Mark Easterbrook goes to see his writer friend, Mrs Oliver, to ask her to open a church fête. Mrs Oliver “in a state apparently bordering on insanity, was prowling around the room, muttering to herself . . .
‘But why,’ demanded Mrs Oliver of the universe, ‘why doesn’t the idiot say at once that he saw the cockatoo? Why shouldn’t he? He couldn’t have helped seeing it! But if he does mention it, it ruins everything. There must be a way . . . there must be . . .’
She groaned, ran her fingers through her short grey hair and clutched it with a frenzied hand. Then, looking at me with suddenly focused eyes, she said, ‘Hallo, Mark. I’m going mad,’ and resumed her complaint.'”
Feeling in need of comfort reading the other evening, I chose an Agatha Christie that I hadn’t read for a while. It’s definitely one of my favourites among her later novels: a feisty heroine, a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, superlative plotting – and it’s funny too. One of the things I so much like about Christie is her ability to laugh at herself. That’s always engaging. For Mrs Ariadne Oliver (brilliant name!) is a thinly disguised version of Agatha Christie (with a tiresome Finn instead of a Belgian as her fictional detective). And what amused me so much is that Mrs Oliver’s struggle to make her plot work is all too familiar to us lesser mortals toiling in the field of crime fiction.
By the end of Mark’s visit he has quite by accident happened to make a remark that offers Mrs Oliver a solution to her problem. And VERY SMALL SPOILER ALERT, she in her turn has shed light on the plot of the novel. It’s beautifully done. Chapeau, Dame Agatha! There is no-one quite like you.
On Wednesday the train I caught from Sheffield to Oxford went through Solihull and I felt a deep sense of relief even after all these years that I didn’t have to get off the train and go to work there. It was a long time ago – so long that people were still allowed to smoke in offices – when, struggling to finish my MA thesis, I decided to take a civil service exam and get a proper job. Coming out of the exam I was aware that I had probably got full marks for the literacy paper and had barely scrapped a pass – if that – on the maths paper. So I still can’t quite understand how I ended up as an Executive Office (Higher Grade) in the Inland Revenue at the Solihull office. I am inclined to think it was a simple administrative error. I was fine on the training course, but when it came to doing the job . . . I had my own allocation of tax cases – you learned on the job under a supervisor. The nadir came when I was out at lunch one day and my supervisor took a call from an unfortunate man whose tax code I had altered. Instead of spreading the extra tax deduction over several months, I’d taken the whole lot out of his pay packet in one fell swoop – and it was a couple of weeks before Christmas, too. It wasn’t long after that that I handed in my notice. Altogether I was there just over four months, but really I had known pretty much from the start that it wasn’t for me.
What miserable months they were (though my boss and my colleagues couldn’t have been nicer). I was living with my boyfriend in Sutton Coldfield and every morning he would drive me into central Birmingham and drop me off at a station where I caught the train to work. It took every ounce of will power that I possessed to get off that train at Solihull, and not be carried on to Leamington Spa.
There was a bookshop near the station and that was where I bought the copies of Trollope’s Palliser novels that carried me through. I worked my way through the whole lot. One of the other novels that I remember from those days was Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. I was hungry for narrative and for richly textured worlds that I could escape into. I read in every possible spare moment.
I went back and finished my MA, then did a Ph.D and embarked on my career of museum work and university teaching and writing. I don’t often think of those days when I was a square peg in a round hole – but on the rare occasions that I go to Oxford and the sign saying ‘Solihull’ flashes past, what a wonderful feeling that it is. I say a silent thank you to Trollope for saving my sanity.
A week or two ago my dear friend Deb sent me this message and link:
First verse of Walt Whitman’s poem, as recited by a very old soul: http://whitmanalabama.com/verses/1. Do check it out: it’s wonderful.
Deb didn’t say what the poem was and it turned out to ‘Song of Myself.’ But the poem by Whitman that had sprung immediately to my mind was ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.’
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
It was many, many years since I’d read this – perhaps not since I was an undergraduate – and I was glad to be reminded of it. There is a lilac bush down our lane that I rejoice to see every year. These poignant lines now speak to my condition.
The lilacs are not out yet, so here are some tulips and hyacinths set against the blossom on my neighbour’s plum tree. Aren’t they glorious?
Freddie got off to a bad start in life. He was the only survivor of a litter born outdoors. A kind woman took him in, but her cat and dog wouldn’t accept him, and he ended up at a rescue centre, which is where we found him. Perhaps that is why he is so companionable now that he has settled in with us. He usually spends the day in my study and is very interested in what I am doing.
I’ve been thinking of Beatrix Potter and The Tailor of Gloucester, one of my favourites of her stories, in which the tailor is ill and in despair because he cannot finish an embroidered waistcoat for the mayor’s wedding on Christmas Day. The mice, to whom he has been kind, finish it in the night and he comes down to find it all done except for one buttonhole. There is a tiny note saying ‘No more twist.’
If only Freddie could do something similar and untangle my plot problems while I am asleep or write that tricky and demanding last scene for me. Which leads me to another thought: if a cat could write a crime novel, what kind of crime novel would it be? I know there is a whole sub-genre of mysteries featuring cats (which I haven’t read), but that is not quite the same thing.
Elizabeth Taylor is a writer I admire greatly. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971) is one of her late novels and it is about an elderly lady (and lady is the right word) who arrives at the Claremont, a residential hotel in Kensington, hoping to make a life for herself there after the death of her husband. Taylor went and stayed in such a hotel in order to get the details right and how wonderfully she depicts the routine and the little pleasures its residents cling to, their petty slights and alliances, their hopes and fears. Are there such hotels, populated by lonely old people, these days? I somehow doubt it.
Mrs Palfrey is a redoubtable woman who, after a strenuous life in the colonies with her husband, is neglected by an unsympathetic daughter in Scotland and a grandson in London who fails to visit. When chance brings the handsome young Ludo into her life, she finds herself pretending that he is her grandson to increase her prestige in the hotel. A well-off old lady and an attractive young man: in the hands of a lesser writer, we can guess how this would go. What does happen is far more interesting than that.
Soon after my own husband died last year, I remembered a passage in this novel and went to look for it. Mrs Palfrey is out for a walk on a bleak winter’s afternoon. ‘Arthur and I, she suddenly thought, would come back from our walk as it was getting dark, and he would carefully put little bits of coal on the fire, building up what he called “a good toast fire.” She could picture his hand with the tongs – a strong, authoritative hand with hair growing on it. If I had known at the time how happy I was, she decided now, it would only have spoiled it. I took it for granted. That was much better. I don’t regret that.’
In another passage Mrs Palfrey in bed ‘lay and listened to the murmur of a married couple in the next room. It was unrhythmical and intermittent, an exchange grown casual and homely over the years. She knew – looking back – how precious it could be, though not valued at the time . . . The two were setting in for the night, peaceably and at their accustomed pace; and Mrs Palfrey, hearing them, felt lulled and comforted.’
I hope I have whetted your appetite for this excellent writer, if you don’t already know her work.
I haven’t been sleeping well these last six months or so – and I won’t need to tell readers of my blog why that is. I don’t usually have a problem getting to sleep, but I often find myself awake at four or five am. That is when audiobooks are such a godsend. I prefer books that I already know – doesn’t much matter then if I drop off and miss a bit – and I prefer them unabridged. And of course it is of paramount importance that the voice is right for that particular novel.
I’ve been enjoying the work of four wonderful actors. It goes without saying that David Suchet is perfect for Murder on the Orient Express, but Hugh Fraser is pretty damn good as a reader of other Christie novels, such as The Hollow and Nemesis. Ian Carmichael couldn’t be better in the dramatisations of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Wimsey books, reprising the role he played so well on TV. But the absolute queen of the audiobook is for me Prunella Scales, first with Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford, and then with Wives and Daughters. This last in particular has just been sheer bliss and toward the end I was listening to it even when I didn’t have insomnia. Her characterisation is so perfect, her understanding of the nuances of the novel so complete – and what a marvellous novel it is, full of insight into human weakness, but full of compassion too. I could listen to her forever.
If there are other listeners to audiobooks out there, I would really welcome suggestions for other good readers – particularly of the classics or of golden age crime fiction. Please let me know your favourites.
Kind friends and readers have asked me when Deep Water would be available in the States and I am happy to say that US publication was on 27 January. I was lucky enough to have an American publisher for my first two novels, but not since, so I’m delighted to published in the US again.
A writer’s life is full of ups and down – it can be like a literary game of snakes and ladders. My good friend, Martin Edwards invited me to write about this for his splendid blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name?, You can read my post here: http://doyouwriteunderyourownname.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/the-ups-and-downs-of-crime-writers-life.html
In Muriel Spark’s splendid novel, A Far Cry from Kensington, the narrator, Mrs Hawkins, finds herself at a dinner-party sitting next to a retired Brigadier General. She gives him advice on how to get down to writing his memoirs. Get a cat. She explains: ‘Alone with the cat in the room where you work . . . the cat will invariably get on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp . . . and the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind the self-command it has lost.’
The advice bears fruit. Three years later the Brigadier sends her a copy of his war memoirs. ‘On the cover was a picture of the Brigadier at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it “To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.” The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that the cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.’
Here is my own writer’s companion, sitting among the reference works.
. . . but I can’t resist posting a picture of the new additions to the family. They arrived three weeks ago. The little one is nearly four months old and she is called Holly. The big one is nearly seven months and he is Freddie. They’re not related, but became friends at the rescue centre so we decided to take them both. They are sweet little cats and it’s a bonus that they are so chic in their matching black and white.
The last day of 2016 and what a terribly strange and sad year it has been for me and my family in ways we could not have anticipated this time last year.
Peter’s memorial event at the university was recorded and can now be seen on Youtube. You can find it here: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/architecture/people/pbj My own contribution is about an hour and five minutes in.
The photograph shows Peter walking in the woods near our house last winter and was taken – I think – by our younger daughter. It seems a very fitting image with which to end the year.
To all my friends and readers (so often one and the same) all my warm good wishes for 2017. Your support has meant so much to me over the last few months.