Friday, 27 July 2018

Going back to 1946 -- a work in progress

Celia Johnson and Cyril Raymond as Laura and Fred in Brief Encounter (1945)
Since just before Christmas last year, I've been researching and writing a novel. I've just finished my first polished draft, provisionally entitled Don't You Ever Cry. That title comes from a fairly obscure Vera Lynn song (even the original release date isn't certain, but it's from around 1940). It's a poignant song of longing and courage from wartime, and as the book goes on, the lyrics become increasingly relevant:

"Don't you ever cry, don't ever shed a tear. 
Don't you ever cry after I'm gone.
Promise me you'll smile, darling, all the while
We'll be back together later on.

Don't you ever cry, don't ever worry, dear,
Soon each care will be a memory.
Tears are all in vain, we will love and laugh again
So don't you ever cry for me."
     The song has a connection to a key sub-plot in the novel and here I need to explain how I came up with the idea for the book and how I've gone about writing it. 
     In 2016 I published a literary true-crime book, The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane (Quercus), with the paperback edition coming out the following year. I'm very proud of this book and I feel I did the most thorough research possible, bringing all sorts of interesting connections and theories to bear and shedding light on the early years of forensic pathology and the treatment of sex crimes in the 19th century. However, sales of the book were modest and I think two reasons for this (apart from my not being a very well-known author) are, firstly, that true-crime, however literary, is still seen by many people as a 'grubby genre' (meaning also that it perhaps doesn't get reviewed as much), and, secondly, that the book's setting in Gateshead and the North East meant that, in other parts of the country, it was easy to dismiss it as a 'regional' book which would not be of interest to readers in London, Bristol, Birmingham or wherever. Frustrating on both counts. 

     However, I still love true crime, which I have read ever since reading In Cold Blood as a teenager, closely followed by the terrifying Helter Skelter. More recently, though, I've been reading around a very interesting sub-set of true crime, namely novels based on real crimes. I've read some brilliant books.

     The photo above shows some of these books and also some of the non-fiction crime books related to them (for instance, not many people are aware that Graeme Macrae Burnet's great book, His Bloody Project, is quite closely based on a book of essays edited by Michel Foucault, called, in translation, I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother... which is a study of a true crime in eighteenth-century France). Denise Mina's The Long Drop is an incredible re-telling of murder and corruption in 1950s Glasgow. Perhaps the book I found the most moving, in this period of intensive reading, was Jayne Anne Phillips' 2014 novel, Quiet Dell, about the murder of a mother and her children in Chicago in 1931. The combination of my experience as a non-fiction true-crime author and of reading so many fantastic books inspired me to write up the new crime story that I had become obsessed with as fiction.
     I had come across an absolutely fascinating crime committed in 1946, so not long after the end of the War. The crime itself was a sensation at the time and I was able to glean a huge amount of detail about it from contemporary newspaper reports. But another aspect of the appeal of writing fiction is the freedom it allows you to speculate about the reasons why a crime was committed, which lie as much in the personalities of the people involved as in the cold facts. With this story, it seemed to me that the drivers towards murder lay in attitudes towards particular 'deviations' from conformity in English society during and immediately after the War and this was something I found absolutely compelling. I began to feel that I was breaking new ground with some of my material.

     So, to return to my title, Don't You Ever Cry. It comes from this newspaper cutting, from 1940:
     You'll see that I've blanked out the girl's real name. That's because I made a decision, quite early on, to change the names of the real people when I wrote about them in a fictionalised context. A huge amount of the book, of necessity, is speculation, and it didn't seem right to use real names when my characters might well be quite different from the reality. So, I make a strong disclaimer that the novel is "sparked by real events but is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
     In the novel, the young girl who was the only competitor in a talent context in 1940 is named Connie. The book opens with her funeral, six years later, as Connie very sadly died on August Bank Holiday 1946 while on a date with her kind-of-boyfriend, who I've named Harry Gates.
This is part of the report (again, I've blanked out Harry's original name):

     At the funeral Harry meets Connie's aunt, who I've named Jean Barker. He is 24 and she is 34, and married with a young child. Connie's death is tangential to the main direction of the novel which imagines the relationship that evolved between Harry and Jean with shocking consequences.
     In imagining the events that led inexorably to a murder, I kept to a 'real' timetable, even though this doesn't always need to be explicit in the book. But it means that, if Harry and Jean go to the cinema on a particular day, then they see a film that was actually showing nearby on that day in 1946. 

     They go to see Dulcie Gray and Eric Portman in the 1946 movie Wanted for Murder, which I have also watched and which turned out to have unsettling resonances with the story I was creating in the novel. I'm being careful, at this point, not to give away too much about the plot of the book, but I saw in the film something of the same attitudes towards non-conformity and 'difference' that underlie my story.
     The still from Brief Encounter at the very beginning of this post reflects the way that that film was also particularly relevant to my theme, with its detailed portrait of married life during the Forties. The film was released in 1945 and was a huge box-office success. My character, Jean, has seen the film twice and when she goes to the pictures with Harry, she very much hopes that they'll have a similarly happy experience there as Laura (Celia Johnson) does with Alec (Trevor Howard) in the film:
     But, for various reasons, it doesn't play out in quite the same way. In the past six months, I've watched at least 25 movies (both British and American) released in the UK in or just before 1946, as part of my research for the novel. It has been a wonderful experience and I've seen such interesting themes emerging. In particular, you can see how women were both offered various freedoms (freedom to work, during the War, and greater sexual freedom, for example) but then were either punished for taking what was offered (see, for instance, The Wicked Lady, biggest film of 1946) or 'voluntarily' gave up the new freedom for the sake of their children (see, appropriately enough, My Reputation with Barbara Stanwyck), or their marriage (Brief Encounter) or some other similarly value-laden part of the social structure.
Lady Barbara Skelton (Margaret Lockwood) gets a kick out of highway robbery in The Wicked Lady (1946)...

...but pays the ultimate price in the end.

Meanwhile Jessica (Barbara Stanwyck) is very turned on by Major Landis (George Brent) but her son comes first (My Reputation).
     This blog is intended in part to be a record of the research I did for my novel. As well as watching all those wonderful films (of which some of my favourites were The Postman Always Rings Twice, Wanted for Murder, Gaslight -- I watched both the original and the remake-- and The Spiral Staircase), I also researched radio programmes, so that, for example, when Jean, Harry and Ray, Jean's husband, sit and listen to The Barretts of Wimpole Street with Peggy Ashcroft and Gordon McLeod, it's because that was actually on the radio on that day in my timeline.
     I also researched the food that families ate in 1946 (when rationing became even more severe than it had been during the War. Bread went on ration in August 1946), going so far as to cook the recipe for turnip soup given in the October 1946 edition of Housewife magazine (on the hottest day of the year so far!).
Turnip soup made to the 1946 recipe in Housewife magazine -- quite tasty

     I researched interior design, clothes, hair styles, and popular books of the day too. One book in particular -- a pre-War crime novel re-issued as a green Penguin in 1946 -- became central to my plot. When I read it, I became convinced that 'my' characters had also read this book and that it had influenced the modus operandi of their own crime quite significantly. Jean and Harry's relish for crime novels and also Harry's unhealthy interest in recent real crimes around Bath and Bristol, where the novel is set, play an important part in the book. Again, I'm being rather coy about mentioning which novel is so key -- I don't want to give too much away at this stage.
     Finally, as my book is a first-person narrative (the story is told by Jean Barker), I've taken great care with the language I've used. The films I watched were very instructive in giving a flavour of how people spoke in the mid 1940s, but they were scripted and so I turned to Simon Garland's edited collection of entries from Mass-Observation diaries from the end of the war, Our Hidden Lives, to get a flavour of how people thought and wrote more naturally. It's a fantastic book, but the most notable thing about the diaries is that, perhaps surprisingly, the writers sound very much like we do -- not quaint or stiff or prudish, but almost the same as us. And it's that natural-sounding language I've really tried to achieve, although I also feel that someone reading a 'period novel' perhaps wants to see some pointers to the period in the language -- so there's a little of that too.
     Early in the novel, Jean and her husband Ray go to Paignton for their holidays (during which we start to find out about the particularities of their marriage). I found a postcard sent from Paignton during the actual week I had them go there, which made me very happy. It also told me what the weather was like, although I have also researched the weather in 1946 and into 1947 in some detail from other sources -- it was an exceptionally hard winter.
     My secret weapon in aiming for realistic language in my novel has been the Google Ngram viewer, which will compare usage for different words over a specified time period. This was invaluable. Thus I was able, for example, to compare different words used to refer to breasts to see which were the most popular (or used at all) in the 1940s:

     Similarly, I found out that 'knickers' won hands down over 'panties' when it came to words for underwear:
     That was another handy result, because my book deals with the seamier side of life in the 1940s and I've assiduously researched that too (I have had my eyes opened as to what was available in the Forties) -- let's just say that Jean's husband Ray has certain 'proclivities' which cause havoc in the household. I have had to watch quite a lot of original 1940s 'stag movies' to see what was available at the time -- quite a lot, it turns out.
     This film-still gives just a flavour. The book explores how someone into transvestism and masochism at the time might have expressed themselves.
     The book explores themes of unconventional sexuality, disability (including pain that is deliberately sought out versus the pain caused by disability), the influence of mothers and upbringing on one's sexual development and ideas of privacy and exhibitionism.
     My focus, now, is to find a literary agent to represent me and to help me to find the perfect publisher for my novel. To finish, then, here's my imagined cover for the book -- this is something I like to do when I'm writing, to give myself something to focus on. If/when the book is published, the cover will be down to the publisher and no doubt will look nothing like this, but for now, this is what it looks like in my head. I hope I've made you want to read it.

Friday, 14 April 2017

April 2017 at Blaze, Bristol -- art by me and Lucy Roberts

One of the collages I've made specially for the show
If you're in Bristol in April 2017, please try to go and see my small art exhibition with Lucy Roberts. It's 'small' both in the size of the exhibition space and in the size of the pieces themselves, but it's embedded within a lovely art shop, Blaze, in Colston Street, and I hope it'll be worth a visit.
My work intermingled with Lucy's
Lucy got in touch with me via Instagram. My account is @foundandchosen. If you don't already use Instagram, I'd really recommend it -- it's obviously completely visual, which I love, and in my experience it's very friendly and positive. I feel as though I have lots of friends on there now and it's a great place to 'show and tell'. Lucy's Instagram account is @madebylucyroberts and she often showcases the beautiful memory boxes and other delightful things that she makes.
For my part, I've made some quirky collages, bright prints (including lots of alphabet prints), cards and one-offs. There's a Bristol theme to some of them, including a mixed-media picture of the park in the centre of Bristol in a blossom-filled spring and a vintage image of Rosie the Elephant at the Zoo.
     This is the 'calling card' we made to go in the shop window during the show:
I really enjoyed the afternoon I spent at Blaze with Lucy hanging the pictures. With David wielding the hammer (in a disappointingly traditional gender role), we soon got our 'hang' hung.Then there was just time for the two of us to get completely lost in the city centre, looking for our hotel, before we had to return to Blaze for drinks to celebrate the start of the month-long show. So if you're within hailing distance of Bristol, please do try to go.
'Killing with cake' -- my rather unsettling feminist collage...
Rosie the Elephant, alphabet prints and cards -- all for very reasonable prices!
Some of my work is also for sale in the Found and Chosen Etsy shop, and, after the show, there'll be more. You can also see some photos of my studio in a four-page article in the new edition of Uppercase magazine (no.33):

Beside the seaside?

I found this old postcard in my drawer at work. I can't remember where it came from now. There's no message on the back to give a clue as to its original owner either.
     At first glance I thought it was taken en plein air, and no doubt that's the intention, so that the sitter can send evidence home of her holiday in the sun. But a second glance soon dissolves the apparent reality: the sand looks oddly dark and firm, and, what's that? A skirting board? And then the clincher: this Blackpool Tower has none of the symmetry of the real thing, this one's positively wobbly. Then you realise that the lady is sitting in front of a painted backdrop with a skyline of buildings that only approximates to the actual Blackpool townscape.
The big wheel was erected at the Winter Gardens in 1896 (the photo of the lady looks as though it was taken in the 1920s, I think). It was almost directly behind the Tower, so it appears to move from one side of the Tower to the other depending on the photographer's viewpoint.

But it's also possible that the backdrop was drawn from a reversed image, so the wheel has gone over to the right-hand side.
You can see that the backdrop artist has approximated the turrets and frontage of the base of the Tower, but they haven't really got the buildings on either side quite right.
Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr
Here's another photo taken in front of the very same backdrop! The canvas probably hung in the studio of photographer Charles Howell, at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, where the donkey (stuffed?) did sterling work.
     I love the idea of being photographed in front of a bad reproduction of the place that's just outside the studio door!

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Beautiful backs -- the flipside of old photographs

Because there are often crucial clues to the subject's identity written on the backs of photographs, I've got into the habit of checking the backs of old photos when I'm sifting through boxes of them in junk shops. In fact I've had some funny looks when people have spotted me going through the photos without even looking at the fronts -- if I'm searching for photos to 'investigate', it doesn't really matter how wonderful the image itself is if there's no name or other information written on the back. I always start off looking at both the front and back, but if time's running out, I just look at the backs, much to people's mystification.
     But even while doing that, I haven't always been alive to the beauty of some of the backs in their own right.
Recently, though, I've been scrutinizing the backs of the cartes de visite that I already own, looking for where the photographers that took them were based. And in doing so I've woken up to the little works of art that many nineteenth century photographers made of the backs of images produced by their studios. I particularly love the cherub with a camera in the first image above. And the calm visitation from an angel in the second (is it Mary and Elizabeth from the Bible?). The care that photographers took to decorate the backs of their photos suggests that they were well aware of the marketing opportunity the backs offered and that, whatever they were obliged to reproduce on the fronts, they could provide a consistently attractive image on the backs.
     Among the Victorian and Edwardian photographs I inherited from my Mum, there are quite a few from the famous studio of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe in Whitby.
Clearly, the studio would periodically update their back design, to reflect the latest prizes they had won or prestigious clients served. Just from the photos I own, it seems Whitby, as an important nineteenth century tourist destination (and also the centre of the jet industry, Whitby jet being highly valued for mourning jewelry and black beading, big at the time), had many photographic studios vying for custom. I have cartes from three apart from Sutcliffe's.
Of these backs, I adore the one belonging to the studio of George Wallis, with its illustration of Khyber House. At first I thought this might be an imagined house, so perfectly does it represent my fantasy of a perfect Gothic house. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that Khyber House is not only real but still standing.
 It's now called Streonshalh (sounds Scottish?) but it still stands opposite Whitby Abbey (which you can just see in the background) on the winding road down to the quayside that's still called the Khyber Pass. This must have been where George Wallis's studio was.
     After this, I got the bit between my teeth and went hunting for another photographer's studio. I have this card, for Robert Gibbs' studio in Middlesbrough.
Again, I absolutely love the illustration of the premises, even though the stamp over the top told me they'd moved from there. To Google StreetView!
First I sought out the Albert Bridge, which is a railway bridge close to Middlesbrough station, in fact I think the platforms must extend over it, judging by the canopies.
Then I pulled back from the bridge to see what was nearby on both sides. On the southern side there's this lovely Victorian building, now a vodka bar. And tucked into the corner of the bridge...
Yes! It's Robert Gibbs' old studio, a bit battered and rather impinged upon by the station roof canopy. But still there. Which is more than can be said for the Wilson Street studio -- that whole area seems to have been opened up and redeveloped, so I didn't find the second Gibbs studio.
     Looking for information about Gibbs, I found some interesting bits in the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette. He was born in Great Yarmouth in 1843 and must have moved up to Middlesbrough when he was quite a young man. His wife, Alice, was from Skelton, quite near Middlesbrough. By 1873 he was apparently a Freemason. He lived until 1921 but photography didn't remain his profession throughout his working life. In the 1901 census he's a 'theatrical agent' and in 1911 (the last available census return), he's a 'house agent'. His son, John, who started out as assistant to his father in the photography studio, was working as a gardener by 1901, so photography doesn't seem to have been all that good an option, perhaps because of the increasing numbers of people who owned their own cameras (or was that a bit later?).

     I bought a lovely book about cartes de visite -- both fronts and backs -- this week, from a small, independent press in Lancaster, Fast Foot Press. It even comes with a reproduction cdv in a glassine envelope glued inside the back flap of the cover ('glassine' is one of my absolute favourite words -- any excuse to use it).

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane -- The Story of the Carr's Hill Murder

My book, The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane, is published today, which is very exciting for me. It's a historical true crime book, which would be enjoyed by fans of Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Wicked Boy, but also by anyone who enjoyed the Serial podcast.
     I came across the story of the murder of a little girl while I was researching my own family history. The place where the murder was committed shared a family name and I had already traced my ancestors back to Gateshead and Heworth, both very close to Carr's Hill. There has long been a village on Gateshead Fell, just south of Gateshead, called Carr Hill but in the nineteenth century it became known as Carr's Hill because of its association with a family named Carr. This family are at the heart of the book.
I found this old photo amongst the pictures I salvaged from my Mum's garden shed. It shows what I believe to be part of Gateshead and, judging by the dress worn by the woman in the centre of the image, must date from the second half of the nineteenth century, perhaps even the 1860s when my book is set. Here she is blown up bigger:

Her dress is certainly of a shape that was worn in the 1860s. But what really fascinates me in this photo is the ghostly figure in the foreground. Every time I look at him, I think he might be a policeman. Here's a blow-up of him:
I think he must have moved while the photograph was being exposed, hence his rather insubstantial appearance, but could that be an early police tunic and helmet he's wearing? Here's a Victorian bobby for comparison:
It would be peculiarly apt if the figure were that of a policeman as I've become so immersed in various crimes committed in and around Gateshead in the 1860s. From arson to sectarian violence, sexual assault to murder, it's all in my book. The real policeman who oversaw efforts to rein in the lawless elements in Gateshead was Chief Constable John Elliott, seen here in a photo which I've kindly been given permission to use by George Marshall of

John Elliott was known as 'The Journeyman' because of his long, steady career. In my book, he's kept very busy as he was not only in charge of police investigations but also of the fire service. As there were many acts of arson around Gateshead in the Autumn of 1865, he was often to be found at the head of the fire engine as it was pulled up the steep slopes of Gateshead Fell.
     I don't want to give too much away about the crime that's at the heart of my book, but I have done some serious detective work and have come up with some insights that add to what was known about the case originally. I found it completely compelling and am hoping that people who read it will be similarly drawn in.

The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane from Quercus imprint, riverrun