. For the past three years, Sam Buckley, the events manager, has arranged a dual event for me: a signing session in the afternoon and a talk and reading in the evening.
It was a cold, squally morning. I arrived at the shop about midday. It has recently changed hands and there was a major renovation going on in the café area; unfortunately, this meant that the café was closed, but I understand that it will be open again next week, ready for Christmas. I was privileged to meet Darren (twin brother of Jason, the new owner), who is in charge of the refurbishment work – he says Jason earns the money and he spends it!
Although the temporary lack of coffee was ruefully lamented by Bookmark’s clientele, the shop’s footfall (partly because it was market day) was excellent and there was a lot of interest in Rooted in Dishonour. One lady, Helen, bought three copies for herself and friends and said that she’d read all the DI Yates books: ‘Each one is better than the last’ – sheer music to an author’s ears!
Alex, who attends Spalding Grammar School and works in Bookmark on Saturdays, popped in at lunchtime and became one of my customers.
The evening event took place in the bookshop itself for the first time, as the café was out of bounds. As a speaker, I preferred the atmosphere there (though not the absence of cake!). Spalding audiences are always excellent, but this was my best ever!
I met some old friends and made many new ones. The discussion following my talk was a lively one and I was asked lots of searching questions about my writing. Several of the audience generously bought the new novel and some of the previous ones as well.
I’d like to thank Sam and the rest of the staff at Bookmark for working so hard to make the event a success, and all my wonderful Spalding readers for giving me a day to remember.
Stamford in Lincolnshire bestrides the River Welland (which also flows through the Spalding of the DI Yates books) and marks the ancient ford across the river where the Romans chose to route Ermine Street on its way north. Going there to sign copies of The Crossing, the fourth DI Yates book, seemed very appropriate!
It seems to be a continuing theme of The Crossing events that they are fated to happen in extreme weather. Harlow Carr was squally, Spalding was tempestuous and yesterday Stamford was bitterly cold! The cold hit me as soon as I got up yesterday morning. Venturing out with the dog before dawn, I noticed that a clutch of flowerpots outside the back door seemed to have sprouted a mysterious white substance. Closer inspection revealed it to be snow. Once clear of the parking area in front of my house (treacherous with black ice), I saw that all the rooftops and hedgerows in the village were twinkling with crisp snow.
It’s a two-hour drive to Stamford and, although my husband and I were heading due south, it seemed to get colder as the sun rose higher in the sky. Stamford itself was in the grip of a vicious north wind which, the weather forecast informed us, was blowing straight down from the Arctic. It didn’t seem to deter the citizens of the town: wrapped up in thick coats, hats and scarves, all seemed to be going about their business cheerfully. The Christmas decorations had been put up, most of the shop windows now carried Christmas displays and the cold served only to make the atmosphere more festive.
My destination, Walker’s Bookshop in the town centre, was as warm and welcoming as always. Its Christmas stock had been laid out beautifully and customers came, sometimes in droves, sometimes in flurries, to admire it and to browse and buy. I’d been allocated a table near to the cash desk to sign copies of The Crossing and we did a brisk trade throughout my allotted time there.
I’d like to thank both the people of Stamford and the several visitors to the town whom I met not only for buying the book, but also for the fascinating conversations in which we engaged throughout the day. There was the lady whose father had owned some of the gravel pits that I write about in Almost Love. She told me that when she was a child they’d found many things in the pits, including a mammoth’s tooth (I mention the mammoth’s remains in the book), a pewter salver and several skeletons, some of which had been buried face down, perhaps because they belonged to murderers or suicides. The artefacts had all been given to a local museum, but the bones were removed by police who ‘just put them into bags and carted them away. It was the sixties and seventies. They didn’t bother to reinter them or find out how old they were.’ Shades of Sausage Hall! It is tantalising to think that some may have been the result of more recent murders: if so, the murderer(s) got off scot free! There was another lady from Cornwall who said her neighbour was Dawn French. She asked me about my writing routine. I said that although most of my writing is done in my office, I can also write on trains and in cafes. Dawn, apparently, must have absolute solitude and silence when she writes. Several men made purchases: they tended to be more interested in the series and how the novels relate to each other than more general information about the South Lincolnshire setting or how they came to be written. People of all ages stopped to talk to me. My youngest buyer was still at school. I was delighted that so many young people were interested, including a young woman who would have bought the whole set if we hadn’t run out of Sausage Hall and said, while buying the other three, that she’d order it. Some old friends also made the considerable journey from Nottingham to give their support.
The time flew by, as it always does for me when I’m in a bookshop. I had a truly wonderful day. I’d like to thank Tim Walker and Jenny Pugh for arranging the signing session and Mandy and Karen for looking after me so brilliantly while I was in the shop. It’s a very distinguished bookshop indeed and well worth the short detour off the A1 if you happen to be passing that way.
On the way home, it didn’t seem so cold, but perhaps that was just because I was enveloped in the rosy glow of having been able to meet so many new enthusiasts.
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.
In this extraordinary Sausage Hall launch week, which I am enjoying so much and for which I am very grateful, I’d like to pay tribute to two amazing bookshops.
The first is Bookmark, Spalding’s very distinguished bookshop (the CEO of the Booksellers Association, Tim Godfray, has even been known to serve behind the till there on occasion). Bookmark very generously offered to host the Sausage Hall publication day party, which took place in the evening of November 17th, after the day that I spent at Spalding High School. The event was masterminded by Christine Hanson, the owner of the shop (who is both practical and imaginative – she fixed both a toilet roll holder and a broken table joint within minutes of my arrival, while the shop itself, resplendent with its Christmas stock and decorations, achieved a standard that I’d have dearly liked to replicate in my bookselling days), and Sam Buckley, also a former pupil of Spalding High School, who organises author sessions at the shop. Equally generously, the launch party was sponsored by Adams and Harlow, the local pork butchers, who supplied sausage rolls for the occasion.
This event was attended by members of Bookmark’s lively reading group and some old friends of my own. I was astounded to see Finola, a day-job friend – she had driven for more than an hour from Cambridge in order to support me. I was also staunchly supported by Madelaine, one of my oldest friends, and her husband, Marc, who have both offered me hospitality every time I’ve returned to Spalding as Christina James and also bought many copies of my books as presents for everyone they know who might enjoy them.
Madelaine’s contribution to my writing is acknowledged in Sausage Hall. I was also delighted to see Sarah Oliver, whom I first met at the Priory Academy last spring and who came with her husband. The book club members, who lived up to their reputation for being engaged and vivacious, were shrewd and perceptive: as well as listening attentively to two readings from Sausage Hall, they launched into an animated discussion about all three DI Yates novels. Everyone present bought at least one of the books, some more than one. (Sam Buckley later this week let me know that one member of the audience, who had not read any of the novels and took away with her In the Family, returned within forty-eight hours, having read it, to acquire Almost Love and Sausage Hall as well!) And, of course, I couldn’t myself resist making a few purchases in this fairy-tale bookshop.
Having spent the night with my son and daughter-in-law at their house in Cambridgeshire, I arrived in good time on Tuesday November 18th for a signing session at Walkers Bookshop in Stamford. Although I first met Tim Walker, its owner, last year (he’s currently President of the Booksellers Association), I had not visited one of his bookshops before, The one in Stamford is in a listed building in the town centre; he also owns another in Oakham. I was particularly impressed by the huge range of stock in this shop, both the cards and gifts downstairs and the extensive range of books upstairs. Tim and the manager, Jenny Pugh, were respectively at the other shop and taking holiday, but everything had been set up for me and Mandy, the assistant manager on the book floor, couldn’t have made me more welcome.
Bookmark and Walkers are two fine examples of thriving independent bookshops, packed with atmosphere and individual charm and led by brilliantly creative people who understand how to serve their communities very well indeed. It was a privilege and a pleasure for me to have been able to enjoy what they had to offer and I’d very much like to thank Christine and Tim for hosting Sausage Hall events this week.
As you will know from my previous post, the launch of ‘Sausage Hall’ is being sponsored by a Spalding company I grew up with. In fact, I went to Spalding High School with one of the daughters of the family! I certainly remember that their products graced the tables not only of my own household, but those of all of my friends and relatives as well. The Lincolnshire family firm of butchers, George Adams, based in Spalding, has been associated with great sausages, meat and fantastic handmade pork pies for nearly a hundred years. But now, Mary and Lizzi, the great-grand-daughters of the founder of the first shop, are launching a new brand: Adams & Harlow, which will undoubtedly be noted for the same extraordinary pork pies and sausages.
Mary and Lizzi’s pork pie heritage consists not just of George, but of their other great-grandfather too – Dick Harlow, whose family set up a butcher’s shop in Boston, Lincolnshire in 1895! So, whilst Adams & Harlow is a new venture, its two founders have extraordinary expertise and an amazing heritage with great provenance and tradition.
As was the way a hundred years ago, each Adams & Harlow pork pie is individual and made with only the finest ingredients, including 100% British meat. As each hand-raised pie takes two days to make, with sixteen different stages to complete before it even enters the oven, every one is the product of extraordinary skill passed down through the generations! Adams & Harlow pork pies taste every bit as delicious as those made by George and Dick all those years ago.
Based in the original George Adams butcher’s shop in Spalding, Adams and Harlow still make the ever-popular Lincolnshire Sausage recipe, using top-quality British pork and secret seasoning blend.
Adams and Harlow products are available at a number of regional and nationwide independent shops, details of which appear on their website; they can be ordered online from British Fine Foods and Ocado as well as bought directly from the original George Adams butcher’s shop in Spalding.
I’m delighted and honoured to have been sponsored by Mary and Lizzi, who will be providing their wonderful fare at Monday’s November 17th ‘Sausage Hall’ launch at Bookmark, Spalding, and at the London launch at Waterstones, Covent Garden, on Thursday November 20th. A fitting accompaniment to a story based in a Lincolnshire house built by a butcher!
The prospect of tonight’s steady stream of youthful ‘trick or treaters’ (for readers around the globe, children in the UK visit houses at Hallowe’en to offer a choice: a trick played upon the household or a treat given by the household to the visitors to ward off any tricks) has stirred in me memories of the Bonfire Nights (or Guy Fawkes Nights) of my childhood.
I’m talking about a time when we didn’t ‘do’ Hallowe’en – at least, not in South Lincolnshire. Although I think it’s mainly an import from the USA (I anticipate contradiction!) , some parts of the UK did celebrate Hallowe’en, even then: when I went to university, my flat-mate, who came from Lancashire, told me how her two brothers at Hallowe’en, which they called ‘Mischief Night’, had removed the gates from their school and put them on the roof. But in Spalding, where I grew up, there was only Bonfire Night, celebrated on November 5th, the anniversary of the date on which Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In retrospect, I realise that our Bonfire Nights incorporated some elements of Hallowe’en as well.
Bonfire Night was among my favourite events on the calendar. My brother and I started preparations weeks in advance, at first by collecting materials for as big a bonfire as our father would let us build at the bottom of our (quite large) garden. Then we’d beg old clothes from relatives to make a guy. He was constructed out of a shirt or jacket tacked on to a pair of trousers and stuffed with newspaper. The sleeves and legs of the trousers were fastened with string. His face would be made from a carved and hollowed-out mangold wurzel (field beet) containing a candle, if we were ambitious, or, more often than not, just covered with a cardboard mask bought from Woolworths. Each year there was a Woolworths counter overflowing with these masks, which featured the faces of ghosts, witches, pirates and skeletons; I think this was where the Hallowe’en element came in. The guy also wore a hat, if we could get one: good hats were in short supply. Guys were usually completed at least a week before Bonfire Night, so they could be showed off. We were allowed to sit ours outside the gate of our house with a tin bearing a ‘Penny for the Guy’ sign, but my mother wouldn’t let us push him around the streets begging for pennies, as some children did. She thought it was ‘common’!
The suspense leading up to Bonfire Night was huge. Teachers joined in the fun: I vividly remember making bonfires, guys and fireworks out of plasticine in a primary school art class. And we must have heard the story of the original Guy Fawkes – some of whose accomplices had had strong links with East Anglia – every single year. Along with 1066, it was certainly the episode in British history with which I was best acquainted.
At the end of school, we rushed home to dress up. Girls wore garish make-up and boys’ fathers often blacked their sons’ faces with pieces of cork held in the ashes of the fire or drew moustaches on them (some pictures of Guy Fawkes showed him with a twirling, Salvador Dali-type moustache). We wore whatever we could get together as fancy dress: it was before the era of the purpose-made (money-spinning) clothes that children’s parents buy for Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night now. Parents sometimes helped, and the outfits could be ingenious: I remember one child dressed as a skeleton – his mother had made an outfit out of black cartridge paper with the bones drawn on in white chalk. Girls often became witches for the night – we were taught at school how to make black pointed hats, also from cartridge paper. Whatever the outfit, we all had one of the cardboard masks from Woolworths (which were made out of the type of card now used for egg-boxes). We’d turn up at neighbours’ houses heavily disguised with our masks pulled down, then whip them up to reveal the made-up face beneath. The idea was that no-one could recognise us, with or without the mask.
We were permitted to take the guy with us on Bonfire Night itself. Ours was transported in the old family push-chair, an ancient conveyance made from khaki canvas and which had solid wheels. Although I suppose it’s unlikely that there were services-issue push-chairs, it looked as if it might have been army surplus, sold by the Army and Navy stores. I don’t think anyone in the family could remember where it originally came from. It was wide and cumbersome and difficult to take up and down the houses in the street without running off the paths and into people’s flower borders. Some children carried mangold wurzels or hollowed-out sugar beets with candles in them.
It was dark when we went Guy Fawkesing, but we were allowed to go round the houses on our own, though always in groups of at least three (my brother and I joined the two girls who lived next door). The boundaries were our street and the next one. The streets were thronged with children: it was the height of the baby boom and two or three children lived at almost every house. I’m sure we were all quite safe out on the streets that night.
There were just two rhymes that we chanted to the householders:
Please to remember
The fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Please spare a penny for the poor old guy!
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
Then God bless you!
The householder would then give us each a penny – sometimes twopence, if we were lucky – and usually some sweets as well. Sherbet dabs (boiled-sweet lollies in a bag of sherbet) and sherbet fountains (a tube of sherbet with a hollow ‘straw’ of liquorice to suck it up with) were my favourites. We carried old Ovaltine tins with string handles for the loot.
The trick was to get round as soon after dark as possible, before people ran out of treats, and then go home in time to see some of the children who came knocking at our own door and inspect their outfits. Sometimes when we went the rounds, early fireworks were already being let off and the air smelt excitingly of gunpowder.
After the last Guy Fawkesing stragglers had gone home, it was time to light the bonfire. First of all, the guy was seated on the top of it. Then my father would light the fire and we were instructed to stand back. I always felt a bit sad when the guy succumbed to the flames: he’d been a friend for the whole of the previous week… but there would be another one the next year. When he was well alight, my father began to light the fireworks. We always had a mixed box of Standard fireworks – I think they cost ten shillings (I’ve been amazed to read that a similar box now costs £45!) – a few ‘special’ fireworks, usually large golden rain or firework fountains (as we weren’t keen on loud bangs) or rockets, and some sparklers and hand-held fireworks. Each family had its own bonfire and fireworks: large firework parties for the whole neighbourhood had yet to be thought of. We baked potatoes in the ashes of the bonfire and ate toffee apples if the toffee apple man had been round that day (which he was usually enterprising enough to have managed). When we went into the house at the end of the evening, we were given vegetable soup with big hunks of bread to warm us up.
Miraculously, most of the Bonfire Nights of my childhood were bright and clear: I remember seeing rockets sailing into the stars. On the couple of times that it rained, we still went on the Guy Fawkesing rounds, but the bonfire had to be postponed until the next day. Then we were bitterly disappointed.