I had plenty of books on my e-reader (and a little World’s Classics edition of Persuasion, just in case), but what I actually read during my first week in China was a book that I found at the splendid Red Wall Garden Hotel in Beijing. I like the custom that’s grown up of people leaving their holiday reading behind. You can come across some good things that way. Years ago I discovered a copy of Michael Connolly’s The Concrete Blonde in a hotel in Greece and he became one of my favourite crime-writers.
It is always fascinating to see what other people have been reading. A day or two into our holiday we were having lunch in a hotel in one of the hutongs, the old residential quarters of Beijing, and I spotted a veritable library of discarded paperbacks. The books were divided into escapist crime fiction and solid classics, pretty representative of my own holiday reading. Agatha Christie’s N or M ? rubbed shoulders with Kakfa’s The Trial, A is for Alibi with Portrait of a Lady and The Great Gatsby. I was pleased to see a copy of The False Inspector Dew by my friend, Peter Lovesey.
The book I found in the Red Wall Garden Hotel was Paul French’s Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China, highly appropriate reading, and I’ll be saying more about it in another post.
And as for the actual holiday, less than a fortnight ago I was actually standing on the spot on the Great Wall from which my husband took this photograph.
‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’ There is some truth in this famous statement by Cyril Connolly. I guess that Connolly was thinking more of male writers and the necessity to support a family and the need to write for money. Still it is worth noting that many of our greatest women writers – Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes – have been childless.
There is no doubt that when you have children, hugely rewarding though it is, time, energy and the mental space that writers need are in very short supply. On the other hand, being a parent does supply you with some great material. Here’s an example: years ago I delivered my daughter to a children’s party. The child in question had just joined my daughter’s school so I barely knew her parents and they barely knew me. There was a great scrum of parents and kids when I arrived. I can’t remember now if I left my mobile phone number, but I do remember that as I drove away I realised that the parents of the party girl didn’t even know where I lived. What would they do if some reason I didn’t return to collect my daughter?
I jotted it down as an idea for a story and when, last year, the theme of ‘Guilty Parties’ was announced for a CWA anthology, I thought of it right away. The anthology is out now and ‘What’s the Time, Mr Wolf’ is in it. It’s lovely to find myself there along with old friends, like Martin Edwards, Kate Ellis, Peter Lovesey and many others that I have met at conferences, and yes, parties (guilty or otherwise) over the years. The hardback is a bit pricey, but no doubt it will be out as a paperback and an ebook in due course, and you could always order it from the library. It’s a great way to sample the work of writers you might not have read before.