Bugs and Pubs

lightning-bug

The stories behind words are fascinating. Why do we call a computer glitch a bug? What’s the origin of the expression ‘mad as a hatter?’ Why are so many pubs called ‘Ye olde’ something or other? And if you think news is called news because it’s new, you’re wrong. Oh so wrong.

 

And now, here is the news.

We’ll start backwards, so to speak, with the word news. It seems obvious that we call it news because it’s new i.e. the latest information. But that’s not the meaning of the word at all. Nor is it the plural of new, in case you were thinking along those lines. No, the word comes from the first letters of the words North, East, West and South. Never in a million years would I have guessed that one. Though, once you know it, it seems obvious because the information is gathered from – you got it – North, South, East and West. In other words, from all directions, from everywhere.

Bug!

On the other hand the origin of bug for a technical glitch has a simple and logical, even endearing, explanation. And it’s so patently obvious that, should you even guess it, you’d dismiss it as being far too fanciful. But there was in fact a real bug, a real living bug, in a computer at Harvard. The machine wasn’t functioning properly. Grace Hopper, who was working on it at the time, investigated and found a moth in one of the circuits. And from then on computer glitches became known as bugs. One could maybe challenge the definition of ‘bug’ but this was America. They say things differently there.

Mad hatters.

As to those mad hatters. Many people think the expression comes from the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland but the expression precedes the book. In days gone by, people wore hats far more than we do now; there was a thriving industry in hat making. Felt was widely used in the manufacturing process, which involved the use of a toxic solution of mercury. This caused chronic mercury poisoning, a condition that attacks the central nervous system, leading to symptoms such a trembling and incoherence. Hatters were also noticeably excitable and irrational, another result of inhaling mercury. Hence the expression ‘mad hatters’.

A thorn in their side

I don’t think there’s pub called ‘Ye Olde Mad Hatter’ though nothing would surprise me. Be that as it may, throughout the length and breadth of Britain there are many pubs with names prefaced by the words ‘Ye Olde.’ Such as ‘Ye Olde Black Horse’ or ‘Ye Olde King’s Head’. I used to ponder whether these were genuinely old names or just created for poncy, marketing purposes, to pull in the punters. Neither guess is accurate. When the Romans occupied England they used the rune ‘thorn’ to represent the sound ‘th’ as no such sound existed in Latin. When Caxton came along with his printing press, they had to represent the ‘thorn’ in some way and the letter ‘y’ was the closest. So to be absolutely correct these inn signs should really read ‘The Old Black Horse’ and ‘The Old King’s Head.’

You will discover more weird and wonderful word origins and fascinating facts, in the Categorical Trivia Collection, the source I used for the facts in this post.

An Authentic Voice

ColdKilling

‘Saturday. I agreed to come to the park with the wife and children.’ The first line of Cold Killing might seem innocuous – but read on. Before you get beyond the first page you know that this is no ordinary husband but a cold and ruthless killer. And, though you almost certainly won’t realise it until much later, you are being set up.

In the next chapter you are introduced to DI Sean Corrigan. As in many current crime novels, he has characteristics that separate him for the herd. Fortunately, in this case, he is not that somewhat clichéd maverick, a borderline psychotic whose wild, reckless actions would have him thrown out of even the most dodgy force. No. DI Sean Corrigan is different, in that the appalling abuse he suffered in childhood has given him an insight into the workings of dark minds. A darkness he recognises in himself, but which he has learnt to control, though it is a constant battle.

In Cold Killing he is pitched against a ruthless, intelligent and single minded killer. A killer who has detailed knowledge of forensics and who is obsessive in ensuring that he has no recognisable MO. Who deliberately chooses victims who are as disparate as they could possibly be. Despite this, Sean Corrigan is convinced that every murder was committed by the same hand. Before long he has identified the killer. And he sets out to nail him – by fair means or foul.

One of the most striking things about this book, and something that sets it apart from many other police procedurals, is the inside knowledge.

From the start, the narrative is shared between the killer and the cops, for the most part in the person of DI Corrigan. From the moment Corrigan identifies the killer, we too are put in the picture. From that point we are reading the killer’s narrative fully aware of who he is. There is some very clever stuff here, which I cannot reveal because of spoilers. Suffice to say there are twists and turns and several red herrings all aimed at making us look in the wrong direction.

One of the most striking things about this book, and something that sets it apart from many other police procedurals, is the inside knowledge. There’s a significant difference between research and knowledge. Here the author’s experience as a serving policeman leaps from the page. Often subtle, never in-your-face, these authentic touches are some of the best parts of the book.

There are some lovely touches too – a scene with magpies mourning a dead companion for example.

Hence we discover what a detective typically keeps in the boot of his car. What the offices in a police station are really like – cheap wooden furniture, uncomfortable chairs, computers that are far from state of the art and harsh lighting. We learn how he or she might feel when confronted by the body of someone who was killed violently. Add to this the conversation between the officers, which are ‘warts and all’. Perhaps best of all, these officers are by no means squeaky clean. The admission that evidence gets planted and that blind eyes get turned is refreshing.

Enjoyable as it is there are flaws in the writing. Not major ones and since this is a first novel they can be forgiven. In short there’s a tendency to show not tell. To take just one instance, in a conversation between the sidekick Donnelly and his wife the dialogue is very clunky. There are parts, especially in the beginning, where the adjectives are overworked. I also have a bit of a problem with the old clichés of the ‘learnt on the streets’, ‘working class lad who took up boxing to save from life of crime’ variety. Especially when linked to chunks of philosophising and ‘inner thoughts’ which ramble on and hold up the action. (In the latter case the author is in good (bad) company as Donna Tart spoils the end of The Goldfinch in a similar manner). In terms of plot, there are a few places where it is really OTT or implausible.

All it really needed was a bit of tightening up, a mite more editing and a wee bit less indulgence. That’s all.

Nevertheless, none of this detracted from my overall enjoyment. Luke Delaney can write and is perfectly capable of showing, rather than telling. Corrigan’s toughness and lack of fear is described by painting a picture of him driving through dangerous streets ‘with the window down and the doors unlocked.’

There are some lovely touches too – a scene with magpies mourning a dead companion for example. Someone wearing underwear ‘to make her feel less vulnerable.’ And excellent forensic and procedural details that are lightly drawn and that are, in consequence, all the more believable.

All it really needed was a bit of tightening up, a mite more editing and a wee bit less indulgence. That’s all. None of these minor faults take away from what is an exciting, page-turning read. I’m about to start the second book – The Keeper – and am looking forward to it eagerly.*

* You can see whether or not my eager anticipation was rewarded in my review of The Keeper, the second book. I posted it the wrong way round before I knew about scheduling.

Famous Misquotes – No. 4

“Money is the root of all evil.”

No, it’s not.

The original phrase is found in the New Testament in Paul’s first epistle to Timothy*.

It actually says: “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

So that’s all right then. You can be both good and rich.

Phew!

*Timothy:  6.10

A little bird told me …

 

TwitterBird

Twitter? It’s a bit like Marmite. People love it or hate it. Though often those that ‘hate’ it know now’t all about it. “I can’t be bothered with all that nonsense”, implying that you are somewhat of a shallow fool. Or “ I don’t know where people find the time”, whereas you of course have absolutely nothing else to do but indulge in such fripperies.

Don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it

I don’t try to stop people pursuing their interests. So obviously I take issue with those who feel free to criticise me, albeit indirectly, for ‘wasting’ my time. Especially if they are talking out of their bottoms. I’ve had a Twitter account for ages, but only started using it actively a few years ago to support James Bowen and Bob – now famous through Street Cat Bob, but at the time virtually unknown. Through those first tweets I made contact with a whole load of delightful people, some of whom I have actually met and whom I’m very happy to count as friends.

A delightful community of interesting, caring people

Now that I’ve published the first of my books, I use Twitter to help promote it. I’m under no illusions. I know that this alone will not make me a best selling author. There is, however, so much more to Twitter than self-promotion. In my experience it’s a delightful community of interesting, good-hearted people who share their knowledge, their ideas, articles they have found, funny pictures, stories, book reviews, art – just about anything and everything you could think of. A rich seam of education and entertainment.

Everything has an ‘off’ button, including Twitter

Of course there are the people who only self promote. And those who tweet drivel. Who witter on about what they had for lunch and suchlike. But with Twitter as with most things, there’s an ‘off’’ button, or its equivalent. Even if someone follows you, it doesn’t mean you have to follow them. That way, you keep out of each other’s hair. As to the trolls. Clearly they exist and clearly they are nasty. I’ve been fortunate I guess in not being famous or doing anything that attracts the jealous attention of such people.

More dog charities than you could throw a stick for

Among my followers I count loads of writers, a smattering of lawyers and barristers, including a QC and two criminologists. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to learn that I follow and am followed by more dog charities than you could throw a stick for including my beloved A.C.E., Battersea Cats and Dogs Home, Dogs Trust– just a few among many. Plus other tireless animal charities and individuals who campaign to end cruelty – Peter Egan, Animals Asia, SAMPA and C.A.R.I.A.D. and their supporters. And far too many others to mention here.

All human life is here

So dogs and cats in all shapes and sizes, tigers, monkeys, bears and other four-leggeds all feature on my Twitter account. Some of the cats and dogs even follow me! As to the humans – they come in all flavours. Serious, funny, interesting, erudite, kind, resourceful, helpful, engaged, creative and more. They come from every corner of the globe – or would do if the globe had corners. I’ve swapped rants about public transport with a writer in New York, exchanged views with a jazz trombonist who is into neuropathology, followed the tweets of a Canadian involved in fishing rights and the law. Truly, as they say, all human life is here. And long may it continue.

 

Crying & Laughing: the annual Clown’s Memorial Service

The Tears of a Clown: the annual Clowns’ Memorial Service

Sad Clown

Towards the end of The Eighteenth of November, Alice, one of the main protagonists finds herself back in Joseph Grimaldi Park, the tiny North London park, where she had encountered Fabriel, some hours after the fire. As she stands distraught by the railings round Grimaldi’s grave she becomes aware of shadowy figures gathering round her. These are the ghosts of clowns long gone. But their comforting presence is soon replaced by something much more sinister.

This scene was inspired by research into the life of Joey Grimaldi and the discovery of the Clown’s Church and the annual memorial service that was held there and that continues to this day, though in a different place. On the first Sunday in February each year a colourful and motley crew assembles in East London. Clowns from all over Britain, and even further afield, gather in Holy Trinity Church, Dalston, East London. They come to remember and honour friends and colleagues lost but not forgotten. And also to renew friendships, remember, perform and laugh together.

The tradition began in 1946 at the original Clown’s Church, St James on Pentonville Road when the first service was held in memory of the legendary Joseph Grimaldi, the ‘clown of clowns’, who is buried in what was once St James’ Churchyard, but is now a park named after him – Joseph Grimaldi Park. The church suffered bomb damage in World War II and was decommissioned in 1959, when the service was moved to Holy Trinity in Dalston.

Grimaldi was born in Clerkenwell in 1778 and lived in and around Islington until his death in 1837, aged only 59. His father had performed in pantomime and Joseph made his own debut at the Sadler’s Wells theatre when aged barely three. He continued to delight audiences at the theatre, and in Drury Lane and many other London theatres. Despite his fame, his life was not an easy one, with more that its fair share of tragedy. Sadly, this is rather fitting for a clown.

Next year the service will once again be held at Holy Trinity Church, Beechwood Road, London E8 3DY. As always, on the first Sunday in February. If you are going, be sure to get there really early to get a seat. After the service there is a performance in a nearby church hall. Altogether an experience not to be missed.

A pathetic little man. A deadly killer.

The Keeper

In this, the second DC Corrigan novel, Corrigan is once more pitted against a dangerous killer. But, unlike the highly intelligent ‘cold killer’ of the first book, Thomas Keller is a pathetic little man. A sleazy, nasty little man, all the more dangerous for being inadequate. Not to mention utterly deranged. He is obsessed with a woman called ‘Sam’, someone he wants but cannot have. In an attempt to recreate her he stalks and abducts women who resemble her. At first he treats them with tenderness; this soon turns to viciousness when his captives don’t measure up to his unrealistic illusions.

On the cops’ side we have Detective Inspector Sean Corrigan, Detective Sergeant Sally Jones, Detective Sergeant Donnelly and others we met previously in ‘Cold Killing’. At the outset the case looks like a typical ‘missing persons’ incident and as such would not normally be within the remit of the murder team. However, due to Sean Corrigan’s uncanny ability to get a sense of a killer, he knows that sooner or later they will have a body on their hands. So it becomes a tense race against time.

As before, the book starts with the killer. This time we know his name from the outset. We also know he is a postman, so straight away we are ahead of the detectives. And continue to be so. Also, as before, the point of view alternates between Keller, Corrigan, Sally Jones and one of the victims, Louise Russell. This last point of view is a clever touch, which adds to the tension as the story unfolds. To say any more would be to risk a spoiler.

This linking of one book with the other is neat. However it’s only fair to warn you that the name of the killer in Cold Killing, the first book in the series, is revealed in the first chapter of The Keeper.

After we are introduced to the creepy Thomas Keller and his victim, the action moves swiftly to the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey. Here the trial that is taking place is that of the villain of the first novel. The final verdict ‘unfit to plead’ sees the perpetrator ordered to be detained in a secure psychiatric unit. Thus robbing the police of the satisfaction of a trial and conviction. And inflicting further psychological damage on Sally Jones, in particular.

This linking of one book with the other is neat. However it’s only fair to warn you that the name of the killer in Cold Killing, the first book in the series, is revealed in the first chapter of The Keeper. So if you haven’t read the first book but intend to read it, don’t start with this one as it will ruin all the tension and twists and turns of Cold Killing. I think this should be pointed out to prospective readers by the publishers.

One of the things that set Luke Delaney apart from many other crime writers is the fact that he is an ex-Murder Squad detective. Consequently the settings are authentic, rather than researched. Throughout the book, fascinating insights take us into the real world of the police, warts and all. Among these, DI Corrigan’s views on the transfer of the Forensic Laboratory from the Home Office to the private sector. His dismissive attitude towards Anna, the criminal psychiatrist. The descriptions of the effects of lack of sleep and the overwhelming weariness that afflicts officers during a case. And the, sometimes fatal, effect this has on family life. There are many such realistic touches.

The descriptions of sexual violence and intimacy border on the pornographic. At times these descriptions are very well written, but they are dwelt on and repeated in a way that I find disturbing.

Two things in particular spoilt my enjoyment of what is essentially an original, fast paced thriller. While there are at times perceptive glimpses into the workings of the mind of the killer and the thought processes of the police and other characters, these are outweighed by the rambling and irritating repetitions of ‘inner thoughts’ and descriptions. The second bothersome element is the fact that the descriptions of sexual violence and intimacy border on the pornographic. At times these descriptions are very well written, but they are dwelt on and repeated in a way that I find disturbing.

All this became so wearisome that at one point I seriously considered abandoning the book. It really does need a thorough edit and has all the hallmarks of a second book rushed out to capitalise on the success of the first. I should point out, however, that I am reading both as a reader and a writer, so things that bother me while wearing my ‘writer hat’ may not bother another reader.

There are plenty of positives about this book, lots of good things. This is evidenced by the plethora of five stars. Indeed all reviews average out at 4.18, which is very high indeed and proves how popular Luke Delaney has become. I’d also like to add that I applaud him for experimenting both with points of view and in not sticking to the same type of criminal. I will be interested to know what he does next.

History as inspiration

AgnesBernauer

I always find it helpful to have a back-story for my characters. Even if none of it actually appears in the book, it informs me as a writer. It took me some time to figure out Fabriel’s status but, once I had done so, I needed to create a backstory for him. In his particular case it was essential to the plot, not just for his character. Who was he? Where did he come from? What had happened to ensure that he would be at King’s Cross on the exact day, at the exact hour that the fire broke out? Did it have something to do with the distant past?

When playing around with different ideas, it became obvious that a common link between his present and his past had to be fire and that led me to witches and witchcraft. Not surprisingly, the Internet is a good place for witches. There are many specialised sites dedicated to all things Wicker, as well as sites such as Wikipedia (no pun intended!) and more general sites.

What I was looking for was a specific story, a true story that I could use as the basis for the events in Fabriel’s past. I found some of it in the story of Agnes Bernauer, though I needed to adapt it quite drastically. The final story of Fabriel’s past is only very losely based on Agnes story, though I did borrow her name. For instance although the real Agnes was condemned for witchcraft, she was actually drowned – as common a death for witches as was hanging or death by fire. In the end her story served as inspiration rather than being mined for facts.

Agnes Bernauer was born around 1410, the daughter of the Augsberg barber-surgeon                 Kaspar Bernauer, although some accounts describe him as a baker and others say his existence has never been proven. After meeting her, it is supposed at a tournament in February 1428, Albert, Duke of Bavaria, took her off to Munich. There is a possible reference to her on the Munich tax roll of the same year. Within four years she had become an integral part of the court. There is no doubt she was Albert’s mistress and it’s possible she was married to him secretly.

Duke Ernest saw Agnes, a commoner, as a threat to the succession and, egged on by the Palatine Countess Beatrix, Albert’s sister, he took steps to get rid of her. On 12th October 1435, while Albert was away on a hunting expedition, Duke Ernest had Agnes arrested, accused of witchcraft and drowned in the Danube as a witch. When Albert returned and discovered what his father had done, he endowed a perpetual mass and an annual memorial celebration in the Straubing Carmelite Cloister in her memory. The following year Duke Ernest erected the Agnes Bernauer Chapel in the cemetery of St Peter Straubing. Probably to appease his son. Memorial masses are said to this day, though these are now an annual event, rather than a daily one. Agnes’ story not only helped provide a framework for Fabriel’s story. It has famously inspired many dramas, operas, poems and plays and is even celebrated in a unique cake - the Agnes Bernauer Torte.

Tea and technology

CatDistract

Writing is mostly a solitary occupation. Even if you are writing with a cat on your lap, it’s still down to you to get the words onto the paper or the screen. The cat’s not going to do it. But it sure as hell will provide a distraction, whether it’s actually sitting on the keyboard or not. There are plenty of ways you can happily waste time with a cat – whether it’s a real cat or a virtual cat. And it’s not just cats …

Who’s boss?

Before you even start, tackle the technology. While we curse it and say how much time it wastes, it’s not it. It’s us. Your computer hasn’t got teeth. It’s not going to bite if you don’t look at your emails (though of course it can get back to you in other sneaky ways). So first, turn of the bling or ping or whatever noise your computer makes when an email comes in. If, like me, you also have a distracting little box that appears top right, see if you can kill it. You may not be able to do so, but you can try.

Step away from the phone

And then there’s the phone. Once you’ve set a writing time – I write best in the mornings – don’t answer the phone. There are such things as answering machines. And don’t fret; if it’s urgent they’ll ring back. Even better, tell all your friends, your mother, the cat, the dog, your neighbour that you never answer the phone between, for instance, eight and twelve a.m. Be specific. If you are someone who just has to answer, then unplug the wretched thing, if it’s a landline. With mobiles, turn off the sound but shove it away somewhere. Like in a drawer, on top of the fridge. Anywhere where you can’t see it. (Only don’t forget where you put it!)

The devil incarnate – a.k.a. the Internet

Looking for inspiration – always a good excuse – I decided to do some ‘research’ for this post. So I Googled and found much more than even I had bargained for. Just one of the suggestions offered had no less than thirty five new ways to waste time or to find inspiration, if you prefer to think of it that way. That’s the delight and the curse of the web. A true double-edged sword. But I wouldn’t be without it. Nevertheless, it is madly distracting so, if possible, restrict your ‘research’ to evenings.

How many cups of tea does it take to write a novel?

We’ve all been there. You’re a bit stuck. A bit bored maybe. “I’ll just go and make a cup of tea.” Or maybe it’s coffee. Whatever. It’s still a distraction. It can bugger up your chain of thought, even if you weren’t aware of having a train of thought at that particular moment. When you are writing it’s essential that you keep your bum on the seat. Even if that means spending hours staring at the screen. It sounds weird, but by some sort of strange alchemy if you just stay there, something happens. Eventually. (You don’t have to remain immobile all the time, some pacing and stretching is allowed. And the occasional cup of tea.)

Rules are meant to be broken

The thing people often forget to say is that you need to know the rules before you can break them. There’s not a lot of fun in breaking a rule if you don’t know you are breaking it. And there are of course exceptions to any rule, provided you know it in the first place. And as I’ve said before, it’s probably better to make a cup tea or get a coffee than put something in the Google search bar. A cup of tea might take ten minutes. Make that fatal click and you’ll be there for hours. Trust me. I’m a writer.

A series too far?

 

The FlightWhen Flight 189 crashes into the Severn Estuary, it leaves a raft of unanswered questions. How could ten-year old Amy Patterson have survived apparently unharmed, only to die of hypothermia? Who was the man found alongside her, a yachtsman who had obviously not been on the plane? How could such a high-tech plane literally drop from the skies? Why were certain passengers switched to this flight at the last moment?

Coroner Jenny Cooper is drawn into the investigation, despite the fact that a distinguished judge is appointed to head an inquiry that would normally be within her jurisdiction. However, Jenny is never one to bow to authority and, under pressure from Amy’s high-powered mother, finds a way to keep herself involved.

The Flight is the fourth in the Jenny Cooper series. I read the first two but must have missed the third, The Redeemed. I enjoyed the earlier books more than this one and have been trying to figure out why that should be. Because The Flight gripped me almost as much as the others. I found it just as hard to put down at times. Nor was I put off by the rather lengthy descriptions of how airlines are organised and the technical side of flying. In fact I found the technical detail and explanations some of the best things in the book.

“I couldn’t really engage with Jenny’s character either, this time round. As I read on I began to rather dislike her. She seemed so obstinate and negative.

In general and on the plus side, it’s refreshing to have a protagonist who isn’t a detective. The insights into the workings of a coroner’s court are instructive and well written; this is true across all the books. Here too the plot is fast paced, at least in the beginning, but becomes more and more implausible and muddled. I never did discover what the helicopters had been doing at the scene.

So what didn’t work? I think it boils down to the fact that this series is being a bit overworked. The Flight is book four and there are at least three more, one to be published in 2016. It’s all becoming too formulaic. Always Jenny battling against authority. Always some secret government agenda or other form of authority opposing her. A game of cat and mouse to see who will win.

I couldn’t really engage with Jenny’s character either, this time round. As I read on I began to rather dislike her. She seemed so obstinate and negative. I found her stubbornness irritating and her depressive attitude wearisome. The bickering and carping that goes on between her and Alison Trent, her sidekick, is also more annoying than instructive. I began to feel that the author couldn’t like her much either, to have created such a dreary person.

Always Jenny battling against authority. Always some secret government agenda or other form of authority opposing her. A game of cat and mouse to see who will win.

I really hope that, in the later books, M.R. Hall gets back on track. In the first book, the fact that Jenny is mentally fragile, and addicted to popping pills, made her plausible, vulnerable and rather likeable. In the second book the author skilfully charted her mental progress, both triumphs and setbacks. These insights added an extra and welcome dimension. In fact so well observed were they that I was convinced that M.R. Hall was a woman. (And I’m not sure what that says about me). However in this third book, I get the impression that the author sees women as whiney or needy or combative – or all three.

Reading the descriptions of the later books, on Amazon, it looks a bit more hopeful. At any rate in terms of plot. We may not be in for more of the same after all. The stories are intriguing – a link between a suicide and a child’s death from meningitis, the aftermath of a tragic house fire and the death of a young soldier in Helmand. They promise new angles and another direction. I look forward to reading them while hoping that Jenny gets a grip! A reader can only take so much whining before giving up.

The Clowns’ Church

 

ClownGraveThe ‘Clowns’ Church’, the backdrop for a couple of key scenes in The Eighteenth of November, was a real church; the park surrounding it still exists. Having lived in London for ages, a great deal of it in Islington and Camden, I know the area well. So when I was looking for somewhere for Fabriel to find himself, after the fire, I remembered the little park on the Pentonville Road – an unlikely place to find a park. It is in fact the area around what was formerly St. James Church.

When I went to check it out I found this little grave, surrounded by painted railings, which bore at the front the twin masks of tragedy and comedy. At the back a ‘pitted curved gravestone’. The inscription was faded, almost indecipherable in places, but enough to read the name Joseph Grimaldi. Here in this small park lay the bones of the most famous clown in the world. The man whose name lives on today in the generic name for a clown – a Joey. This sparked the idea of the ghostly clowns who appear later in the book.

The original church suffered bomb damage and was deconsecrated and demolished. At the time I was writing an office building was being erected on the place where it had stood and which, misguidedly, was designed to resemble the church. It was a nice idea, but somehow it doesn’t work. There was a playground to one side, as mentioned in the book, but apart from that the place was a building site and ‘dark with overgrown bushes and overhanging trees’.

The little park bears the name Joseph Grimaldi Park, in honour of this iconic clown, who
was born in Islington, where he lived for much of his life. The park has recently been remodeled, smartened up and the grave renovated. Rather strange, musical, coffin shaped ‘installations’ are now set ‘on top of the grave’, which is a bit confusing as they are outside the small enclosed area I think of as the grave. I can only assume that they cover the actual plot where Grimaldi is buried, but how do they know?

For many years St James was the venue for the annual Clowns’ Memorial Service. When the Church was demolished, the ceremony was moved to Holy Trinity, Dalston. Where it is still held. I will be posting an article about that separately.

Grimaldi Plaque

Directions: Joseph Grimaldi Park is sandwiched between Cummings Street and Rodney Street – about a third of the way up the Pentonville Road, if you are coming from King’s Cross/St Pancras, The postcode is N1. I can’t find a more precise one but if you look up either of the streets mentioned and find their postcodes, that will be enough to pinpoint the park.

 

Another Russian

 

My parents were both pure Irish. Indeed our family roots are Irish way back to the coming of the Norsemen and subsequently the Armada. Except for one recalcitrant ancestor, reputed to be related somewhat tentatively to some English landed gentry. It’s quite possibly a myth, given that it originated with my Granny Bugger, who was renowned for her snobby aspirations. But that’s another story entirely.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I grew up listening to and using Irish expressions, without being aware that our vocabulary was any different to regular English. Indeed even now, researching the subject, I am often startled to find that words and phrases I’ve been using for years have their roots in ‘the awld sod,’ to add another to the pile. So here’s a sort of mini-glossary, though it’s by no means exhaustive.

A whale of a time – one day I must look up the etimology of that one.

Was it any use? – Was it any good.

Donkey’s years – A very long time.

Quare – Very. As in it’s quare cold today.

A press – A cupboard. The biscuits are in the press.

Wrecked – Very tired. Or very drunk.

Wet the tea – Make the tea.

Hen’s teeth – As in ‘rare as hen’s teeth’.

Chips – Crisps.

French fries – Chips.

I will yea – I won’t.

Fierce – All weather is fierce. Fierce wet, fierce cold, fierce warm, fierce damp.

Jumper – Not a suicide but a sweater or pullover.

Do the washing – Do the laundry.

Messages – Groceries, shopping. I have to do the messages.

As to the expression, ‘another Russian’. I have no idea of its origins. I don’t know if it was peculiar to my family or a common expression among Irish people of my parent’s generation. They used it to describe any Irish person who came to their attention. So, for example, if they read a newspaper report about a drunken Irishman, or woman, they’d exclaim ‘Oh no, another Russian.’ Or if, for instance, they heard of the appointment of a US Senator, or an official or indeed anyone with an Irish name, you’d hear them say ‘Another Russian.’ If anyone does know the origins, I’d be ‘delighted and excited’ to hear it, as they say in Dublin.

Famous Misquotes – No. 2

 

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This quote is usually attributed to Voltaire.

But did he say it?

No he didn’t.

It was written by Eveyln Beatrice Hall, who wrote a biography of Voltaire under the pseudonym of Stephen G. Tallentyre.

Fancy that!

Sunshine and Shops – researching the recent past

 

Marchmont St

Marchmont Street, where Alice remembered

I am drawn to books that set fictional worlds in real places, real streets, real neighbourhoods. Ruth Rendell, for instance, places the main action of The Keys to the Street in and around Regent’s Park. Writing as Barbara Vine, she set The House of Stairs in Notting Hill and King Solomon’s Carpet in West Hampstead. Charles Dickens uses London as the background to his books.

These and many other writers have had a great influence on me, so perhaps this has played no small part in my own writing. Thus in The Eighteenth of November, the events and the places are real although the characters are fictional. I find it very important to get the settings, as well as the events, exactly right. I was going to say that that’s relatively easy with places, but not necessarily. It depends on how much detail you want and when the action takes place. I have discovered, for instance, that the recent past can sometimes be more difficult to research than the historical past. What shops, for instance, were on the King’s Cross Road or in Marchmont Street in 1987?

Shops are difficult. There will be records somewhere but finding them would take more digging that was warranted. I only needed a typical café so it was more appropriate to create a fictional one albeit based on the many greasy spoon caffs to be found in London. The same went for the shops on Marchmont Street, though I kept the eclectic mix of shops that exist today. I imagine the street was not so trendy in 1987, though the eighties were pretty trendy so maybe it was. Of course the once rather seedy Brunswick Centre, at the Russell Square end, has changed beyond all recognition. Not entirely for the better.

It also required quite a lot of searching to establish the weather on the day of the fire and the days that followed. It may be a tiny detail but I didn’t want to describe something as taking place on a bright sunny day when it was in fact raining. The further in time I got from the fire the harder it was to establish the conditions; in those cases I just didn’t mention it or made the date nebulous, so that it didn’t matter.

The scene in Russell Square was more critical as I needed to describe it as it was in November 1987, scarcely a month after the Great Storm that had downed so many trees in London. As I thought, the trees in Russell Square had been cleared and chopped up but not yet removed, just as they appear in the book. However, many places remained relatively unchanged, Postman’s Park for instance and Parliament Hill. Neither has altered a great deal and remain much as they would have been when Fabriel and Alice searched across London, each on a desperate quest for answers.

The photograph of Marchmont Street comes with the kind help and permission of Silver Tiger. A great site to visit for diverse and delightful photos of London and useful advice, a bit of  philosphy and much else too.

 

Clever and creepy

UntitledIn order to do this book justice, I have to confess that the way I read it almost certainly detracted from the impact it had on me. I read it in snatches, on my iPhone, on the bus. With sometimes a week or even weeks between each reading. Inevitably my experience was disjointed. I believe that had I read it as a paperback, or even on my iPad, with more continuity, my initial experience might have been different. Indeed re-reading it, or rather re-skimming it, I am seeing things I didn’t give myself the leisure to notice before.

All that said, Kiss Me First is well worth reading. It’s really good on detail, both as to place and character. I know London, and I also know Spain, and the descriptions bring both places alive. The plot is original and well constructed and there are some startling twists. As to the characters, these are revealed slowly. Both of these factors make reviewing the book more difficult. You don’t want to spoil it for the reader by revealing too much information, yet need to give some detail to illustrate your comments.

I didn’t pick upon many of the clues about Leila; the fault is mine. I now realise that, at the very beginning, I unconsciously created an image for her. I saw her character as somewhat akin to the endearing Juno, in the film of the same name. About a quarter of a way in my feelings changed and I began to feel very ambivalent towards her, then began to dislike her. It was only towards the end of the middle of the book that I began to see it differently. By then the clues had become less subtle but a more careful reading has revealed that they were there from the beginning.

Maybe I’m too cynical or world-weary but I had my doubts about the set up from the start. This too is down to the writer’s skill although it meant that for me there was no great surprise in that respect. However, the introduction of a police enquiry very early on, and well placed snippets of information keep the plot moving forward. Especially the way Connor, a new character, is dropped into the mix in a way that indicates how important he is, but without telling you much else for some time. That too kept me reading at a point where I had begun to lose interest. I will never know for sure how much this was due to my disjointed reading pattern, but I did feel the book sagged in the middle. I know that for me it picked right up when Connor was introduced.

I felt I owed it to the author to at least skim the book again before writing this review. Having started to skim I discovered so much wealth that I had not fully appreciated first time round. However, I’m still uncertain about it, but there’s no doubt it is different and well worth reading properly, giving it the attention it deserves, and not butterflying around the way I did.

Get thee behind me, cat!

Untitled 2 I love the Internet, and I love wasting time on the Internet – even though it sometimes ends up not being a waste of time. Claire Cameron

Many writers have habits and rituals. Some are sensible – like having set hours for working, always starting the day with a walk or never answering the phone during writing hours. Others are mildly eccentric such as only ever writing on yellow paper or always wearing a green cardigan. Then there are those that sound as mad as cheese. Truman Capote had to write lying down, Dan Brown hangs upside down at regular intervals (I’m saying nothing!) and Victor Hugo wrote bollock naked. Though there was a very sensible reason behind this last eccentricity.

There’s no should about it

We are all different. What suits one writer won’t work for another, so don’t listen to anyone who says you should do it a certain way. (On this subject I highly recommend Jon Winokur’s fabulous book – Writers on Writing.) There is no ’proper’ way to write. You need only do what works for you. That said, there’s a great deal of really helpful advice out there. Much of it on the Internet.

The devil incarnate

Ah! The Internet. The devil incarnate, were you to believe its critics. And there is no denying that it can be the most colossal, even destructive, time waster. If you let it. And it’s so easy to let it. There they are, just a click away, all those fascinating sites. Bringing you hours of entertainment involving cute cats, clever cats, grumpy cats, dogs rescued from burning buildings, dogs saving kittens from burning buildings, burning buildings… There’s no end to the fun you can have. And I haven’t even mentioned Social Media. Or email.

Cats and teacups

But you’re supposed to be working, right? And the Internet is a distraction, right? But remember what I said, it is if you let it. And I must admit, it does take a great deal of discipline not to click on a favourite site when you get stuck, or a bit bored. However, it would be much better and waste less time to go and make a cup of tea, do a quick set of exercises or go for a short walk. And before you say ‘but that would take too long’ consider this.

Making a cup of tea might take five minutes, the exercises five to ten, the walk, perhaps twenty. But once you click on that URL – you could be about to lose not just five, ten or twenty minutes but an entire hour, or more. All that said, the Internet can be a rich source of inspiration and ideas. Apart from the fun stuff, there are plenty of splendid blogs out there – on every subject under the sun. They not only inspire but can educate as well as entertain. The trick is to capitalise on this wonderful asset while not allowing it to distract you too much (it’s almost impossible not to be distracted at all.)

Tricks and treats

It’s easy enough to say ‘be disciplined’ but actually doing it is a different matter. It’s not impossible though. While, ultimately, it’s up to you, nevertheless there are quite a few tricks you can use like turning off the sound so you don’t hear the email notifications. Or getting into the habit of only doing your research at certain times of the day. Or allowing yourself fifteen minutes ‘fun’ browsing while having a coffee or tea break. The trick here is to set a time limit and stick to it. You could even set a timer. Or give yourself certain tasks and reward yourself with time on the net when you’ve completed them.

Overall, it’s question of habit and of not giving up. You’re going to fail. Accept it. The lure of those cats will overcome your good intentions. But if you keep trying, eventually you will form new habits. Good ones. And, regarding this blog post, don’t they say you teach what you need to learn!

A wonderful book – character driven and full of insights

I absolutely hate ‘family sagas’, so while I have heard this novel so described, I have to say that I never even thought of it in those terms. Yes, it’s about a family, but it isn’t a saga, it’s an intricate, insightful story. Indeed ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ epitomises my feelings about character. No matter what other flaws a book may have, if the characters come alive on the page, if you care what happens to them, for good or evil, you’re more than half way there.

Not that I can find many flaws in this book. It’s well constructed and beautifully written and there’s enough tension to keep you turning the pages. I couldn’t put it down. True, the tensions and incidents are small or fairly common ones – involving siblings, cats, babies, emotions, second marriages and more. That said there is also the unexpected –- such as Aoife’s illiteracy. Treated here with sensitivity and woven skilfully into her personal story.

Indeed for me the joy of this book was the Riordan family. Lovable, exasperating, irritating, dysfunctional – all of this and more. Perhaps it’s because I was brought up by Irish parents in an Irish community that I can relate so well. This is not to take anything from the superb writing – the individual family members leap off the page – but for me they are also familiar. Though thank God my mother was a million miles away from being a Gretta. Nevertheless, I have come across many Grettas in my time. And always wanted to smack them.

If Gretta stands out as being the most annoying, the siblings are endearing, warts and all. You feel for each of them, their dilemmas, their baggage.

Such is Maggie O’Farrell’s skill that you ‘get’ Gretta from the very first page when she wakes before dawn and comes downstairs in the suffocating heat of that exceptional summer. She makes straight for the kitchen because – ‘Only she would choose to bake bread in such weather.’ Why in God’s name is this woman baking bread in a heatwave? The answer is as complicated as she is – a mixture of tradition, stubbornness, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, martyrdom and self-deception.

If Gretta stands out as being the most annoying, the siblings are endearing, warts and all. You feel for each of them, their dilemmas, their baggage – the result of having been brought up in a family where much remains hidden and unspoken. Where misunderstandings are rife and alliances are formed, giving rise to still more misunderstandings. I haven’t mentioned the father, Robert, who appears only briefly though he is present throughout. He too is the victim of his own culture and the era he was born in. His relationship to Gretta is complex and repressed, explained with a light touch and often obliquely, through the eyes of others.

The events in this book are not extraordinary but they are, undeniably, of fundamental importance to the lives of the characters. So I did care, I did hold my breath. I did want to shake some of them and hug others. I absolutely loved Aiofe and had enormous sympathy for the fragile Monica, the ‘good girl’, carrying the burden of being Gretta’s favourite. I thoroughly enjoyed this book – the story, the wonderful writing, the light touch, the depth. I read Maggie O’Farrell’s debut novel a while ago. I’m now eager to read the others.

Famous Misquotes – No 1.

Aside

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”

Did the Wicked Queen say this in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves?

No she did not.

What she did say was …

“Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all.”

Close.

But still a misquote.

 

A subtle thriller with a beating heart

 

NorwegianCoverNorwegian by Night is subtle and complex while managing to be a very good read and a page-turner all at the same time. The compulsion to turn the page accelerates as the book progresses but in the meantime there’s all the richness of the prose and the story to keep you reading.

Set, incongruously but very satisfactorily, against the backdrop of the Korean war and the Serbian – Kosovan conflict in former Yugoslavia, this is the story of Sheldon, an elderly Jewish man uprooted from his New York home to settle, reluctantly, in a run down area of Oslo with his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband. From its initial introspective and domestic scenes, it soon becomes a thrilling chase when a woman’s brutal murder compels Sheldon to go on the run with her small son.

Nevertheless, Norwegian by Night is so much more than a well-written thriller. So much more. Picking out any one theme from this book would be to do it a disservice, as there are so many. Love, loss, regret, ethnicity, war and peace, family, adventure – all woven into a seamless tapestry that moves effortlessly from the Balkan warzones to Vietnam to the dense Norwegian forest. Backwards and forwards in time, threading present with past, memory with reality.

Sheldon comes alive to the extent that, reading the acknowledgements, I find myself wondering – was he in fact a real person?

While all the characters are well drawn and believable, even those who play minor roles, it is Sheldon who makes the book what it is. At this point I can’t prevent myself quoting from the author’s acknowledgements. “I am not sure how much of this book was written by me and how much was written by Sheldon himself. So I extend here my thanks to him for all his assistance. Which isn’t to say he was easy to work with.’ And this is what makes the book so special. Sheldon comes alive to the extent that, reading that acknowledgement, I find myself wondering – was he in fact a real person? Was he someone who collaborated with the author to create the story? I don’t think so, except in the sense that so often it’s characters make the decisions, not the authors.

A living, breathing mass of contradictions and emotions.So real you want to reach out and hug him.

So here you have this prickly old man, over eighty, with his regrets and his idiosyncrasies. His sharp edges and his, often well hidden, tenderness. Is he a reliable narrator or is he suffering from dementia? Did he serve in the army as a clerk, as he first told his wife, or was he a sniper as he later claimed, to her disbelief? Is this just a manifestation of his declining years? He speaks to his dead comrades. He mourns his son Saul and blames himself for his death. Yet he has the presence of mind to keep one step ahead of his enemies.

I was astonished to discover that this is a debut novel. The author’s background in policy and international relations and security serves him, and us, well in this nuanced and sophisticated book. A book moreover which pulls off the difficult feat of keeping the tension and interest going – and keeping us guessing – right to the very end. However, I believe his greatest achievement is Sheldon. A living, breathing mass of contradictions and emotions. So real you want to reach out and hug him. If he’d let you. Which he probably wouldn’t.

Craft or Calling?

Snoopy2

When I first started writing, I simply wrote. I wrote in every form except the novel. Too long. Too difficult. Not for me. Or so I thought. Until I tried it and found it was a perfect fit. Typical! I discovered how to write by writing and by copying what my favourite authors did. Later, when I began to write novels, I also read some wise, practical ‘how-to’ books on the craft.

 

 

For it is a craft. Yes, there is such a thing as inspiration and inherent talent. Yes, some things can’t be taught but there’s a great deal that can be learned. You just keep on writing, keep your bum on the seat and don’t give up. I’m not ashamed to admit that I used to write with pen in one hand and how-to book, or a novel, in the other.

I read anything and everything. And this too was, I believe, critical to my formation as a writer. I had read most of Agatha Christie’s work by the time I was twelve. My school made us read the classics so Dickens, Tolstoy, Thackeray and other great writers were my companions. I owe my very survival, in no small part, to reading.

Then came the MA at Sheffield Hallam and another steep learning curve. Luckily the skills I lacked were the skills that could be taught. Skills like understanding narrative drive, the difference between a first draft and a finished novel. As a copywriter I knew how to cut and edit. But throwing out great chunks because they are not working. That’s hard. But necessary.

Here are just a very few of the many books I learned from along the way. Only a small sample, but an important sample nonetheless.

WritinginGeneral

Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular - Rust Hills   Beginning, middle end. Character and plot. Setting and motivation. It’s all there. Whether you are writing short stories or novels, this is a practical, down to earth book that no writer should be without.

 

WritingLifeThe Writing Life - Annie Dillard This book has been called ‘a kind of spiritual Strunk & White. It’s full of little stories about what it’s like to be a writer. It’s an inspiration. It’s the sort of book that makes you feel you are not alone and gives you the courage to carry on.

 

 The   ForestTreesForest for the Trees Betsy Lerner Subtitled An Editor’s Advice to Writers, this common sense and indispensible book gives valuable insights into an editor’s mind. It’s not a ‘how to’ book, it’s a ‘must have’ book. Fascinating, authoritative and comforting at the same time.

 

Revision

Revision Kit Reed I doubt I could ever have managed to edit and revise my books without the help of this splendid volume. Part of a series, it takes you step by step through the process of revision. And shows how rewriting is a natural, essential part of writing fiction.

 

WriteMillion

How to Write a Million Dibell, Scott Card & Turco Don’t be fooled by the title, which was probably thought up by the marketing department. This is no ‘get rich quick’ manual. This is a solid, common sense set of guides. The three topics – Plot, Characters and Viewpoint and Dialogue – are each broken up into short sections, which are easy to read and absorb.

ThirteenWays

Thirteen ways of Looking at the Novel - Jane Smiley ‘What to read and how to write.’ That’s it in essence.an analysis of each book, it covers a vast range of topics from the psychology of the novel to its origins and history.

 

StephenKingOn WritingStephen King Part autobiography. Part level headed advice for aspiring writers. This is an absorbing and compelling book, from one of America’s most prolific and successful writers. And a book that hammers home the need for writers to read. And read. And read some more.

 

ShippingNewsThe Shipping News - E. Annie Proulx Go for the original. Forget the film. It has nothing to do with the book. Another novel that was always open on my desk. Her prose is poetic, her style distinct. The regular omission of active verbs validated my own style. (Am I allowed to do this?) I found it spellbindingand instructive.

HouseStairs

The House of Stairs - Barbara Vine Published in 1988, this is the third novel Ruth Rendell wrote under the name Barbara Vine.  This, above all the others, was my bible. It was one of the books nearly always open on my desk as I wrote. To see how it was done. I believe that, along with King Solomon’s Carpet, it influenced me to set my books in London, in real time.

SolomanKing Soloman’s Carpet - Barbara Vine Three years after The House of Stairs came King Soloman’s Carpet. Once more the action takes place in London, noteably in West Hampstead and in the London underground. This too was a big influence. I’ve just pulled out my old copy to find that twenty-three post-it notes still adorn its pages.