This was where I stayed. Shame I didn’t have either of my 19th C costumes with me, quite frankly.
I need very little excuse to go to Edinburgh. I love it. I love it because it’s got loads of old stuff, it reminds me a bit of Granada (the old town with a castle on the hill, the new bits cascading away beside), and it is stuffed full of history, much of it involving coffins. And it’s quite a cheerful place, too.
My hotel was almost opposite Old Calton cemetery.
I had never been to a Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) conference before. In fact, I’d never been to weekend-long writers’ conference before, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I needn’t have worried, however, as everyone was really friendly.
I met up with Sarah Ward, who I’ve met before as she’s convener for the Midlands Chapter of the CWA, and is also great fun. I met for the first time the extremely affable Vanessa Robertson, an Edinburgh-based bookseller and author; and authors Leigh Russell, Kate Ellis and Paul Gitsham. And lots of other people too!
I’ve been rather busy over the last couple of months, zipping off to the Essex Book Festival for the Criminally Good Afternoon Tea, zooming off to the NEC for Who Do You Think You Are? Live, and then getting drunk in Edinburgh at the Crime Writers’ Association conference.
I was at Who Do You Think You Are? Live on two days. The first, I was dressed as Helen Barrell, the librarian who writes books about Victorian crime. I signed copies of Poison Panic at Pen & Sword’s stall, bought some acid-free storage equipment (that excited me quite a bit, because I am a massive nerd), and went my rounds of the stalls. Thanks to the good people of Peterborough & District Family History Society, I discovered two new ancestors – the parents of my 4 x gt-grandmother Susan Jones. I never thought I’d get anywhere with her background, assuming that anyone called Jones would present insurmountable problems. But no – her surname was actually quite unusual in Peterborough at the time, and I was delighted to find out that Susan, who was born in about 1813, was the daughter of a farrier in the Scots Greys! Did he go to Waterloo, I wonder, and did he shoe Ensign Ewart’s horse? I helped out at the “Ask an Expert” stall – I’ve always loved pointing people in the right direction to find out more about their family tree.
“They’ve found another body? Fetch my test-tubes and don’t spare the horses!”
It’s a week until Britain’s biggest family history fair, Who Do You Think You Are? Live, kicks off at Birmingham’s NEC.
There’s a wealth of family history societies, genealogy companies, and DNA-testing businesses hoping to catch your eye, and there lots of talks and workshops and goodness knows what else for you to sample.
If you’re planning to seek out some help with the trickier corners of your family tree, make sure you bring print-outs or even original documents.
I’ll be there on two days.
Friday 7th April
- 2.20pm – 3pm: I will be giving two “Ask an Expert” sessions. My areas are old handwriting, wills and (no surprises here) Essex!
- (And when not doing that I’ll be buying archival storage materials and checking out the CDs that the family history societies have to offer)
Saturday 8th April
- 11.15am-12pm: my workshop session Turn your family tree surprises into a book will be taking place in Theatre 2. I’ll be talking about resources you can use to enrich your research, and the many way there are to share your writing.
- 12pm-2.30pm: I’ll be at the Pen & Sword stall (number 290), where you can ask questions about my talk, and… well… let’s just say there’s books available to buy. Lots of them.
- 3pm-4pm: I’ll be giving three “Ask an Expert” sessions.
Sunday 9th April
- Collapse into an exhausted heap.
In the 1950s, my grandad was a Special Constable, working the streets of Southend-on-Sea. He told me that he’d often be approached (perhaps “set upon” is more accurate) by gangs of drunken women, and when he came home from his shift, my grandma would be furious at the lipstick he was covered in. Drunks are one thing, of course – poisoners quite something else, and that was my subject for the Essex Book Festival’s Criminally Good Afternoon Tea at Southend’s Park Inn Palace Hotel.
The tea was part of the Golden Age of Crime Weekend, so you could stay in the elegant Park Inn Palace, overlooking the longest pleasure pier in the world and, amongst many things, you could enjoy a talk by Sophia Hannah on Poirot, there was Simon Brett, Frances Fyfield, and Jill Paton Walsh discussing Dorothy Sayers, you could pit your wits against other Golden Age of Crime boffins at the quiz night, and new crime writers (Fiona Cummins, Aga Lesiewicz, David Young) were talking about their books. And there was also… me.
Sunday 12th March 2017, 3pm-4.30pm
What: Essex Book Festival 2017. Criminally Good Afternoon Tea. In the county where the poison panic took hold, we’ll eat scones and I’ll tell you about the lives of Sarah Chesham, Mary May, and Hannah Southgate.
Where: Park Inn Palace Hotel, Church Road, Southend-on- Sea, SS1 2AL
Entry fee: TBC. Booking details to follow.
Saturday 8th April 2017, 11.15am-12pm
What: Who Do You Think You Are? Live. Workshop: “Turn your family tree surprises into a book.”
Where: NEC, Birmingham.
Entry fee: Workshops are £2 in advance, or £3 on the day. There is a ticket required to enter Who Do You Think You Are? Live as well. Book in advance.
Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) and Ed Thomas (Hinterland)
A perfect chaser for the talk by Walter Iuozzolino, he of Walter Presents, had to be the talk given by crime drama writer-creators Hans Rosenfeldt, of Swedish/Danish production The Bridge (Bron/Broen), and Ed Thomas, writer-creator of Welsh/English crime drama Hinterland (Y Gwyll). Walter curates subtitled drama, but what goes into writing – and indeed, creating – dramas which are filmed in two languages? This fascinating talk was hosted by Lisa Holdsworth, who has written for New Tricks, Robin Hood and Midsomer Murders, amongst others.
The annual Birmingham Literature Festival is run by Writing West Midlands, offering a programme of events about the written word – talks with writers, and workshops. This year, I attended something a bit different – a talk by screen-curator, Walter Iuzzolino, the real person behind Channel 4’s Walter Presents.
First of all, yes, Walter is a real person. Perhaps I am so jaded by the fakery of modern life that I thought, cynically, that he didn’t actually exist, and was just a marketing construct to put a human face and personality on Channel 4’s world drama picks. There he is in the trailer, a bespectacled, whippet-like figure, watching lots of DVDs – he’s watched 1,000s of hours of telly, to pick only the best for Walter Presents. But how can he watch all that telly and retain a physique like that? And yet, it slowly dawned on me that Walter is a real person – so when I found out he was talking at the BLF, I wanted to know more.
I wasn’t sure about having a book launch party. Was organising it going to be a lot of faff when I wanted to crack on with book #2? But in the end, I thought… why not have a little bash. There could be some wine, perhaps a cake, and maybe a few chums if they felt like turning up after work.
One of the reasons why Alfred Swaine Taylor is an interesting person to write about is that, when he wasn’t rummaging through jars of human innards looking for poison, he had an artistic side and experimented with photography. When Fox Talbot revealed his sciagraphs (‘drawings of shadows’) – which were generally referred to as ‘photogenic drawings’ – at the end of January 1839, Taylor was fascinated and began his own experiments at once. When he couldn’t get Fox Talbot’s recommended silver compound to yield results, he came up with his own characteristic way round it – he used ammonio-nitrate of silver, ‘a compound which has been used for many years as a test for arsenic.' He didn’t patent his process – he seems to have had a low opinion of those who did – and not long afterwards, he enthusiastically embraced what we now recognise as photography, using a camera (or ‘camera obscura’ as they were then known).
Examples of Taylor’s photography survive in two albums which are in private hands, and I have been unable to contact the owners, so I won’t be able to use them in my book. Fox Talbot’s are held at the Science Musuem, but I wondered, given how clear Taylor’s instructions were, whether I could make my own photogenic drawings. The problem was, where would I lay my hands on the ingredients to make my own solution of ammonio-nitrate of silver? And hopefully, without ending up on some sort of alert list?
As luck would have it, an opportunity arose to make a cyanotype. I didn’t realise you could buy kits to make these, but I was able to make one at a workshop. Somewhat ironically, given that Taylor’s photogenic drawings used a compound which was used for identifying the presence of a poison, the cyanotype process actually uses a poison – cyanide. I was very excited to come up close and personal to Lady Cyd. It uses two compounds – ammonium iron(III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide, and was discovered by Sir John Herschel in 1842. So if it seems similar to the photogenic drawing, then it is – same process, different chemical. I think this is as close as I’ll get to the technique Taylor used.
I was in Liverpool this weekend, visiting my old university chum Jen, and the annual River Festival was on. A celebration of culture and watery activities was going on across Liverpool’s iconic waterfront, and the Open Eye Gallery was hosting a “sun photograph” workshop. It was run by Rachel Brewster of Little Vintage Photography, who just so happens to be related to Sir David Brewster. He was a Scottish scientist who took a great interest in Fox Talbot’s work, corresponding with him over the development of calotypes (making photographs on paper, an alternative method to the Daguerrotype); he also invented the kaleidoscope.