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.
On Thursday I took part in a splendid event at Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge. On my way there I took the opportunity of stopping off in Ely where my new series of novels is set to pick up a bit more local colour. I walked around the marina and went into the cathedral. Peter and I lived in nearby Cambridge and I remembered when we used to go to the Old Fire Engine House restaurant in the early days before we were married.
I went to see if it was still there and it is. Looking through the window I felt I could almost see our younger selves sitting there twenty years ago, with everything in front of us. Words from a poem by Hardy came into my mind. He so well understood the power of places to embody memories of those we love. He is one of my favourite poets. This is ‘At Castle Boterel.’
As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
To ease the sturdy pony’s load
When he sighed and slowed.
What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
Matters not much, nor to what it led, ―
Something that life will not be balked of
Without rude reason till hope is dead,
And feeling fled.
It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill’s story ? To one mind never,
Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore,
By thousands more.
Primaeval rocks form the road’s steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order ;
But what they record in colour and cast
Is—that we two passed.
And to me, though Time’s unflinching rigour,
In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
Remains on the slope, as when that night
Saw us alight.
I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
And I shall traverse old love’s domain
The photograph is of the Old Fire Engine House restaurant with the magnificent cathedral in the background.
On 16th November the Sheffield School of Architecture held an event to celebrate Peter’s life and work. It was an amazing evening, attended by around 200 people. Peter’s ex-students, some of them professors themselves now, came from places as far afield as Korea and Taiwan. It was intensely moving to hear what an influence he had had – and still has -not just as a writer, but as a teacher and thesis supervisor.
Among the speeches was one by Peter’s last Ph.D student, Xiang Ren, who ended by saying, ‘For me as a student, also as an international outsider, the time I spent with Peter is much less than most of the attendees here today. But he was really that person who influenced me so much – I would say, whole life – there is an old saying in traditional China – ‘one day teacher, whole life father’. Peter was such a person to me. He was also ‘the father of the house’ for the arts tower/SSoA, and I believe the flame will go on, for so many generations of younger students, scholars and practitioners not only coming from Sheffield, but also from all over the world.’
The photo is of Peter and me and Peter’s colleague, Jan Woudstra, with a group of Ph.D students and visiting scholars plus partners and children at our house in June 2013. I have taken it from a collection of photographs and tributes compiled by Peter’s South-east Asian students and which you can read here: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/architecture/latest/pbj-phd-students-1.645114
I am finding it hard to find time to blog at the moment, but here is an article, ‘All in a Day’s Work,’ that I have just written for Barry Forshaw’s splendid website: crimetime.co.uk: http://www.crimetime.co.uk/mag/index.php/showarticle/4741
It’s about how I found out about the science in my new novel, Deep Water, and the benefits of getting out of the study and into the lab.
Frances Faviell wrote A Chelsea Concerto some years after living through the Blitz. She was a privileged young woman, earning a living as an artist, and sufficiently well off to have a housekeeper, the splendid Mrs Freeth. Simply as a social document of a slightly Bohemian, but respectable middle-class way of life it would be fascinating, but the background of the Blitz makes it as gripping and as poignant as any novel. She played her part in the war effort, joining the V.A.D as a nurse, helping to look after Belgian refugees, being on Fire Duty. One of her jobs is piecing together bodies blown apart in air raids. What makes this an exceptional account is her absolute frankness. She holds nothing back in her description of the terrible things she witnessed and her own reactions (not always admirable). One November night as she walks home from visiting a desperately sick friend, she comes across a group of people gathered round a bomb crater. At the bottom here is a man crushed, but still conscious and in agony. They need someone slim enough to be lowered down and inject the man with morphine and they seize on Frances:
“‘Take off your coat,’ said the doctor. I took it off. ‘And your dress,’ he said. ‘It’s too dangerous – the folds may catch in the debris and bring the whole thing down . . . . It’ll have to be head first. Can you grip the torch with your teeth?’ Two wardens gripped me by the thighs and lowered me down over the hole.” The reader is spared no detail of what she finds as she goes down, not once, but twice and finally manages to administer merciful chloroform.
Of course we know that she herself survives the war, but when she marries and becomes pregnant, we fear for those she loves – her husband, her unborn baby, her friends and neighbours. And indeed something unspeakably horrible does happen . . .
I have never read anything quite like this book, and I could not put it down. I have made it sound grim, and some of it is, but it’s also a story of everyday heroism and the triumph of the human spirit. I loved it.
There are many occasions in life – maybe you are in bed with flu, or the dog has died, or the sheer effort of keeping up with everyday life has defeated you – when a good murder is just what’s needed. Of the fictional variety, of course, perhaps the kind of thriller or crime novel that is so gripping that it picks you up by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t put you down until you have read the last page and closed the book with a sigh of satisfaction. But sometimes even that kind of novel is just too much effort, and that’s where the classic cosy comes in. The sheer comfort factor of this kind of novel lies in the fact that nothing too shocking will happen, and that you will be transported not only to another place, but to a simpler time, with no internet, no twitter, no 24 hour new feeds, no Brexit, no Donald Trump. It’s like sinking into a warm bath.
It’s no wonder then the British Library Crime Classics, featuring just this kind of novel have been such a runaway success. Informative introductions by Martin Edwards and attractive retro covers based on travel posters add to their appeal. I have a row of them on my shelves. So I was especially pleased to be ask if I would review The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North, published in September.
The Methods of Sergeant Cluff is not quite typical of the British Library Crime Classics, as it wasn’t published until 1961 and is rather darker than the Golden Age novels that are their usual fare. My interest was piqued by a reference in the introduction to Cluff as an English Maigret and this wasn’t far off the mark. Cluff, like Maigret, has an instinctive understanding of human nature, and solves crimes less by logical deduction than by his absorption in the lives of those involved. Like many a fictional detective Cluff is the despair of his more conventional superior, who feels – with some justification – that Cluff’s method is actually to have no method at all. The novel opens when he is called to the body of a young woman, a chemist’s assistant, in the fictional mill town of Gunnarshaw. As with the Maigret novels there’s a strong sense of place. This is a world where the cobbled streets gleam in the rain and sodden sheep huddle in the fields. I was also reminded of those gritty Northern novels of the fifties and sixties, like Room at the Top, in which the characters are determined to make good and don’t care how they do it. I enjoyed the distinctive flavour of The Methods of Sergeant Cluff and the evocation of a time and place a world away from the swinging sixties: it was well worth bringing back into print.
Today my new novel is out. I am delighted with the great job that my publishers have done and it was a thrill to get my advance copy. What a terrific cover! I couldn’t be more pleased with it.
I turned to the acknowledgements and there at the end was this: ‘and last but not least, my husband, Peter Blundell Jones.’ Those were the last words in my book, written, of course, months ago, before we knew that Peter was ill. How fitting they are. That is all I really want to say for today. But if you’d like more, I’ve been interviewed over on Sue Hepworth’s blog, and you can read the post at www.suehepworth.com
Or anywhere else, possibly.
In Footfall, the third of my Cassandra James novels, Cassandra’s husband opens the fridge and one of the plastic racks on the inside of the door comes away. A bottle of milk, a jar half full of olives, and a glass containing sticks of celery crash to the tiled floor.
In the way that writers do, I plundered my own life for this episode, which happened precisely as I described it, except that it was me who opened the door. Our old fridge was in a sorry state, no doubt about it, and anyone else might have decided to buy a new one. But Peter hated built-in obsolescence and the shoddiness of much modern design. Instead he repaired the fridge with fibreglass and made three wooden racks to replace the disintegrating metal and plastic ones.
That was years ago. The fridge doesn’t defrost itself any more and dealing with the jammed up ice box is a bit of a palaver. But it works, the shelves are still sturdy, and I won’t be buying a new fridge any time soon.