One of the advantages of ageing – aside from the fact that when travelling via public transport – in the rush hour, say, on the London Underground (when it was safe to travel on the London Underground) or once, memorably, on the delayed 17.57 from Leeds to Hebden Bridge via Bradford Interchange – one, at least, of your fellow passengers will eagerly offer you their seat – will, in fact, be quite offended if, in your embarrassment, you decline – [and I sympathise if, reading this sentence, you are beginning to feel you are clinging on by your very fingertips] – one of the advantages, I suggest – and now, finally, we get to it – is the realisation that the loss of short term memory can, in certain situations, be a blessing.
It is perfectly possible, for example, to rewatch the television adaptations of Henning Mankel’s excellent Kurt Wallander novels as if each were made up from a series of revelatory events, some of which may have faint echoes of a distant past. A somewhat fractured viewing process which has its effects doubly charged by the fact that Wallander himself is haunted by the fear of descending into the same terrifying blankness of dementia that overwhelmed his father. And the fact that there are, as some of you will know, two separate series – separate though using, in the main, the same basic stories – in which Wallander is played by two quite distinct actors – Kirster Henriksson in the original Swedish version and Kenneth Branagh in the later British one – serves only to taunt the memory and further contribute to an overall state of confusion.
Branagh seeks to bludgeon any suggestion of a growing loss of powers with loud and sometimes violent anger – you can ‘see’ him acting – whereas Henriksson’s denials are more private, more controlled. The scene, late on, in which he smooths aside the clothes hanging in his wardrobe to reveal photographs of his work colleagues taped to the wall alongside their names, is quietly devastating and, once seen, impossible to forget. Whatever else may fall away.
Reading Kate Clanchy’s excellent and moving book about teaching, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, got me thinking again about my own early years as a teacher.
In the late 1950s, in London at least, the shortage of teachers was such that it was possible to apply for a teaching post with fairly meagre academic qualifications – in my case, one A level and a handful of O levels (as they used to be called) and some experience of the world of work. Having evaded National Service via a dodgy medical examination and kept myself gainfully employed for a couple of undemanding years, I’d come to the conclusion that I should be doing something more worthwhile than packing parcels or writing up the efficiencies of various information recording systems. I applied for a place on a Teacher Training course at Goldsmiths, only to realise, after I’d been accepted, that in order to qualify for a full grant, I needed not only to have paid two years of National Insurance contributions but to be over 21, which was still almost a year away … so what better use of the time than to experience what it would be like as a classroom teacher at first hand?
The school I was assigned to was a small mixed secondary modern in Harlesden, a mainly working class area of North West London; two single storey prefabricated buildings – Upper School and Lower – with a playground in between. It was, as I discovered, a highly regulated set-up. Not only did the staff from the two parts of the school rarely mix, socially or otherwise, each half had clearly segregated staff rooms, one for male teachers, one female. And the kettle (of course!) was in the male staff room, which meant that when any woman teacher wanted to make a cup of tea, she had to knock on the door and ask permission to enter. Amazing, but true.
It was a three-form entry school, in which the first two streams were taught in mixed groups, whereas those in the bottom stream, for reasons that were never adequately explained, were segregated into girls and boys. In my charge were to be the first year, third stream boys, never less than thirty in number and on some days, I swear, closer to forty. Or maybe that was just how it seemed.
In addition to an extended form time which began each day, I was responsible for teaching my class English – for which extra lessons were timetabled – Geography and, heaven help me – and, more so, them – Maths. No wonder they never progressed beyond the most simple of simple equations. I was also to teach Geography to several other classes in the Lower School, and, in the absence of any other volunteers among the staff – the PE teacher certainly wasn’t going to give up his evenings and Saturday mornings – I took over ‘managing’ the Under 14 soccer team. The first time out we shipped ten goals, scoring none in return, and I had the devil’s own job persuading the few genuinely talented players we had to turn out again. Soon after that I found myself coaching the small but eager athletics team ahead of the local inter-school sports competition, and, on mornings when it always seemed to be cold and raining, accompanying the cross-country team to muddy destinations within the borough and beyond. For all this, I received a sum slightly above 50% of a qualified teacher’s starting salary. Just as well I was still living at home.
But switch back for a moment to the morning of my first day, when, having arrived early, anxious and more than a little bewildered, I was summoned to the headmaster’s office. The head was in his late fifties, possibly older, with neatly brushed silver-grey hair, a dark pinstripe suit, carefully knotted tie and highly polished shoes. He welcomed me with a firm handshake and a few well-honed words about the ethos of the school. Hard work, discipline and respect. In relation to which, he directed my attention to a large, leather-bound book on a table near the door. The Punishment Book. Only two members of staff were allowed to administer corporal punishment, he informed me solemnly, the Deputy Head and himself. And every instance had to be recorded in that book, which was inspected by the local authority. Was that understood? Yes, I said. Good. And as I was leaving the room, he handed me a cane.
Caning. It was how the school functioned, survived. Any pupil late for morning school, whoever had drawn playground duty administered a single stroke of the cane; more than five minutes late, two strokes, one on each hand. So it was with talking out of turn in class, flicking ink pellets, persistently turning round – out here now and hold out your hand. Some of the staff, a few, all men, seemed to relish the opportunity; the teacher in the classroom next to mine, who permanently wore a red tie and sold copies of the ‘Daily Worker’ in the High Street on Saturdays, had been known to resort to the wooden blackboard compass as an alternative to the cane.
Not knowing any better, I fell into line. The cane, after all, was all too familiar from my recent years in a boys’ grammar school, where, being a bit of cheeky Herbert with a liking for the sound of his own voice, a week in which I didn’t receive a caning was rare. You learned to keep the knuckle of your thumb tucked as far off target as possible and winked at your mates on your way back to your desk. And, in similar fashion, the thirty or so eleven and twelve year olds I met every morning and in whose company I spent a good proportion of the day, rarely seemed to mind. It was just school.
But perhaps because we spent so much time together, something strange happened – strange, in that it wasn’t something I’d really anticipated – I got to like them. Even – or especially – I’ll call him Derek – who lived with his father in a broken-down travellers’ caravan and came to school regularly smelling of urine; Derek, who, one day when I had pushed him too far, threw a chair in my direction then hurled himself against the wall alongside the blackboard and sobbed for a full half hour. At heart, they were nice kids, labouring, a good many of them, under a more than average set of disadvantages, and when it came down to it, they wanted to do well; they wanted to please.
Somewhere around the end of the first term, it dawned on me that, with them at least, I no longer needed to resort to the cane; I pushed it into the back of the drawer and there it stayed.
In ordinary times (remember those?), often with my partner, Sarah – and when a Notts County game wasn’t within easy reach – I would devote my Saturdays to walking with the North East London Ramblers. Most of their organised walks are between ten and twelve miles in length and begin and end within an hour or so of Central London by train: relatively easy access, therefore, to the Chilterns, the North and South Downs, the Kentish Weald, the chalk escarpments of Bedfordshire, the Thames Estuary and the windswept flatlands of Essex.
Earlier this year, the various effects of ageing suggested it was time for me to draw the line at a ten mile maximum – preferably, and possible in the shortened days of winter, a mere eight.
Already avoiding rambles involving several steep climbs, an embarrassing incident in which I found myself becalmed half-way over a stile and in need of someone to lift my trailing foot across and over, meant scanning the walk description carefully for mention of an over-generous number of stiles and similar obstacles en route.
The virus, of course, put a stop to all that midway through March, and it’s only recently that group rambles have resumed, albeit with reduced numbers.
A walk which Sarah and I have done several times on our own follows a stretch of the Chess Valley in Buckinghamshire. Seven or eight miles long and taking in a section of the Chiltern Way, it winds along river meadows, lightly folding fields to one side and above the escarpment on the other, a rich foray of trees. The midway point is conveniently marked by Holy Cross Church and the Cock Inn.
Here, the graveyard provides several comfortable benches on which to rest and eat our packed lunch – usually, cheddar cheese on wholemeal bread with sliced banana and mango chutney – after which we cross to the pub garden and relax with a half of bitter (Sarah’s) and a bottle of ginger beer (mine), before using the facilities and setting off on our return journey.
With our daughter, Molly Ernestine, for company, Sarah and I did this walk again yesterday as a way of marking our 24th anniversary. Despite the previous day’s rain, it proved to be mostly easy-going, the pleasant sunshine interrupted only by a blurring of distant cloud and the occasional sharp shower – a metaphor if ever I saw one!
Beautifully produced by Nottingham’s Shoestring Press, Aslant contains fourteen poems – some about jazz, some not – some haunted by thoughts of mortality – in addition to a dozen photographs by Molly Ernestine Boiling. Now Molly has made a neat little video, newly available on YouTube, in which my reading of two of the poems is juxtaposed with a selection of her photographs and just a touch of Thelonious Monk.
“John Harvey’s poetry is spacious, unhurried, measured, taking its time to unfurl its effect but keeping its hooks in the reader by careful control of pace and by making every word count.
The photos by Molly E. Boiling are abstract conceptions, many based on buildings seen from unusual angles and reflect the poet’s interest in abstract art. They certainly contribute to what is a very attractive book-object.”
Robin Thomas: The High Window
“Aslant places John Harvey’s poems alongside evocative photographs by Molly Boiling which provide sharp-edged images of steps, shadows, girders and corners of high buildings. These pictures often suggest entrances and exits or incidental glimpses alongside the telling of a story. Hence they combine well with Harvey’s poems which usually have a strong narrative and reminiscent thread.
“This is no ordinary book: the well-chosen images and the way they complement some consistently satisfying high-quality poems make it, in my view, well worth a tenner of anybody’s money.”
Thomas Owens: London Grip
Jerzy Grabianski, as I mentioned in a recent post , first appeared in the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment; one half of a skilled team of cat burglars, a bulky, perhaps surprisingly humane man with a propensity for falling inappropriately in love. Too interesting a character for me to leave alone; not least for the similarities – physical and genetic – between Resnick and himself. So, after a gap of some years, he featured prominently in the short story, Bird of Paradise, first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and collected in Now’s The Time (2002) , and appeared again in 1997, in the ninth Resnick novel, Still Water.
And it’s to Still Water that we go for a little of Grabianski’s background …
Grabianski was thinking of his father; the half-sister, Kristyna, he had never seen. The family had fled Poland in the first year of the war – and a slow, cold fleeing they’d had of it, walking, occasionally hitching a lift, hiding beneath the heavy tarpaulin of a river barge: Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland. Kristyna had drowned in the waters of Lake Neuchatel; she had been eleven years old.
His father, a textile worker from Lodz, had flown as a navigator for both the French and British forces; parachuted out over the Channel, plummeting towards the black, unseeing water with images of Kristyna, her stiff, breastless body, trapped tight behind his eyes.
He had survived.
Jerzy Grabianski had been born in South London, his mother a nurse from St. George’s, his father sewing by electric light in the basement room in Balham where they lived. Weekends, when his mother was working, his father would walk him to Tooting Bec Common, sit with him in the Lido, dangling Grabianski’s flailing legs down into the shallow water, never letting go.
And here, in the opening paragraphs of Bird of Paradise, is Grabianski, ornithologist and burglar, first sighting the woman with whom he becomes infatuated …
It was still surprisingly cold for the time of year, already well past Lent, and Sister Teresa kept her topcoat belted but unbuttoned, so that the lower part of it flared open as she strode through the stalled traffic at the corner of Radford Road and Gregory Boulevard, revealing a knee-length grey wool skirt and pale grey tights which Grabianski, watching from the window of an Asian confectioner’s, thought were more than pleasingly filled.
He popped something pink and sugary into his mouth and smiled appreciatively. One of life’s natural observers, he never failed to enjoy those incidental pleasures that chance and patience brought his way: a brown flycatcher spied on the edge of Yorkshire moorland, the narrow white ring around its eye blinking clear from its nest; a chink of light just discernible through the blinds of a bedroom window, four storeys up, suggesting the upper window may have been left recklessly unfastened; the stride of a mature woman, purposeful and strong, as she makes her way though the city on an otherwise unremarkable April day.
Casually, Grabianski stepped out on to the street. He was a well-built man, broad-shouldered and tall, no more than five or six pounds overweight for his age, somewhere in the mid-forties. His face was round rather than lean and freshly shaved; the dark hair on his head had yet to thin. His eyes were narrowed and alert as he angled his head and saw, away to his right, the woman he had noticed earlier, passing now between two youths on roller blades, before rounding the corner and disappearing from sight.
Dressed in civilian clothes as Sister Teresa was, Grabianski would have been surprised to have learned she was a nun.
The order to which the good Sister belongs is The Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, as detailed in chapter four of Still Water …
The Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help lived in an undistinguished three-storey house midway between the car park for the Asda supermarket and the road alongside the Forest recreation ground where the local prostitutes regularly plied their trade.
There but for the grace of God, as Sister Bonaventura used to remark, bustling past. Whether she was referring to whoring or working at the checkout, Sister Teresa and Sister Marguerite were never sure.
All three of them were attached to the order’s outreach programme, living in one of the poorer areas of the city and administering as best they could to the unfortunate and the needy, daily going about the Lord’s business without the off-putting and inconvenient trappings of liturgical habits but wearing instead civilian clothes donated by members of the local parish. Plain fare for the most part, but ameliorated by small personal indulgences.
Sister Marguerite, who came out in a painful rash if she wore anything other than silk closest to her skin, purchased her underwear by mail order from a catalogue. Sister Bonaventura stuck pretty much to black, which she relieved with scarlet Aids ribbons and a neat metallic badge denoting Labour Party membership. “Who do you think He would vote for, if he came back down to reclaim his Kingdom on earth?” she would ask when challenged. “The Conservatives?”
And Sister Teresa, whose mother had stopped measuring her against the kitchen wall at fourteen when she had reached five foot seven, was forced to make her own arrangements as the kind supply of cast-offs rarely matched her size. Regularly, she would bundle up a pile of pleated skirts and crimplene trouser suits and take them to the Oxfam shop where she would exchange them for something more fitting.
When Grabianski and Sister Teresa finally get to speak, in a scene from Bird of Paradise, it is when he rescues her from being physically attacked by a fiercely angry man whose battered wife she has been trying to help.
Hearing the sound of someone at his back, Palmer half turned and met the heel of Grabianski’s outthrust hand full force upon his nose. The snap of cartilage was dredged through snot and blood.
“Don’t … ” began the woman, easing herself up on to all fours. “Please, don’t … ” as she levered herself back against the wall, head sinking gingerly forward till it came to rest against her knees.
“Don’t what?” asked Grabianski gently, bending down before her.
“Don’t hurt him.”
He recognised the dull sparkle of the ring upon her hand. Why was it they always defended them, no matter what? One of her eyes was already beginning to close.
“A beating,” Grabianski said. “No more than he deserves.”
“No, no. Please.” She fumbled for then found his wrist and clutched it tight. “I pray you.”
Something about the way she said it made Grabianski think twice; he recognised her then, the woman who had been striding out in shades of grey, and felt a quickening of his pulse. Somehow instead of her holding his wrist, he was holding her hand. Behind them, he heard her attacker scurry, slew-footed, away.
The muscles in the backs of Grabianski’s legs were aching and he changed position, sitting round against the wall. Sister Teresa, blood dribbling from a cut alongside her mouth, was alongside him now, shoulders touching, and he was still holding her hand.
She found it strangely, almost uniquely, reassuring.
She said, “Thank you.”
He said it was fine.
She asked him his name and he her’s.
“Teresa,” she said.
And she had to think. “Teresa Whimbrel,” she said and he smiled.
“What’s amusing?” she asked.
“Whimbrel,” Grabianski said, “it’s a bird. A sort of curlew.” The smile broadened. “Notably long legs.”
He looked, she thought, decidedly handsome when he smiled – and something else besides. She wondered if that something – whatever it was – might be dangerous.
She was looking at the fingers of his hand, broad-knuckled and lightly freckled with hair and curved about her own.
“I think you should let go,” she said.
“Of my hand.”
“Oh.” He asked a question instead. “Was that your husband? The man?”
“Not mine, no.”
He could feel the ring on her finger, no longer see it. “But you are married?”
“In a way.”
Grabianski raised an eyebrow. “Which way is that?”
“A way you might find difficult to understand.”
Back, finally, to Still Water, in which Grabianski, learning that Sister Teresa is interested in visual art, invites her to join him in London to visit the exhibition of Degas’ paintings at the National Gallery ….
It barely seems possible, but thirty years have passed since the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment, was published. I’d like to say it seems like only yesterday, but that would be to belie the truth; with a memory like mine nowadays, I’m lucky if yesterday seems like yesterday. 1990, though – the year, I do remember, that Notts County – the team with Mark Draper and Tommy Johnson [the Jack Grealish of his day?] – were promoted to the old Division One. Some things just seem to stick.
Rough Treatment, though: a glance at the first page brings it back …
“Are we going to do this?” Grice asked. Already the cold was seeping into the muscles across his back, January he hated with a vengeance.
Milder than usual days, Grabianski thought, you expected nights like these. “A minute,” he said, and started off towards the garage. For a big man, he moved with surprising lightness.
Grice and Grabianski, cat burglars by profession; Grice a small, ratty little man, short on temper and a lifelong supporter of Leyton Orient; Jerzy Grabianski, in both his size and his Polish heritage, a deliberate echo of Resnick himself – a soft-centred man who will pause in making his escape from a house he and Grice are burgling to give CPR to the unfortunate house owner who has just had a heart attack, and who will fall in lust with another of their victims, Maria Roy, when she comes across him unawares …
The man was still in the same position, almost leaning against the jamb of the door but not quite. He was a big man, nothing short of six foot and stocky, wearing a dark-blue suit with a double-breasted jacket that probably made him broader than he actually was. He didn’t say anything, but continued to stare at her, something in his eyes that was, well, appreciative of what he was seeing.
Round about this time, I’d been reading, and hugely enjoying, the novels of Elmore Leonard, and my two burglars were a nod in his direction, a combination, hopefully, of humour and criminal – sometimes violent – behaviour. It works, I think, quite well on the page, but perhaps better still when brought to life by Jim Carter and Tom Georgeson, as Grabianski and Grice respectively, in the 1993 Deco Films & TV version for the BBC.
We had a little difficulty, I remember, casting the part of Maria Roy, mainly due to one of scenes I’d carried over from the novel into my dramatisation …
Maria Roy lay back far enough for her breasts to float amongst the scented foam which covered the surface of the water. In the pale light from the nearby nightlight they were soft-hued, satin, the darker nipples hardening beneath her gaze. Harold, she thought. It didn’t help. Softly, she rubbed the tip of her finger around the mazed aureoles and smiled as she sensed her nipples tense again. What kind of marriage was it if after eleven years they only place you had ever made love was in bed? And then, not often.
“Never mind,” she said to her breasts softly. “Never mind, my sad little sacks, somebody loves you. Somewhere.”
And easing herself into a sitting position she gave them a last, affectionate squeeze.
“Never mind, my sad little sacks of woe.”
While some we spoke to, otherwise keen to play the part, drew the line at the above, we were delighted when the wonderful Sheila Gish seized the opportunity with, shall we say, both hands.
Probably an age thing, but I’ve never been one to rummage around online, searching for references to myself or my work; I’ve never, for instance, looked up any reviews of my books on Amazon or similar, and when my publicist sent one of my novels out on a Blog Tour a couple of years back, I had to exert severe self-discipline before I could bring myself to read what the various and worthy bloggers had to say. No disrespect to them, the fault – if such it is – lies with me. [Pauses to consult Guardian Style and emerges still uncertain, except that now I think it should be ‘lays’, ‘lays with me’. More advice welcome.]
Anyway, what I was getting around to saying, was that until I was put in the know by one of my more dedicated readers [hi, Andrew], I had no idea that a goodly number of interviews and the like in which I’d taken part can be viewed online. Without too much searching, I found a dozen or so, dating back to the Bouchercon Mystery Convention which was held in Baltimore in 2008.
Here they are …
Book Talk with librarian Chris Jones, 2020
Inspire Culture/Nottingham Libraries
In Conversation with Alison Joseph at CrimeFest, Bristol, 2019
Talking about writing crime fiction, 2012
At home, in the garden, walking on Hampstead Heath
Open Road Media for Mysterious Press
Interviewed by Otto Penzler at the Baltimore Bouchercon, 2008
… and just for a taste of something different, here I am with the band, Blue Territory, at West Bridgford Library in Nottingham in 2014, reading two pieces about the tenor player, Lester Young; first, unaccompanied, an extract from the short story, ‘Minor Key’, and then a poem, ‘Ghost of a Chance.’
And now I’ve watched them all – all right, ‘fess up, I might have nodded off once or twice during the 59 minutes plus at Baltimore – I feel in a position to make recommendations. So if I were only going to catch one, and were – shall we say – a little pressed for time, I’d plump for the Open Road video from 2012, which is very professionally shot and edited, with the extra bonus of watching my whiteboard work – a skill that goes right back to my teaching days when I was once awarded a special commendation for my blackboard skills while on teaching practice.