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.
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.
The 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 I was seated on the Debut Daggers table in the company of shortlisted writers of unpublished crime novels of whom most had traveled from the USA.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.
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.
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.
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.
Of 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.
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.
I’ve been quiet on the blogging front, chiefly because I spent August digging in Alderney. Running a dig is full-on, 7 days a week but I found time to sit back see the moon rise over Longis Bay, to watch the stars come out over Saye and enjoy plenty of Alderney hospitality. We’d swim at lunchtime or straight after work and it felt very ‘famous five’ at times. My phone thought I was in France (clearly visible 9 miles away).
Our team returned to Longis Common where we found a dozen Iron Age burials and traces or Roman buildings in an electric trench in 2017, followed up with a dig in 2018. The site overlooks the island’s natural harbour but was abandoned by islanders when the land was buried by up to 2m of sand during extensive sand-blows from the early Middle Ages. Since then it has largely been undisturbed by development.
This year’s dig reinforced our belief that Roman buildings spread for some 200m across the common, and confirmed that the Romans built on top of an earlier Iron Age Cemetery they may not even have been aware of. In the Paddock at the western, uphill, edge of the site, Trench 2 from 2018 was partly re-opened and then expanded under my colleague Dr Phil de Jersey. Parts of a large Roman building stood here with clay-bonded walls up to a metre high made of local sandstone. Large sandstone blocks were placed vertically to form parts of these walls and a courtyard of roughly hewn flat stones interleaved between two layers of clay stood between them. Extending the trench this year revealed another room or courtyard with a hearth, and a doorway framed by upright slabs. Very late-looking Pottery points to these buildings being in use in the third to fourth centuries, so still occupied at the same time as the late Roman small fort at the Nunnery nearby. They could have been part of a vicus outside the fort.
A gap in the paved courtyard enabled a very deep excavation to reach the Iron Age cemetery.
A third skeleton was buried close by, in a stone cist, with a small pot by its shoulder. These are ‘high status’ burials, and taken with earlier discoveries show that the Iron Age population of Alderney was affluent and had links with communities in France. We are pretty convinced that they had a role in controlling trade routes, as northbound ships hugging the Gallic coast carrying wine and Mediterranean luxuries would pass within sight of Longis, as would southbound ships carrying produce from the north. This importance carried through to the Roman period, explaining their interest in the small island.
Some 50m downhill, on the Common closer to the sea, geophysics showed a large sweeping shadow so Trench 4 was dug to investigate. Dubbed the ‘Punishment Trench’ large quantities of sand needed to be removed by hand, to be followed by disappointment when the shadow turned out to be a trackway with tyre-ruts probably dating to the German Occupation of WW2. Removing yet more sand however revealed a medieval wall, and still deeper was a metre-thick Roman wall. At the base of the site was a curious structure of roughly shaped granite cobbles that is still causing some head-scratching.
Within 50m of the Nunnery, I led a group of volunteer diggers to expand Trench 3 dug by school students in 2018. It has been my curse in recent years to dig sites criss-crossed by utilities and this was another. Avoiding two electric mains, a water main and an old sewer we put in a 13m long trench and a trio of companion trenches to reveal a building with three rooms (or three adjacent buildings). These again employed large upright slabs on their internal walls which stood just less than a metre high. A layer of clay appears to have been laid down to seal the earlier soils before building commenced. The central room is over five metres by five metres and the overall plan suggests a civilian building rather than military barracks. A vertical slab once formed one side of a doorway,
Given the similarity in building style and dating it is probable that the buildings in all the trenches were late Roman. All had earlier Roman pottery in layers running under the building showing there was earlier Roman activity on the site. The lack of large amounts of rubble suggests that the walls had been little higher in antiquity than they are now, with the upper parts of the buildings being timber-framed with wattle-and daub infill. The small amount of roof tile recovered suggests the buildings were roofed in perishable materials such as wooden shingles.
Late in the life of the building, when floors were no longer intact, the site was used for industrial activity including what looks like ironworking. A surprise find was made in one corner of the southern room of the Trench 3 building where part of a cobbled floor remained. Beside a crushed pot of post-Roman style was the base of a glass flask with a Christian symbol.
Frankish material is extremely rare in the Channel Islands, and opens a new chapter in the history of Alderney.
After the site was abandoned it was buried by wind-blown sand, the walls themselves probably encouraging it to accumulate. Work is still to continuing on the finds, but this year’s excavation proved that the Iron Age cemetery is extensive, and that its occupants were of high status. Exactly where those people once lived is an open question for the future. Our team has investigated perhaps 1% of the later Roman structures of the settlement at Longis, and we have not seen any traces of earlier Roman buildings or an earlier fort, so there is enormous potential for investigating this pristine site for years to come.
A big thanks to all my friends and colleagues who made this possible including Guernsey Museum staff, local and Guernsey volunteers, and our trio of students. It wouldn’t have been possible without support from the Alderney Society, Alderney Electricity, the States of Alderney, our many friends in the island and kind permission of the landowners.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
On 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.
I’m writing a book set in the 1930s and passed the 30,000-word mark today with a loud hurrah and a celebratory glass of Diet Coke. My last novel was Glint of Light on Broken Glass which all in all took three years to research and write, with one of those years being absorbed by getting the detail of 1913-1919 correct. I was helped by it being set right outside my front door and by its sedate fable-like tone which allowed liberties with language, but I had to carefully avoid modern expressions and Americanisms.
So to the 1930s, and I’m reading as much as I can and catching films made in or about the period. One challenge of my new thriller is that my cast of characters are witty, fast-talking and at times violent. Without delving into cliché I need to get those snappy conversations right. I’m taking a leaf out of Lee Child’s book, in that I heard him at a conference saying that as soon as he hits a point where he needs a piece of research, he does it there and then. Usually I retrofit my research, glossing over the detail until I’m sure the plot demands it. I wasted enough gloriously evocative scenes in my early writing to learn this lesson.
My early drafts are largely conversations, to allow my characters to drive the story forward which I will then back-fill with time and place as the plot becomes clear. However for the 1930s this means stopping and checking when I stumble across a word or phrase that could be anachronistic. A thesaurus, various books of phrase and fable and online versions are hastily consulted. This week I learned that jolly hockey sticks did not come in until the 1950s, but not my cup of tea or right up your street might just be acceptable after 1930. To my surprise Beating up and snitch were much older than I thought, so fine to use.
I also learned how to pick a lock and open a locked suitcase this week. There are Youtube tutorials which will dissuade you of the value of locking anything ever again. I’ve done some work on Swiss banknotes, obsolescent German firearms and London ‘roadhouse’ clubs. One of the drawbacks of using the web for research is that more and more the search terms come up with adverts. This was particularly the case when looking for hotels to base my skulduggery in. I was surprised to learn, for example, that you can still buy British Union of Fascists flags over the internet. I expected to be able to find a selection of fascist marching songs, but was intrigued to find many carried by Russian websites with explicit warnings that it was illegal to download them in Germany. Having also looked up pederast, Irish street slang and the history of the mafia I must have a very dodgy-looking search history!
So it’s farewell to my faithful black desk, too old and rickety and too darned heavy to be moved again. I bought it from a pre-IKEA furniture store on the outskirts of York in 1989 and since then it has taken up station in at least half a dozen different studies of mine. Flat-pack, self-assembly chipboard, its veneer is peeling and its structural integrity relies largely on screw blocks and willpower.
As for the drawer unit, the drawers have been reluctant for a decade; piled too high with more pens and paper than they can cope with, stained by ink and tippex and blobs of blu-tac. Together with the desk it is bound for Bulk Refuse Heaven.
This was the desk where I wrote Shadow in the Corn, half of Byron’s Shadow (long story!), Shadesmoor, Lady in the Lake, Blood & Sandals,Islands that Never Were and Glint of Light on Broken Glass. Four dormant novels were also tapped out on is face, together with A Gallo-Roman Shipwreck from Guernsey,Roman Pottery From York, A Shypp Cast Away About Alderney and a couple of dozen academic papers and the same number of short stories.
A pine desk that did service as one of my children’s homework desks has been commandeered as the place where the next two books will be completed. Smaller, it should be more maneuverable up the steps of the next garret and maybe the one after that.
We’re used to hearing about ‘Writer’s Block’, romantically imagining our author has been deserted by his or her muse; no inspiration, clueless about the next twist of the plot, capable of only writing flat doggerel.
Maybe uncharitably we might quietly think our author is just being lazy. Perhaps too much absinthe, even? You don’t hear of Teacher’s Block or Treasury Dealer’s Block.
However writers dwell in the real world. I’m moving house, and can barely get near my desk let alone find a couple of hours to allow the muse back. That picture is my study, this week. And yes that’s a copy of Fight Club on top of the clutter – ‘You don’t own stuff, stuff owns you’ echoes around the room. Two recycling bags of paper came out of the room just today, to add to the eight already nestling in the hall, not to mention two one-tonne rubbish sacks on the drive.
From the deeper recesses of the filing cabinet come the first drafts of novels, unpublished or unfinished novels from decades ago, short stories, a play and a couple of bad poems. Crime writing conference paperwork reaching back into the 1990s forms a heap on the floor. A few programmes and select souvenirs go into the memorabilia box, but the rest are off for recycling. Files of correspondence with publishers and agents going back to my first works have all been kept. For now.
Friends who write also hit blocks that have nothing to do with a shortage of inspiration. If not blocks, then at least speedbumps; a shift in the day job, election to a committee, the loss of a relative, a long vacation, poor health, having a child or even a demanding new puppy. Real life intrudes the whole of the time, floating icebergs into the path of our otherwise serene cruise.
That’s probably enough dredging of metaphors for one blog. It’s my first for three months, but with a new garret identified, this writer will be unblocked pretty soon.