Category: Personal

The time I met a national treasure

I once, briefly, met actor and national treasure Robert Hardy. He died today, and the first thing I thought of was the fact that his booming voice has been silenced.

I grew up watching All Creatures Great and Small, and my friend and I enjoyed it so much that we used to “play vets” – she would be the vet, I’d assume a (I’m fairly sure, utterly dreadful) Yorkshire accent, and it was “Cow’s got them mastics, vet’n’ry!” all the way.

Hardy became an expert on longbows, apparently a side effect of playing Henry V. He did a lot of work with the Mary Rose Trust – Henry VIII’s favourite ship contains the oldest surviving English longbows.

Robert Hardy in a flat cap shows a bow to historical re-enactment people in Mediaeval costume.

Robert Hardy demonstrates his bow knowledge at the Mary Rose Museum.

At one point, my dad used to work for the Mary Rose Trust. I had to go to his office at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard one day after school. I remember standing at the top of the stairs, staring about awkwardly at the Royal Naval-issue paintjob: matt duck-egg blue above and dark gloss navy blue on the lower half of the walls.

I saw a car pull up outside. I seem to recall that it was a Jaguar – possibly burgundy, or gold, but I do remember its distinctive personalised number-plate:

666 RH

Being a teenager, I laughed and pointed. That is, until I saw the driver get out.

It was Robert Hardy.

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And that’s the first draft

A black and white photograph of the River Colne at Wivenhoe. A Thames barge in full sail is in the middle of the photograph; a square rigger is to the right in the distance. On the left, the masts of many boats can be seen, and a jetty is in the foreground.

The River Colne at Wivenhoe. 19th century.

You will go to the devil, die when you will, you will go to a rare place when you die.1)Purloined from a real trial that you’ll find out about in Fatal Evidence, put into the mouth of a character in my novel. Because if you’re going to threaten someone, *that’s* the way to do it. Especially if you’re a Victorian.

I’ve always written fiction, so being commissioned to write non-fiction has been quite… surprising. But in a good way.

The trouble is that all the research that went into Poison Panic and Fatal Evidence stoked my fiction-writing brain-muscles. For the whole time that I’ve been writing those books, stories and characters began to take shape. It’s a bit like watching a candyfloss machine – the sugar spins round the stick, and what was air and granules becomes a novel.

Initially, it was a short story based on suspected poisoner Mary May. There was going to be a detective sent up from Scotland Yard, there was going to be a plucky governess, there was a to-do with some bottles, and there was a blacksmith…. And I wrote a tense dinner scene, and had no time to write more. So I carried on with my non-fiction and started work on the biography of Victorian forensic scientist Alfred Swaine Taylor. And Taylor decided to nose his way into my fiction. He wanted to be in a novel. He demanded it. I told him this was churlish behaviour, considering R. Austin Freeman had already based his detective Dr Thorndyke on him. But Taylor wouldn’t leave me be, so I let him wander about at will. But all he did was stalk back and forth past a flimsy theatre set of a north Essex village; a flint-covered church and a timber-framed pub. He didn’t look very pleased. I wasn’t either.

But it was a documentary about Scottish crime writer William McIlvanney, father of “Tartan Noir”, which helped me see the light. The setting for his gritty tales were the shipyards on the Clyde. And there was a shipyard and a dock where I grew up. In fact, if it wasn’t for that shipyard, I wouldn’t exist: some of my family only moved to Wivenhoe, a village on the River Colne in Essex, to work on the shipyard.

I’m not enough of a daftie to claim that the Colne and the Clyde are interchangeable, but that idea of the crime novel and the river, the shipyard and the dock was the moment that the vague, floating idea was forced into sharp focus.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Purloined from a real trial that you’ll find out about in Fatal Evidence, put into the mouth of a character in my novel. Because if you’re going to threaten someone, *that’s* the way to do it. Especially if you’re a Victorian.

Historian? Author? Writer?

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One day, Rebecca Rideal wrote a history book, intended for the general, non-academic reader. You know the type – the sort of person who is interested in history, wants to know about the world they live in and what shaped it, but doesn’t want, isn’t interested in, perhaps hasn’t had the sort of education where they can handle, a dry academic monograph. We should be glad – after all, back in January, we were told that ‘Popular history writing remains a male preserve.’ Good ol’ Rebecca, doing her bit to redress the gender imbalance!

Rideal was interviewed in The Guardian, and The Guardian pulled out some exciting-sounding quotes, because, well, it’s a newspaper, and that’s what they do. Especially now that online newspapers are obsessed with lacing their bylines with as much clickbait as possible. ‘The time of the grand histories is coming to an end,’ Rideal declared. It’s a headline that makes people sit up and take notice, and sit up and take notice, they most certainly did! The Guardian is no doubt raking in much advertising from Rideal’s interview, but unfortunately for Rideal…. well…. Some people on Twitter got upset.1)It’ll be a cold day in Hell when I’m able to say 5 minutes have gone past without some people on Twitter not being upset about something, but there we are.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It’ll be a cold day in Hell when I’m able to say 5 minutes have gone past without some people on Twitter not being upset about something, but there we are.

Cousin Fred’s garden mausoleum

joanna-the-mad

Joanna the Mad stands beside her husband’s coffin. By Francisco Pradillo, held at the Prado, Madrid

What I am about to write might surprise you. Or perhaps not, given that it’s written by someone who’s posed with a skull (don’t worry, it wasn’t real). It certainly surprised me when I first heard about it. A conversation with my mum, as we drove to Sainsbury’s one day, went like this:

“I’ve got in touch with descendants of grandad’s cousin in New Zealand.”
“Ohh… what was he called…? Fred, was it?”
“Yes, that’s right. Fred, and he – .”
“Grandad said he kept his wife’s body in a glass coffin in the lounge.”
“He -? Sorry… did you just say – ?”
“He was a bit peculiar.”
I stared blankly through the windscreen. My grandad’s cousin kept his dead wife in his lounge? How on earth does one broach this with one’s newly discovered relatives? “Oh, I hear your grandad…. erm….”

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You don’t need a typewriter to tell a story

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It was the mid-80s: Cliff Richard was on telly, our video player was the size of a small family car, my mum had a perm. My dad’s fondness for pictures of ships managed to make itself felt through a forest of Christmas cards – which is still the case today. I, however, wasn’t fussed by any of this, for I had received my dream present. I had received a typewriter.

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Mourning the silence

Ingenious 19th C ear-trumpet disguised in a fan. antiquescientifica.com/

Ingenious 19th C French ear-trumpet disguised in a fan. From antiquescientifica.com

For five years, I have lived in world of muffled sounds and no silence. It turns out that I have tinnitus, and I have hearing loss in my right ear; for the past week I have been wearing a hearing aid, and I officially have a disability.

I am in a strange space, of acceptance, of anger, of fear. And whilst it may seem that my ability to hear has nothing at all to do with writing, I must, I feel, write something.

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