Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

Ali Smith, CrimeFest & Partners in Crime

Selfie of Debbie Young, Alison Morton, & David Penny
CrimeFest is a great place to network with fellow crime-writers such as my author chums Alison Morton and David Penny.

Last week went by in a bit of a blur for me, but included attending two very enjoyable events that you might like to know about.

I must admit after having spent a large part of this year so far organising the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, it was bliss for me to attend events as a member of the audience, and to sit back and enjoy myself rather than rushing about making things happen.

Ali Smith at Tetbury Book Fest

The week kicked off with the new Tetbury Book Fest, run by the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop at the delightful Tetbury Goods Shed, a small-scale events space on the site of the former and sympathetically converted former Tetbury railway station. This Cotswold market town, just a few miles up the road from me, was filled with party atmosphere, its annual Wacky Races event, in which locals race home-made go-carts around its street, having taken place a little earlier that day.

At Tetbury, I really enjoyed a talk by Ali Smith, one of the country’s most highly-regarded authors. She doesn’t do many public events like this, but the Yellow-Lighted’s ever-persuasive Hereward managed to lure her along. She was there to talk about her latest book, Spring, but it was also inspiring to hear her talk about her love of books and reading,

cover of Spring by Ali Smith
The third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet of novels

“My books are nothing to do with me once I’ve finished them,” she said. “Books belong to us all individually as well as communally.”

She passionately advocated rereading books – a great excuse for those who, like me, like to keep books they’ve enjoyed in case they want to return to them later.

“Books are different to us on rereading ten years later,” she observed, and I completely agree.

I was also chuffed to learn a new word from her: intertextuality. This means the act of referring to other texts within a book. I do that a lot in my Sophie Sayers series (Sophie works in a bookshop), mostly for comic effect, but it’s pleasing to know there’s a formal name for it.

I didn’t take a photo of Ali because she is very shy and it would have felt intrusive, but I had a nice chat with her while she was signing her book for me, and was pleased to be able to tell her that the previous week I’d been with Dr Gerri Kimber, whom she thanks in the acknowledgements section of Spring, when she came to speak at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival about Katherine Mansfield, referenced in her book.

CrimeFest

My week ended with four days in a big Bristol hotel at CrimeFest, a huge international writing conference that draws authors and readers from all over the world. The hotel felt a bit like a crime scene itself, with stripes of colour-coded tape stuck to the carpets to guide you through winding corridors and deserted ballrooms to specific events. I would not have been surprised to find a chalk outline of a body along the way.

As well as a tempting bookshop, there was a stall selling crime-related props designed for use at murder mystery parties or launches of crime novels. The closest they had to a real weapon was a chocolate gun, but much as I love chocolate, even that made me shudder whenI heard the vendor saying breezily “Kids love them”. I really don’t want to see a child with a chocolate gun in its mouth. Ugh.

The CrimeFest programme is packed, with several strands of events running simultaneously all day long. In between socialising with crimewriting friends, I attended the following sessions across the four days:

  • Whose Story: Unique Voices and Unreliable Narrators
  • They’ve Been in My Head for Years: Writing a Long-standing Series
  • Writing Elsewhere: Using an International Setting
  • Don’t Make Me Laugh: Humour in Crime Fiction
  • Contemporary Issues: Reflecting How We Live
  • Crime Fiction Legacies: Desmond Bagly, Campion, Holmes and More
  • A Light Touch: Writing Traditional Mysteries
  • Unlikely Alliances: Partners, Sidekicks and Friends
  • The Indie Alternative
The Indie Alternative, chaird by the fabulous Zoe Sharpe, with B L Faulkner, Beate Boeker, Lynn Florkiewicz and Stephen G Collier (I spoke on this panel at CrimeFest 2018)

Each panel had three or four speakers plus a moderator, all published authors, some long-established bestsellers, others closer to the start of their crimewriting career. The standard of moderators and speakers was very high, with only one of the panels descending quickly into self-promotion.

The authors who particularly captivated me were all people whose books I’d never read, but that’s about to change: 

  • Norwegian novelist Gunnar Staalesen, writing the same series for 43 years
  • Felix Francis, son of the more famous Dick Francis, continuing his legacy, with his own name on the cover of his books but underneath the strapline “A Dick Francis Novel”!
  • Mike Ripley, an irrepressible author of comic crime novels and also continuation author for Margery Allingham
  • Janet Laurence, a dignified and gracious lady who talked with great authority about the Golden Age of Crimewriting – I could have listened to her all day
  • Beate Boeker, a delightful German who says her name in a certain dialect translates as “Happy Books” – talk about nominative determinalism!
  • Charlie Gallagher, a serving police officer writing bestselling police procedurals
  • Vaseem Khan, whose detective’s sidekick is a baby elephant, and whose day job is at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science

These last two provided a sobering reminder that crime doesn’t only happen in fiction.

Spoiled for choice as to what to read next and unable to choose between all of these, I bought instead a book I’d been meaning to read for ages: Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Crimewriting – the perfect follow-up to my current read, Janet Brabazon’s biography of Dorothy L Sayers.

But it’s a fair cop, I confess: on arriving home, I immediately went online and bought secondhand from a charity retailer the first in Vaseem Khan‘s series. Well, what’s not to love about baby elephants?


What’s Next?

Another week, another festival! This week I’ll be chairing a panel on cosy crime novels at the Oakwood Literature Festival in Derby; going to a musical evening in Avebury based on Beatrice Parvin‘s historical novel Captain Swing and the Blacksmith, and attending the Spring event for Stroud Short Stories. And in between times, I may even get some writing done! Full report to follow next week…

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Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

A Penguin’s View of Tetbury

cover of February Tetbury Advertiser featuring penguin
My regular Young By Name column made the front cover in this issue (Click image to read whole issue online)

This post first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser‘s February 2019 edition.

I make no secret of the fact that I hate February, with its dull, short days, and no redeeming feature besides brevity. At least January includes my birthday (the day I’m writing this). But by February, I am usually pining for blue skies, bright flowers, and green leaves, instead of grey, grey, grey, and I’m longing to flip the calendar to March.

But this year my attitude has changed after reading some books about early polar explorers, including Michael Palin’s Erebus: the Story of a Ship. These books have given me a new perspective not only on the frozen north and south but also on my home turf.

Armchair Travellers All

Although few of us have come close to the North or South Pole, these days we all feel we know what the Arctic and Antarctic landscapes looks like, thanks to television documentaries. Not so for the early explorers. Obviously there was no television, but even photography was in its very infancy. The daguerrotypes taken of officers before the Erebus set off in search of the North West passage were the very latest in 19th century technology. Only in the 20th century did we start to see photographic evidence such as the remarkable work of Frank Hurley, whose accompanied Shackleton and others. The only visual records of the Erebus’s journeys north and south are the crew’s drawings and paintings.

According to Michael Palin, one of the crew in the Erebus’s early 19th century polar voyages was startled at his first sight of icebergs, expecting them to be clear, like ice cubes in a glass of Scotch. They’d never seen Antarctic penguins, either, although they might have spotted variants native to South America, South Africa and Tasmania on their way south.

Picking Up On Penguins

But how much more remarkable would a penguin find the Cotswolds? There’s so much here that is completely absent from the Antarctic: trees, grass, and other terrestrial plants and flowers; stone walls dividing fields; rolling green hills instead of stark mountains; roads and automobiles; four-legged animals; and, for the most part, people.

Set a penguin down in the middle of Tetbury, or anywhere in the Cotswold countryside, and its mind would surely be blown by the extraordinary display of colour, texture, shapes and sizes, even in the middle of winter, compared to the whites, blues and greys down south. If you wanted to break your penguin in gently, you could show a bit of camaraderie by wearing a dinner suit, and find it a field carpeted with snowdrops.

So this year I have a new strategy to stop me succumbing to the February blues. Instead of bemoaning the grey winter days, I will try to view the local landscape through the eyes of a visiting Antarctic penguin. The transformation is remarkable, like the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the door of her black-and-white house to reveal the glorious Technicolor Munchkinland.

Even so, I’ll still be craving the spring.


cover of Springtime for Murder
And in the spring, Sophie Sayers’ fancy lightly turn to thoughts of… murder!

If you’d like a bit of spring reading to cheer you up, Springtime for Murder, Sophie Sayers’ fifth village mystery, could just hit the spot. Available in paperback online and to order from all good bookshops, and also as an ebook for Kindle. For more information, and to read the first chapter on my website, please click here

Posted in Reading, Writing

Painting the Town Yellow

In this month’s Tetbury Advertiser, I’ve been revisiting one of my favourite topics: eponymous buying, inspired by the purchase of a book that shares it’s name with a local shop. 

Cover of the Yellow Lighted Bookshop bookWhat’s the connection between Tetbury and Vincent van Gogh?

No, it’s not the starry starry nights, the abundance of sunflowers (in the florists’ at least), the wonky-legged chairs in certain cafes, nor even the occasional pipe-smoking man seen wandering through town in a straw hat. It’s one of the shops – The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, named after Lewis Buzbee’s delightful book, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, which weaves together a memoir of his life as a bookseller with the history of books and bookshops. Continue reading “Painting the Town Yellow”

Posted in Family

Celebration Time

A post celebrating wedding anniversaries and other special occasions – with tips on how to pick a date for your wedding

Cover of April Tetbury Advertiser
The closest I’ll ever get to being a cover girl – my column being billed on the front page of the Tetbury Advertiser

Writing this month’s column for the Tetbury Advertiser in the run-up to my parents’ 62nd wedding anniversary, I’ve been thinking about how we choose and mark the days we wish to celebrate.

How to Choose a Special Day

My parents’ choice of wedding date has always struck me as the romantic ideal: 21st March, the first day of spring, subtler and wiser than Valentine’s Day. If a Valentine’s marriage ends in divorce, that day is forever blighted with a reminder of rejection.

For some events we must take pot-luck. My brother had the good fortune to be born on Midsummer’s Day – surely the perfect birthday, half way between two Christmases – whereas my sister’s Trafalgar Day birthday was fitting for the first-born of my father, then serving in the Royal Navy. Continue reading “Celebration Time”

Posted in Family, Travel

Putting the Up in Sidcup

(This post about revisiting Sidcup, where I was born and raised, was originally written for the February 2015 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser)

 

Cotswold landscape photo across green fields to SomersetM Monument
View from the village in which I live now

“Quaint”, “timeless”, “historic” – all of these epithets will drip from the lips of tourists as they return to the Cotswolds, their numbers growing as the days lengthen. They will inevitably marvel at the ancient architecture and landscape that we take for granted, and they will boost the local economy via our tourist attractions and shops. (That’s always my excuse for splashing out when I’m on holiday: “Just boosting the local economy, dear”.)

When I first visited the Cotswolds decades ago, I would have been one of those tourists. Now that I’ve lived here for nearly a quarter of a century, a refugee from London suburbia, I realise the area is not as static as it looks. Edge-of-town superstores have effected a sea-change, while high streets evolve less perceptibly but just as unstoppably. I can’t even remember now what preceded Tetbury’s Tardis-like Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (was it the bike shop?), which feels and looks, in the nicest possible way, as if it’s been there forever, and I’m glad that it’s there. The same goes for Hobbs House Bakery.

While some changes will always be more welcome than others, it’s natural to be sceptical and even fearful if too much changes too fast, even though change often brings fresh blood, new ideas and younger populations to keep cherished traditions and old institutions alive.

Photo of house in Burnt Oak Lane
The house in which I lived from ages 3-14

A recent trip to the land of my birth – Sidcup, Kent, on the edge of London’s urban sprawl – made me look afresh at the nature of change in residential areas. Many years ago, I was outraged to discover that half the garden of the house I grew up in had been sold to developers. A three-bed semi on a corner plot in a 1930s garden suburb, it had the generous proportions that came as standard in an era when housebuilding land was cheap and plentiful. When subsequent owners built a new house on that plot required the demolition of my old swing, my father’s garage and his beautiful rose bed, I was outraged.

Photo of 52 Corbylands Road
The house where I was born (when it had neither loft conversion, garage nor cars)

Photo of woodland with brook
The brook in which we played behind my Grandma’s house still looked the same

Revisiting just before Christmas with a more mature eye, I noticed that newcomers had addded style, substance and care to the whole neighbourhood – double glazing, extensions, new doors, smart signage. Even the humble bungalow where I was born had been extended upwards and outwards and had expensive cars on the drive. As a child, I travelled everywhere by bus. The area had leapt upmarket, yet the many parks and green spaces remained. I found myself thinking: “What a lovely place to bring up a child!”

 

Photo of 262 Old Farm Avenue
Where my maternal grandparents lived (the house with the blue car)

So I started the New Year feeling twice blessed for the double life I have led: half in the suburbs, half in the country, and grateful for the subtle changes that help both places to evolve and survive for future generations to enjoy.

Photo of 34 Oaklands Avenue
Where my paternal grandparents lived the house with the black front door – it still has the same 34 on the wall by the door as when they lived there)

Photo of Beaverwood School for Girls
My secondary school – once Chislehurst & Sidcup Grammar School for Girls, then Beaverwood School for Girls in my day (and still a Grammar), and now Chislehurst School for Girls

Photo of Days Lane School
My primary school – exactly how I remember it, without the new security gates (not in photo)

Do you ever revisit the place you grew up? Or do you prefer to keep your memories intact? I’d love to hear your story.