I was very privileged yesterday to have been invited to the event arranged by Wakefield Library Service as a joint celebration of National Reading Group Day and Crime Fiction Month. It was organised by Alison Cassels, Library Officer for Reading at Wakefield, and lasted almost the whole day. It was held at Wakefield One, the wonderful new library and museum complex which was opened last November by Jarvis Cocker. The day’s activities were built around the interests of Wakefield Libraries’ eighteen reading groups. When they are in everyday mode, the reading groups choose books that they wish to read from a selection provided; the library service then buys sets of these and distributes them. In itself, this must constitute an impressive feat of complex organisation and canny budget allocation.
About twenty members from various Wakefield reading groups attended. The morning began with refreshments, during which participants were given the opportunity to examine the next round of suggested titles and make their choices. We then split into three groups. Three books were being discussed, Peter May’s The Blackhouse, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and my own In the Family. The facilitators were Alison Cassels’ colleague, Lynn, Julie Walker, Operations and Development Manager for Kirklees Library Service, and myself.
It turned out that so many of the participants had read all three novels that I and my fellow facilitators led consecutive sessions with all three groups. At the end of the morning, Julie chaired a wrap-up session about crime fiction more generally and we discussed our favourite books in the genre. We then broke for lunch. In the afternoon, more people joined the groups to listen to my reading of two short excerpts from In the Family and Almost Love, as part of a session during which we discussed how I write and how I originally managed to get published; the audience put to me more questions (some of them very searching indeed) about my novels. At the close, Richard Knowles of Rickaro Books, in Horbury, sold copies of both books.
I don’t recall having enjoyed an event – whether or not it featured other authors or myself and my own writing – more than I enjoyed yesterday’s. I say this, not from reasons of vanity, but because I have never before had the opportunity to get as close to readers and what they really think. The eloquence and perceptiveness of the reading group members, and the fact that they had spent so much time on really engaging with In the Family, was truly humbling. I took much pleasure in listening to Pauline when she explained why she enjoyed the passages of dialogue – particularly that which takes place during Hedley Atkins’ and Peter Prance’s train journey to Scotland – and how much she identified with Hedley’s frustration when he missed the train to Liverpool, in spite of his sinister intent; and to Jane, for taking the trouble to create a family tree for the Atkins family. Other reading group members quizzed me for more information about Salt Publishing, about the history of Lincolnshire, about how DI Tim Yates will develop in subsequent books and – in true, straightforwardly friendly, Yorkshire fashion – about what I could say to persuade them to buy Almost Love! I said that it does develop Tim’s character further, as they’d hoped, and that it contains quite a lot of history and more of the dialogue that they’d obviously enjoyed.
If any of yesterday’s participants are reading this, I’d like you to know that I think you are amazing. I was grateful beyond words for your generosity in investing so much time, both in the event itself and in reading the books, as well as, of course, for your buying them. I do hope that I shall have the opportunity to meet you again.
I’d like to conclude with a special thank-you to Alison, who provided me with excellent hospitality. Wakefield Library Service is an old friend, with which I first became acquainted in the late 1970s. It has always enjoyed a fine reputation as a distinguished and innovative library authority. From the start, therefore, I knew that yesterday would succeed, but the magic of the day, created by a combination of impeccable organisation by Alison, Lynn and their colleagues and the wonderful enthusiasm of all the participants involved, both from the reading groups and other members of the public, made it truly unforgettable.
I read that the moon would come unusually close to the northern hemisphere last night. As it was also the day after the summer solstice, I thought I’d have to wait until quite late before being able to see it properly. In fact, like many another midsummer evening, yesterday’s was squally and darkness fell relatively early. An ominously large moon revealed itself, a huge silver-yellow disk in the sky, shadowed in places, and getting ever larger, as if it might keep on coming closer until it crashed into the Earth. That it was repeatedly occluded by rapidly scudding clouds made it the more sinister, a laughing witch at her games.
Regardless of culture or creed, the moon has dominated as one of the great motifs of literature. From earliest times, she has been celebrated in religion and ritual, often as the gentle feminine foil to the sun’s aggressive masculinity, but sometimes with a stronger and more violent persona. Implacable, she demanded sacrifice from the Incas and other ancient societies. She was Diana the Huntress, among the fiercer goddesses of the Roman pantheon and symbol of assertive virginity. She is the subject of the contemporary Wiccan practice of ‘drawing down the moon’, said to derive from a picture of two women and the moon which was painted on an ancient Greek vase. It is the moon that controls the tides and therefore influences shipwrecks. No wonder that so many old sailors’ superstitions are about her. Eighteenth century smugglers waited for the full moon to give them enough light to bring their goods ashore, though sometimes she was a fickle friend, enabling the customs officers to spot them as clearly as they could themselves see their contraband crates of rum and bales of silk. “Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by.”
There is a long list of books and films that I’ve enjoyed that have the word ‘moon’ in the title. Here are some of them: The Moon and Sixpence, The Moon’s a Balloon, Moon Tiger, Paper Moon, Moonfleet, Moonraker, and, of course, The Moonstone, arguably the first English detective novel and also, many readers of crime would claim, still the finest. Mine is a disparate and eclectic list; no doubt you could produce one that is equally idiosyncratic. What all these titles – and the many others – have in common is that none of them is directly about the moon. Instead, their authors have invoked her name to convey that their books engage with one or more of her many qualities: mystique, exoticism, ambition, cruelty, the fickle, the unattainable, the preternaturally beautiful.
Looking at my photographs of last night, one of which I am now sharing with you, I am reminded of the elusive nature of the moon so brilliantly and humorously conveyed in Charles Laughton’s drunken puddle sequence in the 1954 David Lean Hobson’s Choice film; I madly toy with the idea of her in the word ‘lunacy’; quotations from many poems about the moon flit amongst the clouds of my mind; I feel that the moon is a deserving mistress and I catch glimpses of all her qualities as she dips her face towards the earth and holds me in her thrall. By tonight, she will have retreated a little; apparently, she won’t stoop to kiss us again until August 2014.
Now that’s fickle.