Keeping Occupied

This week should have seen the publication of my latest book, ‘Occupation to Liberation’. It would have been launched at the Guernsey Literary Festival, now sadly cancelled, and the launch was one of the 75 events to celebrate 75 years of freedom organised by Visit Guernsey. Although the UK is celebrating VE day this week on May 8th, Guernsey celebrates Liberation Day every year on May 9th as it continues to have special meaning in the islands. The end of the Second World War meant the end of five years of German occupation.

The Channel Islands were the only parts of Britain captured by Axis forces in the war, a novel fact that continues to fascinate. The Occupation was only a tiny part of the vast global struggle, yet has spawned a huge literary output of diaries, reminiscences, histories and fiction plus TV series and movies. I’m not an ‘Occupation expert’ but wanted to write an accessible book for the general reader which showcased the collections of Guernsey Museum.

One of the lines I wrote was that the big enemy was boredom, and another feature of the Occupation was an obsession with food. Sitting in virus lockdown I have begun to empathise with both attitudes. Normal civilian life was heavily constrained by curfews, restrictions on travel and closure of beaches and areas where the Germans had laid mines or built defences. Many businesses collapsed and people found what work they could for what money they could earn. Islanders were cut off from the rest of the world for five years, with only an occasional Red Cross message permitted to friends and relations off the island. News other than Nazi propaganda came from the BBC, which from 1942 could only be heard on hidden radio sets in defiance of regulations. There were no new books, the cinema soon ran out of English language films but there a great boom in amateur dramatics, arts and crafts as a way of keeping busy.

Almost everything was in short supply, so people had to ‘make do and mend’. Children played with home-made toys and wore hand-me-down clothes, often bartered for other essential items. Food ran short, and the variety of what was available challenged the ingenuity of the women who did the cooking.

Even the German soldiers experienced these twin privations of boredom and hunger. No battles were fought, and indeed as the war dragged on and hope of victory dwindled they dubbed themselves ‘The Canada Division’ knowing they would end up in Prisoner of War camps. Once D-Day began the liberation of France they too were cut off from home, knowing their families were enduring Allied bombing and fearing the inexorable advance of the Red Army. Bored soldiers turned in some cases to drink, the most depressed even committed suicide, but others applied their creativity to art. Paintings, photographs and carvings by soldiers now feature in the island’s Occupation museums and decorate some of the surviving bunkers. Soldiers too suffered increasing hardship as food supplies were cut off once the Allies controlled the French shores.

1945 was the year of hope. During the winter, the Red Cross ship SS Vega saved the civilians from starvation by delivering food parcels, which allowed the troops to eke out what other supplies remained. For all the puffed-up Nazi nonsense about ‘fighting to the last bullet’ the German garrison did no such thing. The war ended on May 8th to the relief of the civilians and, as far as we can tell, many of the ordinary soldiers. Posturing by the Nazi commander delayed matters, but on May 9th British troops stepped ashore and Guernsey was free once more.

Although the majority of the British population is today locked down in a peculiar curfew, we are not under foreign occupation. We are free to listen to the BBC whenever we like and follow the progress of our own peculiar ‘war’. There is fear on the streets and we have the constant drip of grim news and that daily toll of lives lost, but for all the wartime analogies we are not being bombed or shot at. We do not fear the knock on the door, and if we are stopped in the street by a police officer asking our business we know they only have our best interests at heart. We are fortunate to have plenty to eat – too much in my case – even though standing in line outside the supermarket recalls photographs of the wartime ration queues.

The VE Day bank holiday and Guernsey’s 75th Liberation Day will be curious affairs, with virtual celebrations and ‘street parties’ held in discrete units from garden to garden, but nostalgia will be rife. My generation is fortunate never to have fought a world war. In our current crisis I’m not being called on to charge up a beach under fire or pilot a plane through angry skies, but simply stay at home and watch streamed movies. Rather like in 1945 though, those of us who are hunkered down are relying on professionals to win the fight in the front line and are crossing fingers that our leaders are doing the right things. Perhaps this will be our finest hour?

Occupation to Liberation: Guernsey, Sark and Alderney 1940-1945 will be published by Guernsey Museums & Galleries later this year. All images in this article are taken from the book and are courtesy Guernsey Museums & Galleries.

The Festival that Nearly Was

The Alderney Literary Festival 2020 was due to have taken place on the third weekend of March, but with just one week to go was cancelled due to the looming coronavirus crisis. I was already out there and brushing up for my panels when the news came that disappointed us all.

Rory Clements was one of the writers I was due to introduce, his talk being entitled Hitler’s Secret: Reimagined histories. I was keen to meet him as I’m working on a 1930s thriller in a similar arena to his Tom Wilde series. There are now four novels about the Cambridge Don, an American historian specialising in the Elizabethan spy network. It’s amusing to observe that Clements is getting double value from the research he did for his John Shakespear series set in Elizabethan England, of which a TV series is in development. I had pleasure to see him presented with the CWA Historical Dagger in London in 2018 for Nucleus and last year I was able to read a pre-publication proof of the fourth Tom Wilde thriller Hitler’s Secret which has now been published by Head of Zeus.

The Alderney festival mixes historical fiction with non-fiction, and the Sunday morning slot should have seen Roger Moorhouse talking about Poland’s September Campaign of 1939: the Forgotten campaign of WW2. Moorhouse has published a number of books on modern German history, including the intriguingly titled Killing Hitler about the various plots to kill the Fuhrer. Moorhouse’s most recent publication, First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 was named among books of the year for 2019 by BBC History Magazine and The Daily Telegraph, and shortlisted for the Duke of Wellington Medal for Military History 2020. So much has been written about WW2, but the Polish campaign is most often passed over in the introductory sections of histories keen to get onto the Fall of France, so it was a talk I regret having missed.

I know nothing about the history of the Philippines, so was amused to be invited to introduce Miguel Angel Lopez de Asuncion speaking about The last of the Philippines: myth & reality of the siege of Baler. Cue some very rapid reading-up on the internet! Miguel is a historian who has concentrated for 20 years on the ‘last of the Philippines’, the Spanish heroes of the siege of Baler in 1898. He was historical advisor on the 2016 film 1898; Los Ultimos des Filipinos which is the latest cinematic treatment of the story and now available on Netflix. The siege of Baler was a ‘last stand’ epic akin to the much more famous Alamo; fifty Spanish troops holding out in a church for 337 days whilst surrounded by Filipino rebels. I read just enough to effect my introduction, but not enough to spoil the ending, so I’m still intrigued by what we might have heard.

My fourth event was to have been a panel together with Miguel, Rory Clements, and Antonia Senior. Antonia is a journalist with a trio of standalone historical novels under her belt. The latest is The Tyrant’s Shadow (2017) published by Corvus and set in the aftermath of the English Civil War. We were to have discussed The Past is a Foreign Country; challenging historical perspectives. Historical interpretation is not static, and with changing cultural, social, and political influences, historians constantly revisit the past. A talk that might have been, and still might be one day. It is to be hoped that as the world transitions towards the ‘new normal’ the Alderney Literary Festival will return.

Sixty Days in a Strange World

There will be plenty of retrospective prophets this year. A few scientists will be revealed to have had perceptive papers published in obscure journals just before C-19 hit, but a larger number who predicted other crises will keep quiet. Writers of certain dystopian novels, TV series and movies will be lauded as prescient, although those who scripted meteorite impact or robot takeover stories will have to wait a little longer. ‘I told you so’ pundits of all shades are already pointing to this report or that course of action which if handled differently would have changed everything (maybe).

With this in mind, I looked back at my own awareness over 60 days of the mounting crisis. I’ve kept a daily diary since I was 14 and for the last decade have accumulated a store of emails, messages and social media posts which amount to a second ‘unofficial’ diary.

In mid-January I took a holiday in Sri Lanka. It was a spur-of-the moment decision and if I’d faffed around and chosen a later date I would never have gone or worse would have been marooned awaiting rescue. My diary of 24 January refers to the “new panic about Coronovirus in Wuhan”. Three days later I was nervous standing for three hours on a packed train squashed between Chinese tourists wearing masks.

In mid-holiday I caught a conventional cold that proved no more than antisocial but would not make me popular on my returning planes. On the way back at the start of February I was wary of fellow passengers at Bandaranike, Doha and Manchester airports, making use of my little travel-size hand sanitizer and avoiding groups.

My habit of snacking constantly on flights had to stop; the way the bat-meets-pig Chinese virus spreads in the opening sequence of the 2011 movie Contagion was strong in my mind. Contagion would become one of the most-downloaded films of 2020.

At the time of the SARS outbreak in 2005 I’d written pandemic plans for a merchant bank, and I revisited this by writing one for the Museum I managed from 2006. I hoped my successors were dusting those plans off and finding them adequate.

As a novelist and a scientist of sorts I was watching developments with detachment. The 1918-19 Spanish Flu reared its head in Glint of Light on Broken Glass and the research came in handy for a museum display I mounted on the end of the Great War, so I was alert to the developing story.

On February 8th I was writing as if C-19 was something I’d ‘escaped’ by getting back to the UK. In England the news was all about the floods; storm Chiara and her accomplices. As late as 26th February the Opposition were still laying into the Prime Minister for not paddling around flooded villages and not convening a COBRA meeting to deal with it. No! I yelled at the telly; convene COBRA to discuss the virus! Eerily the TV series COBRA was showing, in which an embattled Prime Minister deals with social breakdown –­ in that case after a solar flare.

For my own ‘disaster planning’ I decided not to book my next holiday, which would have been June; on Feb 9th I noted “This virus could lead to air travel shutting down, travel companies going bust etc”.

I was due to chair a session at the Guernsey Literary Festival in May and launch my new book Occupation to Liberation. Crimefest in June was also something to look forward to, but I held off booking hotels or trains. I warned friends to be prepared for cancellation of a whole slew of events, but felt rather like a Jonah for doing so.

On February 25th I re-watched Contagion as pandemic was fast becoming a topic of conversation. I invited my folks around, and I must admit that as they are in that 70+ category this was partly to bring them into the zone of pandemic planning. “Stop touching your face, Jerry!” Kate Winslett chides. I posted about the film on Facebook and engaged robustly with people who were downplaying the virus or using selective facts to score cheap points against the government. On Friday 27th I went out for a pub meal and for the first time passed around hand sanitizer.

My diary from the 2nd March begins to note the successive real-time crises we are all familiar with, and that day I pasted a semi-jokey “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands” notice on Facebook. There was plenty of black humour around. On the 8th March we enjoyed what could prove to be the last big family supper for a long time.

I was fully booked to take part in the Alderney Literary Festival in late March, but changed flights to go out a week earlier to tidy up some of my archaeological commitments. This was the time of indecision in the UK and all transport was still running, but if hadn’t made the change, I would not have got away at all. I flew out to Guernsey on the 11th, then on to Alderney. This was the day WHO at last declared C-19 to be a pandemic.

On Friday 13th the Festival was cancelled with just a week to go, and my heart went out to my friends who had put so much effort into organising it. Italy had just locked down; it was only a matter of time before the UK did the same and the Channel Islands would surely close their ports in the hope of keeping the bugs out. Spending two weeks away from home looked increasingly unwise, so I cut short my trip, returning on the 15th wearing gloves all the way. As I’d travelled on two planes, two trains and passed through three airports, I decided to avoid all physical interaction with my family for five days after returning and turned down a meet-up with three old friends which was disappointing.

Many, if not most, people were still not taking this very seriously and I was still seeing Facebook posts from some setting off on holiday. Every event I had on my calendar was cancelled over the next few days, even Guernsey’s landmark 75th Liberation Day. The excavation in Alderney I planned for May would not be happening and that scheduled for August looked in doubt. Friends became gloomy as all our plans for the spring and summer fell away.

Expecting to be away for two weeks I’d emptied the fridge, so did a ‘big shop’ on my return wearing gloves and bought sufficient to see me through two weeks of self-isolation in case I’d picked up the bug. ‘Panic buying’ was becoming fashionable but shelves were still full. I urged friends and family to close down their social life and plan for longer lockdowns. Even this late it was the ‘self-isolating’ and disruption of my social diary that I thought would be the biggest inconvenience of this crisis. As a writer I work from home anyway, I was never going to be ‘furloughed’ and I no longer have small children to worry about. I bunged in a quick order to Amazon for a Playstation to stave off potential boredom, and filled the Jeep at the garden centre on the 20th to give myself a few weeks of garden projects.

By the time I went to the builder’s merchants on the 22nd, apologising for wearing a scarf like a bandit, most people were keeping a wary distance apart but I could have slapped the woman who literally pushed past me in the door. The atmosphere in the Co-Op was edgy and grabbing the first bunch of tulips I saw seemed positively daring. On Mother’s Day I placed the bunch outside a closed door and made four paces back feeling vaguely ridiculous. It was all increasingly surreal, as if I was acting out a scene in a dystopian film or was slavishly following those decade-old pandemic plans I’d written. Suddenly on the 23rd March we had the bombshell of lockdown, not quite two months since that first marginal note I made in January. In sixty days, the world had changed.

A Walk in the Woods

Never go back, they, say, but today I walked back to summers of 45 or 50 years ago. Our village is on a hilltop, with a steep wooded valley to the north. We called it ‘The Woods’ and half my childhood memories rest down there. Allowed to go with my friends once I’d hit seven, we’d be off for whole days in the summer. Sometimes we’d take jam sandwiches and an old pop bottle full of tap water, and once I got my dog he’d come too. My mix of friends would vary but it was very Famous Five.

I walked ‘backwards’ today, from my new house towards my old. I ignored the ‘Private Property’ sign with only a moment’s hesitation, as we’d done as kids and as the couple of dog walkers I met still clearly do. We would rarely go in the winter, as days are short up here, the main paths sticky with mud and the side-paths slippery with fallen leaves. Even in the summer, we’d come back with grubby hands and knees and Shep’s white paws and underparts were almost as black as the rest of him. We’d pick brambles out of his fur and he’d suffer to be cleaned up with old towels.

Playing explorers the woods was the closest we would come to living the life of the Swallows and Amazons. Sometimes we would be commandos behind enemy lines, giving us good excuse to hide from whoever came our way; a bully from school, an adult who might worry about what we were up to, or the legendary Warden who I think we saw maybe twice ever. Just like the Swallows we made maps and gave the places names. It was amusing to hear younger kids on the estate copying our names for this place or that when it became their turn to be seven years old and set free. Paedophiles hadn’t been invented back then of course, we just didn’t talk to strangers (and they were Nazi soldiers or Russian agents, anyway).

So on a cold December day with a weak afternoon sun, I came in through a little-used southern gate and got my bearings in an area of old sandstone quarries we seldom reached. Some had been too deep to climb into, and even looked dangerous to our most adventurous spirits. Coming out of the trees I came to the area we used to call The Rabbit, a stretch of bracken on a slope above the woods proper. Somewhere below was our usual objective, the Rock Pool. Its water used to be clear enough to drink just where it gushed from a spring. There had once, I recalled, been a path, but I had to climb gingerly down through the deep and wet leaves. If I found it, the pool had become little more than a set of muddy puddles choked by leaves and brambles. Beyond had been a place we called the Bracken Field, great for building dens, but I couldn’t see that at all. Nature is dynamic, and a lot can happen in 45 years.

Scrambling back up to The Rabbit I saw just one family heading towards the estates. The old path skirting the houses seemed to have gone, so I went down, deeper into the trees. On each trip we’d take a decision whether we had the hours needed to go deeper into the woods here, or stay high and go around the spring-heads to The Rabbit, or simply stay on the Tops so we didn’t have to go down The Big Hill. The sycamores and oaks seemed even taller now than I remembered, old friends meeting again, all finally grown up.

20191229_140859One stream cuts its way between the trees to ‘The Prehistoric Place’, a swampy area perfect for climbing across on fallen trunks and bathed in a magical green light; I wasn’t planning going anywhere near it in winter. So I turned towards ‘The Big Hill’, which no longer seemed as Big as it did when it was the last feature to climb at the end of a hot  day’s adventuring.

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At the top I looked for ‘The Steps’, now only just visible beneath brambles. This had once been a bald hill crest with a mysterious set of concrete steps leading nowhere that made an excellent seat to survey the valley below. I was told it was a searchlight position from the war, but never knew the truth.

 

On the flat ground beyond The Steps some of the kids called The Tops, I struggled to get my bearings amid the silver birches. This used to be the most charmless area of the woods, pitted by half-filled quarries, and we’d pass quickly through if we had time to go deeper. Old paths once cut deep into the sandy soil here, such as we could kick up clouds in the summer to make explosions, but were now all gone. A huge quarry used to dominate this area, part-filled with rusting cars, old tyres and fridges. If you’ve read Stig of the Dump you’ll get the idea. It was also easy to get into, allowing us to hunt for dinosaur fossils in the exposed cliffs (which of course we never found) and even dig our own caveman cave. One burned-out car in particular had no doors, and a yawning sunroof, so we could become a spacecraft or B-17 crew; pilot, navigator, top gunner and sometimes even a radio man or tail gunner. The quarry is long gone, filled to its brim, capped with hardcore and allowed to be reclaimed by nature. Scrubby trees, bracken and brambles prove how quickly they can conceal the work of man.

After an hour, I came out by the in-road, the way we used to enter past a ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’ sign and an ineffective swing gate, both of which had vanished into memory. Across from the gate was a new estate, expanding the village way beyond that we’d known. Ten times the traffic now coursed the Lane that Mum used to caution me about crossing.

How on earth we survived childhood without plunging down a quarry face, drowning as we bridged a stream or suffering multiple injuries falling from a tree I never knew. Like superheroes we just brushed ourselves down, cleaned our wounds with spit, dabbed nettle stings with dock leaves and whirled our socks around our heads in the hope they would dry before we got home. I read that children don’t do this anymore; perhaps the world has become too busy. I was never a brave child, but this was where my spirit of adventure was born. Reading Tolkien took me back to those woods, its paths leading who knows where and a time when there was “less noise and more green”. The mystery of The Steps was my first clue that the ground hid secrets of the past, awakening perhaps an interest in archaeology. And of course we made up stories as we adventured, sometimes writing them down or adapting them for whatever essay the teachers set us. Those summer days still inspire me. Walking the Woods of my memory is not the same as walking The Woods that now are, but today I did both.

Daggers of Delight

It’s October, which means it must be time for the CWA Daggers Awards, the Oscars of the Crime writing world. On the left of the featured image is M W Craven, winner of the Golden Dagger for the best crime novel of the year for The Puppet Show. Mike reminded everyone in his acceptance speech that he was shortlisted for a Debut Dagger in 2013, an encouragement to rookie crime writers everywhere. Beside him is Kate Ellis, also known for thrillers with an archaeological dimension, who won the Dagger in the Library. Kate was seated directly behind me and we joined a ‘group hug’ before she hurried to take her award with delight.

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One of the great things I’ve noticed about crime writers is they are not competitive. Whether a ballroom full of them replete with wine, or a small residual knot of diehards in the bar, they are supportive of their partners-in-crime instead of bitching about their rivals. There is genuine pleasure for the winner of a coveted dagger and genuine sympathy for those shortlisted who did not ‘win’; I cannot conceive of them as ‘losers’ as even to be shortlisted is a rare honour for a writer.

5F8EC035-BB05-4A23-95C0-08EE8252C012_1_201_aThe Awards Dinner has moved up a gear in the past few years and have become a swish affair with stylish dressing, polished presentations and a sensation of being right where it matters. It was held at the Leonardo Royal Hotel, London, which has assumed a new name since last year so challenging the detection skills of attendees.  I was seated on the Debut Daggers table in the company of shortlisted writers of unpublished crime novels of whom most had traveled from the USA. As fate would have it, the award went to the one nominee who couldn’t make it, the Australian Shelley Burr.

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Chance to meet and mingle – here with A. A. Chaudhury, Paul Sinclair and Kirstie Long.

The event has been widely talked about, and blogged about, so follow this link to Shots Magazine for more https://wwwshotsmagcouk.blogspot.com/2019/10/2019-crime-writers-association-dagger.html?fbclid=IwAR2BtYshSkox2FeU7Yc9PLPgZJIK5tzcATVrKS-9JekV4fUBffmQXGD-sU8

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Breaking the fourth wall – Gary Stratmann on duty as the CWA’s official photographer for the event

End of Watch

It has been a poignant month for me. I’ve retired from the ‘day job’, what I described as the job of a lifetime and some called the Best Job in the Island. So there have been a whole string of ‘lasts’; the last committee meeting, the last management meeting, the last monthly report, the last appraisal, the last niggling bit of admin I could do without.

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In what I grandly called ‘Farewell Tour 2019’ I embarked on a series of nostalgia trips to picturesque parts of Guernsey and historic sites, plus a fortnight of parties, informal drinks and dinners with friends. No-contact policy be damned, there were a fair number of hugs with my colleagues and the odd tear shed or held back. On one level it was great fun, but on another level the ‘Farewell Tour’ was an act of bravado. Nobody likes good things to end, but if they continue indefinitely they become stale. We want to say ‘that was a good book’ and set it down, ‘that was a good meal’ and push the plate away, satisfied. I read a piece recently about the ‘reverse bucket list’ which is essentially ‘things I no longer need to do before I die.’ I no longer need to be a museum director; done that, tick box.

Castle farewell

As a delivery truck missed me by inches on my last day but one, I was reminded of the familiar movie trope of the ‘one last job’. Baby Driver – one last job and he’s free. Unforgiven, The Wild Bunch, The Town, Memphis Belle, we could go on. It often ends badly – or ironically. Sometimes we cannot let go of the job  – as in The New Centurions. You almost want to call ‘retire now!’ to Robert Duvall in Colors or ‘Just keep down’ (in German) to Paul in All Quiet on the Western Front. In the end we want to be Shane, riding off into the sunset or Gary Cooper simply laying down his gun and his badge, job done, and walking away. Yes there were things left unfinished, but after 50 exhibitions, and the same number of big events would my life be better if I completed 52 or 54? It was time to go.

IMG_3525Of course I made that quip about badge and gun in my farewell speech and indeed symbolically removed my ‘Head of Heritage Services’ badge; made all the more symbolic by the fact I had almost always forgotten to wear it for the past 13 years, and indeed once accidentally put on the ‘Head of Nerdery’ one of my staff made up on Big Geekend.

Never renowned for keeping a low profile, I was allowed to indulge and have fun. I fired the noonday gun dressed as Sir Isaac Brock, and received a Brock-themed leaving card as well as an amusing dress-up doll of myself as either Brock or an Archaeologist.

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Plenty of cards, prezzies and a bunch of flowers from the Latvian consul decked my desk. A lovely speech was delivered by colleague not renowned for speech-making, who I won’t name because he isn’t on facebook and won’t read this anyway. You will not be surprised to learn that a fair amount of alcohol was consumed over those two weeks. Indeed you might be disappointed if it hadn’t.

There was also the fun of the last Press interview, and the last trio of radio interviews where in the end I decided to pull punches and not make any political points about the state of Heritage. I slipped a few lines into my closing speech but in the end I decided to go out on a high. No drama, no gunfight, no ironic encounter with a delivery van. I rode into the sunset, or rather sailed into the dawn.

PS. I’m not retired from writing. An end is simply a new beginning.20191001_120516

 

Smoke Gets in Your Plot

Picture the scene. The detective walks into the bar and approaches the femme fatale. Very Bogart and Bacall. He offers her a cigarette, then lights it for her. Yaaawn…

I have read so many thrillers recently which would have been two chapters shorter if the lead characters didn’t smoke. Descriptions of people fiddling with cigarettes, lighters, matches etc are simply boring. People also scratch their noses, fart and go to the loo but we seldom read about it in fiction unless it’s a plot driver.

The same goes for films and TV shows, although these divide fairly neatly into ‘smoking’ or ‘non smoking’ sections. In the latter there is a cuteness reserved for cigars and pipes in the hands of old men, even in fare aimed at children.

It may depend on the writer or the perceived audience, but all media to some extent reflects the attitude of the times. In the modern western world the educated middle class largely do not smoke, so the habit is confined to villains, members of the lower classes and characters the writers think needs a quirk. On the tip side of this, a disproportionate number of writers of my acquaintance are still smoking in one form or another, so perhaps their view of normality differs from mine. There is a trope which links smoking to stress, crisis, fatigue, recklessness, sin, excess and rebellion which of course we meet far more of in fiction than real life.

It does get tedious to watch on-screen and it starts to feel like dramatic laziness, even in shows that are otherwise excellent like Peaky Blinders or Babylon Berlin. What is the character doing? Uh oh, smoking. Like 120 per day for some characters, then. By contrast, the TV adaption of The Little Drummer Girl made the selective use of cigarettes and smoking paraphernalia a period-appropriate part of the plot.

I had fun with this trope in the Jeffrey Flint novels, as despite being a product of the 80s University system Flint doesn’t smoke – he doesn’t see the point and objects to swallowing the lies of tobacco multinationals. Instead he and Tyrone kill time eating Mars Bars, drinking Coke from cans or spinning out a pint of real ale. It’s the villains that are the smokers. As you may guess I’ve never smoked, and part of the reason is that tobacco has killed several members of my family; I don’t want to boost the bastards’ profits by making it glamorous, cute, sexy or in any way ‘manly’. None of my close friends and hardly any of my wider social circle smoke, which makes me rather like a nun writing sex scenes.

I’m currently working on a 1930s plot, so that gives me a dilemma as (a) everyone is smoking in contemporary ’30s movies and (b) ‘period’ ’30s movies made in modern times fall into either the ‘smoking’ or ‘non-smoking’ camp. Films made in the ’30s were still in the thrall of movie star glamour and the cigarette was a fashion accessory – even in fashion magazines. ‘Retro’ films either ape this style to overdose on period feel, or go for a more sanitized version of the past that doesn’t ring true. Golden Age novels also take the same approach, not seeing the problems inherent in the habit that we do now beyond certain questions of etiquette.

So how do I avoid boring not just the readers but myself with endless smoking scenes? First, assume it is just happening (like scratching noses, farting etc). Second, have a non-smoking lead. This is perfectly plausible, as despite the view that ‘everyone smoked’ back then it was not true. Tobacco consumption in the UK in the ’30s was half that in the ’40s and a third of that in the ’60s, when it peaked. With unemployment at 20% big slices of the population were simply too poor, and it was still viewed in many circles as unseemly for women. With a statistic at the equivalent of 4 cigarettes consumed per day per adult, there is plenty of scope for 1930s characters who don’t smoke at all or do so with restraint. I was interested to discover that the male and female leads in both Martin Edwards’ recent Gallows Court and Rory Clements’ Corpus are non-smokers. Perhaps I’m not the only one with this view.

So, a clean-air breathing hero braves the ’30s. I am going to have some fun…

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Crimefest 2019

It was not quite déjà vu at this year’s Bristol Crimefest as the venue had moved to the Marriot Grand. The hotel was closer to the historic heart of the City, so was a welcome change, allowing a little exploration in each break and a different selection of local restaurants to sample, where I tasted my first Indian Shiraz. Gala dinners can be indifferent, but the Grand earns a gold star by providing a particularly yummy gluten free chocolate mousse cake for afters; a step up from the fruit salad often offered as my gf alternative.

Panels and talks took place in a set of rooms which required a little detection skill to locate and navigate between. We had our own Crimefest bar, but most serious drinking (I mean, earnest literary conversation) took place in the main bar. If you’ve never been to Crimefest, it operates as two and sometimes three parallel sessions from Thursday to Sunday, each lasting 50 mins with 20 minutes in between to locate the next session. The programme is online, and I won’t bore you by listing the 60+ crime writers who spoke.

One novelty was that we got to see a preview of the first 90-minute episode of the new series of Agatha Raisin, which was a jolly way to spend a Friday evening replete with wine and pizza. I sat on the table with some of the production crew at the Gala dinner and there was also a panel including ‘Agatha’ actress Ashley Jensen.

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Not 007: Claire Kendall, HB Lyle, JD Fennell, Sarah Armstrong, Mick Herron

Take-aways included a comment from Mick Herron, when asked how much research he had to do for the Slough House series of spy novels. He replied that he simply made it up; which worries him when real Security Service staff comment on how accurate his books are. We heard about the challenge of fiction in the Post-Truth world, full of anger and misinformation. Several speakers came out with fact-is-weirder than fiction. Danielle  Ramsey related the unnerving experience of ‘creating’ a British seaside gangster then being confronted by unsavory people who found her story too close to the truth. Jeffrey Seger also found his Mikonos-set gangster was uncomfortably close to a real one. Paul Hardy had to include an author’s note to explain that a horrible act he featured in his story was based on a real case.

Several panels tackled historical fiction, and the need to create period feel. William Sutton made the point that whereas a contemporary writer such as Dickens had no need to explain social or technical subtleties of his era, the historical writer needs to provide this for the modern reader. Familiar periods of history make things easy on both reader and author, although are more likely to attract the detail fanatic that is the bane of all successful writers. Some working in obscure periods such as Indrek Hargla’s medieval Estonia have the challenge, but also the freedom, to make much up. Guy Bolton whose characters work in highly familiar 1940s Hollywood with real moguls and actors, in contrast has to carry out very detailed research.

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Kate Ellis, Leigh Russell, Danielle Ramsey, Douglas Lindsey, William Shaw

The 1930s are seen as the change-over period where policing became more scientifically based but many things which are now illegal were permitted, if not approved of, in the past. Long-running series characters are challenged by changing times, which some authors build into the story arc and some simply ignore, allowing history to wash past unnoticed. Longer in the tooth authors rued the fact that their childhoods in the 50s and 60s were now ‘historical’ periods, but Peter Murphy commented that he still needed to research his 60s novels as relying simply on memory did not suffice. I asked the question as to how writers avoided falling into period clichés. Using the right language, avoiding familiar plot drivers and choosing characters that don’t immediately evoke period stereotypes was the best advice. David Penny suggested that as you can’t visit the historical period at least the location can be researched.

Charlie Gallagher, a serving policeman, opined that modern procedure is so boring that even a ‘police procedural’ aiming for realism needs to take liberties to remain interesting. The writer can get away with this if the set-up is plausible, and strict formalities are less important than plot and character. We considered whether a lead detective is allowed to be happy, how writers avoid creating one who is a cliché and whether series novels should include a cliffhanger to lead into the next book.

In my final panel, Caroline England explained how she likes to introduce love in her stories, then be rotten to her characters. Gunnar Staaleson said that the crime writer’s job was at first to build up believable characters. “Then kill them,” added Kate Rhodes.

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Lessons from a Litfest

Another year, another Guernsey Literary Festival. Unlike all the other festivals I go to, this event is more of a smorgasbord; a feast to suit many different tastes. Rather than bingeing on the whole, people I have met are picking at two or three choice morsels. In this way the festival achieves a broad ‘hit’ across the population rather than going for a sharply targeted deep engagement such as (say) Alderney’s historical themed festival or Crimefest Bristol where I’m bound next week. It is a markedly different strategy and local engagement is extensive. There were 60 or so authors and a variety of big names, and I donated a copy of Glint of Light on Broken Glass to each of the goody bags to make them welcome to Guernsey.

WP_20190503_15_32_51_ProThe opening party was fun, only an hour, but chance to hear from a quartet of speakers and mingle with many like-minded friends on the island. On the Friday I was asked to introduce Dr Matthias Strohn (who was quicker to smile than I was when the camera was produced!) speaking at the blow-up Festival Hub in the Market Square. I’d met him at the Alderney festival two years ago and his subject this time was the end of the Great War. As a German historian and reserve army officer who advises the British Army and lectures at Sandhurst, Matthias offered some unique insights. Most telling was how ‘Britain centric’ our view of that war is. The Germans on the other hand were far more concerned with the Russian threat to the east and the French to the west, until the final year of the war at least. He explained how the German view that their army had not lost the war came about via the observation that (1) Germany fought the war because it was surrounded by enemies (2) none of those enemies had any soldiers on German soil at the conclusion of the fighting. The scene was set for ’round 2′.

I was asked initially whether I would moderate a talk by crime writer Mark Billingham, but having seen Mark in action I knew he needed no moderation – he was once a stand-up comedian. In the event he was paired with Erin Kelly, in the bigger venue of St James where even the audience just shy of 100 rattled a bit. Writers’ forums endlessly discuss whether it is best to plan a novel or fly by the seat of your pants (‘planners’ vs ‘pantsers’). Erin takes the same approach as I do, essentially writing a first draft composed of the main scenes of the book not necessarily in order. She then revisits in draft 2 to knit these together into a coherent story. She and Mark also discussed research and the tip was not to write it down as if swotting for an exam, but to use the points that stick. In this way the writer avoids ‘information dumping’, on the reasoning that all this researc =h must show somewhere.

WP_20190506_11_44_27_ProOn the Monday it was a change of venue again, to the spanking freshly refurbished Frossard Theatre at Candie to introduce Dr Gilly Carr. Gilly has worked with the Museum on a couple of occasions and co-created its current exhibition ‘On British Soil’ about Nazi persecution in the Channel Islands. Gilly has worked consistently for the past decade to change the narrative on the German Occupation, which had become in parts saccharine encouraged by cosy tales of wartime make-do-and-mend, partly ‘boys toys’ enthusiasm for the many fortifications and weapons left on the islands and partly by the euphoria of Liberation Day celebrated every year on May 9th. Gilly was talking about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as experienced by Channel Islanders who were persecuted by the Nazis. Victims deported to Nazi concentration camps belatedly got the opportunity to apply for compensation in the 1960s. Many were in no state to describe their suffering, and there was an added complication that PTSD was not recognised as a medical condition at that time. Claims could be made for wounds, diseases or disability, but how could people find recompense for damage that has not even been defined? More can be found on Gillys website https://www.frankfallaarchive.org/

So, I only managed four events, but I’m now warmed up and in the mood for Crimefest Bristol next week.

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