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,((Somewhat ironically, I was at his crime-writing masterclass at Birmingham Literature Festival last year!)) 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.
The hotel put on a fantastic spread, and decked out the tables with sparkles and rose petals. Fortunately they waited until I’d done my talk before dishing out the tea – I was slightly worried that talking about Poison Panic might put people off their sarnies and cakes, but I was careful to avoid graphic detail.
I have to confess that I was slightly nervous – mainly because my mum was in the audience. When the room was being set-up I was perturbed by the big image of my own face which was on a screen above the small stage that I’d be sitting on. I had a sudden attack of “Is this really happening?” and came over all humble. I just couldn’t sit under a huge photo of myself; it seems like the dictionary definition of “big head”. I have an aversion to coming across as a nauseating show-off. So… apologies to the nice person who had spent time putting that slide together. I ended up sitting under the EBF logo instead!
After my talk, I sat next to my mum, and people at the table were talking to me about the book and about poisonings in general. It was amusing (disturbing?!) when one of the people at the table told me that when they were working as a photographer many years ago in London, they had a massive bottle of cyanide on the premises! Eeeek!
It was really nice to be able to talk about “my ladies” (as I refer to Sarah Chesham, Mary May and Hannah Southgate) and meet people who are as fascinated by poisonings as I am.
When we left the hotel, there was a police car and an ambulance waiting on the kerb; I promise that this had nothing to do with me, and that no one was “white powdered”. The women of Essex just don’t do poisons anymore. And that’s probably just as well….