Warning, genre shifts in progress.

Danger_Of_Death_Sign_fullAnyone who knows much about British crime fiction will be able to tell you that there are certain areas of Britain that have notably high ‘unexpected-death’ rates.   In case you’ve missed out on the genre, then take my advice, and don’t think of moving to places such as Oxford, Grantchester, Broadchurch, Midsummer, Shetland, Lochdubh or Carsley.

Also, should you find yourself sharing ‘an ‘otel’ with a Miss Marple or Hurcule Poirot, move to another one immediately.  That may well put you to the head of the suspect list when the bodies start falling, but at least you’ll not be amongst the deceased.  Better the shenanigans of hen and stag parties in the bar beneath your back-of-the-building bedroom, than that, surely.

Such deductions, you may think, are stating the obvious.  Well yes, that’s my point.  Know your genre, and there are certain givens we can rely on – even anticipate.

danger-of-death-signIt hardly needs me to add that in those other genres death tends to be an occasional occurrence, so why have I?  Well, I enjoy a radio soap opera called The Archers.  It offers listeners a fifteen minute visit to a village called Ambridge, in the heart of England, six days each week.

The programme was created in 1950, to educate farmers and small-holders about the latest farm-technology.  There were small and large farming families displaying varying degrees of efficiency and enthusiasm for change: it was dramatized propaganda about increasing food production.

Growing up, The Archers was a small part of my background, because it followed the news, which had followed the weather forecast, which was always on at lunch-times.  By then, there was a stronger focus on family story-lines.  We laughed about the characters, but continued to listen. I’ve taken breaks, sometimes for months, but it’s easy to slip back into the routines.

This week, though, I missed two crucial episodes, and when I tuned in on Friday evening I was tipped straight into the death scene of a young mother.  Where did that come from?  Apparently, Nic cut her arm on a rusty nail on Sunday, and her cold symptoms were actually sepsis taking hold.

In retrospect, it was heavily foreshadowed.  Lately Nic has been spending a lot of time with her grandfather-in-law, Joe Grundy.  He’s a widower, and they’ve been discussing relationships and love in great depth, with a lot of emphasis on how he coped after the death of ‘my Susan’. Clearly, this was not just Valentine-fever, it was preparation.

I forgot that The Archers has shifted its target from farm-issues to general social-issues.  I was partially lulled by assuming that there had been enough high-drama in recent years, and we were probably due a restful period.  As it is, at the moment we’ve got toxic waste seeping into the local river where several of the younger characters have been wild-swimming (yes, in the middle of winter – brave souls); a drug-dealing teenager who nearly caused the death of his cousin, and a local businessman covering-up his part in creating a flood that caused the death of Burt Fry’s wife!

Thinking about that, I began to look back.  I’m hazy on dates, but since Nigel Pargetter’s fatal fall from the roof of Lower Loxely Hall, there’ve been several other serious incidents and there are already more ominous foreshadowings seeping across the Borchester landscape.

I’m picturing the office at the BBC, where the Archers is planned, disappearing under a heap of information leaflets about the latest issues that should be included.  Maybe, when Julie Beckett, the programme producer walks into the production meetings she takes a heap and auctions them off to the writers.  What other explanation can there be for this descent into darkness?

hazard warning


Memories, memoirs, stories.

This week I offered to drop some books in at the charity shop, for a neighbour who’s moving.  ‘Have a look through first, if you like,’ Jackie said.

‘Thanks,’ I said.  If there’s one thing better than browsing an unknown bookshelf, it’s got to be unpacking books.  I’m fairly certain I have developed peripheral-vision super-powers for lines of titles in rows.  That’s good.  When it comes to boxes, though, I feel like Pandora must have done with that box. I had two, and permission to open them.

DSCF8138These boxes were deep.  On the top layers were old school-annuals.  Judging by the hairstyles and clothes of the girls on the paper-coated boards, they were probably published seventy or eighty years ago.  I knew how those books would feel to read: the pages thick and fibrous, dry, slightly stiff.  I’d had similar titles when I was growing up, passed on by neighbours, aunts and grandparents.

‘Are you sure Bella won’t want to keep them?’ I said.

‘They’ve been up in her old bedroom for the last twenty-years, if she had, she’d have taken them,’ said Jackie.  ‘There won’t be room in my new house.’

Not in my old house either, but I couldn’t resist a look.  Bella and I had been at school together.  Most of the books brought back memories.  There were the interests we’d shared, the author’s we’d passed back and forth – Heidi and Enid Blyton, a handful of Dean’s Classics, some Ladybird books, a selection of adventure stories and those old annuals.

At junior-school there had been a short phase when several of us were keen on them.   We devoured stories about girls at boarding schools, that had been written to entertain our parents, or even grandparents.  Part of the charm for me was imagining myself into that past.

Some of us decorate our lives with fragments of history, inherited, gifted or bought. I try to remember that when creating characters.


And they call it ‘the flash’…

Thursday afternoon I called in to see my parents.  After we’d caught up on family news, we got to comparing plans. ‘We’re off to Cheltenham tonight,’ I said.  ‘For an open-mic story evening, Flashers’ Club.’

‘Oh,’ said dad, ‘are you reading?’

‘No.  I’m going to listen,’ I said.

‘You’re taking something along though, aren’t you?’ said Ray, when I got home.

‘I’m more comfortable listening,’ I said.

‘That’s because you avoid doing it.  You need practice.’

‘I don’t think I’ve got anything suitable,’ I said, switching on the laptop and trawling through my files.  ‘Most of my stuff is intended to be looked at rather than listened to.’

I did put a story in my pocket. I even found time for a couple of read-throughs, figuring out which bits made me stumble, and making minor changes. I’d done the poetry reading, last year; I sit in front of groups discussing story theory and practice without a qualm, but this was different.

During the twenty-minute drive through lashing rain, we talked.  ‘Is it right at these lights?’

‘No, straight over, then left at the roundabout.’

‘This rain’s getting heavy.’

‘I’ve an idea about your dad’s birthday present.’

There was a five minute dash from car park to street, and the decision about what to order to eat.  It’s so much easier to open the fridge and see what needs using up, than having to chose from a list of tasty dishes someone else will prepare.

‘Where will you be sitting?’ said the woman at the counter.

‘By the window,’ said Ray.

As we settled, two more people came into Smokey Joes, and headed for the glass doors beside the serving counter.

I said, ‘I think it must be open.’  A woman at the next table did too. She picked up her plate of food and migrated through those open doors.

Ray said, ‘You’re right.  We’d better follow, if we want to nab a table too.’

Flashers ClubAlex greeted us with a smile. ‘Three pounds if you read, four if you don’t.’

That’s clever, because it isn’t about saving the money.  How many other events can you find that cost less than a fiver?  Besides, all the proceeds go to charity, so I don’t begrudge a quid.  But, having paid less, not reading would have made me a fraud.

I’d picked one of my shortest pieces of writing, less than a page, double-line spaced, font size fourteen, for ease of reading, and luck was on my side.  My name was not first out of the hat, it was second.  Phew, no time to think, I was up at the lectern, concentrating on my paper and trying not to stumble.

Heart pounding in a way I don’t remember ever experiencing in classes, I tried to breath as I spoke. Slow and clear, I told myself. I concentrated on one word at a time, and followed the punctuation, and wonder of wonders, I arrived at the last full-stop only slightly breathless.

It was done.  I could sit back and enjoy the other readings.

What a selection, aliens, memoir, fantasy, vampires, crime and comedy.  This is why, even if you think you’ll never ever stand at the open mic, you should seek out your nearest story-reading event.

‘The difference is,’ said Ray, on the way home, ‘in class you’re talking about other people’s stories.  Tonight, it was just you, revealing glimpses of your imagination, of yourself. Vulnerability! We don’t do that, do we?’

A day in the life of a bookworm.

I’ve been travelling a bit further to work the last few weeks, doing a few classes in the next county.  There’s a bit of a drive involved, but it’s not too far, and it’s a route I don’t otherwise see very often.

Malmesbury TownThe only downside to having a more distant destination is that I pass by so many intriguing places.  Sometimes I catch glimpses of them, and make wild promises to myself that I’ll allow time to stop off, on my next journey.  There’s always a strong reason why that doesn’t happen.

This week though, I had posters to deliver, so I needed to call in at Cirencester.  The way I worked it out, was that if I had to make the effort to find a parking space, and walk to the museum, I might as well drop in on the charity bookshops at the same time.

This, I pointed out to my busy, scheduling-obsessed alter-ego, would mean I could look for the collection of Pritchett stories I need for a future class. It would take an hour, no more.  I would count it as my lunch-time, and get straight to my desk when I got back. Who knows, I might find two copies.

The things I think of.  You’d expect by now, that I might recognise my own tricks.

I managed to resist the museum, though it’s gone up a couple more notches on my list since that glimpse from the foyer.  So I stepped briskly back onto Park Street with a feeling of efficiency.  Office workers were drifting, tapping at their phones, but I was on a mission. I threaded through them, conscious of myself as a woman with a purpose.

Actually, my knowledge of Cirencester is sketchy, to say the least.  Had anyone noticed my smug speed they would have grinned to see me brought up short, in the middle of the pedestrianized road, as the shops ran out, and I had to retrace my route.

oxfam bookshopFinally though, I made it to the Oxfam bookshop. The door pinged behind me and that calm biblio-ambiance enveloped me.  I stepped up to the nearest bookshelf.  Time dropped onto a slower cog. Names slipped past me, titles leap-frogged over each other, vying for attention.

None of them were Pritchett.  I resisted.  Kept browsing, drifting around the walls seeing titles I knew I’d never get round to reading.  That’s how I arrived at the bargain table, the last stop before the door.

There, I found a name that I’d been discussing that morning, Rosamond Lehmann.  Not a virago reprint, but a 1944 hardback from The Reprint Society. It was ninety-nine pence.  Lack of a dust jacket didn’t bother me, I grabbed it before anyone else recognised its value.

Yet again, I had followed the rule that always applies to my second-hand book browsing, and went home with a different book to the one I set out to buy.  At least, this time it was only one.

DSCF8126I knew for sure that this one was meant to be, when I found that it perfectly fitted the last bit of space on my shelf (after my Christmas reading binge).  I suppose I’ll just have to keep looking for that Pritchett.

Perhaps I’ll try one of those little towns that punctuate my route home from the last class in Wiltshire, later this week.

It’s a hard, hard life, isn’t it?