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.
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.
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 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:
Being a teenager, I laughed and pointed. That is, until I saw the driver get out.
It was Robert Hardy.
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.
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.
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.
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….”
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.
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.