Isolation in Iceland: thoughts on I Remember You

Having read Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s novel I Remember You (Ég man þig) and seen the film adaptation, I found myself thinking about the theme of isolation.

A group of three adults head from Reykjavík to a remote outcrop of the Westfjords where they plan to do up an abandoned house and set it up as a B&B. The house is one of a few scattered buildings in all that remains of the abandoned village of Heysteri. Although not an island, it can only be reached by boat as there’s no roads over the mountain. In summer, it’s busy with visitors who want to climb or walk the hills and mountains that surround the area, but come winter and you are entirely cut off and alone.

In Ísafjörður, a boat ride away, lives a psychiatrist whose son has disappeared. His marriage collapsed in the face of their family tragedy, and he endures emotional isolation. He’s started to see what is either an apparition or a hallucination of his missing son. And a local woman, who was obsessed with the boy’s disappearance, has hanged herself in a church – which, it just so happens, had been moved from Heysteri and rebuilt.

Sigurðardóttir usually writes crime fiction, but even her “straight” crime fiction contains supernatural elements, be they a character’s fascination with seventeenth-century witchcraft, or the legend of babies who can still be heard crying on the rocks where they were left to die of exposure. There’s lots to learn by osmosis about Icelandic history, culture and traditions in her work.

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Vivian

A tree of pink blossom sheds its petals over the lawn and the mellow stone headstones in the sun.

Blossom in Canongate kirkyard

I originally wrote this on Thursday last week.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine in America tried to call me via Facebook. I wasn’t sure why, but when she said in Messenger that she had “shitty news” to tell me, I dashed outside at once to call her. She’d been ill for a long time, so it was pretty clear to me what her “shitty news” might be.

“You look really worried!” Vivian said, as my unfortunate fizzog appeared on the screen.

“Oh, I’ve got a resting sad face, I’m afraid. I think it’s the shape of my eyebrows.”

She gave a raucous, filthy chuckle and declared, “I’ve got a resting bitch face!”

Then she told me that she had been given six months to live.

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The Great Storm of 1987

Me, a few months later in the Summer of 1988, as Captain Cook in the Brownies’ carnival float. It was basically a dinghy on a trailer with me sat in it, dressed more as a pirate than as Captain Cook.

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of what became known as The Great Storm, which ripped its way across the south-east of England on the night of 15th and 16th October 1987.

I was living in Wivenhoe in north-east Essex at the time, on the banks of a river not far from the coast. I remember the storm waking me up as I slept in my “captain’s bed” – that legendary piece of 1980s furniture which elevated children above the ground to give storage to their heaps of detritus below.

I heard the wind blowing around the house. But it wasn’t the usual sort of high wind that I was used to and barely noticed. It roared like a Fury; outside, I could hear the trees struggle against it, and our strong, brick house creak with its force.

My dad appeared at some point, to see if I was alright. My parents were concerned as there were trees outside my window, but I was awake by then – I doubt anyone could have slept – and somewhat frightened. But I didn’t leave my bed. I couldn’t run to my parents as there was a huge old cherry tree outside their bedroom window, which could have fallen just as easily as the trees outside my window.

The wind continued to howl, but at six o’clock that dark October morning, the wind picked up and roared as I’ve never heard it since. The sound was more of a scream than a roar, and I didn’t just hear it but felt it, a sort of sucking in my ears, which must have been caused by a sudden pressure-change in the air. We always referred to it afterwards as “The Six O’Clock Blast” – I don’t know if we coined that within our family or if it was on the news.

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A trip to London

Reading the headstone of Taylor's parents in Northfleet, Kent

Reading a Taylor family headstone in the churchyard of Northfleet, Kent

Having travelled to Rugeley and to Edinburgh in pursuit of Alfred Swaine Taylor for my book Fatal Evidence, it was time to go to London and Kent. He was born in Northfleet, Kent, on the banks of the River Thames in 1806, and eventually moved to London, where he stayed for the rest of his life (trips back and forth to inquests and trials across England notwithstanding).

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A trip to Edinburgh

A puir wee sleekit ghoastie at Canongate kirkyard

I’d wanted to go on holiday to Edinburgh for ages, and was rather pleased that I could combine it with the writing of my book, Fatal Evidence. But what does the biography of a Kent-born English forensic scientist who lived most of his life in London have to do with Edinburgh, you ask?

Well… the story of forensic science in Britain starts in Edinburgh. Although medicine and science had been used to crack crime in Britain before, there was no formal teaching of ‘medical jurisprudence’ (the intersection of medicine and the law) in this country; the British had to look to the Continent. It was at the University of Edinburgh in 1789 that the first lectures in Britain had been given on the subject. Andrew Duncan, the first lecturer in the subject, had an uphill struggle to see his specialism recognised, despite his urging of its importance:

…to every medical practioner, who is liable to be called upon to illustrate any question comprehended under it before a court of justice.

The first professor of medical jurisprudence at Edinburgh was Duncan’s son. It was only an elective course, rather than compulsory, and medical students just weren’t that interested.

In 1822, Dr Robert Christison, a 25-year-old Edinburgh native, took the chair and became professor of medical jurisprudence. His uncle helped him to the position but, despite such outrageous nepotism, Christison was actually very good at the subject. His background in both medicine and chemistry made him an ideal candidate – as did Alfred Swaine Taylor’s same background when a chair of medical jurisprudence came up at Guy’s Hospital in London.

Christison in 1856. at the trial of William Palmer.

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A trip to Rugeley

An artist’s rendering of William Palmer, from the Illustrated Times

One of Alfred Swaine Taylor‘s most famous cases was that of William Palmer, The Rugeley Poisoner. As I live in the West Midlands, Rugeley isn’t all that far from me, so I decided to pay the town a visit.

I felt rather awkward, because poor old Rugeley probably doesn’t want to be remembered for Palmer and his ‘orrible crimes. In 1856, as Palmer stood trial and the newspapers bulged with reports about him, journalists1)It’s thought that novelist Wilkie Collins was amongst them. were dispatched to the unassuming market town to write lurid pieces about the locality. The Illustrated Times helpfully published a special supplement, full of Rugeley scenes – some of which you will see in this very blog. Members of the public visited just to see the place they’d read so much about. The local vicar had so many people trudge to his churchyard to see where John Parsons Cook, one of Palmer’s victims, was buried that he paid for a gravestone, bearing moralising quotations from Scripture: Enter not into the path of the wicked.

As the town hall where the inquests took place has been rebuilt, the first place connected with Palmer that we arrived at was the Talbot pub. This was where Cook was poisoned, and where he died.2)I realise that some people don’t think Cook was murdered, but I am not of that opinion. We couldn’t go in as the pub – last called The Shrew – has closed down. However, directly opposite was Palmer’s house. Not that you can see very much it of these days – in Palmer’s time it had a front garden, but eventually the front was extended out to touch the road, and it’s been divided into two shops. You can get round the back though, and that view hasn’t changed all that much.

I walked back and forth between the pub and the shops a couple of times, to get a feel for Palmer’s own journeys, back and forth between his house and the man he killed. It’s not a vast distance at all, being only the width of the road. I paused, and looked up at the window of the room where Cook died. After writing Poison Panic, where poisoning victims died in cottages that are either long gone or can no longer be identified, it felt very strange to be able to almost come to the exact spot where the crime had taken place.

My partner, who takes many of the photos in my books, photographed the streetscene, and it’s interesting to compare Rugeley in 2016 with Rugeley in 1856. It’s not quite as busy as it was, and I somehow doubt the Union flag bunting is there to celebrate the spot where a famous British murder took place. At least, I hope not!

An engraving showing a bustling mid-19th century street scene.

Rugeley, 1856. The Talbot is on the left, and Palmer’s house is on the right, behind the railings.

A modern street scene.

The same scene in 2016, with the closed down Shrew pub on the left, and the two shops (a weightloss salon and a pet shop) on the right adapted from Palmer’s house.

The back of Palmer’s house, 1856.

The back of Palmer’s house, 2016.

Our next stop was the church of St Augustine, where John Parsons Cook is buried. A terrible sensation that I was intruding had haunted me since I got off the train, but once I saw that the information board outside the church actually tells visitors where to find Cook’s grave in the churchyard, I felt slightly less ghoulish for my interest.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It’s thought that novelist Wilkie Collins was amongst them.
2. I realise that some people don’t think Cook was murdered, but I am not of that opinion.

When “used” is “new”

A woodcut of a Victorian man in a chair reading.

My second book was published on Monday. The copies arrived with my publisher on the Friday before.

So imagine my surprise when, only a couple of days later, two third-party sellers on Amazon were selling copies “used – as new.”

This is physically impossible. There are no used copies, because readers and reviewers are still receiving their copies of the newly published books. So where are these “used” copies coming from?

This happened, too, with my first book, Poison Panic, which was published last year. Confused, I had contacted the sellers, and without replying to me, they changed their listings to “new”. At the time, I talked to my writing friends about it – the self-published authors I know find it particularly odd: “I haven’t even had my copies yet – where are they getting them from?!”

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Real-life ecclesiastical sleuths: Reverend Cancellor & The Eastbourne Manslaughter

Rev J H Cancellor, c1890-1. Sourced with thanks from Clare McMurtrie, one of his descendants.

At depth of night, this thought on home had shone;
‘Our distant child draws safe his sleeping breath.’
E’en then the cherish’d boy, th’ expected son,
Was dying through two hours – beaten to death.

Reverend John Henry Cancellor was born in London in about 1834. His father, another John Henry Cancellor, was a Master of the Court of Common Pleas, and his grandfather had been a stockbroker. The family moved in monied circles.

Life was not plain-sailing, however. In 1856, Rev. Cancellor’s bankrupted uncle, Ellis Cancellor, tried to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Serpentine. And Rev. Cancellor’s youngest sibling, Reginald Channell Cancellor, “a particularly kind and affectionate boy, and very much attached to his father,” had what we would now call learning difficulties.

Rev. Cancellor was ten years older than his brother, so when, in late 1859, fifteen-year-old Reginald’s schooling became a problem, the older brother could step in with advice. Rev. Cancellor had been ordained as a deacon in 1857; as a respectable gentleman and a reverend, he decided to make use of his connections to help his parents school his brother.

He received a recommendation for Thomas Hopley’s school in Eastbourne. Hopley had grand ideas on educational reform; he had studied the education of industrial workers, and had written books on the subject. If anyone could manage Reginald, a boy who was seen as stubborn and lazy, who “would not readily do what he was told,” then surely it would be Hopley. And so Reginald was sent to Eastbourne.

Hopley didn’t like to use discipline on his pupils, unless it was deemed absolutely necessary. And with Reginald, it seemed that Hopley reached the end of his tether. When Reginald came home for the Christmas holidays, his father complained that too much violence had been used on him, but he did think that Reginald’s demeanour had improved.

In April, a letter arrived at the Cancellors’ home from Hopley, saying that Reginald had become obstinate again – and that he recommended the use of “extreme punishment” to force a permanent change in the boy. Hopley didn’t have a cane because ordinarily he didn’t like to use violence, so when Reginald’s father approved Hopley’s idea, the schoolteacher had to improvise.

With a walking stick and a skipping rope.

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