The History Exam

Here is the text of a talk I posted on my Spreaker podcast today

I cannot speak for other bookshop-keepers but it is unusual for me to select a book from our stock and place it in my library at home.  When I do, it is often a small ephemeral item.

I recently found pocket-sized book – one hundred pages – of GCE A Level History questions from the 1950s.  I always enjoy these. The range of questions prompts mental gymnastics as I flit from one teaser to another.

 

I remember the days when these questions felt like the be all and end all, questions that would determine the rest of my life and might easily turn the whole of my school-years (the greater part my existence, at the time) into wasted time. Then, my ready reaction was to criticise the examiners for phrasing the questions so carelessly, and that’s still the case. For example –and this is supposed to be a question, remember – “the use and abuse of archaeology as historical evidence” (page 56 question 1). Am I supposed to criticise the statement, or illustrate it, or explain it, or merely nod at the phrase, not even a sentence, and pass on?

 

Oh yes, I am soon back in those tall, cold, echoing examination rooms where my first hurdle was to solve the puzzle of numbers.  Answer questions from both sections but no more than three from either section and answer five questions.  Seated at the back of the hall, checking that my pen, pencil, rubber and ruler were neatly in place, I would notice that the other students were already confidently scribbling their second paragraph while I was still trying to work out what those directions meant and, more pertinently, their implications for me.

 

Then, before the riddle is solved, I spot an opportunity that is clearly focussed on me. “Attempt a description of Elizabethan London.”  (Page 28, question 7).  Notice, we are not required to describe the capital but merely to attempt a description.  Clearly, the examiner has already accepted that I am bound to fail. Like a soldier, useless in the line, I have been tossed a forlorn hope. I take it on trust that I will be given marks for the impertinence of the attempt rather than any knowledge of history.

 

However, I do find some questions (but no more than a few) where the examiner shows a perceptive grasp of his or her subject.  “Why did John Wilkes become a popular hero?”  (Page 48 question 6).  No-one could answer that without a sound knowledge of the times.  Cute, that one.

 

Another game is to answer a question, completely and competently, in no more than two words.  Now, don’t be a smart-aleck.

 

“What was the civil war of 1642 really about?”  (Page 5 Question 5) My answer: God knows.  I hope the examiner will think about my assertion and not treat it flippantly. After all, it is a good answer.

 

“What grounds has Marlborough to be described as England’s greatest general?”

Are you sitting comfortably?

Every ground.

 

Now here’s one that catches me out.  “During what period of the middle ages was farming most prosperous?” (Page 4, question 10).  You know, I have no idea. But the question will direct my reading when I next want to put aside a couple of hours at my shelves of history books.  (The subject is especially relevant because my neighbouring village is Theddingworth, one of the first settlements to enclose their farmland in the middle ages.)

 

There are 1200 questions in the book. One question stands out from the rest.  Stands out? Question 7 fairly leaps from page 29.  “To what extent was Dr Johnson a Tory?”  The question raises two points about Johnson. Firstly, the taste and tone of it suits the over powering presence of the man.  He was a towering figure in his age and achieved so much for literature that, after two hundred years, booklovers still have much to thank him for.  I’ve no need to argue for his place in literature’s history; just go to any dictionary of quotations and read the entries for Sam Johnson; you’ll be convinced.  I’ve always been drawn to him because his reputation seems to defy the rules. He shows us that a man can fail in many elements of his life yet still be judged on the sum of his days. He was rude and aggressive in talk, but held to a brilliant conversationalist.  He was a slob, but people queued for his company. And he achieved his best through sustained bouts of almost cruel hard work.  There’s no clearer example of genius being 99% sweat.

 

The second point in the question is more puzzling.  It suggests that we shouldn’t expect to argue that Johnson was a Tory or that there is some doubt about it, yet I had always taken him to be very much of one.  I nosed through a few books on literature and history, just to reassure myself.  And yes, here, the Oxford Companion to English Lit. confirms that he was a “fervent Tory”.  Now, I don’t think the examiners in 1954 were adrift from opinion and, most certainly, it couldn’t be an attempt at humour, since it is a law of nature that examiners have none.  I wonder if the accepted view of Johnson’s character has developed in the past sixty years.

 

If so, how reassuring to know that it is the rest of us who have changed but Dr Samuel Johnson has stayed the same.

 

 

 

 

Advantages of Pencil Sharpening

Here is the text of a talk, taken from The Malcolm Noble Show on Spreaker
If you have listened to the podcast, please help by answering our ten question survey
 
 
  People in England are divided into two; those who watched Jack Hargreaves television programmes and those who didn’t.  Hargreaves was already an experienced journalist when he began to present “Out of Town” on Southern Television in the 1960s.  Over the years, it bounced around the schedules but I like to remember it as the half hour show after my Sunday lunch.  We knew that we had to endure the ill-fitting signature tune, sung by Max Bygraves, but we had no inkling of what was to follow.  Sometimes Jack showed us how to make flies for fishing, how to prepare and cook game, the purpose of that gadget on the wall behind him, the difference between a good and bad pipe, the meaning of an old song or a report of his recent visit to a horse-fair.  It was always a one man show, as far as I can remember, and presented from his den (which I still cannot bring myself to accept was just a studio set).
 
One Sunday, he showed us how to make a book and, immediately, I was away and dreaming about how to fill this gorgeous leather bound journal of posh paper and intricate stitching. (Years later, I read George Harrison’s introduction to his book I Me Mine where he acknowledges that Hargreaves programme was the start of it all.  Strange to think that while I was digesting my beef and roast spuds on a housing estate in Dorset, a Beatle was watching the same TV programme in his Surrey mansion.)
 
When I left home, the second book which I read in my new digs was Georges Simenon’s memoir “When I Was Old”.  Again, he mentions the romance of a new set of writing books – in his case, delivered by special order from his stationer.  I’m afraid I can’t grow out of this obsession.  My wife and daughter know that, for me, no Christmas or Birthday is complete without a fresh set of exercise books.
 
You won’t be surprised that I have dozens of jotters on the go at the same time. (I write detective novels and need plenty of alibis.) But like Agatha Christie’s scribbling books, they are neither numbered, dated nor organised, and many are full of my best ideas, lost to the world because no one, least of all myself, has any chance of deciphering the writing.  But those labelled “My Notebook” are different.  “My Notebook” is always carefully written (no alterations allowed) and filled with the trivia that is the best clue to my life.  I recently came across one from the 1980s and found the scores of a card game with my wife, my thoughts on seeing a Policewoman in trousers for the first time, a recipe for a disgusting type of hamburger, and three or four paragraphs which I thought would make good openings if I ever got around to writing my different novels.
 
There is something about the need to write on paper, isn’t there?  Perhaps the same drive that made cavemen draw on walls and still prompts children to scrawl on bedroom wallpaper.  But I am more conscious of a need to record things – anything.  I will rest comfortably beneath the epitaph, “Let’s get it down on paper.”
 
Here, I want to restore the pencil to its rightful place on the writer’s desk because the poor old pencil has suffered so much in the recent age.  Pretty soon, this old friend will be a country bygone for Jack’s successors to talk about.   Overlooked, uncared for, denigrated and given all the horrible jobs and so often found –dirty and chipped – in the bottoms of drawers, the pencil family is rarely recognised for its true strength.  Let’s look at the advantages over the pen (and especially that infernal invention, the ball-point). 
 
The pencil may need sharpening but it will always work.  Ball-points do not. Once you have mastered applying different pressures, you will have far more control over a pencil than you will ever have over ink-flow, enabling the pencil to indicate what is old thinking and what is new, what is important and what is frivolous and which remarks should be grouped together.  No squiggly lines needed here; it’s all done by weight and twist of hand.  Pencils don’t leak, their marks can be erased and, most of all, the writing does not fade.  Words from a ballpoint do.
 
Now, step forward, the spirit of Jack Hargreaves.
 
With the dropping of the pencil, we have lost another skill.  The craft of pencil sharpening.  Of course, this was sent into decline when the pencil sharpener was invented. Pencils should be kept up to scratch, lightly, with a sharp blade, carefully fashioning the shape and gauge of the point, just as you need it.  If you were ever a young lad who whittled (ah, whittling!) your pencil will recognise an experienced hand of fine judgement.
 
Yes, Jack would have made a damn good programme about pencil sharpening.  Right up his street.
  

The Talk on the Wireless – A Golden Age

 

Throughout this summer, I have tried to set aside ten minutes each Sunday evening, at nine-fifteen, if I can manage it, to read the appropriate installment of JB Priestley’s Postscripts, the talks that he gave after the Sunday nine o’clock news throughout the summer of 1940.  The last time I did this was 2008, five years ago, and over the years, I suppose, I have completed the game four or five times.  So, why am I drawn to repeat this exercise?  Well, of course, part of it is a game, reading an essay close to the time and day of the month when it was originally broadcast.  I’m sure it’s nothing about connecting with the Dunkirk spirit; I haven’t any. Neither is it simple nostalgia for a time I never knew, although I do think it says something about the audiences, then and now.  I’m sure that I’m hooked, simply, by the quality of the writing.

When someone has the perspective to write the history of England’s literature during the 20th Century (and that won’t be yet awhile), they will surely recognise the twenty years 35-55 as the golden age of “the talk on the wireless.”  These years presented a fine but challenging opportunity for the writer.  There were, in England, only three radio channels and no television until after the war and then only one channel.  So, before the proliferation of choice, the broadcaster could fairly assume that he was talking to the nation, as one, literally, gathered around the hearth to listen.   This meant that the talks had to be good. But more than that, they had to be expert, not necessarily in their subject but certainly in the skills of essay writing.  They wrote, knowing that most of the nation would listen to their piece and many would discuss it in the coming days.  The talk had to be accessible to everyone, but also interesting and the arguments had to be sufficiently robust to withstand the challenge of folk who knew what they were on about.

Those circumstances gave us JB Priestley, AG Street, Alistair Cooke, Herbert, Forster and even Orwell. What a shame that it couldn’t give us Wilkie Collins, Dickens or Lawrence or that it didn’t give us Raymond Chandler, John Buchan and E V Lucas.

The proliferation of choice reduced competition for the chair at the microphone. The airways became so open that they eventually had to give way to characters who were famous only for being famous and, eventually, user-generated content.  The circumstances of the golden age cannot return but I do think that during those twenty years English Lit came as close to matching the quality of the coffee house essayists as it is ever likely to achieve.

You can listen to my reading of this post, as part of my fortnightly podcast on Spreaker

In Praise of the Middle

Once again, the BBC has been repeating the Mickey Spillane quote, “No one reads a book to get to the middle,” and I feel like a creep at the back of the class who raises his hand and says, “Please Miss, I do.”

The risk of repeating this quotation is that eventually, people may believe that the purpose of reading a book to is find out what happens on the last page. The book can then be thrown away and, ultimately, we have no literature at all. Why would anyone read Henry V when we all know what happens at the end?

Do we stop at the restaurant to ward off hunger or to enjoy the taste of the food?

There are many books that I read, hoping never to get to the end. Bleak House, Treasure Island, Great Gatsby, the Waste Land, Ulysses. But there are also books that I read simply to get to the middle.

Two examples are Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice and John Buchan’s Sick Heart River. Both these are well written, well constructed books that were great hits. In A Town Like Alice a young woman uses a windfall to make some sense of her war experiences by helping a community. But my love of the book is the relationship between the old and boring solicitor and the woman. That subplot would get in the way of the second half of the story and we hear little about it, so when I return to the book it is to read the first half. That is what I get out of the book so, at least, someone does read the book to get to the middle. In Sick Heart River, Sir Edward Leithen (one of my favourite characters) comes to terms with his own death, in the first half, and sets himself an adventurous challenge, coming close to the meaning of life, in the second. The light touch of the first half, considering a heavy subject, is something I come back to every year. Again, I read the book to get to the middle.

I’m sure that it’s not lost that one of the cornerstones of crime fiction (Mickey Spillane’s genre) is a book that people can only ever read to get to the middle: Edwin Drood. And, finally, what about the work that is the foundation of English fiction, if not English Literature. It was written more than five hundred years ago, and has been studied in depth and read by millions over centuries. But no one has ever got further than the middle. Canterbury Tales was left unfinished.

Into Bibliographies

Before we begin, I confess. I am more likely to read the appendix to a history book than its introduction. You will see me returning to the end-notes of a biography rather than its text. And I love books of lists. Old AA and RAC books, old trade directories, bus timetables from bygone days all amuse me because of their window on the world of folk who have passed this way before. Record and book catalogues. Shopping lists scribbled in recipe books. And, of course, bibliographies.

Checklists of an author’s books can be fun, descriptive checklists can be useful, but if I want to bury myself in my book room for a couple of hours, I can’t do better than a full blown bibliography.

There’s fun for some enthusiasts in arguing with the compiler. Complaints about what has been excluded, what cuckoo has found its way in and, most pernickety of all, why a particular book has been listed in the wrong place. Wrong, that is, for the grumpy reader. I join in those debates but my chunter is rather muted because the compiler’s approach to a bibliography often presents an author’s work in a way that I haven’t considered before.

Then, especially for the bookdealer, there is always the challenge of stocking something that isn’t in the bibliography. On the face of it, this can seem quite easy for few ‘complete’ bibliographies are really complete. (To be fair, most compilers do acknowledge that any list can only be work in progress. Would we want them to forever hold back from publication for fear that something else might turn up? Of course not.) But the better the bibliography, the more tempting the challenge. Some members of the Betjeman society use my book shop and I’ve been trying to beat their bibliographer for a couple of years. Twice, I thought I was ahead of them. One was a poem reprinted in a parish magazine while the other was a leaflet written for a civil war society. But no, these items were already known and I have yet to beat their bibliographer.

For me, the real joy of the bibliography is the connection it provides with the books as real, physical, ephemeral products. Let’s say: the second edition has blue cloth, although a less common (bibliographers don’t like the word rare) variant has orange. So what happened there? Was it towards the end of a Friday afternoon when the foreman, realising a the last of the blue cloth was required for a more important order, went to his “flat pack” office, made a hurried phone call (the noise of the bindery going on about him) and was told: “Of course, of course, whatever you think, but make sure they are here for Monday morning.” Elsewhere, a packager shouts, “Don’t use the new dustwrappers while we’ve twenty of the previous edition left.” Did he realise just how sought after those twenty reprints in first edition wrappers would become?

For people who cannot catch the romance of this – yes, there will be one of two, I’m sure – I want to point you to DH Lawrence’s essay ‘Apropos Lady Chatterley’. In the early life of his masterpiece, Lawrence’s battle with the pirates caused him to produce different small run editions of his self published book, leaving behind a tangle of different states laid over the many bootleg ventures. Obligingly, he also describes these different pirate copies in the essay. All in all, a confusion that cannot fail to attract the book collector with an obsession for order. Now, go to the standard two volume bibliography of Lawrence’s work. Compare notes. Put your own case for filing the bibliographical information in a different form or order and, slowly, a true picture emerges of the life of this book. How it grew. What was happening to Lawrence’s other books at the time. How it recovered from the blind alleys. How it caught the imagination of readers. And, in the end, how the world took ownership of it.

I cannot see a good bibliography as a dry and soulless document. Surely, these are the footprints left behind when a book has delivered from the author’s cradle. Some chapters may end up in school textbooks while other publishers present the novel to the world on cheap paper between noisy covers. In later editions, words might be changed while some confusions remain. The bibliographer plots that path for us and, like all good research, she leaves with us with as many questions as answers. And as many opportunities speculate on the why of it all.

Charles Dickens Rules!

This post has jumped the queue, pushing aside my notes about the joys of reading a bibliography.

This morning, I enjoyed a chat with a customer who insisted that Dickens shouldn’t be read on a bus, a train or anywhere cold.  Not too seriously, we set about deciding rules for enjoying an hour or so with these classics.  But first, a glimpse at the passion, the obsession almost, that lies in the heart of Dickens followers.

Some years ago, I worked in an office where a Dickens enthusiast was the quiet one. (His other interest was researching dead people in a cemetery) However, when ‘the enthusiast’ heard that we were attending a training conference in Rochester, he made sure that he secured a place.  Our team of three arrived at the famous hotel in the High Street where he insisted on having the room associated that one of the characters from the books. That was the start of the difficulty.  You see, ‘the enthusiast’ was convinced that the hotel was promoting the wrong room as having the literary association. Two of us backed away as he argued with the receptionist, quoting letters from journals and ‘definitive’ research by an acknowledged authority

The dispute wasn’t settled but things turned out well because ‘the enthusiast’ got the room he wanted and the receptionist didn’t have to consider moving another guest from the official room.  But the argument was only our first glimpse of the depth of the enthusiast’s passion for everything Dickens.  At half past six we mustered in the reception for the start of the guided walk that he had been promising for days.  It was, of course, the best circumstances for a tour, three colleagues including an enthusiast who not only knew everything there was to know, but spoke from the heart.  ‘The enthusiast’ shook “the Great Expectations gate” and stomped over the ground of Edwin Drood, all the time treating us to his version of the current controversies within the Dickens fan club. ‘The enthusiast’ might have been the quiet one in the office, but here was our first sight of the real man!

The point is – Dickens enthusiasts cannot rest with only the books but become absorbed into the Dickens world.  I have been pleased to provide two of my bookshop customers (both Dickens collectors) with various choice editions but, over sixteen years, they have been best pleased with a domestic scrapbook of Dickens characters (from packet wrappers etc) and an old ticket to the 1951 Dickens festival.

For me, it is the magic of the great man’s writing.  Last summer, Christine and I visited Portsmouth Museum (we always do when we’re down there because of the cottage pie in the little restaurant).  In addition to the permanent Sherlock Holmes exhibition, visitors were treated to a Dickens exhibition, celebrating the bi-centenary.  The real treasure was the handwritten manuscript of Nicholas Nickleby.  Christine, knowing that I would spend a few minutes staring at this, went off to try on the Dickens costumes.

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When she returned, I was still there.  Forty-five minutes transfixed by this open page of handwriting in a glass case had seemed like just three or four to me

So, what are our rules for reading Charles Dickens?

Number one, we decided, was that you should read his books not to get to the end but slowly to digest his prose, reading and reading again those passages that capture you.

I said that he is best read aloud but my customer went further, imagining a Victorian family gathered around as someone read to them.  Dickens should be read aloud but, better, read to an audience.

Rule number three, find your own Dickens space.  The chair or corner of the room where you can settle and slip into your Dickens mood.

I guess all of this sounds like cosy sentimentality. Well, sentimentality is a charge that is often levelled at Charles Dickens.  Cosy?  Comfortable, certainly.  But that comfort can hardly be drawn from, for example, returning to the horror of Nancy’s murder or a sense that everything will turn out well; it doesn’t.  It’s about the security of knowing that you’re spending time with a man who can produce quality prose, vivid caricature and touch us with his reporting of London.

We decided on a final rule – a covenant, if you like.  You should never recommend a favourite to new readers. They need to explore, and that’s where we envy them.

The Strength of the Essayist

William Hazlitt

Michael Foot once said that he had spent so long with his favourite books that the writers had become his friends. His real passion was for the work of William Hazlitt and when I met him, one lunchtime on Horseferry Road, he emphasised this feeling of friendship with the essayist who died in 1830. That Michael Foot was so generous with his time for a twerp who had bumbled up to him in the street to talk about books is a mark of the man. As he spoke (we didn’t stop walking) I realised that he meant not only the friendship that comes from familiarity but intellectual comfort as well. True friendship, you might say. Consider the latitude that we are prepared to offer our friends and we begin to recognise the authority of the successful essayist.  It is a literary achievement not to be sniffed at.

My favourite essayists, at the moment, are Hazlitt and J B Priestley and, yes, when I settle down to read their books, I feel that I am drawing on familiar company. It’s easy to catch their voices. Hazlitt, because he was so argumentative.  Priestley, because his cosiness at the microphone still lingers.  But while I rarely come away without having gained something about their characters, I am more concerned about questioning my own attitudes to their chosen subjects of the day.

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Raymond Chandler, another favourite, wrote some famous essays (especially about Hollywood and authorship) but, although these pieces are contentious, we get to know Chandler better through his letters.  I think this distinction nudges us towards understanding the true strength of the essayist.  The letter-writer writes about himself to others.  The diarist writes, usually self-consciously, about himself for himself, while the autobiographer manages to do this without shame. The strength of the clever essayist is that we learn about him while he writes about other things. We get to know him, more thoroughly and more satisfyingly, through understanding his view of his world and, because we have recognised his reactions and followed his reasoning, we allow him licence in the way that we trust friends.

Not all essayists are clever, of course. Addison and the other Spectators have been favourites since my schooldays. I enjoy reading them (and more so as I get older) but Addison never lets us forget that he is there to teach us, and I’m rarely in a mood to be taught so openly. For me, that limits the effectiveness of the sermonising essayist.  But take GK Chesterton. Never short of a sermon, he can charm us into his world while pretending, on more than one occasion, to write about nothing at all, and do any of us feel sore about that?  D H Lawrence wrote essays that are a joy to read.  Mornings in Mexico, Apropos Lady Chatterley, others. I come back to them again and again. I wake in the night and go down to my library to read them.  But first, last and in the middle, they are about Lawrence. They are a drumbeat; I think I read them because I enjoy the music; I cannot think of one Lawrence essay that has made me think long and hard. (His novels, a different kettle of fish.)  None of these quite exceptional writers have the discipline of truly successful essayists.

The joke in all this is that neither Priestley nor Hazlitt was a modest and retiring gentleman. I’m not sure I would have got on with either of them.  They were pushy, brash and alarmingly self-opinionated. (It’s hardly surprising that Chandler and Priestley didn’t take to each other when they met.)    But the pair I’ve chosen were successful essayists because, I think, they had three essential assets in their suitcases.  Firstly, substantial bodies of work, volumes of essays which invite us to journey with them along the undulating, treacherous paths of their observations and objections. That depends upon a second attribute. An honest interest in the world about them.  (Hazlitt said that his ambition was to write about everything he had noticed.) But the most important skill is that deceptive self discipline; it enables their personalities and their whole view of life to burn, slow but sure, through their writing rather than being switched on upfront and glaringly. That means, above everything, Hazlitt and Priestley were downright good writers.

This week’s trivia question: who painted the picture of the girl on my desk?

In Trouble With Prequels

A regular customer came in to our bookshop and caught me preparing a video for YouTube about the two prequels to my first mystery novel (Timberdick’s First Case 2004), and we got to talking about readers’ fascination about “going back” in a series of novels.  It’s a vice that I share and I’m not sure that it’s so much about character development (as my friend was saying); for me, it’s more about seeing the characters in strange situations and settings. I have to say that very often prequels are a bit of a disappointment, especially if they are written by someone other than the original author.

Talking of other writers taking on someone else’s character, I am usually for it.  I got into something of an unsatisfactory web-debate on a Raymond Chandler blog about this.  You may want to check it out. It pretty much sets out my views.

http://www.mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2750:philip-marlowes-return&catid=54:reviews&Itemid=187

Back to prequels.  When I wrote the two prequels (A Mystery of Cross Women and The Case of The Dirty Verger) I enjoyed the opportunity to develop minor characters that had appeared in the later (or is that earlier?) books. The down side was being constrained by the outcomes which I had already written into the first book (or is that the later book?)

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OK Time to come clean.  My main motivation was wanting to write a couple of books in earlier periods (40’s and 30’s) and I didn’t want to let down those readers who were enjoying the series.  A couple of enquiries from readers (what’s the back story?) were a convenient push.  (The first draft of Mystery of Cross Women was never intended for publication … no, really .. it was a book for me, to begin with.)

You knew it was coming …  Here’s a link to the video that presents the three books at a Christmas Special Offer price.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QMeMkiTMjU&feature=vmdshb

Hey, don’t get me wrong.  Having read through these notes, it comes across that I don’t like writing a series.  Couldn’t be further from the truth … I love it.  And I lap up the attention which readers give to the continuity details. I’ve not been caught out yet.

Thoughts on Provincial Journalists

I was interviewed on Wednesday by Sian Brewis for her feature in this week’s Leicester Mercury supplement.  (A double page! Thank you very much) She wrote a trimmed, punchy piece that focussed on what readers want to know.  It set me thinking about the provincial journalists that I have met, and wondering about the future of their craft in these days of user generated content.

Every small time writer, like myself, will have come across so many of this profession that it’s perhaps unfair to pick just two or three to talk about.

John Brunton, no longer with us I’m afraid, interviewed me for the Nottingham Post when my first crime novel was published.  It was clear that I was a fledgling author while he was a very experienced journalist.  (I believe he interviewed pop stars for Titbits in the 1960s, but I’m not sure.)  Yet he spoke to me on a level as we discussed my book, crime fiction and the changes in the reading taste of the Brits.  His article was very generous and gave me a recognition that I don’t think I  deserved.  We continued an email correspondence for the few years before his death and while he was quick to criticise my work (in emails, very incisively), he always treated me with professional respect. He made me feel part of the club. His reviews were always balanced and – perhaps more difficult to achieve – interesting. He knew what he was doing.

Another gentleman is Mike Allen.  It seems that he no longer works for the Portsmouth News but the articles he produced for that paper sang with his knowledge of regional theatre and the arts. When he interviewed me, he was so concerned about setting myself and my wife at ease and there was so much fuss about getting the photograph right (I’m overweight and not the best looker) that I didn’t feel that I had been interviewed at all.  I remember commenting to Christine that we should expect a paragraph or two but no more.  Yet, that afternoon, we read a carefully structured full page piece with a narrative and a point of view that can only have come from his careful listening and a quick understanding of my character.

There are many other reporters that I could mention in the same way.  In my own local paper, the Harborough Mail, Ian O’Pray writes simple straightforward prose, some of the best written pieces that I have read about my books.

And that’s the issue.  The provincial journalists of this generation have been nurtured by colleagues and have honed their skills on hard experience.  User generated content may well produce some quality writing amongst the dross, but I fear that it can’t carry the pedigree that comes from working on a busy local paper.

Talk to any regional journalist and they’ll talk about the torrent of change that’s rushing through their industry.  No-one can complain about that.  Culture (like hard-bitten business) has always developed through change.  Now is only different because it is happening indecently quickly. I simply hope that the weight of professionalism survives.

A Crime Fiction Classic: Cyril Hare’s “With A Bare Bodkin”

My latest You Tube talk suggests Cyril’s Hare’s With a Bare Bodkin as a Crime Fiction Classic.  Here’s the link to the You Tube Video

http://youtu.be/5YmF_7mDxCE

I’m not sure that my talk gave enough prominence to his short stories.  He is an acknowledged master.  So many times, I have come to the end of a Cyril Hare story and thought how silly he was to waste such a good idea on a short story.  Of course, that misses the point (and shows my prejudice); the short story is no poor relation and deserves its share of the good ideas.

In the introduction to The Best Short Stories of Cyril Hare, detective writer Michael Gilbert tells how he read his first Hare book in a PoW camp, sharing it, chapter by chapter, with another captive with neither of them revealing the progress of the story.

I was staying at the Crown in Bawtry when I read my first book by him.  Suicide Excepted.  I sat in the corner of the bar and leafed slowly through the pages.  Cottage pie and two or three pints of beer were delivered to my table and, whenever I wanted to pause, I looked at the other characters in the room.  I could picture Hare during much the same during his life as a judge.

Pettigrew, his hero, is an unsuccessful barrister who, through the series of novels, learns to do as his wife tells him, but there is nothing here of John Mortimer or Rumpole.  With a Bare Bodkin reminds me of Hadfield’s Love on a Branch Line and, although I can’t explain why, the prose style of C P Snow.

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